Arc, Devon, and Iniagus stared at me with looks of abject horror. I paid them no notice, however, my mind already working furiously.
It didn’t make any sense; dragons are typically benevolent and wise beings that, aside from a few bad examples, lived peaceful and enlightened lives. It was even rumored that Sir Myssohn, Keysha of the Earth-based organization known as the Knights of the Star, regularly took tea with a dragon.
I couldn’t think of any reason a dragon would kidnap a member of the Wenapaj royalty. For that matter, I couldn’t even think of why any dragon would even be in the area in the first place; they didn’t tend to leave their lifestream-rich home world often.
“And you’re sure no one heard anything?” I asked.
“No one reported anything.” Devon told me. “The walls have a fair amount of sound-proofing; perhaps it was enough to stop the sound?”
“The sound, maybe, but this much force would’ve shaken the side of the palace.”
“Perhaps everyone was at dinner?” Arc suggested.
“No, I have a witness who saw her enter her room after dinner.” Devon said. “This happened sometime after midnight, as best as we can tell.”
“It must be a stealth dragon!” Iniagus said, his eyes wide. “A ninja dragon, perhaps!”
“Have there been any reports of dragons in the area, ninja or otherwise?” Mick asked.
“Well,” The king said thoughtfully, “I did hire a young draconis to come and repaint the castle, but his scales are green. Besides, he finished a week ago.”
I doubted there was a connection. Draconis-tribe sentients were only a little taller than the average Galden, and were covered with a thick mane of hair, save for their scale-plated arms, legs, and the crest on their heads. They could fly, but their heavy scale-covered wings were really more suited to gliding, which this draconis probably used to his advantage while painting.
“You hired a draconis to paint the palace?” Arc asked incredulously.
“He made the lowest bid.” Iniagus suddenly looked thoughtful. “Now that I think about it though, he did seem kind of suspicious; he asked to be paid up front.”
“No draconis left these talon-marks.” I said, pointing the deep gouges in the wall. “This was made by something big, something that was able to fly up here and casually tear a reinforced wall out of the palace. Something with scales, ergo a Dragon.”
“By the Creator.” Devon said, mopping his perspiring brow, “I don’t think we have the resources to take on a dragon.”
Iniagus brightened considerably. “Ah, but wait! We don’t need to!”
I could tell what was coming.
“You don’t fight a dragon with an army!”
Apparently Arc caught on as well; he started tiptoeing toward the door.
“Everyone knows that only heroic knights can fight dragons!”
Two guards effectively blocked Arc’s egress. Picking him up by his arms, they carried him back to the King and set him down next to me.
“Knights like Jimmy and Arc!” Iniagus finished triumphantly.
Arc quickly said, “But we’re not knights!”
Iniagus swiped Arc’s massive sword with one hand and banged the flat of it on each of our shoulders with enough force to make us fall to our respective knees. After a moment’s hesitation, he did the same to Mick, who didn’t even flinch.
“There! Now you’re all knights of the realm. As my newly-knighted knights, your first job is to find the dragon, slay it, and rescue my daughter. Your reward will be her hand in marriage, and half the kingdom, as per tradition.”
“Yeah, if this was a fairy-tale.” Arc muttered just low enough so that only I could hear him.
“Sir,” I said, standing up shakily with Mick’s assistance, “I thought you said her hand was the reward for stopping the Evil.”
“The Evil?” When he continued staring at me with a blank expression, I added, “The coming darkness in the prophecy that named either Arc or me as the chosen one?”
Iniagus snapped his fingers, “Of course, of course. Must’ve slipped my mind with all the hullabaloo. Still, I only promised you one of her hands. Now you can have both!”
I opened my mouth. I thought about the discussion that was likely to ensue. I considered the reasoning Iniagus was going to give me for his previous statement. Ultimately, I decided to keep my peace.
Saluting, I said, “We’ll get right on it.”
“Good man! Now, I’m off to see the Queen.” Iniagus turned abruptly and rushed to the door.
He paused for a moment before turning his head and giving us a roguish wink. “If you can’t get her back, I’ll need to confer with the queen for a replacement princess, am I right?”
Without waiting for an answer, he slammed the door shut.
“Crazy old bat!” said Arc as he staggered to his feet. “What the hell are we supposed to do against a dragon?”
I sighed, and put a hand to my head. “Just wait until Bethany hears about this. We’ll be running drills twenty-four, seven.”
Devon put his hand gingerly on my already sore shoulder. “Well, despite what the king said, you have the support of the army. If there’s anything we can do to help, just let me know.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a spare Dreadnaught lying around, would you?” I asked dryly.
