Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
“Look!” Dawson said, pointing with his pen. “Three o’clock, up there!”
Colden lifted his eyes from the campfire. He couldn’t see it at first, not amid the streaked storm clouds and black patches of sky, but then his eyes caught movement in the distance. A bird, descending into the forest further ahead. No, not a bird – it was too big for that, and the movement of its wings was too heavy. He lowered his eyes and prodded the logs with a stick, unearthing puffs of sparks from the flames. Dawson was shuffling his feet in a way that he’d long since learnt to feel uneasy about.
“Gosh, that must be an Arrisan nightcrawler,” Dawson said, hands clenching on the pen. “They’re blind, you see, and they navigate by-”
“Drink your tea,” Colden said, nodding to the cup.
“Oh, of course,” Dawson said, grabbing it so vigorously that some slopped over the edge. “So, these nightcrawlers use magnetism when they’re flying, but nobody’s ever looked close enough to see whether there’s other means at work. Daiwitz thought they had a way of, for want of a better word, tasting movement, but she never-”
“It’ll go cold.”
He supped the tea, spilling some down his shirt, then put it down and rubbed his hands together. Another warning sign. Colden looked into the fire, wondering if a lack of eye contact might deter him.
“How far do you think that was, eh?” Dawson asked, tapping his thumbs together.
Dawson laughed. “Oh, don’t be silly. Less than a mile, it must be. I could march on over, couldn’t I?”
“You said you had blisters.”
“I could easily stick a second pair of socks on. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Colden rubbed his lip. “Can I ask what these dragons eat?”
“The nightcrawlers? Oh, formidable predators. It’s something to behold. There’s a video of one snatching an impala from a pack of hunting dogs and carrying it off into the sky – just stunning.”
Colden wondered, not for the first time since he’d met him – nor for the second or third or fourth or fifth – if the man ever heard himself when he talked.
“Right,” he said flatly. “So I’ll have to come with you.”
“No no, no need to trouble yourself,” Dawson said, tucking his scarf into his jacket. “It’s not far. I’ll be meticulously careful. Back by sunrise, no need to delay anything. If I complain about being tired tomorrow, you can clump me about the head.”
It was almost tempting to let him go. The bastard would stop to inspect the teeth of a dragon chewing his leg off, and no amount of near-death experiences gave him any more sense. For Colden, it was like herding lemmings that kept veering towards the edge of the cliff.
But the expedition had to go ahead. Idiot though he was, Dr Clem Dawson knew about dragons, and they’d never track the shoreline species without his knowledge. When that wasn’t enough of an incentive, he tried to imagine explaining to the king that he’d let the country’s most prominent dragonologist walk into some outstretched jaws because he couldn’t be bothered to chaperone him. Colden swilled his tea around in his cup.
“It’s not a good idea,” he said.
“Nonsense! There’s precious little opportunity to see nightcrawlers at home, let alone Arrisan ones. And I came here for research.”
“You came here to collect shed skins.”
“Which I will do, naturally, when we move on. Come on, there’s no harm in this.”
Colden rubbed his face. He considered knocking him out, semi-seriously. He threw the last of his tea on the campfire.
“Whatever,” he said, getting to his feet. “Get us killed and I’ll murder you.”
Dawson frowned. “I don’t think that’s-”
“Just pack the stuff up.”
When the canopy closed above them, Dawson put his finger to his lips even though he’d been the only one talking. The foliage was too dense to let much moonlight through, but swarms of fireflies moved in hazy clouds between the trunks and their glow was just enough to see by. Dawson clambered over thick roots and bushes like an eager child, having forgotten all about his blisters, and Colden had to stride to keep up with him. The heavy smell of humidity hung in the air and the clicking of insects and birds seemed to tremble all around them.
When the first bark rumbled through the trees, Colden’s hand flew to his gun. It still felt wrong to say that dragons barked, but there was no better word for it; while the calls didn’t sound that similar to those of dogs, but they had the same kind of sharp suddenness. Dawson’s face brightened with excitement. He slapped Colden’s hand away from the holster and inclined his head at him to follow.
His steps grew smaller. More tentative. The rustle of grass underfoot whittled away to nothing, lost beneath the hiss of wind through leaves.
Colden grabbed Dawson’s arm.
Through a thicket of trunks, a silhouette moved. Arms and legs and fragments of wing emerged from the shadows, and gradually they pieced together in Colden’s mind to form something living. He’d seen a nightcrawler before, but that had been a Scotan one, and not nearly so close up. This ones was as big as a shire horse, but far longer, with tar-black scales rippled orange by the glow of the fireflies. Dark horns spiralled from its head and its sunken eyes were blind, and if not for the rhythmic movement of its tongue probing the air Colden would’ve thought it was sleeping. He could hear its breaths from here, and see them parting the plants near where it rested its head on its paws.
