Authors: Jason Hightman
NSIDE THE TENT
stared at the two old women muttering at her in an unfamiliar language, and she saw the healing fluid in her canteen bubbling over, boiling. She dropped it as the metal burned her hand. The translator tried to catch it, but burned his own fingers. He yelped and fled from the tent, cradling his hand.
“Uncareful Magician,” said one old woman, hissing in English. “We have long awaited you—”
“Moritam kettisem sedosica,”
cried Alaythia, spell-chanting. “Do not cast your fire, Dragon—I have taken the power of your skin, you will not be armored against the flame.”
“Lies!” cried the other woman, her eyes wild.
“You will burn with me,” warned Alaythia.
The two old women lunged at her, lashing their claws as they transformed into African Tall Dragons, twelve feet of fury, each of them. Alaythia fell back and lifted a huge wooden mask for a shield, as the first Dragon, Matiki, sank his claws into it.
The two boys had already darted away and now they ran directly into Simon and Aldric, still on horseback.
Alaythia scrambled out of the tent as the first Dragon, the fearsome black-and-brown beast called Matiki, pounced upon her, sinking its teeth into her armored back, flinging his long, black braided mane.
Aldric fired his crossbow into its head. It did no harm.
But Matiki dropped Alaythia, who rolled free, as the Dragon’s twin, Savagi, lurched from the tent, scrambling toward her on all fours. Simon and Aldric both shot at the beasts, landing arrows in the Dragons’ arms and necks. The Dragons roared in pain, and turned to assault the riders.
, Simon thought.
We drew them from Alaythia.
But his joy was quickly lost as Savagi leapt into the air and landed upon his horse, clinging to its neck. A huge snout stared him in the eye, and if the Serpent hadn’t wasted time roaring in anger, Simon might’ve been crunched in its fangs. But his crossbow had one bolt left—and he shot it into the monster’s throat.
Savagi screeched and tumbled back, somersaulting to land a few feet away.
Simon’s horse jostled backward in the dust.
Matiki had turned on Aldric, and risen, man-like, to his full height. He slashed his long, muscular arms, trying to get at the Knight who kept his horse moving and stabbed back at the beast with his sword.
From his mount, Simon looked into Savagi’s terrible yellow eyes, and knew what was coming. The Serpent reared its head back, its black throat swelling up. It was about to throw fire.
“NOOO!” cried Matiki, and yelled at his brother in the Dragontongue.
“Listen to your brother,” cried Alaythia, “I’ve cursed your armor; you cannot burn your way out—”
Alaythia understood their words: “We have kept our magic from raging,” cried Matiki to his brother. “We have come too far. We need no fire to kill these swine—”
But Savagi’s rage was too much. Fire shot from his jaws.
Simon ducked and turned his horse, but the blast of black-yellow flames burned his shielded back, scorched his hair, and singed his horse’s mane. The animal screamed and gave in to fear, riding them away from the threat.
The flames roared over Simon and met the ground,
flaring up in the yellow grass like a match to kerosene.
Alaythia scrambled for the well and climbed atop it, and Aldric rode his horse to a clearing as the fire spread across the parched ground. Some of the flames leapt onto Matiki, and the Dragon screeched in pain.
Simon at last got his horse to stop its run. The fire was sweeping over the veldt plains, whipped up by an unnatural wind the Dragons had brought on but could not control. Simon rode over to one of the old trucks, a rundown relief vehicle loaded with water. He opened its valves, and water gushed from it, cutting off the fire from the village.
But the veldt beyond was burning wildly. The flames were soaring across the yellow grass with such speed it made Simon gasp.
With Alaythia in relative safety, Aldric pulled a trigger on his saddle. Darts spat from tiny mounted guns on the saddle, and flew right into the African Dragons, again and again. Like a machine gun, the device riddled the creatures with silver barbs. Savagi howled and leapt for Aldric, swiping his claws against Valsephany, but the horse was protected by armor, the steel plating merely scratched and mauled in a spray of sparks.
Still Savagi did not give up. Dodging Aldric’s sword, it managed to claw at him, aiming at his throat. Simon saw his father get struck below the neck. As he rode closer, Simon could see blood streaming from the
cut, and he was filled with fear. He fired his crossbow, avoiding his father’s body and targeting the African Dragon’s head with precision. The arrow hit and the creature rocked from it, but did not let go.
Alaythia screamed and fired her rifle at Matiki, keeping him at bay, holding him off from helping his brother.
