Thursday, October 27, 2011

Order of St George Part 2

As soon as the members of the fanatical religious order dedicated solely to slaughtering everyone like me went into the conference room, I plastered myself to the door and listened for all my super dragon hearing was worth. There was a little peephole in the door, no doubt, so people could check to see if the room was occupied before barging in and interrupting something important.
“You’re a disgrace, Novak,” It was the first Georgian to get out of the car, the one who looked like a secret service guy. He seemed to be the leader. “You have no right to even wear that armor and carry that sword. If MacDougal were alive, he’d disown you.”
Wow, that was harsh. Why were the dragon hunters all down on their poster boy, White Knight?
Knight had removed his coif, and his sandy brown hair stuck out a little in the back. It was the coif equivalent of hat hair, not exactly the image he’d want to present if he knew. “Yes, sir,” Knight said so softly I could barely hear him, head ducked and cheeks flaming.
What the heck? Knight was just going to take that? He’d always given as good as I gave him. I expected some smartass retort.
Another voice, deeper and rougher, said, “You should be stripped of Excalibur and excommunicated from the order. If I were entrusted with the ancient weapons, I would have two dragon heads mounted on my wall right now. ” I peeked in the hole to see who the arrogant jerk was. 6’4” white guy who moved like he was all muscle under that suit. His hair was cropped so short I couldn’t tell what color it was. Military, or ex-military more likely.
Come on, Knight. Show some backbone.
But no. Just another mumbled “Yes, sir,” from Knight. “I failed to slay the dark ones when I had the opportunity, and I failed to avenge my teacher.” He swallowed, face filled with bitter shame. “I am prepared to pass Excalibur on to a more worthy wielder.” He actually drew the sword and held it out, hilt first.
Mr Ex-Military’s eyes lit up with ugly greed like Gollum looking at his precious. He reached a hand out toward the hilt.
Another man stepped between them. “Gentlemen,” he said in a “Let’s be reasonable” tone. “We now know that there are two dragons at large in this area. Castigating Novak for failing his mission, twice.” He looked down at the kneeling knight with a sneer, “Will not bring us closer to destroying these abominations.”
So, we’re abominations, huh? Bite me, Mr. Reasonable. I wish Fafnir were here. I’d love to see these assholes call him an abomination to his face, preferably when his face was the size of a VW beetle and full of teeth.
“Yes, sir. Of course.” Knight sheathed his sword.  “I believe Fafnir the Red has left this area. There have been no sightings of either its human disguise or the draconic form since the incident on the dam.”
Ex-Military snorted. “Great. You let the greatest scourge of the earth escape. Did you at least get any leads on where the Red might have gone, or is that too much to ask?” He kept pacing on the other side of the room from Knight, while the other three suits sat down.
Knight remained standing at the foot of the table, like he was on trial. “Previous investigation had led me to conclude that a man matching the description of Fafnir the Red’s human disguise frequented Renaissance Festivals. I got leads on him from there and followed him when he came to town for supplies. He probably left the area when the Faire near Austin closed,” Knight said softly.
Crap. I’ll have to warn Fafnir that the Georgians will be looking for him at Faires now.
Ex-Military said, “You should have called us in as soon as you found the monster. But you thought you could take him on all by yourself and get all the glory. Is that it?”
Knight dropped his head lower. “I meant to call you in, as soon as the beast’s true nature was revealed, but somehow it sensed me. It led me to a rooftop, away from human eyes, transformed and challenged me directly.”
Mr. Reasonable’s eyes narrowed and he leaned across the table. “That is a part of your story I would like some clarification on. You state that you fought Fafnir the Red by yourself, and yet neither you, nor the dragon was slain. I find that … unlikely.”
That bastard as much as called White Knight a liar to his face. White Knight was a pain in the ass, but he was the most honest, straight-laced pain in the ass I’d ever known.
“As I stated in my report,” Knight said, jaw tight. “I was struck unconscious by some previously unknown dragon power.” It was the first sign of anger he’d shown.
“And the beast who has slain thousands left you unharmed,” Mr. Reasonable said, voice dripping.
Knight swallowed. “I believe a young woman intervened on my behalf, and somehow persuaded the creature to let me live.”
The Leader leaned forward, elbows on the conference table and fingers together in front of his mouth like Mr. Spock contemplating his next 3-D chess move. “You mentioned this young woman more than once in your report, this Dee Emerson. She appears to know both Fafnir and the son of Vlad the Impaler well enough to ‘persuade’ them to do a great deal for her. I would like to know more about this woman.”
A shiver went up my spine, and I swallowed a lump of pure, unreasoning fear. The last thing I wanted was the Georgians looking too closely at me and my many false identities.
“Dee is in training to become a Protector. She is a woman of extraordinary abilities and a great deal of compassion. She has saved my life more than once, but she also prevented me from killing Vlad the Black when I had the opportunity. She knows I’m a member of the Order and what our charter is, and thinks we’re all some kind of baby seal clubbers or mountain gorilla poachers.”
I felt kind of funny about the way Knight talked about me. He sounded admiring and condescending at the same time, like I was someone very cool, but hopelessly naïve. I wasn’t sure if I should be flattered or pissed off.
