Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 14

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 14


 

      On my return home I went to work on my patchwork notes. I’d been assembling pieces of this work for most of a year; most of the scholarship had already been done, leaving me with the task of bridging my observations more gracefully and seeing if I could mine a few more conclusions from the material. The folio’s revelations would make it into the dissertation, but the main body of the work would remain unchanged. It had to be so; otherwise I’d have to begin again from nothing and build an entirely new thesis.
      Sitting back in my chair, pen forgotten in hand, I wondered if perhaps I had to. The existence of an actual other race—how could I drop such a reference into the document as if it were widely known?
      Come to that, how had they managed to keep such a secret?
      Demons and dragons. Surely not. And yet his face had been grave and there had been no hint of merriment in his voice.
      “Surely not,” I said, setting my head in my arms. The table felt uncommonly hard. “Surely not.”
      A whisper of the skin-sensitivity tickled my sides, my arms, raising gooseflesh in its wake… but died before it could bloom into the fullness of its poisoned growth. Grateful, I sat up, resettled my glasses on my nose and returned to work.
      It was early evening when a knock on the door brought Chester in out of the spring rain, stamping the mud off his boots before stepping inside. He hung his coat on the coat-rack; even the sword came off and was racked, a casual unbuckling of the belt that revealed there was a matching knife on the other side. In the hours since I’d come home I’d devoted the occasional tired thought to having to entertain him, but his demeanor disabused me of any such notion. He came to work, folio and pen case under his arm, and settled across from me at the table. A few minutes later he’d set up his materials, taken one of the pages from the Vigil folio and gone to it with only a nod in greeting.
      Relieved, I returned to my own notes. We worked in companionable silence until I had to light a second lamp and rebuild the fire; the air had grown damp and familiar.
      The embers looked like eyes. I found myself staring at them, mesmerized. I could doubt the existence of dragons but if they were to have eyes I imagined them burning just so… like luminous coals.
      If you can doubt us, the embers asked, how then the shiver that grips your gut?
      “Because obviously there are no dragons, or we would have seen them by now,” I said.
      The embers developed pupils, long slivers of ash-black. They blinked and focused on me with a malice made grotesquely arresting by the lack of a face to give them context. Perhaps if you had not killed us all, there would be more of us to see.
      “Well, then,” I said, “I am perfectly correct in disbelieving, yes? You’re all gone.”
      Chunks of fire-scorched wood flexed, became feet that reached from the hearth and gripped the floor with sooty claws. I watched these scythes score the wood next to my foot and realized that I was hallucinating again, because I could smell the char and something alien and musky beneath it… feel the breath that gusted from a mouth revealed by the edges of teeth sharp as obsidian shards. And I was lying. I now believed in dragons. Whole-heartedly. I backed away from the hearth and hit the low table facing it, spilling myself onto the ground as a sinuous shape unwound from the detritus in the fireplace and arched over me.
      Killers! the ashen thing hissed, its snout lunging for me. I threw my hands in front of my face in time to be stung by its forge-hot breath. But you did not get us all! I swear to you we will have our revenge!
      “If we did kill you, it was so long ago that you can’t possibly blame me for it,” I said, surprising myself with asperity despite the shock of fear that petrified me.
      From very far away I heard Chester’s quizzical voice, but I couldn’t distinguish the words. Nor did it feel very important with this serpent coiled over me, regarding me with its molten metal eyes.
      You are young, it said. But not so young as that. We all know how long you live. Only we once had lives to rival yours. The skulls of my brothers and sisters adorn your people’s halls. You think we do not know? But you have not slain us all, and we will maim you to your own deaths, your oh so difficult deaths. And we will not be so careless. We will find every last one of you… and eradicate you.
      “Skulls?” I said as the thing bent closer. I couldn’t break my gaze away and beneath its armored weight I felt very fragile, very soft… and very breathless. Was it crushing me? God! “I don’t know of a single person with a dragon skull on their mantle!”
      You have no idea, it whispered, how much we hate your kind. You have left so few of us alive that not all our efforts will rekindle our race… and so we must pine to our deaths, childless and without hope, our futures a void, a null, a nothing. You have arranged for us the cruelest of deaths, knowing that when we are gone we will be extinguished as a people. For that there is no forgiveness. None.
      Speechless, I stared into the creature’s eyes.
      “Locke!” A warm hand clasped my shoulder, shook. “Locke?” But the dragon didn’t let go either. I knew that Chester was hovering over me, but I couldn’t feel him, and I knew that should terrify me far more than this ephemera created by my own mind. But it didn’t. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think.
      And then the dragon looked over my shoulder and narrowed those burning eyes. And you brought a friend? As if he will save you. I will kill him first.
      “No!” I cried, discovering a new level of panic. “Don’t!”
      It set a clawed hand on my arm and leaned on it, adding more and more of its weight. I would bruise. No, more than that. The joint began to protest. You dare? it hissed. You think yourself my equal with your power knotted up in your body so?
      “Leave him alone!” I said.
      How will you stop me?
      “Morgan! God, wake up!”
      “I am awake!” I said. “Get away, damn it all! Before he eats you!”
      You cannot stop me, the dragon said.
      “Watch me,” I said and grabbed for his neck with my free hand. That fanged gape twitched toward me, intercepting my hold. I discovered that dozens of wounds cut by obsidian teeth didn’t hurt until those teeth ground into bone and that the insides of the mouths of dragons are more inimical than alchemical spills. Then I screamed.
      “Morgan!”
      “Get out!” I yelled. “God Almighty, GET OUT!”
      Somewhere far away I heard the door bounce against its hinges. That was before the dragon bent close to me, lapping sensually at my broken hand with its acid-laved tongue.
      “Now,” it said, “I will begin the long, slow process of killing one of your kind.”
      My head dropped back against the floor and I closed my eyes. The agony had become my world, so blinding I couldn’t even object.
      And then, suddenly, I felt a rain of ashes on my body, soft and papery, tickling. And in its wake, the caresses of tiny fingers.
      “Is he sick?” A high, sweet soprano.
      “Of course he’s sick.” An alto this time, exasperated. Both female. “Look at him. He stinks of it.”
      “I can’t smell anything past the… the… oooh.”
      A pause, then a gruff, “I know. Me too.”
      “How are we going to get him back? Can he hear us?”
      “I think he’s swooning.”
      I was not swooning, I thought. I was hallucinating. And these naive angels whom pain had deprived me the ability to see could kindly stop petting me. It made an absurd contrast to the throbbing misery of my mangled hand and crushed elbow.
      “Well at least we’ve found him.”
      “Yes,” the growly one said. “Except look at him! What will she say when we bring back this?”
      “She’ll understand.”
      “She’ll beat us, is what she’ll understand. Are you sure he’s it?”
      “Yes! He smells right. It’s the right blood.” A delicate tongue-tip now, flitting at my bleeding knuckles. I shuddered. “Yes, it’s right.”
      “Then we’ll have to tell him when—”
      Tell me what? And when? I wondered, but they were gone as if they’d never been there, which of course they hadn’t. Except I had believed in them just as firmly as I’d believed in the dragon. I blinked, trying to clear my eyes… and found Chester crouched in front of me with James Stirley in worried attendance.

***

I see that dragon sooooo clearly in my mind’s eye.

Anyway, only $5 or one review and we get Thursday’s episode!


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