High Noon

The violet sun, in its halo of bright lavender afternoon, beat fiercely down on the narrow gully that was Main Street, striking a harsh contrast between the bleach white cobbled pavement and the dark green shadows under the covered walk lining the storefronts on either side of the street. The spire of the courthouse bell tower stood silent watch over the small town of Turic, which sat nestled at the foot of the Kur Mountains looming in the distance.
“Why is the sky purple?”
Petra Ryath looked up at her older sister, who was suddenly standing over her shoulder peering down at her work. “It’s my painting, Viv,” Petra said. “The sky’s whatever color I want it to be.” She looked down to her palette, loaded her brush with pigment and started adding more viridian to the shadows under the walk, the tip of her tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she concentrated. Tall and willowy, she sat on a stool that was perhaps a bit too short, her left elbow resting on her knee as she bent close to the canvas.
“Well you’re making a mess,” Viv said as she walked from the front room to the kitchen.
“I’m making art,” Petra protested.
“I don’t mean—” Viv shook her head and let out a sigh as she disappeared into the other room. “Look at the floor!”
Petra looked down. “Oh,” she said, noticing the myriad of paint drips spotting the wood planking around her feet. “I’m making a mess.”
The clock chimed and she looked up, for the first time noticing the hour. She quickly stood up, threw her palette down on the table next to the easel, dumped her brushes in the cup of water on the stand, and closed up her box of supplies. “I’ll clean it up when I get back,” she said on her way to the front door.
“Back?” her sister called from the other room.
“I almost forgot I had plans,” Petra said, grabbing a leather bag off the hook and throwing it over her shoulder.
Viv poked her head into the room. “Fine. As long as you’re out, stop by the outfitters and pick up my tools, huh?”
“Sure,” Petra said.
“Where are you going anyway?”
“I told Rowan I’d have lunch with him,” she said as she opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.
“Again?” Viv asked. “You need to give that boy some space, he’s probably got work to do.”
“Not listening!” Petra shut the door behind her and stepped down to the street, shaking her head as she went. Her sister was right, of course. Petra had been spending a good deal of time with Rowan lately, but she didn’t care. Rowan had been her best friend since childhood, and Viv hadn’t been overly concerned before. Of course, Viv also hadn’t been running a household before. That was still something they were both adjusting to.
It had only been a few months since their mother had passed, and while Petra had initially spent a lot of time either in isolation or with Rowan, she felt like things were just starting to even back out. She was no longer actively avoiding being at home, and while Viv had expressed concern that all her time spent with Rowan was merely a distraction from dealing with her grief, the truth was that Petra had never really felt as close to their mother as Viv had. The fact that she wasn’t Petra’s biological mother didn’t really have any bearing, as the woman had raised her alongside Viv for as long as she could remember.
It was, unfortunately, more complicated than that. Petra had always felt a sense of detachment, even in the midst of a loving home environment. The feeling of not truly belonging, even though there was no other logical place for her to be, was something that had existed in the back of her mind for years, and that pervasive self-doubt was something she had struggled to make any kind of sense out of. And while Viv might have been at least partially right that Petra had been spending more time with Rowan to avoid dealing with that confusion, it certainly wasn’t anything she was willing to admit to anyone.
In any case, Rowan never made it seem like she was interrupting anything important, so she had never given it much thought beyond the present. She relaxed a little, and reminded herself to try and cut Viv a bit of slack. Taking care of an eighteen-year-old stepsister who wasn’t good at anything but painting was likely more stressful than she let on.
From their small cottage it was only a couple of blocks south to the outfitters, and she walked quickly, pulling the tie out of her hair and letting it fall down around her shoulders, shielding her eyes from the midday glare. She stepped out onto High Street, the east to west thoroughfare through the center of town, and crossed over to the south side, stepping between hitching posts and ducking up into the shade of the covered walk. She pulled open the door to the outfitters, the bell alerting the attention of the shopkeep, who looked up from his ledger.
