The Emerald Dragon by Solitaire Parke
CHAPTER THREE –
My trip home was uneventful, and although it was quite late, The Ariella was waiting up for me. We talked until the sun came up and I felt much better about her sentiments. (I officially drew a reprimand for darting her riders and their dragons, and I promised to apologize to Thomas and Elfred for not killing them…go figure. Apparently the people here would rather die than be humiliated.) Other than the small slap on the hand, things seemed to be fine between us and I ate breakfast, took a shower and then lay down to sleep. I dreamed vividly about dragons and got up in time for dinner. I was already chomping at the bit to go to the mountain and the Queen Mother was going with me. No more waiting for her outside…no more hanging out alone…and tonight I would introduce her to my dragon – yeah, my dragon. I would get her personal approval and just feel thoroughly cool for a few hours. No fighting, no violence and no worries about last night’s events.
At the appointed time, The Ariella and I left for the mountain. It seemed lighthearted and the trip went without incident. When we arrived, The Ariella was called away and I didn’t see her again for two hours. So much for the best laid plans of mice and men. So, instead of introductions I went to the Green Grotto and met with the staff in charge of furnishings. (Queen Mother knows my dragon anyway, by the way.) As far as I’m concerned they have the easiest job in the world. You see they didn’t have any furnishings and couldn’t tell me when they were going to get any. No overhead and zero inventory makes for a pretty cushy job, in my opinion. Demi wasn’t in the area and they couldn’t tell me where she was. No one had seen her. It seems that without the weight of Queen Mother, I apparently had none at all.
Little by little I noticed a whining noise that had begun to grow louder, until I thought I would go deaf. It occurred to me that the noise was in my head when suddenly, a diminutive voice manifested itself behind me.
“You don’t need them to find your dragon, Emerald Warrior.”
I turned and looked down, and then a little farther down. Standing there in front of me was hmmm; let’s call it, a person of tiny stature…Oh, and grey.
“I beg your pardon.”
He, she, it repeated. The tiniest mouth on any creature I had ever seen, smiled.
“My name is Nata and I am a grey rider. My dragon’s name is Fellonna Erie Rogat, Fee for short, and to call her I just take a deep breath and think of her name and she responds to me immediately. She tells me where she is and then we rendezvous, or I wait for her to come to me. She is usually faster than me, so it saves time to wait. You are not very popular yet, and I was not either when I first came here. You don’t seem to have much patience and you look like you need a friend. I think I can do that for you. Fee tells me your dragon is down by the river. You need to call her, for she is young and preoccupied.”
I smiled because I couldn’t help it. I’m pretty sure this was a male, although I’m not sure how I figured that out. It just sort of came to me. Anyway, his voice sounded just like the Munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz” and he was roughly the same size. He had an enormous head, large black eyes and as I said before, the tiniest mouth I had ever seen.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but what are you?”
He smiled again and I found myself staring. It’s kind of like a bus wreck, you know you shouldn’t stare, but you can’t stop even after you realize that you are. Mouth open, catching flies and just staring. He crossed his arms, cocked his head to one side and I felt my head following. Geez Tanis, get a grip.
“On this world we are known as Lunarians and near as I can tell, you’re at least part human, and part I am not sure, and it is good to meet you, Tanis.”
“I never told you my name.”
“You’re right, but your dragon did. I like Demi. She’s a free spirit and very open.”
I did as he instructed and immediately felt and heard her. She was down by the river as Nata had said, and she told me the alien would bring me there on Fee. I looked back down at Nata feeling a higher respect level for the little man, or whatever he was, and said;
“After you sir, you’ll show me how to get on board, right?”
And with that, the diminutive Lunarian leaped onto Fee’s tail and ran right up her back until he was standing about midway up her neck, and motioned for me to follow. Man, what a rush. I was ever so glad I had some degree of coordination because she was big, and falling was a definite possibility. Nata motioned for me to sit, and in no more time than it took to sit down, Fee began to move. One minute we were standing still and the next we were moving at somewhere near thirty five miles per hour. The acceleration was incredible and we were at the river corridor cutoff in no time.
Most of the corridors in Mt. Drago have a similar look and feel to them, so it’s possible to get turned around and ultimately become lost. What is not possible is to get lost if you have tuned in to the dragons on any level. There are hundreds of them and they work, live and play as a communal mind. What any of them learn, they all learn, and if that wasn’t enough, they share at virtually all levels. Ergo, there are no secrets in the mountain, at the dragon’s level anyway. Demi was the only potential exception although that was apparently changing. It’s possible to keep a secret as long as you don’t think about it at a conscious level, but I believe they hear you no matter what. You try to guard your mind well because if not, one day it becomes a laundry list on parade. Nothing is sacred inside the cave.
