“Have you ever hunted a dragon before?” I asked Eos.
She snorted and shook her head. “There hasn’t been an active dragon since before I became Jupiter. Total null. I barely even remember studying them during training, except as a curiosity. Gigantic sleeping things which can fly and breathe a variety of deadly things. What type of dragon did Daedalus say this was supposed to be?”
“Western dragon,” I said. “Brown with gold highlights.”
“Huh. I don’t remember anything about brown dragons.”
I had to rifle through my own memory for a minute to turn up anything relevant. Then it took another minute to sift through what I did remember, by which time Eos was giving me a weird look. “Sorry, there’s a lot up here,” I said, tapping the side of my head. “Sometimes it takes a minute.”
“Ah. I get that. Kinda. So, what does your mighty brain have to offer?”
I smiled, then looked out at the ocean. “The subspecies brown dragons – draconis coloratllis – are most closely related to the very rare gold dragons. Which means they’re medium sized, for dragons, and are supposed to be comparatively friendly.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Even a ‘friendly’ dragon is something you should be automatically wary of under the best of circumstances.” I paused for a moment, then resumed my recitation. “Like all dragons, they tend to be very territorial, only sharing territory with a chosen mate, and they mate for life. Like gold and red dragons, they’re fire-breathers.”
I nodded. “And largely impervious to mortal weaponry. If I remember correctly, Mars did an assessment of dragon scale armor vs. modern mortal weaponry back in the 1970s, and found that it took massed machine-gun fire or an RPG round to even scratch them.”
“Tough hide, then.”
“And how does one track a brown dragon?” Eos asked.
I reviewed my mental notes again and made a thoughtful sound in the back of my throat. “Western dragons, from what I’ve read, spend equal amounts of time on the ground and in the air when they’re actually active. If this one just woke up, it might still be spending most of its time on the ground. I guess we start by looking for tracks.” I pointed uphill from where we were standing. “In those rocky outcroppings would probably be a good place to start. There might be caves up there, and that’s the kind of place a dragon would lair.”
Eos nodded, and we started walking in that direction. “So what do we do if we find it? Ask it nicely if it’ll come along?”
I shrugged a little. “It’s as good a starting plan as any. We can offer it safety from the modern mortal world, easy meals, companionship…it’s a good deal.”
“Mm,” Eos shook her head a little. “In exchange for what amounts to imprisonment.”
“The sphinxes don’t mind,” I pointed out.
“The sphinxes, dear heart, are highly intelligent, knew they were about to be hunted into extinction,” Eos said gently, “and they were aware of how vulnerable they were. I rather think a full-grown dragon will feel differently.”
I grimaced. She was probably right. What I knew about dragons – especially the part about them being very territorial – didn’t lend itself to a lot of hope about one coming peacefully to live in what, as Eos had said, amounted to a very cushy prison.
“Then we try to knock it out,” I said, “and hope that Daedalus has what he needs to keep it from breaking out once we have it locked up.”
We exchanged a look. Eos’s expression spoke eloquently of her doubt on that matter, and I’m sure my expression was much the same. We did, after all, have to deal with semi-regular breakouts by some of the less intelligent and more brute force-oriented inmates. In spite of his – and our – best efforts to keep it from happening.
Eos sighed. I nodded. “Yeah, not much of a hope, is it.”
“Male,” Eos asked, “or female?”
“Female,” I said. “Daedalus already has a male in the Menagerie, and is hoping the female will be interested in mating with him.”
Eos stopped walking, and after a couple of steps I did too. She was staring at me with open-mouthed disbelief. “He wants to breed dragons?”
I giggled. “When you put it that way, it sounds absolutely insane. But yeah, that’s about the size of it. I think he’s hoping to help repopulate the species a bit.”
Eos covered her eyes with her hand and muttered something in Old Norse. She’d picked up the habit of swearing in Old Norse from her mother, a Valkyrie. I found it both amusing and endearing, even if it did remind me – rather guiltily – that it had been about four years since I’d gone to see my father. And I still hadn’t introduced Eos to him.
I smiled. “Yeah, I don’t disagree.”
“You don’t even know what I said.”
“Nope. But I’m pretty sure, from tone and context, that it was meant to peel paint and whither flowers.”
She grunted, and we started walking again. “I guess now I understand why you called Vulcan. We might need that big hammer of his.”
“Yeah, we might. But let’s hope not,” I said.
We reached the tall, uneven stone outcroppings that were up the rise from the cliff we’d arrived at, and began hunting for a suitable-sized cave. To do so, we put on our helmets and used a built in feature that mapped terrain. In a few minutes, we had the locations of a half-dozen well concealed caves that might’ve been big enough for an adult dragon.
“Which one do we start with?” Eos asked. “Or should we split up?”
“We stay together,” I said firmly.
Eos smiled. “I figured you’d see it that way. Nearest to furthest?”
“Might as well. Let’s go.”
