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The Dragon's Lair

Chapter One

By Claudia NeavesPublished 2 years ago 14 min read
The Dragon's Lair
Photo by Sander Weeteling on Unsplash

There weren’t always Dragons in the Valley. Really there wasn’t much of anything in the Valley: churches mostly. The bigger Catholic churches with their stained-glass windows offset the smaller, more plain Protestant buildings. The name on the map, if you could find it, was Glimmer Valley, but that seemed too fussy to the church flocks who did most of the voting and the talking. Calling it anything but “the Valley” marked you as an outsider, which was largely unwelcome by the masses. Once a nice sit-down diner tried to put down roots, right between two white chapels. The parishioners quickly ran them out when they found out they were selling Coca-Cola, which was surely somehow endorsed by the Devil. Really, there wasn’t much of anything in the Valley. Until Mikhail and his nephew Magnus arrived.

They came in human form, smartly dressed in black suits with twin ruby rings winking from their left hands. There was no smoke, no fire. They simply marched up the steps to the bank and calmly asked to speak to the manager. A few ladies tripped over themselves to stampede out, forgetting their deposits to quickly spread the news.

Dragons. In our Valley, can you believe it? If Coca-Cola was sinful then these two men must be hell incarnate. It must have been pandemonium on the steps leading up to the bank that day. Nearly the whole town jostled to get a good view, to throw a few hateful glares to the two beasts who conducted their business inside the bank. The church leaders stood at the epicenter, an unlikely party, each garbed in the ceremonial dress that distinguished them as different from the other. They began to speculate, and the postulates floated down the steps to the rest of the congregates.

Surely, the bank manager would kick them out. Demand they take their ungodly crusade elsewhere. Perhaps the security officer, a rather beloved older man named Norm, would toss them out onto the steps. He would douse them with a bucket of water to keep the fire-breathing pair from igniting. And the people would all cheer.

But Mikhail and Magnus found a sympathetic audience from the bank manager, and perhaps Norm too, when they showed them the gold. It didn’t take much flaunting to convince the bank team. After all, their suits and ruby rings alone were worth more than anyone in the Valley had ever seen. And so, they bought the plot of land right smack between the two pretty white chapels, right where the diner had once stood. They built a pub, coyishly named it The Lair, and made themselves at home. And this time there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.

They brought the booze, which brought the drunks, and the rest of the monsters followed suit. It was funny really, most of the witches were more sober than the Catholics, but they came too, erecting tea houses—with tea to mend a broken heart—or nurseries—with bushes to break another’s heart. The vampires arrived next (although many of them had already been living in the Valley, it seemed) and they built more bars and pubs. But none seemed to rival the notoriety of The Lair. At night, the streets were filled with a menagerie of patrons, some stumbling, some flying between bars and clubs, sloshing drinks and pixie dust. When the sun came up, they returned to their houses to sleep it off. The remainder of the Valley, The Originals, as they now called themselves, packed into churches to discuss the Dragons and the trouble they had caused them all.

And so, Erina was mostly alone that weekday mid-morning, sipping tea at a rickety table outside a little shack known as The Witch’s Brew. The door to the shop was plastered with posters, numerous copies of the same faces, the words HAVE YOU SEEN ME? stenciled below them. Some of the faces were young, innocent. Others were quite daunting. It made the city wonder just who or what had caused such a creature to go missing.

The server, not a witch or other frightening creature, but a pixie with bleary hangover eyes, had looked annoyed when she had brought the steaming pot outside to the sun-soaked iron table. She slammed the pot down and returned to the cool of the air-conditioned shack before Erina could even muster a thank you. It didn’t matter. She didn’t plan on waiting there long anyway.

The summer sun was high and hot, but Erina kept her hood tight around her, an effort to partially obscure her face and ears. She wore long pants with multiple deep pockets down to her ankles, militant black boots, and a hooded sweatshirt zipped up to her chin. It seemed a misguided effort to stay inconspicuous, baking in the summer heat that she was, but she hadn’t been the only one hiding their features these days. Especially in the daylight.

“You look like a Spy Kid,” grumbled the teapot.