Within a few minutes we had arrived at the river and I have to say, I was not prepared for what I saw. Perhaps I expected a small flowing tributary or an indoor creek. I’m not sure. What I saw was like the Colorado River that for a few miles dipped down below the desert, washed through Mt. Drago and qualified as a veritable deluge. The Drago Clan had marked off the mighty underground monster and cordoned sections for different purposes. As I gazed at it, starting with the extreme right were two waterfalls, one large and one small. The smaller of the two had been engineered to handle the bulk of the torrents heading to the opposite waterfall. As a result, it was basically calm enough to play under and around. Only swimming was allowed in this area, which had fences and above water markers to let the occupants know where they were in relation to the faster water close at hand. Knee deep, closer to the shoreline and about shoulder deep at the waterfall, this area was perfect for the games that were being played. There were balls that floated and a net that could be retracted when not in use, and who knows what else that I hadn’t seen yet. Further down to the left and beyond the farthest marker, was a section that was used exclusively for bathing. I mean bathing as in shampoo, soap and a manmade waterfall that had been constructed to act as a series of shower heads. All of the different sections were enormous and had been built to handle multiple dragons at the same time. The next section, so I found out later, was used as a public bathroom. You simply walked out far enough to intrude on the fast flowing water, and did your business. The current washed it down river into a filtration system that broke the material down before it left the mountain, and returned to the river above ground. Very neat and tidy.
Demi was splashing around in the bathing area and I could hear bells, which was a sure fire sign that she was laughing and having a good time.
“You’ll be needing instructions on how to properly bathe your dragon, Mister Tanis, sir.”
I turned around to find out who was speaking to me, and there stood a man with a large brush, a pole device and a huge chamois. He was also quite naked and standing next to him was presumably his wife or girlfriend and she was naked too. What do you say to naked people who are oblivious to their lack of clothing? I glanced over to where Demi was playing and only then noticed the naked people standing around her. I assumed they were naked, although I could only see the top half of them. Worse, the people I had seen playing water ball were dressed the same, as well as everyone around me. How had I missed that?
Classic Tanis response. True wit. What a dork.
“Am I to assume you’re going to be teaching me?”
Yet another in a long line of witty comebacks.
The man smiled, and just as relaxed as he could be, glanced at his female friend and said;
“If you come with us, we’ll show you where to stow your clothing and other belongings before we get started.”
“Just like that, we walk over to where ever, I strip to my altogether and then casually wash a dragon. In front of God and half the people who live here. Have I got that right?”
In a patient voice the man responded.
“Just like that Mister Tanis, Sir, just like that.”
Bravery comes in a lot of flavors, some through combat, some through commitment and in this case….being naked in front of other people, taking instruction and trying desperately not to embarrass myself while I was doing all the above stated. I managed, barely. We walked over to where there were lockers and all kinds of accoutrements to successfully wash and dry your dragon. Within ten minutes or so, I had gotten into the water and it was much easier after that. Turns out that the pole device is slid under a row of scales, and then twisted clockwise which lifts the scales up about an inch. The large brush is then brought into play and with enough elbow grease, whatever happens to be under the scales is cleaned off, leaving your dragon squeaky clean and in a much better mood. The oversized chamois is for making her dry. The whole process takes about an hour and a half, leaving the dragon and the rider exhausted. Oh, and in a seven day period of time, your dragon requires this ordeal a total of four times minimum. Lucky us.
Somewhere in the melee, Nata and his dragon, Fee, had disappeared to parts unknown. So, apparently his mighty steed was not within the four needed days of cleanliness. Unless he gets more help than the others, his routine would have to be grueling.
My ordeal managed to come and go with a minimum of consternation and all things considered, wasn’t really all that bad. Once you get used to the surroundings it’s actually kind of invigorating. There’s a sense of belonging that I would not have believed possible, especially with everyone naked at the time. Demi seemed happy and relaxed after we were finished. I got the feeling that this was only a recent event in her life. We were still being shunned for the most part, but Demi chose to ignore this fact or truly didn’t notice. This could also be her way of trying to convince me that things were going to be alright; it was nothing more than acting like everything was okay until it essentially was. The Ariella told me in this regard to simply fake it till you make it. I wondered idly what her first few days were like, and whether she had been accepted quickly or had to fight her way in.
Mister Tanis Sir’s name turned out to be Frank and his girlfriend, Anna. When we were finished, I thanked both of them, still trying not to look. Or look like I was trying not to look. As soon as we weren’t working on Demi, the awkwardness set back in. I got the distinct impression that Demi and I had all but ruined Frank and Anna’s social standing. They both were polite, but minimized their comments and seemed in a hurry to get away. I was sure we would probably not see them again unless we pushed the point. I personally wasn’t going to do that.
After donning my clothing and retrieving my gear, I climbed onto Demi and we headed back down the corridor that would ultimately lead us back to Commons. I also convinced Demi to stay on the ground; it would take longer, it would be more scenic, and I wouldn’t have to worry about that whole landing thing. The whole sliding across the floor at twenty miles per hour and slamming into the wall. She made the bells in my head and it made me smile. It also gave me ample opportunity to feel smug about being on a dragon.