“Afternoon Petra,” the older man said, smiling warmly behind a thin beard and a thick set of glasses. She walked over to the counter, noticing the shop was empty save for a lone customer talking with the clerk at the far end of the room. She glanced across a varied selection of sidearms, bladed weapons, threshers and hunting lures, finally stopping on an innocuous looking display of handtools and carpentry supplies behind the shopkeep himself. “Finished your sister’s order this morning,” he continued. “Give me just a moment and I’ll get it for you.” Closing the ledger and shelving it under the counter, he shuffled off toward the back.
Voices drew her attention, and she turned toward the back of the shop, noticing the other customer perusing the weapons rack. It was a woman unlike anyone she had ever seen. She was short like a dwarf, barely shoulder high to the clerk, slightly stocky and muscular, with a round face framed by wavy fox colored hair, her features youthful and bright. But what the woman was wearing surprised Petra the most. Eschewing feminine dress for more practical attire was commonplace in a rural community like this, but hers was the outfit of a warrior, all dark leather with metallic torso plates bordered by armored sections across the arms and shoulders, matched with high riding boots and thick forearm bracers.
Petra frowned, looking down at her own linen shirt, canvas breeches cut off below the knee and dusty brown half boots. She didn’t exactly cut the most ladylike figure herself, but this person seemed geared for battle. Standing in front of the bladed rifles, the woman had selected a particularly deadly looking long-caliber halfaxe, which combined the close-combat offensive functionality of a poleaxe with the long-range defense of a pulse rifle. It almost seemed too big for her, but she handled it with a speed and deftness that belied her size, bringing it to bear against an imaginary opponent, a wicked gleam in her eye that made Petra very glad she was not on the receiving end.
Her curiosity was soundly piqued. The woman was a traveler, certainly, as there were no warriors encamped anywhere near Turic. Most of the civilization that lied this far north was comprised of independent settlements not affiliated with any of the larger city-states to the south. What purpose might have brought her here Petra couldn’t imagine.
She looked back up to find she had caught the woman’s attention.
Petra stood frozen as the short warrior seemed to appraise her, a curious grin spreading across her face. Petra fumbled, trying to think of something to say, but opted instead to turn back to the counter and wait for the shopkeep. She made the pretense of studying the selection of tools in front of her, but she still had a nagging feeling she was being stared at. She fidgeted with her hair, looking toward the door, suddenly very impatient.
Startled by a loud clatter, Petra spun to see the large bladed weapon plunked roughly up onto the counter. The dwarf had appeared at her right shoulder, pulling a small pouch from a compartment on her belt.
“Should still have some local here somewhere,” she muttered to herself. Looking up at Petra suddenly, she asked, “What’s currency in these parts? Still crowns?”
“Um,” Petra stammered. “No, crescents.”
“Oh! Good, I still have some of those,” the woman said, digging for another pouch on the opposite side of her belt.
The warrior’s accent was definitely not local, but Petra couldn’t place it. She was even more confused now, but her curiosity got the better of her. “What was that grin about, a minute ago?” Petra asked.
A mischievous look crossed the other woman’s face as she backhanded Petra playfully across the upper arm. “Don’t worry about it, stick,” she said. “You just reminded me of someone I know.”
Petra opened her mouth, but was saved from her awkwardness by the shopkeep, who chose that moment to step back to the counter. “Here you are,” he said, sliding a wooden box across to her. “Tell your sister I’ll stop by around midday tomorrow to pick up any disused she may still have.”
“Right,” Petra said, taking the box and quickly sliding it into her shoulder bag. “Thanks.” As she stepped back from the counter, the shopkeep turned his attention to the dwarf. “Would you like the standard round to go with that, Miss…?”
“Voss,” the woman supplied. “And yes. Don’t bother wrapping it,” she grinned, dropping the pouch of coins down in front of him and waiting patiently as he turned to rummage through a cabinet behind him. Petra shook her head and turned for the door, getting her mind back on task as she stepped outside.