His hand moved for his gun again. Dawson’s moved for his camera.
“Amazing,” he muttered. “Just amazing.”
Colden bit his lip while Dawson adjusted the settings on the camera, taking photos with various lenses. The shutter clicked, a sharper sound than the scrapings of the insects. Dawson shook his head over the pictures and edged around the trunk they were crouched behind.
“What are you doing?” Colden mouthed.
“I can’t get a decent shot,” he stage-whispered. “Just a tad closer.”
Colden tried to grab him, but his fingers slipped over his jacket. He could only watch as Dawson crept closer to the beast, his bandy legs bent to a crouch. He held the camera to his eye, fiddling with the settings. Shuffled left. Shuffled left slightly more.
And tripped on a tree root.
Colden dived forwards, but he was too late – Dawson crashed into a brambly clump with a ‘whoops’ and a crackle of snapping twigs, loud enough to send birds flurrying up from the canopy. The nightcrawler’s head lifted.
Many dragons were skittish, and Colden prayed that this type was too, but he could tell from Dawson’s face that it wasn’t. He hauled him up and pulled him away from the rising dragon, yanking the gun from its holster with his free hand.
“You stupid bastard,” Colden snapped, dragging him into a run. “What did I say?”
A screech rattled the air, startling the birds and hazing the forest sounds with the patter of flapping wings. Footsteps thudded behind them, punctuated by the snap of tearing branches and brambles. Colden craned round to see it crashing through the trees. He put his finger to the trigger.
“Don’t!” Dawson cried out. “They’re endangered!”
“You didn’t want it shot, you should’ve watched your stupid fucking feet.”
He fired, but the bullet whined against the thick scales, knocking it back but doing no real damage. He needed to hit the wing membrane or the underbelly, but it was moving too wildly. One shot. Two shots. With the third, he clipped the side of its horn and sprayed bone everywhere, and it shrieked so loudly that the ground trembled but didn’t stop. Colden grabbed a fistful of Dawson’s shirt and ran, his heart pounding in his throat.
They scrambled over roots and bushes and through clouds of fireflies, shaking their heads and spitting out the insects that caught in their mouth. Two more shots tore through the air, wildly off-course, and still the dragon pounded after them. In the distance, the trees parted, split by a glimmering stream. Dawson pulled Colden towards it.
“That’s – not the way!” Colden panted.
Dawson, pink in the face and too breathless to speak, just shook his head and pulled harder at Colden’s jacket. They scrambled towards the water, the terrain sloping so steeply that Dawson lost his footing and slipped downwards by a few meters. The dragon crashed out from between two trees and splayed its wings, flapping them so hard that the wind battered Colden to his knees.
“Water,” Dawson wheezed. “Into – water. Sit - completely still.”
“Water. Stay still”
The cold bit like teeth as he sloshed into the stream, and he grimaced when Dawson forced him shoulder-deep into it. He sat down with him, clinging stiffly to the rocks so as not to be carried away, and Colden did the same. The dragon was slipping down the slope after them, its blind head bobbing this way and that, and Colden’s chest squeezed.
“Put your head under,” Dawson whispered.
“Do it. Slowly. When you come up, do that slowly too.”
Inch by inch, Colden lowered his head, and soon the wheezes of the dragon and the breeze were blanketed by swaying underwater sounds. He clung to the rocks, holding himself as still as he could, buffeted this way and that by the current. Twenty seconds passed. Thirty. His lungs started to burn.
When he motioned to surface, Dawson dug his nails into his arm, forcing him still. Through the blanketing panic, he lost count of the seconds and his brain spat random numbers – thirty-three, forty-two, thirty-nine.
The urge to rip through the water’s surface was almost too much, but he made himself ease out into the air, keeping his breaths as shallow as he could and his movements slight. Dawson surfaced with him, pressing his finger to his lips. The nightcrawler was further downstream now, pacing back and forth and snapping at dense midge-clouds, pawing at a branch spinning in a nook of the stream. They watched it in silence for a few minutes more, still as the rocks, until it loped back up the hill in pursuit of a deer. Dawson breathed out fully, his shoulders sagging.
“How about that?” he said, laughing. “Old Daiwitz was right. They do sense movement. That’s why it couldn’t find us in a fast-moving stream, because-”
Colden punched him in the face.