Read Dragon hunted Online

Authors: JB McDonald

Dragon hunted

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Dragon Hunted

JB McDonald

With many thanks to Quin, who rubs my back, deals with my wailing about edits, and, best of all, doesn't mind the other woman in my life. And to the other woman in my life, who is the best hand-holding editor a writer could ask for!

"Hey, Katsu. I need a wrap."

The moment when Katsu noticed the blood seeping from between Ashe's fingers, which were clamped tightly around Ashe's left hand, was obvious. Katsu's dark eyes bugged out and his own broad, human hands tensed in alarm. "What the nine hells did youdo?"

Ashe loved it when Katsu said something particularly human like that. He crooked a grin, tipping his head to see past long strands of pale brown hair. "I was showing Eddie--"

"She hates it when you call her that." Already Katsu was snatching up lengths of bandage and pots of salve. The little shelves built into the medic wagon shook with the force of his grabs.

Ashe continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "--some knife tricks I know--"

Katsu stopped, glaring up at him. "What iswrongwith you? I should have known this was self-inflicted. Only an elf would do something thisidiotic..."

Ashe frowned. "I'm trying to tell you what's wrong with me, and it doesn't have to do with my race." As expected, Katsu just leveled a flat, unimpressed glare at him again. Ashe grinned broadly, showing off the slightly pointed canines that matched his delicately pointed ears. "It was great, right up until I missed."

Katsu slapped Ashe's good hand away, then grabbed the injured one and lifted it to peer down, pulling Ashe into a sun patch to see better. It gave Ashe a moment to admire the way light played on Katsu's gold skin and ran down his silky black hair. Katsu was smaller than most of the other humans in their crew, and definitely shorter than Ashe. Ashe found him utterly charming. "We're hunting dragons here." Even his acerbic tone.

"Adragon," Ashe corrected.

"They don't need your help in slicing you to pieces." Katsu twisted Ashe's slender hand this way and that, wiping at the blood with a rag, pulling at the cut.

The wound was small but livid against Ashe's pale skin.

Ashe winced and tried not to resist. The medic only got worse if he thought you were thwarting him. "Dragons don't slice," Ashe muttered, pain washing away any good cheer. "They chomp."

With a grunt, Katsu dropped Ashe's hand and unscrewed a cap from a jar. "They especially like chomping idiots." He dipped two fingers in the salve -- a disturbing blood color -- and smeared it across the cut before wrapping it tightly. His movements were quick, economical, as if he'd done this a million times before -- which, of course, he had. "Try not to use it for a few hours while it binds. And if youmustuse it, don't come whining to me." With a sour look, he shoved Ashe's hand back and turned away, muttering under his breath.

Ashe hesitated, watching the graceful way Katsu's muscles, exposed by his short-sleeved tunic and the odd lengths of cloth wrapped around his forearms, moved. But Katsu had already dismissed him, and the stinging in his hand was getting worse. Ashe frowned and examined it, turning away. He glanced back once, trying to think of something to say, but the look on the human's face wasn't encouraging. Plus, Ashe's hand was really starting to hurt.

Carrying his hand cradled gingerly against his chest, Ashe threaded his way through pitched tents and mercenaries, around bladed weapons and pointed spears, back to the banked campfire. Come nightfall, they'd be ready to slay a dragon. Come daybreak, they'd be ready to collect their reward.

He swung a leg over the fallen log that Eddie was using as a bench, straddling it and sitting carefully. "I don't think he likes me." Ashe didn't have to say who "he" was.

Eddie didn't look up from oiling her bow. "Of course he doesn't. You're always pestering him for stupid things and hurting yourself in stupid ways. A medic has better use for his time than patching your sorry ass up."

The top of her head wasn't particularly responsive, but Ashe stuck his tongue out at it anyway. She didn't notice. He twisted, looking back through the campsite toward Katsu. Every so often he caught a glimpse of golden skin or rapidly moving hands. "He's interesting, isn't he?"

There was a pause, then Eddie said, "I suppose. You know humans and elves aren't particularly compatible, right?"

Ashe whipped around to look at her. The beads threaded through his light brown hair pattered against his spine. "What? Yes, they are."

Eddie shook her head. Red curls bobbed around her ears. "They're not. His thingy and your junk won't fit."

Once more Ashe turned to look. Katsu was lean and wiry for a human, with more than capable hands -- even if they did have five fingers -- that, Ashe had to admit, were perfect for fantasizing about. Ashe had done more than his fair share of that. "I think you're pulling my leg." But he couldn't quite help feeling just a little uncertain. Not that it really mattered -- there were different ways to enjoy each other.

