Authors: Jason Hightman
Or did he? Maybe he could get along with everybody just fine if he got more of a chance to hang around them; if his father wasn’t always dragging him around the world or shoving hard work in his face.
Stop it. Come on. Get out of your head,
Simon thought. Here he was talking to himself instead of to other people, and he realized he’d been staring at the
girls as they walked away.
I’m not staring at you, I’m just thinking.
He tried to figure a way to look natural.
, he told himself.
This is your life.
Sometimes it seemed like the ordinary world was the one that was like a dream.
IMON LEFT THE SCHOOL
and Emily, riding back home, upset. He passed some of the teenagers pulling into the school parking lot, their car radios blaring, and it finally hit him that he must look incredibly stupid to Emily on his horse.
How great and impressive I thought I was. Look at me. What an idiot.
All the kids looked so confident, so
, with nothing to worry about except homework or a Friday night date.
I don’t know how to act. I don’t know how to
be, he was thinking.
What do people expect? I’m a human disaster. I don’t even have anyone to tell this to, except Alaythia.
As his horse weaved through the light traffic and back to the weed-sprouting train tracks, Simon passed a group of boys in suits, headed for the Lighthouse
School farther away, their hands full of junk-food breakfast from a corner store. Doughnuts and Twinkies always trumped the food they served at school.
They watched Simon pass. He was the mysterious boy, the one who had left the boys’ school on Halloween night, and then came back to live hidden in the old castle outside of town.
“Simon St. George,” he heard them whispering. He had always wanted to be a legend at school. He never knew it would make him feel so alone.
“Doesn’t all that riding make you bar-legged?” said one boy, as if challenging Simon.
-legged,” said another boy. “Not bar-legged. Idiot.”
“Whatever,” said the other. “He’s so weird. He never leaves his house, his horse is his only friend.” He made kissing noises. “It’s his girlfriend.”
Pathetic jokes. Simon rode past them. They still lived in a land of dumb humor and stupid pecking orders.
He knew things they would never know at the Lighthouse School—the darkness under life, the pain and fear of battle—and he was satisifed to know all this, but it felt like the days of struggle ahead were endless, the enemy unconquerable, and he would never be done with the fighting until he was dead.
He could see boys lining up for roll call on the field
beside the lighthouse, neat rows in neat uniforms, and for a minute he wanted to wrap himself in their perfect boring school day, to avoid the disorganized, rambling lessons he’d get later from Alaythia, and the harsh training he’d get from his father.
He saw his old friend Denman, the lighthouse keeper, heading into the tower. The gruff old Scotsman and his wife had practically raised him from infancy, but now Simon felt they were strangers, caretakers who did a job and rarely smiled. Without knowing it, Simon had been a burden, a danger to them because of the Dragons who were always hunting him, and he was a precious thing, too, the last of the Dragonhunters, bringing a responsibility that made the old couple weary. He knew his father disapproved of the way they raised him. To this day, Aldric seemed to begrudge them the fact they had gotten to see Simon’s growing-up years. Simon still spent time with the Denmans now and then, but not today. There was no time.
Simon turned Norayiss, moving away, and something tore him from these memories.
As he came up the hill and rejoined the road, he noticed there were no birds chirping. The world had been enveloped in a strange quiet. When he looked down at the horse’s hooves, they made no sound on the pavement. It was as if Simon had momentarily gone deaf.
He stopped his horse, worried.
And then…the shadows began to shift. The ones on the left side of the road vanished, and suddenly the shadows of the trees on the right side of the road began to stretch toward him. The darkness reached forward, like a set of black claws. It was as if someone had moved the sun to the wrong side of the sky.
Simon swallowed hard.
Then he noticed that the trees far off in the woods, near his home, were beginning to rustle, as if tremendously agitated. The whole forest there was shaking. A great, immense thing was moving in those trees, or causing the trees to shudder somehow. And it was headed for his house.
He spurred Norayiss on.
The horse sped down the street, and tore off into the forest. As he neared the castle, struck with panic, Simon realized he had only a small silver dagger for protection. He never dreamed he’d need body armor this close to home. He was open; easy prey.
