"I told him that if he didn't shape up I was going to leave. And he is not shaping up!"

"Mistress Madeline, I'm sure Mr. Kelly would not deliberately have—"

"Oh, yes, he would have!" a young woman with flaming red hair yelled. "And don't even try that 'Mistress Madeline' stuff with me. I'm sick of his broken promises. If he loves me then he wouldn't treat me this way. I'm leaving, and that's final!"

Madeline began stuffing clothes into a leather bag that had been thrown on her bed. A mousy brown haired maid tried to reason with her. "Surely you don't mean that, Mistress Madeline. You're far too young to be out there all alone—"

Madeline paused in her packing long enough to sigh and say in an exasperated tone, "Ardella, I'm seventeen years old. Hardly 'far too young.' I'm not twenty five like Jack, but I can make it on my own. Oh, and if he asks, tell him he'll have to find a new future Mrs. Kelly."

"But—"

"Ardella, please! Stop wasting your breath! I'm leaving, and there's nothing you or anyone else can do to make me stay!" Madeline yelled. Finishing her packing, she walked out the door, shut it quietly, and walked down the carpeted hall. Her soft cloth boots made no noise as she strode towards the stairs. Reaching them, she took a deep breath, smoothed her hair back, and started down.

--

Qik and Kris led Gardrania, Medda, and the newsies down the stairs, expecting to be stopped and questioned before even reaching the floor. But, much to their surprise, they weren't. Gardrania had stowed Ista in the small bag she had brought along. Luckily, Ista was small enough to fit semi-comfortably.

Make sure you don't move, Gardrania thought to Ista.

I won't.

They reached the bottom of the stairs, and Crutchy, half expecting to slip on the shiny surface, gingerly put his left foot down. When it remained firmly on the floor he shrugged and placed his crutch and left foot on the substance. He'd been the last one down, so he hurried to catch up to the others. Race and Qik were waiting for him—the others were still slowly walking ahead. Race was looking at him, arms folded over his chest and an exasperated look on his face. When Crutchy reached him he muttered in an exaggerated New York accent, "Awright, Crutchy, don't tawk too loud. We don't want no one knowin' wea're from Noo Yawk."

Crutchy grinned and nodded. "Okay," he murmured. "Easy enough."

The rest of the small party looked back and beckoned to them. They were almost among the boxes. Race, Crutchy, and Qik, trying to look purposeful, walked towards their friends.

At that moment a young man walked up to Qik. "What are you doing down here, Qik?" he asked. "Didn't your father tell you that you weren't supposed to come here?"

Qik looked uncomfortable. "Um, yeah, but, uh—"

"Matthew! Matthew, I need to talk to you!" The young man, Qik, Race, and Crutchy all looked up at the same time. A short woman in her late thirties dressed in gray pants and a gray shirt was standing on the other side of the room. She hurried over to the man, Matthew, and said, "Matthew, Mistress Madeline says she's leaving. She's very angry with Mr. Kelly." Looking at Qik, she chided, "Qik, you aren't supposed to be down here. Who are your friends?"

Crutchy glanced at Gardrania, Medda, Mush, Blink, and Kris, shrugging helplessly when he saw the questioning look in Blink's eye.

"Oh…yes…my friends. Well, this is Sean and this is Aaron," Qik replied, pointing first at Crutchy and then at Race.

"I'm Ardella," the woman told them. Taking a closer look at Crutchy, she asked kindly, "Did you hurt yourself?"

Crutchy looked confused for a moment, so Race murmured, "Your crutch, you stupid crip."

"No, I'm crippled," Crutchy replied eventually.

Ardella and Matthew looked at each other with raised eyebrows. "Sean," Matthew began, "come with us, please. We have someone who would like to meet you."

"Wait!" Qik said loudly. Ardella and Matthew looked at him. "Dad said I could show him around," the boy whined convincingly. "He'll be mad if you bring him to Daniel! You don't want to make my dad mad, do you?"

Ardella turned to Matthew. "He's right. Mistress Madeline is much more important. If she gets away Mr. Kelly will be furious. Let's find her." Matthew nodded and the two of them hurried off. Qik sighed in relief as they joined their friends.

"What was that all about?" Blink questioned softly.

Kris snorted. "Mistress Madeline. Paul Kelly's future wife, rumor has it. The girl's a senseless manipulator. You don't want to meet her."

"She was always nice to me," Qik put in timidly.

"I never said she was cruel, I just said she was a senseless manipulator."

"Oh."

At that moment a huge crash shook the fortress. Various boxes started beeping loudly. "I'm picking something up!" one woman yelled. "It's dragons!"

"Let's get out of here," Kris said just loud enough for them to hear. The eight of them moved as quickly as they could towards an open door on the opposite side of the room from which they had come. It took them approximately thirty seconds to reach it, and when they stumbled in Kris slammed the door shut.

Mush sniffed the air. "Does it smell like smoke in here to anyone?"

Race nodded. "Yeah, but it shouldn't. That worries me."

A cough from Crutchy made them all look at him. "Not only does it smell like smoke, it looks like somethin's on fire in here. Is this a problem?"

Crutchy was right. Much to everyone's dismay, the hall they stood in was rapidly filling with smoke. So much, in fact, that it was hard to see.

Blink had reached the door first, so he was the farthest down the hall when he said, "You guys, let's get outta here. We're gonna die form lack of air or something." So, once again they found themselves feeling their way down a corridor. Only this time it was much more urgent.

They could all see a splinter of light up ahead when Blink suddenly cried, "Hey! Who is that!"

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were there," a female said.

The smoke cleared for a moment and everyone got a good look at the speaker. Blink was confronted by the most beautiful set of green eyes he had ever seen.

"Madeline," Kris groaned.

If Madeline would have heard him she would have been insulted. As it was, she was entranced by Blink. And he was equally entranced by her.

An explosion and a hot blast of air interrupted their moment of love at first sight. "No time for romance!" Race yelled, grabbing Blink's arm. "This place is goin' up in flames!"

--

"Bellavia!"

"Yes?"

A winged cat saluted her. "We've set fire to the fortress. All the major entrances are blocked. We'll burn them out," he added with a malicious grin.

About five hundred dragons were sitting in the meadow. The majority of them were winged cats and Emeralds, with quite a few feral and one or two desert lizards.

Bellavia nodded. "I hope you took precautions not to trap the good humans."

"We couldn't," the winged cat replied. "We tried, but no one knew where they were. No one knows where they are. I'm sorry, Bellavia, on behalf of all of us, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid they probably won't survive."

"What! I told you to at least—"

She was cut off by the approach of a large blue and gold Emerald dragon. "I'm sure this young cat did all in his power to keep the humans safe," she said to Bellavia, much to the relief of the other winged cats. The Emerald was about to say something else when shouts broke out at one end of the meadow. Both of the cats and the Emerald looked in the direction of the noise. The cause of the commotion was a young red fox speeding towards them. When it was about ten feet away it sprung towards the Emerald, landed on her back, and settled down between her wings.

It was Streak. "Kareaflare," she panted, "Blaze and Jade sent me to tell you that Kris's in there!"

Kareaflare looked startled. "That man is going to kill himself someday. Streak, where did he go in?"
"The south door."

"Then chances are he'll come out the north."

"I don't know," Streak replied. "Why don't you ask the dragon that's with them?"

"What dragon?" Kareaflare asked sharply. "And did you say 'them'?"

"Yes," Bellavia interrupted. "Them. I led a group up there early this morning. That's who I'm worried about. They were trying to rescue a desert lizard. shall I try to contact her?"
"Yes, please."

Bellavia concentrated on what she thought the desert lizard should look like. She faintly felt the sensation of fear. But she wasn't the one that was afraid. She was making contact, but not very well. She increased her concentration. What was the desert lizard's name again? Ista? she tried experimentally. Ista, if you're there, answer me.

A brief sensation of surprise came before the answer, which was strained and faint. Yes….I'm here….

The mental picture Bellavia was was dark and clouded. Suddenly, it brightened. Ista, she asked, where are you?

Ista's voice was stronger this time. We're out on a balcony. And we need some help! Soon!

Abruptly the contact was cut off. "They're trapped by the flames," Bellavia told a throng of dragons that had gathered around them. "We need to help them. Now."