Read Dragon hunted Online

Authors: JB McDonald

Dragon hunted (page 3)

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Katsu scrambled, his legs refusing to move right. "You can carry me, right?" he asked, head falling back. The words were slurred, his pupils shrunk to tiny dots.

"Good thing I can," Ashe grumbled, just before he bent down and heaved Katsu over one shoulder, injured hand spiking a protest. He nearly staggered under Katsu's weight, not expecting the heavier human mass. But then he had his balance and he ran, aiming for the forest.

It felt a bit anticlimactic, after he'd been running for several minutes with no dragon crashing along behind him. He focused on running faster, knowing the creature would wake soon.

Actually, he had no idea how "soon" that was. "How long--?" he panted, breaking down to a fast walk.

"Twen'y minu'es."

That seemed like forever, and yet no time at all. How far was the camp? Surely not more than twenty minutes. Maybe by the time the dragon woke, it'd just go toddling off on its own and give up trying to eat them.

That, he suspected, was wishful thinking.

Ashe picked back up to a trot, trying to leave as slim a trail as possible. He couldn't believe howheavyhumans were. And Katsu was a small one!

It seemed like they'd barely gotten anywhere when Katsu started to twitch. Ashe set him down, wrapping Katsu's arm over his shoulders and his own arm around Katsu's waist. There was no point in trying to hide their trail now; Katsu was still tripping and staggering, leaving a broad swath for any half-experienced tracker to follow, much less a natural-born predator.

"Does this mean the dragon will be waking up, too?" Ashe asked, nearly lifting Katsu over a fallen log.

"A few more minutes. He inhaled more smoke, but I have less mass."

A few more minutes. Suddenly, it didn't seem at all like they had time to escape. He dragged Katsu faster, determined to get back to camp before the dragon woke. Nate would kill him, but that was all right -- at least he'd be alive to kill. If they got there well ahead of the dragon, maybe they could even lay a trap for it...

Ashe hopped over a fallen tree, then was nearly pulled down as Katsu didn't make the same leap and almost crashed to the forest floor. "Come on," he grunted, heaving Katsu up. They tangled for a moment, four legs more like eight, one of Katsu's feet kicking between Ashe's knees.

Something roared.

They both froze.

"Nine hells," Katsu breathed.

"Shit," Ashe snapped. "Let's go!" He propelled Katsu forward, running now, thankful to see that adrenaline had done for Katsu what simply waiting couldn't. Katsu still couldn't run fast, and certainly not as fast as a light-footed elf, but he was finally moving.

The dragon roared again a moment later: rage and frustration. Definitely closer this time.

The forest thickened around them. The sun grew more distant. The whip end of branches slapped Ashe in the face, vines twisting his every step. Shadows reached out, hiding predators and prey alike, stretching talon-like darkness toward them.

Ashe realized he was speaking, his voice a constant murmur under the crash of their footsteps and the ragged panting of their breath. "Go, go, go -- faster--"

He could make out a shape behind them. A horse-sized shadow, moving without grace, slamming against one tree, sliding off its clawed feet, scrambling back up. Talons tore through the loam, dirt spattering up on the foliage. The forest thinned as they ran toward camp. It gave the dragon fewer obstacles. Allowed it greater speed.

"Go!" Ashe shoved Katsu, grabbing hold around the human's bicep.

Katsu grabbed him in return and shoved him forward, weakly. "You go. We've got to be close to camp.Get help."

It was stupid. It was risky. That dragon was going to eat them both. He bolted, leaping up over the vines, leaving Katsu behind. Had to go fast. Had tofly. He yanked for magic -- and acid burned under his skin. He screamed, fumbled for the ground, and shoved himself faster with his hands as dirt reached his fingertips.

No magic. He was still a husk. Just his own blood and muscles.

His feet hammered against the ground, chest bursting as he pushed himself faster. He gulped air and bellowed, "Dragon! There's a dragon after us! Get over here!"

