Stormfall

Le'letha

Summary: Once upon a time, a baby named Hiccup was taken from Berk and raised entirely as a dragon. Twenty years later, he and Toothless brought war to the Queen of the Nest and peace to Berk ["Nightfall"]. …None of this matters to Drago Bludvist.

Author's Note: Hi guys. Welcome back. Buckle up. Here goes… This is finally the sequel to my "Nightfall", and it will make a lot more sense if you've read that first. If you haven't, the above summary should give you the basics, but you'll enjoy it a lot more with "Nightfall" under your belt.

Rating/Warning:This one is a whole lot darker than "Nightfall". Rating has been raised to T/PG-13 accordingly for the disturbing mind and equally disturbing world of Drago Bludvist.


Stormfall, Part One

His father had believed that this part of the world was cursed, and, looking out over it, Eret is starting to believe those stories himself.

He had started to regret coming here the moment he'd set their course this way, when his helmsman and navigator – an old friend of his father's, at that, who had heard all the stories a hundred times over as well – looked at him with a sense of mild betrayal on the elder Eret's behalf. The feeling has only gotten worse since, building up over the years from mild reluctance into fully-fledged hatred.

The place is wrong.

Unsettled, Eret heads outside from the thrown-together hut he's claimed as his ever since they put this most recent fort together. The last one had burned down one night, and no one had ever figured out why. He still thinks someone had had a private cook-fire going, or had fallen asleep with firewood stacked too close to the hearth. It had been a cold night, and the blaze had at least been pleasant while it lasted, although the next morning had been one of the worst Eret had ever had.

Outside the sky is getting dark, which it does quickly this far north. They're in the lee of the cliff, protected from the worst of the winds, but the clouds above are skidding past like they have somewhere to be. Not so with his men, who are scattered around the encampment digging in for the night. Inside the stables they'd slapped together to hold the dragon-proof cages, he can see Norge, wrapped up enough to be almost anonymous while he feeds their captives, tossing out fish from a bucket onto cage floors for the chained and muzzled dragons to eat as best they can. Only a fool leaves a captive dragon unmuzzled, Eret firmly believes. Most of them are fire-breathers, all of them bite, and it cuts down on the racket they cause, yelping and screaming and snarling in outrage and hunger.

As far as they can tell, there's no one else living on this ugly little spit of land, but Eret has posted guards anyway, looking out over the ocean and across their bit of island from platforms built into the log wall that encloses their camp. It's not unheard of for trappers to prey on each other, stealing catches from rivals to profit from the work of others, and besides, they're due to rendezvous with the fleet quite soon, feeding the beast to keep it at bay for just a little longer. Eret strolls across the stretch of dirt and gravel that forms the courtyard of their base, listening to the familiar voices, until he's within striking distance of one such guard platform.

A discarded scatter of small bones crackles underfoot as he nears it, and he reaches down to pick one up. Tossing it in his hand, he takes aim and throws in earnest.

"Keep it together up there!" he shouts in response to the aggrieved yelp of a man who has just been unexpectedly hit in the ear with a chicken bone. "Play on your own time! If the fleet comes to us, I don't want to be caught off guard."

He waits until he can hear the sound of a pebble game being hurriedly packed away and a flurry of "Yes, sir!" acknowledgements before moving on.

Quite what he expects to attack them from the land, he's not sure. There's no one else on this island because no one else would want it. Some long-ago scorching rendered it a wasteland, and the rains and snows have kept it a dismal, forgotten land, a sad little outpost for people living on the edge and scraping by.

Quite why anyone would want anything this far north, Eret still isn't sure. His people may have come from around here originally, but from what he's seen of it, he's convinced that his great-grandmother was right to take them south and his father was entirely justified in keeping them there. For three bits of hack-silver, he'd give it all back to the dragons and the ghosts. But that wouldn't buy any of them their freedom, or their lives, except for a very short, very free drop into very cold water.

Pretending it wasn't out of desperation – not fear, never fear, there is nothing in this world that Eret, son of Eret, veteran dragon trapper, experienced dragon wrangler, captain of his own ship, responsible for the lives and welfare of his men, fears, he swears – he had told himself that he was calling his father's bluff. There were no demon dragons lurking in this corner of the world, waiting to finish the job one had started all those years ago and burn people named Eret to bloody ashes. There were no monsters, no ghosts, no vengeful spirits of forgotten gods, and he was not only going to prove it but profit by it.