He took hold of the knife. Silver was the finest weapon against Dragons, but it was the deathspell that killed them—and if it was a Serpent on the attack, he had no idea which spell to use, as they were specific to each Dragon.
So which one was on the attack?
There were hundreds of the beasts listed in the
White Book of Saint George.
The horse clomped through the Ebony Hollow forest, and Simon noticed with horror that the ground was rippling with beetles that seemed to be pouring out of the ground. Green-yellow insects wriggled from the earth and swarmed around the horse’s hooves.
This kind of warping of nature could only mean a Dragon in their midst.
As he thundered down the road to the castle, he found no sight of the killer; just Aldric and Alaythia, outside in the field, brushing Valsephany. Simon felt calmer, thinking perhaps the Serpent had merely been spying on them, and the idle talk he caught between his father and Alaythia relaxed him for an instant.
“It’s just really weird, what happened in Africa,” Alaythia was saying. “The brothers knew where we were, they were ready for us, they set a trap. And they knew how to trick me into coming in first. They knew we were coming into that village, just at that time, and they knew exactly where we were.”
“Quiet down,” he heard Aldric say. “Simon’s coming. He doesn’t need to know all of this.”
“Listen, something’s happening,” Simon warned. “There’s something here—”
Suddenly, a set of claws snatched him around the shoulders from behind, and hoisted him off the horse,
into the air. He screamed childishly, instantly hating himself for it, but he couldn’t see what had him.
He heard the beating of terrible wings, the smell and heat of rancid breath was everywhere.
“SIMON!” Alaythia screamed, and Simon suddenly saw her down below, firing, from a wrist-device, small bolts of silver shooting toward him, narrowly missing his ear. He heard a dart plunge into the beast, but the animal had no reaction, and Simon was carried farther up, the horse pasture growing small far beneath him, and then he saw it twist away, in a terrifying spin.
Simon’s head swirled from dizziness, and he tried to see what it was that had taken him. But there was no way to see, it was behind him.
He heard his father’s rocket-arrows shooting up from below—Aldric must’ve gotten to his travel pack, left by the horse trough. The rockets hissed, whisking around the Dragon, and Simon saw in the spinning world above Ebony Hollow the white flare of their passing.
“You want to get back to your father.” The Serpent laughed. “I’ll make sure you do…”
The voice was pure terror.
A female, breathing these threats with fearsome delight.
Simon clambered to get hold of the Creature’s
claws so he couldn’t be dropped.
“The question,” said the Serpentine beast, “is whether you go down in one piece…” And she dropped him, just enough so his stomach sickened, then snatched him back. “Or in many different, bleeding pieces.”
Suddenly, one of the rockets connected! A silver barb slammed into the Dragon’s neck.
The creature was streaming fireblood—sparks showered down on Simon from the injury, burning his skin in little pinpricks of agony. Green-yellow flames flickered lightly from the Dragon’s wound.
It was enough to get the Creature to descend, but still the Dragon held tight to Simon.
Now, the Creature let loose a massive torrent of flame, and Simon felt a disgusted thrill at being
the Dragon as the fire charged loose. It engulfed the upper part of the old castle and the wood tiles of the roof, knocking down stones in the walls from sheer force. On the second pass, the Dragon set fire to the far side of the house, the Victorian wing made of oak and cedar.
It would all go up.
Struggling, Simon could see the castle returning to view, speeding toward him, and he realized the Serpent planned to hurl him against the tower.
“We shall leave him something to remember you
by,” she said in a husky growl, and Simon soared with her, past the field, past Alaythia and Aldric rushing to take aim, and then he saw the tower coming for him, closer, closer, closer—
A second rocket-arrow burned into the Creature, and took it off course. Simon was dropped, clattering painfully to the raked roof, then rolling in and out of the fire, and plunging to the flat top of the stables.
He was all right.
He had the wind knocked out of him, but he would’ve been caught breathless anyway at the sight of the Dragon above him, a green-yellow beast with long tendrils of many colors trailing behind its soaring body.
Another rocket hurtled past him, and he saw it miss the Serpent. The Creature blurred into nothingness, cloaking itself in magic. He felt it swoop past again and snap at him, invisible jaws tearing at his shirt.
