Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
A/N: Eighty-three-year-old Chosen One is in Barstow when sorcerer Redway and his dragon-riding allies attack. Unbeknownst to her and her friends, Redway's right-hand man, Kiernan, is following them so he can make sure her teen companion Clem - who he mistakenly believes is the Chosen One - gets successfully snatched up and carted off to the Fortress of Solitude.
Kiernan's heart stopped when Clem's first victim went down. He had to keep eyes on her, he knew, but he ripped his gaze away, vaulted over a Knight who was rolling on the ground to put out the flames that had caught on their jacket, and fell to his knees beside Joe. Her glasses had been knocked off and lay on the ground beside her, covered in mud and ash. She clutched her leg until her knuckles turned white.
"Are you all right?" Kiernan asked. "Let me see."
She slapped his hand away and spoke through clenched teeth. "Get going! I'm not dying. But be careful. Girl's got a sting on her."
Kiernan nodded but couldn't leave without wiping her glasses off on his shirt and putting them back on her face. She gave him a smile that looked more like a grimace, which was the only kind of smile he'd ever seen from her.
"Thanks, my boy," she said. "Now go on. Don't lose her!"
He nodded and sprinted onwards, trying not to panic each time one of his friends dropped to the ground after a brief encounter with Clem's sword. At least she wasn't killing them. In too much of a hurry or not vicious enough, he didn't know and didn't care. At least they were alive. For now. He wasn't sure how well they'd fare against the Knights with their legs cut out from under them. Hoped the wounds were too superficial to damage the muscle beneath. Hoped they could at least manage to pull themselves back up onto their dragons and get out of there if worst came to worst.
He cursed as he ran. He'd lost sight of the girl.
The best he could do for now was to dodge as much of the battle as possible and keep his eyes peeled.
The battle sprawled across campus, Knights and dragons and his friends and fire everywhere. It pushed him closer and closer to the Carmichael Center until that was his only way around. The building was in flames, the white columns smudged black by the billowing smoke, but four dragons prowled back and forth outside, shooting more flames inside whenever a door or window opened and snapping at those who managed to escape. Several more human figures were on the ground between them with swords, bows, and spears, but in the shimmer of the fire he couldn't tell who from here. He didn't envy them. He hated being on the ground for these things. It was so much easier to set fire to a city from the sky, where you couldn't hear the screams of those trapped inside or smell the acrid stink of burning flesh.
Past the center, out of the haze, he caught sight of Clem again. She had pulled farther ahead than he'd expected: nearly out of the battle now. Exactly where she was headed, he wasn't sure, but it didn't matter. He had eyes on her now. He wasn't going to lose her again.
But even as he watched, two people moved in on her from behind. He shaded his eyes and squinted. They didn't look like Red's. He wasn't sure who they were. Knights, maybe.
Except that theory went flying out the window as they attacked her. She hit the ground hard, elbows first--the sword skittered away from her--she crawled toward it--
Kiernan had his bow ready in the space of a breath. Whoever these guys were, they weren't getting to her before he was.
He sprinted toward them, ready to fire--a Knight tumbled in his way, blocking the shot--by the time they were clear, another man stood between Clem and the strangers with a tree branch. The girl ran off and was soon up in the sky with Benjamin and Edna on that carpet of theirs.
Kiernan swore again, slung his bow back over his shoulder, and ran faster. His motorcycle was in an alleyway somewhere on campus and doubtless in flames by now. But the carpet switched directions suddenly and flew on faster than before, and he thought he knew where they were headed.
He rounded a corner and pulled out his phone, keeping his eyes locked on the shrinking carpet.
"Shira," he spat, "the hotel. Yeah. The Royal Crown. Good luck."
They hung up at the same time and he ran onward, just in case. Even if he was right about where they were going--and he was pretty sure he was--he wouldn't rest easy until he saw Shira make the grab.
He arrived just in time to see her take off. He hung back for a moment and then, when she was clear, stepped out of his hiding place behind a fence to look after her. He caught a glimpse of two figures on her dragon's back, struggling with each other. He let out a sigh of relief. Shira could handle her. His work was done. He could go home now. Or maybe he'd find another motorcycle somewhere and take a trip, just him by himself. Something to get away from dragons and irritating best mates and Knights and fires for a while.
But he couldn't stop staring at the burning hotel. The vines growing along the porch columns and railings and the lintel of the door and around the windows curled into blackness and vanished in the flame. Some fae's work or another, even though everyone he'd seen go in or out the last few days had looked steadfastly human. Elves and fae were kin, and the fae, as far as he knew, had never had anything to do with the Knights. Anger flared in him for a moment. Anger at the girl, for running this way. For bringing danger down on someone who likely didn't deserve it.
