The Emerald Dragon by Solitaire Parke
CHAPTER FIVE –
Well, it’s been a month since Demi and I impressed and I go everyday to watch the progress of the Emerald Grotto’s construction. The Ariella’s Corp. of Engineers is pretty damned impressive. They started with nothing more than a blank wall and somehow managed to carve it into living areas. The grotto’s location was decided by The Ariella and the section leaders, taking several sessions and one hell of a lot of arguing. To me it looked like the classic, here no – here no – here, until one spot finally seemed to be acceptable to all parties concerned. I wasn’t sure if I really cared about where it would be, as I wasn’t sure if it actually mattered. But after having listened to the others discuss the ramifications of location, location, location, it finally dawned on me as to the gravity of the permanence. It was not just a cave, but a home; not only for me and Demi, but for future riders and their dragons. Memories would be made and great deeds accomplished as the years rolled under us. The Emerald Grotto would go down in Mt. Drago’s history and it needed to be in the right place. As it turned out, the grotto would be located roughly halfway down the south wall overlooking the area known as Commons, and about a mile west of the Green Grotto aka, the Nursery; nicely centralized and in a different time zone from almost everything else. Okay, okay…not a different time zone, but damn, it sure feels like it. With a telescope I could see the entrances to most of the other grottos, and even though it would be damn near a day trip to get anywhere, I did have a dragon that could cover the distance in a fraction of the amount of time that the average man could. Not that I’m average, now mind you.
It was only a few days into the grotto’s construction that The Ariella had a stroke of good fortune. The engineers struck gold and it wasn’t just a minor vein either; it looked like the mother lode. I had wondered more than once how things were purchased and where the amenities came from, but it wasn’t really my place to be digging into the finances of Mt. Drago. It was mostly a pioneer atmosphere and there weren’t all that many things that looked retail, so to speak; but there were things that defied explanation – drilling equipment and explosives, just to mention a few. Where did The Ariella get that stuff and who paid for it? Being closely associated with her, I knew it wasn’t coming from her back pocket. She had a professional career processing land deals in the outside world but it couldn’t possibly pay for this kind of stuff. It was way too expensive and she had a butt load of it. Whatever coffers were available to her toward buying equipment just got a massive shot in the arm. And that brings to mind yet another problem that I had been wrestling with. How did she get those things delivered to the mountain without the outside world finding out? There was security to consider, and I was just now getting into the inner sanctum. It boggled the mind. Admittedly, I have only been here for a short time, but I’ve never seen any deliveries or heard of anyone going to the outside world to bring stuff in. I traveled all over the immediate area during the years that I brought The Ariella to the mountain, and as a result I know of the towns that happen to be fairly close to Mt. Drago. Once again, I can’t use the names of those towns because of security, but describing them doesn’t give it away. The closest one is about twenty miles from the mountain. The occupants of said town total to one hundred and fourteen, most of which are drunk all or part of the time, and they all talk about dragons. Several claim to have seen them on numerous occasions and believe the lair to be somewhere close, although no one seems too interested in finding it. I can’t blame them really. What would they do if they actually found the lair other than get eaten? So they sit in the only establishment in town and drink their lives away. The only other town is a sober remake of the first, and looks like a series of trailers in serious need of repair. In both cases there is virtually no commerce and they seem to have no interest in it. Neither town can possibly serve the occupants of this mountain. No way, no how. Beyond these two towns there is nothing for over a hundred miles in any direction. The Ariella chose wisely for isolation, but unwisely for pickups and deliveries.
So, when they finish digging the gold out of the side of my grotto they’ll begin again in earnest to complete our new home. Paying for the items needed is no longer a question on my mind, but how it gets from where it’s purchased to here, remains a mystery.
The foyer is, for all practical purposes, done and when they finish bringing the gold out they’ll clean everything up and it will look pretty damn good. The noise is excessive and I spend most of my time when I’m there with my fingers plugging both ears. I can still hear Demi, but that’s all I can hear. Between the explosions and the drilling it’s better if we stay someplace else until the bulk of the excavation is completed. Kind of sad really; we wanted to watch as they carved out the Emerald Grotto but we don’t want to be deaf when they’re finished.