With the sun approaching its highest, she stuck to the shade of the covered walk as she continued down the lane. Reaching the corner block at Town Center about to turn left onto Main Street, she stopped suddenly. Across the street she could see a figure standing in the covered belfry of the courthouse.
Her brow creased. Curious, she thought. The bell was seldom rung, and even then, only in emergency, otherwise it remained silent. This person didn’t look interested in using it, but only stood there, watching intently toward the forest outside of town to the south.
Petra looked in that direction. Turic sat just above tree level at the foot of the Kur Mountains, and Main Street sloped downward as it approached the edge of the forest. This made the bell tower the perfect vantage point to watch for someone coming into town, as there were no roads in or out that didn’t connect to Main Street at the south edge.
Unmoving, the figure stood in shadow, but Petra could see sharp features in the silhouette and long, straight hair blowing back in the breeze. Very curious, she thought. The figure, like the woman at the outfitters, was also oddly out of place in this normally sleepy town. It was of course not unheard of to have strangers pass through, but as they were backed up against a mountain off the normal trade and travel routes, it was not exactly common either.
The fact that this one seemed to be expecting more company made Petra uneasy, and she reminded herself that she still had things to do. She stepped away from the rail to resume her course, still looking across the street, and nearly collided with a man coming up the walk. “I’m terribly sorry, I—” she started, but her words tumbled to a halt as she looked up at the towering stranger.
Petra was used to being among the tallest in town, but the figure before her stood a head taller still. Lean limbs were shrouded in a simple but long gray hooded cloak, and thin fingers wrapped around an equally tall metallic staff. Petra noticed her back straightening and her chin lifting involuntarily as she took a step backward.
“Pardon me,” came a soft voice from under the hood. The face there was deep in shadow, but Petra got a sense of long features and piercing eyes before their owner turned and disappeared into the cavernous interior of the Corner Tavern.
She stood unmoving for a moment, wide eyed. This was getting too strange. Forcing her feet to move, she set off once again, making her way determinedly down Main Street toward the edge of town. As her pace quickened, she let the word play across her thoughts, the word that had almost burst out of her mouth at the sight of the tall stranger.
She had heard stories from travelers. True, they weren’t actually wizards, but that was the archetype they seemed to fill: strangers with no agenda or affiliation, appearing out of nowhere to help in dire situations. Unusually tall and out of the ordinary, and possessed of even odder abilities, they were rumored to be impervious to fire, able to read minds and alter thoughts, even control the very elements. Petra didn’t know their proper name, but even in the lore of her own people were tales of these extraordinary individuals, sage, worldly and often very powerful.
She shook her head and smiled. Don’t be an idiot, she thought. Just because the man was tall and carried a staff didn’t make him a wizard. Might as well be one myself, she thought with a laugh.
• • • •
Mira Valric stood silently in the covered spire of the courthouse bell tower, facing the south end of town and the forest beyond. She noticed the slight figure peering up at her from the Corner Tavern overhang, but the moment was gone almost before it began, and Mira watched as the young woman continued on, making her way south along the main street.
Her team of four had arrived a mere fifteen minutes prior, setting down just outside of town and dispersing without ceremony. The others had opted to take in what little local color they could, but Mira had decided to take the watch, choosing this spot for its unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside, and for the simple fact that it allowed her a moment of solitude.
She had surveyed as she entered town, learning most of what she needed to know in a few short glances. The buildings were old and faded, leaning slightly against each other. All were squat and few stood taller than a single story. A covered walk ran much of the length of the storefronts on both sides of the street, and water troughs and hitching posts stood at regular intervals. Other than the occasional horse, there seemed to be no sign of vehicular traffic, though the cobbled street suggested the possibility of wagons or carriages.
There was certainly no technology in evidence, and every detail in view, from the slightly rough ironwork and hand lettered signage, to the way every line and angle looked slightly off, gave every indication this was a pre-industrial society.