The first two caves would’ve been interesting to students of geology or spelunkers, but were wholly empty except for the occasional signs of wild animals having used them as dens at some time in the past. The third cave was more interesting.
It wasn’t the largest cave our scans had found, but it was close. More importantly, it was hidden from sight at ground level by a large outcropping of stone, and had a series of natural stone ‘steps’ that would’ve been easy for something the size of a dragon to use to climb and find a place to take off from.
The ground in front of and around it was hard stone, with nothing soft enough for even a dragon to have left any tracks for us to find. But there was a strange, not unpleasant, but very distinctive spicy smell lingering in the air, like a mix of pepper and cinnamon with just a hint of…something I couldn’t put my finger on.
There was also a soft rumbling sound that came faintly to our ears from deep inside the cave, slow, steady, and rhythmic.
Eos touched her helmet, then subvocalized, so that only I could hear her, “Is that breathing?”
I nodded, eyes wide, and replied the same way. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it is.”
“Well said.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “You wait here. I’m going to make myself invisible and go take a peek.”
She reached out and took my hand before I could do anything. “I don’t think I want you going in there at all, let alone by yourself.”
I twined my fingers with hers and squeezed gently. “Relax. It’ll be just like Bilbo and Smaug, but I won’t be stupid enough to try and hold a conversation with this dragon.”
She shuddered gently. “You’re crazy. But I suppose we need to know for certain. Let me go instead.”
I shook my head. “No dice, love. I can shift myself out of phase with the rest of the world, as well as making myself invisible. You can’t do that. It’s safer for me to go, like it or not.”
I could almost hear her grinding her teeth under her helmet. Finally, she sighed and released my hand. “Fine, be rational and logical about it. But I expect to hear from you every five minutes or less, or I’m coming in and extracting you by force, Daedalus and his breeding program be damned.”
Having seen her blast a juiced-up hydra in half, I had little doubt that she’d be able to take down a dragon if she put her mind to it. But I didn’t want her to have to. “Every five minutes or less. Yes, love.” I gave her a quick hug, then hurried into the cave before she could notice that my knees were shaking at the thought of facing a full-grown dragon.
I also went quickly because I was afraid of my own nerve giving out. Sure, I could shift out of phase so I could interact with the dead…but there were plenty of immortal creatures that could interact with the dead naturally, and I did not know if dragons were among that number. I hoped Eos wouldn’t realize that and come charging in before I returned.
At the entrance to the cave, I glanced back at her, fixing an image of Eos and her surroundings in my mind. If something went wrong, I could Step back to her in a heartbeat, and we could both get clear before something bad could happen.
At least, I hoped that would be the case. I really, really hoped that would be the case.
With an effort of will that had become second nature to me, I made myself invisible, intangible, and activated the magic in my boots that silenced my footsteps and prevented me from leaving tracks. Then I remembered, from my very first field assignment, the minotaur I’d gone head-to-head with saying that he’d been able to smell me, and made a mental note to look into adding that as an additional enchantment if it wasn’t covered by the existing ones. I couldn’t remember now if I’d had any of them active at the time.
Swallowing my fear, I started into the cave entrance and walked into the darkness within, thankful – not for the first time – for the night vision enchantment on my helmet. I had no plan to fight, or even to think of trying to fight, so I left Cerberus and my shield sheathed and folded away.
Dragons, after all, are the stuff of heroic tales…and as many heroes fall to dragons as successfully slay them. Their hides were as strong as my armor, and their claws and teeth were some of the few things in the world (such as, I hoped, my Cerberus) able to penetrate that hide. They were smarter than most humans I’d met, and could live for thousands of years, giving them a wealth of experience to draw on.
They were, in short, deadly opponents. There were stories of older dragons fighting gods to a standstill, causing them permanent injury…or even killing them. And I had no idea how old this one was.
Nervous sweat beaded on my forehead, and I felt a droplet slide down my spine, making me shiver.
For several minutes, I crept along the uneven stone floor, carefully making my way around the occasional outcropping of stone. Some of those had tops that had been broken off and were lying several feet away…a few had even been crushed to pebbles. Something large and strong definitely lived in tis cave.
Near one of those crushed chunks of stone, I saw four horizontal grooves gouged in the stone floor. Curious, I stopped to look at them; they were about a foot deep, starting out almost as wide as my arm and tapering to a narrow point. They were spread out, the width of them looked like they would stretch from the top of my head almost to my knees.
Claw marks. Holy shit. Still, this meant that the dragon – still assuming that’s what it was, of course – wasn’t full grown.
Or, I supposed, it meant that the claw marks had been made a while ago. I firmly reminded myself to make no assumptions until I saw the creature.
The floor of the tunnel sloped slowly downward, working its way into the ancient stone of the cliff. I crept steadily downwards, taking my time…and losing track of time a little. At exactly five minutes – judging by the clock in my helmet’s magical Heads Up Display – Eos’s voice murmured in my ear, as if she was standing directly next to me, “Everything okay so far?”