"Nope. It's true. I don't think it'll work between the two of you."

Ashe glanced at Eddie, trying to see if she was just harassing him or if she was really serious. It was hard to tell with her, sometimes, and now she was keeping her head down, her hair a curtain, working on her bow.

Just when he was about to challenge her on it, a shadow fell over them, blocking out the watery sunshine of the little glade.

"What the nine hells did you do to your hand?"

Ashe flinched and looked up into the dark face of their captain. "I can explain."

One black eyebrow lifted.

Ashe looked at Eddie for help, but she was engrossed in oiling. He took a breath and said, "My knife slipped."

Eddie snorted.

For a long while, they were all quiet. Then Nate rubbed a dark-skinned hand over his eyes, looking pained. "I'm docking your share of the bounty."

"That seems fair," Ashe agreed, if a little forlornly.

Without another word, Nate turned and left the area.

Ashe stretched to see beyond Nate's broad back to the little, cleared area where Katsu was working. "You really don't think he likes me?"

"I really think you need to get laid," Eddie muttered.

Ashe nodded. "No argument here."

***

"Watch it watch it watch it -- it's coming around!" Ashe dropped out of the tree he'd been clinging to, hitting as many limbs as he caught while he fell toward the ground.

The initial plan, to surprise and kill the dragon when it was full of food and too lazy to move quickly, had failed. The secondary plan seemed to be, "Don't die." Ashe was generally pretty good at plans like those, especially with his superior eyesight, but his hand wasn't at full working capacity yet, and the dragon's path wasn't the best place to sit.

He hit the ground, bending his knees to absorb the shock, and flung himself forward. "Be the look-out and stay out of harm's way, my ass. Next time Nate suggests something like that--" Ashe scrambled to one side as the dragon came crashing closer, "--I'm going to spit in his coffee." He ducked behind a giant old oak, realized the dragon could probably pull it up without trying, and kept running.

He could only be glad that the dragon was too enraged to notice one scrawny elf, trying to get out of the way in the dark. He dove under a bush, feeling the ground scrape against his leg, and curled as small as possible. The dragon went crashing past him, sliding between and around the trees as if it were a giant centipede that just happened to have only four legs. Scales glittered wickedly in the moonlight, there for an instant before it seemed to blend with the darkness.

Ashe squinted, trying to track the animal's progress. Who had any idea dragons were sofast? He certainly hadn't known. It was bigger than they'd been led to believe, too; more like a gypsy wagon, and less like a horse. Damned townies. He hoped Nate charged them extra.

It vanished into the shadows long before it should have, dappled gray and black markings hiding it even from elven sight. Several minutes after it was gone, the first of the mercenaries started running by, following the clear trail the dragon had left. Ashe counted five of the fifteen others, and assumed the rest were attacking from different angles -- with a very loose definition of "attack."

Slowly, he pulled himself out from under the bush, wincing as thorns he hadn't noticed before caught at his clothes and in his hair. His hand throbbed, despite the miraculous healing their medic had done. Ashe didn't know what was in those salves, but they worked wonders.

Dragging his aching bones upright, Ashe groaned as pain rushed up his knee. He wasn't old, but even young was sometimes too old for this job. Every sheathed knife on his person -- and there were a lot of them -- had seemingly dug into his skin, leaving bruises in their wake. He limped away from the bush, glancing around, trying to get his bearings. The dragon had gone back toward camp, but there was no one there for it to eat. That, at least, was a small blessing. Ashe offered up a prayer to Moran, the god of the forest, and hobbled toward camp. Leaping from a treetop hadn't been the brightest of ideas, though as he passed the tree he'd been in, he saw it looked more like kindling than a plant. So leaping had been a better idea than staying put, but that didn't make it agoodidea.

The forest, now that the dragon had passed by, was silent. All the animals hid, smart enough to avoid both dragons and people. Nothing rustled, no owls hooted. Ashe did his best to follow suit, treading lightly even as he limped.

Something snapped. Ashe froze mid-step.

"You look like a deer."

He whipped around, yanking a knife free before he even realized the voice was just Katsu. He grinned and tucked the blade away. "Katsu! I didn't think anyone was around here!"

"What, you thought I'd leave everyone to get gored by a dragon on their own? What's the point in having a medic?" Katsu tromped through the forest, heedless of breaking branches or snapping twigs. It was almost like he was daring the dragon to come back and eat him -- and Ashe doubted even a dragon had those kind of guts. Katsu'd probably give it indigestion.

