“Tell me again: how far down?”
Melusine pressed her lips together and glared at me. The wind yanked at her jacket. Behind her, Linwood was doing his best to look invisible and failing miserably. A mixed party of d’Anjou International speleologists, biospeleologists, paleontologists, and dracologists hovered around us. Kaufman and Hernandez whispered to one another and rolled their eyes. Collins and Hutchinson openly watched us; Collins looked vaguely concerned, his gaze narrowed, while Hutchinson seemed to be enjoying the show. Chasco and Ki pretended to study their equipment, shoulders rigid.
Melusine glanced at the large hole in the ground next to our feet. Rocks and small boulders lined the edge, the stone gleaming black in the mid-morning sunlight.
She turned back to me and crossed her arms. “Four hundred and twenty hundred meters straight to the bottom of the cave. Then another fifty meters through a tunnel. Then fifty meters through a river. Then the lake. The skeleton’s right there on the shore. Easy peasy.”
My turn to glare. “Is the river submerged?”
“Yep. The whole length.”
“How deep is the lake?”
“At least sixty meters, but it’s shallow with a gentle grade along the shore. Like I said, easy peasy.”
“Uh.” He swallowed and stared at me over Melusine’s shoulder, his eyes too big behind his glasses. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, Rhone?”
“Did the drone pick up any biomatter traces in the river or lake?”
“Uh.” He hesitated, gaze darting towards Melusine even as he kept his head towards me. “Yes? I mean, yes.”
I grit my teeth, fighting the urge to reach down his throat and pull out the words. “And?”
“Oh, uh, and high? High probability of mini-drakes. Definite traces of spoor in the water.”
“Gods damn it.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. This was why I silenced my phone on my days off. But not last night. No, last night I had met up with friends in Vancouver, hit a few bars, hooked up with a cute redhead, kissed said cute redhead, and then woken up at his place at four in the morning to the sound of Melusine’s ringtone.
(For the record, it’s the Psycho theme.)
(She hates it.)
(I’m never changing it.)
Collins, per corporate directive, had met me at the airport. Five hours and thirty-seven minutes of bumpy, bouncy flight in a prop plane and a helicopter later and here we were, standing on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
Melusine punched me in the arm. “Well? Are you going to suit up or am I going to have to call Mom?”
And this is why working with family is a terrible, terrible idea.
“Is the skeleton intact?”
Melusine jutted her thumb over her shoulder. “From what Linwood and Ki and I could make out on the drone’s camera and thermals, yes. And — ” she scooted forward, voice low “ — all of the teeth are there, too. Including five fangs. This wasn’t some run of the mill dragon, Rhone. It looks like a Cadmean.”
I blinked. The bones themselves were worth a fortune. Any dragon bones were valuable, period. Witches, alchemists, shamans, museums, universities, bored billionaires; everyone wanted a piece, for everything from spellwork to trance journeys to education to bragging rights.
But a Cadmean dragon? With teeth that could grow into perfect, virtually unkillable, pathologically loyal soldiers?
It would be a bidding war. Every government in the world would line up for the chance to buy just one tooth.
Assuming they followed the rules and actually bid on the teeth and didn’t just take them.
They had tried that with Dad. It hadn’t gone so well. Especially for Dad.
I studied the assembled d’Anjou International employees from the corner of my eye. Chasco and Ki were still fiddling with the drone controls. Kaufman was going through her chemical test strips. And so on.
Granted, we were way the hells up in the Coast Mountains, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest thing that could be called civilization. Only sat-phones could get a signal, and Melusine and Chasco had the only ones, but —
We had been outbid on two exploration sites in the last year. And we had lost the claim on a third — where a chi dragon skeleton had turned up — when the paperwork went missing. And a handful of small bones, little pieces from a mušḫuššu, had vanished during transport from d’Anjou International headquarters to a research coven in South America.
