The Dragon Horde
The two headed down the road, walking hand and hand in the deepening twilight. The silence was companionable - calming, even. Stars were slowly creeping in overhead, birds called, and the breeze was gentle and warm.
“Perfect night, ain’t it?” Maman remarked. “Hard to b’lieve anything could spoil it, eh?”
“That sounds pretty… ominous.”, Ava replied.
Maman grinned. “Startin’ to get the hang of this, aren’t you?”
She snapped her fingers, and the road just stopped. The world, in fact, simply stopped.
On one side, where they stood, there were trees, light, stars, the sounds of nature. On the other side, there was simply nothing. A void, so empty that it almost seemed to have its own gravitational pull.
“Hold my hand, sugar,” Maman said, turning to look at Ava, her face dead serious. “Don’t let go for nothing, you understand? Me, I c’n protect you, but you got to trust me and hold on. You promise to do that, girl? You swear?”
Ava blinked at the dead seriousness of that and she nodded, “I swear, I won’t let go…”
Maman nodded, satisfied - then, without another word, stepped out into the void.
They were falling, only they weren’t. Still, but moving. Silent, yet screaming out terrified howls into the utter darkness. Tumbling, dizzy, unable to see, to hear. The only connection, the only proof that they lived was the touch of each other’s hand.
An instant - hours - later, their descent slowed, and they drifted down to what at least seemed to be firm ground. And around them, the pitch black began to to lighten. There was no obvious light source, but the darkness lifted enough to see that they stood on the top of a plateau. Surrounding them were sharp crags carved from some glittering black substance, perhaps obsidian.
The light continued to rise, and with the light came dragons. Not the if-not-pleasant-at-least-noble beasts of folklore. These were great, lumbering creatures, slobber stringing down from gaping maws. Their wings and chitin seemed to be decaying, rotting away, and their eyes were dull save for a driving hunger.
One, more alert than the others, seemed to notice them there, for it came towards them, in slow, ponderous flight - throwing itself at the two women with a great, drooling roar. Brigitte raised her hand, growling a word of power, and the blast that followed knocked the dragon back off the plateau, tumbling to the obsidian mass below.
With a piercing howl, it landed on a jagged peak - impaled through its soft belly. Ichor gushed forth, and its scent alerted the other beasts in the area. They descended upon the unfortunate creature, tearing its flesh, rending it apart even as it lived…and gulping down great chunks of its quivering flesh.
“Behold,” Brigitte said, her voice dripping with derision and distaste, “the great dragon horde.”
Ava gasped, blinking several times. She was still trying to recover from the burst of adrenaline when the thing came forward. “Where… where are we? Holy fuck…”, she finally breathed out.
“This? This’s the shadow world, girl. Many layers, ‘course. This one lives way beneath world. In the depths of the Earth. Them,” she pointed down to the dragons, “are one of the many critters bein’ held back from enterin’ your plane and devourin’ every living thing.”
Ava moved ever-so-slightly behind Brigitte, still clutching her hand tightly, “Wh-what’s holding them back?”, she asked.
“Used to be lots of things. Them living in this land before knew there was…things…that couldn’t be allowed to escape into their world. They built defenses with their belief, you understand? They brought Coyote into existence, and give him the power to trick and mislead.”
“Them weren’t the only ones, of course,” she continued. When the others came, they brought their belief, their power, to hold back the things livin’ in the shadows.”
Ava furrowed her eyebrows in thought, trying to put all the pieces together. “Is… was? their power… entirely belief?”
“Not just belief, no. Belief brought us - gods, spirits, avatars the gatekeepers, the protectors, the right pains in the ass…whatever it is you need to call us - into the world. Mostly to help focus the power an’ energy that already existed. We do lots of things, but the big one’s to give them like you, girlie, strength and control. So’s you can fight the critters what sneak through. And,” she paused significantly, “them with the power that misuse it.”
“I don’t see how what I can do can really fight…”, she motioned to the enormous, terrifying beasts out there, “…that… I mean… I can show people what they want, not slay dragons…”
“There’s still enough defense to keep them dragons in the Diyu, where they belong. And mind you, they ain’t the only thing down there, nor yet the strongest. What you got to fight is the damn fool humans what open the gate for them to come through.”
“Ohhh…”, Ava said thoughtfully, then shook her head, “Why would anyone do that? It seems like it’d be certain death for them, too…”
“Not if that someone’s willin’ to pay the right cost, an’ take the risk.”
“So, like… the dragons tell them they’ll not eat them, but everyone else is toast? Or do they just get control over all the nasties?”
She gestured, and again they fell - back through the darkness, through the nothingness of the voice - this time landing not in some horrorscape on another plane, but in the secluded back yard of a suburban paradise. An expansive Ranch-style home, backyard pool, white fence, and even a floppy-ear black and white pooch that had - by all the laws of nature - to be named Spot. Trees surrounded the land, lending it a peaceful, even restful, air.