“Stop that,” she whispered back, picking up the squat flowery thing by the handle and pouring herself a cup. The steam rose into her face, fogging her sunglasses. She took a tentative sip of the burning liquid. Bravery, the cranky pixie had called the brew. Meant to bring courage. But it only made Erina’s upper lip sweat.

I’m going to die out here of heat stroke, she thought miserably. She hadn’t been there long, but any amount of time in this heat felt like eons. She thought about shifting to a new table, one with a bit of shade perhaps, when at last, a slender black shape edged into her periphery.

It was a black cat, small enough to be mistaken for a kitten, with glowing yellow eyes and a bored expression on her face. Erina watched for a moment as the cat approached the stop sign across the street. She paused, languidly licked her paws, and then stepped into the street.

There was no traffic on such a sleepy day, and the cat took her time, walking towards the Witch’s Brew but all the while casting her yellow eyes on other buildings, as if she might change her direction at any moment. Erina realized she was holding her breath. She pretended to look busy with her teacup, pouring herself another steaming mug and not watching as the cat made its way toward her. When the cat reached her, it sat a few inches before her boots, flicked its tail twice, and let out a meow.

“Are you here for me?” Erina whispered, more into her teacup than to the cat. Yellow Eyes Black Fur stretched, rolled over so that she could nuzzle her face into Erina’s boots, and began to purr.

“Good kitty,” Erina managed, reaching her hand down for the cat to smell. She didn’t dare pet the thing. Even so, the cat chirped happily, hopped to her feet, and started off back to cross the street. Erina took a moment to gather her things. She wiped her mouth with her napkin, but not the pink smudge of lipstick off her teacup. She placed a few bills on the table and stood.

“Leaving so soon?” mused the teapot. Erina ignored it, and surreptitiously stepped into the pavement after the cat.

Yellow Eyes Black Fur wove deliberately through the city, not once looking back to see if Erina was still following. She seemed to avoid the larger roads, electing instead to pass some of the smaller businesses and homes. If they happened to walk by another cat, which seemed uncharacteristically often, then the cat might dip its head in solemn acknowledgement. Most other creatures avoided the hottest part of the day, but a few Originals tending gardens or sipping lemonade from their porches glared as they passed. Erina kept her head down, nearly tripping over her own boots when Yellow Eyes Black Fur made a sharp turn.

“Here?” She said when they stopped. She wasn’t surprised. The Lair was open all hours, day or night, although it did seem awfully unlikely either of the Dragons would be present at this time. The cat lifted a shoulder, as if in shrug.

“Will you wait here for me?” she said, more softly than before. The cat blinked slowly, as if to say, if I must, and deftly hopped onto a windowsill, curling herself into an inkblot for a snooze. There was nothing left for Erina to do but square her shoulders and walk inside.

Despite only being a few years old, the pub had the air of something antique. High beamed ceilings, interior of wood and stone, of course it wasn’t until the day that the place was empty enough to appreciate all these details. There were a few oak tables pressed against the wall and a bar with stools in the back. Usually packed with shimmery bodies, booze, and sweat, Erina found that she was surprised by the amount of space inside. Only one patron of the bar had braved the heat: a grizzly warlock shoved into a booth, talking into a frosty mug of beer.

“No hoods!” came the Bavarian welcome, as a ruddy faced bar maid bustled in from the kitchen. Erina sidled into the booth closest to the bar but didn’t remove her hood. Not yet. The bar maid approached the table, placed a hand on her hip, and glowered down at Erina. Her apron, as well as her hands were dripping with suds, as if she had just yanked them out of a wash tub to come wait on this most inopportune guest.

“What’ll ya have?” she asked in that thick accent. Erina attempted to read the smudged menu on the table.

“Oh um, just a beer,” Erina said. The bar maid rolled her eyes—unnaturally grass green, as if she had some diluted Fae blood in her—and snatched the menu out of Erina’s hands.

“Wasn’t born yesterday!” she clipped. “You’ll have a Coke.” She had turned to leave, but before she had a chance, Erina reached into one of her many deep pockets and procured something that made those grass green eyes narrow. Erina slapped the playing card on the table with a little more force than she intended. A hand painted playing card face up so that the King of Clubs stared up at the pair of them. A small detail had been added to the card, one that was very familiar to the part-Fae bar maid: a ruby ring winking from the left hand of the King.