Simon could hear Aldric snarling in pain, and he wondered if he was going to witness his father’s death. But galloping closer, he could see Aldric moving his sword fast as ever. He was going to be all right.
Matiki squealed in delight as Savagi swung for Aldric, but the warrior slammed his hand against the wretched creature’s chest, and called out its deathspell, the sacred words that would destroy a Dragon. Quickly, Savagi broke clear before the spell could be finished. More fearsome than the Knight’s sword was a deathspell.
Aldric cursed. A half-spell was of little use. Savagi fell to the ground and snapped at Simon’s horse’s leg in passing. The Serpent tore a chunk of muscle away, and darted for cover.
Aldric punished him with a glancing strike to the shoulder from his silver sword.
The two Dragons dove into the fire, screaming in pain, trying to escape.
“Go after them!” Aldric yelled.
“They’re going through it—so are we…” said Aldric, and he commanded his horse into the flames. Simon, on blind faith, followed his father’s lead, and drove his own horse through the wall of fire, knowing the other side would be clear.
And it was. The Dragons had cleared a way for themselves—a passage in the fire. They ran and then galloped on all fours. Aldric and Simon rode through the field after the creatures, walls of fire flashing by on either side of their horses.
Simon thought of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea, but instead of walls of water on his left and right, there were burning walls of yellow-black flames.
The Dragons had parted the raging fire on the African veldt using a desperate magic, for the flames could easily burn them as well as their enemies.
The horses were terrified, and Simon would have been, too, but he kept his mind on the targets. He tried to take aim, but he was riding too fast, his crossbow shaking in the rush. He tried in vain to slow Norayiss, but the horse was wounded, terrified, and Simon could see no way out.
Ahead, the African Dragons split up, making two passages through the flames.
Simon went left; Aldric went right. Simon saw his father ride after Matiki, and he realized he couldn’t go
back now. He would confront Savagi alone.
But the creature kept charging ahead down the trench.
Simon knew he had to try to take advantage. Attack from behind. He had never ridden so fast. Down twists and turns he went, as the African Dragon fled before him through a maze of fire.
Blasting away with his crossbow, Simon looked around in panic for a way to escape this confrontation; he wasn’t ready for a Dragonkill on his own. But his arrows cut into the Dragon’s hide, and Savagi now turned toward him and grinned pitilessly—
the boy was his.
The cornered Dragon leapt upon Simon, landing his great jaws directly upon Simon’s crossbow, which the boy swung before him for protection. Again Simon fired the bow and the last bolt emptied from the chamber, snapping the Dragon’s head back. A direct blow shattered teeth in the creature’s jaws.
Savagi fell upon the ground and stray flames caught on his skin and the exoskeleton at his back. The Dragon howled.
It turned, furious, and pulled at Simon, dragging him off his horse with shocking speed. His crossbow tumbled.
The injured beast’s breath was labored, but he had Simon in his grasp, and was ready to crush his neck.
Suddenly, behind him the wall of flame tore open,
and Matiki went flying to the veldt ground, wailing. Savagi’s huge armored ebony head swiveled to see his brother dying.
“Deathspell…” Matiki said, and red flames took him, bursting from somewhere inside the beast, killing it at last.
Aldric rode out behind him and jumped from his horse, slamming into Savagi. Simon was knocked loose, and Savagi was so surprised by the move, he choked, as Aldric drove his sword into his belly.
The creature struggled to hold Aldric back with his long arms, as Simon dove back into the fray, and shoved his hand upon the weak flesh at the Dragon’s heart.
“Ordris africalla sadentiss ishkal,”
said Simon, and the deathspell took instant effect. Simon felt his hand burn as the Serpentine heart burst into perfect red fire, and the creature fell back away from Aldric in surprise at the quickness of its own death.
As the black-yellow flames around them dropped away, Simon could see lions, real African lions, running from the terrible inferno, and a group of stampeding giraffes alongside panicked hyenas, all trying to get away from the real king of the jungle…
When Alaythia found them, Simon and Aldric had climbed up into a tree, having nowhere else to run.
The veldt around them was utterly blackened. The tree itself was beautifully unscarred, a random survivor of nature’s supernatural wrath.
The brothers’ red ashes drifted past her, where their Serpentine bones had faded to nothing. Somehow the horses must’ve galloped fast enough to avoid danger, for Alaythia had their bridles in hand, bringing them back. Simon had always been jealous of how she could coax them to her from anywhere by simply whistling.
“The sickness is gone,” she reported. “It left the village the instant you killed them.”