It soared past.
He looked up, catching his breath, and squinted, scarcely able to penetrate the beast’s magic enough to see it. But he could make it out, as it was bleeding fire into the air. He saw the Creature descend in the Ebony Hollow forest.
It needed to recover its strength.
He looked down to see Aldric yelling at him from the pasture, “SUIT UP!”
Simon swung himself to safety off the stable roof and rushed for his travel pack hidden in the hay.
In five minutes flat, they had retrieved their horses and were pursuing the Dragon, galloping at a raging speed in full-body armor.
“The Ashlover Serpent,” cried Aldric, identifying it fast, for he’d memorized the White Book of Saint George, as Simon never could. Simon and Aldric rode hard through the forest, leaving Alaythia to use her magic to battle the blaze at home.
The forest crackled with an unnatural wind. They stopped at a hole, a fiery spot, devoid of vegetation and underbrush. A thin, leathery blanket stood before them, and as they watched it began to dry up and wither, curling up into nothing.
“It shed its wings,” said Aldric.
Humanlike tracks in the soft ground left the area, and led toward town.
“She’s injured,” Aldric observed. “It will take all her strength to heal those wounds. We’ll find her in town.”
Simon’s heart was beating hard. No Serpent had ever been fought here. No Dragon had known where the home of the Saint George descendants lay. This Creature had to be recovered. And killed.
They galloped into town, where a street of suspects greeted them. It would take a moment for Simon’s eyes to adjust and see through the disguising magic. The Serpent could look like anyone.
A limping man caught his attention, but Aldric focused on a girl in a wheelchair, pushing herself away as fast as she could.
Simon watched her glide through a small crowd of people leaving breakfast at the Old Soldier Café, and the girl did indeed seem in a hurry.
He saw her blood hit the sidewalk, the red droplets turning to green, and then burning away.
Then his vision rippled, as if looking through a mirage, and he saw not a girl, but a wounded, scaly Creature limping for cover.
The Ashlover Serpent.
It turned the corner, and Aldric and Simon hurried to catch up.
As they rode down Main Street, the Ashlover slipped into the novelty shop and gave a howl and a screech, its mouth exploding with fire. Glass shattered out. The fire screamed.
“No!” Again Simon couldn’t breathe—this time out of fear for Emily’s family.
Green-yellow Serpentine flames lapped out of the windows. It was a bad fire. The wooden structure was old, and it would burn easily.
“Wait! It could be a diversion to get us off track,” said Aldric.
“No,” argued Simon, “the Thing’s in there…” And he rode toward the fire as fast as he could, dismounting at the door in a rush.
Through the flames, he could see the wounded creature lying in a circle of green-and-yellow flames. The fire was just an attempt to slow the hunters down. Short of air and nearly unconscious, the Dragon was weakening.
Aldric pushed past Simon, walking right through the flames. As the Serpent kicked at him with its great clawed feet, Aldric wrestled it down amid the flames, and he slammed his hand upon its heart. It took many tries, the Serpent slithering out of the Knight’s grasp over and over again, but at last the Creature stopped shaking, and Simon knew Aldric was reciting the words of the deathspell.
Aldric stumbled back.
The colorful tendrils of the Dragon, like wispy tentacles, pulled in and closed around its body, and caught fire…and the beast burned away into red ash that blew over Aldric and into Simon’s eyes.
The Ashlover Dragon was dead.
“Is anyone in there?” Simon yelled into the store.
“If they were, they’re dead,” said Aldric, but up the street, Simon could see Emily’s father rushing
from the post office. He’d missed the danger.
“It’s an arsonist,” Simon yelled to him, climbing onto his horse. “There’s smoke—I think our house might have been hit, too!” Simon turned and rode with Aldric out of town, ignoring the bewildered passersby.
Emily is safe at school, Simon thought with relief.
But his own house was burning.
By the time he and Aldric returned, Alaythia had drawn a massive black storm cloud to the house, and the resulting rainfall had, for the most part, ended the fire. But the castle was blackened, and much of its interior had been gutted.
What Simon considered home was now an ugly memento of a Dragon’s evil.