The Nursery has been changing over the last few days. There were more women, and a considerable amount of hustle and bustle concerning the massive rows of eggs. In the Green and Brown Grottos there are sections cordoned off for unborn dragons, and although I have no idea how any of this works, my understanding is that the eggs are growing at a drastically slow rate. Over time they will all hatch and become individuals within the dragon collective – the one communal mind. Periodically the eggs are moved from the holding areas and placed into large receptacles. These look like oversized trays and hold a total of six eggs. From this point on they are referred to as a clutch and dealt with as a small collective. The Ariella makes the trek to the nurseries on a regular basis and goes through each and every clutch, touching every egg and apparently meditating. There is a lot more to this, but I have no idea what she’s actually doing during this process. Anyway, from there they are taken to yet another holding area that has several high intensity heat lamps, where they will spend about a month gestating at a faster speed until they hatch. Then each dragonette is taken to the first of three large open spaces set up in stages. Each one starts in stage one where they are fed, cleaned, and nurtured until they reach two months of age. Then they are weighed, inspected and walked over to a section designated as stage two, where they are urged to play and interact with others that are new to them, but roughly the same age. The clutches are only kept together during stage one; and upon leaving it, they are dealt with in the communal collective as if they were already independent and mature. Any one of these dragons could call for a rider at any time and are urged to cast out to the fullest of their abilities. Most of the baby dragons in stage two stay there for about a month to a month and a half, at which point they are transferred to the last and final stage. In this last leg they are allowed to make treks to the common area under supervision and are urged to interact with the Nursery’s staff as a means of social intercourse with species other than their own. This stage also lasts about a month to a month and a half. Ultimately, each and every dragon will be taken by a grotto’s section leader and guided to an area within its designated color and given a home. Blue dragons go to the Blue Grotto; red dragons go to the Red Grotto, etc. If the dragon calls for a rider during any point of the process from start to finish, the new partner is instituted into the process and eventually goes with the dragon to its new home.
Dozens of eggs have been transferred from the rows to the heat lamp area over the last few weeks; and the extra help plus all the increased activity finally culminated in the birthing of something the mountain had never seen before. Basiliskos called the new dragons the precious metals, and they included two bronze, five coppers and two silvers. These new sub-species had been unseen by the Dragos for several generations and caused a considerable hubbub in the mountain for days. The only other precious metal was of course gold, and they had been around for a very long time. Ariel, the section leader for the gold grotto spent the first few days lending a hand and helping out with knowledge concerning the newborns that seemed common to her, but certainly not to others.
I made a mental note to go and visit the newborns when I got to the mountain this evening. I was approaching month two and the grotto was progressing slowly. Demi and I were still in the Nursery. We had both stayed away from the extra activity, due to the number of people and dragons that were pouring in at all hours. The feeling portrayed by all was festive and excited. Demi loved the little ones, and for several days had been exhibiting signs of impatience concerning our absence from the area known as Stage One. I got to the mountain at my usual time, just shortly after midnight, and was in progress toward the Green Grotto when Walter snapped the screens on inside my helmet.
“Tanis, we’re getting a distress call from Abercrombie and we’ve been asked to leave immediately. I have his exact location.”
Abercrombie was the clan master of the warriors, and if he sent a distress call, then it was bad. I mentally cast for Demi and she responded within seconds.
“Go quickly, Tanis. I’ll see you when you get back. Hurry.”
She had obviously sensed the call for help and I told her I would be back as soon as possible. After making sure no one was close to me, I activated the suit’s rockets and blasted straight up toward the corridor that led to the South Entrance. Basiliskos broke into my thoughts and wished me a safe journey, only moments before I exited the mountain. We gained altitude and shot toward the first of the three Ley Gates that would see us to the Provinces. Hopefully I would find Abercrombie still alive.