The Leader, Mr. Reasonable, and the Other Guy all chuckled. “Save the endangered species, even if it would eat you and your entire family and burn your city to the ground given the chance,” the Other Guy said.
The Leader’s smile disappeared almost immediately. “The question is, how does she know about our Order at all? How did she know about the dragons for that matter, when they go to such pains to keep a low profile these days?”
Knight shrugged. “It appears to be one of her superpowers, knowing things about others. I’m not sure how it works, but she demonstrated the ability to me earlier.”
Mr. Reasonable nodded thoughtfully. “Such a special ability might explain how she could manipulate a dragon into going against its natural instincts. Perhaps we should consider recruiting this woman.”
Knight shook his head. “It’s not likely she would be interested.”
Ex-Military snapped, “If the woman could lead us to two of the most deadly dragons in history and give us an edge over them, I don’t give a damn whether or not she’s ‘interested.’”
Knight’s shoulders straightened. “I will not allow her to be pressed into service against her will.”
“You will not allow?” the Leader said in an ominously calm tone. “Do not forget, Novak, that you serve the order. It does not serve you. You carry the ancient symbols of our mission, and have used them to make yourself famous.” He waved vaguely at the building around us. “But these Protectors are nothing. They do not understand the true threat to humanity. And you are nothing but a man in a suit of borrowed armor. Armor that can be taken back and given to someone else at any time. Don’t forget that.”
Knight swallowed and his head and shoulders drooped again. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, from your report, I understand you have located the son of Vlad the Impaler.”
Knight nodded. “I have, yes. It took some time, and some illicit use of the Protector’s facial recognition software, but I found him.  In his human disguise, he has earned a great deal of wealth and is constantly surrounded by tight security.”
“He wasn’t surrounded by security when you first found him. You were fully armed and armored and he was weakened and wounded.”
Knight shifted from foot to foot. “He was defended by innocents who didn’t understand his true nature.”
“No one is innocent if they stand between your sword and a dragon’s head,” the Leader said, and I shivered again. That guy really gave me the creeps.
“These innocents had superpowers and would have all defended the dragon under the circumstances. I would have had to fight Liberty and the Devastator among others. I opted to bide my time and call the Order in as I failed to do with Fafnir.”
Ex-Military snorted. “You mean, after getting your ass handed to you the first time you faced a real dragon, you ran away the second.”
Knight’s nostrils flaired, but he said nothing.
The Leader stood. “The information you’ve supplied us on the Black dragon’s habits and security measures will be very useful, Novak. We will assault the dragon in his lair three nights from now. I assume you will manage to find time to join us.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be there.”
They’re going to kill Vlad! I’ve got to warn him.
“There is much to prepare,” Mr. Reasonable said.
They all moved toward the door, walking briskly. Yikes!
I ran across the hallway as fast as I could, trying to make it back to my comfy chair before the door opened so they’d think I’d been watching TV the whole time, but I didn’t make it. As I heard the door open, I turned around to face them and took a deep breath, working for calm like I did on the dam when Vlad’s life depended on it. It might very well depend on it again.
I yawned like I was bored or sleepy. “I could be at home in bed, Knight. Are we going to train or what?”
White Knight seemed to hesitate. He glanced at the others before he answered. The sour, disapproving looks were enough. “Um, I think I need to cancel today, Dee. Something came up. I’ll give you a ride home.” He looked back at the men. “I’ll meet you at your hotel in an hour.”
Ex-Military stared at me as he went by like I was an interesting bug he wasn’t sure if he should smash.
These were the men I’d feared my whole life. Facing them in person, I felt the fear that had ruled my life fade. They were deadly dangerous, make no mistake. They were ruthless, merciless and relentless. But they were not the all-powerful phantoms that had haunted my nightmares as a child. They were just men.
On the ride back to my place, I didn’t say much to White Knight and he didn’t say much to me. He was lost in his own private hell of shame and failure, and I was thinking furiously, not so much about how to keep Vlad and Fafnir safe. I’d start calling them as soon as I got home. I was thinking more about the man sitting next to me, and the organization that had murdered my father.
Mr. Ex-Military had said that Fafnir was the first dragon Knight ever faced, and Vlad was the only other dragon he’d encountered. That meant Knight had never in his long life killed one of us. And he stood up for me, even when he wouldn’t stand up for himself.
He pulled up in front of my apartment and stopped.
“Knight, you know how I said I know things about you that you don’t even know yourself?”
“Yeah.” That pierced through his self-involvement and got me his full attention.
“Your armor and weapons. I know about them. They belonged to King Arthur, and to Sir Gawain, Arthur’s second cousin and champion.”
Knight blinked, then nodded. “I already knew that. The sword is Excalibur. It and the armor and shield were given to Arthur to rid his land of the scourge of dragons.”
I thought about that for a second. The legend wasn’t that far from the truth. I wonder how his version of the legend would spin Lady Nyneve. “What do you know about the Lady of the Lake?”
“Everyone knows she gave Excalibur to Arthur.”
I smiled a little. “Yes, I suppose she must have.” I wondered yet again how in the world my grandmother ended up as a sword and armor. But it didn’t matter right now. “Only a descendent or relative of the Lady of the Lake can wield that sword and armor.”
