Thursday, December 29, 2011

Old Wars, New Allegiances

In the absence of any brilliant insights, I went the way Vlad’s head of security said he’d gone, toward the back left corner of the house with the elevator. The only way to get to the elevator was through a corridor with an entrance hidden behind the warm two story waterfall that lands in the hot tub. Yeah, it’s that kind of house. There was even a passage behind the waterfall itself, but you had to get in the water to reach it. I knew another way that would be faster.
I still tried to be relatively quiet, but with the bad guys 2 minutes ahead of me, that meant I ran as fast as I could on tiptoes.
Pushing on the top left corner of a floor length mirror in the dressing room next to the hot tub popped the latch. The mirror swung open. I slipped behind the wall. The bricks on the right side of the narrow corridor were damp and I could hear the sound of the waterfall on the other side.
When Vlad gave me the house tour, he showed me the corridors around the perimeter of his house in particular detail. Most of the entrances and exitways for the secret doors were off the outer corridors. And they were riddled with traps, some deadly, some merely dangerous. All of them would slow me down, so I picked a path that only had one trap to avoid.
A nostril-searing stench of sulfur and a smoking pile of silver scales riddled with holes showed me that I’d made the right choice of direction. The Georgians had definitely come this way. White Knight’s coif, gloves, shield and scale mail shirt lay in a pile, still sizzling from the concentrated acid that this trap rained down on intruders. I stepped over the trigger stone and around the pile of smoldering scales to the small lever embedded in the wall. I pulled it and a section of the bricks tilted, diverting the waterfall into the corridor. The flood of warm water washed the remaining acid down the drain at the end of the hall.
I scooped up the abandoned armor, unwilling to leave behind something my grandmother sacrificed her life to create. The holes started healing themselves as soon as I picked it up. I tucked the gauntlets in my waistband and the mail shirt over my arm. As I ran, I automatically hooked my left arm in the strap of the shield and gripped it in my strong, scaly hand as if I’d been using one my whole life. The two foot long crooked knife in my right hand felt very natural as well, if a bit short. I had to repress an urge to put the rest of the armor on.
“Hush, Grandmother. I’m not your wielder. Novak is.”
I heard a warm chuckle in my mind.
I wondered why Novak never seemed to hear Lady Nyneve like I did when I touched the armor.
An image appeared in my mind, a memory, of Merlin’s visions flashing through a crystal, channeled through Nyneve’s mind. I am Merlin’s granddaughter, and I’d already been having visions of things from long ago. Through Merlin, I had abilities and a link to Nyneve that Novak didn’t.
It made me smile a little, to feel my grandmother’s spirit communicating with me, as if she embraced me in greeting. But the smile faded fast as I looked at the elevator. I still couldn’t believe that Vlad would make a run for it. He didn’t want to leave town with Georgians here. He thought if he took them out of the picture, he would make me safe. If he left, he would be leaving me to the wolves. So, did he go up to the parapet walkway, or did he go down to the basement, or further down to the tunnel that leads to the boat dock.
I got a questioning feeling in my mind. Curiosity. Confusion.
“I’m trying to save Vlad,” I said out loud. It felt odd, talking to the shield and armor draped over my arm, but I knew my grandmother’s spirit was bound to the armor, and while she was telepathic, I’m not. I formed a picture of Vlad in my mind anyway, just in case she was poking around in there.
A feeling of rage made me want to hit something really hard.
“No, grandmother, you don’t understand. Your war is long over. Vlad isn’t the enemy. Vlad saved my life lots of times, and dad’s.” I pictured Vlad swooping in to save me from machine-gun toting goons, arrowing out of the sky to protect me from giant robots, saving me as I fell off a cliff when I hadn’t yet learned how to fly. “Vlad’s sort of in love with me. And I owe him.”
Confusion from the armor. An image of White Knight scaling the cliff behind Vlad’s house and sneaking in through the swim-through in the pool appeared in my head.
Novak came here with a clear image in his mind, killing Vlad, but he came in through the back. He had nothing to do with the carnage in Vlad’s living room.
“Yeah, Novak’s been brainwashed. He thinks all dragons are evil and he has to kill them.”
The startled bark of laughter in my mind was so clear, I almost turned to look behind me.
“Yeah, I know. That’s ridiculous. You and I both know Novak is a dragon, but Novak doesn’t know it. The Georgians got to him when he was just an orphaned kid and brainwashed him.”
Confusion again. The Order of St. George didn’t exist in Lady Nyneve’s time.
I couldn’t help it. Just for a moment, the image that haunted all my worst nightmares, the skinned headless body of my father with vultures picking at his flesh, appeared in my mind. “They killed dad. They want to kill all dragons.”
Rage and pain, awful tearing grief that made my throat close and my eyes burn. Lady Nyneve couldn’t have known until now what happened to her youngest son.
I hugged the chainmail not even thinking about how weird that was. Her grief and mine were the same. They killed my dad. They killed her son.  “They’ve killed nearly all of us, grandmother. And they’re using Novak to kill the few of us that are left. He tried to kill Fafnir, now he’s trying to kill Vlad. I’ve got to stop him, but I don’t want to hurt him any more than you do. Can you just give me a clue as to which way Vlad and Novak went?”
I could feel iron resolve, a controlled killing anger. Lady Nyneve was seriously pissed off. I was glad that now her anger was aimed in the right direction. Up, she whispered in my mind.
I pushed the up button on the elevator, and heard it hum downward to me.
The few seconds it took to get up to the walkway seemed to take forever. I felt a strong urge to put the armor on again. This time I didn’t fight it. I slipped on the gauntlets and pulled the mail shirt over my head. I wasn’t sure what Nyneve had in mind, but my grandmother had been in a lot more battles than I had. The coif, I left tucked in my waistband. It just didn’t feel right to wear it. White Knight was Novak’s hero identity, not mine.
So, dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and scale mail shirt, carrying Novak’s shield, with the hated image of St. George slaying a dragon dissolved off of it by acid, and carrying a crooked, blood-splattered murder weapon, I stepped off the elevator into an empty tower room, roughly hexagonal with a suit of plate armor decorating one shadowy corner. I stepped out onto the windy, rain-soaked walkway with the crenellated parapet and into the combat zone.
One Georgian aimed a crossbow from the far side of the walkway, half hidden in the arched doorway of the opposite hexagonal tower. His arrows glowed green at the tips. The wind and Novak in the way both made his aim tricky. He fired another bolt as I watched.
Vlad fought in dragon form with a sword as long as I was tall in one hand, his back to me watching both the Georgian with the crossbow and White Knight. Vlad flicked the bolt the Georgian fired at him away with his sword without visibly changing his rhythm of attack against Knight. One bolt must have made it through his defenses at some point though. The feathered end stuck out of his left shoulder, right through his bulletproof scales.
White Knight faced Vlad, Excalibur in both hands, wearing nothing from the waist up. Three bloody cuts showed that Vlad had made it past his guard a few times already, and masses of scars all over his torso as severe as any burn victim showed that it was far from the first time he’d been injured. I realized with horror what those scars were from. Novak’s scales were coming in, and they’d been cut from his skin.
Knight looked way overmatched. His sword strokes held a hint of desperation while Vlad’s flowed with seemingly effortless grace. Knight barely parried Vlad’s huge sword more than once. As I watched, Vlad did a disengage and twist move that he’d used on me in practice with inevitable results. I cringed as Excalibur flew out of Novak’s hand.
The sword did a curious twist as it flew through the air. I would swear its path curved to land near my feet. Probably just a chance gust of wind.
I dropped the crooked knife, and picked up the far superior sword. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but it was clearly the better weapon.
With Knight unarmed, Vlad pressed his advantage. The huge black sword swung horizontally towards Mark Novak’s head. The shirtless White Knight threw himself back as the blade tip swished past his throat. The desperate dodge threw him off balance. He slipped on the wet stones and fell on his butt.
