Vulcan arrived in short order after we made our call. As promised, he’d been standing ready even as he worked; he showed up still rather sweaty from his father’s forges, but wearing Hoplite armor not too different from what Eos and I wore, and carrying his long-handled, rectangular-headed hammer.
“Truly, there is a dragon below?” he asked, practically radiating both curiosity and excitement. “While I do not wish to harm the creature, it would be wonderful if we could collect some shed scales from it. I could make incredible suits of armor for you from them.”
“She,” I emphasized the pronoun gently so he’d know what we were dealing with, “is down there, and looks either full grown or almost full grown. So shed scales are a distinct possibility.”
Vulcan nodded. “She’s at least 300 years old, then. Do you think there will be a fight?”
“I sincerely hope not,” I said. “I’m going to try talking to her first, and hope she comes peaceful- “
A massive, basso roar echoed up from deep inside the cave, bringing a pressure wave of sound that knocked me and Eos back a step.
Vulcan planted the handle of his hammer on the ground and leaned into it, otherwise unmoved. “I think,” he said as the echoes faded, “that ship has sailed, as the saying -”
We all heard the crack and crash of splintering stone approaching and threw ourselves away from the cave entrance, Eos and I going to the left, Vulcan to the right. A moment later, with another fierce war cry, the dragon exploded out of the cave and slid to a halt where we’d been standing, her claws gouging long scars in the stone.
She whipped her head to the left, saw Vulcan, then whipped her head to the right and saw me and Eos. Then she threw her head skyward, released another ear-piercing bellow, and lunged towards us.
Eos yelped and vanished; I skipped away barely a heartbeat behind her, reappearing on top of a nearby outcropping of rock that put me level with the dragon’s head. I unsheathed Cerberus and began transforming it to its rifle form in a single practiced movement, as Eos appeared in the air above the dragon.
What the hell was she doing?
With a battle-cry of her own, Eos generated a spear of lighting and plummeted towards the dragon’s back. Astonishingly, the dragon twisted out of the way and used her wing to smack Eos into the vertical rock face beside the cave opening. She hit hard enough to crack the stone and slid bonelessly a good twenty feet to the ground, ending up in a heap.
I screamed her name.
The dragon’s head whipped around towards me and she inhaled deeply. I Skipped away, reappearing on another nearby outcropping in time to see her strike the one I’d been standing on with a jet of fire so hot it was blue-white. The rock just melted, flowing down like molten water under the incredible heat of the dragon’s breath.
Vulcan glided in from the dragon’s far side, moving with the grace of a hunting panther as he ran along the dragon’s flank. In a single, effortlessly powerful movement, he swung his big hammer back, leaped high, and slammed his hammer into the side of the dragon’s head. He struck just below the long horns that stretched back from her temples, catching her behind and below where I guessed her ear would be.
The dragon roared in pain and outrage as her head was snapped hard to the side, sending her reeling into one of the cliff faces that protected the entrance to her den from view.
“Eos?” I asked.
“Ow,” her voice said in my ear. “Damn it, that was stupid.”
I smiled and turned my full attention back to the dragon. If Eos was making jokes, she’d be fine.
The dragon shook herself and straightened, just in time to catch another mighty blow from Vulcan’s oversize hammer...this one a beautiful uppercut that landed squarely beneath her jaw, snapping her head up and back and staggering her onto her haunches.
That gave me time – which I was rather wasting – to pull out one of the huge magazines of new stun rounds that Daedalus gave me. I slapped the magazine into Cerberus’s receiver, and the rifle responded accordingly, expanding and growing into something the size of an old-fashioned recoilless rifle. Awkward, but at least it didn’t weigh any more than it already had.
I pressed the button that activated Cerberus’s bipod, which dropped down and shot out, embedding its points into the stone as I took aim at the dragon. I rested my finger on the trigger, sighted on her chest...
And hesitated. Why had she attacked? She’d been resting peacefully and had looked quite relaxed when I’d peeked in at her, and she hadn’t been able to see or sense me enough to feel threatened. Had she?
The dragon gave her head a shake as Vulcan hopped back and wound up for another swing, and I set my thoughts aside. Why could wait until we had her down, preferably without hurting her too much. Vulcan’s blows had demonstrated just how durable she was, so I decided not to worry about my new stun rounds.
“Vulcan,” I said, “I’m about to fire stun rounds…Daedalus said they’d be bright and loud.”
“Understood. Fire away. They won’t rattle me!”
I pulled the trigger. Cerberus made a weird ‘chuf-thud’ sound, and a blob of black goo appeared on the dragon’s chest with the rest of the shell sticking out of it. A moment later, it sparked, and the dragon howled, hopped to the side awkwardly, and was met by Vulcan’s hammer to the side of her head. As his hammer hit, there was a flash of light and a loud *BANG* from the shell.
