“CARI!” I screamed across the lava field, hoping the wind would carry my panic. The night was silent except for the rapid, furious beating of wings behind me and the frantic heave of my chest. Even the wind held its breath, waiting to see the outcome of its evening’s entertainment.
There was no sign she heard me. She was too far away and locked up tight, sitting in the Nova’s driver seat, waiting for me to emerge out of the fields.
A step or two later, a torrent of swirling winds kicked up from the shore, sweeping over the crinkled black landscape and into tight clefts of jagged peaks at the base of the Pendle range. The juts stabbed at the air, envious of the craggy mountains looming behind them, and snagged the interest of the smaller lizards on the draconian food chain. Dotting an upper mesa like dollops of stygian meringue, they provided a safe haven of sorts for the lesser beasts, a place where battles for territory and mates were raged under a sea of stars.
The rising wind was harsh, grabbing at my shout and whisking my panicked mewling off as if it never existed. Screaming into the wind was as useless as pissing into it, except you didn’t get a mouthful of pee when you turned your head.
Considering the dragon riding my ass, I’d take the mouthful of piss any day.
Cold air spiked my lungs. I kept my breaths short, huffing through pressed-in lips. Exhaling misty puffs, I kept up my pace, keenly aware of the hot wind steaming my trail. The paho’eho’e lava was uneven and probably slicing the hell out of the soles of my boots, but I kept running. Stopping was definitely not an option.
Not with the waves of hot, fetid breath gushing over my neck and the whispery swoosh of massive dragon wings slapping through the air behind me.
I tightened my hold on the egg, cradling it to my chest. Off in the distance and way too far away was a small white glow, giving me an idea of where Cari waited with her brother’s souped-up Nova hatchback. With any luck she’d listened to me when I told her to keep the Nova’s big-block engine running.
If she didn’t, then I was not only screwed but probably dinner. And if the dragon was still pissed off and hungry, she’d be second helpings.
Each flap of the dragon’s wings pushed a rush of air against my back, nearly shoving me to the ground. Its cry was furious, enraged at my intrusion or possibly that I was running for my life. Most dragons didn’t take kindly to their dinner beating a hasty retreat, and this one was no exception to the rule. The force of pushed air was enough to drive me to my knees, and running with a stolen winged lizard egg didn’t make things any easier. Dodging jagged rocks, I almost lost my knee to a boulder, and my jeans, already old, ripped. My shin stung, and the air burned down to my calf.
I couldn’t lose the egg, and if I fell, the elongated oversized lizard chasing me would have a helping of elfin tartare. The orb was almost too large for me to hold on to, but its ridged, swirled patterns gave me something to grip, useful when fleeing over sharp lava rocks.
“Guns. Need… guns.” I had them. They were hanging from their holsters on my thigh and side, but none of my weapons were going to do me any good. Not with my arms full. “Fucking dragon.”
I’d spotted the abandoned nest two weeks before while making a quick run through the grasslands below Pendle and stopped only long enough to confirm the bundle of broken sticks and rocks held at least two unfertilized prismatic dragon eggs. They were glorious to behold, hematite colors and curled over with bas-relief swirls. Snatching dragon eggs was a two-person job, and I’d needed to grab an egg before they fermented black. Hard to sell something that would run a crowd out if it cracked, and no matter how hard someone tried, they always cracked. Even hollowed out and cleansed, they retained their reek. No amount of bleach could cure that.
I couldn’t let it crack. Museums or private collectors don’t pay if their treasured eggs drive visitors from a room, and I needed the paycheck.
It would be suicide to glance back. I didn’t have time to check on the dragon’s progress. So long as I didn’t feel its teeth in any part of my body, I could consider myself the winner in my odd foot-against-wing race, but I never claimed to have much common sense. It was like picking at a healing tattoo. It was wrong and probably would mar the ink, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.
Sometimes it helps to listen to the little voices in my head, especially when they’re urging me not to look and to keep running. So of course I looked.
“Shit,” I muttered. I knew it was a mistake to look back, and I did it anyway, because the image of a frilly-headed lizard with tatter-ribbon wings needed to be the last thing I saw before I died. “Iesu, Kai! Idiot.”