Knight blinked again.  “I don’t understand.”
“You are a descendant of Sir Gawain who was Lady Nyneve’s nephew. That’s why you can wield Excalibur. 
“How can you possibly know that?”
I shrugged. “I can’t really explain. But I know it the same way I know that your mom died in childbirth and how you got the scars on your face.”
“My mother died in childbirth? She didn’t give me up for adoption?”
I shook my head, remembering the vision I’d seen, the look of joy and love on the woman’s face even as she died. “She would never have given you up. She gave her life to bring you into this world safely, and felt like it was a fair trade.”
Knight blinked, and his eyes shone bright. “What about my father?”
I hadn’t seen a father in the vision of Knight’s birth. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. He wasn’t there when you were born. He might have been dead, or even not have known you existed.”
Knight just sat there for a few seconds, blinking back tears and breathing deeply, like I’d hit him between the eyes. “Why tell me this now? What does it matter who my mother was, or my great, great some odd grandfather?”
“The people of your Order…” I couldn’t help but make a face at that. “They had to have searched for years, maybe even centuries to find someone with the right bloodline. Your sword and armor don’t belong to them. They’re yours, by right of inheritance, and they won’t serve anyone else.”
“That’s not tr…” He stopped for moment. “That’s not what I’ve been told.”
I nodded. “I know.” I pulled the flimsy plastic handle on the Prius, not quite carefully enough. It came off in my hand. I sighed and tossed it in the floorboard. Liberty could send me a bill. “Look, I don’t like you, but … “ I shrugged again. “I just thought you deserved to know the truth.”
I got out of the car and walked away, trying not to feel sympathetic for the man who’d just learned that he wasn’t an unwanted throwaway kid, and that the people he thought were his mentors and allies were jerking him around.
That guy was going to try to kill Vlad, someone I was still a little in love with, in a few nights.
I knew which side of that battle I’d be on.

D Dragon

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Order of St George

There was a knock on the door at 9 in the morning. I had just gotten to sleep when I heard it.  Jack and Brad, who both work night shift same as me, were out cold in the living room. So, Ma answered it.
 “You,” Ma said. “What do you want?” Ma greets census takers with more warmth than that.
Concerned, I dragged my butt out of bed to see who it was. White Knight stood there in full armor, shield strapped to his back and sword in scabbard.
“Um, I was looking for Dee, maam?” he said.
Ma stood up to him with her full 5’4”, arms crossed. “Damson is asleep.” She started to shut the door in his face.
“Hold on, Ma,” I said and stood beside her in my thigh length sleepy T with the white tiger cubs, sweats and fuzzy slippers. I hid my scaly left hand behind my back. Not sure why, but I worried that my hair was probably sticking up in the back. “Why are you here, Knight?”
“You don’t look ready,” he said.
“Ready for what?” And then it hit me. I’d called Liberty, and told her I was willing to begin the training to eventually become a Protector. She told me the training would begin at 9:30 on Tuesday, and she’d have someone pick me up. I smacked myself on the head. “Oh, crap. Liberty meant 9:30 AM!” I’m so used to night shift, I assumed she meant 9:30 PM. Who would do anything at 9:30 AM?
“Just hold on a sec. Let me throw on some clothes.” I closed the door in Knight’s face, and ran to my room to grab my jeans, denim jacket and black mask that I’d been doing the superhero thing in.
Ma followed me, arms still crossed. “What is that …” She paused and made a face. “That Georgian doing here?”
“He must be the one Liberty sent to take me to training. I told you I was going to start getting training from the Protectors.”
“You should tell Liberty you’ve changed your mind. You need to stay as far out of the spotlight and as far away from that …” She had to swallow a less ladylike noun. “Georgian as you can.”
“Ma, we’ve been through this. I’ve started to feel like I make a real difference. People are alive and well today who would be dead if not for what I’m doing. And Liberty can teach me how to do it better.”
“Liberty and her Protectors are on the news every other day. You can’t afford that.” Her voice was low and urgent, but we’d already had this argument a few days ago for the thousandth time. It was different this time, though. She lost.
“I’m doing this, Ma. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s what I want. I won’t let fear keep me cowering in the shadows my whole life.”
She seemed to deflate a little, getting smaller and showing every wrinkle of her 87 years. “I know I can’t stop you, Damson. Just, please, be careful.”
I pulled the black leather glove over my left hand to hide the scales, and pulled Ma into a quick hug. The accelerated aging had made me a couple inches taller than the 5’8” I’d been for the last 4 decades. She felt so tiny and fragile to me now. “I will, Ma. I promise.”
I grabbed my dark sunglasses and followed Knight downstairs. “Is that really what you intend to fight in?” he asked, eyeing my jeans and jacket dubiously.
“You were no doubt hoping for a spandex cheerleader outfit.”
Knight wisely refrained from commenting.
Truth be told, I’d love to have a full body outfit made from the stuff they make firefighter coats from, fireproof and a lot tougher than denim. Maybe I can get the Protectors to help me out a bit. I just can’t explain to anyone why I need every inch of my skin other than my right hand and face covered up all the time, and not with anything as revealing as spandex.
I balked when I saw the official Protectors vehicle Knight led me to in the apartment parking garage. “Seriously? A Prius?”
