Tag Archives: short story

A to Z Challenge: H

HPart H, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

The sun rose two hours late the next morning. Not that Zoey noticed. She was out cold, exhausted from the previous day’s adventures. But she heard the maids talking about it when she passed them in the hall on the way to breakfast.

She could probably get used to living in a place where morning was delayed by a couple hours once in a while. Not that she could stay. In fact, she needed to concentrate on finding a way to leave before her cover was completely blown and Ferraro started to wonder why someone with her dubious office skills had been hired to handle his correspondence.

Stepping into his study an hour later, registering the look on his face, she suspected it might be too late.

“Ms. Prescott. You’re making tardiness a habit.”

“Good morning, Anton.” She ignored the slight pounding at her temples, flashing a cheery smile before taking a seat in one of the wingback chairs in front of his desk. “I believe I’m right on time. From what I hear, sunrise was late. Not my fault.”

The look he gave her was so darkly intense, it was all she could do to just sit there, feigning a calm she didn’t feel. What was it about the man that was so unsettling? So compelling.

“From now on, I expect you to be here promptly at eight o’clock, ready to begin work. Regardless of celestial anomalies.”

“Certainly, Anton.” She nodded regally, as if granting a boon to a commoner, and felt a rather savage satisfaction at seeing his jaw clench. Morning people could be so insufferable. “Shall we begin?”

“Harold Davis sent me an email, asking for my response to the letter he sent on the 4th. Perhaps you’d be good enough to retrieve it from the file.”

It was going to be like that, was it? She got up and went to the file room, making a noisy show of opening file drawers and closing them. The first time she’d actually done so. She grabbed a file at random, came back out and sat down in the chair.

“I’ll just read it to you, shall I?” She opened the file and began before he could object. “My Dear Lord Ferraro.” She paused. “Harold Davis is a bit of a suck-up, if you ask me.” She then resumed until the letter ended with, “Your most humble servant, Harold Davis, Esquire.”

Ferraro looked up from his phone, which he’d stared at intently the entire time she’d been reciting the letter, his stare so cold she actually shivered.

“Read the third paragraph again.”

She did so, speaking slowly and clearly, wondering whether he had comprehension issues, while he once again focused on his phone.

He set the phone down, carefully. “Ms. Prescott.”

“Yes, Anton?”

“I’ve been in the file room.”

“So have I. Dreadful place. Something should be done.”

“When I couldn’t find Davis’ letter in that mess, I had him email it to me.”

“Resourceful of you. Can’t imagine why he didn’t email it in the first place.”

“That’s not how I do business. It’s also not the point.”

She kept a pleasantly bland expression on her face, waiting for what she knew was coming.

“Perhaps you’d care to explain how you just managed to recite, verbatim, a three-page letter from my solicitor containing sixteen dense paragraphs of complicated legalese, without actually looking at said letter.”

It was the most words she’d heard him string together at one time. She suppressed the little thrill she got from this demonstration of his ability to be articulate. “I guess some things are just more memorable than others.”

He glared at her, silently. Waiting.

“Oh, fine. I have almost perfect recall of things I’ve read.”

“Almost.”

“I’m not sure whether his return address listed Suite 202 or 203. It’s quite distressing,” she added, trying to make light of it.

Luckily, she was saved from whatever he might have been about to say — extremely lucky, from the look on his face — when Benton entered the study and approached the desk.

“Today’s mail, sir.”

Ferraro gave a terse nod toward the corner of his desk, face still tight with anger, not saying a word.

But Zoey’s curiosity was piqued. “Tell me, Benton, how is it we’re getting mail when the road is still blocked?” Was there a way in, and out, she hadn’t considered?

Benton looked at her as if she were a suspicious stain on the upholstery that should perhaps be reported to the housekeeper. He unbent enough to say, “In the usual manner.” Then he turned and left the room, closing the doors quietly behind him.

Zoey grabbed the stack of mail, quickly rifling through it, trying to hold back a snort of laughter. That man was more taciturn than her father at his worst. Where had that thought come from?

She was abruptly torn from her musings when she came to a letter that was clearly personal rather than business related. She grasped the corner to set it aside and felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Something is wrong. She gave a soft gasp, letting the rest of the mail slide off her lap. She’d learned not to ignore her instincts. Although how Ferraro’s personal correspondence had anything to do with her, she couldn’t imagine. She just knew it did.

Her hand shook slightly as she handed the letter to him. “This is important.”