“Stop!” I shouted, and my voice projected far louder than I expected it to. A flash of lightning crackled from cloud to cloud illuminating everything like a flash bulb, and a clap of thunder punctuated my sentence.
 Vlad froze, sword poised over Novak’s heart.
“This man is not the enemy, prince of the Black. Spare his life,” I heard the voice coming out of my lips, but it wasn’t entirely mine. Lady Nyneve was doing some of the driving in my body, and I let her. We had the same goals now.
Vlad looked at me oddly. “Who are you? What have you done to Damson?”
“It’s me, Vlad,” I said, making sure that only my voice came out. “The Lady of the Lake and I are kind of sharing body time, but I’m still here. We’re both asking you. I know you’ve got good reason, but Knight is good people when he’s not trying to kill dragons.”
“It matters little to me if he is kind to children and small dogs. He has invaded my home, murdered my employees, and tried to take my head.” He raised his sword again to finish Novak off.
Novak, armorless and on his back on the wet stone, had no defense left but his voice. He used it to piss off Vlad even more. “Lying serpent,” he hissed at Vlad. “Don’t bother begging for my life, Dee. Dragons have no compassion, no honor, and they kill without mercy. ”
I rolled my eyes. “Shut up, idiot. You’re not helping.”
My grandmother took over again. “Black prince, you owe me a life debt.” In my mind, I saw Vlad arrowing out of the sky and breaking Nyneve’s little sister’s neck. “Do you acknowledge this is true?”
Vlad hesitated.  “Soldiers kill in war, Lady Nyneve. My kin died on the same field of battle at your hands.”
Nyneve nodded into a slight graceful bow that I never could have managed. I noticed a sort of double image of my own arms as I moved. A semi-transparent taller, more slender Lady Nyneve form superimposed over me. “I acknowledge that debt. I agreed to help young Damson save your life. That can pay my debt to you, if you accept it.”
“You’re offering to clear the life debts between us, to end a war that all but you and I have forgotten?” Vlad asked with a hint of a smile. “In return for the life of a Georgian?” His smile twisted into a sneer of contempt. “Why?”
“This knight is my nephew’s great grandson. He is my kin, and he has wielded Excalibur with honor for more than half a century.” Nyneve took a step closer. “With this one act of mercy, the enmity between our clans can finally end.”
Vlad hesitated. He looked down at Novak, helpless on the stones, the tip of the huge black sword hovering over his heart. “You didn’t kill my people?”
Novak’s lips tightened in offense. “I’m no murderer.”
“He didn’t, Vlad,” I told him. “Knight came in the back, alone.”
Vlad growled in anger, but the tip of his blade pulled back a few inches from Novak’s bare chest. “He’ll just try to hunt me down and kill me again if I let him live.” He looked at me significantly, “And he’ll kill other dragons if he gets the chance.” Lady Nyneve didn’t have to be a telepath to get that.
“I know it doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “Just do it for me. And for …” I hesitated, conscious of the Georgian with the crossbow, listening, and watching for an opening. “Sir Robert.”
Vlad raised his eyebrows in question.
“You and he could never be friends because of the old grudges between Black and Green and Silver,” I said. “I know how much that bothers you. Spare just this one man, and the old grudges are wiped clean, in my mind and hers.”
Vlad sighed. “For you my love, for Sir Robert, and for Lady Nyneve, an honorable enemy from a forgotten war.” He bowed slightly to the ghost I wore and stepped back, allowing White Knight to get to his feet.
Novak leaned on the parapet. A fair amount of blood mixed with rain flowed down his scarred chest and arms from earlier cuts. His face showed disbelief bordering on outright shock. “I don’t understand.”
“I give you your life, Georgian scum,” Vlad told him. “But threaten me or those under my protection again, and we will dance once more.” He flourished that giant sword like a fencing foil.
I so don’t ever want to get into a swordfight with Vlad. “So much for dragons not having any mercy or honor,” I said to Novak.
For once, he didn’t have a comeback. I handed Excalibur to Novak who wasn’t looking too hot.
He accepted it, but stared at the shiny silver blade as if he’d never seen it before.
I heard an odd metallic creak behind me, a slight scrape of metal, and saw Vlad’s eyes go wide.
It should have been enough warning, but with me and my grandmother both trying to take control of my body at the same time, and both trying to react in different ways, I froze for a second.
By the time I’d sorted out who was in charge for the moment, that nasty crooked knife was at my throat and a plate mail armored arm held my waist.
There were two Georgians left, in addition to White Knight, and I’d only seen the one. That suit of armor in the tower wasn’t just a decoration.
Vlad growled low and actually got a little bigger. I had a feeling the guy that grabbed me was about to be in a world of hurt.
The Georgian with the crossbow took that moment of distraction combined with a lull in the wind, to fire a shot at Vlad’s unprotected back. The bolt went straight through and the tip stuck out of his chest a few inches, about dead center of where Vlad’s right lung should be.
Novak looked as startled as I was by the sudden turn of events.
Vlad coughed blood and dropped to one knee, the tip of his sword dipping to the stones.
“Finish it,” a male voice growled by my right ear, echoey inside the full face helmet.
Knight hesitated. “He just spared my life. That’s the second time a dragon has shown me mercy.”
“Do what you came here to do, Novak. Or are you afraid to face him again after he kicked your ass?”
Knight’s jaws tightened hard.
“Don’t do it, Knight. These people have lied to you, about Vlad, about dragons, about a lot of things. And they murdered all of Vlad’s security people.”
“Shut up, bitch, or I’ll slit your throat,” the arm around my waist tightened painfully, and the ugly knife dug into the very human flesh just under my jaw. A trickle of blood flowed into my turtleneck shirt.
I fought, but the armor, or maybe the man himself, was stronger than me. I regretted putting on the silver gauntlets. I couldn’t use my claws through them. They probably wouldn’t have gone through the plate armor anyway.
The Georgian with the crossbow got another bolt loaded while Knight hesitated and I struggled with the guy in the plate mail.
“I’ll do it,” the crossbowman said. He walked up to point blank range behind Vlad and pointed the crossbow at the back of Vlad’s head. He leaned against one of the crenellations on the outer wall to steady his aim.
“NO!!” I shouted, and not really knowing why, I moved my hand across my body as if shoeing a fly away. Lady Nyneve’s semi-transparent hand moved with mine like an after image on a blurred film.
A powerful gust of wind hit the Georgian. It ripped the crossbow out of his hand. He tried to catch it, overbalanced, and screamed for a second or two before hitting the ground head first three stories down.
“You’ll die for that, bitch,” the Georgian with a knife to my throat said.
I elbowed him in the ribs as hard as I could with my stronger left hand, almost forgetting that it had a shield with a point at the bottom strapped to it. The point didn’t pierce the plate mail which was clearly special in some way, but it did dent the breastplate pretty good and make an impression on the guy inside.
 He gahwhoofed air out and his grip on my waist lost some of its strength. The knife at my throat cut into my jawline a little, but not across my windpipe and arteries.
I got my right arm in between his wrist and my throat. No more blades in my throat. Thanks.
“You’ll die for that insolence, sirrah,” I heard Nyneve say with my voice. I felt the crackle. All the hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood up. I had just enough time to think, oh shit.
A lightning bolt hit dead center on the plate mail helmet. Whatever special properties that armor had, it wasn’t up to handling a direct lightning strike. I smelled burnt flesh. The guy who held me spasmed hard. Fortunately, he dropped the blade while convulsing and dying.
I really hate electricity. I lay on the wet stones for a few seconds after my own convulsions stopped, listening to every nerve ending in my body screaming at me.
I felt an apology from the armor I still wore. Lady Nyneve didn’t know I wasn’t immune to electricity like she had been.
“S’okay, grandmother. At least, I’m alive.”
Which was more than I could say about plate male guy. A black hole the size of a softball in the top of his helmet, and the smoke coming out of every seam in the armor made it pretty clear that he wasn’t getting back up. He smelled like a barbecue pit.