One minute he was racing through the forest, and the next he'd burst into their campsite. He nearly fell in a fire, vaulting it at the last second and landing hard on the other side.

Eddie already had her bow nocked.

"It's after Katsu! Go!" Ashe yelled. People around him scrambled, snatching up weapons and racing back the way he'd come. He shoved upward and went with them, leading the way faster than they could track.

The dragon helped. Even barely out of the campsite, they could hear it. It crashed through the forest, half blinded by the daylight, still drugged. Ashe focused, trying to see through bushes and trees to spot Katsu. He saw the medic, sprawled out on the ground, rolling under a bush. The dragon skidded to a halt nearby and reared back. It roared and lunged.

Ashe was too far away. Too far away to do anything except watch as it eviscerated Katsu. And then an arrow appeared between its teeth, stone point buried in the roof of its mouth. The roar turned to a scream. It rocked back, and another arrow grazed its belly.

Eddie leapt forward, took a knee, and shot again. The next arrow went past the dragon, stringing a rope across the path in front of it.

"Hold strong!" Nate bellowed, and Ashe realized they were taking trapping positions. The dragon was going to eat Katsu, and they weretrappingit.

He flung himself into the mess, leaping more ropes even as they went whizzing by him, trusting that Eddie wouldn't hit what she hadn't aimed at. He hoped the other archers were aiming well away from him.

The dragon stunk of decay and smoke. It didn't even look at him as he flung himself over Katsu and dragged them both farther under the bush.

"Don't be an idiot!" Katsu snarled, curling into a ball and throwing his arms over his head. "You could get yourself killed doing things like this! And don't think I'm going to patch you up!"

Ashe yelled back, though his face was buried in Katsu's neck and he probably didn't need to shout. "Be grateful I came for you! Otherwise when it toppled, you'd be in the path!"

"Yeah, and now abushis going to protect us. I could have run if you'd given me the chance!"

"Run? You couldn't even stand!"

"I could--" Katsu fell silent.

Ashe froze. The rest of the world fell silent, too. The skin between his shoulder blades itched, waiting for a talon to drive into his heart. Carefully, he looked around.

The dragon was bound, jaws tied together, tail thrashing. Everyone else was either holding it down or watching them -- or, in Eddie's case, both.

"We spent all night looking for you," Nate drawled, leaning on a pike. "And when you return, you bring a dragon right into camp."

"Not quite into camp," Katsu muttered, shoving Ashe aside and sitting up. Ashe looked at him in surprise. Normally, Ashe was the one making wise-ass excuses.

He looked up at Nate, summoning a grin from somewhere inside. "Pretty well done, huh? I'm thinking we deserve double pay for saving the rest of the troop a hunt."

Nate nodded. "Sure thing. You can use it to pay everyone's wages for looking for you all night."

Ashe's smile twisted into a grimace.

"Nate?" Eddie called. "What should we do with the dragon?" She sat on its ribs, hanging onto the ropes that wrapped around its body. It thrashed, nearly unseating her, but she rode it out and put herself back in place as if it were no more concerning than driftwood on the ocean.

Nate smiled. "We're going to offer it to the townspeople."

"We already gave them one. What if they don't want it?" she asked.

Nate's smile turned broad and innocent, like the islanders Ashe knew Nate came from. "Then we'll turn it loose."

Eddie snorted.

"Before you do that," Katsu said quickly. "Do you mind if I find its lair? There might be something there of use." Katsu hesitated, then, without so much as looking at Ashe, added, "Ashe can go with me, so we're still in pairs."

Ashe did his best not to look surprised, and turned quickly to see Nate's expression.

Nate had better things to do than worry about the lair. He was already summoning people over, trying to figure out how to move a dragon. "Sure. If you aren't back by sunset, we're not going after you again."

Katsu frowned in annoyance. He seemed to think about something for a moment, then finally said, "It's under a partial paralytic now. It'll be stronger in a few minutes. Don't think that was its best fight."