“He’s not here,” she said, stiffening. She attempted to appraise Erina, but found it difficult looking past the long pants, hood, and shaded glasses. Erina smiled, the only part of her visage unmasked.

“I’ve reason to believe he is,” she said, gesturing out the window, where she knew Yellow Eyes Black Fur was still pretending to warm herself in the sunny sill. The bar maid crossed her arms angrily, scowling at the cat, and then at her. Erina didn’t know which he she was referring to yet; she would have to be prepared for Mikhail or his nephew. Whomever was supervising the back of house that day, the bar maid seemed eager to honor his discretion. She chewed on her bottom lip, then spun on her heel, throwing her wet sudsy hands in the air.

“Fine,” she spat out. “But put that thing away.” This time Erina obliged, tucking the card back into the trouser pocket. But the hood stayed on.

When the bar maid’s thick hips finally swished back through the swinging kitchen doors, Erina had to keep herself from sinking down into her seat with relief. To have audience with a Dragon, and after so many weeks of planning. She bit back a smile.

It was too early, after all. With all her reluctance, it was possible the maid wouldn’t relay her message at all. She could warn the Dragon that a skinny, cloaked nobody had come calling, then let her master slip out the backdoor. She wished she at least had that Coke. She needed something cool to hold, something to do with her hands. Minutes ticked by. The warlock who had been talking to himself shouted something about a piss, then stumbled out the front door to relieve himself. She was alone, safe for Yellow Eyes Black Fur, dutifully baking outside. She had celebrated prematurely. The Dragon wasn’t coming, why would he?

There was a commotion from the kitchen, and then he emerged, taller than any human, and intimidatingly broad. He wore a light blue collared shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to expose the twisting black ink of a forearm tattoo. He carried a mug of amber beer in one hand and when he approached the table, he set it before her on a napkin. So, he had been listening.

“No hoods inside,” he said by way of greeting, and this time, Erina lowered the hood. She shook out her hair and removed her shades. She peered up at him, letting him drink in her honey blonde curls and delicately pointed ears. It was all by design. And it worked. He glanced about the pub, then sat across from her.

God, he was frightening. Erina couldn’t imagine herself more nervous, even if he had slithered into the seat in his dragon form. Horns, fangs, and scales were dangerous of course, but in this more humanoid shape, Erina felt she didn’t know quite how to look at him. In a city full of magic users, beauty wasn’t exactly rare. But this male was some sort of otherworldly handsome. She broke his gaze, feeling lost in the blue of his eyes.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why—” she started. But he cut her off with a hand. He reached across the table, sliding the beer toward her. There was that infamous ruby, glinting cheekily from his hand. Upon closer inspection, Erina caught the inscribed “M” on the shank of the ring. It gave no clues as to which Dragon with whom she was dealing.

“You’re not drinking,” he said. He sat back and waited for her to pick up the mug. Erina had never tasted beer—it had been a spur of the moment decision, feeling insecure in front of the bar maid. With zero confidence that the drink hadn’t been poisoned or drugged, she brought the mug to her lips. It was both frothy and heavy, with a bit of a roasted taste she didn’t like and a hint of orange flavor that she did like. Overall, she found it unpleasant, and she couldn’t help the sputter that came when she tried to sip it. The Dragon wore something like a bemused smile.

“Would you rather have a Coke?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. Erina set the drink down.

“No. Thank you.” There was a pause, each waiting for the other to speak. Erina, horrified that he might lose interest and leave, opened her mouth to speak.

Again, the Dragon interrupted.

“My uncle usually handles these matters. However, I think you should count yourself lucky he was indisposed.”

So, this one was Magnus. Erina couldn’t recall if he was known to be more tolerant than his uncle, as he suggested. According to rumors, they were equally ruthless. Erina cocked her head to one side, feigning confusion.

“And why is that?”

“Because he doesn’t like elves.”

Now Erina had the mind to be offended. She didn’t dare show her distaste, although she might have liked to curl her lip at that. She didn’t know why she was so hurt by this comment, other than the fact that elves weren’t quite as applauded for their ethereal beauty.

“I’m a faerie,” she gritted out instead. Magnus smiled. His teeth glittered.

