Twist glanced around his hotel room as he stuffed the last of his socks into his travel bag. He didn’t seem to have forgotten anything. He looked to the doorway to find that the tall, thin, dark-skinned man barely fit under the doorframe as he leaned casually against it. Before his face he was holding out a long-fingered hand—like a huge jungle spider at the end of his sleeve—and idly watched as a gently glowing firefly danced over his palm. The firefly suddenly vanished into a tiny flash of light. Startled, Twist looked up at the man’s face and found his red eyes already staring back over a smile.
“Sorry,” Twist said instantly, looking away. “I didn’t mean to stare.”
“Are you nearly done?” the stranger asked lightly.
“What’s the hurry?” Jonas asked back from across the room, stuffing a shirt into his own bag.
“If you keep stalling, we’ll miss the tide,” the stranger said.
“The tide?” Twist asked. “You’re not going to just…you know, whisk us away with magic and make the world forget us?” The thought of letting this powerful, human-shaped dragon lay a hand on him made his stomach turn uncomfortably.
“No, I’m not,” the stranger said. “My brothers aren’t entirely sure that they want the world to forget you. They might want to make an example of you instead, in front of your people, to deter any future rebellion.”
Twist felt fear ripple coldly up his spine.
Jonas stopped packing and turned to face the stranger, his eyes on the man’s feet. “You know, this is a Rook hotel. They expect us to be here. If we vanish, even if we just walk out the door without saying anything, they’re going to come looking for us.”
Twist nodded, happy with his friend’s logic. After everything that had already happened with the dragons, Aden probably would send out a search party if he and Jonas went missing now. The idea that his own whereabouts could stir action in such a huge network of people sent a tiny light of pride aflame in his heart. The silent knowledge that Myra had run for Skye the moment they had parted to pack also gave Twist comfort.
“Where we’re headed,” the stranger said calmly, “there is no way for humanity to follow unaided. Let them look all they like. The little magpies won’t find you.”
“All right, hands up!” a voice in the hallway said suddenly.
When the stranger turned to look, Twist peered around him and found Skye, Myra, and a number of men in black suits outside the door. Skye was brandishing a pistol and held a magical bomb at the ready. Jonas rushed closer to Twist, glancing at the windows. Twist’s heart pounded as he followed Jonas’s train of thought and remembered that they were three stories up.
The stranger gave a sigh. “Would anyone remember any of you if I whisked you away to the moon?” he asked casually of the people in the hallway.
“I’d like to see you try, Jabberwock!” Skye snarled back.
Almost instantly, and well before the stranger could respond, a brilliant and burning light exploded in the doorway, knocking Twist and Jonas to the floor. Twist recovered his senses quickly and found Jonas already pulling him to his feet. He saw, through his clearing vision, that the tall figure of the stranger was now lying sprawled on the floor. Myra rushed into the room and clung tightly to Twist.
“Come on, we’ve got seconds!” Skye said quickly.
Jonas and Twist didn’t lose a moment, snatching up their luggage and rushing out of the room as the stranger began to moan. Twist felt the edges of a second shock wave of energy splash over him as he and the others ran down the hallway. They hurried down the stairs and came back to the lobby as Skye caught up with them.
“Head for the docks,” she said, handing Jonas a piece of paper. “Jetty number seventeen. There’s a ship waiting for you.”
A furious bellow shook the gilded ceiling and set the chandeliers swaying. Twist and the others all looked up in silent horror.
“Go!” Skye yelled, shoving Jonas onward.
A wave of orange light flew down her arm, taking the shape of a tiger as it grew and solidified; Kali took a mouthful of Jonas’s wrist and ran for the open front door of the hotel. Jonas struggled to keep up while Twist and Myra ran with him. The rain was still pouring freely from the sky outside, and Twist felt it fall like a solid weight on his shoulders when he ran out into it. His heart was racing, fueled by the unnatural terror he’d felt facing the dragon.
They splashed out into the deep puddle that filled the plaza but only made it a few steps before a huge, long, shining-black, snakelike dragon streaked past them and then coiled and rose up from the ground before them like a cobra. The massive beast glowered down at them as they pulled to a hasty halt, its enormous face all sharp angles made of black, mirrorlike scales. Its red eyes glowed fiercely, and its long black whiskers danced in the air around pointed white fangs. Twist’s attention caught awkwardly on the tall top hat that still sat on its head between two long, black horns.
“You’re wearing out your charm, little ones,” the dragon purred, its voice loud enough now to be heard easily over the din of the heavy rain.
Myra shrieked in fright, clinging to Twist and trembling. Her fear poured into his Sight, sending his own heart racing even faster and making him feel slightly faint.
“Kali, get him!” Jonas roared at the tiger.
The tiger pulled back to jump, her teeth bared, while Jonas took Twist’s walking stick again and readied his own assault.