Dragons come in all shapes and sizes. Some are bulky, wide-chested beasts with enormous wingspans, while others are long, sinewy lizards with horns and pearls in their foreheads. Brought over when the human and elfin worlds merged, they took up the top of the food chain and, thankfully for all of us bipeds, mated furiously but rarely fertilized their eggs. Unfortunately, some female dragons still took their nesting seriously, if only to protect their eggs long enough to become enormous balut. Only then did the nesting grounds empty of females, and the males swooped down to enjoy the buffet.
It was a prismatic dragon, but I knew that before I started my little adventure. They weren’t large as dragons go, barely six feet in length, and their triangular snake heads were man-sized, but they were still vicious on a good day. I’d just made this dragon’s day go to shit. It was past grumpy and into full pissed off.
Safe in the Nova, Cari honked its deep horn, helpfully assisting me in remembering how far away I was from being safe. The world spun and dipped in a crazy rainbow spectrum soup as my goggles tried to stabilize while I dodged and wove through the hill’s juts and dips. The full moon bleached away any hard shadows, turning the lava into a mirror shiny enough to reflect the stars.
I’d worn a pair of spectral goggles to protect my eyes from any gas flares and to push back the deep black shadows thrown up by the bright moon. The silvery drench was nearly daylight bright, and I could see well enough, but there was always the risk of plummeting through a lava tube and breaking my neck.
The goggles were a little heavy, and sometimes I wondered if they actually did anything, but any advantage they gave me over the terrain was welcome. One wrong step and I could be a smear on the inside of a pocket in the rock or, worse, fall into a thread of magma and broil.
With my luck, the egg would survive the fall, and Cari would only have to wait until the dragon grew bored. Then she could retrieve it.
Unless the dragon got me first, in which case, I’d wholeheartedly wish I’d met my end in a fall, because I couldn’t think of a worse death than being eaten alive. Since I’d been fed strips of my own flesh by my insane father before Fate blinked and Dempsey won me in that poker game, I figured I had pretty good ideas on what a good way to go would be.
Flying lizard food was not one of them.
The lizard’s scales sang a soft chaotic tune as she chased me. Her claws spat up chunks of sharp pumice as she fumbled and scrambled over the rocks. Prisms couldn’t get much lift, but her wings went a long way in carrying her weight forward as she gave chase. Their eggs were prized, hard cloisonné shells of rainbow stained-glass hexagons. They glistened and sparkled better than diamonds and were worth so much more to the right Stalker. The one I held in my arms was worth a fortune. Much like the two I’d left behind.
I dodged right, rewarded for my poor choice when the dragon’s front foot clawed at the air next to my head. I ducked but her talons caught on my hair, yanking me down. Rolling on my knee, I whimpered when the lava cut through my pants and skin. The rock was sharper than broken glass threads, and if I survived the female lizard, I was going to spend a bit of time picking out Pele’s hair from my leg.
Her breath ruffled over my head, gusting my black hair over my face. The strands blocked my vision for a moment, and I tossed my head to clear the goggles’ sights. A drip of something rolled over the eyepiece, and after a second, I realized it was probably blood. Sweat wasn’t opaque and didn’t smell like copper.
Hooks dug into the shoulder of my leather jacket, lengthening down into my skin, and I was jerked back, falling on my ass. The lava did its job of chewing through the seat of my pants, but the jeans held up when I rolled, landing hard on my elbow. The egg jostled in the cradle I’d made of my arms, but I was now belly up and not moving, a sure-fire invitation to be gobbled up.
A rock crest made a good blind, and I abused my already bloody knee to dive toward it. The thermal Henley I was willing to sacrifice for this run snagged on the ropy stone and held me tight like a lover for a split second. Rolling around the spire, I checked the distance to the Nova with a quick peek and suddenly wished I hadn’t.
I got a face full of prismatic lizard.
Choking on its breath, I backpedaled and hit the rock hard. Angry and blood pumped up from the chase, she screamed, her high-pitched keen bleeding into my ear. Something trilled in her tone, arcing higher, and I doubled over the egg, trying to protect it. Her scream ruffled my hair, blowing it down into my face. Opening my eyes was a bad idea, probably the worst one I’d ever had. It was just in time to see the dragon’s head swing over and clamp down on my face.
Her fangs sang when they hit, the air whistling around the hollowed-out points of her venomous teeth. They hooked over the goggles’ straps, catching on the curved metal pieces and ribbing. Hissing, she pulled back, lifting me up as she went over. Her tongue swiped at the lenses, coating them in dripping ropes of spit. I swung from her mouth, dangling by my head, and her gullet convulsed as she tried to work me free. My feet left the ground, and I yelled, holding on to the egg for dear life.
