“Ugh,” Boston sounded frustrated. “We are getting closer, but it is so slow. It is almost like Talia is moving away from us.”
“Thalia,” Mingus said.
“Thalia-Anath,” Lincoln corrected him, and Alexis smiled for her husband.
“Oh, yes,” Katie said, meaning to be helpful. “The north end of the mountains, I would guess. Not far from the Caspian Sea.”
“Lincoln?” Lockhart looked at Katie and frowned. She missed the whole point of his interrupting the others.
“Yes,” Lincoln confirmed. “This is not Syria. The mountains are too high.”
“If we have caught her in the middle of her quest for the amulet of peace and prosperity, we may be headed for trouble,” Mingus said.
“The Kairos? Trouble?” Lockhart joked and at least Katie laughed.
“But that is the trouble,” Boston shouted. “We can’t catch her anywhere if she won’t keep still.”
Lincoln had to add something, just to be contrary. “On the other hand, if we were in Syria, we would probably in the middle of a war. Take your pick.”
Lockhart frowned at everyone as they came to the edge of the woods. They came to a grassland that appeared to stretch all of the way to the distant hills. “The way looks good up ahead. Time to ride.” At least when the group rode, only the two side by side could talk. They mounted, even as Decker rode in from the flank, and Elder Stow joined them on the other side.
“Dragon,” Decker said, and Elder Stow pointed.
“Damn,” Lincoln looked all around the sky.
“The rocks?” Katie suggested.
“Back to the rock outcropping,” Lockhart shouted. “Tie the horses under the trees as near to the rocks as possible.” People turned around.
“I see it.” Lincoln pointed to a dot in the sky. No one doubted that the dot would get very big, very quickly.
“Decker. Elder Stow. Up in the trees. Protect the horses.” Lockhart gave instructions as they tied the horses to whatever low hanging branch they could find. “Lincoln, stay with the horses to cut them loose if things get too hot. Alexis, Mingus and Boston up on the rocks. Think of something. Katie, with me. We need to protect the magic makers.”
The dragon came in high, breathing fire that licked the tree tops. Everyone heard Elder Stow’s sonic device. Boston and Mingus covered their ears at the sound, while the air around the dragon waffled. It lost its stability and had to work hard to keep from crashing to the ground.
Decker and Katie opened up with their rifles, firing three-shot bursts. The dragon’s natural armor repelled most of the bullets, but there were some softer spots where bullets struck home. The rest of the bullets spanked and bruised the beast.
Alexis fired two arrows, empowered by both Mingus and Boston. One exploded by the dragon’s belly, and the other blew up against the wing, no doubt straining the muscles there. Lockhart stood, close as the dragon was. He shot buckshot into the dragon’s face and neck, and ducked as the dragon let out a short burst of flame.
The dragon rose up to get out of range. It circled the travelers once from overhead before it headed off back into the sky.
“I would say it lost interest,” Lockhart decided. “There must be easier prey out there.”
“They are smart,” Mingus countered. “They are perfectly capable of setting up an ambush.”
“We need to get out of the trees,” Lincoln said, as they untied their horses and walked them back to the wide open ground at the edge of the woods.
When they got to the edge of the forest, they got ready to ride, but Decker pointed and made them pause.
“We have company up ahead,” Decker reported.
Elder Stow quickly checked his scanner. “I’m picking up nothing. There are carbon traces, but I get no life forms.”
“We go look,” Lockhart said. It was an easy decision as they rode across a flat, open field. There were no trees, and the next set of rocks for hiding were much further on.
“Not good,” Katie managed to say before they started out. She was feeling uncomfortable about what might be in the distance, and Lockhart understood her elect instincts were acting up. Katie, Mingus and Boston actually pulled up first, though the others were not far behind.
“Dead people,” Boston called them, being able to see them clearly with her elf eyes.
Twenty skeletons blocked the way and started toward them when they stopped. Decker and Elder Stow came in from the flanks where a dozen more blocked each side. Lockhart was prepared to tell everyone to turn around, but Boston screamed once because they were behind as well. They rode into the middle of the trap.