Knight grimaced. “Liberty is very environmentally conscious.”
I sighed and got in the plastic hybrid. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to chase any bad guys driving anything faster than a moped.
The sun blazed at me, even through the special glasses TakeDown hooked me up with. I put the shade down, but it didn’t help much. I closed my eyes for just a second, and the car stopped. I blinked awake, and wished I didn’t live in a world where everyone thought they should do things in the blinding daylight. “What would be wrong with training at night?” I grumbled. “Doesn’t more crime happen at night anyway?”
Knight’s lips twisted in disapproval. “Which would be why we train in the daytime. We have too much to do at night.”
Hadn’t thought of it that way.
Knight led me around the back of the Protectors’ tower to what looked a lot like a Parkour course, with weird robotic installations here and there. It covered an acre or two. I couldn’t see even half of it at once.
I looked around. “Where’s Liberty?”
“She had to fly to Washington, she had a meeting with the head of Homeland Security.”
Knight hauled a big dufflebag out of the back of the Prius that reminded me of the one Vlad used when he trained me in sword combat.
I had an ugly revelation. “YOU are my trainer?”
“Damson, I don’t understand what you have against me.”
Damson? When did he …? Oh, right. His ears are as good as mine. He must have overheard Ma talking to me. “What do I have against you? Let’s see.” I started ticking things off on my fingers. “You use superhearing to listen in on private conversations and use a name you don’t have a right to.”
He flushed at that one.
“You tried to kill two of my friends.”
“They’re dragons. They only pretend to be your friends. They’ll turn on you when it benefits them,” he said with a “You’ll see” tone.
“Both of them have risked their lives to save mine. Forgive me if I base my judgment of them on their actions, not your prejudices.” I put up a third gloved finger. “And that brings me to the third reason I really don’t like you. You’re a know-it-all jerk who treats everyone else like idiot children.”
“I have my reasons,” he said with that irritating know-it-all tone.
I rolled my eyes. “Being older than the people around you doesn’t automatically make you smarter, you know.”
He looked startled for a second, then shook it off. “You have no idea how old I am.”
“I know more than you think.” I looked him up and down, thought about his dragon blood. He was perhaps one quarter dragon from the visions I had seen, maybe even half like me, and he looked to be in his late twenties. Liberty said he was one of the original Protectors founders back in the sixties when the Triple A went commercial. “You’re what, 70? 75?”
He blinked. “73.”
“I’ll be 64 next April. So stop giving me the condescending, I’m older and wiser, bullshit.”
“How did you know how old I was?”
“I know more about you than you know about yourself,” I told him, glad to be on the opposite side of the know-it-all attitude for a change.
“Like what do you think you know about me?”
“Like, …” I almost told him he was a dragon, but he’d just laugh at me. “Like you got those scars on your face defending a little girl from a bully at the orphanage you were raised in.”
He opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again. “How could you possibly know …?”
That was not a question I really wanted to answer. What was I going to say? Your armor told me?
Fortunately, I didn’t have to answer.
Another car pulled up next to the training ground, not a Prius, a sleek black non-descript sedan with a purring engine that could probably do zero to sixty in 3 seconds. There was a small, fancy red cross with Greek letters in a sticker in the window. I recognized it, of course. Ma made sure I knew what all the symbols of the Georgian order looked like.

White Knight’s face had been flushed red with anger from our argument. It paled visibly when he saw the car.
The window rolled down on the driver’s side and a guy who looked a lot like he ought to have an ear piece and be walking behind the president glared out at Knight. He didn’t look happy.
“I think training will have to wait,” Knight said.
“Novak. We need to speak with you.” The windows were tinted more than was probably legal in this state, but not enough to hide from my new eyes. Three other men were in the car, and every one of them looked tough, dangerous, and pissed off.
“Yes, sir,” Knight said, voice subdued. He sounded almost, ashamed.
The car pulled into the lot next to the six story tower that held the Protectors offices in Austin. Knight walked to the big glass front door and held it for me and the four solemn men in black suits.
I didn’t get too close to them. I was a little afraid that one of them would be able to tell somehow, like smell or something, that I was a dragon.
Knight led the men into a room with a conference table, and gestured toward a room across the hall from it with a TV, fridge, microwave and comfortable looking chairs and a couch. “I’m sorry, Dee. Wait for me in the break room. Hopefully, this won’t take very long” He sounded like a man walking to his own execution.
I refrained from giving him shit. It just didn’t seem fair right then. I meekly went into the room indicated and picked a comfy chair in front of the TV, like I was going to watch soaps until he was done with his little Georgian confab.
As soon as he went into the conference room and shut the door behind himself, I crossed the hall and put my ear to the door. Fortunately, it was just a regular conference room, no special defenses against superhearing.
I’ll have to write about what they said later. I’m wiped out and can barely keep my eyes open any longer.

D Dragon

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Knighted Dragon

My throat and legs burned as I ran faster than I ever had. I could feel the breath of the Black dragon that chased me on the back of my neck, and I knew I could never outrun a dragon’s wings. Lines of fire seared into my shoulder as his claws grazed me. I dropped where I was and rolled clumsily in the muddy field. The Black’s claws closed on empty air.