The dragon staggered back up against the rock wall, and I hit her in the chest with a second stun round. She howled again and shook her head, swaying unsteadily for a moment, then swatted Vulcan aside with one of her forelimbs and started to spread her wings.
As Vulcan skidded to a halt – on his feet, I noted, rather impressed – a bolt of lightning flashed behind the dragon and struck her right rear flank. She yelped and started to turn in that direction as I pulled the trigger a third time, hitting her squarely in her left wing-shoulder.
She roared in a mixture of pain, fury, and confusion as the latest shell sparked, flashed and let out a stunningly loud *BANG*. Her left wing twitched violently and twisted, its tip gouging a shallow furrow in a nearby cliff wall before going limp.
Vulcan dashed in, hooked one of her forelimbs with his hammer and yanked hard enough to pull her leg out from under her. He vanished as she fell towards him, reappearing back about thirty feet from where he’d been standing.
As she hit the ground, I pumped two more stun rounds into her newly exposed (and not as heavily armored) belly. She twitched and writhed for a few moments, jerking back and rolling as they burst…then she went still, eyes closed.
Jupiter stalked into view, circling around behind the dragon and into the entrance to the little pass. She paused and waved to me. I waved back.
I waited some more.
Vulcan crept forward cautiously, his hammer held across his chest as he approached the dragon’s snout. When he was close enough, he extended the hammer’s handle and prodded the dragon’s nose with it.
She didn’t move.
Vulcan looked up at me, as if to ask if I thought that the dragon was out cold. I shrugged and looked over at Jupiter, who was approaching the tip of the dragon’s tail.
“Be careful,” I said into my helmet’s pickup. “We don’t know that she’s -”
Jupiter grabbed the tip of the dragon’s tail and gave her a jolt.
The dragon responded in what I thought was a pretty predictable way, sinuous tail quickly lashing side-to-side, smacking Jupiter and knocking her back a good twenty feet. At the same time, the dragon’s teeth snapped on shut the handle of Vulcan’s hammer and jerked upwards sharply before releasing it.
Vulcan, who of course had a solid grip on the business end of his hammer, went flying straight up into the air with a surprised shout.
“- actually unconscious,” I finished lamely.
Fortunately, we are professionals. I like to tell myself that we are, anyway.
Jupiter rolled with the blow, tumbling across the rocky ground and quickly regaining her feet, skidding to a halt. She snapped her hands out to the sides, and a bolt of lightning flashed to life in each hand.
Vulcan waited until he reached the apex of his unexpected flight before Skipping back to the ground, reappearing beside me, as I took advantage of the dragon’s relative distraction to aim and fire three more of the big stun rounds at the base of her neck.
As I watched the shells adhere to her neck and shock her, something seemed out of place to me. After a moment, my mind consciously recognized what my subconscious was on about...there was a triple band of ivy woven around the dragon’s neck, close to her shoulders.
Something cold bloomed in the pit of my stomach.
“Jupiter,” I said, “the dragon has a strand of ivy woven around her neck.”
Beside me, Vulcan murmured, “Ivy?”
“You don’t think -” Jupiter started to say.
“Later,” I cut her off. “See if you can get rid of it.”
“Oh, sure,” her voice said in my ear, dryly sarcastic. “Visit scenic Norway. View the majestic fjords. Ride a wild dragon.”
“Never mind,” I said, smiling a little, “I’ll do it.”
“No, no, I’ve got it.” She vanished and reappeared running up the dragon’s back between her wings.
“She is mad!” Vulcan said, his tone one of admiration.
I smiled a bit more. “Just a little.”
The dragon, obviously rather startled to have someone running full-tilt along her back, twisted and bucked, trying to shake Jupiter off. Jupiter, in return, dove forward and managed to hook her fingers under the edge of one of the dragon’s scales. This pretty well locked her in pace, but also kept her from simply being thrown into the air.
“Hey, if you two wouldn’t mind distracting this thing for a second?”
I exchanged a look with Vulcan, who shrugged and vanished with a pop. He reappeared racing towards the dragon from somewhere below where I was perched, his hammer already into its back-swing. The dragon saw him coming and promptly lost interest in dislodging Jupiter in favor of sucking in a huge breath.
Before the dragon could release its ridiculously hot statement at Vulcan, Jupiter lunged forward onto her shoulders, dug her fingers into coils of ivy wrapped around the dragon’s neck, and pulled. I thought she looked startled for a moment, just before she said, “What the hell? They’re burrowing into this thing’s scales. They’ll have to be cut loose.”
I flipped Cerberus around, shifting it into its sword form, and Skipped over onto the dragon’s shoulders, appearing beside Jupiter. “Hold it up!”