It was hardly surprising, being an outlying community on a similarly outlying world, but it meant they had to tread a bit more carefully. Anything out of the ordinary held a greater chance of being noticed, and once noticed, being reacted to. And in a small town such as this, outsiders fell squarely into that category.
She had loosened her braids, letting her hair fall down on the sides to cover the prominent points of her ears. She didn’t know how many elves would have occasion to travel through an area such as this, but she would hazard to guess almost none. Outliers were not typically known for their inclusive tolerance, and though she would likely not be in town long enough to even be noticed, prejudice and hostility were nonetheless what she would rather avoid.
Mira turned left and looked down High Street to see Voss exiting the outfitters carrying a brand new long-caliber halfaxe, her red hair blazing in the sun. She rested the weapon against her shoulder as she sauntered casually up the street, peering in shop windows and commenting absently to herself. The dwarf, it would seem, had no such similar reservations.
Her thoughts were interrupted as a deep voice sounded over her earpiece communicator. “Castle to Kingsguard, report in.”
The captain was on the ground. Her pulse quickened, the formal call and response signaling the actual start of the operation. Mira gave her callsign. “Veil standing by,” she said, her voice cool and measured.
Gareth was next. “Lure standing by,” his soft voice said. The wizard had, predictably, chosen to set up shop in the Corner Tavern, and was likely on his second or third drink already.
Voss was last. “Wasp standing by,” the dwarf said, her voice sounding irritated. “Wish you’d told me it was summer here.”
“Can’t always be cold,” the captain’s voice came back. “Talk to me Veil, where are my eyes?”
“Standing watch, Castle,” Mira said. “In view of the north face, no movement yet.” Their target had been located less than a quarter mile south of town, just inside the northern fringe of the forest. “Target thermal levels are rising steadily; Emergence in ninety, moving out in thirty.”
“Copy that,” he said. “Keep me apprised.”
“Acknowledged,” Mira replied. She settled back and made herself comfortable, breathing deeply. There was a warm breeze blowing, and she could smell the ash and pine on the air. She had maybe half an hour before they would need to make their way to the extraction point, and Mira was content to sit and enjoy a moment of peace in this relatively untainted natural environment.
It was the kind of moment, she noted uneasily, that she didn’t get the opportunity to enjoy as often as she would like.
• • • •
Lost in thought, Petra hadn’t even noticed she’d reached the edge of town and was now on the East Road leading to Rowan’s farm. After a few paces, she absently ducked into the cover of the trees, taking a more direct route through the edge of the forest.
It was a well-trod walk, a path cut as children when there was more time to go exploring, and seemingly more freedom when wandering between town and farm. Petra had fond memories of chasing, hiding, using the woods as whatever arena she wanted them to be. She felt more comfortable out here than she did in her own home. There was something about being out in nature that called to her, gave her a sense of being that she didn’t get anywhere else.
At the moment, however, the familiar signs of wildlife usually prevalent inside the treeline were strangely absent. The more she walked, the more she became aware of this, looking up and around, listening for signs of birds, insects, or even the usual scuttling underfoot that would trail away from her footsteps as she made her way through the wooded underbrush, and finding nothing.
Only silence.
Her pace, which had already quickened, slowly graduated to a full run as she became sufficiently unsettled to the point of urgently wanting to be out into the open air again. She had veered from her usual path, having decided to take the most direct route, ducking under branches, haphazardly scrambling over brush and fallen logs, and generally abandoning any caution she might have otherwise employed while travelling through the forest. The inclusion of a shoulder bag carrying a box of heavy tools further hindered her usual nimble balance, so she was hardly surprised then, when an upthrust root grabbed her foot and sent her sprawling.
Reflexively she brought her arms up to protect her face as she hit ground, but instead of the hard impact she was expecting, she continued down, tearing through a brushy entanglement, flipping over and finally landing on her back some seven feet down from where she thought she should have been.