I screamed. Loudly. Anyone would, especially when staring into what looked like a long, moist, ribbed tunnel of pink meat and viscous spit. Her stomach was at the end of the moving tube, a boiling hammock of muscle and acid strong enough to strip the meat from my bones. Of course I screamed.
Gods-damned chin strap. Fricking damned chin strap. I couldn’t risk dropping the egg—not with the cash it would get me—but my arms were full of shell, and I’d need a hand loose to get the strap undone. If I could get it undone.
Pain rocketed down my spine as she whipped her head around to dislodge me. If I were human, I’d be dead. Elfin bodies are tougher, more malleable, but even my spell-brewed joints and spine were stretched to their limits when the dragon fought to shake me loose. The whine of my goggles’ electro-mechanics trying to stabilize reached a high pitch, scorching my eardrums.
My head throbbed and stung where her fangs rested against my temple. I tried going boneless, forcing my body to relax, but it was no use. The lizard had me caught in her teeth like a fleck of spinach, and no amount of tongue sucking was going to get me off.
Twisting, I tried to get loose, but she held me fast, her jaws stretched too wide and jammed open by the heavy goggles. Whirling, she turned, and the world spun. I felt the ground beneath my boots, a momentary kiss of lava under my soles when she dropped her head then turned quickly to the right, pulling me along with her. It would have been better if I’d been snagged facing straight at her. Canted off-center, I couldn’t quite kick at her chest or throat. The only good thing about hanging a little sideways was I’d be able to see the rock I was going to die on once she got me loose.
The world spun again, thready rainbows bleeding across the lenses when the goggles caught on the twirling night sky. I couldn’t take the shift in perspective, and my eyes struggled to find something to focus on. My equilibrium shot, I felt my stomach rumble and then a sour creep over my tongue. Before I could stop it, my belly emptied, and as the prismatic tossed me about, I hurled, and she caught most of it in her mouth, filling her gullet with bile.
Not my proudest moment, but I was going to take what I could get.
Surprisingly, the dragon didn’t seem to be too fond of my contribution to the bodily fluids we were exchanging, and she reeled back, snapping her head up. The prismatic choked, gagging and twitching, her throat and tongue working to clear the taste of my swill. She flicked her head, and I was tossed about, still caught on her long fangs by the oh-so-sturdy goggles strapped to my head. My shoulders ached, and in a few seconds, I’d either be dead from my spine being snapped or she’d crush my body against the rocks. I was about to drop the egg so I could try to work the snaps loose when the world turned starry white.
I didn’t see the other dragon, but I heard its enraged cries and then felt the heat of its raging fire. A rush of air from its passing body blew my hair into my face, whipping the ends into my skin. The prismatic tried to scream back a challenge, but having an elfin hooked over her lower teeth by a thick leather strap tended to muzzle any rage. Instead, a gurgling rush of noises bubbled out, and she turned to face her attacker, landing on her feet and lifting me up high enough off the ground I could see a peek of the ocean glittering in the silvery moonlight, barely visible beyond the surrounding hillocks.
The other dragon was huge, and from the little I could make out, a crimson deep enough to make me think of an ainmhi dubh’s glowing eyes. Evil lived in that red, in both the ainmhi dubh and the serpentine worm. I’d struggled to fight off an irrational fear of bright crimson against black, but in the lava fields, where death was served up daily with a side of bitter and no regrets, that glittering bright red meant certain death. The ainmhi dubh, the black dogs of the unsidhe, and the enormous crimson dragons of Pendle’s storm-laden skies were predators of the highest order, often killing purely for the sheer glee of it.
I had no expectation this particular flying red lizard was only dropping by to borrow a cup of sugar and maybe a nip of tea.
Crimson filled my vision, the metallic glint of scales penetrated even my overworked goggle lenses, and the leathery, rotten stench of dragon swaddled my senses. I could taste the thing on my tongue, the popped-tick scent of old blood, decaying flesh caught in its teeth, and the sick yellow-green aroma of its bilious breath.
The lava field was draped in the crimson’s massive shadow, its bulky form blocking out much of the moon and the stars. More screams and shapes flying outside of my peripheral vision, then a sudden jolt when the prismatic buckled under a slashing rain of crimson claws.