Ashe fell in beside Katsu, relieved to have company, glad it was the medic. Somehow, things seemed better with Katsu around. "Do dragons gore people? I don't think they have horns to gore with." Ashe squawked as Katsu slapped the back of his head, sending him stumbling forward. He caught his balance, rubbing his skull. "Bad medic."

Katsu snorted. "Bad medic? Bad elf. Shouldn't you be up with the others trying to kill yourself? Or do you save that for your off time?"

Ashe fell back into step with Katsu. "I save that for my off time. How else am I going to get to see you?"

Katsu gave him a sharp look, but kept walking.

"And if I don't get to see you," Ashe put his hand to his chest, faking heartbreak, "my day would just never be bright."

"I hate elves," Katsu muttered. "You're all drama queens."

Ashe grinned but dropped his hand. "Is there anything youdolike, Katsu?"

"Peace."

"I hate peas. They look like marsh griffin spawn. Have you seen a marsh griffin?"

Katsu gave him a disgusted look.

"They're about this big," Ashe held his hands a foot apart, "and they eat bugs."

Katsu kept walking.

"When they spawn, they squeeze out these nasty, ooze-coated egg things. The male--"

Katsu slapped the back of his hand into Ashe's chest, stopping them both. "Do you hear that?"

Ashe listened. Something growled. Slowly, carefully, he looked around the forest. It took two sweeps before he realized that he wasn't seeing fireflies, but rather the moon reflected off a scaled hide. He traced it with his gaze, up to a finely wrought head with a strong jaw.

This dragon wasn't as big as the last. More like a horse than a wagon. But it was looking right at them.

"Moran's teats," Ashe whispered.

"Is that bad?" From the corner of Ashe's eye, he could see Katsu looking around, the human's vision not quite spotting the dragon.

Ashe nodded slowly. "Start backing up. We need to find cover." They took a step backward, and the dragon's head lowered. A split tongue flickered out of its mouth, tasting the air.

"There was a ravine to the right," Katsu murmured. "Thought I saw some caves."

"Go."

Katsu bolted. Twigs and dry leaves underfoot turned Katsu's run into a clear trail. The dragon didn't move. Ashe waited, watching the dragon as it watched Katsu. He drew his knife once more, even though he knew it would do precious little against a dragon. It might dosomething.

The dragon's gaze flicked toward him for just an instant, as if aware he might be a threat. Then the creature moved. Like oil across water, it slid through the forest lightning fast, twisting around trees as if they were nothing. Ashe leaped for it, knowing he was too slow. Far too slow, even as he pushed through possibilities and drove his muscles harder, calling on the magic in his blood to aid him.

It wasn't enough. He'd waited too long.

The dragon surged toward Katsu in a sinuous wave of muscle. Ashe yelled. Katsu dropped. The dragon twisted to catch its prey but overshot. Katsu shoved upward, leaping sideways between the trees.

Ashe flung himself after the dragon, catching it as it doubled back to chase down Katsu. Ashe hit it full force, slamming into a lithe shoulder knife-first. His blade scored across its scales, drawing a thin line of blood. The dragon twisted to snap at him and Ashe fell away, off balance. It lunged after Katsu again. Ashe scrambled to his feet, slamming his knife down as the dragon's tail whipped past.

Somehow, he managed to hit it. The dragon screamed, a noise like a thousand wolves dying, and whipped around. Its mouth gaped, rows of crooked, serrated teeth coming for Ashe behind a wave of rotten breath.

Ashe shoved the blade deeper into flesh. The dragon screamed again, knocking him off his feet rather than chomping into his torso. He scrambled away while it snapped at the knife.

Katsu continued to run, glancing back over his shoulder. Ashe met his gaze, silently encouraging him onward. As if understanding it, Katsu turned and put more energy into his escape.

The limited magic Ashe could call on was already waning. He scraped up the rest of it, feeling the channels through his body protest like raw nerves. Rarely did he use his birthright; now it was like clawing nails through his guts, spearing blood into his tissue. But it worked.

He sped up, catching Katsu and dragging the human even faster. Behind them, the dragon chased again, the bracken snapping as it moved. Ashe let go of Katsu, vaulting up into a tree. He grabbed the lowest branch and swung higher, over one branch to land on a third, snatching another knife before his feet settled. Elven sight gave him a clear enough view; he dropped, plummeting down to land feet-first on the dragon's thick neck.