The minutes dragged by and we finally began our approach to the last of the three gates. Walter adjusted for the turbulence that is ever present and we shot through, changed our course and headed for the coordinates that I could see on my heads-up display. Walter and I were showing four life signs – well human life signs, and dozens that were demonic in nature. The demonic ones hadn’t seen us yet but I was fairly sure Abercrombie had. He pressed the fight toward my position to give me a clearer shot. Abercrombie and his men were pinned down in a narrow pass that I could see led to a dead end. Strategically it was both good and bad. It was narrow enough that the bulk of the demons couldn’t attack all at once, but since there was no way out other than the way they went in, it was only a matter of time before they would be overrun. Walter loaded two rockets, and as we closed the distance to a half mile, I told him to fire them both. Abercrombie saw them immediately and he and his men turned and ran the other way. The demons stopped and I’m sure were puzzling over the oddity of their opponents’ actions, when the rockets hit. Most of the ones at the back never knew what hit them, and body parts flew in all directions at the point of impact. Ichor, Demon Blood to the uninitiated, splattered against the walls and the demons at the front, as the remainder of them surged forward into the pass. Four of the buggers actually got back up as I landed and converged on me as if nothing had happened. All four of them were of the strongest class, and built for speed and endurance. I had Walter load up the larger darts and after I shrugged off the first two demons, we fired multiples into the four of them. They dropped like sacks of lead, and I stepped over one of them as I made my way down the pass to assist Abercrombie and his men. First mistake. I should have finished them off, but my mind was on other things and in the end a demon will fulfill his role in the grand scheme of things. There were sounds of steel on steel, shouts and screams as I shortened the distance between myself and the battle. Seconds later, I saw the remainder of the demons fighting for their lives and coming up short. Now that the odds were a bit more even, Abercrombie and his men were turning the tide of the conflict. My arrival coincided perfectly with the demons deciding to turn and run. Walter had reloaded the darts and we opened fire just as the demons reversed their field. The seven that were left, only took a few uneven steps and they went down without a sound. Cutting the throats of a downed opponent seems a bit cowardly, but we are talking about demons. What they would have done to these men would have been far worse, and you should never leave the enemy where they can potentially do you more harm. A truth that began wriggling at the back of my brain, but still hadn’t manifested itself to my consciousness. I had already overlooked four of the buggers previously. When Abercrombie’s men had finished, he walked over to where I was standing, shaking his head as he approached.
“Hey, Tanis. I appreciate the help. I don’t know where they came from. It was clear one minute, and the next…You get the picture. The men here today weren’t really ready for this kind of fight but they did very well under the circumstances. It’s almost as if the demons knew we were coming.”
Right…A little background on a very important man, Abercrombie. Beyond the fact that he was the Clan Master of the Warriors, he had the dubious honor of being the only person to ever fight Cordova, an insect-like demon, and win. Who is Cordova you ask? On the Provinces the Dark Lords reign supreme, and if anything goes right or wrong, they’re almost always behind whatever it was. Directly beneath them are a series of Princes, the Dark Lord’s families, and Cordova. Imagine a seven foot tall bug with an attitude, the strength of a dozen men, and an exoskeleton that serves as a live-in suit of armor. Oh, and as old as dirt.
Several years ago Abercrombie found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, facing off to the bug in a one on one fight to the death. Somehow Cordova missed a crucial block from the broadsword flying at him, and bloop…off came his head. Of course, not before he had cut off Abercrombie’s right arm slightly above the elbow. The Clan Master almost bled out before help came along. Forever the glass half full kind of person that he was, Abercrombie outfitted his severed limb with a prosthetic arm, complete with retracting blade. In the end he became an even greater swordsman than he had been before. Go figure. An anomaly that I quite frankly don’t wish to duplicate.
Over the years I have had many opportunities to fight beside this man, all six feet of him, and regard him as not only a great fighter, but also as my friend. His arrogant is arrogant, and that coupled with what he calls his shocking blue eyes, and the fox, Cynthia, his wife, I can’t think of a person I’d rather fight or party with when the time is available. Queen Mother is also friends with these folks, but has stated that Cynthia is a little too pretty for public consumption.
I looked at the armor of the demon closest to me and recognized the series. This demon was wearing nine armor and that indicated he was no average soldier. Also, the metal looked suspiciously like meteor core and that meant it was almost impervious.
Just a note about demon technology. All of it is non powered, and I mean all of it. Electricity and combustion simply does not function on the Provinces. It puts a serious damper on technological improvement and gives us an edge, or so you would think. The problem becomes abundantly clear the first time you go over with even the simplest device and find out that yours doesn’t work either. The environment plays a key role in the explanation. Their atmosphere isn’t based on oxygen for one thing, and the real kicker is that electromagnetism is sadly nonexistent. The only form of magnetism prevalent is non-ferrous in nature. What the heck does that mean? What it means is the environmental flux waves are based on light instead of iron. Hence, everything we hold near and dear, from cell phones to electric motors, just will not function. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, explain how my suit works if technology is so sadly lacking. The suit is entirely based on non-ferrous metals and generates light oriented electromagnetism. The long and short of it is…Mine is the only form of science that will work, giving me a unique advantage most of the time. Notice I said most of the time. If my tech malfunctions, well I’m no better off than they are, and under those conditions I become no more than a paper weight. A very heavy paper weight.