Maybe I was seeing a pattern where there wasn’t one. Maybe I had just spent too much time obsessing over my dead father’s mistakes, determined not to repeat them. Maybe I had spent too much time talking to dead dragons and not enough time in bed with cute redheads, and it was making me paranoid.
“Fine.” I shifted closer to Melusine, poking my finger at her nose. “But you and Linwood are staying up here. Everyone else is coming down where I can keep an eye on them.”
She gave me an exasperated look. “Fine,” she mimicked. “Even though that doesn’t make any sense. Now suit up.” Another shoulder punch and she strode away, issuing orders, Linwood trailing in her wake.
Twenty minutes later, I was in helmet and gloves and a full harness. Long nylon ropes dropped through the hole in the earth. The floor of the cavern was just barely visible where red flares had been laid out.
As I stepped to the edge and triple-checked my knots, Melusine stopped in front of me.
I looked up.
“I know you’re just being paranoid, Rhone, but be careful, okay? I only have one baby brother.”
“And you don’t want to have to call Mom.”
“And I don’t want to have to call Mom. Now get going. I want that skeleton staked, claimed, analyzed, and transported before anyone else hears so much as a whisper of a rumor about it.”
I saluted. “Yes, ma’am.”
And then I was over the edge, the whizz of the rope through the harness loud in my ears. Hernandez zipped past me, going too fast. Collins followed me down, pulled up parallel, and stayed there the rest of the way to the cavern floor.
It was noticeably warmer down here. An updraft tugged at my hair. I held up a red light, spotting the half-dozen holes in the wall that led to other caverns. The entrance far over on the left contained more red lights, eventually lost around a curve.
Doubtful that any of the other caverns held dragons, too. They were territorial creatures, even in death.
Collins kicked open the trunk that held my wetsuit, diving helmet, and tanks.
I quickly unclipped my harness. “I’ll get those.”
Collins glanced back at me, shrugged, and ambled away to help Hernandez with the live sample traps. (Because for some people, bugs are more interesting than dragons.)
I stripped off the harness and, in a matter of minutes, had my climbing clothes swapped out for a thermal wetsuit. The air may have been warmer down here than up on the surface, but the water would still be cold enough to bring on hypothermia without protection.
Ki made his way around the room, handing out camera and mic units and small tablets, all hooked into the same signal. When he reached me, he checked it, then handed it over with a nod. I checked it, too. He scowled at me. I ignored his scowl, slipped the hook over my right ear, and said, “Alpha, beta, gamma.”
“Delta, epsilon, zeta.” Melusine’s voice was loud and tinny in my ear, but clear.
From beside the laptop and drone equipment, gigantic headphones over his ears, Chasco gave me a big thumbs up and a grin. One by one, the other members of the team did the same; Collins was last.
“Headed down the tunnel.”
Diving helmet in hand, I eyeballed Collins as he hefted my air tank over his shoulder and made for the red lights. I followed, the others a few steps behind, the rock closing in around us as we exited the first cavern. The floor of the tunnel was uneven, patches of loose pebbles keeping our steps slow and deliberate. The red lights cast a dull sheen across the walls and made Collins’ hair bright. The tunnel narrowed and twisted, then narrowed again. I turned sideways, holding my helmet out. Behind me, Hutchinson curled her nose in distaste and pressed a hand to the wall.
The tunnel narrowed again, the ceiling curving down to skim the top of my head. I bent my knees and twisted awkwardly, sidling through a passage that was now only slightly wider and taller than me. The grunts and annoyed mutters of the crew echoed around me and through the headset.
And then the tunnel was gone, opening onto a small room. The ceiling curled up again, but was still low enough for me to reach if I stretched my arms. A dozen water-tight transport rigs sat waiting to one side, ready to carry the skeleton, bone by bone, back to civilization. Most of the floor space was filled by a pool of water that disappeared under the far wall. A safety line was hammered into the floor, stretching to dip into the water; far, far away, the other end was attached to a drone that sat on the shore of a subterranean lake, next to a dragon skeleton that hadn’t seen a human being in a hundred thousand years.
