Chapter 1: Is Dark
Malachi knew that as soon as Zeb started massaging his temples that this particular scavenging excursion had gone sideways. In hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have let Mischief convince him to go on another run with him, especially with his newfound…companion? Bodyguard? Barely contained rage monster?
“Malachi,” Zeb muttered. Malachi hunched his shoulders and shuffled the No Trespassing sign under a nearby bush. Zeb gave him the side eye. “Son, you know I don’t mind you making friends. But these two are going to get you into trouble, and this here is a line that shouldn’t have been crossed.”
“I know, Da,” Malachi said quietly. “I didn’t know Mischief was going to bring someone else this time, or that she was going to…you know…eat someone’s entire flock of sheep.”
“You know replacing them is going to come out of your stash, right?” Zeb said gently.
Malachi nodded. “I’ll make sure they get the best sheep around. Even more than they had before. Maybe I could throw in some goats or cows, too.”
Zeb patted his head and ran his hand down his beak. Malachi purred and pulled Zeb closer with his wing. And to keep him safe. The sounds of destruction further down the sagebrush canyon continued along with the baritone rumbling of approaching thunder.
“Perhaps we should go make sure they haven’t utterly destroyed something,” Zeb said.
“Or we could just leave and let them deal with the landowner,” Malachi suggested.
Zeb shook his head. “It would be more like leaving the landowner to deal with them.”
Malachi growned, but followed Zeb through the low cedar trees and dry brush downhill.
The air smelled of dust whipped up by the storm winds and of the earthy sage as they brushed by the gray-blue clumps. Malachi tried his best to not touch it. He didn’t want ticks. Walking nearly on his tiptoes didn’t prove much better as he whacked his head several times on the cedars, sending bits of tree bark and foliage into his thick silken feathers. Possibly a spider or two, too.
“We could just fly,” he offered.
Zeb inclined his head upward. One ear twitched. “And get struck by lightning again?”
“That was one time and we survived,” Malachi said.
“I had ringing in my ears for a week afterward,” Zeb said.
“And my feathers stood up on end for just as long,” Malachi said. A web draped across his face. He wiped it away violently. “Please?”
“Do you want her to see us from above?”
“No, not particularly. She tried to eat us a couple months ago when we flew by.”
“How did you let that bat convince you this was a good idea, again?”
“I don’t know. He said he knew someone who could help scavenge something cool and that we’d need some muscle if I didn’t want him to steal a backhoe again,” he said miserably. “I didn’t think that would mean bringing that crazy bird through the anomaly and decimating a flock and probably starting a fire or something.”
“I feel this Mischief isn’t a good companion for you.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right - hey, hold on. I think I see something.”
Malachi stopped and thrust his beak under a cedar root. Zeb kneeled next to him. He grunted. It was too tight of a fit. He leaned back and clawed at the powdery red dirt, leaving behind small ruts. He grit his teeth and tried to reach deeper into the small burrow with his talons.
“Almost got it…”
“Just a little further…”
He looked down at Zeb.
Zeb held up a hand. “I know sometimes you forget I’m not a bird, but I think my much smaller hand would fit in there better than your foot.”
“Oh.” Malachi yanked his foot free. He crowded in over Zeb’s shoulder as he slid his hand into the burrow. “Just don’t get bit by a spider or a scorpion or a centipede or something. Otherwise we are definitely flying out of here before you swell up like a balloon and turn purple and stop breathing.”
“Thank you for that,” Zeb mumbled. “Lovely picture. I’ll be perfectly fi - ow!”
Malachi ripped Zeb back away from the burrow. His heart shot into his throat. Zeb was trembling under his wing thumbs.
“Da, Da!” he yelled.
Slowly, he realized that Zeb was shaking with laughter. He tossed his shoulders away.
“Don’t do that to me!”
“I’m sorry, son, I couldn’t resist,” Zeb said between chuckles. He handed the arrowhead Malachi had caught a glimpse of up to him. “Here’s your trinket.”
Malachi snagged it with an inaudible grumble. “Thanks.”
Zeb stood up and dusted off his pants. “Should we keep walking before the other two cause a national incident?”
Malachi fluffed his feathers and motioned for Zeb to lead the way.
* * * *
Mischief slunk behind the old rusted tractor. He kept his head low, hoping the nearby lightning would be attracted to something other than his horns, like the old telephone poles or the stone building or perhaps the large monstrosity he had convinced to accompany him. She took scavenging to a whole new level. She didn’t merely flip over logs and stones or poke her beak into holes, no, she leveled buildings. She could shear through stone walls as if the winery was a sandcastle.
“At least she’s effective,” he murmured.