There was a whoosh of sound and a confusion of massive dragon silhouettes above me. The Black dragon crashed to the ground, crushing tents and soldiers and scattering the bright embers of a campfire into screaming chaos.
Soldiers were closing on me from every direction. I spit out mud and grass, ignored the pain in my shoulder, and staggered to my feet to run some more. Just as I got to my feet, a powerful clawed foot slammed into my back. The ground, covered with angry soldiers of the Black army swept beneath my dangling, kicking feet. I struggled and fought, trying to wriggle free of the massive red scaly fist that held me, until a well-deep voice said, “Easy, boy. You’re safe.”
“Who else?” said the giant Red and Black dragon. He flapped his wings twice and we sailed over the walls of the castle. I could see my father standing next to one of the ballistas on the wall, hand on the man’s arm to keep him from firing a spear the size of a tall pine into Fafnir’s belly. A few arrows came our way, but Fafnir flicked his wings contemptuously and they fell without harm.
Fafnir sheltered me with his wings when we landed in the courtyard until Arthur’s voice rang out, ordering the castle defenders to stand down. As his wing’s folded back, Mother ran and embraced me tightly. Then she shook me angrily by the arms. “What were you thinking, boy? You could have been killed!”
I winced as my injured shoulder protested.
“The fault is mine, Lady Nyneve,” Fafnir’s rumbling voice spoke above me from a height that rivaled the castle towers.
Mother stood to her full height, near six feet, and glared up at the huge dragon with eyes that glowed hot. “What did you do, son of the Red? If you endangered my son, …”
“I told the boy that I would win this war if he could find real evidence that the Blacks were a threat to my people. When he went missing, I feared that he might have done something foolish like this.”
“And I did!” I said, excitedly. Then realized what I had claimed. “Well, it may also have been foolish, but I did it. I found what Fafnir needs.” The line between foolish and brave is a narrow one, Father always said.
Fafnir’s huge spiked head ducked down to look at me, bending his long neck nearly double. “What did you find, young wizard?”
“There is too much. Mother, can you use the crystal, to show Fafnir what I saw and heard?”
Lady Nyneve nodded. “I can, child. But your wound must be tended first.”
Merlin sailed gently from the castle wall to the courtyard beside us, without bothering to use wings. I would really love to know how he did that.
“There is little time,” Merlin said. “The Black’s attack has begun again. Robert roused them early.”
“I will heal without tending, Father,” I said. “But this information cannot wait.” I looked up at the huge dragon who had saved my life. “Fafnir, they hold one of your own prisoner, and have enslaved him with their venom.”
Fafnir’s huge red eyes closed for a moment. “There will be no saving him, then. Once the black venom owns a dragon’s mind, death is the only cure.”
I felt my mother’s grip on my arm tighten, and I looked up at her. Her lips were nearly as white as her skin, and a look of great determination tightened her features, as if she fought a battle even as she stood there.
I put my hand over hers, and she gave me a smile of reassurance.
We hastily retired to a small chamber. Mother took the images of all that I had seen and heard and showed it to Fafnir, Father, and King Arthur.
Fafnir paced the chamber, seething with rage that poured off his skin like waves of heat from his power.
Tears trickled down Mother’s cheeks. She ignored them, and her face was as filled with rage it its subtle way as Fafnir’s angry pacing.
I held her cold hand. It must have been even harder for her to see her little sister skinned like a beast than it had been for me.
Arthur’s shoulders drooped as if with a great weight.
Father, as he often did when others were overcome with emotion, looked thoughtful. “I understand now, how such magic could be done. Something of the spirit of the dragon must be forged into the armor and weapons of the knight. The dragon’s spirit would have to linger after death.”
“But why did they want Aunt Cion?” I asked. “They already have the black armor, and surely, they could use one of their own to forge another if needed?”
Merlin shook his head. “Black scales are not impervious to Red fire, nor do their warriors have the strength of Silver claws. Our Silver guardians are the only ones who could ever stand against the power of the Red. The Blacks need to steal their power in order to defeat Eric’s people.”
Fafnir growled, “Treacherous dogs will not live long enough to spread such evil blood magic. I will burn them into smears of soot.”
Arthur’s face lightened. “Then you will bring word to Eric to send his army to aid us?”
Fafnir shook his head. “It is too late for that, Pendragon. By the time I returned, there would be nothing left of your people to aid.”
Arthur sagged again. “You’re right, of course. I just hoped …” He waved a hand vaguely.
Fafnir went down on one knee before the king. “I gave my word to the young wizard that I would win this war if he but brought me solid evidence that the fight was mine. He has kept his part of the bargain at great risk to his own life. I will keep mine. All the might Fafnir, son of the Red, can bring to bear is yours to command.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed in calculation. I remembered Fafnir’s demonstration of power when he first arrived. I was no tactician to calculate such power and its impact on our chances of winning a war, but Arthur was.  “Your aid might just be enough, son of the Red, if used well. You have my gratitude and the gratitude of my people for giving it.”
“About time,” Nyneve muttered softly beside me. I don’t think anyone else heard her.
“And my gratitude to you as well, Sir Robert.”
Huh? I looked around the small chamber, expecting a knight with my name to have walked in without me noticing.