To his crew he had presented the decision as an opportunity. An untapped range, an ocean expanse abandoned by the loose association of clans long ago, even by that slick bastard Grimborn. Surely by now the far northern skies would be full of dragons heavy on the wing and unwary, lulled into a false sense of security by the time the guild had spent hunting elsewhere.

But now Eret would like to see his father's cursed and raise him one haunted.

It's eerie, Eret will never admit to his crew. Even though he is younger than most of them, he is their undisputed leader, so he must appear invincible, all-knowing, and always confident, which most of the time he is entirely able and willing to be. (There is no weakness, he maintains, in bowing before the winter storm. The ice never notices the fool crushed beneath it; the wise man yields and steps aside.)

Privately, Eret is spooked.

Pit traps that fill themselves in. Ankle-biters triggered by tree branches or stones, or with their springs removed entirely and never found. He can understand ravens taking the key holding one contraption open. It must be ravens, clever, meddling things, since he's never seen a magpie this far north, only off to the west. But the single critical nail that held a kick-plate in place, buried deep within the mechanism, and nothing else missing, as if it had been spirited away?

Nets that untie themselves, or disappear entirely. Bola that fail to fire, days after everyone involved swore that they'd checked and repaired the mechanism. Once, an avalanche that swept through and took out a whole forest they'd filled full of spring traps just the previous day.

Dragon tracks around them, sometimes as clear as nails hammered into fresh pine – other times, not a trace to suggest even a rabbit had been there. Eret had looked over one such trail, blatantly over and around the disappeared pit, and had felt distinctly as if someone was mocking him.

Is that the best you can do? Eret imagined the godlings and ghosts of the far north saying. You may as well just go home.

Except he can't leave. Not empty-handed. Not again; the scar on his chest twinges even at the thought of it. And there is no escape.

He heard tell of someone who tried to make a run for it once, passed on in whispers through a loose network of other hunters and the occasional trader who had somehow made their way up northward to them. That ship and all its crew were never heard of again, except as a single piece of scorched hull, cracked and scored, that had been picked up by the people who had gone after them, trying to persuade them to come back before they got killed.

There are people, Eret knows, you cannot run from.

The wind kicks up, humming down from the cliff face like a flight of arrows, and because the handful of hunters on lookout, up on the palisades, might be able to see him if they looked this way, Eret tries not to flinch. It's not the cold so much as the way the change in the weather pulls at the brand on his chest, even though his furs. It bites at him every time the wind shifts, bringing another blast of cold down from the none-too-distant ice of the north, and the wind is like a living thing here, playful and cruel and indifferent by turns, never the same thing twice.

He cannot imagine how his father bore the pain of his burns for so long. The elder Eret had been burned badly, years ago, back when his son was a stripling kid just learning to snare and subdue dragons and sail aboard a ship. He had returned in agony, clawing his way back from the edge of death, and he had worn the scars all the rest of his life on his body and his soul.

Every touch of cold is a reminder of the waiting fire, stabbing at him so he never forgets, but he will not flinch and let the weakness and pain show. Next time it might not be his skin that burns as a punishment. It might be one of his crew who suffers, if Eret's master ever figures out where his heart lies.

It's not with himself, for all he talks big and risks bigger. It's with his men who have followed him here to the end of the world, up to the edge of the lands of the dead; with the people who trust him to protect them and provide for them.

He wishes the dragons of this place were not so damned clever. Dragons are never easy prey, but Eret has never seen anything like the ones he's encountered in the last few years.

They don't run. He couldn't believe it, the first time he'd seen. Eret and some of his crew had been following one of their trap lines, and had come across a Hobblegrunt entangled in a snare. The bloody lashes carved into its skin by the metal-cored ropes had worn it out, and it had stopped struggling by the time they got there. The trappers had thought it an easy catch, and they'd been congratulating each other as they stepped out into the clearing the beast had created in its efforts to escape.

No sooner had they emerged than three Nadders and an enormous slender green thing none of them had really gotten a good look at had leaped at the humans, driving them away from the captured dragon. Eret and his men had waved their weapons and shouted to frighten them away, and the man who had brought along a crossbow had fired enough arrows to turn any one dragon into an oversized pincushion. And still the beasts had stood their ground, forcing the humans into a retreat.