“So far so good,” I subvocalized, letting my helmet’s sensitive pickup carry my otherwise silent words to her. “Just a long tunnel, slowly descending and curving. I found some claw marks in the floor a ways back…big.”
“Define ‘big’ please.”
“Big enough to pick me up,” I said. “Not big enough to completely engulf me. That’s a rough guesstimate.”
There was a long moment of silence before she replied. “Lovely. Please be careful.”
I smiled a little. “Careful as I can be.”
The tunnel continued down for another ten minutes, curving left and right at random. I kept a closer eye on the time and contacted Eos twice before she could call me. I finally came to a sharp curve that went off to the right, and peered around the corner carefully before proceeding.
I was terribly glad that I did. The tunnel ended a few yards further on, opening up into a huge cavern, in which lay a dragon on a huge – and, to my mind, entirely cliché – pile of treasure.
Seriously. Enormous mounds of coins – gold, silver, copper and more – and gems in every imaginable shape and size. The mounds of coins were broken up by pieces of art wrought of or decorated with the same materials, from vases and drinking horns to weapons that looked exquisitely decorative rather than practical.
Long-lost treasures lined the walls, mostly statuary and pottery, broken up here and there by damaged suits of armor of various styles and materials. Along one curved wall hung an array of weapons damaged beyond usefulness; spears and swords dominated, but I saw two war hammers and three different types of polearms as well. Most likely they had belonged to heroes who had tried to slay the dragon in times long past.
All of that was still less interesting than the dragon herself. I stayed very still and examined her.
She was undeniably beautiful; huge and majestic even half-curled in sleep, with her wings folded against her broad back and the tip of her tail flipped over her snout. Her hide, which was made of overlapping scales, was indeed a rich brown, dappled here and there with irregular patches of glittering gold.
I guessed her to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 feet long from her somewhat blunt nose to the end of her spade-tipped tail. When standing, she might be as much as 18 feet tall with her head erect, and her wingspan looked like it was probably somewhere in the range of 70 feet. Slightly smaller than the full-grown adult dragons I’d read about, but not significantly so.
Not as big as the hydra we’d fought, but big enough to make me sweat. And where the hydra had plainly been just an animal (however magical or mutated), with an animals intellect , the dragon’s face – even in sleep – somehow gave the distinct impression of both intelligence and cunning. Beyond her obvious physical assets, she would undoubtedly be a canny and dangerous opponent.
And Daedalus wanted us to bring her in alive.
I was so intent on studying her that I almost jumped out of my skin when Eos’s voice said, “Everything OK?” in my right ear.
I got my breathing back under control quickly and replied, “Everything’s fine. Found her. Give me a minute.”
I returned my attention to the dragon…and was startled to the gleam of eyes through slits in her previously closed eyelids. As I watched, her nostrils flared a bit, and her eyes opened slightly wider, her gaze gliding slowly around the room in my general direction.
I must have made some sort of noise when Eos startled me. Without waiting for anything more, I immediately Stepped back to the entrance of the cave, appearing at Eos’s side in a heartbeat. She hadn’t moved since I’d gone into the cave, and now hugged me tightly.
“Are you okay?” She asked. “What happened? Why the instant retreat?”
“She woke up,” I said, feeling a little shaky. “One second she was sound asleep, and the next second her eyes were open just a bit and she was trying to get the scent of whatever had woken her.”
“Lovely. So, do we try talking to her before beating her up?”
I took a deep breath and let it out, a bit surprised by how much of an effect a quick sight of dragon eyes had had on me. I was a professional monster hunter, by all the gods.
Then I remembered the old stories about dragon fear…how the gaze of a dragon could cause fear in those it fell on, and how even their presence could cause some animals to panic and bolt. I guess they were true, though I wondered why my helmet – which had protected me from the petrifying gaze of gorgons, after all – hadn’t stopped it.
Maybe it had blunted it. I hadn’t panicked, after all…my retreat at that moment had been perfectly to plan and quite rational.
“She didn’t immediately attack, and didn’t look overtly hostile. I think,” I said, “we’ll call Vulcan, have him here standing by, and go try to talk to the dragon first. Who knows, she might like the idea of relocating to somewhere without any risk at all of humans finding her.”
“You’re the boss,” Eos said cheerfully. “And I like your idealism. Not that I disagree…after blasting that hydra last week, I’d rather not fight another giant angry monster yet.”
I gave her an amused look. “Still recharging?”
Eos hesitated a moment, then smiled wryly. “If we confront the dragon underground, love, I won’t be able to call down lighting on that order of magnitude.”
A point I hadn’t considered. “Well, if it comes to that – and I really, really hope that it doesn’t – we’ll just have to try to lure her out into the open.”
Eos grimaced and nodded. “Better call Vulcan now, just in case.”
“Have you ever hunted a dragon before?” I asked Eos.