The nine armor that I was looking at was the logical path their science took to overcome the lack of real science. You know, the kind that powers engines and affords us electric lights. This type of battle armor uses gears with wind up spring-loaded retractors. Every move they make is augmented with springs, giving them one hell of a lot of impact force…like to the tune of five times the force of the average demon. In theory, the retractor system works on the same principle as a compound bow where the resistance breaks over the pressure and when released, allows for a greater thrust.
“I think they did know. The armor is the latest stuff too, almost impossible to bring down without rockets or darts and the darts have to find entry between the plates. The only other method is a straight face shot, otherwise they just bounce off. You guys need to vacate fast. Seriously Abercrombie, somebody wants you dead today and they must know your itinerary.”
Abercrombie listened and nodded but held up a finger.
“Not so sure about all that, cause they weren’t fighting with all that much fervor. Maybe they just wanted us to call you. Maybe we were just an added bonus. I think we all should leave.”
“Okay, you guys get out and I’ll gather the weapons and take them to one of the drop-off points. If we don’t have honor and return the weapons to their families, then we’re no better than them. It won’t take long.”
Abercrombie shook hands with me, the prosthetic hand, and gathered his men together. They double-timed past me on their way to the opening of the pass. Fifteen minutes later it occurred to me that I had forgotten the four demons at the pass opening. I had been ignoring the blinking lights at the far left of my helmet and it clearly showed the four beings moving. Worse, there was a red light blinking on the far right that meant communication problems with my AI. He can only blink a light so loud and if I’m not paying attention, well whose fault is that? Needless to say, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge, and I pressed the activator switch for the rockets. I would just blast my way straight up and go find a safe place to work out the bugs in our communications. A bell started ringing and a series of faders popped up in my heads-up display. The rocket boosters had just failed and I wasn’t going anywhere. Okay, in lieu of technology sometimes it’s best to just run – and I did.
Three steps later I knew something critical had malfunctioned. I was slowing down and it felt like I was running through thick oatmeal. Each step got harder, and I finally came to a halt and felt the ground starting to quake. Without the ability to move it doesn’t take much to knock you down, and with that having been said, I saw the ground approaching my face in slow motion. I could still move my arms and I managed to reach the left gauntlet where the reset switches were and had just pressed them, when I impacted with the ground. It was moving of its own volition now and was bobbing me around like a trampoline. It was right about then that the left wall of the pass caved in and fell on the exact spot where I was lying face down. It got dark and very, very quiet. I couldn’t hear any hissing noises, so I was pretty sure the suit had taken the impact and stayed sealed. That was the good news, but I couldn’t move or communicate with Walter to affect any procedure to extricate myself from the mountain that just fell on me. I couldn’t see the inside of the visor and I was fairly sure my right arm was trapped under me. Sixty seconds went by, then another, when I saw a tiny red light blinking in the center of my helmet. Battery power, but still power. All of the screens flickered and turned back off. Another sixty seconds and I felt the back plates attempt to open. It wasn’t going to happen, too much mountain on me. Then the interior lights came on and scratching noises with high pitched feedback. All of it ceased and the lights went off; then the suit powered up. One screen after another came up, settled into place, and was followed by another and then another. I could see the outline of the suit and the obstruction prohibiting me from getting up…A mountain sized obstruction far exceeding the amount I could lift.
“Tanis, can you hear me?”
Walter’s voice was like music to my ears.
“Yes, I can hear you. What’s happening to us? Why did we power down, and even more important, how do we get out?”
As Walter spoke to me he showed me on the internal screens how the power outage had occurred.
“The Solarium battery packs shorted as we exited the last Ley Gate and as I attempted to bypass them, the signal reversed and went through the shorted circuits. The result was initially communications failure so I couldn’t tell you. The secondary circuits went shortly after that, producing a complete power cessation. We are presently running on a spare backup system that will last approximately one hour before total failure.”
Okay, so the long and short of it, (no pun intended) was we had one hour to find a way out or we were history. I don’t do history. I do science, and in science there is always a third alternative. You just have to find it. Looking at the heads-up display I could see that one arm was pushed out to the side and one was tucked under me. Using maser blasts was out of the question; my hands were simply facing the wrong directions. Super heating the surroundings would only sink me deeper underneath the mass holding me down. It wasn’t looking too good. Think, Tanis…If I fire darts, they sink into the ground beneath me, useless. Firing the disruptors won’t help unless they contact something alive, and even then how much would the vibrations change my situation. The waveform produced by the disruptors was designed to well, disrupt living tissue and I don’t think there is much of that around me at the moment. One of my legs is in the correct position for thrust if I activate the boot rockets, but the other leg is at a rather precarious angle that would force me in a circle, if I could even get movement at all. Doubtful, very doubtful and more likely it would bring the mass tighter around me. Crap. Then it hit me, a large enough explosion aimed in the right direction might dislodge me from the grotesque amount of dirt and rock pinning me down. It might also blow me to kingdom come. Only one way to find out and what did I really have to lose? I stay buried and after an hour I die from suffocation; I detonate the explosives and either extricate myself or reduce myself to tiny bits of Tanis confetti. I decided to confer with Walter and see what he thought.