It was quiet, midday, with the kids off to school (and there were kids, judging by the bikes, toys and swing-set). The back door of the house opened, and rather than some horrific spectre, what appeared there was the platonic ideal of the California soccer mom, and health-nut dad. Tanned, fashionably dressed in sporty clothes, ready for a round of tennis.
Behind them followed others of the same ilk - couples and a few single men, a grand total of thirteen. And with them - stumbling along, arms tied, a choke collar around his neck - was a teenage boy. Glassy-eyed and stumbling, he’d clearly been given something. He was clean, his hair damp, dressed only in a pair of Bermuda shorts. Aged bruises, cuts, and track marks suggested a hard life on the streets, even though he couldn’t be much more than 14, if that.
One of them led him along by a chain clipped to the collar around his neck, while others carried what appeared to be picnic baskets. They headed out towards the trees, chatting lightly, with occasional bursts of laughter - an elegant party, save for the incongruous presence of the boy.
Ava looked patently confused when she saw suburbia come waltzing out the door, then put her hand over her mouth when she saw the boy, horrified. “This isn’t going to end well…”, she whispered.
“That, girl,” Maman said, nodding at the boy, “s’what it feels like to be a real bunny. Ain’t so nice, eh? Kinda makes you feel bad for the bunnies, don’t it?”
She tugged at Ava’s hand, and followed after the the suburban expedition. Down to a gate in the fence, onto a path into the trees, then finally, into a idyllic clearing with hand-fashioned picnic furniture, a brick grill…and a post with an iron ring at the top, firmly pounded into the ground in the center of the clearing.
The boy’s chain was clipped to the ring, and the party gathered around the tables, unpacking the baskets. Champagne in an ice pack, real glasses and china dishes, and what appeared to be a catered, upscale picnic lunch - caviar-topped deviled eggs, tiny sandwiches, little tarts. Everything was laid out, prepped for a celebratory repast…then covered with large tarps, held down with oddly practical bungee cords and clips.
Next, items of rather more sinister appearance appeared and were laid out with the same order and precision: A large knife, a draining pan, rubber gloves, rubber aprons and trash bags.
“There,” the leader said, looking around in satisfaction. “Everything appears to be in order…shall we begin?”
Ava grimaced. She didn’t do violence, she lived by her wits. Violence was for those with less finesse. Thus, she really didn’t want to see this scene unfold the way she expected it to unfold. “Of course…”, she murmured, “I’m not a violent criminal…”, her voice trailed off as she counted the people, “Thirteen? Isn’t that what’s necessary for a satanic coven? I get what they’re going to do, Maman… do I have to see it?”
A flick of Maman’s hand, and the scene around them halted - mid-word, mid-breath, mid-step. “An’ what is it you think they’re doin’, girl?”
“I think they’re getting ready to perform some ritualistic sacrifice that’ll end in that boy being all carved up…”, she said, “…is this really happening right now?”
“Ain’t happening right now, ‘cause it already happened. That,” she nodded towards the tableau before them, “is an echo, you might say. But nevermind that…lit’rally, sure, you’re right. It’s a ritual, an’ something - someone - is going to be sacrificed. That man, he summoned one of them dragons. That aside, there’s something more important for you to be learnin’ here. The particulars don’t much matter, ‘cause evil done is evil done, regardless.”
Maman looked over at Ava, and her voice, though kind, grew insistent. “Think a little deeper, girl. Go to the real heart of what you’re seein’ here…what is the root of this unthinkable deed?”
Ava took a deep breath and sighed, rocking her head to one side, “The murder of an innocent boy… using him like cattle… they obviously believe that there are lesser humans who don’t… count… as human. It’s… they’re motivated by greed. I don’t know if it’s greed for money or power, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve all shut some sort of humanity of theirs away so they could feed that beast,” she paused, “literally and figuratively. Which also means… well, thirteen people all terribly greedy… it wouldn’t be too complex to start turning them against one another. It’s a different sort of con, really…”, she murmured. There’s always a way to get at something sideways.
Maman rolled her eyes, sighing and laughing at the same time. “The answer to every problem ain’t always ‘another problem,’ you realize. You got the point, but you still missin’ it, too. It ain’t even that they think other humans are than them. They just see ‘em as tools, steppin’ stones to what they want…as marks.”
“I know,” Ava murmured, “I get it…”
“Good,” Maman said. “We c’n go now…but me, I suggest you watch what happens. Could be real illuminatin’.”
Ava swallowed hard and took a step closer to Maman, “Okay…”, she murmured quietly.
The scene moved on, this time a little faster than before, as though the goddess had hit some existential fast-forward. Aprons donned in silence, with the leader picking up the sacrificial knife as they gathered together. The boy was ignored at first as they each accept a cut in their palm, the blood welling up little little jewels. After each had accepted the cut, the boy’s hand was taken and a cut made…and he whimpered a little.
The leader caught the boy’s blood in own palm and mixed it with his own, then each of the group came and touched the leader’s palm in turn, around and around, till their blood was mingled…and when that happened, a clap of power radiated out from the clearing.
