Well, the votes are in and we have another tie this month between The Wolf and Dragon Stones. It’s been a while since that happened, and it’s been so long since The Wolf last put in an appearance that I don’t remember where we left off. I think I said there were werewolf hijinx coming up, didn’t I? Let’s find out.
That busted up SUV was going to pay for this year’s vacation. Carl gave the tilted wheel a pat and thanked God for reckless flat-landers with fat wallets.
The fax machine made a noise. He went into office to check it. Here came the paperwork he was waiting for, authorization from the insurance company for the work the SUV needed. He already had the parts lined up; there was a junkyard not far away that specialized in SUVs. People saw those commercials on television where crazy drivers drove their vehicles through rivers and over trees and up to the tops of mesas, and they never really paid attention to the tiny do not attempt warnings at the bottom of the screen. And when they attempted, like as not they ended up wrecking their cars.
Carl got on the computer and confirmed his parts order. He should have the axle and windshield by tomorrow afternoon, and Mr. Greg could have his car back, good as new, except that it would still look like somebody had tried to grate it like a big block of cheese. Not to mention that it stunk. He’d sprayed three different kinds of deodorizers around the bay, but they barely masked the smell.
He returned to the garage and reached back to switch off the office lights. As the fluorescents went out, he heard a howl, from somewhere close by. It started low and deep, then went high, warbled, faded. Not a coyote. A wolf? You didn’t hear wolves very often; in fact, he had never heard one before. They didn’t range through here much anymore, despite having been reintroduced to the north and west. His boy had mentioned the accident with the SUV had involved a wolf poacher, and Carl had wondered what the hell a poacher would be doing around here. Maybe he knew something the rest of them didn’t.
Well, it didn’t matter much. If it was a wolf, it was probably just passing through on its way to somewhere better. Most likely it was somebody’s big dog, having a lunar moment.
He checked both garage doors, making sure they were locked. Sometimes you got kids coming down from the campground or the lodge and they weren’t above breaking into places. He didn’t think they’d be interested in stealing oil filters or fan belts, but he still remembered the time he had come in one morning and found a mess of beer cans on the floor and seven college students sleeping in the office. That prompted him to get a sign that said there was an alarm system, even though there wasn’t.
Carl headed for the back door of the garage, which opened onto what he referred to as the employee parking lot: A narrow strip of dirt between the garage and a wall of trees, just wide enough for his car. He decided to make a pit stop before leaving, and turned left into the bathroom. His boy had long since pedaled his bike back home, but compulsive modesty caused him to close the door behind him. He wasn’t raised in a barn, despite what his wife might say.
“Ma’am,” he said, greeting the old Snap-On poster that graced the wall over the toilet. Didn’t make them like that anymore, no sir. Sensitivity to women, and all that crap.
He was right in the middle of peeing when he heard a huge crash. Sounded like it came from the garage. He couldn’t very well shut off the stream in mid-flow, and he could hardly run up the hallway spraying urine all over the floor, so he had to finish and zip up. Meanwhile the noises continued, metal crunching and twisting, glass breaking, like someone was taking an axe to the place. What the heck?
He opened the cabinet next to the sink. In addition to the toilet paper and the soap, he kept a few spare tools in there. Screwdriver set—too small. X-shaped lug wrench—no good, unless he wanted to throw it like a Frisbee or something; it might do some damage, but only the one time.
Tire iron. Yeah, that was what he was looking for.
Carl hefted the tire iron and went to the bathroom door, opening it a little and peeking out. He couldn’t see into the garage very well, having shut the lights off earlier. The noises had subsided but he could hear someone in there. Sounded like a real mouth-breather; or maybe it was a dog making the noises. If somebody broke in and brought their dog, that might explain the howling.
The door to his office beckoned, just across the hallway. The tire iron was good, sure; but he had a gun locked in the top drawer of his desk, and that would be better. Could he get across the hallway without being seen? The glow of the full moon seeped through the dirty window at the end of the hall, the window in the door that led to the employee parking lot, the door that was only a few yards away from where he stood. Might make more sense to bolt and call the cops, rather than confront whoever was down there trashing the place. Insurance would cover the damage. There was no need to get himself beaten up.
Suddenly he heard it again, the howl, only now it was inside the garage. The ululating wail echoed around the hallway, bounced off the walls and ceiling. He felt the tire iron vibrate in his hand. Cripes, what on earth could make a noise like that?