Simon gave a sigh of relief. His stomach had been churning ever since the fighting stopped; taking action was always better than having time to worry.
“You could’ve waited for me, you know,” she added, brushing her long hair back from her face theatrically.
Simon smiled. Aldric squinted down at her from the tree. “You could’ve jumped in a wee bit faster,” he replied. “Then I could be the one down there, traipsing around, casual as a Bond Street shopper.”
She laughed at him. “It’s a deal, then: I’ll take the lead next time.”
Simon groaned, for he knew there would be a next time.
HERE WERE DECORATIONS IN
the steel-walled house, but very few things that did not directly reflect Najikko’s profession. What caught the eye would be the Samurai suits of armor that lined the halls.
Always keep a little something of your enemy close by. It helps you to conquer your hate.
And how he hated the human Warriors.
Najikko’s cold stare traveled past the suits of armor to a room where six new visitors awaited him. They had come seeking help, like many others. They were beautiful women, and yet all he could see were imperfections. They were ugly as sin to him.
Najikko looked out the window at one of many cities that he owned, and wondered how long it would be before a challenger came to his doorway.
F ANYONE ASKED
would say he lived in New England, but he was rarely there. He lived in a chilly, rundown ex-British castle—a fortress built in America during the Revolution and later modified to resemble a true baronial manor in the 1880s by a lord who wanted a touch of home in the States. And it must have succeeded in looking authentically English, for it was the only place Aldric could be convinced to make into a permanent residence. It was not yet a home in Simon’s mind, just a placeholder for one, though he welcomed the cool stone walls after enduring the heat of Africa. In his first few months as Dragonhunter, he had been all over the map. Now he moped around the giant house, feeling punchy and tired, unable to sleep.
Simon felt fifty years old, and wondered how his father managed all this travel. There was Aldric, clanging around the big kitchen with all the energy of a cat, making some kind of sausage breakfast, and all Simon could do was stumble to an old chair and hope his father remembered to make him something (sometimes he didn’t).
As Simon slipped past the stove, Aldric spun around, taking some biscuits out of the oven, then bumped into him, dumping the biscuits on the floor.
“Simon!” His father barked.
“Relax. I didn’t mean to get in your way,” said Simon, sinking into the chair. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re always saying sorry,” mumbled Aldric.
me.” Simon sighed. They had grown into better coordination on the battlefield, but at home, they were all left feet and elbows and chaos. He watched as his pet fox Fenwick dived for the spilled biscuits.
Simon listened to the usual sounds of Aldric chasing the fox with a flyswatter, and looked out the wide windows at his old schoolhouse, the Lighthouse School for Boys. It was a rare, clear day, and he could see the lighthouse tower and the Revolutionary War buildings in all their rundown beauty. For a moment he wondered what the boys there were thinking of him. Crazy Simon St. George, the hermit kid, who
lived in the castle and studied at home behind closed doors. Little they knew.
“You’re up. I knew I heard some ridiculous tirade,” said Alaythia, entering the room with a plate of sausages and a basket of piping-hot biscuits of her own. There was also the ignoble smell, Simon noted, of sulfur and ancient herbs. Alaythia often had unusual and interesting fragrances around her; Simon had found that her cooking would do that.
She strode past a surprised Aldric.
“What’s all this, then?” Aldric stared.
“I decided to avoid the usual arguments—and the usual shortages, since you always forget me and Simon—and just make breakfast myself, in the alchemy lab,” chirped Alaythia, and she sat down to serve the meal. “Simon?”
“I’m going to skip breakfast,” said Simon, trying not to look disgusted.
“Not a great idea,” she said, but didn’t push the issue. She was good that way.
“Rancid stuff, smells of burned rats,” grumbled Aldric. “Just ’cause yours is better doesn’t mean it’s good.”
“Simon thinks my food is spectacular; he’s just not hungry. And Simon has excellent taste, don’t you, Simon?” She winked at the boy.
Aldric frowned. “His opinions frighten me.”
“Well, there may have been rats in the vicinity, and they may have gotten torched—but none of them found their way into the sausages,” she said and continued eating.
“I don’t need any help making breakfast,” Aldric said, but Simon noticed he sat down and helped himself. “I’ve managed well enough without your help all these years, haven’t I? What I
say for you, is that you’re getting a touch better each time out.” He half-grinned at her.
“Glad you think so,” she said. “There may be rats in the sausage after all.”