Devon let out an appreciative laugh. “Tell you what; I’ll have my best men go over this room, every inch. Maybe there’s something here that’ll shed some light on why she was taken. I just hope she’s okay.”
“With no body and no signs of blood, I would theorize the dragon wanted to capture her alive.” Mick said.
“Maybe,” Arc said, “or maybe it just ate her somewhere else.”
“Why take a snack from the palace when there are plenty of people below?” I asked, “Besides, that’s just species stereotyping; dragons don’t eat people.”
“Why not?” Arc asked curiously, “Too hard to catch?”
“Hardly. No, from what I’ve read, we don’t taste that good. Too many bones, not enough meat.”
Fortunately, further conversation on the matter was cut off as several guards entered the room, including one familiar face … or rather, a familiar helmet.
“Terry?” I asked, surprised to see the young guard again so soon.
He snapped to attention instantly. “Sir!”
“I didn’t know you had met my son.” Devon said, giving me a curious look.
“Your son?” I gave myself a good smack in the head as the realization hit me. “Ulyndia, right. Yeah, we met during my last visit; he helped me find the waystation.”
Terry continued to stand at attention. With all that armor, it couldn’t have been comfortable.
“At ease.” I said, feeling awkward.
“Thank you sir.” He relaxed … a little bit.
“It’s Jimmy. You do remember me, right?”
“Yes sir,” Terry said, his tone as formal as ever, “but as I said before, it would be improper for me to refer to you in such a familiar fashion.”
I sighed. “Well, if it makes you feel more comfortable, by all means.”
“Jimmy’s been assigned to rescue Princess Sera.” Devon told his son.
Terry snapped back to attention again as he turned smartly to face me. “Sir! I request permission to accompany you!”
I was rather surprised by his sudden offer of support, and I could tell from Devon’s expression that he was just as surprised as I.
“You want to help us track down a dragon?” Arc asked, looking quizzically at the young guard.
“Yes sir! I … wait, did you just say dragon?”
I held up the scale so he could see it. “Do you still want to tag along?”
He looked down at the scale for a long moment. It was hard to tell what he could be thinking; I could only see his mouth, after all.
“Sera and I have been friends since we were children.” He said in a quiet voice. “If you’re going to rescue her, then I want to help, sir.”
I looked to Mick and Arc.
“Hey,” Arc said, “The more the merrier.”
Mick nodded in agreement. “From the sound of it, we can use all the help we can get.”
Turning back to Terry, I said, “I have no objections, if it’s okay with you, Devon.”
Devon smiled at his son. “Only in the Royal Guard for a few days, and already you’re chasing dragons. Your mother will be so proud. Go ahead and get yourself packed up for the journey.”
“Yes sir!” With a final salute, Terry ran out of the room.
“Excitable young fellow, isn’t he?” Mick said.
Devon waved him off. “You know young people; always ready for adventure.”
I wasn’t particularly eager to go tracking down a dragon, but I refrained from correcting him.
Devon turned to the remaining guards. “Okay, boys.”
“Ahem.” Said the tigreth guard, her tail twitching.
“And girls.” Devon amended. “I want this room searched top to bottom. Anything strange is to be sent to the Saybaro to aid in the investigation.”
“Already on it!” Arc promptly started rifling through the princess’s dresser.
Rolling my eyes, I turned to Mick. “We’ll help them look around.”
“What are we looking for?” He asked.
“Anything that might explain why the dragon went to all this trouble to take Princess Sera.”
Unfortunately, there really wasn’t that much to look at; aside from the fine quality of her furniture and a fair-ground stall’s worth of stuffed animals, nothing particularly stood out in my eyes. Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something.
I was still looking around when I heard a set of metal-clad feet rushing through the outside hallway. Terry burst through the door a moment later, a large duffel bag in one hand and a plasma rifle in the other.
“I’m ready, sir!” He said, slinging the massive weapon over his shoulder so he could salute.
Nodding, I said, “Okay then. Devon, we’re going to head back to the Saybaro to plan our search.”
He returned my salute. “Understood. We’ll let you know if we find anything.”
As we started to leave, he stopped Terry. “Remember what we talked about earlier.”
I could have sworn that I saw Devon glance my way for the briefest of moments.
“I’ll do my best.” Terry said, sounding nervous.
Putting both hands on his son’s shoulders, Devon said, “I’m sure you’ll do just fine. Now, don’t get into any trouble you can’t get yourself out of, okay?”
Terry nodded. “Yes, father.”