Alpha was a glittering, bloody red bird with silky feathers that reflected ribbons of light as she feverishly tore through the stone building. They glowed pink every once in a while as a bolt of lightning arced through the ashen clouds above. Her size and vigor proved more efficient than Dart’s. She wasn’t afraid to get her talons and feathers dirty.
If she found out he had her digging for an ancient bottle of wine buried deep in the semi-collapsed winery, she wouldn’t be afraid to turn those talons on him and get her feathers a little redder.
He peeked around the edge of the tractor as the digging stopped.
“What fool of a dragon would have died in such a small human structure?” Alpha questioned.
He cleared his throat. “Ah, well, you see, the humans probably captured the poor beast and he died underneath the building long ago.”
“A fool for being captured, and a fool for dying,” she huffed and resumed tearing the stones away. She had broken through to the basement already and was shoveling out rotting beams of wood along with the smooth gray stones. “But his teeth shall be mine.”
“Yes, yes, along with his claws and whatever else you fancy,” he said.
“And if there is no dragon under here,” she turned her head and her razor sharp beak toward him, “your teeth will have to suffice.”
Mischief hopped from around the tractor and sidled up alongside the old house attached to the winery. She was getting close to where he was sure the private cellar was housed below the basement. He’d need to get in and out of there fast before she noticed a lack of dragons.
He whipped his head around. “Corva, what are you doing here?”
“Well after you tried to ditch us by the now empty sheep pen, we decided that this was a bad idea,” Malachi hissed.
“I didn’t try to ditch you. I was trying to keep up with her,” he said and tilted his head in Alpha’s direction. “Keep her energy focused on something productive.”
Malachi’s strange long eared human friend crossed his arms over his chest. “Looks more destructive than productive.”
“Tomato, tomahto.” He brushed Zeb off. “It will serve to be productive to me once she hits-”
Alpha flung an oak door out of the lower levels she was powering through. “Bat, I’m not seeing any dragon down here.”
Mischief hurried along the still standing wall to where she had decimated the winery. He didn’t miss that Malachi and Zeb hung back in fear of the Gryph. Even he himself was wary of her. She seemed to radiate a malevolent power, like a fiery hell burned inside her breast.
“Allow me to go down there and scope it out. That way nothing will be missed,” he suggested.
Alpha pushed her face up in his. “Find me my dragon. Or you won’t be coming up.”
He nodded. “Of course. I wouldn’t let you leave empty handed, would I?”
“You won’t. I guarantee it.”
He scurried down the sloping, caved-in floor to the basement. Alpha’s hot breath washed over him until he was consumed in cool shadows. Though he could no longer see her, he could sense her hovering. There was only one way in and out. He couldn’t escape.
But he planned on it. Malachi and Zeb were too noble and kind hearted. They wouldn’t leave him to perish by the talons of Alpha. He had seen the pair of them pull off marvelous feats, up to and including punching holes in the very fabric of reality. A true prize would be that bracelet Zeb wore on his wrist, the one that tracked these so-called anomalies.
For now he’d settle with his bottle of wine and getting out of the cellar alive.
“Any dragons, yet?” Alpha’s thunderous voice shook dust from the creaking rafters.
Mischief ducked under a fallen beam toward the square black hole in the ground.
“Patience, my dear,” he called out. “Good things come to those who wait.”
“Good things come to those who take them,” Alpha replied.
“Brains over brawn every time for me,” he said under his breath.
He crawled down the shaky ladder into the cellar and waited while his eyes adjusted. It smelled dusty, but the climate was still temperate. Not too cold, not too hot, not too humid. Wine racks were still standing. Hopefully his was still there.
Sorting through several racks proved fruitless. He found a couple decent unopened bottles with labels dating back anywhere between thirty to a hundred years. None of them matched what he was looking for.
Dust rained down on him. He paused and swiveled his ears upward. He was fairly certain that was Malachi squawking in a panic before it cut off abruptly. Boards creaked directly above him. He hunkered lower, hiding himself in the shadows behind one of the racks. He may have not been born with the fiercest of physical weapons, but he was no delicate flower. He would and could fight his way out if need be.
A beam of light sliced through the darkness.
“For all our sakes, there better be a dragon down here, Mischief.”
“Ah, Zeb, how nice of you to offer your assistance, but I’m perfectly capable of doing this on my own,” Mischief said and squinted against the bright light. “Would you please turn off your blinding light, or at least dim it.”
The light dimmed to a comfortable warm glow more like a flame lit lantern.
“I didn’t volunteer,” Zeb said and landed on the floor with a thump.
Mischief hummed. “I guessed as much.”
Zeb glared at him steadily. “If we don’t find a dragon down here and she hurts Malachi-”
“You’ll kill me, I get it. How sweet.”