I rolled over and found two solicitous faces looking down at me. Vlad, who still had two crossbow bolts sticking out of him, and Knight, who was still bleeding pretty freely himself.
“Aren’t we a set,” I mumbled when I could talk without drooling on myself.
Vlad coughed a little wetly and gave me that dimple that meant he was fighting not to smile. “The Georgians are defeated, it seems. All but the one you talked me into not killing.” He sat on the stones, leaned back wearily against the parapet and sneered at Novak.
Novak picked up his sword and put it to Vlad’s throat. Vlad just watched him do it. He didn’t have enough strength left to fight White Knight.
“Don’t be stupid, Novak. Put the sword down,” I said.
“I’m the last of my order, the only one left to fulfill the sacred trust. It’s up to me alone to rid this world of the dragon scourge.”
“Bullshit,” I said. I scraped up enough energy to stand and face him. I shoved the sword to one side with my gauntleted hand and stood between him and Vlad. It wasn’t hard. Knight wasn’t exactly at his best. “You still don’t get it, do you? You’re not the hero here. You’re the bad guy.”
Novak blinked.
“You’re a Protector. What would you do to someone who invaded someone’s home with a gang and killed everyone inside?”
“Arrest them,” he said, then stopped. “But that’s not …”
“Yes, it is. There are a dozen dead bodies downstairs to prove it.”
He hesitated, then his jaw firmed. “That doesn’t change the fact that dragons are an evil that must be wiped out. I can’t fail now.”
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose. I had a headache so big, even Nyneve probably felt it. And she’d been dead for centuries. “What do you call someone, born with exceptional abilities who uses them in the service of his country, to bring murderers, thieves, and rapists to justice?”
“I’m not really very comfortable being called a superhero, but …”
“I’m not talking about you, dumbass. I’m talking about Vlad.”
“What? But he’s a dragon. Dragon’s don’t …”
“Yeah, he’s a dragon, and yeah, he did. You saw him after he helped to save the city. You’ve heard me and TakeDown both tell you he saved our lives. You know he did. You were just too busy listening to lying murderers wearing fancy crosses to listen.”
“But, they’re … we’re on a holy mission and …”
“What do you call people who invade a village while the men are away to war defending against an invading army, and murder everyone in the village including babies in cradles?”
“I would call them monsters, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Vlad’s sons were seven years old when Georgians murdered them and everyone else in their village. Is that who you are, Novak? Are you one of them? A monster?”
He swallowed. “They were dragons.”
I nodded. “Yeah, Vlad’s wife and tiny sons were dragons.  Seven year old children who had never hurt anyone, but they were dragons. There were a few other dragons in the village, too. The rest of the villagers were just people, like the bodies downstairs. Just people who got in their way.”
“Is that you, Novak? Are you a Georgian? Are you someone who’s willing to slaughter an entire village, so that you can get to a mother and her two tiny sons so you can kill them in cold blood while their father is away defending his country?”
Novak swallowed again. “That’s not true. The Order of St. George is an ancient, honorable …”
I stepped aside to let Novak look down into Vlad’s eyes.
Vlad had shifted to human form. He did that, I noticed, when he was badly injured, as if holding dragon form required energy. Strange.
Novak stumbled to a stop, looking down at Vlad’s face, filled with old grief, eyes glowing red with impotent anger. The truth of that old pain was written all over the Black dragon’s face.
Novak, tightened his stubborn jaw again and I realized what I’d known before, words were never going to be enough to shake the bone deep conditioning he’d been given since his was a kid that dragons were the heart of evil.
I bid a silent fond farewell to Lady Nyneve. I set the shield aside, peeled off the gauntlets, both of them, and stripped the scale shirt off over my head. My turtleneck shirt followed it.
I stood there naked from the waist up, purple, sliver and green scales exposed. The rain had stopped and the wind died down to stillness. The clouds had begun to dissipate as well, giving those bright stars the weatherman promised a chance to shine. It was Nyneve’s anger that brought the storm, and she wasn’t angry anymore.
I grabbed the blade of Excalibur fearlessly with the normal human flesh of my right hand. I knew that sword would never cut me. But Novak didn’t know that.
I put the tip of the blade over my heart. “You’re the last of the Georgian order. You need to kill all dragons in order to fulfill your charter. Fine. Start with me.”
“Damson, no!” Vlad hissed from behind me. “It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve saved his life. He’s a Georgian. He will kill you.” Vlad tried to struggle to his feet to defend me, but he only made it to one knee. “Please!” he begged Novak. Vlad had already lost so much to the Georgians. “I spared your life. Please, let her go.”
Novak looked from Vlad’s tortured face to mine, to the sword tip against my scaly chest. It wasn’t just words anymore.
“What are you waiting for, Knight?” I taunted Novak. “You’re a Georgian. I’m a dragon. What’s the problem?”
Novak’s eyes welled with tears. The blade tip shook.
I didn’t let up. “You are a Georgian dragon-killer, aren’t you? Like the ones who killed my father when I was only twelve. Like the ones who killed Vlad’s wife and children. Like the ones who killed everyone in this house other than us. You’re like them, aren’t you?”
“No.” Novak whispered finally.
“I am a dragon, Novak. It’s your duty as a Georgian to kill me. Right now.” I pulled the blade with my bare hand toward my chest and Novak yanked it away.
“Are you a Georgian or not?” I asked.
“No,” he whispered and sank to his knees. A tear broke free and ran down his face. He dropped Excalibur from limp fingers. I’d broken him. He’d been a Georgian since he was a child. It was his whole identity. He didn’t know how to be anything else. If I left him like this, he’d be lost and he might never find himself again.
I knelt down in front of him. I picked up one of his limp hands and stroked my thumb on the long scar on the underside of his wrist. That scar continued all the way down his side to his waist line and there was another one just like it on the other side, although it was buried beneath masses of other scars. That line of scar tissue made me incredibly sad for him.
I slipped one of the silver gauntlets onto his hand. Nyneve’s scales molded lovingly to her chosen wielder.
“I don’t have the right,” Novak protested.
I put the other gauntlet on his other hand. “My grandmother, Lady Nyneve, the Pendragon of the Silver clan of dragons, also known as the Lady of the Lake, gave up her life for this armor and these weapons to be created. They were forged from her very scales, claws and spikes, with her spirit bound inside them, by my grandfather, Merlin, wizard of the Green clan, with the aid of Prince Fafnir of the Red.”
Novak blinked another tear away. He watched me like a drowning man watches someone throw a life preserver. He said nothing as I slid the mail shirt over his head, but he lifted his arms and shrugged into the armor with a practiced motion.
“Lady Nyneve was a peerless warrior, the fiercest defender of the land in her time. Her nephew Sir Gawain, the Green Knight, was your great-grandfather, and he was King Arthur’s right hand, his bodyguard, and his closest friend.” I put the shield on his left arm, the front surface of it shiny silver like a mirror, blank of any decoration. “Sir Gawain was Arthur’s shield, as you have been a shield to many who could not defend themselves.”
I picked up Excalibur by the hilt this time. “This is Excalibur, the sword made from the very claws of the guardian of Britain. Only those the Lady of the Lake finds worthy may wield it.”
I stood in front of him, and tapped him on each shoulder with it, then presented him the hilt across my arm. I’ve seen my share of medieval movies, and I read Ivanhoe. I had the general idea.
“Stand, White Knight, no longer a member of the Order of St. George. Now, a true defender of the innocent, no matter what their race.”
He stood uncertainly. After a moment, he pushed back his shoulders and stood taller, chin up. I felt Nyneve flooding him with encouragement, doing her best to let him feel her pride in him.
Flashing red and blue lights reflected from in front of the house. The police had arrived. I walked Knight over to a back section of the wall directly above the pool.
Novak said, “I don’t know how I could have believed such blatant lies for so long.”
I shrugged. “They got you when you were young and impressionable, gave you the only family you’d ever known.”
“And took away yours, and Vlad’s.”
