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.