And as they discussed this possibility in playful and somewhat aggravated tones, Simon tuned them out, and moved toward the window. He didn’t like the way his father and Alaythia flirted; he wasn’t sure if it was because they didn’t seem serious enough about each other, or because Simon himself had begun noticing Alaythia’s prettiness a bit too much, an uncomfortable thought he sent away quickly.
Fenwick stood up at the counter and pushed in his direction a stray biscuit that Aldric had tried to save from the floor. Simon actually took it.
His white horse was trotting in the field outside, and, watching it, Simon fell out of his sleepy state. Deciding he needed a ride, he grabbed another biscuit from the table and headed for the door.
“And where do you think you’re going?” asked Aldric.
“Not for long; we’ve training to do. Lances today.”
Simon kept going, keeping the debate to a minimum. “Training again? When am I gonna prove myself enough to you?”
“It’s not about proving yourself, it’s about keeping up your skills. This isn’t a bloody game, is it? You can’t fail at this.”
Simon left the big, stone kitchen and headed down a cold hallway, but their voices echoed behind him. “You know, a little of that goes a long way,” Alaythia told Aldric, good-naturedly. “You can never just let things
, not even for a second.”
“What’re you going on about? My father would knock me down if I tried to walk off like that.”
“Well, you can look forward to the same wonderful relationship with Simon. You don’t have to browbeat him so much, he’s not afraid of hard work. He hates himself enough already.”
“Oh, and why is that?” grumbled Aldric.
“Because he isn’t
. Obviously,” said Alaythia. Listening in the dark hallway, Simon could feel his face turn red. “Let him fail,” she added. “It’s how you learn, right?”
Simon went on to the entryway, filled with
newspapers from around the world, which might hold signs of supernatural events—the hallmarks of stray Dragonmagic.
There were circles around articles like,
AFRICAN FOREST FIRES AT ALL-TIME HIGH
STRANGE LIFEFORM SIGHTED IN JUNGLE
, and so on. Simon was actually obsessed with these strange activities. They gave him nightmares, filled up his thoughts, gave every action in the world a darker purpose. Like his father, he now saw a Dragon presence in everything, and he worried constantly over every news story, from strip-mining and pollution to crime and—
he thought, his eyes on a small headline.
What is that?
FACTORY LAYING OFF THOUSANDS OF WORKERS IN UNUSUAL MOVE
That’s one of them, spreading hate, expanding its little domain of misery, that’s what that is.
This was all he ever thought of now, it was just worry, worry, worry; he could hardly see the forest for the trees. Was there any end to this stuff? Was he losing his mind?
His ears perked up for a second. To his embarrassment, he could still catch the talking in the kitchen.
“He’s got a girl,” he heard Alaythia say.
“How do you know that?” wondered Aldric. “If he met a girl, he’d clean himself up more.”
“That’s why I say he’s got a girl, not he ‘met a girl.’ If she didn’t already like him, he’d have fixed that sloppy hair of his.”
Simon heard the remark and left the house, patting his hair down in sudden regret. But going back would mean a lot of chatter about who she was and all that, and there was nothing he wanted less than advice from his father. His hair was a blond, wiry, standing-at-attention deal anyway, not much he could do about it.
And anyway, the horse ride to town would muss it up.
And anyway, the girl did like him enough to see past all that.
As he rode Norayiss down the long driveway, Fenwick scampered alongside. Simon wondered how the fox knew he was leaving. Aldric came to the door and shouted after him, “Be back by eleven! After training, we’re going to look for Order members.”
You do it yourself. What a waste of time,
thought Simon, galloping down the tree-lined trail. For months, the St. Georges had been trying to find new converts to the Dragonhunting cause, and it wasn’t going well. No one else could see the Serpents in their true form, so more often than not, Aldric and Simon came off looking like complete nutcases.
It used to be that the Order of Dragonhunters found soldiers from the families who had sworn to protect the St. Georges since way back in the Middle Ages. These were people who passed the job down to
their sons and daughters, and so on, and so on. But the modern world had forgotten Simon’s ancestor, the ancient Knight Saint George, the Dragonslayer, and those who knew the truth had been destroyed by the Serpents. It felt hopeless. There was only Simon, Aldric, and Alaythia against the hundreds of Dragons listed in the White Book of Saint George, which they had discovered only last year.
As Simon slowed his horse to a trot, watching the dusty, pebbled road pass under him, he remembered the last meeting he’d had with a distant cousin of an Order member. The poor construction worker from Massachusetts had never heard of Dragonhunting. The ordinary man had sat across from Simon and Aldric, near a half-finished skyscraper, and munched on his sandwich, looking bewildered.