My jaw tightened. “Yeah.”
“Tell him I’m sorry.”
“I think he got that. You’d better go. The police are coming, and it would be a lot better if you weren’t associated with the slaughter downstairs.”
“I should face up to my mistakes.”
“Don’t be an idiot. The Georgians did this. You’re not one of them anymore. Go home.”
Novak smiled slightly at that, and did something completely unexpected.
He kissed me.
He smelled of cardamom, or some nameless exotic spice I’d only smelled before on Vlad. It was like they used the same intoxicating cologne. Dragon chemistry.
I picked him up bodily and tossed him over the parapet. He did hit the pool at least. I’m not sure I would have cared at that moment if he didn’t.
Damn it. My love life is complicated enough, thank you very much.
I went back and sat next to Vlad.
Vlad said, “He still hasn’t figured it out, has he?”
I shook my head. “It’ll hit him eventually, once he’s past some of the other shocks.” After a few seconds, I said, “They cut off his wings.” It was the one thing that bothered me most about Novak’s sad past.
“Poor bastard,” Vlad said.
For a moment, we shared the memory of flying wingtip to wingtip over a glassy lake in the starlight. I was holding his hand when TakeDown found us, with Tex, the security guy in cowboy boots leaning on him.
Tex owned up to killing one of the house invaders, the one who gutted him, and the ballistics tests eventually showed that Vlad’s secretary got one of the others. Both clear cases of self-defense, not that it mattered to the secretary.
Vlad and I had to give statements and all that, but it was pretty clear that Vlad was one of the victims, and TakeDown and I were the heroes trying to save the day and arriving a bit too late.  I had trouble explaining how the two bad guys had died up on the walkway. I told the cops that one of them fell off, and the other was hit by lightning that got me, too. True enough.
Neither Vlad nor I mentioned White Knight. Officially, he was never there.
Det. Long poked holes in our story without breaking a sweat, but Vlad’s lawyer didn’t give him a chance to dig any deeper.
Once the docs got the crossbow bolts pulled out of Vlad, I kissed him, not just a little kiss to cover me giving him healing venom, but an intense, passionate, curl your toes kind of kiss. He earned it.
He knew it didn’t change me choosing Jack over him, though.
We discussed the fact that there didn’t appear to be any Georgians anymore, and it might be safe to be a little more open about the whole dragon thing. But Vlad thought that was true before, and then they killed my dad. So, I’ll keep my scales covered.
Vlad moved away the next week, just before Christmas. I don’t even know where. He wouldn’t tell me. He said that since he was known to be a dragon now, if there were any Georgians left, it would be safer for me not to be too closely associated with him.
White Knight disappeared, too, just vanished.
I called Liberty. She told me he’d left a note requesting a sabbatical, and left. No one knew where.
Before Vlad left, I made the mistake of telling him that Ma, Jack, Brad the troll, Cam the cat, and Rocky the dog were all sharing my 2 bedroom apartment with me, and that I was having trouble paying rent lately, much less the double pet deposit my landlady demanded.
Vlad said he didn’t need his place anymore, and he didn’t need money, so selling it was pointless. He asked me to house sit for him, indefinitely.
So I sort of inherited a castle.
And Tex, the security guy in the cowboy boots. Vlad left him with me, too. He said I could use someone to watch my back, and the guy needed the job.
Guess I’ll have to find out what his real name is.

D Dragon

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dragon in the Crossfire

TakeDown and I went to Vlad’s place just after sunset, but we were already late. We figured the Georgian strike force would hit after midnight, but we wanted to get into place to watch for them as soon as we could get there under cover of darkness. Apparently, the Georgians had the same idea.
We cut through from the undeveloped acreage next door to Vlad’s estate, coming in through the woods and brush in a light drizzling rain. I about jumped out of my skin every time my footsteps made a rustling sound. I didn’t know which one I was more scared of, Vlad’s security taking potshots at us with armor piercing rounds, or the Georgians getting us with some anti-dragon weapon. Walking into the middle of a war zone seemed like a good way to get dead, regardless of which side spotted us first.
Every leaf rustle sounded like a fire alarm to me, but we didn’t really make that much noise. The drought had finally broken with a gully-washer a week or so ago, so the vegetation wasn’t so brittle. And TakeDown moved pretty quietly for such a big guy.
We saw them before they saw us. A foot, wearing a combat boot, stuck out of a bush on a little hillock with a good view of the front of Vlad’s mansion. TakeDown and I snuck up really carefully, but we needn’t have bothered. I smelled blood as we got closer, and realized the guy wasn’t a threat anymore, to anyone.
TakeDown looked a little nauseated when we turned the guy in camo fatigues over. His throat had been slashed to the spine. TD’s been a hero a while, but toymakers just don’t see death nearly as often as EMT’s.  I checked his pockets and found a wallet. I showed TD two things out of it, a plastic security badge for Tsovsky Holdings, and a picture of the guy’s smiling face with a pretty lady and a toddler. He’d been one of Vlad’s security guys, a regular normal human doing his job, and the Georgians killed him. 
After hearing from Vlad how Georgians had slaughtered everyone in his village, it didn’t surprise me that Georgians would kill normals. What I still had a hard time buying was White Knight going along with something like this. I didn’t know enough about forensics to tell if the guy had been killed with a sword, or just a really big, sharp knife. I wouldn’t believe Knight had done it until I saw him standing over a bloody body, sword in hand. But even if White Knight didn’t kill this guy, someone with Knight did.
TakeDown whispered in my ear, “We’ve got to call the police in on this now. No choice.”
I nodded. “Call Detective Long. He knows about me. Tell him the people I’m afraid of are here. But they’re after Vlad, not me. And they’ve killed someone.” I looked at the mansion with walkways and turrets around it like a castle, and thought of it full of Georgians with blood on their hands, with Vlad in there somewhere. I saw another boot sticking out of brush in a pool of blood at the edge of the drop-off that overlooked Vlad’s front driveway. “They’ve killed more than one.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going in, TD. I’m taking a route you can’t. Stealth isn’t an option anymore. They’re ahead of us. We need speed.”
“Going in alone when they’re killing anyone who gets in their way is a really stupid idea, Dee.”
“Maybe. But they think they’ve cleared the threats from behind them. I couldn’t live with myself if this happened to Vlad and I could have stopped it.” I gripped his hand. “Catch up to me when you can.”
He gripped my hand back hard. “Good luck.”
I stripped off my jacket, and the plain black, long-sleeved turtleneck shirt underneath, I couldn’t stuff both in the back of my pants, so I left the jacket in the grass next to another dead guy who probably had pictures of his family in his wallet. The air was Texas December chili, and the rain was picking up, but I barely noticed. I paid a lot more attention to the gusty wind whipping the raindrops around. The forecast had been for clear skies. This storm came out of nowhere.
Flickers of lightning crawled from cloud to cloud and a soft rumbling marked their passage. Vlad told me never, under any circumstances, to fly during a storm. It was really good advice. I ignored it.
I excused it by telling myself it was just a short flight. I jumped off the little mini cliff and spread my wings, one flap to gain a little altitude. The crosswind tried to slam me into one of the turrets. Two extra frantic flaps adjusted for the crosswind, and I backwinged to a light landing on Vlad’s roof. Vlad was an excellent flying teacher, I thought, smugly. My foot slid on the slippery tile. I barely caught the peak of the roof with my claws to keep from falling.
The highest peak of Vlad’s place was a small observatory, complete with rotating silver metal dome. A section of the dome was open about 3 feet wide, so the telescope could take time lapse images of the stars the weatherman said would be out tonight. I folded my wings, ducked under the telescope and I was inside. No security here. Vlad told me once that if I ever wanted to visit him, I could come this way without anyone knowing. I think he was hoping for a midnight tryst.
I pulled my shirt back on as I crept carefully down the spiral staircase. I heard a tiny sound and froze, listening. I heard it again, a moan. Someone was hurt down there. It could be Vlad.
