I stared at the scroll for a few seconds. It was like a party invitation, except instead of cake and jelly, there would be monsters and the constant threat of a violent death. So not all that inviting. Still, it was very polite. And in English.
“Is Cheng a Visitor?” I asked the blue reptile towering over me.
Hitokag wrinkled up his nose which drew back the skin covering his mouth to reveal small triangular teeth “Of course not. He was born here. He is one of us.”
If I said no, would they simply leave? Probably not. Hitokag stretched out his wings and closed them again. I don’t know if he was trying to intimidate me or just stretching but either way it didn’t make me want to go on a long trip with him.
“He also instructed me to answer any questions you may have if you agree to come.”
This offer did interest me. “You’ll answer any questions? Anything I want to know?”
“If I can. I don’t know everything.” He looked at the dragonmen either side of him and they all had a good laugh, although I had no idea what was so hilarious. “Cheng will also provide you with answers when you meet him. You will find him very reasonable.”
I think Hitokag meant to smile encouragingly. What he actually did was bare his endless rows of teeth at me.
Despite the obvious risks inherent in meeting with the Archfiend, the chance to get answers was very tempting. If they wanted me dead I already would be. Of course, this raised the question of what they did want from me. Perhaps Visitors were a delicacy that tasted best when served fresh.
Still, I had questions I wouldn’t mind getting answered. It seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse.
I turned to the others. “All right, I’ll go with these guys and see what I can find out, you lot go with Keezy back to Flatland.”
“No,” said Claire. “We aren’t going to leave you here on your own.”
The rest of them had similar defiant looks on their faces. Except for Jenny who had her arms crossed and her head slightly tilted, like she was trying to figure out if I’d had a haircut or just combed my hair differently.
“Why not? You already left me behind when you went gallivanting off to the city.”
“That was different,” said Claire. “That was… a mistake.” The others mumbled what sounded like apologies, although they were all looking at the ground so possibly it was their shoes they were apologising to.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You got invited to a party and you went. It’s quite impressive really. You went off with a bunch of monsters and came back alive. Surprising in all sorts of ways.”
“It was a mistake. It was wrong.” Claire struggled to look me in the face but forced herself to make eye-contact. “I know you don’t believe people when they say sorry, but after all we’ve been through together, I think we deserve a second chance.”
It’s a strange kind of apology when the person who’s sorry tells you what you owe them.
“They had a carriage with a unicorn,” blurted out Flossie.
“We, ahhh, we, ahhh,” stammered Dudley, “got carried away.”
“It was really exciting at first,” said Claire, “but the truth is once we got there we were really scared. We agreed to everything—the tours, the banquets, the clothes fittings—because we were afraid they might get angry with us if we said no. All we really wanted to do was get back… here.”
Her face turned red. Not from her usual saliva-frothing anger but more from embarrassment.
“It doesn’t matter how mad we get at you or how infuriating you can be, you’re still our leader. And you know how to say no to people.”
“Okay,” I said feeling quite uncomfortable, “but the whole point of having a leader is that they should lead you somewhere. Once you have a destination in mind, you choose the best person to get you there. But we don’t really have a goal, other than not dying. And anyone can lead you in that direction. The way is pretty well signposted. Over here is a rogue ogre—” I pointed randomly “—so not that way. Over here—” I pointed in another direction “—crazy people with strange weapons, best to avoid. And here—” I pointed at Hitokag “—dragonmen with wings and teeth and scaliness all over. You don’t need me—”
“We aren’t descended from dragons,” said Hitokag, sounding a little peeved.
“Oh. You aren’t descended from dragons?”
“What? No. Are you suggesting my mother was impregnated by a dragon?” Now he sounded disgusted.
“No. I mean not your mother, maybe your great, great…” This conversation clearly wasn’t headed anywhere good. I pointed at Keezy. “He said you were the Draconic Guard so…”
“We are lizardmen of the Mezzik tribe.” The rest of the winged lizardmen grunted in unison which I took to be some kind of tribal thing.
It was a bit confusing. They were lizards with wings, and the only lizards with wings were… “But Draconic means dragon, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Keezy. “They’re called the Draconic Guard because they guard that.” He pointed across the plain.
It took a moment for me to see it. Flying towards us, barely a few inches above the tall grass, was a dragon.
“Ohhh, I see.” I turned back to the others. “They guard the, you know, the dragon.” My voice faded as I spoke so only a squeak came out by the time I got to ‘dragon’.
They nodded, unable to take their eyes of the behemoth gliding towards us.
Huge wings, serpentine neck, green and dinosaur-like. Very draconic.
As it came in to land, it flipped its wings up to act as air brakes and its huge claws splayed like the most alarming jazz hands you’ve ever seen. It landed surprisingly softly considering it was the size of a medium sized jetliner.
Dust flew up blinding everyone for a second and when it cleared small black eyes peered at us down a long snout. Then it bent down and started eating grass.
The lizardmen of the Mezzik tribe rushed towards it and began stroking and petting it. A low rumble shook the ground. It appeared to be purring.
“It’s a dragon,” said Maurice with the kind of reverence you rarely hear outside of a spiritual epiphany.
Everyone nodded. This seemed to be everyone’s favoured method of communication since making a sound might alert the dragon to our existence. And that couldn’t be good.