Stabbing it mostly annoyed it. He could feel the blade bite into scales. Feel most of the force slide off the tough hide. The dragon bucked and twisted. Ashe leaped off, hit the ground, and rolled. Thorns caught in his clothes and hair, opening his skin in bloody strips. He ignored them, using the dregs of magic he'd summoned to rise, move,runbefore the dragon came after him.

Ahead lay the ravine. Katsu vanished into it and Ashe went after him, ducking around every tree he could find in the hopes it would slow the dragon. The creature hissed, voice growing into a guttural snarl. He could smell decay on its breath and feel moist heat on his neck--

And then the ravine was there, and Katsu reached for him. Ashe grabbed Katsu's hand, swinging around and into a small hole in the side of the cliff face. It wasn't tall; he dropped and Katsu heaved, dragging him in headfirst. He heard a crack as teeth snapped shut behind him. He flung himself deeper into the hole while the ground trembled, the dragon clawing at the opening.

He hit the back of the cave and stopped, drowning in darkness. Every breath tasted of the grit and rot from the dragon's mouth and was thick with panic.

"Get back," Katsu said, shoving into him, trying to get farther away from the opening.

"Back where? There is no back!" Ashe yelled. He grabbed another knife out of his boot and stabbed at the dragon's claws, but the blade only annoyed the predator.

The hole grew slowly wider. The dragon stuffed its nose inside. Ashe stabbed at its muzzle. It drew back with a screech.

"Do that again!" Katsu yelled, pointing at the beast as it circled and came back at them.

He shifted his grip, agony fighting through the haze of magic and his adrenaline-induced high. Ashe trembled. His muscles screamed, the magical pathways burning him up from the inside out. He grabbed for more anyway and stabbed at the dragon.

The dragon vanished.

Ashe and Katsu sat in the dark, waiting for it to come back. Outside, they could see only shadows on top of shadows. The dragon growled softly.

Time stretched, thick and sticky. Spots flared in Ashe's vision, and he willed himself to be all right. Seconds were counted off by two pounding hearts, minutes by the harsh ricochet of breath.

"Now what?" Ashe asked when nothing happened.

"I don't know."

The last shreds of magic fizzled and died. Nausea rose up, pain crashed in. For a moment, the world lurched and twisted. Fireworks exploded behind his lids. He wobbled and sank against the wall of the tiny cave.

Maybe it was gone. Maybe the dragon had left them alone. "I'll go see," Ashe mumbled. His tongue felt thick, his lips numb. He crawled toward the opening, and Katsu grabbed him.

"Youidiot. It's still out there. Can't you smell it?"

He could, once Katsu mentioned it. Ashe felt his cheeks heat and sank back once more.

"What's wrong with you?"

It took less brainpower to be a smartass than to think about the question. He mumbled, "Want a list?"

It didn't get the whack he'd come to expect from Katsu. Instead, blunt fingers probed his neck, checking his pulse, and a hand paused in front of his mouth, checking his breathing. He tried to think healthy thoughts even as the shadows darkened to blackness around him and his fingers and toes lost all sensation.

When Katsu asked again, the question was slower and solemn. "What's wrong with you?"

Ashe let his head fall back against the cave. The thump as it struck felt muffled and huge all at once. "Too much magic. I don't think you can fix it."

There was a beat of silence. Silence, Ashe found, was far more worrying than acerbic comments. Ashe wished for them back.

"You're an idiot."

He relaxed.

"First off, using something that could kill you isn't the way to be a hero. Second off, ofcourseI can help. Moron."

Ashe couldn't see anymore, but he could hear the rustle of clothes and sense the movement beside him. "I don't think that'll help," he offered. "It's not that I'm not willing, but I'm not sure I reallycanright now..."

"Not everything is about sex."

Ashe snorted, then wished he hadn't as the world rocked underneath him and his lungs threatened to give up. He searched for something, anything, less frightening than feeling his body shut down. "Oh, the things I could teach you..."

"Would you please just focus on breathing?"

It was too hard to argue. He tipped his head back again to open his airway, listening to his own gasping breath echo in the tiny space. Outside, the dragon's breathing seemed to mock him: slow and easy.

It had been entirely too long since he'd channeled magic for anything more than parlor tricks. Fire ate at him, burning his bones and muscles. It wasn't unheard of for one of the Keela Empire to die from channeling, untrained and unpracticed. He'd been trained, but he sure as Katsu's nine hells wasn't practiced. Stupid, to try that. He couldn't feel his arms anymore.

"What are you?"

The question only got past the pain haze because of how determinedly it was asked. Hands pulled at his ripped and filthy vest, unlacing it.

It still took him a moment to puzzle out the meaning. He was an elf; Katsu knew that. Then reason battered sense into him, and he realized the medic wanted his empire name. "Keela."