Forget careful. I jumped over the railing and landed two stories down on the balls of my feet on a tile floor. I’d tried to be silent, but my tennis shoes made a small sound as I landed. I froze again. Nothing for a few seconds, then another groan.
Shadows moved in the huge open entryway of Vlad’s house. Clouds scudded across the windows in the high dormers and the wind whistled. Nothing else moved. Dragon night vision let me clearly see why. Everyone in this room was dead. I’d nearly landed on a body. I tiptoed as silently as possible from body to body, mainly making sure none of them were Vlad. Or White Knight.
Yeah, I know it’s crazy, but I was still worried about the Georgian.
Some of the people had died by plain old-fashioned bullet wounds, some had short metal arrows in their vitals, and several were missing limbs as if slashed by a very sharp sword. Or maybe a big knife. I didn’t have any proof that it was a sword that killed them. Not yet.
I kept telling myself that.
I recognized a few of the faces, a couple of Vlad’s security guys that I’d met, and one of the Georgians. Bastard. At least, Vlad’s security guys took one of their murderers down with them.
I felt my guts jerk as I recognized a woman in a tailored suit clutching a .45 and staring with wide eyes at the ceiling. It was Vlad’s secretary who guarded him like a loyal pit bull. Her throat was slashed, like the first guard I’d found. I’m not sure why that made me want to cry when nothing else I’d seen had gotten to me that way. Loyalty like that shouldn’t be rewarded with an ugly death. I suspected she’d been in love with Vlad. But she was fully human, so she might as well have been invisible to him.
Another groan made me check behind the long granite counter that separated the living room from the kitchen. Vlad’s normally spotless kitchen looked like a pig had been slaughtered in it. Only two bodies lay on the tasteful Salado tile, one of the Georgians, the one who had practically drooled when he looked at Knight’s sword, and a guy in scuffed cowboy boots with a walkie talkie mike on his shoulder.
The Georgian clutched a big blade with a bend in the middle in his stiff hand. To my eyes, it glowed slightly with a greenish light, like a firefly, but I’d learned that most people couldn’t see that sort of light. Seeing that gore-covered blade unclenched something in my belly. I no longer suspected that White Knight killed Vlad’s guards. A bullet in his temple had splattered most of the contents of the Georgian knife-wielder’s head all over Vlad’s stainless steel appliances.
The guy in the scuffed cowboy boots was Vlad’s head of security, a native Texan who grew up on a cattle ranch. Even in Austin, that’s relatively rare these days.  He’d shot me once, but I didn’t hold it against him. I just couldn’t remember his name. He was conscious, and he’d even managed to point his gun at me, although his hand shook. “Easy, Tex,” I whispered. “I’m on your side.”
The gun hand dropped back to his leg, and he let out an involuntary groan. “Tex is a stupid nickname to give someone in the middle of Texas,” he said. His belly was slashed open from hip to opposite rib. Internal organs and blood vessels were scrambled into a soupy mess and his intestines leaked onto the tile floor. He saw me looking, and waved the gun negligently. “You should see the other guy.”
“The other guy is pretty thoroughly dead.”
“Should’ve known better than to bring a knife to a gunfight.”
I didn’t bother to laugh at the old joke but he chuckled a little, then groaned when that hurt, a lot. “You’re going to be okay,” I whispered and started pushing his guts back in where they belonged with my gloved hand.
He groaned louder. A bloody hand gripped my wrist weakly. “Don’t bother. You know I’m just a dead man who hasn’t gotten around to noticing it yet.”
I grinned at him. “I’ll bet you fifty bucks you’ll be fine in a few days.”
He gave me a ghost of a grin back. “That’s a sucker’s bet. If I win, I won’t get to collect.”
I got his intestines back inside, held the slash wound shut as best I could, took a steadying breath, and said, “Give me your wrist.”
“Why?” he asked with narrowed eyes.
Some people are just born suspicious. “So I can win that bet. Seriously, what do you have to lose?”
He held his hand out, and I bit him on the wrist, injecting healing venom. He let me.
His eyes fluttered closed for a second, and I wondered if I’d gotten to him too late. The clean edges of his wound healed together where they touched.  He opened dark eyes and said, “Wow. If you could bottle that, you’d make a fortune.”
I smiled a little, but since I’d done all I could for him, I had other things on my mind. “How far behind them am I? Where’s Vlad? Did they get him?”
“About 2 minutes. Elevator, behind the hot tub.  Leads down to the boat dock. I told him to get out while we slowed them down.”
I shook my head. “Vlad won’t run.”
He shrugged, and looked a little surprised when that didn’t hurt much. “That’s all I know.”
“Thanks. Police are on their way. Just sit tight.”
When I’d visited his home the first time, Vlad gave me a full, and very detailed tour, and reviewed it each time I came back. I understood why when he showed me some of the nasty surprises waiting for the uninvited. Vlad’s place was a D & D player’s wet dream, riddled with secret passageways, traps, and hidden doors. I knew about the elevator that went from the top of the castle-like perimeter walkway to the basement, and further, fifty feet down into the solid rock of the cliff to a tunnel that led to the boat dock. It wasn’t accessible except via certain secret passages.
If Vlad planned on escaping, that was the logical way to go. But I knew he intended to fight the Georgians to the death, even if it was his.
So, where in this rat maze of a house would he go if not there?
Two minutes is an eternity in a fight. Somewhere in this house, White Knight and two remaining Georgians were trying to kill Vlad.  If I guessed wrong, I’d be far too late to do anything but bury the bodies.
To be continued …
D Dragon

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fall of Avalon

TakeDown and I were up until the sun came up the next day, scouting, planning, buying equipment, doing everything we knew how to do to be ready to stop a holy war.
When my eyes started getting so blurry I couldn’t read my sketched blueprint and I could barely finish a sentence without yawning, TakeDown took me home. He said, “You’re not going to do Vlad any good tonight if you don’t get some sleep.”
I knew there was no way I could sleep as keyed up as I was, but I went through the motions anyway.
I tried to reassure Ma that everything was fine, even though she could see perfectly well that it wasn’t. I never have been able to get away with lying to her.
I told her I was just beat from training with White Knight, and went to my room. Brad and Jack weren’t home yet, thank goodness.
I got undressed, laid down in bed, and stared at the ceiling. Visions of blueprints and booby traps, and a thousand different ways for me, Vlad, White Knight, TakeDown, or all of the above to die horribly flashed in my brain. There was no way I was going to be able to sleep.
The next thing I knew I was back in Camelot in the middle of a battle.
I flew high above the battlements of Camelot, riding the fierce winds of a thunderstorm. The energies of the storm whirled through as well as around me. I guided the winds around the battlements and pushed the storm to spend its most potent energies on the darkest edge above the black army. I encouraged lightning to rain down on the enemy whenever enough energy gathered.
My magnificent young son, the newly knighted Sir Robert, stood on the battlements below me. He wore the heavy gold chain that Arthur had given him around his neck over a shirt of borrowed chainmail that could barely contain the child’s strong, growing shoulders. The mail had been modified to free the boy’s wings. He was far too young to fight, but we could not deny him the honor now. He had more than earned it.
Sir Gawain, my sister’s son, and Sir Cedric, the son of another of my clan, stood on either side of Robert. Both had given me their oaths to guard young Sir Robert with their lives in the battle to come. My grandson King Arthur, stood proudly on the other side of Gawain, with a half dozen powerful Green fledglings at his back.
Lining the walls were Arthur’s people, peasant and noble alike, who all looked up to him as a just and wise ruler.
These were my family. My people. I had sworn oaths from before I could ride the wind to protect this land, and to keep these people safe. And I loved them, with a fierceness that closed my throat, and made me want to weep and scream and rend someone to ribbons to see them put in danger.
My surviving sister Fiona soared beside me, aiding me in the control of the storm. I dared not let her mind touch mine too deeply.
