Tears of a Dragon (9 page)

Thigocia lifted her head and let out a roar. “Praise the Maker! My daughter is alive!” She beat her wings, lifting her body as she seemed to dance in place. The other dragons sang a chortling song in a strange language, like short blasts from trumpets that played melody and harmony with a rumbling vibrato.

Walter let out a war whoop. Bonnie and Shiloh embraced. The two knights shook hands heartily. Karen flung her arms around Ashley and leaned her red head against her sister’s chest. Ashley laughed, tears flowing down her cheeks.

Marilyn draped an arm around both Billy and Bonnie, then kissed Billy’s forehead. “Did you find the book?”

Billy nodded and patted the front of his jacket. “Got it right here.”

She placed a tender hand on his fist as it gripped Excalibur’s hilt and leaned her head against his. “You do good work, son of Clefspeare.”

Chapter 6

Losing Pebbles

Nestled on the shoulder of one of the higher mountains, a company of dragons and humans gathered around a pile of wet debris—broken tree limbs, tufts of pine needles, and green, unopened pinecones. Hartanna shot a stream of flames, and within seconds, the collection dried, then ignited, erupting in a towering bonfire.

Sitting on the ground, Billy waved Excalibur back and forth to maintain the photo-umbrella and shield the campers from the curtain of rain. As daylight faded and mist began to rise in the chilled air, Professor Hamilton appeared in the distance, marching across the matted leaves. Shelly and the remaining knights followed close behind in single file, and a dragon flew just above the trees, circling like a gigantic vulture.

Billy stood and shouted, “Over here!” But he wasn’t sure if Prof could hear him above the commotion of heavy rain and beating dragon wings.

The professor pointed toward the campfire, then halted and waved at the dragon. “Many thanks, Legossi,” he shouted, his voice barely audible. “We would never have found them without you.” He stretched his long legs over a rainwater ditch, and, once on the other side, he helped Shelly leap across. The knights tromped right through the channel, apparently oblivious to the mire of centuries-old leaf decay rushing down the slope. The new arrivals hopped over a narrow channel before finally coming to level ground at the campsite.

Billy extinguished the beam and let them in. “Hustle to the middle, and I’ll fire up the shield again.”

A new voice called from the woods. “Wait!” Seconds later, Carl Foley burst through a line of bushes and bounded over the channels, his agility belying his large frame. He jogged into the campsite, soaked to the skin and out of breath. “I got to the airstrip . . . a little too late. . . . Another dragon there told me to follow Legossi.”

Billy recreated the umbrella, but the rain had already soaked the campers and extinguished the fire.

Hartanna beat her wings, tossing a fine spray all around. “Everyone gather at the center!” With newcomers swelling their ranks, the assembly of humans around the pile of wood had to stand elbow to elbow to fit into a single circle. The dragons provided another “Sahara” treatment, creating warm, swirling breezes within the sword’s protective dome.

Hartanna then relit the wood, and after a few minutes, every camper rested on dry ground. Crackling flames leaped from the midst of the fire and coated their bodies with toasty heat.

With his companions warm and safe, Billy finally felt the freedom to rest his mind. His body, however, was another story. Having to constantly wave the sword kept his hands and wrists aching. Still, even in the peace of this gathering of friends, his danger sensor kept prodding him. Something wasn’t quite right. He stared into the cloudy skies. Could the Watchers be prowling around, secretly spying on them? Did the other dragons feel the danger? Maybe since they were able to defend against the Watchers, they weren’t very concerned. And what about oxygen? Could it pass through the shield? If not, would there be enough fresh air to sustain the group?

Walter tapped Billy’s shoulder. “Take a break, and let me be the human umbrella for a while.”

“You want to use Excalibur?”

“Sure.” Walter shrugged. “Why not?”

“You’ve never summoned the beam before.”

“I wouldn’t have to,” Walter said, pointing at Excalibur. “It’s already blazing. Didn’t you tell me it kept working when you put it in my hands back at the cave?”

Billy wanted to hand over the job, but if Walter failed, everyone would get drenched in seconds, and the dragons would have to turn on their drying jets again. Still, his arms really ached. “Yeah,” he admitted. “I guess it did.”

Walter reached for the sword. “Then don’t hog the fun. Let me take over.”

Billy passed the hilt to Walter. As he relaxed his grip, the beam dimmed for a moment, but when Walter fastened his fingers around the ornate handle, the shaft of energy flashed back to life. Walter raised the sword high, waving it with gusto. Deepening his voice, he mimicked a TV announcer. “And if you call right now, we’ll throw in a ridiculously dangerous lightsaber. It slices, it dices, it even doubles as a demon-repelling umbrella.”