The switch and light on the front of my harness lit up and began making a whining noise that I knew only too well. I had Demi stop and climbed down. I pressed the switch after I had pulled the shroud down over my head. The armor plates began moving out and down, until a few seconds later I was fully suited up and ready for the emergency that the whining and the light implied. With the Advanced Encounter Suit fully sealed, I flushed the system with nitrogen and reset the stabilizers to make sure of the armor’s ability for flight. Screens began snapping into place inside my helmet and giving me readouts, maps and information about a group of Scouts that had been pinned down in a remote area on Province Three. Prior to becoming a dragon rider, I ran rounds on the Provinces. Running rounds amounts to protection for humanity that is performed on the far side of the River Styx. It is designed to keep demons from crossing and harming the average civilian…well that’s what we call the bulk populace – human beings. If you do your job correctly no one knows you’ve done anything and that’s how it’s supposed to work. Occasionally something goes wrong and it’s time for cleaning detail, mop-up, or just plain and simple eradication of said demons that have managed to break through the defenses. No one can see what you do or how you do it. Run in the shadows, remain nameless and above all, don’t allow anything to get to the news media or print. If for whatever reason it does, then all traces must be located and destroyed before it can go public. To be honest, I and others like me have done a fairly good job. Even the things that have managed to leak out have, for the most part, been discredited and subsequently buried in the annals of bad journalism. Becoming a dragon rider has kept me from running the same number of rounds, but when disaster and emergencies strike I’m still on the clock and expected to respond. It’s the right thing to do and I still have penance to pay until the day arrives that has apocalypse written on it. When that happens I’ll find a way to survive it. If for no other reason, I can enjoy having paid my dues and finally have a life of peace rather than war and death.
“I have to leave for a little while, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Demi leaned her head to my level, and I felt a wave of sympathy and understanding.
“I can see in your mind what you have to do. Go quickly; their lives may depend on it.”
I nodded to her. There didn’t seem to be anything else left to say. I turned, took several steps to make sure the rocket blast wouldn’t be too close to Demi, and activated the gauntlet switch that controls the boosters and took off for the South Entrance.
Walter’s voice broke through the silence as I was nearing the ramps on the far side of Commons.
“I took the liberty of contacting Basiliskos, and your departure has been logged at the entrance with the security guards.”
“Thank you Walter, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“We’re a team, Tanis, and you’re welcome.”
We were moving at one hundred miles per hour when we topped over the ramps and close to two hundred as we flew down the last corridor leading to the outside world. The security guards’ heads snapped sideways as we passed. We angled up sharply as we cleared the cave mouth and didn’t cease until we had reached fifty thousand feet. A new screen slid into place, showing the Ley Gate which was now about thirty miles in the direction we were flying, and an approximation of the time left to reach the coordinates. Ley Gates were the preferred method for entry into the world of Drago; these being the most secure, as each were thousands of feet above the ground. The gate would land us close to the first Province and from there we could make the next two jumps in rapid succession to reach the Scouts and their antagonists on Province Three.
“I have run the diagnostics, Tanis, and our reserves are full and all power levels are currently at one hundred percent. Weapons have been armed, internal pressure is stable, and we will be reducing speed to sub mach in… 3 – 2- 1…Speed has been stabilized at five hundred and fifty miles per hour and the first Ley Gate entry is imminent. I am lowering the blast shield and polarizing the leading screens. It’s good to get out of the caves, don’t you think?”
“I can see the gate now, Walter, and yes, it is.”
Ahead of us now, a circular shimmering effect could be seen and Walter adjusted our altitude to minimize the turbulence against the suit when we pass through. Five seconds later I could feel the buffeting on the outside of the suit and the opening started to slide to our left.
“Compensating for drift and increasing speed, Tanis, to six hundred…almost there.”
I could see the turbulence that surrounds the sound barrier and gritted my teeth. In the time it took to fly through, the turbulence had peaked and then abruptly stopped. I had done this so many times you’d think I would have gotten over the jitters, but I’m not sure I ever will. The next two jumps went down without a hitch, and as we exited I could see several Tennants of demonic troops pounding away at three cornered men. They had backed up and positioned themselves between two outcroppings of solid rock. Even as good as these men were, they would not last much longer against the constant onslaught of the demons. A Tennant is twelve demons, totaling five more than a Squad, which has seven. I mentally estimated about thirty six of them. Walter’s voice came over the internal speakers.
“There are thirty four attacking the Scouts and a total of fourteen demons dead. The remaining demons are too close for a rocket strike, and the rock formations would not be able to withstand an explosion anyway. My suggestion would be multiple darts each, and if that doesn’t bring them down, then use the disruptors.”
“Thank you, Walter. Please get everything ready and feel free to fire when we’re in range.”
Our altitude had been steadily dropping, when at fifteen hundred feet I felt the dart launchers go off. It was a steady drone of thwip-thwip-thwip as the darts flew out of the suit and began to spread out on their way to the targets. Walter suddenly swerved and a Projector bolt went past us on its way skyward. It couldn’t have been much farther from us than a couple coats of paint.
“Damn it! Well, it looks like their aim has improved, and that bolt looked a lot larger than normal.”
“There are more on the way, Tanis. Switching now to level one evasive tactics so, until we’re on the ground, it’s going to be a little rocky.”
