David gritted his teeth and followed Jo's hand through the darkness. He assumed the rest of her was still attached. Damp, clammy things brushed past his face and hissed gibberish threats in his ears. Phantoms teased the corners of his eyes, shapes black against black, yellow against yellow, flowing through the ghost images his brain played to give substance to nothing.
The touches, sounds, and shapes plucked at his fear like virtuosi on over-taut harp strings. The air smelled of sodden graveyards, thick and rank in his nose and against his skin as if he had to swim through it.
Under the Sidhe hill, he thought. Three steps between magic and reality. Magic with teeth and claws as long as his forearm, magic with vampire briars that had tried to suck his soul into the land and spread his life in a blood sacrifice to renew the perpetual summer of the Summer Country. Magic that Jo carried in her genes.
Jo wasn't human. He loved her anyhow. Maybe that was witchcraft instead of True Love. From his end, he couldn't see the difference.
Loving Jo didn't blind him to her faults -- that girl was headstrong like you wouldn't believe. She was barely an apprentice witch, yet she insisted on walking this path between the worlds without a guide. She'd only done it once before, and that by accident. She'd been following Maureen. Brian said you could get lost, end up in a nightmare if you held the wrong image in your mind or let yourself get distracted.
But David's blood was human. He couldn't help her.
He felt cold sweat between his shoulder blades and trickling down his sides under his arms. This was taking far too long. When Brian had brought him to the Summer Country, it had been step, step, step, and they were there, sunshine and green grass and warm sweet breezes contrasting with the icy mess of winter in Maine. David hadn't even had time to be scared. That had happened later.
Jo's hand gripped his, tight enough that his bones creaked. It tugged, and he took another step and another. The darkness held firm. Hot breath chuckled in his left ear, and feathery fingers brushed across his eyes like someone testing ripe fruit in the market. He flinched.
Fear. That was the soul of the Summer Country. He'd bugged out, thrown the bow and arrows and the pack into the bushes and run from a lizard bigger than a tandem trailer rig. He'd only come back because there wasn't any place to run to. Sheer luck, he'd killed that goddamned dinosaur masquerading as a Chinese dragon. And then they'd been captured anyway.
And now he knew there was another dragon, even bigger, swearing vendetta for his mate's death. Who would have thought they were intelligent, got married, for Chrissake?
Where the hell was Jo taking him? This was going on far too long.
Khe'sha brooded over the skull of his mate. He coiled his body around the nest mound, a living wall of obsidian scales looming taller than a man above the murky water and deep marsh grass.
Sha'khe was dead, her song cut short between one word and the next. Sha'khe, who should have lived for centuries of dark beauty under the sun, gone. He flicked out his tongue and caressed the sharp ridges of her crest, stroking up the long slope of her muzzle from her nose. She'd always enjoyed that, stretching flat in the sun with a rumbling sigh while he groomed her scales. He remembered how she'd relax, the membrane rising slowly across her great yellow eye as she drowsed.
Now she was dead, murdered, her bones scattered in a long cold drift through the forest where she had fallen. Her kin should have carried ribs and thigh-bones and the great links of her spine to the hidden bone-cave and sung her deeds each step of the way in a strong deep-noted poem that distilled her life into its essence, but her nest-mates lived in another land, her clan lived in another land. Her bones should lie with her ancestors in another land.
Her kind, his kind, did not belong in this land. He hated it. He hated the humans and Old Ones who had brought them here and forced them to guard a grim, gray castle instead of the bright-painted Temples of the Moon.
<I will kill them,> he mind-spoke to her empty skull. <I will rend their flesh and feed it to our young. I will tear at their keep until the stones lie scattered like autumn leaves and their bones gleam cold and white under the moon. They all will die. No one will sing their deeds and deaths. They will have never been.>
He tested the mound's warmth with his tongue, thrusting gently at both the sun side and the shade, and then rested his sensitive throat across the surface to judge the heat that flowed from deep around the eggs. He pawed dry marsh-grass over the shaded side to hold in the heat of the leaves that rotted there, warming the clutch. He studied the sky, afraid of rain -- the long, soaking rains that could flood the marsh until dark water swallowed the nest and killed the tiny dragonets inside their eggs.
Dragons grew slowly, and the seasons turned slowly. The season for nesting had finally come. Now Khe'sha guarded the end of Sha'khe's song. Twelve of the mottled brown eggs lay buried, near the time of hatching. Twelve dragons alone, far from their ancestors, far from the Celestial Temple and the Sages. They would hatch. Then what?
The strongest might survive to breed. With luck. And who would they join their souls to, in this land of puny apes? Who would teach them the songs, the long sonorous history of clan and bloodline, the deep thoughts and resplendent deeds that echoed through the hills and valleys and grew with each generation? They would live alone, and die alone, as he would die alone.
Only the nest remained, his life and heart. He would never take another mate. The dragon bond tied a pair for centuries, their bodies and thoughts mirrored like their hatchling half-names were mirrored around the deep booming sound in the gut that clothed monkeys couldn't make. A dragon pair grew together through the ages until one could not live without the other. Only the nest kept Khe'sha alive, now that Sha'khe was dead.
I will see the hatchlings leave the nest and hunt. I will teach them the songs I know. I will have revenge. After that, nothing. Without Sha'khe, I have no reason to live.
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