After a moment of nothing else happening, she opened her eyes. Petra was lying at the bottom of a large hole, like an enormous rabbit warren, that had been hidden by overgrowth and grass runners across the top. She sat up, brushed the dirt off her face and out of her hair, and looked around. The light filtering down into the hole was enough to illuminate the earthy walls around her, and she realized it was not in fact a hole, but the opening of a tunnel of some kind, one that wound its way down deep into the ground.
As her eyes began to adjust to the darker interior, she noticed roots plunging through the tunnel at varying intervals, creating a weblike filter. Dirt and earth had fallen in and filled some of the lower gaps. This was not a tunnel that had been used in quite some time. Farther back, the walls began to widen, opening into a larger space before disappearing completely into the black.
Curiosity taking the place of her earlier hurry, she began examining the root systems, pulling some of the smaller ones away to see if she could create a big enough opening for her to fit through. Not having much success, she realized she’d need shears or maybe a small saw—
She stopped. She had completely forgotten about the box of her sister’s tools she had been carrying. She looked around the floor of the hole, but didn’t see anything. They must have still been out on the ground.
She scrambled up, finding it difficult to get a good foothold on the loose earth, but managed to grab onto a branch and hoist herself upward until her head was above ground level.
There they were. The box had come out of her shoulder bag, and lay on its side, its lid broken and various handtools strewn over the grass around it. At the near edge of the scatter, Petra spotted a small utility knife within arm’s reach. She scrabbled for it, caught hold, then dropped back down into the hole.
She unfolded it, stepped up to the front layer of roots and tested the knife’s edge. Though it was sharp, and made short work of the smaller strands, anything bigger around than her thumb required more effort, and the thickest ones were right out of the question. Still, after a few minutes she had cleared enough to crawl a short way into the tunnel, where she was promptly confronted by the next layer.
She stopped, looking back toward the way out. This was going to take a lot more work than she was willing to do at the moment, and the thought that she still had lunch waiting returned to the forefront of her mind as she turned to peer back into the darkness of the waiting tunnel. She folded up the knife and put it in her pocket, resolving to come back later when she had more time, and could bring some proper tools with—
A sudden blast of air blew across her, halting that thought and rooting Petra where she stood. It had come not from the opening behind, but from within the dark chasm in front of her. She stood stock still, listening intently for any hint of sound. Because it had felt not like a breeze, but a breath, warm and moist.
Her eyes widened as she hoped it had only been her imagination. There hadn’t been a sighting in more than four hundred years. And yet—
She took a step back as a low rumble seemed to vibrate around her. Caught in the roots around the tunnel entrance, she fought her way back, falling out into the main opening as another blast of air washed over her, this one longer and more intense. It was hot enough to bake, and there was no mistaking the taste of sulfur in the air. Petra pulled herself up, but before she could turn, her attention was held momentarily by a brief flash of light down the far end of the tunnel, red and orange and dancing.
No, she thought in a panic, definitely not my imagination. Then all other thoughts vanished, her muscles frantically propelling her up as she scrambled out of the hole and hurled herself forward, her shoulder bag and broken box of tools forgotten. Oblivious to the foliage clawing across her face and arms, she powered through the underbrush, eventually breaking out of the trees into the main clearing where Rowan’s homestead sat.
Scanning quickly, she spotted movement in the field to the right where Rowan was leading his plow horse Errol, turning up earth to begin planting autumn vegetables. She made for the field, crossed the clearing and hurdled the low fence bordering the two. “Rowan!” she yelled, running across several rows of freshly tilled soil and skidding to a halt, nearly colliding into him. He braced himself as Petra grabbed his shoulders and dropped her head, trying to regain her balance and her breath.
Rowan frowned down at the rut she had just cut through his nice furrows. “You’re going to fix that,” he said, then seemed to notice her for the first time. “Why are you covered in dirt?”
Petra raised her head and the flushed look of sheer panic and terror that he found there was enough to startle him out of his irritation. “What is it?” he asked, looking up into her wide eyes. “What happened?”
Petra was still out of breath, and sufficiently rattled that she found it hard to find words. The one that did finally manage to come out was loud and forceful.