He turned to leave but then glanced back at the burning building. It had occurred to him to wonder where her companions were. The old woman. Benjamin.
Their carpet whipped by him, aflame, and flopped about on the sidewalk in a weird carpet version of stop, drop, and roll.
They were still here somewhere, Kiernan thought. They hadn't gone off without their carpet.
He looked back at the porch. Trim crumbled and fell to the floor in a shower of sparks. Beyond it he thought he heard a voice calling the girl's name.
Not that he cared.
The carpet, now flame-free, if a bit crispy around the edges, darted back past him and weaved back and forth in front of the porch like an unhappy dog. It tried to enter but zipped back several feet as more trim collapsed. If carpets had voices, it would have been howling.
Kiernan hesitated and then approached the hotel. It was one thing to set fire to a city from the sky. It was another to let an old woman and a guy you'd shared a drink with burn to death on a porch right in front of you.
He tested a creaking porch step, decided it would hold long enough, and leapt up the stairs. Benjamin was closer, less conscious, and had more of a pull after their drink together, but Kiernan ground his teeth and went for the old woman first. He thought she'd be heavier, but he heaved her up into his arms as if she didn't weigh any more than a child. She gazed at him blearily, her eyes glazed behind her glasses in the way of confused old people. He whistled for the carpet, which approached him uncertainly until it saw the old woman in his arms. He set her down on it and then headed back into the flames for Benjamin.
Half the porch ceiling fell in.
Kiernan choked on the smoke. He covered his mouth and nose with a sleeve and blinked through the flames. He could just see the top of Benjamin's head. The rest of him was trapped under rubble. Kiernan ground his teeth and then stopped because it made him cough harder. He picked his way around charred wood and flame until he reached Benjamin, cursed his lack of gloves, and started throwing smoldering rubble aside. The porch creaked alarmingly. The shingles melted and oozed across the boards, fusing things together. There was a sucking sound and a roar and a crash and the floor gave way beneath Kiernan's left foot. He sank down six inches and sucked in a breath as he grabbed a board covered in hot tar to steady himself, but instead of letting go he kept clearing rubble until Benjamin was uncovered.
He wrenched himself out of the porch floor and hoisted Benjamin into a fireman's lift. He stumbled down the porch steps as they gave way and collapsed in the grass with his head on Benjamin's stomach, wheezing.
"Is he all right?" a voice quavered. The old woman.
He looked up at her and winced and closed his eyes on the sunlight. It almost surprised him to find the sun shining through all the fire. He felt around for Benjamin's wrist.
"He's got a pulse, anyway," he said.
He expected her to ask what he was doing there, expected to have to come up with some dragon dung about how he'd wanted to make sure they were okay, but she accepted his presence without question.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
He sat up and then immediately wished he hadn't, but he wasn't going to lie back on Benjamin's stomach again. The smoke was in his lungs and his dreds and his clothes and he felt vaguely hungover, but worse.
"I'll live," he said.
She patted his shoulder and pressed her fingers to her mouth and started crying.
"What's wrong?" he asked automatically, and then he realized he knew exactly what was wrong and cursed himself for asking.
"Oh!" she cried. "They took her--they took Clem! And after I told her mother--"
Kiernan's head felt like lead. He felt like an idiot for barreling into a fire that way. Otherwise he could have enjoyed this moment a lot more. "She's the Chosen One. It was going to happen eventually."
"She's not the Chosen One!" the old woman cried.
Kiernan looked up at her so fast it made his head spin.
"What do you mean?" he asked hoarsely. "I thought--you said--"
"I know what I said." She hiccupped. "Clem isn't the Chosen One. I am. And now--"
She nattered on, but her words buzzed around him like flies. She couldn't be the Chosen One. She had to be at least eighty. The wizards would never...
She had asked him something.
"What?" he said vaguely.
"Please--please--can you take us?"
"Of course," he said, still vaguely, and with no idea what she was talking about. She thanked him profusely, but his ability to understand speech had abandoned him. She couldn't be the Chosen One, he kept thinking. She couldn't be. She couldn't be. She couldn't...
But he couldn't come up with a plausible reason why she'd say she was, when the girl was the one who had just been spirited off to Dominion. When it was completely implausible that the Council of Wizards would ever actually name an old woman as the Chosen One.
Which meant that she really was the Chosen One. Which meant he'd sent Shira off with the wrong person. A single thought crystallized in his whirling brain: Oh, sh--
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