Arthur chuckled. “I’m talking to you, little uncle. I’ve knighted far older men for far less impressive service to the realm.”
Mother squeezed my hand, and favored me with a tight proud smile, though her cheeks were still wet.
Father looked surprised, not a look I saw on his craggy face very often. “The boy recklessly endangered his life, and defied all good sense. It is not behavior to be rewarded.”
I stood up to Father, and for once I knew the great Merlin was wrong. “I did as you asked, Father, and as you taught me. You told me I must find knowledge of the Black Knight’s armor if any of us were to be safe. I searched for knowledge in the one place I was most likely to find it.”
Merlin stroked his long beard thoughtfully. “Mm.  So you did.” His lips turned up a bit at the corners. “Well, Sir Robert, next time, consider letting us know where you plan to seek such dangerous knowledge.”
I bowed slightly. “Yes, Father. I will.”
Arthur stood brusquely. “Your proper knighting ceremony will have to wait until after the battle is won, little uncle.” He took a thick gold chain from his own neck and draped it over mine. “For now, let this mark your new status. Prince Fafnir, come with me. We have a war to win.”
Fafnir flashed teeth between bristly red beard in a fierce grin and fell in behind Arthur.
“Grandmother, Grandfather, I will need all dragons working together. Gather Green and Silver, both flyers and fledglings who have come into their power. I think I have a plan that will defeat the Black.”
I followed in the wake of the mightiest beings in the land, and felt simultaneously very small and weak, and deeply honored that they considered me worthy to walk beside them.
I woke up, and as often happened, the sense that I was someone else, in some other time and place lingered for a time, even as the familiar sight of Dr Who posters and the flickering light of my charging laptop grounded me in the 21st century. The pride and humility my father felt in what had to be one of his proudest moments warmed me on a level I had never felt before. He became part of something greater than himself. He earned the right to walk beside the most powerful heroes of his age as one of them.
I made a decision then to follow in my father’s footsteps in a way I never would have considered a few years before. I was going to accept Liberty’s invitation to train with the Protectors.
Ma was not going to be pleased.

D Dragon

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Amazing Ashley and Peanut the WonderDog

“White Knight got out of the hospital a few days ago,” Liberty said over wings at Fridays.
I still wasn’t entirely sure why Liberty, the second in command of the US government’s elite supergroup, the Protectors, had any real interest in having lunch with me. I just called her on a lark, thinking she probably hadn’t really meant that offer to “hang out” together, but there she was, chit chatting with me about superhero stuff like we were colleagues.
That is, she was chit chatting with me in between the occasional autograph request. She graciously signed whatever young fanboys and fangirls offered her and said the same thing each time, “Just donate a few dollars to charity and you do your part to make this a better country for everyone. That makes you an American hero in my book.”
Chatting over lunch with Liberty made me feel a bit well… important, like I wasn’t just a kid hitting a ball around the local diamond. Liberty seemed to think I belonged in the big leagues.
“Knight says you saved his life,” Liberty looked up from her fried green beans long enough to see my reaction.
I shrugged and snorted. “Again. It’s becoming a bad habit. I can’t get rid of that guy.”
Liberty smiled. “I know you two don’t see eye to eye on some things, but we do appreciate having him back in full working order.”
“Mmm,” I grunted something and ate a wing. What do you say when someone thanks you for saving their friend’s life? Your welcome? And what if you considered letting the arrogant bigoted snot die? I paid a whole lot of attention to my food for a while.
“That ability, to bring someone from the edge of death to full unimpaired health in a few days, or even hours,” she shook her head in awe. “I wish I could trade places with you.”
“You’re pulling my leg, right?” Liberty could toss tanks around, and survive having one fired at her without mussing her long golden hair.
She put a hand on mine for a moment. “I would trade every power I have to be able to heal like that. It’s such an amazing gift. I’ve worked with Remedy before, and watching him always filled me with awe, and a fair amount of envy if I’m honest.” She fiddled with her napkin for a moment, then folded it neatly. “I just don’t understand why you hide it.”
“I’ve got really good reasons.” She looked attentive, waiting for me to continue. “I just can’t talk about them.”
Liberty chuckled. “Why does that not really surprise me?”
I grinned back at her. “Because I’ve been a stubborn, contrary, secretive pain in the backside since you met me?”
She waved that off. “Stubborn and secretive describes nearly every superhero I’ve ever known, Dee. It’s practically a job requirement.” She grinned at me. “Contrary and a pain in the backside just makes you a bit less boring and stuffy than most.”
I chuckled. “Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you.”
“I am only a contrary pain in the backside when I haven’t had my morning coffee.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “N-Rage thought he was going to be funny one morning when we’d been fighting Lord Vile’s people until 3 AM and had to show up at an 8 AM debriefing. He got between me and the coffee pot and refused to let me by.” She leaned over the table and whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I shoved him through a wall.” She covered her mouth and blushed, mortified by her own pre-coffee temper.
I laughed as much at the look on her face as at the story.
 “It was only an interior drywall wall,” she added. “But still.”
“Note to self: Only hassle Liberty after she’s had caffeine.”
“Thanks for the warning,” she said. “Good to know you’re planning on hassling me.”
“Hey, somebody’s got to.”