By the time they'd regrouped, talked themselves into some semblance of bravery, decided that they hadn't really seen what they'd just seen, and circled back again, Hobblegrunt, Nadders, and green thing had all disappeared, the snare torn to bits and discarded empty on the ground.

Dragons, Eret is convinced, are not supposed to do that. A trap snaps shut, or a predator pounces, and animals will flee the danger lest they be caught too. Dragons are supposed to fly away when threatened, not bring back reinforcements.

There is something terribly off about the dragons this far north. It's like they're possessed, like some spirit of the endless ice wastelands or of the dark lands under the ocean has gotten into them.

Eret wants out, but there is nowhere to go. Desperation drove him northward, against everything his father ever told him, but the old man may have the last laugh in the end. Whatever realm he's watching from now, Eret hopes he's really enjoying being right. Otherwise there is nothing good about his son's situation, except that, with this latest shipment, he might be able to keep the madman off his back for another few months.

When he steps into the barn to get out of the wind for a few minutes, the rows of occupied cages are the most reassuring thing he's seen all day. Scaled bodies huddle in forlorn lumps and curl into tight knots of surrender, resigned to the bounds of their cages and the confines of their muzzles and chains. Their captivity has dulled their scales as their energy wanes, but apart from the sails of his ship they're still the brightest array of colors to be found on this island, even in the meager light from Norge's lantern. The occasional eye, rolling in its socket, follows Eret as he walks down one aisle, but there's not even a snarl from the dragons he passes. Most of them have long since given up clawing at the bars, and the barn is full of the smell of fish and dragon and metal.

"All quiet?" he asks the man slopping out the dragons, looking down the nearest row of cages and the creatures imprisoned within.

"Not a sound, sir," Norge reports, "but they don't half glare."

"As long as that's all they can do," Eret responds, slapping him on the back, and since that's Norge's sort of joke they share a chuckle.

"That one's been trying to get out, actually," Norge says, pointing at a Thunderdrum, "but it can't get a run-up." The cage is too small for it to spread its wings, and the broad dragon can do nothing but bumble against the metal. They had to build a special cage for it; it was just too wide for the ones they had already, and the result is a flattish low box. "You want I should jab it with the spear, next time it tries?"

It's tempting, with baneful yellow eyes glaring at him with pure hatred, but Eret doesn't encourage too much cruelty to their prey. It's a worse place they're going – and their employer doesn't like being brought dragons too exhausted or injured to use. Eret thinks this is because the dragon-master likes breaking them down himself, but he would never be foolish enough to say so out loud. It might get back to him. "No, leave it. It'll tire itself out and give up."

"Right, well, they're all locked up. Checked 'em myself," he says proudly, as if that wasn't his job today. "Night, sir."

At least, Eret assumes that this was Norge's job. He put the chore roster in Rorvik's hands years ago, and it seems to run along smoothly enough, so he's never taken the responsibility back. But he can't imagine why someone would voluntarily stay out in the deepening cold – the stables hold no more heat than the dragons generate themselves – and the beginning of the rain to check the latches on the dragon cages.

The camp is completely engulfed in the shadow of the cliff face by now, and small pit fires – carefully banked, after the last wildfire – have sprung up to cut through the gloom. In the fleeting light, men are shadows and huts are voids, dark shapes disappearing into deeper darkness, away from the wind that nips around them.

Eret can't shake the feeling that something is wrong, and it's not just the weather, which feels like it's drawing in a breath for a major storm. The edges of it are already snapping at the pennants the crew insisted on mounting when they put this place together, saying that if they were going to call this their base it would damn well look like it was theirs. They were so much happier with it once they'd done so that Eret had decided that if they were forced to move on again, pennants would be a priority, right behind walls and fresh water.

In the harbor, his precious, faithful ship is bucking at her moorings, shifting back and forth and bumping against the dock as if sharing her captain's unease. They keep her kitted out with the basics at all times, ready to take off at a moment's notice. If the weather had held – and it is looking less and less like it will – they would have had a new shipment of dragons on board tomorrow morning and been over the horizon by noon.

The sooner they rendezvous with the fleet, the sooner they can get back here, and it says something that Eret would rather be here than with the fleet, however much he hates this place. But he's not taking her out onto the open ocean in the weather on the horizon. She runs before the wind, and in a storm they could end up anywhere…as long as it was the bottom of the ocean.

He decides to check the latches on the dragon cages.

Dragons glare at him and snarl from within their muzzles as he does so, provoked by him jangling the locks and checking that the catches have slotted home and latched there. They wake from shallow dozes at the sound of metal on metal, and Eret grins back at them.