“Now we are joined,” the leader intoned. “Let us summon the dragon spirits.”
The woman that was presumably his wife stepped forward and picked up the draining pan, while the others moved out into a circle. She arranged the boy on his knees, leaning above the pan, then held his head back, his throat bared.
A chant began as the ritualists swayed - strange words, rusty, tainted with the blood of centuries past…and the power built. Above the chant, the leader began the summoning, calling out a single name - Zaret - over and over.
The air shimmered and a suggestion of one of the beasts Maman and Ava had seen hovered in the clearing - a hologram that gained solidity and life as the ritual built. The creature growled and thrashed, trying to break free, but remained contained by the spell they cast.
As the dragon seemed to be approaching a complete entry into the plane of the living, the leader raised the knife, crying out, “Take this offering of life and enter, be joined with us!” He stepped forward towards the boy, moving to make the fatal cut.
Everything seemed to pause, breath caught, waiting for the gash, the climax to make the working complete.
The shot came out of nowhere, ringing through the woods. For an instant, absolutely silence and stillness reigned, the only change the small red dot that appeared on the leader’s forehead.
Absolute silence…then absolute chaos.
The leader’s fall broke the bindings of the ritual, and the dragon was free. Roaring, shaking its head and decaying wings, it snapped out with its fearsome jaws, snapping up the nearest ritualist into its jaws and whipping it sharply, the crack of the man’s neck audible even over the screams of the others.
And then, it fed. Rending the body into chunks and gulping it down, bone, flesh and all. Within seconds, the ritualist had been completely devoured.
The others scattered…or tried to, but in the frozen horror of the moment, a group of heavily-armed, camouflaged women had melted out of the woods, surrounding the clearing. A small group ran towards the dragon, shouting in unison, attempting to bind the dragon. Another, led by a petite woman with long, dark hair bearing a wickedly honed machete, moved at her signal, and attacked the dragon, slashing and hacking - all the while ducking and rolling away from its lunges and the snap of its jaws.
As realization of the situation sunk in, the ritualists began to fight back, some chanting spells, one grabbing the knife from the fallen leader’s hand. The women not occupied with the dragon responded with practiced ease, dropping them with what appeared to be tasers, dragging them off to the side, and cuffing them.
Another woman, a blonde of mixed race, headed to the boy, unclipping him, and scooping him up into a fireman’s carry to take him out to safety. A ritualist rushed towards her, but with unflappable instinct, she pulled out her taser and brought the woman down in one smooth motion.
The chaos ended as quickly as it began.
The dragon lay dead, or at least disabled, and all of the cultists save the already-dead leader seemed to have been rounded up.
“Call in the clean-up crew,” the woman with the machete ordered, “and someone tell Lien to get the council together for these shitheads.”
More orders came and the bustle of clean-up continued, but it all faded out, growing fainter as the scene dimmed then vanished.
Ava blinked. They were back on the road again where they’d started this crazy little journey. Her heart was still racing in her chest. “I-I see…”, she managed, blinking against several times, “…this is for real?”
“Real as you are, girl. Happened ‘bout two years ago, as I recall.”
Ava took a deep breath in, looking down at the ground in front of her in thought as she exhaled slowly. “Right, okay… the world is a lot weirder than I ever expected.” Her voice was nothing more than a murmur, and she chewed on her lip thoughtfully, trying desperately to avoid the decision in front of her. She didn’t want to have to go back and feel the way she did earlier.
But she had ample reason to go back and get through that part. She wandered back towards the park, lost in thought. In many ways, what she saw before her was more dangerous than any con or any heist she’d ever been party to… it was, to put a fine point on it, courtingviolence, maybe even requiring it. It was a distinct change in behavior, thinking, everything.
Thieves avoided violence. They ran from it. They talked their way out of it, they disappeared into shadow to get away from it. It almost always found them, but they didn’t go trying to start anything. So, this was more dangerous.
Was more dangerous good? Was she just an adrenaline junky? She paced as she thought. Is it not being the wolf? But then… who’s the bunny? That dragon’s no bunny.
She finally sat down at the side of the road and put her head in her hands. The conversation in her head had changed forms… not to how she could get out of this, not to whether or not she should stay, but rather… how she could stay, go legit, leave the game, but not lose what identity she had.
The moment she realized what kind of feelings David and Chesa had for each other underneath their little games of denial, it’d caused a hollow pit in her stomach that made her feel superfluous… a catalyst. Being wingman to Chesa’s conquests would’ve been fine if there wasn’t any emotion involved, but clearly there was, and that was what got under Ava’s skin. Not David, not Chesa… the emotion, the connection, the wanting-something-and-not-wanting-it-at-the-same-time thing.
The problem solver in her brain realized she was going to have to distance herself from those things until she could get her feet under her in this upside-down life, and that stung, too… but, there was no way she could just flip and do a 180 like that without falling over.
“Well…”, she finally said, decision well and made, “…what the hell am I supposed to put on my altar?”