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