Authors: Jason Hightman
For my family
The Heat of Battle
Fields of Fire
Of Serpents and Samurai
The Dragonhunter’s Home Life
A Home Life Destroyed
How a Dragon Tracks Its Prey
Hunting a Master of Dragons
The Ice Dragon
The Loneliness of a Great Ship
The Tiger Dragon
Showdown at Sea
The Contents of One Abandoned Dragonship
The Unknown St. George
The Dragon of Japan
How the Other Half Lives
A Traveler to the Orient
Light Without Heat
Heat Without Light
Never Go to Tokyo Without a Sword
Beware of Falling Serpents
The Doctor Is Out
Bullets on a Bullet Train
Tricks of the Trade
Fire That Can Hide
Where Tigers Lurk
A Tiger’s Eyes
City of a Billion Wonders
Secrets of Bombay
Enemies and Allies
Where There’s Smoke
No Suicide Missions
Chamber of Horrors
The Way a Fire Dies
The Dying Embers of the Day
HERE IS ONE THING YOU
can count on with evil. Evil will do things you never counted on. Simon St. George hated that fact as much as he detested the African sun. The heat in Kenya was unbearable, and the shadows the sun cast on the trail were hatefully dark, making it difficult to see if a Serpent was ready to leap out of the tall grasses.
hunting Serpent. The possibility of a fiery death was always with him, and Simon found it sickening rather than exciting. His father was quite the opposite. Riding tall in his saddle ahead, Aldric St. George steered his horse with a stern energy, a quiet thrill that a fight could come at any moment.
Aldric insisted on the two of them going on horseback, for ease of movement on the rough terrain, but,
looking back jealously at the car in his wake, Simon cursed his old-fashioned ways and yearned for air conditioning.
Behind him, the battered Jeep spit rocks from its wheels, slowly rolling through the ragged country—a neglected dirt road amid long yellow grasses. Beside the worried Kenyan driver sat Alaythia Moore, the beautiful New York artist who lately looked a bit awestruck by the wilds of Africa.
Simon squinted back at her, the dirt on the windows making her nothing but a pretty shadow. He rode up alongside his father. “You think she’d rather be out here with us?”
Aldric focused his eyes on the trail. “Simon, keep your mind on the task at hand.”
“We’re miles from the African Dragons,” said Simon. “We still have to get past the next two villages. I just thought she might be lonely in there.”
“It’s so hot in the sun. Why the devil would she want to be out here?”
“For the company,” said Simon, unhappily. Unless he was lecturing him, his British father was never much good at conversation. Simon wondered how Aldric and Alaythia spent their time alone. He figured they must always be planning strategy, going over the old scrolls and Books of St. George, learning the Serpentine language better, or designing new weaponry.
Alaythia’s skills as a Magician had grown tremendously over the past few months.
Simon turned as the Jeep pulled around them and Alaythia looked out. “You have to be sick of the sun by now,” she said to Aldric. “Why don’t you tether the horses to the back and get some shade in the Jeep?”
Aldric smiled at her. “You mean step into the modern world?”
“Yes,” she said with exasperation. “You should’ve left the horses back at the ship.”
Alaythia, Simon thought, had just a touch of what he now recognized as New York attitude, with the slight hint of expectation that rich people carry around, which she had yet to completely lose (her grandmother had left her a fair amount of money from a Manhattan real estate fortune, which had soon dwindled away on bad investments and charity giveaways). She leaned out more, her odd beaded necklace clanging on the Jeep’s door. “Come on,” she prompted again. “Quit being the angry Warrior and take a break in here.”
“We’ll see what you say when that jalopy gets a flat tire, or the transmission goes out,” said Aldric. “We do things the St. George way. We’re not going to drop traditions that have been handed down for centuries.”
Simon watched the two of them, surprised to see his father looking relaxed for a moment. That must
have been the fifth time he’d smiled in the past two days—a record.
Alaythia could bring that out in anyone,
“We’re coming up on the next village,” she said.
