Paula paused before entering the cave. She could feel her brain clicking over into battle mode, and she subconsciously ran through a physical checklist. Jaw clenched, armor firm and tight against her chest, warhammer ready in her hands.
“All set, Mike?”
Mike seemed uncertain whether to take the lead now or not. Paula waited at the entrance as Mike made up her mind, stepping back and forth like a cat on hot coals before deciding to charge ahead. The good-luck spell Mike played as they entered was flawless, but Paula could tell Mike was shaking.
“Relax,” Paula murmured, softly as to not disturb the music, “we can handle one little—”
The rest of Paula’s sentence was ripped from her lungs in a single, startled cry. Mike heard something heavy slam into the ground behind her. The sound of the harp cut off on a quick, sour note, and Mike whipped around, dagger raised.
Paula was flat on her back, with a serpentine creature writhing in her arms and a big, cheesy smile on her face. “Oh man, this is great!” she exclaimed, wrestling with the squirming mass. It was shaped like a tentacle, but where the rest of the creature would be, there was only a stump.
Adjusting her grip, Paula gave it one final squeeze, her back muscles straining against her armor. The creature emitted a surprisingly soft ‘pop!’ and went limp.
Mike watched the ordeal with horror, barely able to hold her dagger. “What in the planes…”
Paula threw the lifeless creature to the ground, still grinning despite her bruised tailbone. “Looks like a dragon’s tail to me,” she huffed, cheeks red with exertion. “Moving all on its own, just like that spider leg! Now this is a mission I can get behind!”
Mike was appalled. “Don’t tell me you’re enjoying this?”
“Sure, more fun than just another regular ‘ol dragon!” Paula breezed past Mike, bouncing the warhammer in her hand. “Gosh, hope we get an arm next! How do you even fight a dragon arm? Who knows!”
“Paula, wait up!” Mike yelled, but the last part of her request was drowned out by the sound of another skirmish. This time, Mike heard the sound of Paula’s warhammer cleanly meeting its target–a single, unquestioned thud. After that, there was only a slight skittering sound, like broken scales hitting the cave floor.
“Well, wish granted, I guess!” It was too dark for Mike to see Paula, but she could hear her grinning.
“Would you please be more-“
Thud. Skitter. “Mike, you want a crack at one of these?”
“Just watch out for the-“
Thud. Skitter. “What’s that?”
“Paula, please! You’re going to get-“
Another thud, but this wasn’t Paula’s warhammer. Mike heard a tearing sound, three quick snaps, and—thank the gods—Paula’s heavy breathing. Mike ran past one broken dragon’s leg, then another, both bleeding from watermelon-sized wounds. Just ahead was Paula, slumped on her side, with three deep gashes across her chest. Two broken dragon wings and the remaining arm lay next to her, all deathly still, but the same could almost be said of Paula, whose breathing was shallow and labored.
Mike toppled to the ground next to Paula, staining the knees of her fancy pants with blood. “Paula, you idiot,” she hissed, anger overpowering her fear for the moment, “I told you to—”
“Shush,” Paula said under her breath, as steadily as she could manage. “They know we’re here.”
“Yeah, no shit,” Mike chuckled darkly, “so let’s get—”
“Mike.” Paula took a second to gather her breath, wiping a line of red saliva from her jaw. “There’s still the head.”
“Like I said, we have to—”
“I can’t. You have to run.”
“Don’t argue with me, Mike, just go. I can’t run, and I can’t fight it off.”
“So I’ll fight it off, dumbass,” Mike snarled, looking hatefully at Paula, who—for reasons Mike refused to understand—wasn’t doing her job.
“With what? Your dagger?” Paula’s chest heaved with a single, painful laugh. “Just get out of here. One last favor for me.”
Mike’s expression went clear for a second, as if Paula had just appeared to her, bleeding and broken. But her rage returned. “Give me your hammer.”
“It won’t…work for you, Mike,” Paula shook her head slowly, but Mike had already taken the hammer from Paula’s hands. As Mike took it, the hammer’s head shrunk back down to its inactive size.
“Come on, work with me,” Mike muttered to the warhammer. An insidious scraping sound was coming from the back of the cave, slow and deliberate. Paula’s lips silently formed the word ‘run’.
Mike stopped. The hammer was useless. Paula was finished. Heck, even her pants were ruined now.
The thought of her bloodstained pants whipped Mike’s anger into action. She threw down the hammer, planted her hands on the damp cave floor, and picked it back up again. She tightened her slippery hands against the warhammer’s handle, hoping against hope that the blood on the floor had been Paula’s.
The creature coming from the back of the cave jolted into a charge, but the warhammer’s sense of timing was impeccable. With a grating, metallic shriek, the head of the hammer flattened and lengthened into a blade, curving gracefully like a dying leaf. The blade struck the monster in mid-leap, swatting it to the side of the cave. The creature spat out a stray ball of flame as it landed, lighting the cave long enough for Mike to see the disembodied dragon head across from her, and the five-foot-long scythe she held in her hand.
Mike tentatively swung the weapon, finding it lighter and more maneuverable than she would’ve imagined. The dragon head repositioned itself to charge again at Mike. In the lingering firelight, Mike saw the creature refocus its eyes on her. But she moved before it could do anything else.
The blade, which moments ago had been a tool for bludgeoning, cut through the scales like paper. Mike blinked, and found herself staring at a halved dragon head, dripping exposed dragon brains onto the cave floor. Paula’s raspy breathing hitched with surprise. Mike let the scythe fall to her side.
“Told you I could fight it off.”
“First thing once we get paid, we’re getting you a scythe.”
“No, we’re getting healing potions, dumbass. And a real place to sleep.”
Paula and Mike were half naked as they walked back to town, as most of their clothes were being used as bandages. Mike had even sacrificed her fancy pants, giving Paula a set of elegant silk bandages across her chest. Mike was too short for Paula to properly lean on, but she did her best to support her whenever she started to stagger.
“Guess I’m due for another lecture,” Paula said, hanging her head to the side to hide her unbidden grin.
“Oh yeah,” Mike nodded. “A big one. So big that I need more time to plan it out. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“I don’t even get an ‘I-told-you-so’?”
Paula’s poorly-hidden smile was contagious, and Mike couldn’t hang on to her anger for long. Tomorrow, sure, they’d have to talk, but for now, their shared relief kept things light. Mike laughed and pounded her tiny fist into Paula’s shoulder. “I told you that place was cursed, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you sure did.”
“And I was right!”
“Mmmhmm. Some kinda cleaving curse.”
“I wanna hear you say it.”
Mike tilted her head up, raising an expectant ear toward Paula. Paula snickered, burying her face in her palm. She leaned down, smushed her lips against Mike’s ear, and loudly whispered, “You were riiiiight!”
Mike shrugged Paula off, wiping flecks of spit off her face. “Okay, okay, that’s enough of that.”
If that was Mike’s cue for Paula to stop talking, it flew right by her. “I owe you, Mike.”
“Shut up no you don’t. No one’s keeping track.”
Mike paused. A slight curling of her lips broke through her sour expression. “Although,” she added in a singsong voice, “if you did owe me, I think a new scythe would just about do it.”