Zeb walked closer, for all intents and purposes appearing relaxed in his stance and even in his tone when he spoke again. “No. I’m not a violent man. But I’m not above leaving you to fend for yourself on a far flung moon with an ocean of blood.”
“Intriguing, but disgusting,” Mischief said. He thought it funny that such a small frail creature would even bother to threaten him on behalf of a creature that wasn’t even the same species. “We may have to fall back on Plan Z to get out alive.”
Zeb made no comment.
Mischief peeled away from the shadows and gestured to the large chest on the opposite side of the room. “This is the only place I haven’t checked yet. I just need to figure out the combination on it.”
“Are you a safe cracker?”
“When I need to be, but I’ll need you to turn the dial while I listen for the tumblers.”
Zeb crouched in front of the chest and Mischief plastered one side of his head against it. He nodded. Zeb slowly spun the dial to the right.
He spun it the other direction. Mischief narrowed his eyes. The mechanisms clicked quietly within the lock. One click was louder than the others.
The dial clicked steadily the other direction again. Click. Click. Click…
“You better be admiring my dragon, Bat, or I’m going to have myself your horns, too.”
Mischief grunted. “I missed it with her blustering.”
Zeb sighed and cleared the lock. He put in the first two numbers and slowly turned it again.
Zeb pulled up on the latch and flipped the lid on the chest open.
Mischief’s eyes lit up. “Well, that’s fortuitous.”
* * * *
Alpha ignored the small Corva struggling under her foot. She remembered him and his rider from several months back. They had out-maneuvered her in her own jungle. She flexed her talons, earning a squeak from the fluffy tan and silver bird. There would be no out-maneuvering this time.
“Why do you want dragon bones so bad?” the Corva asked.
She squeezed him a little harder. “Nothing protects against dragon teeth. They tear through everything. They tear through everyone. No metal or muscle can resist them.”
“Pretty sure your teeth can do the same thing.”
“Want to test them out?” she questioned.
The Corva scrunched his neck in and tried to withdraw into himself as much as he could.
“What’s taking so long, you puny flying rat?” she yelled into the hole she had created.
A voice rose from the dark lower levels. “Well, my ferocious beast, we didn’t find any dragon teeth.”
A heat erupted within her and her feathers prickled. “What?!”
“Don’t worry! We found something better. But it’s too heavy for us to drag out of the cellar. We’ll need your brute force.”
“If this is a trick, you won’t live long to regret it,” Alpha said. She looked down at the Corva. “I hope your weird little human doesn’t try something, for your sake. And his.”
“Zeb isn’t really violent,” Malachi said. “And he doesn’t play with lives.”
She didn’t take him at his word, but leaned into the shredded building anyway. Her wing talons made short work of the remaining main floor and her beak sawed through the timbers running longways underneath it. She braced her knuckles on the basement floor and craned her head to glare into the cellar door.
“Where is it?”
The bat’s golden horns glinted briefly as he moved into the faint light spilling through to the cellar floor. “To the left in the chest. Let us get out of here so you have room to grab it.”
She leaned back and waited. The human looking creature emerged first and looked worriedly at the Corva clutched in her talons. He wasn’t worth her attention. It was the bat she was interested in, and as soon as he popped out of the cellar, she slammed her wing and talon on top of him and pinned him to the floor.
“Everyone can wait while I judge whatever trinket is worth more than dragon teeth,” she growled and thrust her head into the cellar.
Wooden racks teetered and bottles of wine shattered on the floor. She twisted her head and snagged the chest with the tip of her beak. It weighed considerably more than she thought it would as she dragged it closer to the ladder. She fished around in the velvet lined chest and secured a chain in her beak.
In one smooth movement, she lifted the chain out of the chest and slunk out of the building into the open, dragging both bat and Corva along with her. The human thing had to clamber out on his own.
She dropped the chain on the ground with a puff of dust.
“Dragon teeth might pierce everything, but I think this will be far more useful to you,” the bat said.
She nudged the armored necklace. Black and red and white scales shimmered in the light, all woven together with sturdy chains.
“Dragon scales,” she whispered.
She released the bat and the Corva. Yes, dragon scales would prove to be far more useful than dragon teeth. She grasped the necklace in her beak and lifted off into the storm, leaving the now useless creatures behind.
A white light split the sky in front of her. Too late to turn back now. No matter. Not much could kill her.
The light tingled over her feathers and then she was somewhere much more humid with familiar sounds. She alighted on a thick branch and glanced around. Home. Her territory. Free of bats and Corvas and human things.
The light snapped closed behind her.
Alpha’s face broke into a snarling grin. Dragon scales weren’t easy to come by. Perhaps those annoying creatures were of more use than she initially assumed.