The beast turns its head and stares at her. Seven heads, fourteen eyes; some green, some blue, most red. Slowly it hauls its bulk out of the foaming waves, struggling up past the tide-line, and onto the shore.
The little girl watches it, her thumb thrust firmly into her mouth, a plastic doll clamped beneath her arm, half-bald, one-legged, much loved. “Doggy.” she says, mumbling round her thumb.
“Beast,” it corrects her, but the child will have none of it.
“Doggy,” she repeats, and the creature sighs, yawns, smiles. On each head a different expression.
“Doggy,” it says, resigned. It settles down, coiling its leopard body in the sand, cooling its bear paws in the rock pools, watching the beach with its many eyes.
The little girl steps closer. She strokes the furry tail that coils and lashes. Its tufted end tickles her under the chin until she breaks into laughter, rocking backwards and forwards on her bare feet, her toes clutching at the sand.
“You haven’t seen a dragon around here, have you?” the beast asks, speaking through the mouth of a lion, its roar becoming a purr. “I was meant to meet one here.”
“Dwagon,” the child lisps. Two heads wince and five smile indulgently.
“No, I thought not.” He allows the girl to sit with him for a time and tells her stories, the different heads playing different characters until she throws back her head and laughs again with the helpless, unstoppable laughter of a child.
“I’ve been waiting for this for millennia,” he says at last, his tone confiding. “It’s fate, you know.” He lifts an eyebrow on every head but one, quizzical, almost apologetic. The seventh head frowns, deep in thought.
The thumb goes back into the mouth, the plump cheeks hollowed with concentration.
“It’s not personal,” the beast continues. “It’s not even that I want to do it, this whole apocalypse business. But it’s been planned for so long. I can’t really get out of it now.” Eight eyes scan the beach, four watch the child, two stare at the sand. “If that dragon turns up.”
“Dwagon,” the child says again and lies down on the sand, pillowing her head against the bear paws, their talons longer than her forearm.
“Haven’t you got parents somewhere?” the beast asks, but there is no answer.
All night he waits, keeping very still for fear of disturbing the sleeping child. He holds his paw still, despite cramps and cold, his great spotted body shielding her from the cool sea breeze as the moon rises and falls and the world waits for the end.
When the dawn breaks in banners of rose and lavender upon the sky, the child blinks her eyes and sits up. “Doggy,” she says, drawing patterns in the sand with a stubby finger. “Dolly.”
Moving carefully the beast uses a long claw to reach the doll, catching it by its tangled hair, depositing next to the child. She picks it up, clamping it back beneath her arm. “Thank ‘oo,” she says.
“That’s it.” The seventh head speaks for the first time. “I’m not doing this.”
The first head turns to it. “But we must,” it says. “It’s written.”
“Damn that,” the seventh head says, even as another shushes him, nodding toward the child who nods back, a sunny smile upon her round face.
“Language!” it says with a frown.
The seventh head scowls. “I don’t give a damn who wrote it or where. I’m not doing this. If the dragon can’t be bothered to turn up then I can’t be bothered either. I want to go home.”
The third head nods its agreement. “We were here on time. No one can blame us. I never wanted to do this anyway.”
A chorus of voices ring out across the beach, a cascade of agreement as five heads speak at once. “Nor me!”
“But it’s written,” the first head shakes itself, the sunlight glancing from the diadems upon its horns, sending coloured lights skittering across the beach in patterns of pink and blue. “We can’t just go back. It’s our duty.”
The seventh head curls its leonine lip. “All right,” it says. “You can start the apocalypse now.” He nods down at the child. “Start with her. It’s your duty.”
The first head looks down at the child, holding her plump arms up toward him.
“Nice doggy,” she says. As he stoops toward her, she traces the names of blasphemy upon his forehead with a soft finger, and kisses him. “Good doggy.”
“Damn this,” the first head says, blinking a tear from his scarlet eye. “Let’s go home. We can blame the dragon. He should have been here.”
Slowly, the weight of the universe upon its paws, the beast stands and turns, dragging itself down the beach, vanishing into the surf.
“Bye-bye, Doggy,” the child calls, standing four square on tiny feet, waving as it vanishes, waiting until the ripples have subsided.
When she is sure it is gone, the dragon shucks off the little girl form, snatches up the doll in its teeth and tramps back to its cave. It coils itself upon its hoard of beach-combed treasures, the broken things and the shiny things. It yawns its wide mouth and settles down.
Eventually, it knows, there will be hell to pay for the day’s deception. But, on the whole, it considers it to be a job well done. It scratches its nose with the tip of its tail and strokes the doll’s hair with a ragged claw. Heavy lids close over golden eyes, and it smiles, hoping for at least another century of dozing in the sun, before the final reckoning comes.
© Lydia S. Gray
Lydia S Gray lives in Wales. She writes stories and tells fortunes. Her story “Down by the River” appears at Brain Harvest.