We were both laughing when we heard the most hideous screeching sound and all the windows shattered in the restaurant.
She and I jumped up in tandem and ran for the door to see what was happening and if we could help. On the way out, I saw that several folks had cuts from the glass, but I figured it was higher priority to keep more people from getting hurt than to tend the ones already injured just now.
I went out to see what sort of super-villain got his jollies shattering glass.
I saw, standing in the street, an adorably familiar sight. Anyone who watches television knows The Amazing Ashley, with, of course, her equally adorable black and brown Pomeranian, Peanut the WonderDog. Those two had been hawking hair products and acne cream on TV for the last 10 years, which meant, of course, that Ashley was no more the 14-year-old that she appeared to be than I was 20.
“Oh, hi Liberty!” Ashley squealed in delight and waved.
“Oh crud, it’s Nermal,” Liberty mumbled under her breath while waving back with a fake smile.
I’d never heard her curse before, not even as mild a curse as that. Nermal?
Amazing Ashley pointed up and over our shoulders at the building behind us. “Look out!”
It wasn’t enough warning, though. A heavy body hit us both in the back and I fell hard with something heavy on me. I twisted as I fell so I landed on my back, not my face. Liberty stayed standing, but staggered a bit since she was caught off guard.
Something huge and furry that could only loosely be called a man bounced onto my chest before I could get up and raked four-inch long claws across my body like he wanted to play tic tac toe. He caught one small unprotected section of my torso, just over my right hip, but the rest of the cuts just scraped across my scales and left big slashes in my outfit.
The guy growled in frustration and went for liberty instead. He got her by the slender white throat. I leapt up and grabbed him by the scruff of his furry neck just behind is giant pointy ears and yanked him off my friend.
Probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. His huge claws raked both sides of her throat as I pulled him away from her.
I was horrified. Her throat should have been torn open to the spine, but it looked as unmarked and perfect as ever. It’s easy to forget, since she seems so pretty and slender that Liberty can bounce mortar shells off her chest.
The hideous shrieking sound that had shattered the restaurant windows blasted the street again. This time, instead of being off to one side of it, and insulated by walls, I was at ground zero. My enhanced dragon hearing made that screech into a fiery knife blade searing right through my skull.
Amazing Ashley had her mouth open and her hands cupped around it to amplify sound, making me perfectly aware of where that Hellish screech came from.
The big furry guy leapt screaming in agony out of my slack arms and onto the restaurant roof with blood running from his pointy ears. He bounded away in huge leaps.
Something inside my head popped, hot liquid ran down my neck on both sides, and the sunshine disappeared
I woke up to the odd sensation of being licked in the face by a tiny tongue. I considered just ignoring it and going back to sleep. My head had a giant church bell ringing in it incessantly and little guys with sledgehammers keeping it going.
Then the tiny tongue went right up my nose and slurped the inside of my nostril. “Bleah!” I said and shoved the little dog away gently.
Peanut the WonderDog gave me an adorable doggy grin, waved his little pom pom tail happily, and I couldn’t resist the urge to pet the little pest. He licked my nose again as I scritched his little ears.
I was in the restaurant on the floor. The place was a wreck. Somewhere beyond the din of constantly ringing bells, I could hear faint voices.
“I was transporting Bobcat to the Protectors’ secure facility and he got loose. He kept scratching the titanium cuffs with those claws and it was driving me crazy. I thought he couldn’t get out of the cage anyway, so it wouldn’t matter if I took them off.”
“I see.” I could practically hear the tight-lipped disapproval even over the din in my head. “And what excuse do you have for using a powerful sonic attack, with another hero and a dozen bystanders in the blast path?”
“I didn’t know your friend had superhearing?” Ashley said uncertainly.
“You could have killed her, a fellow hero! Worse, you could have killed an innocent!”
“I was just trying to help.” I moved my pounding head enough to see the Amazing Ashley pout a lip out adorably and look up through her lashes at a seriously pissed off Liberty.
We were back in the restaurant and I could vaguely hear fire truck sirens. If Jack and I were on duty, you’d hear the ambulance sirens first, I thought vaguely, because I wasn’t the only one who looked in need of an ambulance. The bleeding from the cut in my side had soaked my jeans, but my natural healing had slowed it to a stop. Several folks around me had pretty bad cuts from the shattered window glass and it looked like a part of the restaurant roof had fallen in on some of them, probably when the big cat guy got away.
“Well,” Liberty said, and this time I could see her lips tighten into a thin line. “Thanks to your help, a vicious killer is loose in my city, several innocents are injured, and the only hero with healing power in a thousand mile radius may be permanently deaf.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Ashley started crying, not bawling and snotty and red faced like me when I cry, oh no. The Amazing Ashley even cried cutely, with little tears rolling down her perfect cheeks, and tiny heartbreaking sniffles.
I wanted to cuddle her and tell her it would be okay. “Not deaf. Healing power works on me, too. It’ll be a few hours probably before the guys with the sledgehammers stop pounding on the inside of my head, but I’ll be okay eventually.”
Liberty wasn’t mollified. “Only Dee’s special ability saved her. If she was a normal, or any hero with enhanced hearing and no healing power, your carelessness would have permanently put her out of action.”