Rowan stood for a long moment looking at her, his face confused. Despite the leaves embedded in her mane of hair and the dirt and scratches covering her thin frame, he seemed to be having a hard time deciding whether or not this was one of her games. When he found his voice, he had apparently decided to go with suspicion. “Really,” he said.
Petra’s face fell as she looked at the disbelief in Rowan’s expression. She turned to look back at the trees, half expecting to see a great beast lumbering out of the forest after her, but there was nothing. Had she imagined it?
No, she thought, setting her jaw and turning back to Rowan. She opened her mouth and everything sort of tumbled out at once. “Less than a league in that direction,” she pointed, “just inside the edge of the forest, I found a cave, a cave with a dragon, and—” Her eyes widened as she made the connection. “And I think I woke it up.”
Petra’s mind reeled. There hadn’t been a dragon in the area for hundreds of years. She didn’t know what to do. No one else she knew would have any idea what to do, either.
“You know there hasn’t been a dragon in this area for more than—”
I know!” she interrupted. “I need to think.” She tried to recall what little she knew about the creatures. Possessing scales harder than stone and corrosive fire capable of razing entire acres of land, dragons were terribly destructive, a force akin to a natural disaster. You couldn’t hurt them, divert them, or stop them, you could only get out of the way and pray they ran their course swiftly. The problem was, after four centuries out of the public consciousness, nothing she knew would be any more worthwhile than folklore. It would certainly take more than a group of villagers waving pitchforks, though maybe if they had enough people. Her sister knew a bunch of the men in town, maybe they could organize a hunting party—
She stopped. A stray thought had come back to her.
Strangers with no agenda or affiliation, appearing out of nowhere to help in dire situations…
“The wizard,” she said, turning back to Rowan.
“What?” he said, trying valiantly to keep up. “This is weird even for you.”
“Sorry,” Petra said as she grabbed the lead out of Rowan’s hand, unhooked the plow from the horse’s harness and climbed up onto the saddle. “Gotta borrow Errol for a bit, be back soon.”
“Wait, what about lunch?” Rowan asked as she reared the horse, turning it toward the road leading back into town. “Where are you going?”
To get help!” Petra yelled, kicking the horse into as fast a gallop as the creature could muster.
Rowan watched as she sped off, her cornsilk hair flying up behind her. “Um, all right,” he said to no one. “I’ll just be here, then.”
• • • •
The sun had reached its highest point, and Mira could feel the temperature continuing to rise. She had checked her handheld for the time and was about to put the device away when it pinged an alert. She switched it over to the systems monitor and felt a sudden weight settle in the pit of her stomach.
The Emergence estimate had dropped.
She keyed for details. The thermal levels, which had been rising steadily for the last hour, had spiked suddenly. What had been a ninety-minute estimate only a few minutes prior had now dipped below seventy.
“Castle, we have a problem,” Mira said. “Thermals are rising faster than normal. Emergence is moving up.”
She watched the monitor. Levels continued to spike while the Emergence estimate continued to plummet.
“Repeat, Emergence is moving up.”
“ETA?” his voice asked in her ear.
“Sixty-five … no, sixty. Dropping swiftly.”
“Get ahead of it,” his voice ordered. “Gear up, make for your positions, then report in.”
“Copy that,” Mira said, standing up and returning the handheld to its case on her belt. “Moving out now. Wasp, you’re with me.”
“Acknowledged,” Voss’s voice came over. “Already en route.”
Mira took a deep breath, looked out to scan the horizon one last time, then vaulted nimbly over the edge of the belfry. She swiveled in midair, her fingertips easily catching an edge in the brickwork and the toes of her boots finding purchase on a shallow ledge, slowing her descent and allowing her to spring out from there toward the street, where she landed lightly and broke into a run. Her movement was fluid and lightning swift as she hurtled toward the east edge of town, barely making a sound as her feet propelled her forward, platinum hair flowing behind her like water.