Frightened now, Carl darted across the hallway and into the office, closing and locking the door behind him. Moonlight through the window gave him enough illumination to see. He went to the desk, fumbled his keys out of his pocket. They were attached to his belt with a clip and a retractable cord; so when they slipped out of his jittery hand, they didn’t clatter to the floor, they just smacked against his leg with a faint jingle. He froze a moment, but nothing came bursting through the door.
He sat carefully in the hard wooden chair behind the desk. If he leaned back it would squeak something awful. He’d been meaning to oil it, he really had, he just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. He lay the tire iron on the desk and then lifted the keys up into a moonbeam so he could see them. The desk key was about the same size and shape as the one for the padlock on the tool chest in his pickup, so he had to look at it to make sure it was the right one.
As he fumbled through the keys, he heard the floorboards creaking outside the office. Somebody was coming up the hallway. He pictured the intruder creeping toward the office, with his big weird dog straining against its chain, its bulging neck muscles stretching its spiked leather collar almost to the breaking point, drool from its big teeth dribbling to the floor.
Okay. He was letting his imagination run away with him.
There it was, the drawer key. He shoved it into the lock, gave it a twist, opened the drawer. The gun lay there, dull black next to the petty cash box and a few pornographic DVDs that Carl had confiscated from a mini-van he’d worked on a few weeks ago. He’d intended to throw them away.
He picked up the gun, an old chambered revolver. He didn’t keep it loaded, although at the moment he was kind of wishing he did. Maybe it would be enough if he just pointed it at the intruder, but he always told his boy that if you pointed a gun at somebody you’d better be prepared to pull the trigger. If the gun wasn’t loaded, pulling the trigger wouldn’t do much, unless your assailant was scared of clicking noises.
The ammunition was in a small box next to the gun. The bullets were as old as the weapon; Carl hoped they would still fire. He flipped open the cylinder and pushed a slug into the first chamber.
Something smashed into the door, hard. A huge crack appeared down the middle of it. That door was solid wood, two inches thick, not hollow panels stuffed with cardboard like the doors in Carl’s house. He didn’t think whoever was out there had even bothered trying the knob. God only knew what the guy might be hopped up on. He remembered the cops had busted a crystal meth lab a few months ago, just over the county line. Didn’t that stuff make people act like psychos?
His hands had begun to shake so much that he had trouble pushing a second bullet into the revolver. He snapped the cylinder shut. Two shots would have to do. He cocked the trigger, put his elbows on the desk to steady his aim, and pointed the gun at the door just as it took another blow and splintered, breaking inward. The lock was only one of those push button jobs that kept you from turning the knob, not a deadbolt, and it tore right out of the jamb; not that it really would have mattered anyway, because all three hinges had ripped loose as well. One even popped off the door, sailing across the room and smacking into the wall next to Carl’s head.
Unnerved, Carl pulled the trigger. The hammer seemed to take forever to move, seconds ticking by as it slowly fell toward the bullet. The report wasn’t very loud, sort of like somebody snapping their fingers really loudly. He had aimed too high; the bullet punched through the bathroom door across the hall. He cocked the trigger again and waited.
The thing that came into his office wasn’t a person. He couldn’t see it well because it stuck to the shadows near the door, but it looked low and powerful, a big dog, as he had suspected. He could hear the raspy wet snuffles of its breath as it crouched there. He couldn’t make out any details, but he knew somehow that it was watching him, looking at his gun.
It moved forward, eyes catching the stray bits of light, glittering green and gold, coming to the front of his desk. The thing brought a terrible smell with it, like it had been rolling in dead things and then washed off with ammonia. The stink made him lightheaded. His hands were trembling even more now, messing up his aim worse than before.
Then the creature stood, seeming to unfold, rearing up before him in the moonlight. It was covered with rippling fur the color of shadows, growing pale in the moonlight, as if its color changed with its surroundings. It seemed awkward on two legs, reminding Carl of the way a friendly dog would rear up to greet you. But this was no dog. There was a suggestion of the canine in the long ears that tapered to points, the snout that pushed forward from its face; but its eyes gleamed with a savage intellect that he had never seen even in the most clever hound. From the way it stood he could see that it was capable of moving on two legs if it chose, though it was undoubtedly faster on four.