Laughter echoed all around, but Sir Patrick sat stoically on a rotting log and studied Walter with steely eyes, his haggard face resting in one hand. As Walter continued his antics, Billy stepped over to the log and pointed at the space next to Patrick. “Is this spot taken?”

Patrick slid over a few inches to make room. “Be my guest. It’s damp, but serviceable.”

Billy sat and rested his arms on his thighs. “It looked like you were in outer space. You trying to come up with a plan?”

“I have been formulating a concoction of ideas,” Patrick said, picking at the log’s loose bark, “but what captured my attention was Walter’s ability with Excalibur. He is not a descendant of the king, nor of Merlin.”

A centipede crawled out of a hole in the log. Billy brushed it to the ground. “I got the impression from Professor Hamilton that all you needed was to have holy hands, or something like that. I figured that since Walter has a lot of faith, he must qualify.”

Sir Patrick let out a quiet, “Hmmmmm,” stroking his chin with long, slender fingers. “I think you and I should have a private chat with your professor. There are some important facts that I have not yet revealed to you, because it would not have served any purpose. For now, it is best that we keep our intelligence and our plans among the three of us.”

“You mean there’s someone here you don’t trust?” Billy held up his pendant. “This thing reveals if a Watcher is inside a person, and I secretly checked everyone. I feel like danger is somewhere close by, but with all the dragons around, the Watchers would be nuts to show their faces.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Patrick said, scanning the skies. “All the same, limiting the number of ears that listen to our discussion will also limit the number of lips that could tell of it.” He rose from the log and brushed off the seat of his pants. “Bring
Fama Regis
. I will fetch Charles, and the three of us will reconvene at this log.”

Billy shot to his feet, rolling the log back a quarter turn. “Sure thing.” He hustled to the fireside and grabbed his wadded jacket, unwrapping it just enough to pull out the ancient book. Its texture and weight felt good in his hands, a feeling of importance and reverence bundled in tactile leather. It also felt good to trust Sir Patrick now. Pulling his jacket from the book reminded Billy of how Sir Patrick had stripped off his protective cloak in the final circle of seven, showing his willingness to die for the sake of others.

“Billy!”

It was Carl Foley. Now warm and dry in a gray Oxford-logo sweatshirt with rolled-up sleeves and dark blue denim jeans, he poked a long, thick branch at the embers on the edge of the fire. “I have a lot of news,” he said, his beefy arms shaking as he stirred the fire. “I think we should have a powwow and exchange notes.”

Billy glanced at Sir Patrick. Now standing next to the professor on the other side of the campfire, the elderly man half closed his eyes and nodded.

“Sure,” Billy replied. While the others gathered around, Billy waited for his mother and Professor Hamilton to sit next to Carl and Shelly before he chose a space between Walter and Bonnie. Walter kept the hilt of Excalibur in his lap, waving it with one hand, just enough to keep the umbrella alive.

Sir Patrick sat cross-legged next to Shiloh, and the knights stayed erect, their eyes alternately watching the group and the surrounding forest. The seven dragons encircled the company, Hartanna and Thigocia stretching their necks into the crowd, Hartanna’s head hovering near Bonnie, and Thigocia keeping close to Ashley and Karen.

Carl leaned forward. “First of all, are we in communication with Larry?”

Karen snapped the computer’s casing back in place. “I was letting it dry out. We’ll see in a few seconds.” She turned it on and spoke into its built-in microphone. “Larry? Are you still high and dry?”

“My elevation has not changed, but my humidity meter indicates increased moisture. It is possible that the roof has been breached and water is leaking in. I am taking the programmed countermeasures.”

Ashley bent over Karen’s lap. “Larry, you’ll find the mop and bucket in the hall closet.”

“Very funny, Ashley. I rank that as the best mop and bucket joke I’ve heard all day.”

Ashley giggled, seeming more happy and carefree than Billy had ever seen her. Walter winked at her, and she winked back.

“Okay,” Carl said. “Let’s get down to business.”

Shelly tugged his sweatshirt. “But where’s Mom?”

“She’s watching Pebbles. I checked them into a suite at the Comfort Inn near Cumberland because of the media frenzy.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out something, but he kept it cupped in his hand. “It was a good thing I did. My house and my office both got ransacked, I mean, really gutted. Someone was desperate to find something, and I think I know what.”

Walter snapped his fingers and pointed at his dad. “The candlestone.”

“Exactly.” Carl spread out his palm, revealing a golf ball-sized crystal, then quickly hid it again. “But since the Watchers were bound to be looking for it, I plucked it out of my safe to, uh, keep it safe.”