All the love in my heart that normally made me fight as if a demon lived in my soul was drowned in a siren’s song of weak need and desire. Even now, my talons that could rend stone shook with it. My valiant young son had saved my life, but the Black venom sang a song in my veins that I knew I could not fight much longer. There was nothing the boy could have done.
As Fafnir had said, only death could free one who had fallen under the spell of the Black venom. I did not have the luxury of dying. My mate, my child, my nephew, my sister and my people depended on me to defend them. I ignored the ugly, beautiful thing singing in my ears to give up, and called down another lightning bolt on the rear ranks of the Black Army.
Let them believe that we could not call our lightnings too close to the walls. Let them believe that their best hope was to overwhelm us with their far greater numbers. Let them huddle close to the walls, believing that Camelot’s stone would protect them.
The ruse worked, and the Black army’s reserves who had held back from the initial assault, surged forward. From above, Camelot became an island of stone in a sea of attackers. Their greatest numbers focused on an assault on the gates.
It was time.
Merlin launched his ancient battle form from the highest of Camelot’s towers. For a moment, a surge of real emotion pierced the fog of need. He was magnificent, my mate. Emerald scales shimmered in a sleek, lean body with back-swept wings. Long graceful horns swept back from his brows that only the most ancient of us could boast.
I brushed just the edges of his shining mind. As always, visions of what was, what might be, and what would be swirled in his head. In those visions the flashes of melting silver scales dripping with blood burned strong. An overwhelming feeling of dread filled my beloved Merlin.
I shifted my flight path to fly beside him, all but touching wingtips for a moment. It was the only reassurance I could offer the one being who had owned my heart for more than a thousand years. I knew that even that small gesture was a lie. Once the danger was past, I would seek death to free myself from the siren’s song in my blood. My will was not without limits. I could not go on much longer without giving in, and I would not live as a slave to another’s will.
Merlin would never again hold me. Never again would we make love and hope for the miracle of a child born to two ancient warriors.
I saw a flash in his mind, a moment, he held me close in dragon form, and I laid my huge head on his emerald shoulder. It was a flash of what might be.
It was a beautiful image. But I, Nyneve, Lady of Avalon, could not believe in it. I could not afford to believe in beautiful dreams.
Merlin’s flight was the signal to all the defenders of Camelot, human and dragon. They dumped barrels of oil and pitch over the side of Camelot’s walls onto the Black soldiers and their siege engines.
There was no need to follow them with torches. Fafnir leapt into the air just behind Merlin.
The Red and Black giant blew his fiery breath in a long line a few feet in front of Camelot’s walls that ended at the mass of Black soldiers with a battering ram trying to break down the gate.
Hundreds of soldiers burned. Some died in the dragon’s breath, hotter than a volcano’s vomit, before they even had a chance to scream. Others burned in the ignited pitch. They lit the overcast night in the wee hours before dawn like living torches. Those had time to scream. They ran among their fellows causing greater chaos and destruction.
Fafnir dipped a wing and swerved out, away from Camelot’s walls, over the mass of the Black army.
“What are you doing, you fool!” I shouted at him. Arthur’s plan was for him to scorch a solid ring of molten fire around Camelot, not fly off when he’d only done half the job.
“I will not leave my kinsman like that,” he shouted back.
He flew out directly toward the Black Knight who sat mounted on the back of one of his own dragons, with four more dragons in battle form crouched around him, ready to launch into the air. A naked human stood beside him on the end of a chain.
As Fafnir approached the Knight’s position, all four Black dragons launched into the air. Only the dragon the Knight rode remained on the ground.
All four attacked Fafnir at once.
“Idiot!” I touched my sister’s mind. Fiona and I each dove on a Black to draw it away from Fafnir. Arthur’s plan depended on the Red prince. If he got himself killed, we would all die.
I pierced the dragon I attacked with my fangs as soon as I closed with him. The paralysis venom made him go limp and fall like a stone.
Fiona handled her opponent with nearly the same ease.
That left only two Blacks against the mightiest dragon warrior I had ever seen.
Fafnir roared a battle cry that blew white hot fire at the first dragon to get near him.
The Black screamed and beat its wings backward, trying to escape. Its wings still beat frantically in the air for a few seconds even after Fafnir’s fire had burned its head to smoke and ash.
The second dragon hit Fafnir from the side, avoiding his deadly fires, but it was far too small to do more than slash a triple bloody line with his claws into Fafnir’s side before the giant contemptuously batted the little Black hard to the ground. I was reminded of a cat swatting a sparrow.
The wound in Fafnir’s side bled freely, but he still flew on, directly toward the Black Knight.
The Knight leaned down and freed the naked human of the iron collar that held him.
Fafnir swooped down low, obviously intending to incinerate the Black Knight, his mount, and the man beside him.
The man shifted form and leapt into the air toward Fafnir, a dragon, about two thirds Fafnir’s size, but with every rib visible under his dull red scales.
Fafnir vomited a stream of fire on the spot where they had stood just as the Black Knight’s mount leapt into the air to one side, avoiding the blaze.
The Red dragon ignored Fafnir’s fire. He flew straight through the white hot stream with only a sign of annoyance, as if Fafnir’s searing weapon were a mere stream of water.
The Red closed with Fafnir and they tumbled in the air, ripping at each other with teeth and razor claws that cut through dragon scales like cheesecloth.
The Black Knight circled around the battling behemoths and went after my sister.
Fafnir fought for his life against one of his own clan who had a berserker’s mad strength. Without him, Camelot would fall. But I had already lost one sister to this battle. For a moment, I was paralyzed by indecision. Should I aid Fiona, or Fafnir?
I touched Merlin’s mind. With his understanding of the paths of possibility, my beloved could guide me
I looked into his mind, and saw a strange, bloody image of me, ripping a paralyzed Fafnir’s throat out.
I blinked, confused. How was that a possibility?
It was enough to sway my decision in any case. I flew away from Fafnir and to my sister’s aid.
I touched Fiona’s mind. “Do not let him touch you with his blade, sister. It carries a powerful dose of the venom of the Black.”
Fiona acknowledged the warning and dipped and spun in the air. She wouldn’t allow the Black Knight to close with her.
“Lead him back toward Camelot,” I said into her mind. Perhaps a few ballista bolts would slow the bastard down, or slay the dragon he rode perhaps.
But the Black Knight didn’t fall for the ruse. He allowed Fiona to escape across Camelot’s walls. His mount spun a neat reverse on a wingtip and flew back, directly at me.
Fine. Come face me, you son of a snake. I don’t give a damn if you do kill me as long as I take you with me.
He did something odd just then, took off his coif so I could see his face. His eyes glowed ember red in a face more beautiful than any man I had ever seen.
They were fascinating, those eyes. A thrill of sensual pleasure shuddered through me. The siren’s song in my blood swelled into a cacophony of something much like joy.
I pivoted on my own wingtip, an exact copy of the reverse the Black Knight’s mount had done. I flew beside him, wingtips almost touching, and felt another frisson of pleasure shudder through me. This was where I belonged, my blood whispered. At my master’s side was the only place where I could be at peace.
I matched the Black dragon’s pace. We flew in unison, wingbeats matched. One mind guided us both. It felt much like when I and my sisters joined our minds and flew together, only better. Flying was bliss as long as I flew with my master. I floated in euphoria, in stark contrast from the agony I had endured while we were apart. It felt so very good to give in. I could have wept from the sheer relief of no longer fighting for every independent breath I drew.
We flew back to where Fafnir fought with the other Red. As I watched, Fafnir sunk his claws into the stark ribs of the other dragon and literally ripped his countryman apart. Fafnir’s sides and belly were slashed with bleeding wounds.
He leapt into the air, struggling a bit, and flew back to Camelot.
We shifted our flight to follow him from a distance.
Fafnir, his personal need to free his kinsman from slavery sated, remembered his oath to Arthur. He rained down fire on the Black Army in a long line of chaos. As planned, the fledgling dragons all around the walls, each with a skilled human knight clutched in their legs, glided down as the fires died down, attacking the Black soldiers while they scrambled in disorder.