He understood now that there was no master here, no man hiding in the hallway with a leash curled in his hand. There was only this creature. It balanced on its hind legs for a moment, then fell forward, its front feet thudding heavily onto the desk. It thrust its head at him, jaws opening to reveal a thick, black tongue and inch-long teeth serrated like expensive knives.
Carl finally found the wit to pull the trigger. He could hardly miss at this range, with the thing’s barrel chest right in front of him. The gunshot seemed louder this time. The monster grunted as the bullet tore into its flesh; the impact staggered it for a second, giving Carl a chance to snatch up the tire iron and scramble from behind the desk.
The beast whirled, sweeping one arm across the desk and sending the phone, the lamp, everything flying away. It sprang at him, its massive rear legs firing like pistons. The force of its leap caused the desk to flip over. Carl swung the tire iron, striking the thing on the snout. It made a sound between a whine and a snarl. It swiped one clawed hand at him and he jumped back, hearing a ripping sound as the talons slashed through his jumpsuit. His back slammed into the wall; he couldn’t retreat any farther.
Then he noticed the creature bring its right paw, the one it had struck with, to its nose. The fur seemed matted and dark. The thing’s long tongue flicked out, licking itself.
Carl looked down.
The claw hadn’t just ripped through cloth. It had opened up his belly, and things were bulging out, mottled ropy things that belonged within the flesh, not outside it. The front of his pants were covered in blood already and more was gushing out as he stared at the wound. It didn’t hurt; it just felt cold.
He dropped the tire iron. It clattered to the floor. He tried to push his guts back inside, but his hands were shaking so much that he pulled them out instead. They unwound down his legs like a line unspooling, making wet slurping noises as they collected at his feet.
Sounds of movement drew his attention; he raised his head.
The massive jaws were coming, right at his face. They closed over his head, teeth digging into both sides of his skull. He felt vertebrae popping in his neck as the creature twisted. All he could see was the darkness in its throat. His nose was full of its foul breath; his mouth tasted like his own blood.
He heard one final pop, louder than the gunshots.
And then he heard nothing at all.
Hmm, yes, I guess that’s werewolf hijinx all right. Although poor Carl might call it something else. Next up is a scene from about two-thirds of the way through Dragon Stones in which (most of) our heroes are finally together and getting ready to make a move against the villains after having spent about 400 pages getting smacked around.
After climbing the stairs to her room to gather up her things — which amounted to a change of clothes, a few coins, and, of course, her weapon — Diasa returned to the common room. The others had gathered near the front door, looking glum and grave, except for T’Sian; she was tight-faced and angry, as if she would like to have burned the inn down and was frustrated that she couldn’t.
Diasa paused at the table to say goodbye to Wert; he stared moodily into the fire and didn’t answer, merely waved a hand in dismissal. Diasa shrugged and turned away, but then stopped, realizing that she had seen that gesture many times, but never from Wert. She hesitated, glanced at him from the corner of her eye, a vague and bizarre idea that had been fluttering around her mind suddenly becoming clear.
“Just go, child,” Wert said without turning. “There is nothing more you can do for either of us now.”
Shaken, she left him there and moved toward the others. They saw her coming and filed out of the inn; she joined them in the chill darkness outside. “We’ve decided to leave the city on foot, so as not to attract undue attention,” Ponn said, “and then T’Sian will meet us in the plains and take us onward to Dunshandrin.“
“Take us?“ Diasa said. “You mean fly?”
“Through the air?“
“That’s normally how one flies,” Ponn said. “Do you know of a faster way to get there?”
Diasa closed her eyes and imagined soaring through the air with the dragon, and realized that she didn’t even know what a dragon really looked like. She’d had seen drawings, sketches in books at Flaurent, but those were surely pallid imitations of the real thing. “If we must,“ she said, with a little shiver.