(Almost poetry. I should write that down and use it to impress the cute redhead.)
Walking to the edge, I stared down into the dark water.
Flickers of shimmering black on black.
“Don’t call me that.”
“There are definitely mini-drakes.” Hutchinson popped into my peripheral vision, her face alight with excitement. Hernandez peered over her shoulder, looking only faintly interested in something that was not entomological. “I think these may have retained or evolved some form of visual perception. They’re attracted to the lights.”
“Cool. A new subspecies. I’ll have Hutchinson snag a few live samples for study. Are you getting in the water or what?”
“Twenty-six percent share, and don’t you forget it.”
“Mom owns fifty.”
“Bite me. Get swimming.”
I pulled on the helmet, standing still as Collins twisted and snapped it into place. He didn’t scowl as I double-checked his work, then held out his hand to help me awkwardly step-slip-slide into the pool of water.
Not a pool. Definitely a river. Strong current hit my ankles, almost pulling me under. The water rushed from ahead and below, past me, and through an exit somewhere in the floor behind me. Collins gripped my hand tighter, holding on until I was steady on my feet.
I nodded my thanks. I clipped onto the safety line, flipped on the red headlamps mounted onto the helmet, and sank below the surface of the water.
Mini-drake. It was a wriggly black worm, almost as long as my forearm. Sharp teeth scratched frantically at my helmet.
It swam away and four more appeared, surrounding my head.
I kicked forward, pulling them along with me. Away from the pool, into the tunnel. The red lights behind me disappeared. Dark, dark all around, and cold. The current pushed at me, trying to shove me backwards along the safety line.
More mini-drakes. A swarm of them, battering at my helmet, teeth scraping and scratching. All I could see were hungry streaks of black in reddish light, their eyes wide and pink. A few more hits, and the helmet would begin to crack.
I hated this part.
Gritting my teeth, I lifted my left arm in front of my helmet. Then I pulled away a small adhesive patch above my wrist.
I only had a moment to feel the cold, the water seeping inside my suit.
The mini-drakes immediately attacked the exposed flesh. They dove, ravenous, wriggling. One bite, two, five. I lost count. Blood dribbled into the water, carried away by the current —
— and the mini-drakes were gone.
Hissing at the pain, I sealed up the patch again. Water and blood made the inside of the sleeve sticky.
However far back my dragon ancestor had been, it was still close enough to offer a few advantages. Bone talkers had been trying alternatives for centuries, but only warm blood fresh from the vein ever worked. And it was always stronger in males than females.
I grabbed the safety line again, this time with my right hand. The current was still pushing at me. I kicked forward, fighting the current, moving further into the cold and dark.
A cross-current hit me in the shoulders, twisting me in the water.
Another subterranean river; or this one had split at some point in the distant past, finding fissures in the rock to exploit and wear away.
I grunted, grasping the rope with both hands, and kept moving forward.
And then the rope was angling gradually up.
My head broke the surface of the water. I kept going until I felt sand and rock beneath my feet. Still holding onto the line, I tipped my head back to look around.
Above, the red lights from my helmet fell onto nothingness. The ceiling was too high. The walls to the right and left stretched a good eighty meters in either direction, wrapping around to meet abruptly in a sheer rock face. And at the base of that stone wall lay the dragon.
There was no gold here, no mountain of jewels. Cadmean dragons didn’t hoard precious metals. Born of Ares’ blood and seed and the mud of the earth, they were unapologetic carnivores, preferring to hunt and kill and terrorize. And this one lay on a pile of bones and antlers and horns and fur deeper than I was tall, its body and tail curled round and round and round.
Empty eye sockets stared at me.
I waited. Waited for the wave of primal terror to wash over me as it did other people, to drive me away, screaming and pissing.
The terror never came. It never did.
“I can see that, thank you.”
“You doing good up there?”
“I can handle it. Linwood is hyperventilating, though.”
“Good visual on our tablets. We’re holding steady, sir.”