 “Kill that bastard,” the Black Knight said aloud. The command echoed in my body and mind.
A surge of killing rage filled me. Fafnir had to die.
I screamed a battle cry and struck the enemy just in front of the gates of Camelot. I slammed into Fafnir from the side, pounding the giant into the sturdy oak gates. I rode him down to the ground, ripping at wounds that already bled. I tried to bite him, to bury my fangs in his flesh and paralyze him.
Fafnir twisted on the ground, screaming in agony and betrayal. He got one clawed hand around my throat and held back my fangs. His claws couldn't pierce my Silver scales.
I could feel his arm tremble as it held me back. The prince of the Red was weakened. He might have been able to defeat me at his full strength, maybe. But wounded, he was mine. I raked his body with my claws. He could do nothing to stop me without releasing the hold that kept me from biting him.
He took a deep breath.
I called the power of the storm into myself until my scales crackled with power.
The inferno of Fafnir’s breath flowed over me.
No fire could burn me in my strength, not even his. I closed my eyes and ducked my head into the fiery storm. Scalding fire washed over me as harmlessly as a hot bath.
I shoved hard against his weakening arm with the full weight of my body. One bite and the battle would end. I would rip his throat out while he was helpless to stop me.
I could see the fear enter my enemy’s eyes as he saw his death in my bared fangs.
Another enemy landed on my back, driving the breath from my body with the force of his strike. He locked my wings back, pulling my claws from Fafnir’s flesh. I snarled a curse and tried to bite the arms that held me.
My new attacker had to loosen the lock on my wings and arms to keep from getting bitten. It was enough to allow me to squirm and twist around. I slapped hard, claws slashing across my enemy's face, shredding scale and flesh and an eye, exposing bone from the long horns on his brow to his jaw.
Scarlet blood splattered on emerald scales.
Emerald scales, long back-swept horns.
Oh, dear mother of life. Merlin.
“Kill him!” my master screamed, and my body shuddered in agony as I fought simultaneously to obey and not to obey.
I snarled and tried to shove Merlin away so I could kill Fafnir. It would satisfy the order without doing the unthinkable.
Merlin’s arms and wings locked round me, holding me tight to him in a mockery of a loving embrace. “You can fight it,” he whispered in my ear.
“I cannot.” I snarled and punched his ribs with closed fists so I wouldn’t pierce his scales. “Let me go! I have to kill him!”
“No, my love. No.” His arms and wings squeezed me tight, ignoring the bruising blows I rained on him. I would have to genuinely hurt him to get him to let me go.
I put my back feet against his belly, claws out. I could disembowel him in a moment. I snarled in his face, threatening, but he did not believe that I would harm him.
I could not bluff Merlin, who saw in every moment a hundred possible futures. He knew that in none of them would I deliberately do him harm.
“Kill them both!” shouted the Black Knight, still circling us on his servant, an elder dragon reduced to nothing more than a winged steed.
I pointed my muzzle at the sky and screamed my defiance. “NEVER!” My body shuddered with agony so profound I screamed and writhed in my beloved’s restraining embrace.
Fafnir slipped free of me and struggled into the air, body covered in bleeding wounds. He flew toward the Black Knight, eyes burning with rage.
“NO!!” I screamed. Everything inside me yearned to leap to my master’s defense. Only one tiny part of my mind still remained free, but this time, both urged me to shout, “Fool! Keep your word to the king!”
Fafnir looked back at me, writhing and struggling against the pollution in my mind, and nodded acknowledgement. He flew back across the wall into Camelot, barely clearing the battlements and dripping a thick trail of blood.
The Black Knight’s mount landed in front of the gates of Camelot. His troops that had been scattered and disorganized, rallied behind their invincible leader.
“Kill him!” my master ordered again and pointed at Merlin.
My back arched in agony and Merlin held me as I fought not to obey. No longer did he seek to restrain me, only to offer comfort as I fought the demon inside me.
My claws dug into his belly, but he made no move to defend himself. I touched his face where I had cut him badly. Already his eye had started to heal. That was my beloved’s greatest gift, to heal, but he could not save me. “Only death will free me.”
I shed the power of the storm, releasing it all to my sister Fiona. She would be the Lady of Avalon now. I dug my claws into my chest and ripped a hole in my own scales. The fiery pain helped me fight the fog from my mind.
I dug my rear claws into Merlin’s body with enough force to disembowel. I had to truly intend to do it. I had to genuinely begin to hurt him. I knew he would foresee it. I knew he would stop me. But I had to genuinely do it. There is no bluffing Merlin.
“Forgive me,” he murmured, and his clawed hand plunged through the hole in my chest to grasp my heart.
I froze as his hand squeezed and my heart stuttered.
Huge tears streamed across his emerald scales. “Stay with me,” he begged, even as he killed me.
“Always,” I whispered.
… I was surprised to find that I kept my promise. All the agony and ecstasy of the Black venom faded to nothing along with the life in my body.
As I died, the Black Knight and his army charged, no doubt intending to slay the mighty Merlin while he was weakened by grief.
Merlin stood and faced the charging army… and changed.
He became a beast that had not walked on this earth in thousands of years. His scales vanished in thick mounds of shaggy fur. Curving tusks as long as the height of Camelot’s gate grew from his face and he raised a nose like a snake and trumpeted a battle cry just as the Black army charged.
Merlin ducked his head and charged them right back.
From the walls of Camelot fledglings glided down by the dozens. The gates opened and mounted knights sortied out.
Fafnir soared overhead, wounds closed though not yet fully healed. That was the work of my young son, Robert, no doubt. His flames sent the Black Knight scrambling back into the air ducking and dodging.
My sister Fiona, screaming a battle cry, fought off any Blacks that tried to attack Fafnir.
The great beast that my mate had become stomped and screamed and tossed soldiers aside like toys.
I watched the entire battle, filled with pride and sorrow. I dedicated my whole life to defending this land. Now, I could do nothing but watch as a shade of who I had been.
The battle decided nothing. Our forces decimated the enemy, but there were so many more.
The great beast that was my Merlin dragged my lifeless form inside walls, and began doing strange magic with it. Fafnir aided him with his fires so hot they reminded me of looking into the heart of the sun.
As the Black Knight and his forces licked their wounds and regrouped, Merlin forged a suit of armor and a sword the like of which the world had never seen. Tears streamed down his face as he pounded the metal. Working day and night with the aid of dragon's fire and magic, he completed work in three days that would have taken half a year by normal means.
Forged from my very scales and claws, the silver armor and sword could do what I failed to do. It could protect my family from the scourge of the Blacks.
It could make Arthur or Gawain into an invincible warrior who could match the Black Knight in the field of single combat. Without the Black Knight, the Black army would be broken.
I had sworn an oath to protect the land from enemies for all my life. That oath followed me even into death. This time, I would not fail.

I woke up with tears streaming down my face. My grandmother had failed to protect those that she loved while she lived, and so had vowed to keep her oath to protect her family forever, even centuries after her death. I would not fail. I knew that to Lady Nyneve, White Knight, direct descendant of her sister, Fiona, was the one to be protected. Vlad, who had fought with the Black army, was the enemy. It would be a hard thing to explain to her that they were both dear to me. I didn’t want to see either one of them die.
I got out of bed and started dressing. The next battle was mine.
D Dragon

Saturday, November 19, 2011

How Do You Stop a Holy War?

So, the Order of St. George, including White Knight, were plotting to kill Vlad.  First thing I did once White Knight dropped me off was call Vlad to warn him.
Vlad answered on the second ring.  “Damson! I thought I would never … it is good to hear from you.”
I sort of called him a murderer and stormed off last time I saw him. He killed a relative of mine, in a war, hundreds of years ago. And occasionally I was mentally possessed, sort of, by her sister. That put a big damper on my budding romance with him, sure. But in the last year, he’d saved my life a dozen times and helped me survive some nasty growing pains. Vlad was on the list of people I’d take a bullet for, even if I occasionally felt the urge to fire it.