“How could you possibly–”

She cut him off, her tone serious. “Please.” She never, ever ignored this feeling. “Open it.”

Ferraro hesitated, clearly not done interrogating her about the other matter, but opened the letter and read it. Then he sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair, head supported by the old soft leather, eyes closed. For a moment, he almost looked vulnerable.

He straightened, as if the moment hadn’t occurred, and said, “My mother has taken a fall.”

Zoey blinked. He made it sound as banal as if the woman had taken afternoon tea.

“Arrangements need to be made,” he continued.

“Of course, you’ll need to go to her. Is she badly hurt, in the hospital? Does she need home health care? Physical therapy?”

He seemed bemused by her concern. “Mother broke her hip and bruised an elbow. I assure you, she is being well taken care of.”

Zoey didn’t respond, waiting for an explanation. Wondering why this situation would trigger her instincts. They’d never been wrong before.

“Arrangements need to be made for my niece, who is a minor. It appears she will be staying here for a time.”

“Here?” Zoey couldn’t help it, the word came out as a strangled squeak. “A child is coming here? To stay?” Her instincts must have been issuing a warning. Get out, now.

“Of course, here. I’m her only other blood relative. She’ll need a tutor, as the one she has is unable to travel.” Ferraro gave her a considering look.

“Oh, no.” Zoey shook her head emphatically, suddenly nervous. “I don’t do children. They don’t like me and the feeling is entirely mutual.”

“Your résumé claims you graduated in the top one percent of your class, cum laude.”

“That hardly qualifies–”

“Ms. Prescott. Are you daunted by the prospect of a challenge?”

There went that damned eyebrow again, taunting her. He couldn’t possibly know how difficult it was for her not to accept a dare. Could he? She felt her resistance faltering in the face of stubborn pride.

“I’ll not take on additional responsibilities without commensurate pay.” There, that would deter most employers.

“I’ll double your salary.”

Unfortunately, Ferraro was not most employers. “Triple. And we begin work at nine.”

“Done. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a niece to collect.”

She saw his lips curve slightly, briefly, in what might have been a triumphant smirk and suspected she’d gotten the raw end of that deal. Oh, he was good. Just how awful was this niece? “How do you intend to retrieve her, Anton? I assume she’s not simply sitting at the end of your drive.”

“By helicopter, of course.”

“You have a helicopter? Here?” How had she failed to notice a freaking helicopter? This was perfect. There hadn’t been a chopper made she couldn’t pilot. Escape was imminent.

“Of course not here. The winds here on the headland during a storm would tear it apart. It’s kept inland. I call for it when needed.”

Well, hell. So much for that plan.

Ferraro was almost to the door of the study when he turned and fixed her with a steady look. “Oh, and the mail? This time of year, Ms. Prescott, it arrives via snowmobile.”

He walked out, already calling for Benton, while Zoey turned over a new plan in her mind. Regular snowmobile delivery meant a well-worn path through the snow.

She’d need to prepare, gather supplies without anyone realizing. But she could easily walk out of there on a compacted path through the snow. Easily. Far more easily than she could deal with a child, tripled salary be damned.

It was horribly inconvenient that her instincts weren’t going to allow her to leave. Not until she figured out what was wrong.

H is for Helicopter

 

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Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: G

GPart G, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey wasn’t surprised to see Benton on hand to open the door for them. Nor was she surprised by his pithy “I see you found her” remark to Ferraro. The two were a matched pair when it came to pointed brevity.

She was surprised to see the cook, Mrs. Darby, hovering anxiously nearby.

“Lord have mercy, look at you!” the woman said. “You come with me to the kitchen, Ms. Prescott, and we’ll get you fixed up right and proper.” Mrs. Darby leveled a stern look at her employer, as if Zoey’s condition were somehow his fault, and herded her charge off toward the kitchen.

“Heavens, child, your hands are bleeding. And what a nasty sunburn on your face. You really must apply sunscreen if you plan to be outdoors for any length of time.”

Zoey doubted sunscreen was much of a defense against dragons, but she just nodded and examined her knuckles. The scrapes had indeed cracked open and oozed a bit, probably the result of crawling through the tunnels rather than the severity of the wounds. She was hardly bleeding to death.

“I’m sure it looks much worse than it is,” she said in an effort to reassure the cook, but Mrs. Darby wasn’t having it.

She hustled Zoey over to the large kitchen sink to wash and rummaged through an upper cabinet for a first aid kit. Zoey dried her hands and face and took the kit, promising to use it once she’d had a hot bath.