Walter wasn’t exaggerating either. We were all over the place as well as dropping like a stone. Two of the demons were wearing a different kind of armor, very thick armor, and it didn’t go unnoticed that they were the only ones standing now. The three Scouts were beginning to advance on the two demons that were now starting to work their way to a ledge behind them. It was about twenty yards away, and it was unlikely they would make it before I got to them. The closest of the Scouts threw what looked like a boomerang at the same time that my disruptors fired. Both disrupters hit the demons at the same time. They went down and didn’t move. I turned around and noticed the Scouts were only a couple of yards away and moving hard. They slowed, and stopped.
“Hi guys, ya miss me?
Timothy, the Clan Master of the Scouts put both hands on his hips and made a scoffing noise.
Tanis Theatra, figured you’d get sent. Now we’ll never hear the end of this.”
“Oh man, you guys have got me all wrong; I’m a changed man. I’d head for the hills though if I were you. Walter tells me there’s more on the way in. I can run interference if you need me to.”
The look on Timothy’s face told me everything I needed to know. They’d be fine from here. I held both hands up in mock surrender and backed up to let them pass by on their way out.
“Take care, you guys, I’ve got to go back to the mountain before my dragon thinks I’ve deserted her. Be careful.”
Timothy and I had history. He was a fierce fighter, and being a Scout caused him to go places that literally no human being had ever been. We had first met under conditions that were similar to today’s, and fought together more than once. Over time we had become friends, and days like today served for a level of casual humor concerning who was the better fighter. Who needed who’s help and why. It was all good fun and both of us knew the other had his back.
The Scouts all wore uniforms that caused them to blend into the surroundings; the main function for them was to map, explore, then report back to the Harper Clan with the information. Their uniforms today were the ones designed to mimic the open desert. I knew not his mission, and also knew better than to ask. What I saw was all I needed to understand, and helping Timothy was something I did freely without need for reciprocation. Occasionally the inevitable would happen and they would be discovered, leading to a rescue performed by yours truly. Hence the jokes about who needed who. Timothy was their best, and it was in truth an exception to the rule for him to even be seen, let alone get caught.
I turned toward the river and ran until the boosters kicked in, put both arms down, and gained lift until I was at around one thousand feet. It only took a few minutes and I was back in the area to make my first of three jumps to get back home.
I gained the correct altitude for the remaining jumps, exited at fifty thousand feet and held it until I could see Mt. Drago in the distance. The deceleration and loss of altitude went without incident. I landed about twenty feet from the South Entrance, reset the stabilizers and cleared the interior atmosphere of my suit. I looked around one last time to make sure there were no prying eyes and stepped into the foyer cave. Pressing the switch on my left gauntlet brought down my helmet, and I took a deep breath. This place smelled funny to me when I first got here only a short time ago, and now it just smelled like home. I could feel Demi and there were the faint bells of her laughter floating through my head. I smiled and nodded to the guards as I passed. As usual they said nothing, but you know at that moment, I just didn’t care. She met me at the end of the corridor and I climbed aboard as if I had never left. We decided to get me something to eat and that’s where I learned about the Pubs, plural.
It seems that the gold riders had their own Pub and no one else was allowed to attend. I couldn’t imagine the Queen Mother allowing this kind of behavior, so we went to go investigate. The gold riders had established themselves in a small cavern located close to the Gold Grotto. Queen Mother’s Corp. of Engineers had apparently located it and decided to bypass improving the interior temporarily. The area had been cleared of most of the larger boulders and they left the marking stakes that had measured the total amount of usable space, but then interest in the diminutive area had waxed and waned. The gold riders obviously saw a golden opportunity; no pun intended, and moved in, taking advantage of the lack of interest by Queen Mother’s men. I guess nobody would have had a problem with it, at least in concept, except they wouldn’t allow a rider from any grotto other than their own. There was also a secondary issue. None of the other riders would go against the leaders in the Gold Grotto. I wasn’t liked in the mountain anyway, so what did I care about how the gold riders felt about anything? Correct answer – I didn’t. I didn’t believe any of them would deliberately attempt to harm a dragon, so that gave Demi some level of immunity to their aggressions should there be any. It’s not like I was deliberately looking for trouble, but the atmosphere in the other pub was hostile, to say the least. Theoretically the Golden Flyer should be friendly to dragon riders. The name was cliché and there was no doubt they had come up with this slanted little chunk of drivel. The other pub was open to everyone who was not on their list of undesirables. A list that Demi and I apparently were at the top of, and no one it seemed was vying for our lofty position. So be it. I told Demi to wait outside the cavern until the initial showdown had taken place. Depending on the outcome, there might not be a reason to go in. She looked at me dubiously but acquiesced to my request. I walked in and was immediately stopped by a large and somewhat burly individual dressed in a gold flight suit and a bad attitude. I asked politely to enter and get dinner for both me and my dragon. He told me to go “F” myself and pushed my chest with both hands. Bad move. I’ve got a thing about being touched. I don’t like it, and I especially don’t like it when it’s being done in a hostile manner. If I had wanted this kind of reception I could have gotten it at the other pub. So much for all riders being equal. After having carefully considered all my options, I hit him in the face, closed my helmet and had Walter increase our weight to one ton. Push this. I will say this about the gold riders; they’re dedicated to the pursuance of violence once they commit themselves to a cause. In this case it was me and I guess all the other riders, you know…the inferior ones. This time I wouldn’t use darts, oh no…these guys had it coming and I mean in spades. Three of them jumped on me at the same time and then subsequently fell off. I’m sure it had a lot to do with the impact. It was probably like hitting a brick wall face first. Two of them just bounced off, but the third actually knocked himself smooth out. I almost felt sorry for him… almost. Then the rest descended upon Walter and me like flies. I waited until they were almost on us and then activated the disruptors at their lowest power setting…Multiple shots in every direction imaginable. Bodies started flying in the same number of directions as the disruptor strikes, and in a matter of seconds it was over. At that point there were only three people still standing: Me, Walter and the guy behind the bar. I turned in his direction and he looked at me with a smile on his face, while he wiped the glass in his hand. I continued moving toward him, but in all fairness to the bartender, he never even flinched. I lowered the helmet, took a deep breath and scratched the spot at the back of my head where the helmet had yanked on my hair. (Mental Note: I’ve got to find a better way of protecting the long curly hair I sport around like a trophy. The cloth shroud is not always convenient or quick.)