"Sleep tight, dragons," he says, half-mockingly. He isn't afraid of dragons, not when they're sneaking up on him through an unfamiliar forest, into range of his sword and the spears of his crew, and not when they're in the sky banking towards the ship following the bait-smell of fresh fish strewn across the deck, leading them into the crosshairs of a net catapult.

Dragons in cages are no threat at all.

He's slightly surprised when one suddenly springs to life, rattling its wings against the bars and performing an agitated dance in the confines of its cage. It shrieks as best as it can with its jaws bound shut, and lashes its tail against the ground, over and over. In moments the whole stable is awake and throwing a fit.

"Shut up!" Eret roars over the sound of muffled dragon cries and pounding feet, drawing his short sword to bang against the nearest cage. "Shut up!"

They don't shut up. He really should have expected that.

There's nothing in the stable to set them off: only shadows, some deeper than others, and the usual junk of half-repaired nets and upturned sand buckets and sawn-off crates that accumulates in any dragon stable. So he thrusts his sword back into its sheath at the small of his back and runs to the door of the rattling barn.

The moment he steps outside he's buffeted into a stumble by the winds, which slap him down and then race off to do their best to put out the tall torches scattered around the camp, sending shadows darting across the camp and leaving Eret in a momentary lull. Looking up to check the weather forecast again by the clouds, he sees at once the cause of the dragons' agitation.

"Everyone up!" Eret shouts in his best captain's voice, for being heard over a thunderstorm or a battle with pirates on deck. "We've got company! Dragons in the sky!"

Gratifyingly, his crew need only seconds to go from downtime to armed and ready. They race for the ballistae and catapults without being told, which leaves Eret free to bawl out the sentries.

"What are you doing up there, sleeping? If I see one more board game, you're all on latrine duty! Get to the ropes, work's come to us!"

Over the ocean, a mixed handful of dragons screech and flame, darting back and forth as his men aim and fire. Bowstrings thrum as Denholm passes out dragon-root arrows, just sharp enough to get the dragon-root into the blood but not enough to kill, and a flurry of arrows arc out across the bay.

Eret sends the bowmen out closer to the shore when it's apparent they didn't hit anything, snarling at them that maybe a closer view will help, and they run off anxious to do better despite the rain. No one wants a dragon getting into the camp: sure, they'd bring it down, but no one wants to clean up the damage it'll cause. Everyone remembers the last fort fire. They split up, half taking up a new position on the dock and the others heading out around one arm of the bay.

The wind chooses that moment to go for them in force, sending all their arrows tumbling. A number of shots from the archers on the dock bite into the ship instead, which makes Eret's grip on his sword hilt tighten in anger on her behalf.

Up on the outcropping they couldn't move and so built around, someone else creaks a catapult into life. Eret will really have to pay more attention to Rorvik's schedule, but the man can be terrifically boring for someone so often talking about life and death things like supplies. Whoever it is sends a net hissing into the air, taking the wind into account. It falls short of the dragons still hovering out there, though.

"Hold your fire!" Eret orders. "They're out of range! Wait for it!" He raises his free hand in a stop signal even though he's not sure anyone can see him. "Wait for it…"

What he can't work out is what they're doing here. Hunting? Dragons raid settlements all the time, Eret knows. In better times, he and his crew freelanced tracking down and destroying dragon nests that had decided stealing from humans was an easy way to a big dinner. When he was just starting out, there was a chain of islands so dangerous to go through it was cutting off trade – and since it was on a major trade route, that had been a serious problem.

There's an island south of here that's been waging a war for so long they've made a whole lifestyle out of it. Which is great, Eret is all for fighting dragons, but he prefers people who might hire him rather than doing it themselves. They're good trading partners, though. Maybe once this shipment has been delivered he'll take the ship down that way and get out of this nightmare land for a while, see if they need some help yet.

Vacation in a war zone sounds like a good idea. Eret really hates the far north.

Well, these dragons have made a major mistake. This is no unarmed farming settlement.

"Who's on the bola?" Eret demands. The wind snatches his words away and he repeats them at full volume, adding, "Get those rocks in the air! Bring 'em down, men!"

"There's a problem, boss," Andvari calls down the side of the watchtower it's mounted on. "Half the lines have snapped! The wind has got the loose ends all tangled!"