“I suppose I should join Mr. Ferraro for dinner,” Zoey said, bracing herself for an unpleasant meal.

“Oh my, no. It’s past ten o’clock. Mr. Ferraro dined hours ago. You just sit down at the table here and I’ll have something for you in a jiffy.”

Zoey concealed her surprise at the time and managed to stay awake long enough to eat two bowls of hearty chicken soup and a thick grilled cheese sandwich. Comfort food, for which she thanked Mrs. Darby profusely. She had just finished making an awkward request for dessert to be left out on the back stoop — a request the woman agreed to as if it were customary — and was finishing off a glass of milk when Ferraro entered the kitchen.

“Ms. Prescott,” he said, then stopped and stared at her mouth just long enough for her to realize she must have a milk moustache. She wiped it away as he continued.

“I anticipate tomorrow will be a long day, catching up on correspondence,” he said.

Oh, crap. She had managed to forget all about her “job” here. She smiled, trying to project calm confidence. “There’s not all that much to catch up on, Anton.”

“In that case, Ms. Prescott, perhaps I’m overpaying you. I rise early and will expect you to join me in the study an hour past dawn.”

Mr. Tall Dark and Imperious left the room and Zoey gave a mock salute to his back, then snuck a glance at the cook, who was busily wiping down already clean counters. Was that a trace of a smile she saw curving the woman’s mouth?

“Mrs. Darby?” she asked, fighting a yawn. “What time, exactly, is dawn?” Zoey wasn’t a morning person and hadn’t seen a single sunrise since she’d arrived.

“Don’t you fret about it, dear. I’ll come knock on your door to wake you in plenty of time for breakfast. You go on to bed now.”

Upstairs, Zoey took one look in the mirror and concluded Mrs. Darby hadn’t over-reacted after all. What a disaster. She took a hot shower, fairly certain she’d fall asleep and drown if she soaked in the bathtub, and applied antiseptic cream to the worst of her injuries before getting ready for bed. She dropped her filthy torn clothes in a pile in her room, knowing they were ruined but too exhausted to sort it out tonight.

All she wanted was a good night’s sleep. Everything else could wait for tomorrow.

She’d set the white quartz on her nightstand and it emitted a soft rosy glow once she turned off the lamp. She wasn’t even surprised. A crystal capable of adjusting to circumstances was least remarkable thing she’d seen that day.

Seconds later, she was drifting off to sleep when she heard the sound of children giggling. She sat straight up in bed, looking around the room for the source. Nothing. She was alone in the room. She must be imagining things. She knew there were no children living on the estate. She’d asked, first thing when she arrived.

She’d settled back into the comfy warm bed when she heard it again, a bit louder this time. It was the type of giggling particular to children who thought they were being quiet but ended up making more noise than if they hadn’t tried.

Zoey stared up at the ceiling, so tired she was in favour of having them all summarily executed if she got her hands on them. She was working up the energy to go find a maid or, god forbid, even Benton to deal with it when she noticed that the ceiling was . . . moving.

She rubbed her eyes and looked again, but the pale swirling shapes were still there. Not the ceiling, exactly, but something up near the ceiling.

One suddenly swooped down and bounced off the end of her bed, just missing her feet, prompting a fresh round of poorly stifled laughter.

Ghosts, she thought dully, somehow unsurprised by this as well. She had ghosts in her bedroom. And not just any ghosts, the ghosts of mischievous children.

She was too tired to even begin to think how to deal with them. All she knew was that if she didn’t get some sleep she’d be suicidal, maybe even gleefully homicidal, by the time she met with Ferraro in the morning.

There were thudding sounds off in the distance and at first she thought she was imagining them. But they drew steadily closer, became ever louder. She felt the vibrations right through her mattress. She saw a bright flare of light outside her window, heard a magnificent roar of sound, and smiled as she watched the pale shapes converge and flee en masse through the gap under the door.

The old girl might not be light on her feet, but she certainly was efficient. Zoey’s lips moved in a silent but heartfelt “thank you.”

Her gaze swept the room to make sure they all were gone and paused on a deeply shadowed area over in a far corner. An irregular shape, it was small and dark and absolutely still. It almost seemed to exude malevolence.

Unable to keep her eyes open, Zoey dismissed it as a symptom of exhaustion. But as she drifted off to sleep, one last thought made a reprise: there are monsters in the dark.

G is for Ghosts

 

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A to Z Challenge: F

FPart F, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Fortunately, Ermie accepted her apology for thinking he was a giant white rat. He was sort of cute, once she got over her initial misconception. And quite charming with his accent.