“Hey, Vlad, look, I’m sorry about, you know, everything, but, nothing’s really changed between you and me.”
“Then why have you called? Are you in trouble?”
“Not this time. You’re the one in trouble.”
I could practically hear his eyebrows going up. “Me?”
“Yeah. You told White Knight you were a dragon. Ma always says if one Georgian knows, they all do. Well, as usual, Ma’s right.”
“Tell me,” he ordered, voice turning all business.
“They’re coming after you tomorrow night, at your house. There’s a half dozen of them, plus White Knight. You need to get out of town, change your name, disappear. Right now.”
“I do not run from Georgians.” His voice was so hard and sharp, it sliced.
“Vlad, they know your abilities and your weaknesses. They’ve been killing dragons for centuries.”
“And I have been killing Georgians for centuries.”
That stopped me for a minute. Some puzzle pieces clicked together in my brain. “You and dad fought together. Dad was at the siege at Camelot. He would never have fought with a Black unless …”
“Unless we had a common enemy.”
“My dad told me, when I was little, that all the Georgians were dead.” I remembered Dad’s face, a flash as vivid as if it just happened. There was a hardness in his eyes that I’d never seen at any other time.
“We believed that we had wiped out their order,” Vlad said. “Sir Robert thought it safe to settle down, marry, have a child. We were wrong.”
My father and Vlad had hunted the hunters, killing any Georgian they could find. I shivered in the warm afternoon sun. “You can’t just kill them, Vlad. It isn’t right.”
“Georgians murdered my wife, Damson. They murdered my children. They murdered my children’s playmates, and the woman who washed our clothes, and her baby still in its cradle. I have dedicated my life to wiping out their order. I won’t rest until the last Georgian is truly dead.”
Oh sweet heaven. I’d just turned this from a trap for Vlad into a trap for White Knight. One of them was going to die tomorrow night. I was surprised to find myself as horrified by the thought of White Knight getting killed as I had been by the thought of Vlad dying. I’m not sure when, but White Knight, arrogant bigot that he was, had become one of those people I’d take a bullet for.  “I can’t be responsible for this. Look, consider it a personal favor to me, Vlad. Don’t kill them. Just get out of town.”
His voice softened. “My sweet Damson with the great heart that would save all, whether worthy or no. You are so like your father. He saved my life, even though he hated me. As long as they live, you will always be in danger. I owe it to Sir Robert to make the world safe for his child, as it never was for mine.”
“Vlad, no!” He hung up on me.
Damn. Damn Damn.
What was I going to do?
I looked at my phone as if it would give me an answer.
I saw Liberty’s number. Liberty was one of the most powerful superheroes on earth. I could call her. But what the hell was I going to tell her? She was so straight-laced, she made rulers look crooked. If she got in the middle of this, White Knight or Vlad or both would end up in prison for attempted murder. She’d never understand that they considered themselves soldiers still fighting some centuries old holy war.  The law was the law.
I scrolled up. Jack. God, Jack. My heart twisted. Jack would listen. Jack would understand. Jack would hold me, make me feel better, then calmly and sensibly come up with a way out of this mess. Then, his insane courage would put him right in the crossfire.  No. No way I would risk getting him in the middle of this.
Fafnir was in Oregon now. If he got on the next available flight, he might be able to get here in time. But what would he do? I remembered him standing over White Knight’s unconscious body, ready to shove the Knight’s own sword through his heart. I swallowed. No, calling Fafnir would just make things worse.
I scrolled all the way to the bottom of my contact list. TakeDown. TakeDown had fought beside White Knight, and Vlad had saved his life a half dozen times. TakeDown considered both White Knight and Vlad to be friends, comrades in arms, fellow heroes. TakeDown would get it.
I touched his number.
“I don’t get it. Why are they trying to kill each other?” TakeDown said.
I sighed. “Look, just meet me at IHOP. I’ll explain.”  Why IHOP? I’m sort of used to it, I guess. It’s one of the few places that’s open when I’m normally hungry. I do wish they wouldn’t put pancake batter in the omelets, though. Gives me indigestion.
I told TakeDown everything. I even told him I was a dragon. I’d never told anyone that before.
“So, these Georgias want to kill all dragons to make the world safe.”
“Georgians, yeah.”
“And Vlad wants to kill all Georgians to make the world safe.”
“That about sums it up. They both think they’re heroes, trying to save the world.”
TakeDown ran a hand through his not quite buzzed short brown hair. “What are we supposed to do about it?”
“Keep them from killing each other?”
“Tall order. What kind of firepower do these Georgians have?”
“Other than White Knight, I don’t know. They all moved like someone you wouldn’t want to get crosswise with. I assume they have some way to bypass dragon defenses. Weapons that will cut through scales, or armor that boosts their strength, or maybe they’re supes themselves. I couldn’t tell just by looking at them.”
“What about Vlad? I know most of his abilities, but what else has he got?”
“He’s got a lot of money and some very trigger happy security. I know that. And, since he knows they’re coming for him, he’s probably setting up some sort of trap.”
“So, all we have to do is get in past a multi-millionaire’s paranoid security, not fall into a deadly trap waiting to spring on anyone who gets in, handle the unknown abilities of a group of possibly super-powered religious fanatics trained and armed to kill dragons like Fafnir. And somehow, keep everyone from killing each other, without getting ourselves killed in the process.”
I dropped my head on the table. “Maybe we should try something easier, like negotiating peace in the middle east, or getting Lord Vile to go straight.”
“Piece of cake,” TakeDown said grinning, and patted me on the arm.
He had me draw out a blueprint of Vlad’s house and the grounds around it from memory. Vlad gave me a tour of the place the first time he took me there to train. He had something very much like a modern castle made mostly of concrete with pretty facades over it. It was full of secret passages and had an elevator shaft drilled into the cliff that went down 50 feet to a boat dock on the lake. The roof of one section of the house opened up. Vlad was into stargazing. There was a huge pool with a swim-through tunnel into the house. Most importantly, it was surrounded on two sides by a wall of rock, where the construction crew had dug a flat spot into the side of the hill. One other side had a sheer drop-off cliff down to the water. That was where Vlad taught me to fly.
There was only one way in, a long private road lined with trees that led to a tall iron gate. If you went in straight through the gate, the road led into a huge underground garage, big enough to park a semi in. If you turned left in front of the house, it led to a circular driveway by the massive oak front doors, under the shadow of the tall walls of rock. Both would be great places for an ambush.
“If I were Vlad, I’d have snipers on those rock walls, on the roof, and inside the parking garage,” I told TakeDown.
He nodded. “In case the Georgians have some sort of armor, or another way to handle normal ammo, I’d probably use explosive armor-piercing rounds. If I didn’t care about blowing up my house, I’d add some bombs here and here.”  He pointed at the main support structures for the underground concrete parking garage.
“Bury them alive,” I whispered.
“Yeah. If the Georgians go in that way, I’m sure as hell not following them in.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “We could call White Knight. Warn him he’s walking into a trap.”
“If you do that,” TakeDown said very softly, “he’ll know you warned Vlad, so he’ll make sure you don’t overhear their plans anymore. They’ll come after Vlad a different night. You and I won’t know about it. They’ll catch him unprepared.”
“And kill him,” I finished.
“The way I see it, Dee, White Knight and his gang are the perps here. Vlad’s a victim defending himself. You don’t warn a murderer that his victim isn’t a sitting duck.”
I swallowed and nodded. TakeDown had a fairly black and white view of some things. Not as black and white as Liberty, but still.  I couldn’t really argue with him on this.  Vlad had committed no crime in this country in this century. He was an upstanding citizen in his own home. White Knight and his cronies weren’t going there to arrest Vlad in any case. “Knight’s a hero, TD. He’s the guy who saves busloads of kids. He’s not a murderer.”
“Let’s hope we can keep it that way.”

D Dragon