Nate did look at him, then, black eyebrows rising toward his hairline. "Thanks for the tip. If you're still missing, we'll findyou." The glance he directed toward Ashe left no doubt who they wouldn't bother looking for.

Ashe smirked. It was all bluster; he'd been with this crew too long to think anything else. Nate might look ferocious, and dock his share of the bounty at a moment's notice, but Ashe was liked.

A sideways look gave him only Katsu's profile. Maybe he was liked by more important people, too.

***

It took them a few moments to grab their things. Katsu needed to stabilize and salve his ankle -- Ashe barely understood what magic was being done, just that something clearly made it better -- and then wanted sacks filled with leaves. Ashe figured now was a good chance to put on that tunic that framed his shoulders, and maybe pluck the sticks out of his hair. Eddie bumped into him as he headed out of the camp, hurrying to catch up to Katsu. "Non-compatible," she murmured.

Ashe whipped around to look at her, but she'd already moved on. The wench. No wonder she'd joined a mercenary group; she really wasn't a lady. Heck, sometimes he doubted she was actuallyfemale. What sort of woman would talk about a human's bits?

That sort of woman.

He looked at Katsu's retreating figure with curiosity and wondered if what Eddie said was right. It didn't matter. It really didn't. There were other ways to enjoy each other -- ways most men used, if they were interested in men at all. Obviously, Eddie's education about male sex was sadly lacking. Maybe he'd try to inform her later, just to see if he could get her to blush--

"You coming?" Katsu stared at him over one lean, muscular shoulder. Ashe hurried to catch up.

They walked in silence. It grated on Ashe, but he was almost afraid to start a conversation. Katsu had asked him along -- in that odd, backwards way -- for a reason. It might be that Katsu wanted to berate Ashe in private for, well, almost anything. Ashe had never known the medic to keep something like that private, though, which made him hope -- hope that there was any other reason. Maybe anicereason. Maybe something having to do with him being halfway decent. When you lived with no one but men (and Eddie, who was just one of the guys) long enough, they started to look good even if you'd never been interested before. Maybe--

"You weren't completely incompetent out there."

They weren't the warm words he'd been hoping for, but he'd take it. "That's practically a glowing review, from you."

Katsu snorted, and Ashe caught the edge of a smile in the curve of Katsu's cheek. "Practically." Ashe guessed that was as close to agreement as he'd get.

Cautiously, he tried his own. "You weren't bad yourself. You were right. I don't think I'd have been able to stay so still under the dragon." Just the thought gave him chills.

Katsu shrugged, looking uncomfortable. He shifted the bags he'd brought along, re-settling them on his shoulder. Then he shifted them again and stuffed his thumbs in his belt. "I knew that the dragon wouldn't see me as long as I was still. It'd be too busy figuring out the smoke. Movement would have attracted its attention, but as long as I stayed there..."

"It was a good plan." Ashe thought about it for a minute more, then added, "It scared the snot out of me, but it was a good plan." Just remembering made him feel a little ill. He stopped, catching Katsu's arm. "Don't do things like that again, all right?"

Katsu looked at him, dark eyes searching his face. Ashe wasn't sure what Katsu was looking for, or if there was even a way to express it, so he simply waited and hoped. "You shouldn't get in so much trouble," Katsu said at last, solemnly. "Do such idiot things. One of these days, you're going to sever a finger or start to bleed out and I won't be there, and then what will you do?"

Ashe smiled slowly. Warmth unfurled in his stomach, goosebumps rising on his arms. They began walking again, strides long and easy. "I wouldn't do that. I only hurt myself when you're around. It's no fun to get hurt if you aren't there to fuss over me."

"Fuss over you!" Katsu squawked. "I don't fuss--"

"You do. In your own special Katsu-way."

Katsu fell silent. Eyes the color of agate narrowed and stared at him as they walked. "I'm going to start treating your cuts and scratches with alcohol."

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