"What?" Eret roars back. There are so many ropes attached to that device it's a wonder it doesn't tangle more often, but he'd thought they were tuned tight enough not to waver. "Who checked it last? Who let it get that bad?"

"I checked it, boss!" Andvari sounds indignant rather than ashamed, which is all that's keeping Eret from climbing up there and knocking him over the head with the heavy bits of the bola's ammunition. "Last night!"

Eret decides to climb up there anyway, although he'll reserve judgement on bludgeoning Andvari for now. "Keep firing!" he orders the archers. "But be smart with the arrows. Watch the wind!"

"Huh?" Norge says, predictably. The man should not own a bow.

"The pennants, idiot," Eret takes the time to remind him for everyone's sake. "Those bloody pennants you all insisted on putting up. Watch those. Or if that doesn't make sense, go and get a barrel of fish and see if you can lure those beasts in closer!"

With his luck, Norge will go for the fish option, drop them all over, and the whole place will smell like dragon chum. Eret never thought he'd be glad for the rain that's spitting down; at least it'll wash the stink away. He'll worry about that later.

"What's going on here?" Eret demands when he reaches the top of the watchtower. "What do you mean, snapped? Overnight? Have we got giant mice up here now?"

The tower is probably one of the warmest places in the camp, because the team he put on building it reasoned that they'd be spending a lot of time up here and requisitioned all the lumber when Eret was away and therefore not watching. As a result, people are always eating their dinners up here.

(A memory goes off in a corner of Eret's brain about Rorvik talking about that chore schedule again and watchtower duty, but he dismisses it and orders it to stop digging up useless facts when he's trying to do his job. His brain obediently stops and starts asking useless questions instead, and he's left wondering if giant mice are edible and, if so, what they taste like. The useless facts return to inform him that they probably taste like small mice, which he happens to be familiar with due to a long story, and the useless questions retaliate with wondering if everyone's brain is so noisy, or if it's a lot quieter to be, for example, Norge.)

"No, boss," Andvari snarls back, evidently anticipating Eret's reserve bludgeoning option. "These were cut. Look!"

Andvari holds up a length of cord. The end of it is neatly, cleanly, sliced through, the sort of cut you'd get from that special dragon iron that makes such expensive but lovely weapons.

Eret stares at the cut and thinks of several very pungent curses. "Can you fix it?" he says instead. At least the rage has shut the other voices up.

"Not in time to catch that!"

He doesn't need Andvari's pointing finger to notice the Zippleback that's dived in close and blown up one of the watch platforms and a good bit of the wall, but the light from the blast does draw his attention to something else.

Maybe it's just the echoes of the blast in his eyes, but he could have sworn…

"Guard this," he tosses over his shoulder at Andvari as he makes a dive for the ladder. "Start figuring out what you need to fix it." If the man answers, he doesn't hear, too preoccupied with the shadow of movement within the camp.

Everyone should be on the attack, getting those persistent dragons reeled in and bound up, ready for shipment. Maybe it's just Norge, rolling out a barrel of fish like he was told to. But it hadn't moved like Norge at all.

Staring back towards the dragon barn, Eret blinks frantically, trying to see through the darkness and rain with little more than a few wind-whipped torches to help. With the shouting of his crew behind him and the rest of the promised storm howling ever closer, he can't hear a thing otherwise – if there's movement out there, it's quiet.

"Everyone stop!" Eret shouts. "Make fire! Lots of fire! Now!"

"Sir?" someone asks. "We'll ruin our night vison."

If they burn out their night vision with torches, then those dragons out in the bay will be all but invisible except when they flame, give or take the odd Monstrous Nightmare or, gods forbid, a Flightmare. They'll lose their chance at them. But that unsettled feeling is creeping back over Eret. It possibly never really left, was just drowned out under the excitement of dragon hunting, and he's finally going to listen to it.

"I don't care! Make light! Arrows, torches, anything, burn them!"

There's always wood lying around, although less after they learned their lesson with the previous fort, but the courtyard doesn't truly light up until Denholm runs to the forge and starts putting all those muscles to use on the bellows.

The forge-fire roars to life like an angry dragon, which is pretty much the state of things right now.

Norge never got to the fish they keep in the barn for feeding the dragons: he's slumped against the side of the barn like he's decided to take a nap instead.