It had a wide, flat head and two rows of plates running down its back like a stegosaurus. It tore grass out of the ground in vast clumps and masticated at us.
“It’s like a big cow with wings,” said Flossie. She was clinging to Dudley who had stepped in front of her like that would do anything.
Maurice started walking towards it like he was in a trance. When he got to Hitokag he stopped. “Does it breathe fire?”
“What are you blathering about?” When Hitokag agreed to answer all question he clearly hadn’t realised the kinds of questions we would be asking. “Of course he doesn’t breathe fire.”
“No, of course not, that would be ridiculous,” said Maurice, his head swaying gently like he was loved up on molly. “Can I touch him?”
“If you wish. Be gentle.”
Maurice staggered forward, arms outstretched.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “If you have dragons, why can’t you just fly over the border and kill everyone?”
“Why,” said Hitokag, “would we want to kill everyone? You have some very strange ideas. And dragons won’t go that far from their breeding grounds. The females only go into heat once every hundred years or so and the males get understandably upset if they miss their chance. This is about the limit they’ll travel and only ones like Vikchutni here who has already sired offspring.”
“Is that how we’re going to get to Cheng?”
“Yes,” said Hitokag. “Unless you have learned to fly. We will leave after he has had a chance to refuel. You will come, yes?” He didn’t wait for a response, he just walked off.
Maurice had reached the beast and tentatively touched its hide. It turned its long neck and looked at him, then snorted. Dust blew out of its nostrils and covered Maurice. He laughed. It was pure joy.
Claire walked up beside me. “If you think he’s going to let you fly off on that thing without him, you don’t know Maurice.” She watched her boyfriend with what might have been a touch of jealousy.
Jenny tapped me on the shoulder. When I turned she kissed me on the mouth. It was just a peck but my focus narrowed to her face. An asteroid could have wiped out everyone else and I wouldn’t notice.
“Sorry, been wanting to do that for a while. You aren’t going to slap me again, are you?” She grinned mischievously at me.
I sighed. “Are you going to hold that over me for the rest of my life?”
“Yes, but your life might not be that long. You know we’re all coming with you, right?”
It wasn’t like I had any particular reason to stop them. Other than being generally annoying and prone to the occasional delusion of heroic grandeur.
“You were always the leader, but now they know no matter how annoying you might be, the alternative is worse.”
Just for a second a fleeting thought crossed my mind. What if that was why she let them go off without me? Could she really be that calculating?
I looked at her beautiful face and wondered if she was really a demon. A succubus, maybe?
“You can call me the leader if you want, but where exactly do you expect me to lead you to?”
“Isn’t it obvious? Gullen told you to meet the Archfiend and here we are. You seem to be leading fine. Now you just have to get him to not kill us all.”
“Great. So my goal is what? World peace?” I meant it to sound ridiculous. It did. “I’m not Nelson fucking Mandela.”
There was a strange gurgle that came from somewhere inside the dragon. Its long neck rippled. Maurice, who had worked his way to the front, reached out to pat it on the head just as it opened its mouth.
Hitokag swooped down from the dragon’s back and grabbed Maurice, yanking him out of the way as a green spray shot out. It covered the grass which immediately dissolved into sludge. The dragon bent down and began slurping it up. It was kind of disgusting.
Hitokag dropped Maurice down next to me.
“It doesn’t breathe fire, it breathes acid.” Maurice was incredibly excited by this near-fatal discovery.
“Yes,” said Hitokag. “Harmless to us but you soft-skins wouldn’t fare so well. Try not to get your faces melted off.” He raised a hand and signalled to his men. “It means he is ready to fly. You should get on board.”
“We’re going to fly on him?” Maurice’s eyes sparkled.
“You have decided to go then,” said Keezy.
“Looks like it,” I said. “You’re not coming?”
“We have matters to attend to here. The Worm King prophecy has to be fulfilled.”
“I wanted to ask you about the prophecy.”
“Ask Hitokag,” said Keezy with a sneer. “He will be able to tell you everything you wish to know.”
“You don’t like him very much do you?”
“He is a glorified stableboy. Of the three lizardmen tribe, the Mezzic are the most arrogant. And that’s saying something. You have done much for me to be grateful for, Colin, but I would rather we not meet again.”
“If we do, you’ll still owe me.”
“Yes.” He turned and walked away.
The correct way to board a dragon, it turned out, was to start at the end of the tail and walk your way up between the plates sticking up on either side. The lizardmen flapped alongside. I was half-expecting them to point out the exits and show us where to stow our hand luggage.
By sitting with your back against one plate, and your feet wedged against the other, there was a kind of stability to how we were seated, even though our seat undulated under us.
Jenny sat down next to me, put her arms around my waist and her head on my chest. The dragon spread its wings and the world shook.
Jenny leaned in tight and kissed the side of my neck. Then she moved her mouth up to my ear and whispered, “I own you.”
I pulled my head away and looked into her large, brown eyes. “What did you say?”
“I said, I love you.”
“Really? That’s not what it sounded like.”
“Oh? What did it sound like?”
We lurched into the air. Flossie squealed and buried her head into Dudley’s chest. Maurice and Claire were next to each other holding hands.
We were almost vertical and I had to really push my feet into the opposite blade to not fall out.
Jenny squeezed me.
It occurred to me there really was no need to fly a dragon to go see the Archfiend when I had my very own archfiend right here.
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