As much as I didn’t like dangling from the prismatic’s teeth like a tree-hugging daisy-humper’s beard bead, I sure as shit didn’t want the crimson to kill her. Mostly because where the ribbon-winged dragon went, I did too. And if the crimson took it into its tiny brain to bite her head off, I’d pretty much be a pat of herbed butter on a slab of dragon steak.
The prismatic’s head popped, crackling with the heat of the hit. Another shot splattered nitrate and potassium over her snout and burst into bright flames. Overloaded, the goggles whined, and my vision went dim, shadowy swirls blurring away as the electrodes in the lenses began to shut down, leaving me staring through a cloudy milk membrane.
Her jaw fell clear from her head, the mandible cracking away from its torn socket, and the air above my head caught on fire as an undulating shadow made another pass over us. Another flare of sparks and the prismatic splintered apart, savaged by the larger dragon attacking her. My feet skimmed an outcropping and the leather on my boots’ toes scraped nearly down to my socks.
Then I fell. Hard.
On the plus side, I was now free of the prismatic lizard’s fierce bite. On the down side, I now had nothing holding me up in the air, and I was sent tumbling down to the treacherous lava field a few feet below.
I let go of the egg. Not like I had a choice. Gravity always wins, and I needed my arms to flail about and panic.
Much like the age-old question on what would fall to the ground faster—a pound of feathers or a pound of stone—the egg and I were pretty evenly matched as far as falling went. It had a head start, being under me when I let go, but I was heavier, so catching up wasn’t a problem.
Not that I’d wanted to catch up with the egg. No, my main focus was tucking myself up into a ball and praying I wouldn’t be sliced to ribbons by the ropy lava. Fate, however, had other plans.
The egg bounced. Odd thing for an egg to do, but bounce it did. Even through the filmy sheer panes of the goggles and my obscured view from under my arms, I watched the egg bounce off of the stony field and arc up, then slam right into me.
While the egg was impervious to glass-sharp rocks, apparently a falling elfin body was its weakness, because the moment its curved shell hit my shoulder, it broke, enveloping me in its rancid, curdled yolk and stringy, rotten white. It was a cushion of sorts. The yolk was nearly as long as I was. I didn’t have time to measure, but it definitely coated me up one side and wrapped around my curled-in body.
“Fuck m—” The ground came up on me quickly, and I yelped when I hit, snagging my tongue between my front teeth. “Ouch. Shit.”
It hurt. Hells, did it hurt, and there were stretches of my skin burning up beneath the remains of my shredded jeans. I tumbled, unable to stop myself from rolling, and much like the egg, I bounced about a bit. Covered in the egg’s sulfurous remains, I couldn’t see anything, and my lungs didn’t seem to work. It took a second to register the impact, my bones rattling about under my skin and in my meat, but screaming didn’t seem to be happening.
Mostly because I had no wind, and my mouth and nose were clogged with thick, gelatinous egg.
I might have passed out. Or maybe my senses were too overwhelmed with my impromptu flight, because as I tried to blink away the rancid eggy mess clotting my lashes, Cari appeared above me. Since I was lying down, it was hard to be startled, but I gave it my best effort, pretty much reduced to a jiggling of my muscles and a creaking groan from my parched lips.
“Dios, are you dead, Kai?” Her hands were warm, probably fired up with the thin healer talent she had in her blood. They felt good. More than good. “Lie still. I need to—”
“Dragon….” I ground out. “Red.”
Oddly enough, I could see her clearly, because her face flushed green. A multigenerational Stalker from a Mexican-German-Irish family, Cari pretty much had seen it all. Or so I’d thought. She lurched, gulping in air.
“Oh God, you smell so bad. I think you drove the dragon away. You stink that much.”
Sitting up was an exercise in counting stars and pain. I managed to stay up for about three seconds before I toppled back. Thankfully, Cari caught me. Reluctantly from the gagging noises she made in her throat, but still, she caught me.
“Ouch,” I gasped. “Okay, hurting. Definitely hurting.”
My head felt in one piece, but my body was on fire. My limbs took most of the beating, but thankfully the fall wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The prismatic’s head was low to the ground when it came off her body, saving me from ending up a grated mess of flesh on the lava.
“Man, you flew, though.” Cari rubbed her hands together. “Okay, pretty boy. Let’s see how much juice I’ve got in me, because if I know you, once I get you up onto your feet, you’re going to go back after one of those eggs.”