Dragons fill the yard, and Eret doesn't need to recognize the half-healed marks of traps on legs and ankles – or the whip marks across the face of an oversized Gronkle relative that almost ate through its cage and had to be driven into another one before it could get all the way free, or the marks from long-worn muzzles across snarling jaws – to know that this is an entirely impossible jailbreak.

The way they move, stumbling at their freedom, would be enough. The way they look at the dumbstruck humans, crouching and retreating just a bit as if caught doing something they shouldn't, would be enough. The one open door of the double doors into the barn, with the speckled Raincutter they shot down from the ship three weeks ago now slipping out through it, would be enough.

Dragons don't sabotage traps. Dragons don't stay to defend their comrades. Dragons don't organize distractions.

Dragons don't understand locks.

Eret hates this place.

The freed dragons hiss at the light as they stretch out limbs and shuffle feet, stretching jaws that have been held shut and making experimental leaps into flight, fighting the wind with stiff wings. One disappears into the sky even as Eret watches, mouth half-open in shock.

He remembers to close it just in time as Rorvik runs to his side, bow in hand, and then turns back to the crew and shouts, "Dragons loose!"

Eret should have done that, but instead he draws his longsword and leads the charge.

The dragons scatter, on the wing or on foot, racing for the hole that Zippleback blasted in the enclosing wall. One falls to a well-placed dragon-root arrow, stumbling in the mud, but to Eret's shock another grabs it by the scruff of its neck and another by the root of its tail, working together to carry it into the air with them.

As a result, the hunters reach the barn without incident, Eret in the lead, but only because all the dragons and the months of work they represent, that would have kept their skins in one piece for just a little longer, have escaped.

Everything undone in one bad night.

Eret wants to scream in rage and throw his sword to the ground and stomp on it, but he lost the habit of doing that when he was ten. He still has an interesting scar on his foot to show for it. Since he's holding the sword anyway, he uses the hilt to strike the remaining door, knocking it all the way open.

Empty cage.

Empty cage.

Empty cage.

Empty cage.

Thunderdrum.

Thunderdrum, and a small dark dragon perched on top of the cage, fiddling with the latch.

Except – and it takes a moment for Eret to figure this out, as the light from the torchbearers following him slips in through the door and his eyes adjust – what in the name of all gods is it?

He doesn't get time to think any further, because a shrieking whistle is all the warning he gets before purple-blue fire erupts in his face.

Or where his face would have been if he hadn't dropped to the ground reflexively, taking his loyal men down with him, and the blast tears out the doors, taking them off at the hinges along with a large part of the wall, and explodes somewhere in the sky.

Eret spits out the taste of dragon-barn floor (the irrelevancies note that mucking out the dragon barn will be an excellent punishment next time that…and then shrug when they can't think of a relevant scenario) and starts getting back to his feet. Somewhere in the darkness, he can hear a dragon's whistle, rapid chirruping noises sounding strangely out of place in a building that has only ever contained muted dragons, and in a silence where a few moments ago there was the shouting and activity of a dragon hunt.

The agitated whistles are answered by a snarl that sounds far too close, and Eret's efforts to blink away the flash-blindness and stand up again are rewarded by a sight as unbelievable as anything else that has happened tonight.

It's beautiful. It's impossible. It's darker than the darkness, the glow of its flame and the reflections in its eyes sparking obsidian rainbows across its hide. It's a legend come to glorious life.

It's stalking across the tops of the cages like they were level ground, as graceful a predator as Eret has ever seen, as he will ever see.

It's an incredibly angry Night Fury, tail whipping back and forth like a furious jet-black giant cat, razor-sharp teeth bared in a menacing snarl, green eyes fixed on him.

Eret whispers the name of a very old clan god, and momentarily forgets to care that he's about to die.

The spell is broken with the sound of metal grating against metal from the Thunderdrum's cage, and Eret takes his eyes off the Night Fury to see the other little dragon drop from the roof of the enclosure to scuttle to the freed Thunderdrum's side and get to work on its muzzle.

"Hey!" Eret shouts – later, he will tell himself that he was struck stupid by the sight of the Night Fury – and steps into the barn.

Immediately, another purple blast takes out another section of wall, so close to his head he can feel his hair crisp and crinkle.

"Okay…" he says very slowly, and considers stepping backwards. But his men are crowded in behind him now, staring. Even if he doesn't impale himself on their various weapons he doesn't want to back down where they can see him, even from this glorious beast.