“So, you’re a Scottish ermine?” she asked.

He replied in a distinctly non-Scottish accent, “Nope, I just really like the accent. And the ladies love it.” Then he winked at her and said, “Come along then, lass, or ye’ll be answering to Himself for tardiness. Tardiness.” And he scurried into a dark tunnel.

Good grief. Zoey refrained from rolling her eyes and clutched the softball-sized chunk of white quartz he’d given her. It had looked unremarkable in the fire-lit cave, but once they entered the dark tunnel it glowed brightly enough for her to see several feet in front of her. She hoped he didn’t want it back once they got out.

Zoey realized Ermie was muttering something and caught up with him so she could make out what it was.

“This is highly unusual. Highly unusual,” he said.

“You’re telling me,” Zoey said. “Cave Dragons, talking animals. What’s next?”

Ermie stopped and gaped at her. “She granted you her protection, lass. Her protection.”

“But that’s what she does, right? She protects treasure. People must come into her cave all the time with treasure to protect.”

“Lass, no one dares enter that cave without permission. They wait outside. Outside.”

“Oh?” So she’d breached dragon etiquette just by walking in. It’s a wonder she was still alive.

“Aye, she vowed to guard yer treasure. But she also granted you protection. Were ye not listening? She hasn’t done that . . . in centuries. Maybe not ever. Not ever.”

“Oh.” Well, that was unusual then. Zoey hoped it wasn’t going to be a problem when she needed to leave this place.

She touched the smooth piece of pale green sea glass the dragon had given her before they set out. It had a small hole in the center through which ran a delicately woven silver chain. The dragon had told her to keep it with her always and then stared at her, fierce and unblinking, until Zoey put it around her neck and promised not to take it off.

She and Ermie made their way through tunnels that were more dirt than rock in places, a passageway that hadn’t been used in some time if the spider webs were any indication. Parts of it narrowed enough that Zoey had to crawl, a claustrophobic sensation she disliked immensely, though it helped to have the ermine in front of her, urging her to hurry.

The last turn was rather abrupt and Zoey realized they’d emerged under a large stand of thick bushes growing near a back corner of the mansion. Nicely concealed, she’d never have noticed it. She climbed out of the tunnel after Ermie, tucked the quartz in her coat pocket, and just sat there, breathing in fresh air and savouring the sunset.

Wait a minute. The sun was still hovering at the halfway mark, just as it had been when she entered the cave. The only difference being that clouds had gathered on the horizon and prevented reflection on the flat sea. The top half was still glowing brightly.

She turned to ask Ermie how that was even possible, only to find him with one paw up to his mouth, making a low shushing sound. He gave a quick nod toward the cliff.

Oh, hell.

Ferraro stood there in the last rays of the setting sun, hands clasped loosely behind him, staring out to sea. For all his apparent ease, he was taut as a newly tuned string, displeasure radiating off him in waves that were almost tangible. Zoey remembered what the dragon had said about his temper and control and decided she might do well not to test it any further just now. Assuming she was the reason for it. Maybe he just hated sunsets. She moved to stand up and the ermine hissed at her.

“Sit down, lass. Ye’re a filthy mess. Ye cannae greet Himself looking like that. Not like that.”

Zoey figured her appearance was the least of her problems, if the look on Ferraro’s face was any indication. She flicked one hand in casual dismissal. “Oh, I don’t care ab–”

“Ack. Haud yer wheesht, lass,” he hissed.

“Hold my . . . what?” she whispered back.

“It means stop talking. Think before ye speak and have a care what ye wish for. Words have meaning and power. Aye, meaning and power.”

Zoey paused to consider the truth of that. “All right, yes, it would be nice to freshen up a bit. Perhaps you know of a nearby stream? Although, I wouldn’t say no to a long soak in a nice warm bathtub if you were to conjure one up.”

The ermine made a sound that could have been irritation or amusement. “Close yer eyes and be still.”

She did as instructed and felt the soft brush of paws whisking over her hair and face and then down over her coat and jeans. Quick movements, finished almost as soon as they began.

“Aye, that’ll take care of the worst of it.”

“What, no bluebirds to fix my hair?”

“Ye’ve a quick tongue, lassie. Some folks, such as m’self, appreciate that. Others,” he glanced at Ferraro, “others nae so much. Nae so much. Ye ken?”

Zoey sighed. “Aye, I ken.” She leaned over to brush a cobweb from his ear and then pressed a quick kiss on his soft silky head. “Thanks for your help, Prince Ermie.”