“This isn’t the way I remember it,” said the African driver and translator, as he slowed down and let the horses pass, staring at the settlement. “There should be more people out. It was a busy little place…”
Aldric looked alarmed as they neared the town, a sorry set of flat, boxy, falling-apart buildings in faded colors. A very old Ford sat in the high grass, ruined by time and hard rains, proof of Aldric’s claim that this was no place for motorcars.
And then, beyond the junked car, a human skeleton lay in the grass.
“Halt,” Aldric said to his horse, Valsephany.
Simon stopped behind him, having a bit more difficulty with Norayiss, his own stallion.
The skeleton was clean and white, left out in the sun for a long time. Flies scarcely bothered with it. Simon noted with some disgust that an arm had been lost, most likely by scavengers, jackals, perhaps. He’d seen death before, but hadn’t quite gotten used to it.
The skull gleamed, a horror made ordinary by the afternoon sun.
“What does it mean?” he asked his father.
“I’m not sure,” Aldric answered.
Aldric pulled a crossbow closer to him in the saddle, as did Simon. Alaythia had a rifle, its wooden stock covered in runic symbols. She held it closer, leaning out of the Jeep as the driver reluctantly drove it forward.
More death greeted them. Skeletons lined the twisting road, looking as if the people had fallen there in some attempt to escape the tiny town, and no one had bothered to bury them. It was a strange sight, and Simon felt queasy.
The path to the village became yet more riddled with skeletons and bones, and the horses’ hooves crunched over them, as it was impossible to get around them. Large boulders sat on each side of the road, and Simon noted with alarm that one of the huge rocks was smeared with blood.
Two young boys ran toward the St. Georges as they arrived. They were shouting something, terror in their eyes.
“Disease,” said the translator from the Jeep. “They’re yelling about disease. It is some terrible death let loose here.”
“What kind of disease?” Simon asked, suddenly wanting to turn and ride away.
“They don’t know,” said the translator. “Many diseases in Africa. This one works fast, they say. Many
days at work. Many people dead. Many dying.”
“How many days?” Aldric asked.
“They want medicine,” the translator said. “They expect medicine from us.”
Simon looked at the African boys, feeling terrible, sensing the fear that swirled around them.
“We don’t have any medicine,” barked Aldric, sounding angry, and Simon recognized it as the way he always reacted when he couldn’t help. His father moved his horse onward as the two boys ran alongside, pleading. “I need to know how many days since the sickness came,” he repeated to their driver.
The translator tried to get an answer. “They don’t know. They are children. They lost track of time…”
“Have there been any fires here?” asked Aldric.
The African translated their responses. “No. No fires. Just a fire in the heart. Sickness of fire.”
Simon trailed behind Aldric, with the Jeep coming up behind them. The translator was becoming more agitated. “This sickness is not normal,” he said. “This death works too quickly. They should’ve gotten word to the last town we were in. No one did.”
Aldric kept moving.
“This is not right,” the translator yelled after him. “We should not go farther, this is not right.”
right…” said Aldric, “for what we’re looking for.”
Alaythia offered the boys a rune-covered canteen of special water. “Drink, splash it on you,” she advised them. “It will protect you.”
Seeing they did not understand her, the translator took the canteen and sprinkled some of the water on himself, passing it to the children with a few hopeful words.
Simon looked back. The boys seemed skeptical of her, but they splashed the water on their skins and drank deeply all the same.
“There’s not enough water,” Aldric complained.
“It’s something,” Alaythia said, sounding annoyed. “The mixture is weakening in the sun, but it’ll help them if they aren’t already sick. Let them have it.”
“There’s not enough,” repeated Aldric in a grim tone, for they had reached the center of town. He was staring ahead. Amid old, broken-down cars and trucks, there was a group of low, flat buildings. Through the open doors, Simon could see many people lying in beds. He stopped his horse and surveyed his surroundings.