The Fury shrieks as if warning them, racing from cage to cage to put itself between the humans and the little dragon. It bristles all over, wings spreading, ear-flaps pinned back aggressively, its whole body shaking with readiness to attack.

Part of Eret wants to step forward and let it kill him, just to get to see it in action for real: surely it would be worth dying to see that first. Part of him is horribly aware that it could kill just about everyone he cares about with a single shot, with them all packed in behind him like this. Part of him is trying to calculate how much he could get for this beautiful creature, and concluding that there might not be enough silver in the world, but that it might be enough to buy all their freedoms.

Part of him is still insisting dragons can't pick locks!

That's the part that looks past the Night Fury to the dark figure fiddling with the Thunderdrum's muzzle.

Not moving his lips as much as possible, in case the Night Fury objects to people talking, he whispers, "More light."

Helpfully, someone raises a torch above their heads, and Eret wonders how for a stupid second before remembering that the Night Fury blasted out a good portion of the barn to make a point about people moving.

In the brighter light Eret can get a better look at the creature the Night Fury is guarding. It's obviously a dragon: it's covered in jet-black scales, just like the Night Fury, and it has a dragon's dorsal fin, and it's crouched on its haunches like a Nadder or a Raincutter, and it has wings draped from its shoulders, dark head lowered over the mechanism of the Thunderdrum's chains.

And then it glances over its shoulder to check on its enemies, meeting Eret's eyes for a split second, and it's not entirely a dragon at all.

Dragons do not have human faces. But no human ever snarled like that.

Before he can make sense of it, the Thunderdrum's muzzle falls away, and the dragon-human creature leaps aside, yowling with an animal's voice. For a second more Eret thinks the angry Thunderdrum has attacked it, but instead the Night Fury whips around and runs towards it.

Night Fury and Thunderdrum race past each other and suddenly Eret has more immediate problems.

"Cover your ears!" he shouts, dropping his sword, and suits actions to words, hoping his crew will react as fast as he does.

Even with his ears plugged, the Thunderdrum's roar knocks him backwards like a physical force, not at all cushioned by the bodies of his crew. By the time Eret gets his bearings again, they're scattered all over the yard, tossed like twigs in a windstorm into the mud that's been created from the rain and the churning of escaping dragons.

When Eret picks himself up out of the mud, the first thing he sees is the Thunderdrum, giving up on its shambling run and taking off into the air instead. But it doesn't go far.

All above, there are dragons, perched on the roofs of huts or fighting the wind and the rain to hover above the compound. Some of them are the escaped captives, and some are what Eret thinks might have been the diversionary force.

Which reminds him, as his brain gets all its oars lined up again, of the Night Fury and its creature.

He checks on his crew first – some people seem to be unconscious, but others are getting out of the mud and checking them to make sure no one is breathing dirt and too knocked out to know about it. And then he looks over at the barn.

The Night Fury is standing in front of it, watching them with what Eret thinks is a combination of disdain and anger. It's certainly glaring, teeth bared.

And on its back, the dragon-creature is glaring too.

He remembers legends of shape-shifters. There were beasts with human faces that lured careless children into the bogs to be devoured or out onto the ice to freeze, and creatures that opened doors with human hands and slipped through houses to enchant swords with invisible fractures so that they would shatter when needed most. The world is full of magic and impossible things, and most of them are dangerous.

To those stories Eret has a new one to add, of something part dragon and part human.

Except maybe not, because he hasn't believed in those campfire tales for years, and the dark head he'd seen bent over the Thunderdrum has fallen back, away from matted hair, like a hood.

Not completely a dragon, maybe, Eret guesses, for all it had sounded like one in the barn. It could be a human, dressed up to look like a dragon, except the creature had sounded like a dragon, and it seems to have claws. And no wild dragon would let a human ride on its back that way, least of all something as mythically lethal as a Night Fury.

What sort of dark magic must it have to command a Night Fury, itself little more than a ghost story?

The dragon-man bares his teeth as well, and it should look ridiculous, but somehow it doesn't, possibly because Eret can sense that he means it. That biting is an option. Will it shift a little closer to a dragon form and tear into him, if provoked?

He doesn't speak, only looks up at the other dragons and roars something, raising a paw into the air to signal to them, claws flashing in the fire-light. For a moment Eret thinks it was the Night Fury crying out, but the fantastic creature is still snarling at the humans in the mud. Above, the dragons scream back.

"What the –" Eret manages, and fire rains down.