Ashley mumbled, “I said I was sorry already.”
“Lay off her, Liberty. The kid did her best.” How could she keep berating someone so sweet.
The Amazing Ashley rewarded me with a watery smile that made me want to go, “Awwwwe.”
Liberty rolled her eyes at me and mumbled under her breath. “Nermal gets another one.” Like explaining to a brain damaged child, she looked at me and spoke slowly. “She’s 28 years old. She has Protector’s training, and more than ten years of field experience. This was a rookie mistake.” She waved a hand to indicate the destruction all around us.
“I trained you better than that, Ash,” she said, rebuking the girl again like a big mean bully.
I was about ready to ignore the pain in my head and side, get up, get between Liberty and the kid, and tell Liberty to back off.
Before I could do that, one of the normals caught in the destruction of the restaurant that Ashley caused, with blood running down the side of his face, did it for me. Some random business guy in his filthy, ruined button down shirt, got in the face of one of the most powerful superheroes on the planet, and told her to stop picking on Ashley.
Something about that seemed pretty strange.
Peanut the Wonderdog shoved a cloth restaurant napkin into my hand. Automatically, I ruffled his ears and started tugging on it. He wagged his poofy tail and growled at me in mock battle, a tiny rattling sound that was no doubt supposed to be intimidating, but just made me want to snuggle the little fluffball.
I had the oddest feeling something wasn’t right. I looked around the room. While Liberty and Ashley argued, and random civilians leapt to Ashley’s defense there were people around me bleeding.
Shouldn’t I be helping them? I mean, that’s what I do.
But the little dog wagged and tugged and I tugged back for a while. He was just so adorable, I wanted to do anything to make him happy.
The lady next to me had a cut on her hand that had nicked a small artery. I could see the blood pulsing out while she sat and watched it with dull eyes.
And that’s when it hit me.
Ashley and Peanut were famous for their sonic scream and sonic bark powers, identical abilities. It had something to do with their origin, but I didn’t know the full story. What I did suddenly know without a doubt, was that they both had another superpower, one that was far more subtle. They had, for lack of a better term, the Cute power.
I looked around at the bleeding people, the destroyed business, and became aware again of my own pounding, ringing head and slashed side. That silly little twit was responsible for all of this. Why the heck did I defend her?
And why was I playing with a dog when people were bleeding?!
I yanked the napkin from the little dog’s teeth, causing a small yelp of surprise, which earned me a bunch of dirty looks.
I ignored the dog and the dirty looks and used the napkin and a table cloth to bandage the arterial cut on the lady beside me. She was already white around the lips. “Ashley. Stop pouting and get these people something sweet to drink, sweet tea or juice, starting with this lady.”
Ashley’s eyes widened so much she looked like an anime character. “What do I look like, a waitress?”
“Sweettalk someone else into doing it then. I don’t care. Just move it. These people are hurt because of you. You can do what it takes to help them.”
She gave a long suffering sigh. “Fine.”
I looked around for more cloth to use for bandages and Liberty handed me another tablecloth.
“Why didn’t you already do this?” I asked her.
“I never learned more than the most basic first aid. I’m afraid to bandage people for fear I’ll misjudge my strength and put it on too tight.”
I guess having enough strength to lift tanks could have a serious downside when dealing with fragile human flesh.
I watched the waitstaff, many of them injured themselves scramble to do as Ashley asked, pausing to pet the Wonderdog periodically. Her power was so obvious now. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it.
Liberty followed the direction of my gaze, and noted the sour look on my face. “You’re not under Nermal’s spell anymore.”
“She and the dog have the same powers?”
Liberty nodded. “They’re linked in some way. I’m surprised you broke free. People only get loose if one of them forces the person to do something completely counter to their most fundamental principles.” Her cover girl face added a wrinkle between her brows. “How did you get free?”
I thought about it. “The dog kept me from helping people who were bleeding.”
As much disapproval as Liberty had heaped on Ms Cuteness, her smile and gentle squeeze on my shoulder heaped the exact opposite on me. “That’s why I want you on my team,” she said.
She looked back at the Amazing Ashley as she fluttered her eyelashes at some waiter and he handed a drink to her, instead of to an injured kid.
Liberty’s lips tightened again. “And that’s why I vetoed her becoming a Protector, over the loud objections of all the other senior members. Thank goodness it’s written into our original writ of purpose, every senior Protector has the right to veto anyone they don’t feel is Protectors material, without explanation or excuse.”
That explained how Ashley ended up as an All American Alliance hero, despite being trained by Liberty herself.
Ambulances and fire trucks started arriving and EMTs started doing their jobs with sterile bandages and proper equipment, letting me and my collection of tablecloths and napkins off the hook.
“Look, Liberty, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but there wouldn’t be much point in me trying out for the Protectors in any case. White Knight is a senior Protector, isn’t he?”
“Yes. He’s older than he looks. He was one of the founders, along with the Devastator, Black Avenger and the original Liberty, one of my predecessors.”
“If I tried out, he’d just veto me, then.”
Liberty looked at me for a long moment. “Dee, no one becomes a Protector unless an existing Protector vouches for their character and ability. White Knight is the one who sponsored you.”
Well, isn’t that a kick in the pants.

D Dragon