I sloshed onto the shore and peeled off my air tank. The drone sat patiently, treads holding it in place against the loose pebbles and slick rock and bones. A small camera spun to track me, two red lights illuminating the area around it. I popped open the water-tight compartment in the back, pulling out more lights.
“I’m going to take a look around.”
“Negative. Patch yourself up first.”
“This is not negotiable, Rhone. If you die from infection, I will kick your ass.”
I dropped the lights back into the compartment and pulled out a small med kit. I flinched as I flipped back the glove and twisted the arm of my wetsuit up and out of the way. The flesh around my wrist was badly torn. Dozens of needle thin teeth marks and slivered cuts had shredded the scar tissue left by previous encounters with mini-drakes all over the world. I closed the worst with suture strips, slathered antibiotic all over my wrist, and wrapped it in a triple layer of gauze.
“Satisfied. Now let’s get a better look at this thing. Get off the ground, Linwood. Just keep breathing.”
I pulled out the lights again, leaving my sleeve twisted out of the way, and made my way around the right side of the pile of bones and fur. I dropped lights as I walked, slowly bringing more of the skeleton into detail.
The flesh and organs were long gone, melted and sloughed away and fermented into mini-drakes millennia ago. Only the bones were left, and they looked pristine. A nasty spike on the end of the tail, ribs arcing down in a hollow tube from the spine, wrapping round and round, gradually growing in size and width until they reached the skull. The five fangs — the distinguishing mark of a Cadmean dragon — were as wide around as my thigh, ending in hollow points.
I wondered if there were any traces left of the venom.
Add that to the list of things for the bidding war.
The eye sockets, as long as my arm, were watching, waiting.
I went farther around to the right, eventually reaching the back wall. Crevices criss-crossed the floor, stone flaking away beneath my feet. I slowed, creeping forward a footstep at a time. Immediately at the base of the wall, a wide crevice yawned, big enough to swallow me whole. I dropped to one knee and peered down into the darkness. Nothing. I found a small rock and tossed it in.
Down, down, down.
“Are you done playing?”
“No, but yes. Let me check around the other side and then we’ll start talking.”
The left side of the mountain of bones held no surprises. Shimmering black rock lined with crevices, antlers and hooves, leathery fur, and the skull, constantly watching me though it never moved.
“Okay. Give me a few minutes to ground and center.”
I returned to the front of the mountain, sidling around the drone. The camera whirred as it followed me. I found a relatively even piece of ground, dropped into a lotus position, and closed my eyes.
Even breaths, in, out, in, out.
Earth all around me, beneath, above.
Darkness. Darkness. Dark.
I opened my eyes, finding the dragon’s gaze still fixed on me. I had no idea how much time had passed. I stood, lifted my arm, stretched out my injured arm. Closer. My fingers brushed the bone, pressed firm against the central fang. I angled my wrist, the bloody bandages touching the skeleton.
Ancient hunger. Herds of elk and moose, wild hogs and centaurs, nests filled with griffin eggs. Tease torment hide them in the ground make them run.
Pleasure, such pleasure, joy, delight in the hunt, in the fear, the blood and tearing and screaming. Bones cracking. Sweet marrow. Death. Mine. Only mine. Ever and always. Mine to hunt, to kill, to feed on terror and fear.
You. You/me. You/I. We/I will hunt again. We/I kill again. Feast. Fear. Kill pleasure joy fear blood hunt kill —
I fell. My legs gave out. I’m pretty sure I vomited. Spots in front of my eyes. Ringing in my ears.
No, wait. That was Melusine.
I blinked, blinked again and again. Pressed the heel of my hand to my ear. That hurt, the cartilage digging into the hook for the camera and mic.
“Are you okay?” she asked, carefully enunciating each word.
“No.” I spat, trying to get the taste of vomit out of my mouth.
Someone was talking again. Collins. “Sir? Should I suit up?”
“No. No. Follow protocol. I’ll be good in a minute.” I dropped onto my butt, twisting around so that I could watch the skeleton. “Mel?”