“Does it always take this much work to get a cheeseburger in this dump?”
The bartender chuckled and set the glass down on the bar. Reaching under, presumably to a shelf, he pulled out a bottle of what looked like whiskey.
“Yep, but the cheeseburgers are really good. You must be the new guy everyone’s talking about.”
“Yeah, guilty as charged. The name’s Tanis, and my dragon’s name is Demi, and you are?”
“Everyone calls me Dickey, so that must be my name. So, did you want that cheeseburger?”
“Actually I did, but I’m not sure I want to be here when these yeah-hoos wake up. So, if you’ll fix the burger and an order of fries to go, I’d be much obliged. By the way, how did you keep from getting hit when my disruptors went off?”
Dickey’s smile increased and floated up into his eyes which sparkled in the uneven light.
“I had a weird feeling so I ducked down below the bar right before you started shooting. I’ve learned to go with what my gut senses, especially here in the mountain.”
“Smart man.” I answered, and I meant it. There was something odd about this man, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I mean he looked human enough, but there was an added extra ingredient that escaped everything but a cursory inspection. I made a mental note to ponder it later. He stood about six feet two inches, and had light sandy brown hair. A pressed and clean guest flight suit completed his fashion ensemble. I couldn’t see his boots, but I was willing to bet they were shined to a high gloss.
Scarcely ten minutes had gone by and I was back outside and climbing up on Demi. A few hundred yards later I was informed that The Ariella was waiting for me near the entrance to Drago City, and we headed in that direction. We had gone about half the distance and roughly half a burger, when security, somewhere close to a dozen of them, and Basiliskos intercepted us. He had an odd look on his face; his human face. I’m still new to all of this, but it seems that when they’re angry they gravitate to their human form. Maybe it’s because they can get closer to you when they chew you out. Perhaps it’s because they would have a harder time doing damage to you and it keeps them from just automatically blasting you with fire. I don’t know yet, but what I do know is that they’re scarier in human form than they are as dragons.
Basiliskos folded his arms and took what I construed as a defensive posture.
“There was a disturbance in the Gold’s Pub and I know you were behind it. I also know no one was killed, but this kind of behavior cannot be tolerated.”
“Whoa Dude, all I did was try to get a cheeseburger and the other guys instantly became hostile. I’m not gonna just stand there and let them beat the tar out of me.”
Suddenly, I could feel the change in Basiliskos and he broke into laughter. I don’t mean a chuckle either. I mean deep down belly laughter with a snort stung onto the end, and it made me laugh as well. This definitely rates as one of the higher marks on the Tanis weird-o-meter scale. Chuckles began around me from security, and I knew there would be no real chastisement from the King of the Dragons.
“I told the gold riders that I would speak to you, and as of now I can truthfully say that I have fulfilled my duty. Consider yourself severely punished and reprimanded for your indiscretions.”