Not wanting to just pop up out of seemingly nowhere, or draw attention to the cave entrance, Zoey scooted around behind the back of the mansion before she stood up. She gently stretched her sorely abused muscles, shook her hands vigorously, then walked out into the side yard as if nothing were amiss.

Ferraro didn’t so much as twitch, but she could tell he sensed her presence by the way his posture seemed to get impossibly more rigid.

She walked up next to him, leaving a good few feet between them. “Lovely sunset.”

He slanted a sideways glance at her and there was thunder in his eyes, lightning too. Or maybe it was fire. She had an odd feeling in that moment that he knew exactly where she’d been and what she’d done the past several hours. She made a mental note to check for security cams on the beach, next time she ventured out. That there would be a next time was not even in question.

She turned her gaze out to sea for a moment, collecting herself as exhaustion started to set in, and when she looked at him again he was his normal cold and implacable self. He raised one sardonic eyebrow and waited, as if expecting her to speak.

What was it with the raised eyebrows all the time? Was it some kind of code? Like the language of fans? It was all she could do not to raise one back at him, though who knows what message she’d send. She kept her mouth shut and her eyebrows in place. She knew enough not to volunteer an explanation.

He cleared his throat. “Perhaps you’d like to invite your friends to dinner.”

“My friends?”

He tilted his head in a slight nod, indicating something over her right shoulder.

No, it couldn’t be. Surely they wouldn’t. She turned, slowly, to see Ermie and Bubbie peeking around the far corner of the mansion. The dragon must have flown, there’s no way she’d have fit through the tunnels. Then it dawned on her . . . he could see them too? She wasn’t sure whether that was disturbing or reassuring.

“Ah, they aren’t my–” She cut herself off when she saw the twin looks of disappointment, the suddenly slumped shoulders of her new friends. Meaning and power. “Er, that is, they aren’t hungry. My friends ate earlier. I plan to leave some dessert on the back stoop for them later.”

He stared at her for a long moment. “I see. Do inform Cook. Perhaps then you’d care to dress for dinner.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Fine,” he repeated.

There went that eyebrow again, even higher this time. She could only imagine just how not-fine and bedraggled she looked. “Perfectly fine. I would like to wash my hands, though.”

“And perhaps your face,” he muttered under his breath.

But she heard and gave him one of her brightest smiles in return. “I seem to have lost track of time, exploring your lovely estate. I do hope I’m not late for dinner.”

He gave her an inscrutable look before he replied. “I’d say you returned just in time.” He made a sweeping gesture toward the front of the mansion. “After you, Ms. Prescott.”

Just before she turned away, she saw the sun set. In an instant, as if the string holding it up had suddenly been cut. And in an instant, the darkness of night was complete.

Zoey walked ahead of Anton to the front door she’d exited what seemed like a lifetime ago, and felt the weight of his disapproving stare on her back the entire way.

F is for Friends

 

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A to Z Challenge: E

EPart E, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

She was curled in a soft blanket, warm and content, dozing in front of the fireplace, flames creating flickering images on her closed eyelids.

She frowned. Something was wrong with the flames. Too hot. Roaring.

Dragon!

Zoey came to with a start, heart racing, panic and adrenaline surging through her body. She sat up fast, hitting her head on the sloping rock wall at her back. Eyes wild as memory returned, she frantically searched the shadows beyond the circle of light cast by the small fire in the center of the space.

There. Movement on the other side of the fire. She had hoped she’d imagined it, conjured the beast from her fear, but no. There was a dragon staring at her with glittering golden eyes. A huge, scaly, winged dragon. With claws and a tail and sharp teeth. It was hideous, the stuff of nightmares.

And somehow not as mind-numbingly terrifying now that she could see it. But maybe that was because she was already dead. It seemed likely. “I’ve died and gone to hell.”

“Don’t be insulting,” said the dragon.

Zoey drew in a sharp breath. She knew dragons were dangerously unpredictable, but had never heard of one that could speak.

It spoke again, sounding oddly bored. “So, what’s your treasure? Where is it?”

Treasure? Like a tribute, or a bribe? She had nothing. Zoey just shook her head. No.

“Oy, you just got here. Already with the disagreement? Of course you have treasure. Show me.”

Was a gift of treasure the price of life, of freedom? Damn, she was in big trouble here. “I–” She cleared her throat. “I have no treasure.”