She did, heaving mightily to pull a second of the ivy coils up and away from the dragon’s neck with a sickening ripping sound. I got a glimpse of the furrows the ivy had etched into the dragon’s scales before I gave Cerberus a careful swing, neatly bisecting the ivy without coming anywhere near the dragon’s hide or Jupiter’s hands.
The dragon threw back her head, shrieked, and bucked hard. Jupiter and I - caught off-balance and with nothing to grab onto - were tossed in opposite directions off the dragon’s shoulders.
I hit the ground and rolled, expecting the dragon’s stomping claws to descend on me at any moment…but they never came. I looked up to see the dragon pawing at her neck, peeling away the remains of the ivy and watching me warily.
Vulcan skidded to a halt between us and took up a defensive posture over me, feet braced wide, hammer held at the ready in both hands. A moment later, Jupiter appeared beside him, took in the situation, and offered me a hand up.
I took it and let her pull me to my feet.
“What is happening?” Vulcan asked uncertainly.
The dragon finished peeling away what was left of the ivy and dropped it on the ground before taking a couple of steps back and bowing her head to us.
“I apologize, Avatars,” she rumbled, her voice so basso and large that it practically made my chest vibrate. “I fear I have not been acting of my own volition. Something…” She poked at the pile of leaves and vines with one huge fore-claw, “was controlling me.” She looked at us, then carefully lowered her head until her eyes were at our level. “You have my gratitude for freeing me from its influence without simply killing me.”
I stepped up between Vulcan and Jupiter, gently nudging them apart. “There is no need to apologize, and you are quite welcome. If anything, it is we who should apologize for retaliating without realizing you were being controlled.”
The dragon rubbed at her neck where the ivy had been and made a distinctly dismissive gesture with her left wing at the same time. “Unless you had cause to believe someone could control a dragon,” she rumbled, “you had no reason to look for such. However,” she bowed her head gracefully, “I appreciate both the politeness and the gesture. You show manners beyond what I have come to expect from the gods of any pantheon.”
I glanced left and right, but fortunately neither of my companions bristled at that comment. Then I considered who my companions were and smiled. “And we appreciate your straightforward honesty.”
The dragon nodded her head politely. “We,” she said, “have not been introduced.”
Then she waited. I guess as the ‘lesser’ beings, we had to introduce ourselves first. Well, that was okay too, if it helped keep things calm. “I am Pluto, Avatar of Hades. My companions are Jupiter, Avatar of Zeus, and Vulcan, Avatar of Hephaestus.”
The dragon sat back on her haunches, rising over us grandly as she folded her wings against her back and gestured to herself with one fore-claw. “And I am Quindosda’ovrisdum. As you have been good enough to free me from my unexpected trouble and gracious in your manners, you may call me Quin.” Her lips curled up at the corners, displaying a hint of sharp fangs. “I understand mortal tongues have a difficult time with draconic names, and you are all close enough to human to share that trouble. I would not have my saviors humbled by a simple name.”
I bowed deeply, making a sweeping gesture of it. “We thank you, Quindosda’ovrisdum, for your understanding and generosity.”
The dragon looked surprised that I had managed to pronounce her name properly and completely on the first try. Thank you, Mom. “Well,” Quin said, “you are a rare and talented one. Now, surely our meeting was no accident. Why have you sought me out?”
Eos and Vulcan both looked at me. Eos shrugged slightly, as if to say ‘You’re doing fine so far, don’t stop now.’
Not that I’d planned to. This was my job, after all.
“We heard rumors that a dragon was active in these lands,” I said. “Knowing that your kin are in a period of hibernation, we came to see if said dragon was real and, perhaps, in distress and need of aid…”
Quin made a dismissive gesture. “We have begun well, Avatar of Hades. Do not spoil things now with half-truths and misdirection.”
Vulcan murmured, “I have dealt with dragons in the past. Be blunt, as well as flattering her.”
I grimaced a little. “I apologize, Quindosda’ovrisdum. While what I said was basically true, we also came prepared to subdue and capture said hypothetical dragon if it presented a threat.” I spread my arms. “As you were in distress and now do not present an immediate threat to us, we must decide what to do. That will depend, at least in part, on your plans.”
Quin eyed us with thoughtful wariness. “Capture?”
“In my position as Avatar of Hades, part of my work is to keep –“ I just barely kept myself from saying ‘monsters’ “- mythical beings from harming mortals. I prefer to bring them home to a comfortable habitat in our Menagerie when possible. All life is precious.”
“Delicately put,” Quin said dryly. She folded her forelimbs across her chest. “Would there be some benefit, perhaps, to placing myself in your…protective custody?”
I blinked. “Maybe? I suppose that depends on your point of view.”
“Enlighten me,” she drawled.
That was interesting. Had she perhaps been considering moving even before this incident? So I enlightened her, telling her about the Menagerie, and Daedalus’ protection of endangered species, finally finishing with how there was already an eligible male dragon living there.