At the treeline she met Voss, who stepped out and tossed a helmet up to her. Mira wound her hair up into a loose knot and secured the helmet in place, a faint hiss escaping as it sealed around her collar. “Are you ready?” she asked the dwarf.
Voss looked up at her through the faceplate of her own helmet, grinning widely. “When am I not?” she asked.
Mira rolled her eyes and they stepped off, silently making their way south into the treeline. Dressed similarly in dark leather with armored sections across the arms and shoulders, thick gauntlets and high boots, the two made quick time, pushing easily through the forest. But as the trees grew closer together, they found their way slowed as they had to more carefully navigate through the underbrush. Keeping an eye on the systems monitor, they made their way steadily toward the extraction point, their time slipping away dangerously. Emergence was practically upon them, and no one was yet in position.
• • • •
Not able to take Errol down her usual path through the forest, Petra had stuck to the main road, though travelling by horse she arrived far quicker than she expected. Bolting up the cobbled street, she pulled up to the front of the Corner Tavern and came off the horse almost before it stopped, noting as she did that the bell tower was now absent its previous dark occupant.
“Stay,” she told Errol, rubbing the horse across the muzzle before taking the steps to the walk two at a time. Ducking into the dark cave of the tavern, she stopped a moment to let her eyes adjust. She scanned the tables scattered around the main floor to the right, and the handful of faces inhabiting them, then the bar directly across, finally spotting the lanky figure at the far-left end.
Gareth Lorr sat hunched over the bar, sipping on a clear drink, the hood of his cloak down and his staff propped up beside. Petra hurried over and stepped up next to him, opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short. Instead of the wizened sage she was expecting, the man sitting before her was alarmingly young, maybe only ten years older than Petra herself. He looked more like a blacksmith apprentice than a wizard, his face tanned except around the eyes, no doubt from the thick goggles perched on his forehead, sporting a mess of shoulder length hair and a close-cropped goatee. He continued to sip on his drink and gave no indication that he was even aware he now had company. Petra blinked, suddenly at a loss.
“What’s wrong?” Gareth asked softly, seeming to sense her confusion. “Not what you were expecting?” He was still looking down at his drink, a slow smile spreading across his face.
Petra stammered. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Didn’t mean to stare?” he interrupted, finally turning and bringing to bear the most startling pair of ice blue eyes she had ever seen. “Of course not,” he continued with a raised eyebrow before turning back to his drink.
Petra didn’t quite know how to respond. She had, of course, caught herself staring, but what she was actually going to say—
“I know,” Gareth said, cutting into her thoughts as he downed the last of his glass and signaled to the man behind the counter for a refill. “But I’m not going anywhere until I’m finished.”
Petra’s mouth opened. This wasn’t going at all how she hoped. “But you don’t even know what I—”
“Was going to ask?” the wizard prompted, eyeing Petra carefully. “It doesn’t matter. You’re not ready yet.”
Petra was confused. What did her readiness have to do with anything? “Look,” she pressed on, reaching out to grab his shoulder. “You don’t—”
Petra stopped as an image flashed across her consciousness, a shock of recalled memory that interrupted her train of thought. It was vivid and uncomfortable, a foreboding purple sky crackling with electric energy and a pervading sense of cold isolation, startling in its intensity and made even more unnerving by the fact that the memory was decidedly not hers.
“Understand?” Gareth finished as he turned to face her fully, the image disappearing as he shrugged out of her grip. “No, that would be you.”
Petra was momentarily thrown by the disorienting flash of memory, feeling suddenly exposed and embarrassed, and fought through a rapidly building uncertainty to bring her thoughts back to her original purpose.
She looked up, shoring her nerve as she expected to find a reproach waiting in the wizard’s expression, but instead found only a cool detachment. He seemed to be deciding whether or not to find this amusing, and she deflated somewhat as she realized that he wouldn’t be wrong to think so. She exhaled and decided to switch tactics—
“Let it go, kid,” a deep voice interrupted from behind her.
She turned around to find a man sitting alone at one of the nearest tables, sipping his own drink and looking at Petra with a bemused expression.