The guy thought Simon and Aldric were insane, and it had been no better with any of the other six candidates they’d gone to see, all descendants and distant relatives of Dragonfighters. The Order of Dragonhunters was clearly a dead issue, but Simon’s father never gave up on anything.
Simon’s horse was moving now into the town of Ebony Hollow. Past the first few quiet streets, he found the novelty shop where his girlfriend—he hoped he could call her that pretty soon—was outside saying good-bye to her father.
“Simon,” said Emily. “You’re back from…where was it again, Spain?”
“Africa, actually,” Simon replied, trotting his horse alongside her as he walked to school. “We went from Spain to Africa.”
“On a job with your dad, right?” she said, looking at him sidelong, a bit confused. “Are you ever going to tell me what kind of job he actually does?”
I may do that,
thought Simon, looking at her pretty eyes in the morning light.
I really may do that.
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride,” he said, offering his hand, and she smiled, cautiously, but kept moving.
He trotted down the street beside her, crossing the trolley tracks. Anytime he had someone his age to talk to, things would come pouring out of him. It just happened. It was this desperate habit he was developing. Actually, to be honest, it was just around
. She was the only one he really talked to, or tried to, anyway.
“You said it was toxic waste disposal, I think,” said Emily. “Why do you have to go around the world to do that?”
“Well, there aren’t a lot of people who know how to handle the kind of…dangerous material we deal with.”
“It doesn’t make you glow, does it?” she said and laughed.
“Uh, it can,” he said. He pretended to have trouble
keeping Norayiss on course, pulling the reins to flex his arms. He was pretty sure Emily noticed how big he was getting. He was growing stronger every day with training—
training, so he knew he’d gained quite a bit of muscle—though he still wasn’t as tall as he’d like to be.
“Nobody understands why you don’t go to school,” Emily remarked.
“It’s just home schooling.” That didn’t sound too strange, did it? “It’s not a big deal. I just travel so much, helping my dad, that I can’t really…Have you ever thought about my name?”
“Your name? Simon?”
“No, St. George. He was a real person. The legend says he fought a Dragon, a long time ago, in the deserts of North Africa. A real Dragon, okay? I mean, it’s not a legend, people say it was a real creature, whatever it was.”
She creased her brow, half-amused. “And that relates to you…how? I don’t get what you’re talking about.”
What if there were real Dragons, but they didn’t look like Dragons. And they did really terrible, really evil things, making all these supernatural events you hear about that no one can ever explain, and hurting people, and killing people, and someone had to stop them from doing this. Oh, no, no, no, don’t say that…
“Do you believe in true evil?” he asked. “The kind of evil that you can just feel coming off of someone?”
“Are you talking about the people who make these toxic waste dumps?” she replied.
“It’s not toxic-waste dumps, that’s not what I deal with,” he said.
you deal with?”
He answered in his head,
A species that drives people to do evil, because it feeds off misery, soaks it right into the skin. It tortures people. If the Serpent doesn’t actually do these things itself, it forces people to do it for him…
“Maybe we can talk about this later,” he mumbled. Luckily, there was no more time for talking. They’d reached her school.
She looked up and manufactured a smile. “I’ve gotta go. Your horse is amazing, she’s really calm. So, um, I’ll see you around the shop, I guess. Maybe I could finally meet your dad,” she said.
“He’s not real social,” said Simon, embarrassed.
“Well, you can bring him by if you want.”
She walked off across the grass and joined the girls, and he noticed her shoulders were raised and tight.
When she finally shot him a glance, it was strange, and Simon knew he had now put up a barrier between them. She was scared of him; he occupied a
land of fairy tales and craziness. Or was he just thinking too much?
He wished he’d kept his mouth shut.
At that moment, a terrible shadow passed across the sun, he thought, but then it was gone before it could be deciphered. He wondered if the menace was all in his mind; his world always ordered by threat and fear.
Fine. Live in your fantasy land,
he thought, looking at the mean-eyed girls with Emily.
This is real, and I’m one of the only people in the world that can protect any of you. You need me.
He wished they knew it.
But he had no stomach for sulking, that was his father’s habit—Aldric’s little genetic gift that he probably passed down and Simon didn’t want it.
Strong, silent type. Right. What a joke. Silence is weak. It means you’re afraid.
He couldn’t have gotten his father’s strength and agility,
oh, no, that would have been too good,
so he’d inherited a total inability to talk to anybody.