“Walter, can you move the rocket tracks from the breast plates to the shoulder ports and then fire two of them at opposite fifteen degree angles?”
The center screen changed and showed me the rocket tracks moving and the ports altering angles. Twin green lights blinked, replaced by two red lights and then a three dimensional simulation of the mountain moving during the detonation.
“Tanis, there is a seventy seven percent chance of success utilizing this procedure. I suggest we use this method as it seems to be the only means by which to gain egress. I can be ready to fire the rockets at your command in sixty four seconds.”
Well, I see this as a no-brainer, and going up in a fiery ball is infinitely preferable to suffocation.
“Fire when ready!.”
Sixty four seconds doesn’t sound like much until you wait under the situation of impending death. Then it takes forever. Walter said nothing for fifty nine seconds, and when he finally spoke I started, nearly coming out of my skin. The silence had been deafening. His five second countdown resounded in my ears, followed by a whirring noise, a rush of air…and then an explosion to beat all explosions. I felt the suit being forced down into the ground beneath me and then the predicted reaction to the action. Me and the mountain were heading up at a tremendous velocity but none of the pieces, including me, were flying straight and true. I was flipping end over end, causing me to see the sky and the ground intermittently at a dizzying rate. Large chunks of rock and debris kept impacting with me, changing my trajectory and causing the angle of my ascent to change every few seconds. Eventually, I began to feel the movement slowing as all of the chunks, including me, reached the highest altitude before starting the descent. The screens inside my helmet kept flashing on and off and bells were ringing in my ears. Then everything got quiet; one second followed by another, and then I impacted with the ground. All the other chunks around me did too, and then the mountain, severely rearranged, came crashing down until the pile blotted out the light and I was buried again. The lights inside my helmet snapped back on, the screens slid into place and I stood up. Loose dirt and a butt load of silt had been the only thing between me and freedom.
I’m told that freedom always has a price, and today’s price tag was the highest I had ever paid. I made it about fifty feet and two rounds of diagnostics. The communications worked intermittently, both hand and foot rocket boost was down for the count, and the back plates were so severely damaged that I couldn’t get the suit to de-reticulate. I was in a crippled man- shaped trash can and a long way from home. It also occurred to me that the area had recently been a battleground and could become one again at any time. It took me three attempts to get Walter to activate the homing beacon, and in all honesty, I was surprised that it worked. Now all I had to do was stand here until my support staff came to pick me up, oh, and eat humble pie. I’d probably draw a reprimand as well. The Council of Elders are about the only ones who have any jurisdiction over me and they’re generally lenient, but for acts of stupidity like the one I just performed I think they’ll probably make an example out of me. No warrior is to ever run missions alone unless they’re designed to be executed that way. I should have had Abercrombie help me with the weapons but if I had, they may have been killed by the same thing that trapped me. I didn’t tell him where I was going afterward, well, you get the idea. Too many infractions and way too much disaster.
The good news is that I wasn’t attacked again after the breakdown and my support team picked me up quickly after I set off the beacon. I drew a reprimand and was sentenced to run missions only if I had a partner. I didn’t get to pick who that was, and they assigned Rebecca, who is the wife of the clan master over the Scouts. She’s nice enough, but has somewhat of a mean streak and doesn’t like machinists. The suit that I wear marks me as a machinist, and albeit there are not many of us, there are others. I’m told it gives us too much power, but I would argue that considering what just happened to me. Anyway, when I got back to the mountain Demi was concerned for me and openly showed sympathy for my…accident. The Ariella, on the other hand, did not. She was pissed and I got a thirty minute lecture on etiquette. I’ve learned over the years that when she really gets angry it’s best if you just stand there and take it, and reply with the only answer she will accept which is…”Yes, Queen Mother.” Then she storms off, but when you see her later it’s as if it never happened. If nothing else, she’s fair.
Just as a side note, I do have a spare suit, and the technicians who work on my armor told me I would have my primary back inside of a week.