The people were choking and gasping for air. Some men lay in doorways, lifting their arms weakly. And then Simon realized that every single person there had lost all their hair. The man in the doorway, the women gathering water at the well, the sick he could see in the beds—all were completely bald. It was
jolting. The boys who led them in had shaven heads, or so he had thought, but now he could tell that several of the other villagers, many of them children, had lost their hair as well.
“How long has this sickness been here?” Aldric demanded. “Ask this man.”
The translator got out of the car, keeping his distance as he questioned a man in a doorway. “Six days,” the translator reported. “One boy arrived in town and grew ill, and from the second day, it spread to everyone. Weakness overtakes you. You have no desire to live, no strength. There is…only one mercy. There are five deaths every hour,” the translator choked on the words. “In another day, the entire town will be gone.”
Simon swallowed hard. He looked at Aldric, whose eyes burned with anger. Alaythia got out of the Jeep and moved toward the man, bringing him the last canteen.
“Alaythia, please,” Aldric said quietly. “You can still catch this disease. Let Simon help him, his blood is stronger than yours.”
Simon took the canteen from Alaythia, who moved back, looking helpless and angry. The boy gave the man a drink from the canteen.
“It won’t do much good now,” said Alaythia, and she looked at the translator. “But tell him it’s strong
medicine. He may believe it. It may help.” And indeed, the man’s eyes brightened as he took the drink.
“Now ask him if there has been anything else unusual,” Aldric ordered.
The man told them there had been thousands of vultures gathered on the veldt outside the town before the disease struck.
“Thousands?” asked Aldric.
“And jackals as well,” the translator explained. “Many scores of them.”
“Where did they gather?” asked Simon. He knew, as his father did, that where there were ripples in nature, there were Dragons.
“I know the place,” said one of the boys who’d led them here. “You bring some of that medicine to my mother, I will show you where the scavengers settled, miles up the road.”
Aldric looked to Simon, who held the canteen.
“No, not him,” said the boy, pointing to Simon. “The woman must bring it. My mother will not be seen by men in her state.”
As the translation came, Aldric nodded in understanding. Alaythia needed no prodding; she took the canteen from Simon and followed the boy past some buildings to the first of several large canvas tents on the edge of town. The tents were leftovers from an old U.N. operation, and had been set up as a quarantine
early on, the boy explained through the translator, who had hurried to keep up with Alaythia.
Vultures and jackals stood waiting a few yards away.
They had been hidden by the buildings. Their eyes followed her with interest.
Alaythia took one look back at Aldric and Simon, and entered the tent behind the boy. She heard the translator follow her with a rustle of the tent flap.
Inside, decorated blankets lay on the floor. Masks were hanging on the walls, while the sweet smell of incense filled the tent. Two old women lay in cots on either side of the tent, and their eyes begged for mercy.
A teenage boy knelt between the cots, and he greeted the first boy with a weary nod. The translator stood back at the entryway, seeming to apologize for disturbing the elderly women.
“I have medicine,” said Alaythia, but she did not move closer to the women.
The translator helped them exchange words:
“What do you ask in return?” asked the second boy, suspicious.
“We’re looking for something,” Alaythia answered. “We need a guide. But you can have the medicine even if you don’t help us.”
“You are looking for the Unseen,” said the boy, fearful.
“The vultures and jackals outside,” Alaythia asked. “We want to know where they came from. There was a place they gathered on the first day…and there would have been fire near there…Do you know it?”
“What is there if you find it?”
“We are looking for two beasts. They are brothers, and they work together. Very unusual. They are Serpents but they look like men. They brought the disease to you…. They like to see suffering; they feed on it.”
One of the old women shifted in her bed and propped herself up on one elbow to look at Alaythia. But Alaythia’s own eyes were drawn to the flies that had gathered on the floor, rivers of them, hundreds, easing up from between the rugs. She began to tremble.
Outside, Simon had a bad feeling and began moving his horse toward the tent. Aldric followed. As his eyes fell upon the masses of jackals and vultures gathering, Aldric said, “The brothers. They’re
Simon and Aldric spurred their horses toward the tent.
If they did not move quickly, there would be a new skeleton in the African sun.