Walter beamed. “Cool bananas, Dad. Good thinking.”

Carl patted Professor Hamilton’s back. “It was Prof’s idea to secure the stone, not mine.”

Shelly reached out for her father’s hand. “Ooooh! I heard Walter’s stories about candlestones, but I’ve never seen one.” She spread her hands under her father’s. “Can I hold it?”

Carl pulled the gem back toward his chest. “Uh . . . Maybe I’d better hang onto it. We’re not protecting it for Devin’s sake, but he’s in the only body Billy’s father can use.”

Shelly flashed an injured puppy look. “Don’t you trust me with it?”

Carl’s eyes darted around the group. “Should I? You go off in a car with a stranger at the airport without even checking with me. How hard would it have been to give me a call?”

Shelly’s hands balled into fists, her teeth set on edge. “If you’d quit smothering me like an old blanket, maybe I’d think about it next time.”

Carl stared at her in silence, his fingers still wrapped around the stone.

Billy’s danger sensation grew. He tried to read the expressions around the campfire, but they all seemed uneasy about the family squabble rather than any imminent danger. One of the dragons let out a disapproving grunt. Shiloh took Sir Patrick’s hand and held it against her cheek, gazing at him with sad eyes. Patrick patted Shiloh’s knee, but his eyes were locked on Shelly, a deep scowl etched across his face.

Carl sighed and nodded. “Okay. For a minute.” He slipped it into her hands. “But keep it covered. It’s like Kryptonite to Billy and Bonnie and the dragons.”

Shelly turned her back to the others and gazed into her cupped hands. The professor watched her for a moment, then stood, slid his hands into his pockets, and began walking around in the center of their huddle. “My idea,” he began, his head tilted downward, “is that the Watchers need a dragon on their side to counter ours. It only makes sense that they want to get Devin out of that jewel.” He stooped in front of Ashley. “I assume, Miss Stalworth, if they could duplicate your restoration dome, Devin would come out still in the form of a dragon?”

Ashley propped her arms on her knees. “I suppose so. But what good would one dragon be against nine?”

Thigocia flicked her tail and thumped the ground. “He would likely divide and conquer,” she said. “He would try to isolate the females and pick us off one at a time.”

Bonnie shifted her foot away from Thigocia’s tail. “But he wouldn’t be able to defeat you, would he, Thigocia? Didn’t Sir Edmund say you’re one of the greatest war dragons or something like that?”

Edmund, who had squeezed between two dragons to draw close, squatted near Bonnie. “I said she was the second greatest I had ever seen.”

“Was Clefspeare the first?” Bonnie asked.

Sir Edmund let out a long sigh. “Indeed, he was.”

Bonnie’s wings fanned out slightly. “Who rode Clefspeare in your battles?”

Edmund stood and crossed his arms. “No one. He always refused to take a rider. He was the only dragon I have ever seen who could work well in a battle unit without a rider, and his heroism under fire is legendary.”

Thigocia let out a throaty chirp. “He saved my life at least three times.”

“And mine, twice,” another dragon chimed in.

Hartanna snorted, sending a burst of flame into the campfire. The blaze erupted six feet high before settling down again, its cracks and pops echoing in the dome. “Self-sacrifice is the most honorable of attributes,” she said in a low rumble. “Clefspeare’s chivalry was unquestioned.”

Billy glanced at his mother’s reddening face. It was time to change the subject. He smacked his palm with his fist. “The solution is simple. We just don’t let them get their hands on the candlestone.” He watched while Shelly deposited the gem back in Carl’s hands. “And, besides,” Billy continued, “it’s not just the body that goes into battle; it’s also the mind. There’s no way Devin could do what the real Clefspeare could do. He doesn’t have the experience.”

The professor began walking again. “Good point, William, and on that note, we’ll move on in our discussion—how to locate your father’s spirit.”

Sir Patrick raised a finger. “May I interrupt, Charles?”

The professor paused, his eyes sparkling in the light of the fire. Patrick braced his hand on one knee and rose slowly to his feet. “I think the key to the mystery,” he said, straightening his back, “lies in
Fama Regis
and its ancient runes, so we must use the Great Key to decipher its contents.” He walked over to Billy and stared down at him, his protruding brow shadowing his eyes. “Have you discovered how to use the key, young Arthur?”

Billy caressed the ancient leather cover. “I think so, but it’s not real fast at translating.” He raised
Fama Regis
toward Sir Patrick. “I was thinking maybe you’d be able to read it since you lived back then.”

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