“The old oracle believes that we are very short on time,“ T’Sian said, “so yes, we must.” Then something like a smile split her face nearly in two. “Do not worry. I have not dropped Pyodor Ponn yet.“
After a moment, Ponn said: “Was that a joke?“
“All right, then,” Diasa said. “From here, the fastest way out of town would be by boat, not on foot. Perhaps we can find someone trustworthy to take us down the lake and then put us ashore.“
“I know some people who can help us with that,” Tolaria said. “Follow me.” She led them along the street to a noisy, ramshackle tavern that stood on an old wharf, supported by brine-encrusted stilts that looked as if they might collapse at any moment. A variety of odd decorations hung from the dark underside of the building: Dead water birds trussed up by their feet, tattered women’s clothing, the bones of fish large and small. Tolaria eyed the building, then looked at Pyodor Ponn until the Enshennean offered to accompany her inside. The oracle gratefully accepted; Ponn set his daughter down on the ground and asked Diasa and T’Sian to watch the child, and then the two of them disappeared into the building.
Prehn made to go after her father, but Diasa caught her arm and hoisted her up onto her own shoulders, wincing a bit as the movement brought a twinge of pain from her wound. T’Sian came up close and peered at the little girl. “You look like your father,” she said.
“No I don’t. I look like Mommy.”
“I had babies once,“ T’Sian said. “They would have been about your age, if they had been little men.”
“Where are they now?“ Prehn said.
For a long time, the dragon didn’t answer; then she said: “They died.”
“Oh,” Prehn said. “That’s too bad.”
“Yes,“ T’Sian said, after another lengthy silence. “Too bad.“
She said nothing more, and eventually Tolaria and Ponn emerged from the inn with a sailor in tow. “This is Rennald,“ Tolaria said. “He’s agreed to take us down the shore in his skiff.“
“What is a skiff?” T’Sian said.
“It is a small, light boat, fast and quiet,” Rennald said loudly. “Just the thing for stealthy water travel!” Then, looking confused as Tolaria and Ponn shushed him: “What?”
“A small, light boat will not support my weight,” T’Sian said, “and I do not look forward to a dip in the lake.”
The sailor belched loudly. “It holds six men and a lovely lady with ease. I think it can carry you lot.”
“I weigh more than you think,” T’Sian said. “Tell me where you are taking them and I will meet you there.”
Rennald shrugged. “As you wish. East brings us out of town fastest, and the current—such as it is—will be with us. So we will go east.” He pointed off into the darkness.
“That’s west,” Diasa said acidly.
“Oh, aye.” Rennald dropped his arm and pointed in the other direction. “East.”
T’Sian turned and stalked away, vanishing into the darkness toward shore. Rennald threw one arm around Tolaria and the other around Ponn, as if they were all old friends; maybe it was to hold himself up. Diasa wondered if the man could be trusted to find his way safely to his skiff, let alone take them out on the lake and then return to Achengate in the darkness.
“So, Tolaria, why sneak away in the night?“ Rennald said as they walked along the wharf. Once again, Ponn had to remind him to keep his voice down. “Is it because of the assassin Dunshandrin sent?“ he continued, now speaking in an exaggerated whisper.
“No,“ Tolaria said, “there’s a wiz—“
“Yes, there are more men coming to kill us,” Diasa said, speaking nearly as loudly as the drunkard had, interrupting Tolaria before she could say anything about the wizard. She kept talking, of course; she had told Diasa about her compulsion to answer direct questions truthfully. The less Rennald knew about their situation, the better off all of them would be.
Fortunately, the sailor was so inebriated that he couldn’t follow both answers at once. “Don’t run away!“ he exclaimed. “Stay and fight! The men and me, we’ll help you. We haven’t evened things up with those curs yet. We’ll make them sorry they ever looked at you twice!“
“No, we must go,” Tolaria said. “I’ve put you in too much danger already.”
“Danger.” Obviously Rennald scoffed at physical jeopardy. “I can have two dozen sailors jump them at once. We’ll see how much good their poisonous tricks are against honest men and their swords.”
“You’re very brave,” Tolaria said, “but no. Just do this one thing for us. Take us out of the city.”
“Of course, of course. Here we are.” They had reached a small flatboat, like the ones that plied the shallow rivers of the Salt Flats. Rennald helped Tolaria aboard, then Ponn. He tried to help Diasa, but she jumped down to it without assistance. The landing sent a small jolt of pain through her ribs, and the cut on her belly twinged like a cord drawn too tight, biting into the skin.
From behind her, she heard a splash. She glanced into the water, sighed, and said to the others: “Our deliverer needs to be pulled out of the lake before he drowns.”
Look out, boys, there’s an angry dragon coming to town.
The poll has been reset and voting is now open for the next scene of the month!