Giving his son a hearty smack on the back-plating, Devon turned to the rest of us. “Good luck, all of you.”
We took the waystation outside the palace to the Penumbra district. As we neared the large clock tower in the center of the district, Arc asked, “So what are we going to do if we actually find the dragon?”
“Panic?” I suggested wryly.
Mick let out a laugh that seemed to surprise him as much as the rest of us. “Sorry.” he said, smiling sheepishly.
Smiling myself, I said, “As the nearest shop to the Saybaro is a good three hour walk, I suggest we pick up supplies before going back. We can go as a group, or-”
“Later!” Arc was off like a bullet.
“-Split up and meet up here in about an hour.” I finished dourly, watching Arc’s rapidly receding back.
Terry left a moment later, but not before giving me yet another salute which I returned uncomfortably.
As Terry hurried off, Mick asked, “Mind if I ask a question?”
“Of course not.” I replied. “Ask away.”
“I couldn’t help but notice that you’re uncomfortable with the respect Terry has shown you.”
I sighed. “My mother was part of the Ronisgald Security Force. I guess with the armor and all, Terry just reminds me of her.”
“Aren’t your memories of your mother pleasant?”
“Most of them are.” I said, unable to keep a note of sadness from my voice.
I could tell that Mick was still curious, but he didn’t press further. I was glad; I really didn’t want to talk about it.
As we neared one of the large retail stores, I stopped Mick. “Here,” I said, handing him a handful of shards, “Go pick out some new clothes. I’ll wait here.”
Mick stared at the money in his hand. “What kind of clothes should I buy?’
“Whatever suits your taste.” Smiling, I added, “Just don’t dress like Arc, okay?”
Mick smiled. “I think I understand. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
As I watched him enter the store, I heard someone behind me say, “Jimbo?”
I turned to see a familiar grease-smudged face. “Meryli?”
The mechanic grinned at me lopsidedly, a slightly banged up cardboard box tucked neatly under one arm. “Well I’ll be! Small world, eh? Whatcha up to?”
“Waiting for my friends at the moment. We’re about to go chase after a dragon.”
“Heh, I know what you mean.” Her face suddenly froze. “Wait, what?!”
I blushed slightly, realizing just how strange that sounded. “Princess Sera was kidnapped by a dragon.”
Her face pale, Meryli said, “I heard somethin’ about her bein’ kidnapped, but I thought it was just normal jabber. I mean, a dragon? Really?”
“Looks like it.” I said showing her one of the scales.
She let out a low whistle as her slightly smudged fingers rubbed the rough surface of the scale. “I’ll be damned. You got your work cut out for ya. A dragon could have made it half-way across Vinta by now.”
“Not necessarily. I’ve got a partial linkup to the satellite-”
“Actually,” she corrected, “It’s more of a space station.”
“Right. Well, I’ve got a partial linkup to Yaevin back at the Saybaro. With luck, we can access the station’s scanners and use them to locate the dragon.”
“How did you manage to secure a connection?” She asked. “Being handy with tech is one thing, but it’d take a technical savant to make a connection with advanced Glyche tech like Yaevin Station.”
I gave her a hard look. The average person would most likely panic upon hearing the truth of the situation. Still, she was an experienced tekker, and seemed level-headed enough; I saw no harm in telling her the truth.
“There’s a Glyche facility beneath the Saybaro.”
Her eyes went wide, not with fear but with excitement. “Uncorrupted? Of course it is, you’re standing right there. Is it fully intact? You think I could have a look?”
I held up my hand, saying, “Slow down! It’s fully intact and uncorrupted. We’re heading back now, but maybe it’d be better to wait until we deal with this dragon business before giving you a tour.”
“Ah, of course.” She blushed slightly. “Mind if I ask just one more thing?”
I shrugged, “By all means.”
“Were there any core units inside?”
“Just Mick.” I replied, my gaze going to the store he had entered. “He’s a prototype; supposedly incorruptible.”
I glanced back at Meryli, a grin slipping over my face. “He’s in the store over there if you want to meet him.”
She perked up instantly. “I think I’ll do just that. You mind?”
I shook my head, saying, “I’m fine. You go say hi.”
As she ran off excitedly, I felt a strange prickling on the back of my neck. I turned instinctively and saw the fional standing in a nearby alley, wearing a small black tank-top and blue jean short shorts that looked quite fetching on her. She was staring right at me, a curious expression on her face.
I smiled and waved. To my surprise, she waved back, smiling timidly. Intrigued, I started to walk toward her, only to get caught in a passing crowd. By the time I had managed to work my way past the throng, she was gone.