“We can’t take this one. The bones, maybe, but not the skull.”
“This one’s bad. Got deep inside my head. Can only imagine how it will mess people up, even through a camera. You can already feel it. And the fangs? No way. Psychopath isn’t a strong enough word. The soldiers those could make? No. Not happening. I’ll load up the rest of the skeleton, but the skull stays here.”
A longer hesitation this time, then a sigh of resignation. “Okay. You heard the man. Collins, Chasco, Ki, prep the transport rigs. Once Rhone has finish — hey! Ow!”
I pressed my hand to the mic. “Mel?”
“Rhone, you really do need to pack up the fangs.”
“Yes. I must insist. I really — I don’t want to hurt Melusine — ”
“Really?” she snarled. “Then why are you pointing a gun in my face?”
Gods damn it. Linwood was the mole? My money had been on Hernandez — because, really, who signed on with a dracology firm when they were only interested in bugs?
“I really — yes. You have to do what I say. I need those teeth, Rhone. They — they are quite insistent. Something like this — I can’t — this will be my last job. I can leave after this. Go away. They won’t need me anymore. Now, Rhone, if you would just — don’t you touch that, Chasco! I can see you from up here! If I lose the signal — if — I need to see what he’s doing!”
“What I’m doing,” I said slowly.
Collins this time, his voice even, calm. “Sir?”
“Stay put. Keep the rest of the team secure.”
“I’m not sending you anything, Linwood. And I am sure has hells not letting you take these fangs.”
“Yes, y — ”
“No.” I turned back towards the skeleton atop his mountain of bones. I tugged the sleeve of the wetsuit down and the glove back over my hand, biting back a hiss of pain as the bandages tore. “No one is getting these fangs.” I started climbing, grabbing at antlers and femurs and bison skulls, the horns and teeth still attached. My feet slipped, bones tumbling around me as I climbed towards the back of the dragon skull.
Linwood was yelling in my ear. “What are you doing? What are you doing? I told you! I’ll kill her — ”
“Go ahead. I’ll get her shares.”
“Hey!” Melusine squawked in outrage.
The dragon was pushing at my brain now, sensing my intent. I shoved my way under the skull, digging a space big enough that I could reach the axis joint at the top of the spine. The connective tissue and tendons and fat were long gone. Only friction and the will of the long dead dragon kept the skeleton whole.
“What are you doing?!”
“You will not release this terror on the world, Linwood. I won’t let you. I won’t allow it.” I tugged and shoved and kicked, knocking at the heavy bones. The mountain shifted beneath me, the skull slipping towards the floor.
The dragon was howling in my head now. Free kill free hunt again we/I/you no we hunt joy kill kill kill ….
With a rumble and clatter, the skull pulled loose from the spine, tumbling down the pile of bones. The fangs scraped, spitting sparks when they hit the black stone. It tipped sideways, one eye socket fixing on me.
“No,” I said again, to everyone, to everything, to the dragon, to myself.
I tumbled to the ground, ancient horns and teeth poking and stabbing at me, leaving bruises beneath my wetsuit. I reached the stone, steadying myself. Breathe. In, out. Feel the earth. I grabbed one of the fangs, avoiding the sharp tip, and dragged the skull around, grunting and heaving. Slowly, slowly, I pulled it across the ground, pebbles grating, black rock cracking and flaking. The skull scraped a path, leaving dull black gouges.
Closer. Almost there.
Towards the back wall, towards the crevice.
Linwood was shrieking now.
The dragon was screaming in my brain.
Right up to the edge. I was panting now, my chest tight, sweat pouring down the back of my neck. I let go of the fang, stumbling to the back of the skull to push, push, push.
It tipped. Tipped more.
Stuck. The wide base of the skull caught on the rock.
Yelling. So many voices. So loud in my ears, in my head. I think I was screaming, too.
I kicked the skull, stomped down with all of my weight, all of my strength. Again and again. The skull shifted, fell, stuck, fell again. Kick, kick, kick.