Before either of them could act, a burst of black smoke shot out from the rain behind them and slammed into Jonas, throwing him down to his knees. Twist glanced back through the rain but found no cannons in the flooded plaza. He looked down to find Jonas kneeling in the rainwater.
Vane had appeared just behind Jonas, holding his hand over Jonas’s mouth. The human-shaped fox looked up at the dragon with terror in his black eyes, holding Jonas no matter how he struggled. The rain poured over Vane’s pale skin and short but fluffy black hair and darkened the purple silk of his Japanese-style jacket almost to black. Kali paused and then snarled at Vane. Vane, however, only flinched against her reproach.
“They’re sorry, Master!” Vane called up to the dragon. “Please, they don’t understand. Have mercy on them!” Twist noticed that the rest of the dragon’s lengthy form was curled around them all now in a wide but complete and coiling circle. Any chance for escape was most certainly lost.
“Who the devil are you?” the dragon scoffed, its great shining brow frowning. Kali looked back and forth between the dragon and the fox, clearly at a total loss of what to do. Twist’s mind raced, searching for any way to use the distraction that Vane had become.
“I’m just a kitsune, Master,” Vane called back.
Jonas, meanwhile, had stopped struggling. Twist realized suddenly that Myra’s fear had been replaced with startled confusion as she too stared at Vane, which did very little to clear Twist’s own bewilderment.
“What do you care about these men?” the dragon asked, sounding honestly curious.
“They’re…” Vane muttered, looking between Jonas and Twist. “They’re my friends. Sort of.” Twist glanced at him, frowning. He couldn’t remember a single moment when Vane had seemed much like a friend to him. An ally perhaps, but a friend?
“Sort of?” the dragon echoed, almost laughing. “That’s hardly the most glowing review.”
Twist looked back toward the hotel, wondering if he could expect to see Skye and her magical bombs again anytime soon. Hope died instantly as he saw that the front double doors of the hotel were being held firmly closed by the end of the dragon’s tail. He could see the door shudder against an assault from within, but the dragon’s hold was firm.
“It’s complicated,” Vane grumbled. “Please, Master, just don’t kill them. If they understood, I’m sure they never would have tried to run from you.”
The dragon began to chuckle. Jonas pulled sharply at Vane’s hold on him, catching the fox’s attention. Vane released the hand over Jonas’s mouth, but Jonas remained quiet. The dragon leaned its massive head down closer to Jonas, peering at him with its glowing red eyes. Kali, standing at his side, let out a roar, but the dragon didn’t seem to notice. Jonas’s eyes were tightly closed.
“Your sort-of-friend here doesn’t want you to die,” the dragon said almost softly to him. Twist felt Jonas’s contained fear sting at the buzz in his own neck. “I don’t actually want you to die, either. I want to take you to your trial, unharmed. Unless you’re suicidal, I believe we can come to some sort of arrangement.”
“You want us to just surrender to you?” Jonas growled, his anger barely formed enough to hide his fear.
“Yes, I do,” the dragon said smoothly. Its great, shining head turned, now looking down at Twist. “I don’t want to have to eat one of you, just to get the other to comply.”
Jonas’s face turned to Twist like a shot, his eyes open and a clearly frightened gold. Twist’s limbs were shaking as he looked up into the monster’s face, and he knew it wasn’t because of the light chill that the pelting rain left on the air. Myra’s horror screamed through his Sight as she stared up at the beast’s face in dismay. Twist forced his eyes closed, pulled in a quick breath, and demanded clarity of his own mind.
“You won’t eat either of us,” Twist said as firmly as he could, looking back up to the dragon. “Your brothers wouldn’t want you to.”
“Ho, ho…” the dragon toned happily. “You have a good head on your shoulders, little one, and masterful control of it as well. If you could come to see that it’s useless to try to fly or fight and agree to simply come with me as I asked”—the dragon turned to look at Jonas now—“do you think your rash little friend would consent to follow you?”
Vane looked imploringly at Jonas, while Kali only watched. Still struggling to keep his fear at bay, Twist stared back at Jonas silently. As the rain continued to beat down over them, Jonas held Twist’s gaze with a purple one of his own. Twist felt their minds shift closer together as Jonas’s Sight locked on to his. They had fought dragons before and won, but they would continue to be hunted even if they escaped this one. Knowing as little as they did about the beasts, it would be nearly impossible to find any real safety. At least this dragon found them charming.
“All right,” Jonas muttered, dropping his eyes to the deep puddle around him. “We’ll go with you.”
The dragon gave a pleased tone. Then, a subtle vibration grew quickly in the air, into a steady and incredible buzzing. Before Twist or anyone else could voice their surprise, the buzzing snapped, there was the distinct feeling of a shock wave of energy, and Twist’s vision blanked to pure white.
Oh dear, that doesn’t look good. I wonder what will happen next… If you’re wondering too, check out Chapter 3!
Clockwork Twist : Inquest is available now!
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