Basiliskos had stopped speaking, and put his hand up to his mouth. Laughter kept him from finishing and he just waved me away as he turned to leave. He placed his right hand on the shoulder of the guard closest to him, glanced over and nodded. Then both of them burst into laughter again as if the joke just didn’t stop being funny with the re-telling. Very strange indeed. But this wasn’t finished by a long shot. When we got to Drago City, The Ariella wasn’t there. In her place was a small Drago man with a severe case of the hiccups, who after several tries managed to blurt out, in between spasms, that The Ariella was smoothing ruffled feathers at the Gold’s Pub and would meet me later at a place undecided as of this time. I watched him as he left and wasn’t totally sure that he wouldn’t explode or implode before he got where he was going. I sat down right where I was and finished what was left of my cheeseburger and fries. When I had finished, I stood and looked around. Not a single frigging garbage can in sight, oh no, but can you guess what I did see? You’re right…two, count them, two Holders of Things, and Demi reminded me that you cannot under any circumstances place garbage in them. Cuz…That’s just wrong. I stuffed the paper wrappers in a catch-all holding area on the right leg of my suit, and made a mental note to remove them the first time I saw an actual garbage container. We slowly made our way back to the Green Grotto and we had almost reached our goal, when a large red dragon flew overhead, presumably on its way back to an area within the Red Grotto. I only caught a glimpse of the rider as it passed over, but I could have sworn that a demon was where the rider should be. I quickly looked around for others to be panicking, since we had obviously been infiltrated and the mountain would soon be under siege. Several of the Dragos that were out for a nightly stroll looked up as the dragon flew low over their heads. Then the oddest thing happened. They waved to the rider and he waved back. No one sounded the alarm, no one panicked, and no one drew a weapon…nothing. In my stupor, I suddenly realized that Demi was talking to me.
“Tanis, that’s Terek, and he’s a red rider. He’s supposed to be here. He’s been here for a long time and is a friend of The Ariella. He’s my friend too. Don’t shoot him!”
I realized then that Walter had already started powering up my weapons. I reached over to my left gauntlet and pressed the switch that would activate my helmet. As it slammed shut, screens began sliding into place and Walter’s voice was audible to me.
“Enemy targeted, Tanis. Weapons will be at full power in five…internal pressure is stabilizing…”
“Walter, power down immediately. That is not an enemy. Shut down auto tracking systems now.”
I could hear the whirring noise inside the helmet as Walter reversed the power-up sequence, and it occurred to me that I had managed to get my hair pulled twice in the same night. So much for advanced design.
“Demi, are you telling me that there is a demon here in the mountain?”
“Yes, Tanis, but by the fact that they are here and not trapped on the Provinces should tell you something. They have repented and were allowed to leave. They were called by the dragons and made their way here to live out the rest of their lives.”
“Demi, you said they. There are more of them? There’s more than one?
“Yes, there are several of them and I would have told you sooner or later…Probably sooner. I was hoping The Ariella would tell you before you had the chance to see them, I mean.”
“It’s okay…well, as okay as it can get. I just need time to wrap my head around it. I’ll talk to The Ariella about why she left that part out.”
Thankfully, the rest of our night went without incident. We eventually found our way back to the Green Grotto and slowly meandered past the babies until we stood just outside of our area. Now I knew, at least in part, what The Ariella had been doing while she had been away. As we entered we couldn’t help but notice all the furniture, light fixtures, knick knacks and books. But the best part was the brand spanking new sleeping mat that beckoned to me at a subliminal level, and made me groggy just looking at it. It was getting very late and I knew that shut-eye, for me at least, was becoming imminent. Tomorrow I would also find the persons responsible for the procurement of the Holder of Things and try to have one delivered to our area for Demi. I still can’t believe that she had never gotten one. Maybe it’s more than just having. Maybe it’s who gives them. So much to figure out; so much to understand…And demons in the mountain. If The Ariella will let them in, then who or what’s next?
I noticed it had gotten really quiet and I turned to see what Demi was doing. She was sitting directly behind me and it re-registered in my thoughts that she had been listening to each and every one of them. Communal minds are definitely a plus when you want the dragons to understand what you are thinking, especially when it defies your vocabulary. At other times you need to be careful what you think.
“Tanis, we don’t listen to be rude…We just listen and not always…Not always. I can’t wait for tomorrow and we can put the Holder of Things right over here between the two bookshelves. ”
“It’s not that I think you’re being rude Demi, it’s just that it does tend to take away from the surprise. Speaking of that, you’ve probably already seen the Frisbee I was going to put in it too. At least I got to say it first, if nothing else.”
She played bells in my head and then went over to examine the spot between the two bookshelves where the Holder of Things would be placed. It’s difficult to look at her and see the inner child, you know being big and green. I tried to imagine what she would look like at full growth, but failed. It occurred to me then that I would most likely see her as she was right now no matter how big she got. I know I should have just gone home or at least attempted to locate The Ariella and give her the option of staying, but the lure of sleeping in the arms of the dragon was just too great. The Ariella talked about it a lot and the sense of well being she received from it sounded like something I could really use right now. The last couple of days were beginning to wear on me, and we did have a brand new bed mat. So, I turned to ask Demi but she was already on the mat and patting the spot between her front legs. I didn’t even hesitate. I pressed the main switch and de-reticulated the armor until it was safely back in the disc, climbed over and rolled onto my back. I don’t remember falling asleep, but the feeling of floating and warmth invaded my sub-conscious, keeping me in a place of safety I had never known before. It was marvelous.
