CHAPTER THREE

"Are you sure it's a Dragon, Steven?" Holtz reclined on a ledge of rock. Sweat beaded on his face, a result of him pulling himself up a deep drop off in the cave system. Spot lay at his feet.

Steven nodded. "I saw the foot print."

"Just one?" Holtz lips' puckered. "They usually travel in groups."

Steven frowned. Did Father think he had forgotten? "I know but this time there is only the one," he insisted. "I don't know what it was doing. I didn't see more than the footprints."

"I don't like this. If there are Dragons, we have to abandon the caves." Disappointment etched into Holtz's lined face as he hitched himself up.

"But they don't like coming into the caves," Steven argued. He didn't want to quit a place of good shelter and relative warmth in the dead of winter.

"But they can. We'll never find a way through fast enough to avoid them, if they follow us down here. As good as you are, Steven, a fight in the caverns is too dangerous."

Steven nodded reluctantly. Father was right about that. There was no maneuvering room and it was too easy to hit his head on rock which might incapacitate him long enough to become Dragon food. "Agreed. But it's so cold outside. I'm afraid for you."

Holtz smiled, leaning forward to pat his son's thin shoulder. "I'll fare better out there than we will if a Dragon catches us down here. I'm not important, Steven. We've had this discussion. The only truly important thing is for you to find your way back to your true father and make him pay for what he did to our family."

Steven sighed. He knew he'd not win any arguments against that. Father had drilled that into him. Nothing would sway Father's beliefs. He headed back for their encampment. Spot pushed against his legs as he walked, trying to get him to pet her. He reached back and scratched her head. Just before he entered their living area, Steven stopped, holding up a hand to halt Holtz. Spot made a low rumbling noise that served as her warning. Her body puffed, making her armor plating more prominent. He took a deep breath in through his nose. "It's been here."

"The Dragon?" Holtz whispered.

Steven nodded. "Stay here."

He drew his dagger and went into the cavern. Spot followed on his heels. He crept around the area looking around carefully. The Dragon was gone but things had been moved about. It had been searching for something, more unusual behavior. "It's clear, Father." Holtz came in cautiously. "It was here?"

"It examined our things."

Holtz's thick eyebrows rose. "That is most peculiar. I can't think of why one would do that." He stroked his beard, mulling over the revelation. "We have to leave now, Steven. Gather the necessities."

They were ready to travel quickly. They lived their lives always expecting to have to flee. Steven was disappointed they could no longer make their way through the caves. The surface was dangerous, especially for Father, and particularly at this time of year. Father didn't bear up to the cold as well as he did.

The sun had begun to set. Steven liked that less. They wouldn't be able to get far. Quor-Toth became even more deadly after dark. They would be lucky to make it to high ground before it would be too risky to travel. They spent the frigid night huddled in a shallow cave in the mountain, their bodies pressed together for warmth. Spot was closest to the opening. The beast was better adapted to the cold.

In the morning before the weak sun rose, they started south, away from the usual lands of the Dragons. Steven saw how stiff Father was moving. He knew the cold had taken a toll. At least Dragons didn't hunt much in the day. They cast too big a shadow. They should have a good amount of time to travel unmolested.

Father made them push hard through the thick snow. Spot harried a few small demons that charged their way. Steven heard Father wheezing as they struggled up a steep incline. Steven could bound easily from one bare tree to the other, swinging around them to help propel himself further upwards. Father, however, floundered on the ice, his breath dragging in and out so loudly Steven knew he was sending out a beacon to anything in hearing range.

Steven hauled Holtz over a slick ledge. "Let's rest here, Father."

"No, we need...to push on...we should...go..." Holtz broke off, panting.

Seeing how red and sweaty Father's face was, Steven sat down stubbornly. "Rest. I need to see where we are, think about our next move."

Holtz smiled at him, patting his son's head. "Just like a mule, you are." The older man sat wearily, trying to catch his breath.

Steven dug in his carry-all and found a package of dried berries. He unwrapped the leather and shared them with Holtz. "We should change direction some." Steven pointed to a trail that didn't reach so high up in the mountains.

Holtz shook his head. "No, it's a game trail. It's too well traveled. We're too likely to run into something."

"The other way is too steep. It'll cost us too much time," Steven argued, canting his eyes up the mountain where it turned to little more than slick, bare rock.

"What you mean is you don't think I can climb something that vertical," Holtz said then settled back against a tree. "And you might be right. I swear the very air here is against us. It's practically poisonous."

Steven didn't argue that. There were days when the stuff Father called fog was so heavy and burning to their lungs, they had to wear mufflers over their face and stay inside. Father said he never used to get so tired back home. Steven believed him about that. He believed all of Father's stories about home. Those stories were one of the reasons he even bothered to learn the various demonic languages. He knew that one day he'd find the demons who knew the way back to Earth and he would force them to show him how that magic worked then he'd do good and fulfill his God-given destiny and destroy the monster who fathered him.

"I think, if we go on that trail as much as we can before dark, then move off to a more sheltered place, we'll be all right. By tomorrow we can be in Neja."

Holtz nodded. Neja was home to the Inieves, small but industrious demons, that for the most part, never troubled them. They were too afraid of the Destroyer. They were even afraid of Holtz himself. They could shelter with the Inieves if necessary. "Good, son. In a moment or two, I'll be ready to go."

Steven nodded then froze. Something tickled his nose, a scent like carrion and decaying flowers. They weren't alone. He saw no shadows and heard nothing. Whatever it was, it was upwind from him. Father saw the sudden alertness fo his son and drew his knife. Steven felt something moving and looked up too late. The Dragon, in her humanoid form, dropped from the tree branches. She swung a club that caught Steven in the back of the head.

His head snapped forward and he crashed headlong into the snow. Everything went dark and quiet. It lasted but a moment. He heard Father screaming but he could see nothing. It was like he had been blinded. He heard the subtle cracking sound the Dragon's shape shifting made and something stabbed into his shoulders, her talons no doubt. She lifted him up and Steven stabbed upwards with his dagger, blindly. It was wrested from his grip.

Holtz couldn't believe how fast it happened. The Dragon had come from the one place they forgot to routinely check, above their heads. They hadn't been expecting her at mid-day or in her weaker form. Steven was down, blood spreading on the snow. As the Dragon began to change, he sent Spot after her. Holtz charged as well with his short sword but she completed her change before they could reach her. The Dragon whirled, it's tail catching Spot, flinging her into the tree. Then the beast flicked her head at him, the feather-like quills there tearing free. Holtz, too concerned with Steven, had forgotten Dragons could launch those things. He barely turned in time, several of them puncturing his face. Holtz went down, howling, clutching at his ruined flesh. All he could do was watch the Dragon haul off his son, still fighting. She soared back the way they had come.

Holtz tried to get up and run but the pain was too much. The Dragon's quills had a mild toxin on them and he needed to get the quills out of him. He found one small silver plate he used as a mirror when necessary to treat wounds he couldn't quite see easily. He slowly pulled the quills free. Spot was limping when she finally returned from where she had been tossed. Holtz had several deep punctures on the right side of his face. He dressed them the best he could, then checked Spot for injuries. She had no open wounds and nothing seemed broken but she was obviously sore. Holtz knew he had no prayer of catching up to Steven now. Still, he gathered what he could of their belongings and headed for Dragon country.