It slipped, fell free, down, down, down.
I fell, too. I reached, scrabbling, stone loose between my fingers. Caught, something solid, hard rock.
Silence. My own harsh breath, but, otherwise, silence.
I couldn’t hear the dragon anymore.
Not even static in my ear.
“Mel? Melusine? Collins?” I grabbed the ledge harder, straining. Reach, pull, reach again. Up and up. Back over the edge, onto solid ground. My chest was heaving, my lungs straining. “Hello?” I coughed. “Someone better answer me.”
A hiss and a snap.
“Yeah, sorry. Chasco cut the feed. I fired Linwood. We won’t have to worry about a severance package.” A short pause. “Um, glad he didn’t land on you and sorry about the … splatter, Chasco.”
His voice was small and pissed. “I’ve got … stuff on me.”
“Your bonus will cover the dry cleaning bill,” I assured him.
“Yeah, I’m just gonna burn these.”
I awkwardly pushed myself to my feet, weaving slightly as I walked back around to the front of the mountain of bones. I felt hollow and agitated, like the dragon had sucked all the marrow from my bones. The camera on the drone whirred. I stopped and tipped my head back, studying the curved spine and ribs, wrapping round and round, and the sharp spike at the end of the tail.
“Send the transport rigs down the line. Let’s get these bones out of here, and go home.”
There was almost a smile in his voice. “Yes, sir.”
Two days later, I was back in Vancouver. The Mounties who had flown in to take our statements, photograph the scene, and collect what was left of Linwood insisted that we stay in the area until they could absolutely determine that his death was self-defense.
Melusine scowled at them, and called Mom.
Mom called the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister called the Mounties, directly, via sat phone.
The bones left, transported under heavy guard to d’Anjou International headquarters in Montreal. Melusine left with the bones, but not before she punched me in the arm and yelled at me for not telling her about the mole. I told her to take it up with Mom. The team split up, heading to their respective regional offices and laboratories and research covens. Collins and I returned to Vancouver. The Mounties watched us all leave, looking very unhappy.
I ignored them. I was exhausted. I felt stripped down to my marrow, unbalanced, angry and snarly. The dragon was gone, but still in my head. All I wanted to do was sleep, eat, and then spend a few hours kissing the cute redhead and get rid of the dragon, for good.
Fortunately, the redhead had the same idea.
“You’re always hungry after an expedition.” Collins stood in my door, holding up a bag of yummy-smelling Thai.
My stomach rumbled. I dragged him into the apartment, kissed him hard, and ripped the food from his hands.
He kept talking, even as I pulled plates and bowls from the cupboard. “Linwood probably wasn’t alone, you know.”
Anger bloomed. I forced it away with a shrug. “I know. Can we talk about something other than work? Although it was really cute how you offered to suit up and come after me.”
Collins rolled his eyes. “Yep, that’s me. Cute. I have had training.”
“Not the same as being dragon-blood.” I slid the plates and bowls onto the table, piling them with noodles and curry chicken. “You still would have been pissing yourself and fighting a panic attack.”
“Mm.” He dropped into the chair across from me and spread a napkin over his lap. “So, non-work talk.”
“Your mother knows about us.”
I choked. “The hells she does.”
“She invited me to Yule. The family dinner, not the corporate party.”
I stared at him for a long moment. Anger and then … not. I felt steadied, less raw. “… Okay.”
I nodded, my voice growing stronger as I spoke. “Yeah. Okay. Pretend anonymous hook-ups in bars are fun, but … yeah. You and me. A real couple. Melusine will yell at you, maybe even punch you.”
I stretched my hand across the table. He took it carefully, fingers gently brushing the bandages around my wrist.
He smiled. “From her, that’s a sign of affection.”
I returned his smile, calm again. The scraped, hollowed-out feeling was gone. I twisted my fingers through his. “Have I told you lately how much I like your hair?”
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems, short stories, and anthologies can be found there. ]