“Listen, sweetie, I’m a Cave Dragon and this is my cave. No one gets in here without treasure. It’s not even possible. So where is it?”

Great, it was getting angry. Did she dare make a run for it? She thought about the cave’s total absence of light and reconsidered. “I swear, I don’t have–”

“All these centuries guarding treasure, for this? So some puny human can come in here and tell me THE RULES OF MY OWN CAVE?”

She cringed as the dragon bellowed the last part, tiny weak flames dancing around its mouth. The roar ended with a coughing fit. “Sorry. It’s the fog rolling in. Puts a real damp-er on a proper flame.”

Zoey blinked. Did it just crack a joke?

The dragon caught its breath and resumed the rant. “You come schlepping up to MY FRONT DOOR and you have NO TREASURE? Chutzpah, is what it is, to come into my lair empty-handed. Such a thing I never heard of.”

This wasn’t happening. It was too bizarre to be real. “I- I’m sorry.” Maybe she was dreaming.

“Or maybe,” the dragon paused and narrowed its glittering eyes at Zoey as if it could hear her thoughts. “Maybe you are the treasure?”

For some reason, that sounded like a trick question. What was the right answer? She went with the truth. “No, I’m no treasure. Ask anyone.”

The dragon tilted its head and gave her a considering look, tapping one sharp claw on an even sharper tooth. “Yes, I think that’s it. Now to decide whether you’re worth guarding. It’s my choice, you see. Some treasure I agree to keep safe. Feh, some I don’t.”

Zoey didn’t find this reassuring. She had no experience with dragons and, in spite of hoping this might be a dream, it all seemed very real. Very precarious.

“I’ve never guarded living treasure before. Perhaps you’re dying? Bones, I can guard. Not a problem. I have a lovely collection of skeletons.”

“I don’t– no, not that I know of.”

“I suppose I could kill you.”

Zoey shuddered. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

“How did you get here?”

By an act of stupidity, she thought, but said, “Over the boulders.”

“Yes, yes, I know.” The dragon waved a claw impatiently. “Before that. Did you come from the sea?”

“I climbed down the cliff.”

“Ahhh, from the mansion.” The dragon seemed to smile. “So you belong to Himself. That explains it.”

Explains what? “I don’t belong to anyone. I was hired to work for him.”

“Such a nice boy. Is he feeding you? He should feed you.”

Nice boy? She couldn’t think of two words less suited to describe the man. “Are we talking about the same person?” This was insane. She was having a conversation with a dragon.

“Of course. Anton Ferraro, the Youngest. What a magnificent temper he has. Such fire.”

Zoey rather suspected he was a cold-hearted and unemotional bastard.

The dragon interpreted her expression correctly, or heard her thoughts again, and huffed out a puff of smoke like a laugh. “Ah, so you’ve only seen his iron control. I’m telling you, it’s a direct reflection of the fire inside. There are times I could swear the boy breathes it. Such a fine young man. You’re not married?”

Zoey was saved from a reply by the sound of flapping wings and that distinctive chirping noise she’d heard on the beach. Oh please, not the bats. Zoey crossed her arms over her head and curled into herself, trying to make a smaller target.

“Oh yes, here they are! Come to Bubbie, my precious babies, come show me what you’ve found.”

Did the dragon just call herself grandmother? She sounded so happy, Zoey lifted her head slightly to watch.

The dragon spread her impressive wings and dozens of bats swarmed around, dropping things on the floor at her feet before perching on her shoulders and along the top edge of each wing. “Oh, marvelous. Excellent. Such beautiful treasures you’ve found.”

Only . . . they weren’t bats, Zoey realized. She sat up straighter. “Baby dragons,” she whispered. They were shimmering green and gold miniatures, not yet scarred by life or made dull with age. Tiny baby legs and claws and tails, miniscule scales and delicate little wings, wispy fine wreaths of smoke circling their heads.

They were glorious and completely adorable.

They’d dropped smooth round stones and bits of sea glass and delicate sprays of seaweed at the old dragon’s feet. Each item beautiful in its own way, but utterly worthless.

“Don’t question the value of what others hold dear,” the dragon said sharply.

“I wasn’t– I mean, no, of course not.” Zoey felt slightly ashamed of her cynicism, remembering her own childhood treasures.

“As the elders say: Judge not, lest all that glitters be the bell that tolls for thee.”

That . . . almost made sense. “You’re right, it was thoughtless of me. They’re lovely treasures.”

The dragon reached up with a scaly claw and plucked one of the babies off her shoulder. “This little one is starting to look like his Grandpa David, alav ha-shalom. So fierce already. My mate was a War Dragon, gone these many years.”

Was it proper to offer condolences to a dragon? Zoey had no idea. “I’m sorry for your loss. Was– was he killed in war?”

The dragon huffed out a smoky snort. “Nonsense. You can’t kill a dragon, no matter what you read in stories. Agree to take a fall one time so that rascal George could win fair maiden and we’ve yet to hear the end of it.”

Zoey didn’t know what to say to that so she just nodded.

“Dragons die of two things: sorrow and loneliness. Not much for War Dragons to do these days, what with modern weapons. They’re all but extinct now.”

She sounded so forlorn, Zoey rushed to change the subject. “So, these are your babies?”

The dragon beamed with pride. “Grandbabies, yes. My daughter, bless her heart, mated a Story Dragon. She has attachment issues, not that I didn’t raise her better, and follows him from place to place. He’s in high demand. So many movies and books and plays. I warned them to stay away from the toy market, but do they listen?” She made a sound of disgust. “Plastic dragons. They’re killing me.”

Zoey wondered whether it was possible to dream and hallucinate at the same time. Play along, she told herself, you’ll wake up soon. “I didn’t realize there were so many different types of dragons.”

There was a moment of silence as the dragon stared into the fire. Not a good sign, Zoey thought. The dragon seemed pleasant enough, when she wasn’t being absolutely terrifying in the dark, but she was still a dragon.

Although, thinking about it, all the dragon had done was stomp through its own cave and pick Zoey up and bring her to this “room.” A room where there was heat and light. And baby dragons. Okay, it also shot flames and roared at her, but what homeowner wouldn’t defend against an intruder. Zoey’s own fears were what had made the entire thing a nightmare. Still. It was a dragon, one with apparent mood swings, and not to be underestimated. Plus there was the little unresolved matter of getting out of there alive.

“I’ve made my decision,” the dragon said abruptly and flexed her wings, sending all the baby dragons flying.

Zoey flinched and ducked as they circled and swooped before hovering in a cluster near the ceiling of the cave. Then flinched again when the dragon seemed to grow even taller, her massive wings still outspread, and spoke in a stern booming voice.

“STAND AND SPEAK YOUR NAME.”

Talk about mood swings. Zoey stood, fearing the worst. She was going to die in this cave after all. Would anyone know to carve “Death by Dragon” on her grave marker?

“SPEAK.”

Might as well get it over with. “Zoey Prescott.”

The dragon nodded. “I thought as much. ZOEY PRESCOTT, I HEREBY GRANT YOU MY PROTECTION. I ALSO GIVE YOU MY SOLEMN VOW THAT I WILL GUARD YOUR TREASURE.”

“What? But I–”

“It’s done. You didn’t ask and I give this freely, my mitzvah for this century. No need for payment.”

Payment? Zoey wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that.

“Although,” the dragon added softly, “there usually is a price for everything. Eventually.”

Exactly. Hence her concern. “Thank you, ma’am, but really–”

“Oh, call me Bubbie. We’re practically family now. I suppose you’d like to get out of here and head back to the mansion in time for dinner. You should eat.”

“Yes! I mean, thank you for having me, but if you could just point me toward the exit . . .” Zoey trailed off, at a loss for proper manners in this situation. She really didn’t want to anger the beast, even if this was a dream.

“Oy, and how far do you think you’d get if I did? God forbid she should ask for help. Ermie!” The dragon called out as if that were a name.

Sure enough, Zoey heard scuffling sounds and saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned to look and– “AIEEEEEEEE. It’s a rat!”

“He most certainly is not. Ermie, come introduce yourself before the girl plotzes again.”

The sleek white creature held its head high and managed to look both dignified and affronted as it approached. “‘Tis nae a proper way to address royalty, lass.”

Never mind that it could speak too, the rodent had a Scottish accent. “Are you sure it’s not a rat?”

“Do I look like I’m not sure? He’s an ermine. Claims to be a royal prince of some country with a name we can’t pronounce, so we call him Ermie. He’ll guide you out and back up top. After you apologize for the slight, of course.”

It was a sign of how very desperate Zoey was to get out of the cave, whether dream or reality didn’t even matter anymore, that she found herself down on one knee, a dragon looking on in approval, offering an abject apology to an ermine. No, a royal ermine prince.

E is for Ermine.

 

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A to Z Challenge: D

DPart D, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey quickly decided that walking through the cave wasn’t going to cut it and decided to crawl. That way, she could keep one hand on the wall and use the other to feel ahead of her for random chasms. Or whatever else might be in there with her.