I hurried toward the alley in case she had stepped out of view, but it was empty, save for a hungry-looking cat. Kneeling down, I pulling a strip of jerky from my rations and offered it to the poor creature. It quickly snatched the meat and scampered off, as though afraid I would snatch the food away at the last second. Once it reached a safe distance, it began tearing the meat into pieces, occasionally glancing back at me.
I grinned, saying, “Don’t suppose you saw her.” The cat looked at me warily for a moment before returning its attention to the meat.
It was Terry. He had returned, carrying another bag. He looked at me as he approached (at least, I guessed he was looking at me. It was beyond me how he could see anything with his helmet on).
I asked, “Did you just see a fional woman?”
“Cream-colored fur, blue tank top and short shorts, white patch of fur down her front with a small beauty mark on her left cheek?”
“You noticed all that, sir?”
“Thirteen years guarding a bridge gave me time to train my perceptive abilities. So you didn’t see her?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
I looked at the cat again as it continued to tear into the strip of jerky. Was I imagining her, like Devon had suggested the night before?
Shaking my head, I asked, “Did you get everything you need?”
“Yes sir. I picked up the usual necessities.” He patted the strap of his new pack.
“Good. Let’s go wait for the others.”
Mick met back with us shortly and gave me my change; he had chosen a loose-fitting set of blue-jeans and a black silk shirt with a fancy dragon motif. He had kept the red hat Arc had given him, though I suppose it was for the best; his literal chrome dome would no doubt spark some suspicion.
“Jimmy,” Mick asked as we headed to the meeting point, “Do you know a Meryli Grange?”
“Ah, she found you then?”
“Yes. She is a most peculiar woman; tell me, is it normal for people to greet strangers with a hug?”
“I wish.” I replied, feeling a teensy bit jealous.
After about an hour, we were still waiting for Arc beneath the clock in the central square. Glancing at Terry, I asked, “Do you happen to know where Arc went?”
He opened his mouth to reply when I heard, “JIMMY! JIMMY, JIMMY, JIMMY!”
It was Arc, running toward as at top speed. He skidded to a halt, nearly colliding into me.
“Whoa!” I quickly grabbed his arms to keep him from falling.
“I was looking at the new tech at Zuen Technologies ‘cause those muscle enhancements look awesome and I thought with the dragon and all that some enhancement might do the trick and-”
“Arc!” I said loud enough to be heard over his rambling, “Take a deep breath, collect your thoughts.”
He took a few moments to catch his breath.
“Now,” I said once he had calmed down a little, “What happened?”
“I think I found a lead on the dragon!”
My eyes went wide. “Really? Where?”
One wild run through the Penumbra district later, we were in front of the Zuen technologies building.
“Okay Arc,” I said, “Where’s the lead?”
He pointed to a small pot merchant. I admit I was surprised to see someone selling pots in a marketplace in this day and age. I suppose there’s always a demand for some things.
“Dude,” said Arc, grabbing the merchant by the shoulders, “Tell my bro what you told me.”
The merchant smoothed his vest from where Arc had grabbed him before saying, “The Communications relay with Wukice died last night. My friend works in the Iniagusville Communications center, and he said that they were claiming a dragon was attacking the town. It was probably just a practical joke. I mean, honestly? When was the last time you heard of a dragon on Vinta?”
He laughed as I traded glances with my friends. Turning back to the merchant, I asked, “What’s the fastest way to Wukice?”
“Oh, that’s easy. Just take the east gate out of Iniagusville, and stay straight on the path. I’d take a floater, though; it’s a good three-week journey on foot, even with the waystations.”
“Thanks for the info.” I said, flipping him a fiver shard. Turning to the others, I said, “Let’s get moving.”
“Whoa there!” The pot merchant quickly moved to block my path. “While you’re here, how about purchasing a decorative pot?”
The Galden waved at the huge selection of ornate pots around him. “Can’t have a home without a pot! I’ve got big pots, small pots, crystal pots, glass pots …”
“Er, no pots for me today, thank you.”
“Excellent for storing things, y’know. I keep a few pots outside my house to store healing herbs.”
I gave him an odd look. “Thanks for the info, but I really need to be going.”
“Ah, but if you buy a pot, there might be a surprise inside! Think of that, eh?”
Rolling my eyes, I told Terry, “Let’s go.”
The merchant called after us, “Some people store money in pots! I tell you, you’re going to kick yourself for missing the business opportunity of a lifetime!”
“I think Iniagus is starting to rub off on some of his subjects.” I muttered as we walked away.