Aris Cobalt had the appearance of someone at odds with himself, almost wholly unremarkable, with close shorn raven hair, dark skin and several days’ worth of stubble, but wearing the distinctive gray longcoat of a ranger. His voice, likewise, carried a weight of authority that his posture and demeanor didn’t share. He sat fiddling absently with a sidearm on the table, but the weapon looked wrong somehow, like it had too many parts. “Best let him finish his drink,” he said. “Gareth can be cranky if he’s not fully hydrated.” He gestured to the empty chair across from him and Petra walked over and sat down uneasily. The frustration she had built up must have been fairly evident on her face, as he smiled pleasantly, attempting to be as non-threatening as possible. “Name’s Aris, by the way,” he said, watching her carefully. “Deep breath, kid. It’ll be all right.”
All right? Petra doubted that. Her day had started out mundane and gone from unusual to downright strange and potentially dangerous in less than an hour. She leaned forward, some of her earlier urgency coming back to her. “But I—”
“Need his help? That much I got.”
Petra frowned. “Is everyone going to finish my sentences today?”
Aris shrugged. “Sorry, been spending too much time with that one. But seriously, take a deep breath. Rushing off unprepared won’t do you any good. That’s all he meant.”
Petra sighed, feeling more helpless than ever. “I’ve just never met a wizard before,” she said. “Is he always this annoying?”
“Insufferable,” he said. “But don’t let him hear you call him that. Wizards are mythical figures. He’ll just say he’s someone with a unique skillset who makes good use of it.”
“You sure?” Petra said. “He won’t if he keeps drinking like that.”
“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” Aris whispered with a conspiratorial grin as he leaned closer. “It’s water.”
She turned back to see the wizard finish his glass and signal for yet another. Her brow creased, but Aris continued before she could ask.
“Now,” he said, taking a sip of his own drink. “Tell me about your problem.”
Petra didn’t mince words. “There’s a cave about a league outside of town, a cave with a dragon.” She cringed. “I think I woke it up.”
The ranger didn’t even flinch. There was no skepticism on his face, no disbelief, just a nod as he took another sip of his drink. “Maybe it’ll go back to sleep,” he said with a shrug.
Was he kidding? Petra was suddenly on her feet, leaning across the table. “But what if it doesn’t?” She was practically shouting now, drawing odd looks from the nearest tables. “Nobody here knows what to do about a dragon!”
“You go home,” came a soft voice at her side. Startled, Petra looked up to see Gareth standing next to her, his piercing eyes staring down into hers.
And you don’t come out.
• • • •
After pushing their way into thicker and thicker clusters of trees, Mira and Voss came across a path of sorts, what looked to be a hiking trail crudely trampled into the underbrush, the way cleared of major obstructions. It meandered a bit but aimed more or less in the direction they needed. More importantly, it allowed them to pick up speed, which was now their primary concern.
Continuing on unhindered, Mira kept constant check on their location, finally reaching a point where they were forced to break off from the path and cut back into the thicker underbrush. They wouldn’t have much farther to go, however; a few hundred yards more and they would arrive at the small circular clearing they had picked for the extraction point.
From her hip, the handheld sounded another alert, this one shrill and sustained. Mira didn’t need to look at it to know what it meant.
They were out of time.
As if to punctuate this, a low bellow issued out of the forest to their right, sounding like the rumble of thunder on top of crumbling stone and sending a wave of vibration through the ground. Both women stopped cold, listening intently. In the silence, they could hear voices over the communicator, those of the captain, the wizard, and an unfamiliar young woman that was practically shouting. Mira spoke up, “I do hate to interrupt, but we’ve just reached zero hour.” Her eyes widened as a jet of orange flame could be seen in the distance, lancing up from the ground into the trees, setting limbs on fire and filling the air with the acrid smell of sulfur.
“Time’s up,” she said. “Emergence is now.”

Ruin of Dragons © 2018 Clay Kronke. All Rights Reserved.