“Oh?” Quin asked, feigning disinterest. I saw the twitch of her tail and the way her wings moved a bit at the mention. “A male? Of mating age?”
“Yes,” I said.
“And what type of dragon is he, hm?” She asked, coyly curling her tail around her haunches.
“Gold,” I said, doing my best to sound completely nonchalant about it. The rarest type of Western dragon.
Quin’s eyes glittered. “Gold? Why, that’s my favorite color…” She leaned forward, settling back to all fours and narrowing her eyes on me. “And my treasure goes with me?”
I nodded. “We’ll arrange to have the entirety of it moved, if you decide to take us up on the offer.”
She looked thoughtful. “I should like to see what my living quarters there will be, before making a decision.”
“That is agreeable,” I said.
Quin looked pleased. “You are a very agreeable being,” she smirked. “Come, take me there and show me the space you have prepared for me, and I shall decide. Your companions may stay to guard my treasure, as long as they swear not to enter my cave. Just let me make sure everything is in order first.”
With that, she turned and sauntered back down the tunnel towards her hoard.
“Well,” Eos said, reaching up and retracting her helmet. “That wasn’t suspicious at all.”
Vulcan grunted. “Vines.”
I nodded, making my own helmet fold away with a touch. “Yeah. I’m starting to feel like this pileup of circumstantial evidence is getting a bit less circumstantial.”
Eos turned and looked at me. “You’re joking, right?”
“I’m joking,” I nodded. “If I still had any doubts before that Demeter is involved somehow, I don’t anymore.”
“There are other beings - gods and other immortals - who might use plant-based magic to control creatures,” Vulcan said, sounding a bit uncertain.
I sighed. “That’s true, which is why this evidence is still circumstantial. But when you connect it with Ceres’ odd behavior, and what happened with that hydra…” I trailed off and shrugged. “There aren’t a lot of beings with the kind of power necessary to,” I ticked off the events on my fingers, “mutate a hydra, control a dragon - no small feat that - and bodily take control of an Avatar.”
“In point of fact,” Eos said quietly, “only an Avatar’s patron deity can take control of them like that.”
I looked at her, blinking.
“Not something Hades has ever done to you,” she said quickly, “and not something I can ever see him doing. But Dad did it to me once, about…oh, I think it was about a hundred and fifty years ago. It was like being pushed into the back of my own body.” She shivered a little. “I didn’t like it at all. Dad apologized to me afterwards…said he’d never done it before, and had no idea how uncomfortable it was going to make me. He’s never done it again, thankfully.”
I reached up and touched my collar, frowning a little. “It’s weird, you know. I never really considered how much control over us these collars must give our patrons.”
Vulcan grunted. “Not as much as you might think. The first version was quite a bit less sophisticated and brute force, but Persephone, Athena and my father spent a great deal of time refining them. The version we wear today isn’t nearly as intrusive, and what Zeus did in controlling you,” he nodded to Eos, “took a tremendous effort on his part. It was probably almost as uncomfortable for him as it was for you.”
We both looked at him.
He shrugged. “It is an emergency measure to allow the gods to…circumvent certain metaphysical limitations they’ve placed on themselves, when needed.” He frowned a little. “Father didn’t like including it…neither did Zeus, Hades, or Athena when they were discussing the necessity of it. But Persephone insisted the option still be there, just in case.”
Eos and I exchanged a look. This was definitely something we’d be discussing further later. Eos nodded a little.
“Be that as it may,” Vulcan said, “I see your point. When all of the pieces are put together, it does rather narrow the field of suspects.”
“And we didn’t have many to begin with.” I sighed. “I just can’t imagine what Demeter could have to do with the whole thing or why.”
Quin emerged from the tunnel, now wearing elegant-looking braided chains of gold and silver around her neck and woven carefully around her horns. She gave herself a little shake. “I am ready to go now.” She saw us staring and smiled, displaying a hint of sharp teeth again. “Do you like my jewelry? I crafted them myself from part of my treasure some time ago.”
“They’re quite beautiful,” I said sincerely. “Shall we?”
“Lead the way, Avatar. I shall follow.”
And that was how the Tartarus Menagerie got a mating pair of dragons. Daedalus expects their first clutch of eggs to hatch in a couple of years.
Josh is a life-long native of Western Massachusetts. He spends his daylight hours disguised as a mild-mannered IT specialist, trying to get inanimate objects to talk to him and work the way he tells them to. He spends his nights trying to keep all of the animated characters in his imagination from saying too much…and work the way he tells them to.
For the past couple of decades, Josh has been creating worlds for his characters to inhabit, and dreaming up ways to push at the practical implications of a wide variety of Science Fiction and Fantasy tropes. He loves telling stories, entertaining his readers, and sparking fun debates about how to make the implausible plausible. He has a degree in Folklore & Mythology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst