No one else was on the street. The lights leading up to the gate had not been replaced, and the shadowy route did not encourage visitors, not when warnings were coming from what remained of the security forces. No one would venture out when dragons might suddenly turn on their riders.
With that solitude, Artha felt he could risk calling out Moordryd's name. When Moordryd didn't answer, Artha urged Beau closer only for his dragon to growl and balk at moving any further. Artha tugged at the saddle, then stopped himself and looked at Decepshun again.
She was breathing hard, yes, but her fangs were bared in a silent snarl. She stood taut and trembled with the tension of digging her claws so deep into the pavement that the street cracked and broke underfoot. Moordryd was clutching at his saddle, and Decepshun was clinging to anything in range.
Beau was so often the target of her whipping tail, no wonder he did not want to come within the reach of her bite.
"Okay, I get it," Artha said softly to Beau. "You stay here. I'll move closer. Just be ready to mag me back if she goes to bite my head off."
Beau grumbled his complaint that Artha was even considering it, and as Artha started to slide off, Beau gave a small mag burst that kept him firmly locked in the saddle. With a long-suffering gruff, Beau took a tentative step closer, listening to the pitch of Decepshun's growling. When nothing changed, he chanced moving a little more.
"Just hold still, you two," Artha said a little louder. "We're gonna come up beside Decepshun. If she leans against the wall, we can walk you into the stable."
Both Decepshun and Moordryd winced, dipping their heads, and Moordryd's low groan sounded strange as it echoed in her throat.
"Can't..." Moordryd said, his voice all consonants. "Gonna fall."
Artha and Beau came around and sidled up against Decepshun, nudging her so that her panting flanks touched the wall. With the gold dragon beside her, there was no way she could fall over. And yet she refused to lift a claw, instead pressing against Beau as if she needed yet one more point of contact to tell her which way was up.
"Are you sick?" Artha asked. "Is it like the poisoning before?"
Before they could answer, the gate in front of them swung open with a metallic scrape. Connor came out, staff in hand, but his gaze focused not on the boys but on the road. Staring in the distance, his eyes narrowed. The streetlamps glowed a lurid gold that created more shadows instead of light, and there was the chance that their neon flickering masked the transparent shapes of Word's wraiths. Or worse, the wisps of darkness of Armeggaddon's eight dragons.
"You need to come inside," Connor said softly. "Now."
"I don't know if they can," Artha said. "Should I just mag them over the wall?"
"I've activated the security grid," Connor said. "Nothing's coming over that wall. You need to bring them in through the gate."
Although his gaze never wavered from the street, Connor backed up enough that his quiet voice reached all of them.
"Moordryd," he said. "For now, stop thinking like a human. You don't have hands, you have four legs. Just imagine that and don't say anything."
"...what?" Moordryd started, but he cringed as his stomach clenched. Feeling as if he would slip from the saddle the moment she moved, he closed his eyes tight and lay low in his saddle. His mutters became softer echoes of his dragon's nauseated whimpering.
"Decepshun, one foot in front of the other." Connor tapped her right paw with the end of his staff, urging her to slide it forward. The claws retracted and she dragged it along the pavement. "Good, now a back foot."
Squeezed as she was between the wall and Beau, she trusted that they wouldn't let her tumble, keeping her eyes shut as took each step. She had to unlock each leg, making a visible effort each time to pick up each paw, and she pressed her tail down to the ground like a rudder.
"You're doing good," Connor said. "Just a little more."
"...what's wrong with us?"
Moordryd sounded like a lost child, blind and clinging to his dragon. Worse, Decepshun made strange sounds in her chest, groaning around the unfamiliar consonants and vowels like a rabid dragon. Artha instinctively froze, looking to his father for what to do.
"Nothing," Connor said. "It's just...happening faster than it should have."
There was nothing reassuring in his voice. He put his hand on the side of Decepshun's face, a lifetime of dragon training drawing her forward with his touch alone. In the saddle, Moordryd coughed and shook his head once.
"We're not kids," he muttered, and Decepshun whuffed agreement.
Connor patted her face again, bringing her around into the gate, angling Decepshun toward the stables.
"Lock the gate," Connor said. "But keep watch. Until I can get the monitors and the lights back up, I don't trust that we're really alone."
"Okay," Artha said, his worries overriding his exhaustion. "But are they gonna be—"
"I'll let you know," Connor said. "And Artha—don't try to face anything on your own. If you see something, tell us immediately."
Artha watched them slowly move across the sand, deep furrows in the sand from her claws and tail dragging heavily. Not knowing how long he'd have to stay by the gate, he sat back in his saddle and sighed. He felt the throbbing in his shoulder that he'd forgotten about, the overall soreness from trying to help Lance...he suspected that would linger for days.
Beneath him, Beau shifted and lay down on the sand with a tired huff. Artha heard the weariness in his voice and moved to dismount, but a jagged jolt of pain drove through his side and up his back. He stiffened, then eased back into the saddle.
"Sorry, Beau," he said. "I know you're tired, but is it okay if I stay up here for now?"
Beau nodded once, gently so he wouldn't jostle his rider, and lay the rest of himself on the sand. Artha felt the rough shifting of his dragon's bones and muscles and felt the accompanying aches in himself. If Artha had felt every crack and gap in the road, Beau had leaped and landed across each one.
Beside the locked gate, listening for the slightest scrape of claws outside, Beau and Artha settled down to wait, not knowing how long they would have to stand guard.
Both Decepshun and Moordryd assumed they were being led to Mare and their nestmates. Mare always knew what to do, and Mare always took care of them when they were sick. The heavy breathing of dragons in a pile, scales scraping as tails flicked during a dream, called to them to rest and sleep.
Instead Connor drew them toward the nearest empty stable and closed the door after them. He turned on the cold white lights and came around their side.
"If I had to guess," he said, "this feeling started when you removed your amulet and armor."
"Yeah," Moordryd said, echoed again by his dragon. "We tried...armoring up again..."
"And that just made it worse," Connor said as if he already knew the answer. "By the time you got here, you couldn't make yourselves take another step."
"We don't remember how we got here," Moordryd said. "Felt like we'd throw up the whole way."
"Really?" Connor asked. "Is that what it feels like?"
Decepshun's huff was immediate, but Moordryd answered more slowly, thinking about it for a moment first.
"I'm not sure," he said after a long moment.
"Think carefully," Connor said. "Do you feel dizzy...or do you feel like you're unbalanced?"
"I feel like you already know what's going on. So tell us so we can quit feeling like slag."
Connor hesitated, then nodded once. He warned Decepshun that he was going to tap the back of her paws, prompting her to put her legs out a little more and lay flat on her stomach. As soon as she was down, he tapped his staff across the back of Moordryd's hands.
"Hold my staff instead of the saddle," he said. "I'll help you come down."
"I wasn't kidding," Moordryd warned him. "It feels like I'll throw up."
"If you do, I won't hold it against you," Connor said. "And the further you go from Decepshun, the sooner both of you will feel better."
The promise to help his dragon made Moordryd move, clumsily hanging onto the staff as he dragged himself out of the saddle. He went backwards, clambering down so that Connor had to catch him as he stumbled back.
"You're falling—" Connor said as Moordryd's legs buckled.
"So lemme fall." Moordryd's voice slurred as he went to his knees, but despite his grumbling, he took Connor's help guiding him down so that he lay on his side.
"Still going to throw up?" Connor asked.
"...no." Moordryd curled up, splaying his hand across the floor as if grateful that he could feel it there, that he wasn't going to fall further. "What's wrong with us?"
Connor knelt beside him, tugging gently at the dragon-hide jacket to encourage him to shed it. Moordryd barely raised his arm so that Connor could begin pulling it free.
"To put it simply," Connor said. "You were in Decepshun's mind."
Moordryd didn't answer. He pushed himself up slightly so Connor could work the jacket out from under his shoulder, sliding it off his other arm. Immediately Moordryd sighed in relief as its weight disappeared.
"What felt like sickness was both of you receiving the input from two bodies. You felt like you were on four legs, and she felt like she was on two. She couldn't walk because she was seeing double, and she probably felt your confusion at feeling a tail."
Connor rolled the jacket up and set it under Moordryd's head.
"Somehow I don't think you're too surprised," Connor said.
Long seconds passed as Moordryd gathered his strength. The journey back from the Precinct had left him just as exhausted as Decepshun as both of them felt every step. Cold stable tiles under his body left him feeling more grounded, as if he could breathe deep without feeling like his lungs would burst. And without the disorientation, he could begin to make sense of what Connor was saying.
"She's a psi class," Moordryd said. "The academy book's called Tragedy of Psionics. You wanted to know my draconium levels. Doesn't take a genius."
"I honestly thought you had more time," Connor said. "The most attuned riders don't succumb for years, and even then it's rare. I only saw it once in the academy, and there are just two more incidents recorded by the Dragon Priests."
Moordryd let his eyes open to slits, enough to see Connor's concerned face, then tilted his head back enough to see Decepshun staring back at him. They shared a long look, both of them still breathing hard, and Moordryd didn't have to be in her thoughts to know what she was thinking. What they were both thinking.
"When it happens, who's in control?" he asked.
Connor frowned at such a mercenary question. Moordryd was very much Word's son.
"Depends on who's stronger willed. Sometimes the human, sometimes the dragon." Connor shifted to his other knee, easing the strain on his older joints. "But sometimes it doesn't matter. Dragon and human become one person, and they don't ever seem to come apart again."
"Even when the rider dismounts?"
"Even if the rider is separated by long distances," Connor said. "The book had an example of a rider who had to travel to another city, and the entire time until he came back, it was as if he was listening to orders inside his head. Whether that was actual telepathy or tearing a small part of his dragon's mind with him, there's no way of knowing."
Moordryd closed his eyes.
"Probably just as bad for the dragon," he whispered. His voice changed timbre as he recalled something he'd read from the academy texts. "'The war slipped from the empire's grip, however, as it always does—with both rider and dragon succumbing to their psionic pairing.'"
Connor recognized the quote. "You understood more of the book than you let on."
"I only got bits and pieces," Moordryd said. "Decepshun helped put the pieces together. Decepshun...oh scales..."
He put his arm over his eyes, curling even tighter.
"Of course the shadow booster cared about his dragon," he whispered. "After awhile...he was his dragon."
Connor stayed a few more minutes to explain in more detail, to promise he would help both of them find out why this happened so much sooner and what they could do to try to reverse it. Moordryd stopped listening. It was too much to take in at once, and he only spoke to accept Connor's help back to the house. He would have stayed with his dragon, but not only did Connor argue that was a bad idea, Decepshun...
She growled and turned away, creeping back to Mare's stable and the comforting presence of her nestmates.
Moordryd almost crawled back to her side. Connor waited a moment, then gently brought him around, taking him back to the house.
"You can talk to her later," Connor said. "Let yourselves split apart more firmly. Your risk of falling into each other's minds should go down the longer you stay away from each other."
Half expecting to be dropped on the couch, Moordryd found himself brought down into the cave, taking the stairs one at a time. As they came to the main floor, footsteps came sprinting at them, accompanied by the mini-brat's ecstatic voice.
"Whoa, you really were in a fight!"
Moordryd tensed, half expecting to be tackled—and then his other arm was raised as Lance put his shoulder to his, taking the rest of his weight.
"Lance..." Connor warned.
"Man, you and Artha trying to see who can come bust up the most?" Lance asked. "Artha said the whole Precint level nearly fell off and that all the dragons were attacking the humans, and that you and Decepshun took the dragons' side after everyone stopped fighting—is it true Artha radiated out gold draconium like before when that happened, like with the horn of Libris? He said Parm and Kitt stayed down there to keep the whole thing from falling—did they really make a web of draconium? That is so drac! And that a lot of people got hurt—Artha said that Captain Faeir looked messed up, and that a lot of dragons..."
His voice trailed off. "A lot of dragons..."
"Died," Moordryd said, glaring enough to make Lance duck his head. It wasn't fair when Lance was helping him walk, but Moodryd chafed at being seen this vulnerable. He poured more acid into his voice than he meant to, remembering the sound of dragons falling through the air.
"They rose up, the humans fought back, and the dragons tried to bring the whole Precinct level down." Moordryd half shrugged and grimaced as it didn't feel like his own arm.
"But why'd they attack the people?" Lance asked.
Moordryd growled, Decepshun's anger still fresh in his mind. "Being forced labor isn't enough of a reason?"
Connor slid out from his arm, leaving him leaning on Lance. As Moordryd sagged harder against Lance, muttering under his breath to hold still, Connor went to his monitors and hit several keys. Moordryd was about to complain that he wasn't up to any fancy draconium experiments when the sharp sound of steel on stone cut him off.
Two dark slabs slid horizontally from the wall, side by side, with grooves in their surface that marked out where someone would lie.
"You had this," Moordryd said softly, "and we've been sleeping on the floor?"
"Ah yes, that Payne pride..." Connor chuckled. "These are old medical beds handed down from the dragon priests. They're meant for evaluating more advanced draconium ailments. Unless you want to listen to them humming all night?"
"What humming?" Moordryd asked, sidling up against the bed and managing to bring one leg up onto the surface. As he lay down, his head eased into the smoothed notch near the top, and he became aware of a deep rolling whisper that seemed to come from everywhere around him.
With a gasp, he sat bolt upright, looking around the darkness.
"It's okay," Connor said, expecting that. "There's no one there. It's just the sound of the machines."
"They're...saying things." Moordyd gripped the stone edges, refusing to lay down again. "That's not humming, that's whispering."
"You hear whispering?" Connor frowned, then glanced at his monitors. Only half of them had been replaced, and of those, a bare handful were lit. "And the Order hasn't seen fit to answer me...convenient."
He tapped the rim of his workstation, glancing at his son. Lance flinched under his look. Although he stood as tall as Moordryd, the freckles across his nose acted like a reminder of his real age, the unkempt mop of hair that looked more childish for how he'd tried to drag a comb across it once or twice.
"Lance..." Connor started, loathe to say the words. "Can I trust you to stand guard at the gate?"
Lance's eyes went wide. "Wha...really?"
"It's not exciting," Connor said quickly. "It's usually boring standing around and hoping nothing happens. I need someone out there until I can fix the machines in here, and that could be hours of staying alert. But Artha's too hurt, and—"
"I can do it," Lance promised. "I will do it. No one's getting by me—"
Beside him, Moordryd gave a dry chuckle.
"You'll fall asleep in five minutes," he said, smiling wanly when Lance glared at him. "Or start playing games."
He looked up at Connor. "There are easier ways to serve us up to Armeggaddon. Or were you trying to hand me off to my father?"
"Just you watch," Lance said in a pout. "I'll be a better guard than anyone else here."
As Lance ran up the stairs two at a time, Moordryd watched him go, chuckling to himself.
"We'll have wraiths in here before you know it," he said.
Connor would have scolded him if he didn't hear the forced lightness in Moordryd's voice. He and Decepshun had scared themselves with their unexpected mind touch, and now they faced the inevitability of losing themselves in each other.
"It's going to be okay," Connor said. "We'll find a way to stop you and Decepshun from permanently bonding."
Moordryd smiled without humor. "Sure. The ancients couldn't stop it and the academy couldn't stop it, but somehow we'll manage with just a couple old books and my father and Armegaddon breathing down our necks."
"Actually, I think so," Connor said. "Your draconium levels are higher than I've ever seen before. It's what caused this in the first place, and I'd bet it's what saves you from merging with your dragon."
Not arguing but not agreeing either, Moordryd shrugged again and took some relief at his arm feeling like his own again. At Connor's motion, he sighed and lay back down again.
"What are you looking for?" he asked.
"Elevated draconium levels," Connor said, sitting so he could read his computer screen. "And where your draconium is specifically localized. And...was Lance right that Artha and Beau radiated out gold energy?"
"Yeah, at the end," Moordryd said. He focused on Connor instead of the sibilant whispering coming from the machine, which he couldn't understand anyway. Recounting the fight took no time as he described the run up through the Precinct, but he slowed as he came to describe how he faced Artha from the other side. Maybe telling Artha's father wasn't so smart when he could barely sit straight.
"You stayed behind to distract the entire Precinct?" Connor asked, smiling to himself. "Why am I not surprised? Word might not admit it, but he's going to be insanely jealous."
"My father?" Moordryd turned his head sightly.
"He never told you about his younger days? You're downright polite compared to him. Believe me, he would have loved nothing better than tossing officers out into the open."
"Well, didn't exactly throw them out," Moordryd said. "I wasn't trying to..."
The thought hung between them. In all the chaos of the power flashing on and off and the officers shooting at him, he'd been trying to drag them back from the smashed windows. Upon reflection, he could imagine his father hurling the men and women out into the darkness below. Easily.
Connor didn't say anything else, and Moordryd didn't push. He lay still, slowly growing bored as he waited, half wishing he had a game to play, anything to take his mind off the jumbled memories of being in Decepshun's thoughts.
"Dad? You down here?"
Gripping the rail with one hand, Artha came down the stairs slowly, his other hand pressed against his side. As shallow as his breathing was, he smiled gamely.
"Artha!" Springing up, Connor rushed to his son's side, helping him down the last few steps. "I didn't realize you were this badly injured."
"Nah, it isn't that bad," Artha said. "Just knocked against the saddle when I came off Beau."
"Still. You haven't recovered from your other injuries, and then this..." Connor helped him onto the other medical bay, shaking his head. "I should have brought you in immediately."
"Relax, I'll be fine," Artha said, lying down with a sigh. The surface was hard, but it felt grooved especially for him. "Geez, dad. All this time we've been sleeping on the floor, and you had these?"
Moordryd laughed once. "S'what I said."
He felt a touch on his hand. Without looking, Moordryd turned his palm up to hold Artha's hand in return.
"You better?" Artha whispered. "What happened?"
Not answering at first, Moordryd gave a heavy sigh, relaxing fully. Something about Artha's voice, low and intimate, pitched so no one else would hear, made him settle more comfortably. Normally he heard Artha on the track shouting over galloping dragons or amid the blasts of gunfire and mag bursts. To hear him like this, with words no one else was meant to hear...
"You're not mad at me?" Moordryd asked.
"No," Artha said, but his obvious hesitation made him wince. "I mean, I hated seeing you on the other side. I was afraid we were going to fight, and all I know is that I don't want to fight you."
His hand tightened on Moordryd's, and from the way his voice moved, Moordryd could tell that Artha was leaning up on one arm, looking over to him.
"But if you hadn't been there," Artha continued, "then I don't think that we could have talked to the dragons. Because it was you and Decepshun."
"She did most of the work," Moordryd said. "They talked to her. I just..."
"Translated?" Artha asked. "Can you understand them? Like, more than just simple yes and no's."
Despite how Artha lowered his voice, their conversation carried easily in the quiet cave, echoing along the walls. Moordryd knew that Connor was listening.
"It's not...I don't..." He frowned. "It's not like that. It's not like their conversations are that complicated. They're hungry, they're tired, that kind of thing. They aren't that interested in more than that."
Artha was silent for a moment.
"Decepshun is," Artha said finally.
Moordryd smiled despite himself. Pride in his dragon didn't fade even if she was dangerous to him now.
"She was bred for intelligence," Moordryd said. "Smartest dragon in the world."
"Well, she'd give Beau a run for his money," Artha said, his own pride refusing to give in. "But you can talk to her a lot better than I can talk to Beau. I mean, you were translating for them."
Moordryd was silent for a long moment, long enough for Artha to realize that something was wrong. Artha glanced at his father, but Connor only waved at him to stay quiet and wait.
"I wasn't translating," Moordryd said. "Not really."
He sighed again, wondering what was keeping Connor from finishing his scans and hoping it wasn't another instance of needing hours to find what he was looking for.
"The dragons talked to her, and I heard them. I heard them the way she did—she gets their emotions a lot clearer than I do. And then she told me what to say."
There was a long pause.
"She told you what to say?" Artha asked. "You could hear her?"
Moordryd hesitated, then nodded once.
Artha asked him other questions, trying to draw out what he meant, but Moordryd didn't answer. It was easier to pretend to sleep, holding Artha's hand, wondering what it would be like when he couldn't think for himself because Decepshun would be in his thoughts. She would tell him what to say, what to do. And he would obey without thought, because hers would be the only thoughts in his head.
To be continued...