The next few days passed in a blur. We flew a lot and crashed repeatedly, although the last few times seemed to promise that the landing problems might be going away. Demi got her Holder of Things and her Frisbee. We even had a few people nod to us as we passed by them, so the open sentiments of hostility actually seem to be lessening. And check this out, The Ariella says we have even been mentioned several times without the threat of death or dismemberment. Twice we found towels right outside our area, and we’re hoping that it’s because they were catering to us and not just because we smelled funny. The Ariella had gotten me up to speed about the demons and the little grey guy. I promised her I would make the effort to go from grotto to grotto and introduce myself so that if it was all just a misunderstanding, like she said, I could do whatever to fix it. I secretly didn’t think there was that much fixing in the universe, but she had that determined look on her face and who am I to say she’s not right?
Sadly the easy life we were unaware that we were experiencing was about to change. We had been so busy trying to get up to everyone else’s standards that we hadn’t, uh, I hadn’t noticed all the unrest that had been brewing in the Gold Grotto. We decided to make it our first stop on the following evening. Tonight we had something more pressing in mind.
We had put it off long enough, and it wasn’t just me, oh no; Demi too. I had deliberately stayed away from the main pub and in my defense, so had my dragon. My first day had rather ostracized us from some of the more important people, namely Elfred and Thomas…Not to mention their dragons. I think it was mainly the dragons, now that I think about it. But like I said, it had been too long and if I didn’t apologize for not killing them soon, then The Ariella would probably arrange something that would be even more awkward than I had already conjured up in my head. None of the scenarios played out well when I mentally went through them. For instance; it gets ugly and I dart them again didn’t need to happen, but I felt I had zero control when I thought the scene through. No matter how I thought it through. The Ariella said I was making mountains out of mole hills. Funny don’t you think, from a woman who spends so much time in a mountain?
So, Demi and I saddled up, no metaphor because we actually saddled up, and made our way through the Green Grotto. We traveled slowly up the ramp that led to Commons, turned right and started north up the east wall that would bring us to the goofy looking bar that everyone referred to as a pub. We were not in a hurry.
No matter how slow you go, eventually you’ll arrive at the prescribed destination. That seems to be one of those unalterable truths of the universe, and today was not the day it would contradict itself. We stopped directly in front of the pub and I climbed down. I’m crazy not stupid, and having said that, it should come as no surprise that I pressed the main switch on my harness and released the reticulating armor plates that comprise my suit. This time I had enough foresight to pull the shroud into place first. It was always a comforting feeling to hear the familiar “chung-chung-chung” sound as the Magna completes itself and the plates bang into position. As the helmet slid into place I could see the screens moving into the three primary positions. One to the far left, one to the far right and the main screen dead center. The interior atmosphere starts with the native oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen along with the usual trace gases that are ever present. Ordinarily Walter would flush all of those out of the suit and replace them with pristine versions of the same gases, and a few others to minimize the body’s output during times of heavy exertion. Today I stopped him before the system had time to initiate.
“Walter, I’m gonna take the helmet down for a while but I might need to put it up at a moment’s notice, if you catch my drift. How about you, everything alright today?”
“Yes, Tanis, thank you. All systems have come online and are at one hundred percent efficiency. Are we going into a preemptive situation that might require a degree of assertiveness?”
Walter has a way of dealing with situations that always gives me the feeling that it’s nothing more than a walk in the park, and it always makes me laugh.
“Something like that. It’s time to make the necessary apologies and take the reprisals they will produce. I’m just not sure how it will all turn out.”
I was laughing through most of Walter’s response and trust me, this wasn’t the first time we’ve had conversations that strike me so funny. I’ve tried to explain this phenomenon to him before but his sense of humor is still very young. Walter was built only a little over a year ago. His learning curve is one step short of scary, but even an AI needs time to figure everything out.
I pressed the gauntlet switch and the helmet lowered to the down position. It was now or never. Very little rattles me, but in this case if it didn’t go well The Ariella would step in, and that wouldn’t look good to any of the principle parties. It also does zip for my macho.
Demi seemed apprehensive and kept glancing around like she was waiting for something.
“Demi, you okay?”
“I have to wait here but I can see everything and if I had to, I could force my way in.”
“I can take care of this, just trust me and no matter what happens, just wait right here; I can deal with it, I promise.”
She looked dubious but nodded her head, and I wondered if her lack of an actual answer was because she didn’t want to lie about her intentions. I guess time would tell. I turned around and made my way into the belly of the beast. Okay…Okay, it turned out to be a bunch of drunk riders and I was terminally over dramatic. It got really quiet as I entered the pub. All one hundred plus people were staring at one person, and it wasn’t the bartender. I could feel sweat beginning to roll down my back and I had an intense urge to put my helmet back up. I swallowed hard and tried to put on my best friendly face, if there is such a thing.
“My name is Tanis, and I am the rider of Demios. I don’t want to cause any trouble.”
I paused for effect but no one even so much as moved or made a sound. I took this as a relatively good sign, so I plowed ahead with my impromptu soliloquy.
“I would like to apologize to Elfred MacDougal and Thomas Arden for any and all infractions I have already inflicted upon them and their dragons. Further, I would like to apologize to any other persons for any actions I or my dragon may have made in our first few days due to ignorance on our part. My intentions are honorable and I believe that my dragon acts as proof to confirm them. She would not have called me if it was otherwise.”