"Figures. Never saw a bunch of elves who were so over-sexed." Cool hands pulled him close, dragging him between Katsu's legs. Protesting seemed too hard. Breathing seemed too hard. His head fell forward, air came with difficulty, and he didn't care. Each scrape throbbed, a pulse point overshadowing all the other agony happening under his skin. Stupid to push himself. He hadn't meant to.

Katsu's bare chest pressed against his back, a big hand tipping his head until it rested on a broad shoulder. "Open your mouth."

He did, but mostly because Katsu pried it open.

"Bite down, anddon'tspit it out."

Katsu pushed his jaw closed, and something so bitter it nearly triggered his gag reflex burst through his mouth. He nearly spit it back out, but couldn't. Katsu planted another hand on his spine and shoved him forward.

"Keep it in your mouth. I know it tastes awful, but it'll help stabilize your chakra. Hang on. This'll hurt."

Something sharp cut into his skin. It hurt, but nowhere near as badly as the rest of him did; he couldn't bring himself to do more than flinch as Katsu drew lines in his flesh.

"Lean back." Katsu grabbed him and pulled, and Ashe found himself once more leaning against Katsu's chest. This time, though, he could feel Katsu's heartbeat pounding against him, binding to his own and forcing it to slow. His lungs burned as they followed Katsu's, dragged into taking deeper, slower breaths even though the magic that had ransacked him made them want to tighten down and stop moving.

It hurt.

He groaned against the leaves in his mouth, clenched between his teeth, and tried to arch away. Katsu kept him there, wrapping legs around Ashe's waist and arms around his chest. Katsu's touch was hot, spreading a whole new type of fire across his skin. He broke out in a sweat, still pulling instinctively away but unable to gain any distance. Muscles strained as Ashe fought the urge to escape and Katsu kept him near.

He was dying. His own burned-out magic couldn't support him, and Katsu's magic was incinerating him, grabbing hold of his organs and twisting them to do what Katsu said. Ashe whimpered. It keened into a whine, and finally a scream through clenched teeth. Sweat dripped down his neck and into his eyes. His body struggled to shut down, working against Katsu. It was too much. He tried to pull away and couldn't. He wrenched sideways, but it didn't work. His feet scrabbled against the cave floor, his hands scratching at the earth.

The dragon snarled and lunged for the opening, head trying to push inside. Distantly, Ashe heard Katsu cursing. His vision was dark. Fireworks popped in his head and sizzled behind his chest, and he screamed again as his skin felt like it was melting off.

The dragon roared in frustration. Noise blasted through the cave. Dirt trickled down on them, each grain igniting its own inferno on Ashe. He twisted frantically. The dragon roared again, and in the darkness Ashe's world became light. He lost consciousness.

***

Everything hurt in the sort of way it hurt when he'd been drinking too much and his buddy, rather than stopping him, encouraged the bar-dancing, helped him brawl, and possibly tossed him down the stairs. Twice.

It was much better than it had been.

Ashe cracked a grime-encrusted eye, lashes resisting as they stuck together. Finally, though, he got that eye open and looked around.

Dirt. Murky sort of darkness. More dirt.

He licked his dry lips and debated how much he'd likely regret it if he tried to move. Finally deciding that moving was better than staying put, he braced one hand against the ground and pushed upward.

There was minimal world-swirling, and when it stabilized, everything came rushing back to him.

Light filtered through the opening to the cave, though it was still dim inside. When he looked toward the back of the cave he saw Katsu sprawled out between him and the wall, bare chest covered in writhing black tattoos and smeared blood. Ashe had never seen Katsu half naked before. His eyes traveled the swirls of ink, intricate and wildly beautiful, spilling over lean pectorals and a ribbed stomach.

Katsu slept, one tattooed arm over dark eyes, looking pale. His black trousers were coated in a fine patina of dust, little pools of it gathering in the folds of cloth.

Whatever Katsu'd done last night, he'd worn himself out. And saved Ashe's life.

Ashe twisted to look over his own shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of the lines Katsu had cut into him. They flared painfully, and something wet trickled down his ribs.

"Stop moving."

He froze, then looked back down. Katsu hadn't moved. Not even to open his eyes. His short black hair wasn't much cushion for his head. "How did you know I was moving?"

"You're awake, aren't you?" Finally, Katsu shifted his arm. There were dark circles under his eyes, which were bloodshot and puffy. "You're exhausting. Why do you get into so much trouble?" Katsu grimaced. "Why do Icare?"