Maybe if she stayed low enough to the ground, the bats would leave her alone. It had the added benefit of making her shaky knees less apparent. She tried to convince herself the shaking was from the immediate 20-degree temperature drop once she’d stepped inside.

She dredged through her memory for what she knew about navigating mazes — keep your hand on the wall and take every right turn — and hoped it applied to caves as well. Or was it every left turn? Too late, she was already past the first turn and even the dim light from the opening had disappeared.

It wasn’t merely dark, it was Stygian. The urge to turn back was almost overwhelming.

Zoey thought about the equipment, including a powerful flashlight, she’d been forced to leave behind. It’s a simple mission, in and out, they’d said. You’ll only need your wits, they’d said. It was a challenge, a fucking test, is what they hadn’t said. One she was not going to fail.

Fine, so she couldn’t see. She had her other senses, plus strength and agility and intelligence and . . . all her irrational childhood fears.

Concentrating, she could hear the sound of dripping. The wall was cold and damp to the touch with what she hoped was water. She wasn’t going to taste it if she didn’t have to, but at least she wouldn’t die of dehydration. All she could smell was dirt and rock, but occasionally she felt that gentle puff of cool air on her face. She seemed to be moving toward it, at least. She stretched up as far as she could reach and didn’t touch rock, so the ceiling wasn’t closing in on her.

She was not going to get stuck in a slowly narrowing fissure like that guy in the book she’d read in fourth grade. She’d find her way out of here and she’d be fine.

She continued crawling forward, her jeans wet now from the knees down and clammy against her skin. Making good progress, moving quickly but carefully. Not rushing. She paused when she heard a distant muffled thud. And then froze in place, every muscle tensed, when she felt faint vibrations through the floor and wall of the cave.

What was that?

Several seconds later there was another thud, still muffled as if coming from a distance, followed by slightly stronger vibrations. What was going on? Thunder? Explosives? Was some part of the cave collapsing?

Every instinct she possessed screamed at her to get up and run as fast as she could, flee back to the entrance. But she knew what a potentially deadly mistake it might be to react heedlessly. To run wildly, blindly, through the dark unknown.

She forced herself to stay where she was. Wait it out. Breathe.

The vibrations faded and then stopped. She slowed her breathing and kept very still, listening intently, her eyes straining for some clue in the disorienting blackness.

There it was again. More distinct this time, like something incredibly heavy pounding the earth, followed by even stronger vibrations. Not an earthquake. She had experience with those and it felt nothing like this.

Before she could make a decision about whether to retreat, there was another thud, then another. Steady now. Louder, stronger, the vibrations increasing in intensity. It was moving, getting closer.

She tried to imagine something large enough, heavy enough to make that sound — deep, powerful, resonating through the earth — and came up blank. She suddenly remembered them telling her about monsters in the night. Warning her not to be out there alone in the night.

And that’s when she realized her mistake. They hadn’t said night. They’d said dark. There are monsters in the dark. The cave entrance had been blocked for a reason and she’d ignored it.

What kind of monster had she provoked? How could she fight something she couldn’t see? Fight, hell. She had no weapons. She was completely defenseless.

She heard a hissing sound and smelled smoke in the air. Fire. The pounding and vibration were continuous now, overwhelming, closing in. Stomping. The putrid smoke got thicker, blowing hot on her face. Breath. Smoke and sulphur and something vile she couldn’t identify. Death.

Oh God, she was going to die here in the place of her worst fears, her worst memories. Small and helpless and terrified, alone in a cold dark place where no one would hear her last gasping cries. Her heart was racing, breath coming in bursts of panic until she couldn’t breathe at all. She was paralyzed with fear.

The noise stopped abruptly.

She felt a presence in front of her, something solidly invisible in the black void. A cold shiver of hot sweat ran down her spine. Her entire body trembled uncontrollably. Something was there. Right there. She could smell it, feel its body heat. Sense its power.

Even the echoes faded into ominous silence. Everything stilled, time suspended on a knife-edge of dread. Poised for the mortal blow.

Something rough and strong grabbed her, lifted her off her feet. She heard what might have been herself shrieking with her last breath.

A stream of flame burst through the dark, blinding her, heat searing her face. An enraged roar deafened her. And just before she succumbed to the helpless terror of unconsciousness, her vision cleared and was filled at close range with the fearsome glittering eyes of a dragon.

D is for Dragon.

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