Decker just looked at his rifle. What good was shooting a skeleton? Elder Stow tried his sonic device. The ones out front shook, but did not collapse. They kept coming, and the ones to their sides began to fire arrows, though they were still out of range.
“Forward,” Lockhart said. The ones there were closest, even with the temporary shaking.
“Alexis,” Mingus commanded her attention. Mingus and Boston gave the reigns of their horses to Lockhart and Katie. Lincoln took Alexis’ horse with his own, while Alexis went to join her family.
Boston put her hand on Mingus’ shoulder as Alexis took her hand. With three magics combined, Mingus started to throw out fireballs that exploded on contact. Bones went everywhere, and the group began to move forward at a good walking pace before the ones on the sides and at their back got close enough to make their arrows effective.
“We need to hurry.” Lincoln judged the tightening circle of skeletons.
“Boston. We need your flamethrower,” Mingus said, and he touched her shoulder. Alexis let go of Boston’s hand and touched her other shoulder. Boston got out her wand. The skeletons in front appeared to have enough self-awareness to understand it was pointless to get too close to the fire—or maybe it was the one pulling the strings. The exploding fireballs were devastating, but the flamethrower was unrelenting. With skeletons burning in front, people quickly mounted and rode the gauntlet. They made it past the burning bones without an arrow strike and almost celebrated before another two-dozen rose up again to their front. Some of them still had vestiges of flesh clinging to their bones.
“We must have stumbled into a graveyard,” Katie shouted. She felt helpless. For all her strength and fighting skill as an elect, she felt stymied. Her rifle and sidearm were useless. She might chop her way through with her Patton saber, but there were so many of them. She would probably collapse from exhaustion before she got everyone clear.
A strong light came from the edge of the group of travelers. Elder Stow had his weapon out. The skeletons in front of the group went to dust under the blast of Elder Stow’s hand weapon.
“I don’t know what I was saving this for,” Elder Stow said as the travelers began to ride to try and get beyond the reach of the fifty or so skeletons now coming up behind them. They came to a small rise in the field, and halted at the top of that rise. Down below, there were two or three hundred skeletons rising from their graves.
“Mingus, Boston and Alexis up front,” Lockhart said. “Elder Stow, let’s try to get the ones at our rear. Katie, Decker and Lincoln, Patton sabers.” They stood around the horses like people prepared to face the inevitable.
Something whistled in the wind.
“What is that sound?” Boston asked first, and Mingus looked up and all around. Something flew overhead, something invisible, though they felt the breeze, and they saw the skeletons behind get swallowed in a ball of flame a hundred times bigger and stronger than Mingus, Boston and Alexis could produce, even with every ounce of their combined magic.
“Dragon,” Katie guessed.
“Invisible dragon,” Lockhart did not disagree, though the thought was frightening.
“They are collapsing again,” Alexis reported from the front, and everyone watched as several hundred dead went back to being dead. All the same, they saw the dragon flame spray all across the field in front of them before the dragon became visible—the most enormous dragon they had ever seen. But it was one they had seen before, and they saw it quickly shrink as it came close. When it was no bigger than a person, it took the shape of a person, and Boston had to shout.
“Boston,” Nuwa responded with a smile, and open arms.
“Thank you for saving us.” Boston accepted the hug.
“It was nothing, literally. As soon as I showed up, the sorcerer withdrew in an attempt to hide. I am sure he has more tricks, but I hope he will keep them to himself as long as I am here. Shall we go find Thalia?”
“You ride with me,” Kartie said quickly.
“Oh man, speedy girl,” Boston complained. “I was going to ask her.”
“Which way?” Lockhart took Boston’s attention, and she pulled out her amulet. Boston pointed and Nuwa shook her head.
“That is a rough road; not one for horses. I know a shortcut.”
“Shortcut?” Lincoln asked.
“I do make roads for a living.” Nuwa smiled.