“Oh. I’m so sorry.” But he wasn’t. Annoyed, Erina rolled her shoulders, before risking a glance out the window to see if her companion was still there. Yellow Eyes Black Fur met her gaze quickly, then went back to sleep.

“Nevertheless,” she said. “I have something for you. Something of interest.”

Magnus didn’t look particularly interested, but he inclined his head for her to continue.

She had hoped for a little more intrigue, just a bit of dramatic anticipation, but when the silence weighed heavily between them, she finally reached into her deepest pocket, and retrieved the object. She placed it on the table closest to him, more gently than the playing card, and waited for his reaction.

There was none. The two simply stared at the object: a bloody, and slightly rotted severed hand. The skin was mushroom gray. The nails were long, slivered into dirty almonds, caked with dirt and more blood. Finally, Magnus spoke. His voice was a rasp. A puff of smoke.

“So, you are the assassin who has been killing my beasties.” There was such finality, such surety. Erina couldn’t help the tiny grin that played at her lips.

“No.” She left the hand on the table. It still twitched occasionally, a product of magical preservation. “But this fellow is. Or was. The rest of him is…scattered.” Floating in jars in my basement, was the part she didn’t add. She raised her chin at him. The cheap reveal of her girly features had served its purpose, just as it had a million times before. She was simply…unassuming. Now she bared her teeth in a deeper grin. The sharpened points of her teeth also served a purpose. Now she wanted him to see her in this way. Lethal. A predator.

If Magnus was impressed, then he didn’t show it. He leaned back into the cushioned booth, away from the hand, away from the points of Erina’s toothy smile, and loosed a sigh.

“I expect you’re wanting a reward. A bag of gold perhaps? Rubies?” He drummed his fingers on the oaken surface. The severed hand trembled in response.

Erina could have leapt across the table at the insult. She could have wrapped her hands around his thick neck until his face turned blue. Weeks of stalking, of spying, of conspiring with all manner of beasts—for a bag of gold? She felt cheap then, instantly regretting the little show she had played for him. She was no predator. Not compared to this monster. But she had defeated this menace, the assassin, as Magnus had called it. The one responsible for all the missing persons posters. That was worth something.

“No,” she growled.

“What do you want, then? A thank you?”

Oh yes, she would have really liked to strangle him.

“I don’t want a thank you,” she said stiffly. “I want you.” Magnus blinked. She dismissed her own comment with a wave of her hand and carried on. “I want an alliance. With you.”

This time Magnus made a show of his indignation, rolling his stormy eyes and crossing his arms across his massive chest. Erina could only purse her lips.

“Obviously,” he drawled, gesturing toward the bloody hand stump. “The threat has been eliminated. And for that, I should thank you. Warmly.” Erina noticed the qualifier—should—but let him continue. “But now that the work is done?” Magnus shrugged.

Erina snatched the hand off the table. She stuffed it back into her trousers, ignoring the smear of blood that stained her clothes as she stowed it. She leaned in, close, letting her eyes flash into feline slits. Magnus just regarded her with that cool disdain.

“Because the work isn’t done. It’s not even close. You think this is the only monster in the Valley? It’s not even close,” she repeated. She shook her head. Her curls bounced. “You need me,” she said softly, and she couldn’t hide the determination in her voice. “And I need you.”

Magnus reached out then. At first, she thought he was about to touch her, to grab her, and Erina felt her heart beat wildly in her chest. Instead, he grabbed the mug of beer, untouched from her first shuddery sip. He drank the whole thing in one gulp.

Erina stood then. It wasn’t quite an answer. But it wasn’t a no, either.

“The sun is setting,” she said. Soon the pub would be full. She tucked her hair back into the hood of the sweatshirt, replaced the shades over her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding me.” She wanted a response, a word, anything from the stoic dragon who only stared back at her. Outside, she heard a yowl from Yellow Eyes Black Fur. A warning.

It was time to go.

Fantasy

About the Creator

Claudia Neaves

Mother, Soldier, Physician, Reader, and Writer

If you like me on the page, you may enjoy a more immersive listening experience. Catch my episodes, Destinations and Beyond a Shadow on Full Body Chillls by Audiochuck

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