“Tanis, good God man…You talk too much. You’re a rider and as such, you’re one of us. Let’s just let bygones be bygones. Come drink a Meade with us.”
Elfred’s Scottish accent was so thick I could hardly understand a word he said, but it sounded sincere enough. Thomas was standing next to him and even though he didn’t smile or give any indication that he felt the same way, there was no reason to believe he was harboring ill feelings. Elfred stood there with a mug of Meade in his hand, and a grin that stretched from ear to ear. If something looks too good to be true…you know the rest. I nodded, and armed with potential success in winning these guys over, I walked right up to the bar and took the mug of Meade that Elfred was thrusting at me. There was a commotion to Elfred’s left at almost precisely the same time as I lifted the mug in salute to the other riders. He looked around to see what the problem was and a fist landed directly at the top of his nose, pushing him into me which pushed me into Thomas. I think the only person who actually knew what was going on was the rider who threw the first punch. Depending on his level of inebriation, he may not have known either, but in any case, it was like dominoes falling with virtually no one as the instigator. But it pissed everybody off at the same time. Thomas pushed back, landing me on Elfred, as I pushed Thomas back, as Elfred pushed me into Thomas. Just like that, mass insanity, and everybody was pushing and hitting the person next to him whether they understood why they were doing it or not. It doesn’t take but a few seconds in most bar fights and the tambour escalates to real mayhem. Pushing turns into fist fights, which turns into bottles breaking over people’s heads, which then advances to true combat with people actually getting hurt. And it did just that in under a minute. The tables in the Pub were hewn out of solid rock. Consequently, landing on one of them does nothing to the table, but quite a bit to your back. The chairs, however, were made from cheap wood and were especially popular as attitude adjusters when placed just so at the back of your head. There were none left by the end of the fight. From the neck down I suffered no injuries, but from the neck up well, that was a different story. I had glass in my hair, a rather large chunk sticking out of my neck and my head hurt like it had been struck with one of the flimsy chairs. I looked around and there were riders hanging over the bar, draped across tables and only two riders still standing. Sadly, I wasn’t one of them. Thomas made his way to where I was lying on the floor and as he reached down to help me up, I saw a second hand reaching to me. I guess Elfred and Thomas had more experience in bar fights than I, but somehow they seemed to truly enjoy being the victors. Both were smiling like they had just returned from a ride at Disneyland. As they got me to my feet I wobbled unsteadily and they made sure I didn’t fall again. I could feel and hear Demi in my head, and although I felt her concern, she also knew that I was not badly injured. Elfred laughed uncontrollably as he picked glass off of my suit, and as each piece was removed he would place it in a bowl held by Thomas. For some odd reason this endeared me to the two riders and I got placed on their list of friends.
“It’s been real, gentlemen, see you tomorrow night.”
I looked around to see the woman who had spoken, and not only was she one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, but also quite naked. She saluted Thomas and made her way to the exit. Thomas responded to her but acted like it was the most common thing in the world.
“Who was the underdressed lady, guys?” I asked unbelievably.
Elfred cocked an eyebrow and looked at me sidelong.
“That would be Connie. Aye, walk softly with that one son; she’ll rip you a month a Sunday’s if yer not careful.”
Connie had stopped at the exit and was talking to guess who? Yeah, that’s right…Queen Mother, aka The Ariella, and here’s the weird part; they were both laughing and pointing to certain riders who were getting up as unsteadily as I did. Elfred explained to me that this kind of bar fight happens about once every two weeks like some kind of twisted ritual, and gives them an excuse to replace the chairs twice a month. I wouldn’t put expensive chairs in this bar either if it was me in charge. And Connie…there’s a real piece of work. Thomas picked up where Elfred had left off.
“Connie is a Halfling, which means that she’s half demon, half denizen and all claws. Her bite is much worse than her bark. She’s also a Pheromonal, which should explain the lack of clothing when she fights. I’m a little surprised she got knocked down. That doesn’t happen very often. Kind of curious too about where her clothes ended up, because she didn’t leave with them.”
The Ariella had made her way across the bar and stood there smiling at me as Elfred finished the glass removal, including the larger piece sticking out of my neck.
“Looks like you guys had fun. You win again, Elfred?”
“Aye, me and Thomas did okay, Yer Highness, but that’s only cuz you weren’t here in time to take that honor, and we’ll be thankin you for that. Looks like yer boy here did pretty good for himself too, you know bein his first time.”
I was grinning like an idiot, but in all fairness, it’s hard to listen to Elfred without laughing. His accent tended to overcome what he was saying when he got excited.
The Ariella stepped closer and looked at the blood flowing from my neck wound. She did the tsk-tsk thing with her tongue and grinned.
“You might want to have that looked at, green rider. Wouldn’t want you to bleed to death, now would we?”
I attempted to look as injured as possible and yet stoically warrioristic. I don’t think it worked, so I responded the way I had heard others answer.
“Yes, Queen Mother.”
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. I headed for the medical area, and I heard her chuckling on my way out.