The huts burn, and the palisades, and the platforms. The watchtower goes up in flames that devour all that timber ravenously, and the forge smolders as the embers, abandoned when Denholm came to watch the spectacle with everyone else, find new life.

The dragon barn burns like it's a funeral pyre, appropriately enough, because one way or another, Eret and his crew are all dead men.

In the light from the burning fort – Eret is beginning to have suspicions about the previous one – the Night Fury stalks forward, entirely fearlessly, as the other dragons flee the increasingly hostile sky, into the storm.

Dragons don't approach humans, Eret adds to his list of lies.

It walks to him unerringly, the rider on its shoulders shifting with it as if he belongs there. Neither the howling rain nor the heat from the fires seem to bother them at all. They're both watching him, but the moment someone else moves the Fury whips its head around and blasts at the man, faster than thought, and then is back to staring down Eret before he's processed that the resulting scream was frightened rather than hurt.

He can't move, not just because he's pretty sure the Fury will kill him if he does. The fact that the Fury is probably also going to kill him if he stays where he is almost doesn't matter. If the dragon doesn't kill him, gods-damned Drago Bludvist will. The dragon will probably be quicker about it, and entirely more glorious.

That's how he ends up eye to eye with a dragon out of legends and a demon creature something between dragon and man.

Closer up, Eret decides that if the creature is some new variety of shape-changing dragon, it's a good one, but he would be willing to consider that it might be human after all – if it weren't so very much a dragon. Surely no shape-changer would think to add details like freckles, or the tracks of crude stitches binding together what must be leather armor, or the fading lines of tiny scars, especially if it had chosen to take the form of a slim young man but gotten distracted halfway.

Eret has seen madness. Eret works for madness. But this is a new one on him, something possibly not entirely of this world, perhaps a beast-god of dragons. Some of the gods he's heard stories about can take the forms of beasts. Why should a god-spirit of dragons not be part man, if it chose?

It's a shock when it – he – speaks.

"Pfikingr," the dragon-creature spits at him. It sounds like a dragon would sound if dragons could be taught to speak, garbling the sounds and chewing them over like bones. " ."

Eret speaks enough of several languages to trade in, but a dragon-daemon trying to speak what sounds like badly mangled Norse isn't something he ever thought he'd have to translate. He makes a guess. The burning fort, which is starting to become very uncomfortable as the winds from the storm whip the flames into a frenzy, is what he would like to call a Hint.

"Go?" he ventures.

The dragon-man bares his teeth again, but there might be the edge of a satisfied smile in there. It's in the eyes. "Isss. Drakkkn herr," he says. "Pfikingr nuh."

Pointing out that Eret doesn't consider himself a Viking is, he decides, a losing proposition. The important thing is that this…apparition, he decides…is letting them go. Probably.

Into a killer storm that they can't hope to navigate through. It'll be a miracle if they can even keep the ship afloat. This creature is sparing them a death by fire – probably – so they can die on the water.

Except this death is certain. The ship is a gamble.

"Get everyone out of here!" Eret says, raising his voice but not shouting. He doesn't want dragon or rider to think he's shouting at them, even though the storm is making anything below a yell useless, and the echoes of the Thunderdrum's roar will still be ringing through everyone's ears. "Count heads. Don't leave anyone behind. If you've got weapons on you, bring them. Otherwise, don't go back. If we get to the ship now we might be able to run before the storm."

"Boss –" Andvari says. They both know how unlikely that is.

"I said go." Well, the dragon-creature said go, but damned if Eret's going to have it – him – give orders to his people directly.

Inside he is burning, anger mixing with fear for his people and fear of Drago and fear of the vengeful dragons creating a conflagration like Zippleback gas waiting for the spark. If his people die on the sea, or beneath Drago's wrath when Eret comes to him empty-handed, it will be the dragon rider's fault. Eret has absolutely no doubt about who, or maybe what, has been sabotaging the last few years and keeping them on the barest edge of survival in this cursed, haunted corner of the world.

Eret holds his ground until his crew has run for the ship, until Fury and Fury-creature have taken off in a single leap and disappeared into the fire and the night and the violent storm along with the rest of the dragons, so far beyond recovery they might as well be over the edge of the world.

And then he snatches his sword from the mud and runs, knowing that he is in all likelihood running to his death, with his life burning down around him, for the last safe haven of his beloved ship.

Above him, the storm screams like a triumphant dragon.


To be continued.