He banked, enjoying the lift of the wind and the sun’s rays on his back. What was it that had woken him, again? A nagging, the itch of a memory, tugged at him. He was searching for something…
A loud growl interrupted his train of thought. He peered toward the sound and came eye-to-proverbial-eye with his gold-scaled belly. He was hungry. No, not hungry—starving. Plum ravenous is what he was.
When was the last time he’d eaten anything? Probably that horse he’d taken the last time he was in the human realm. And that had been—grrrowwwl—too long ago.
Two large flaps of his leathery wings increased his altitude enough for a good view of the land. He gazed ahead, eyes unfocused. Waiting, waiting….and then, movement down and to the right. He zeroed in on a creature, not much larger than snack-size, with two horns on top of its head. A goat.
The animal must have sensed his presence because as soon as he angled toward it, it bolted. Startled by its movement, the rest of its herd did as well.
The dragon puffed a smoke ring of mirth. What had looked like a small snack had just turned into a nice lunch.
As a cactus cat, Hero’s den was less homey than Flapjack’s jackalope burrow. It wasn’t that it was filthy or scary or anything like that. The dirt floor was cool under Laurel’s bare feet—they’d left their boots and socks in the “mud room”—and there was no clutter. There was hardly anything at all. No windows or furniture besides a cushioned bed, and no decorations. Cool moist air carried the scent of cat like an earthy perfume. Light trickled in through cracks where the boulders met overhead, casting odd patterns on the walls and floor. The slivers of light reminded Laurel of lazy ripples in a pool of water—relaxing and mesmerizing.
Flapjack filled in the feline on the girls’ adventures. The cat listened as he cleaned between the quills on his front legs. When he moved onto other areas of his anatomy—eww—Laurel focused on Flapjack’s long ears. They moved as he spoke like most people gestured with their hands. As he finished explaining, his ears stilled.
“Let me see the scale, kitten.”
Laurel pulled the gem stone out of her pocket and held it out to the large cat. Thankfully, he’d stopped his tongue bath.
The quilled cougar inched forward on all fours and extended his neck. He sniffed the scale a few times, going so far as to put his nose on it, and then batted it out of her palm with one of his front paws. He caught it in his other and lifted it to one of the light beams shining in from the ceiling. The stone gleamed a deep indigo and in the sun, it seemed to contain flecks of gold. The cougar held as still as a statue, only the very end of his long tail flicking back and forth. Slowly, the gem in his paw changed color moving backwards through the rainbow—indigo to blue to green to yellow to orange—until it settled on a rich red, then it gained intensity until it shone like fire. Hero flipped the scale in the air and it landed on his paw, bottom up.
Alexa gasped and leaned closer obscuring Laurel’s view. Laurel shifted and saw what had caught her sister’s attention. The bottom of the scale was crusted in gold as if someone had slathered it with metallic paint.
The cactus cat grunted. “Didn’t know he was still alive.”
“Who?” Excitement caused the question to squeak out of Laurel.
“Is it Fafnir’s, yer reckon?” Flapjack’s face glowed pinkish in the red light making him look like a giant Easter bunny.
Hero nodded and a low rumble emanated from his throat; the cat equivalent of a grunt, Laurel supposed.
“What’s a Fafnir?” Alexa asked, taking the scale from Hero’s paw and scrutinizing it. “And what made the scale change color?”
“Fafnir is a who, not a what, girlie,” Flapjack said. “He’s one of the oldest dragons, maybe even the grandpappy of them all.”
The red light flickered and waned, and the scale went back through rainbow hues before resting again at deep indigo. Alexa handed the scale back to her sister with a sad frown.
“This is one of his scales?” To Laurel, it looked the same as the first time she’d seen it. Amazing to think it was from a real dragon. She placed the gem back into her pocket and leaned into her big sister.
Flapjack stared pointedly at Hero. The great cat gazed back at him, unblinking. Laurel held still and next to her, Alexa tensed. The girls waited for the staring match between the two creatures to end.
Finally, the cougar blinked and the standoff was somehow resolved. “When a detached scale is close to its owner, it glows,” Hero explained in a bored monotone.
Laurel popped to her feet. “You mean he’s close by? Why didn’t you say so?” She headed toward the exit, but didn’t get farther than two steps before her shirt snagged on something. As she turned to free herself, she realized she was caught on Flapjack’s antlers.
“Hold on there, girlie. The scale’s not glowing any longer, so he’s not close by.” Flapjack twisted his head to the side and unhooked her. “There are plenty of fearsome critters out there. You’ll get yourself into trouble running off half-cocked by yourself.”
“More trouble, you mean,” Alexa murmured.
Laurel shot her sister a glance, the visual equivalent of a stuck-out tongue.
Alexa ignored her and addressed Flapjack. “I thought we needed to find the dragon to get back home. If he was close by, why didn’t we go flag him down?”
The jackalope’s ears drooped and he cast a sideways glance at the cat. “I don’t know much about dragons, missy. I didn’t know the glowing meant he was close by.”
Alexa rounded on the cougar. “But you did.”
Hero’s tail whipped back and forth. “What of it?”
The more time they spent with the quilled cougar, the less sure Laurel was of Flapjack’s choice of guides. What was it that made him choose this creature? “Flapjack said you’d help us find the dragon so we could get home.” Laurel voice sounded small even to her own ears.
“You’re supposed to be our guide.” Alexa’s statement sounded more like an accusation.
The cat settled back on the ground in a sphinx-like position. “Why should I agree to be your guide? What’s in it for me?”
“I-I don’t understand,” Alexa said.
Laurel’s tummy felt funny, like it was Valentine’s Day and she’d eaten way too many message hearts.
“Hero—” Flapjack began.
“Don’t ‘Hero’ me, Flap. You want me to guide them, then they can pay my fee.”
“But we don’t have any money!” Tears glinted in Alexa’s eyes. One hard blink and they’d overflow her rims and roll down her cheeks and Laurel knew just how she felt.
“I don’t want money, kitten.” The cat stared, his unblinking gaze fixed on them.
Laurel swallowed the lump forming in the back of her throat. “What do you want, then?”
“Your assistance in getting rid of some vermin.”
Laurel shivered. All kinds of vermin showed up in their back yard at home—snakes, rats, mice, spiders, and once a sick raccoon. Usually her dad took care of them. And usually her sister hid in her room with her nose buried in a book. “I’m not sure we’ll be much help in getting rid of vermin for you, Mr. Hero,” she said.
The cougar licked his lips and chuckled. “Oh, I’ll get rid of them. I just need your help to catch them.”
“What kind of vermin?” Alexa asked, one eyebrow raised.
The cactus cat told them, but all Laurel could hear was the way the college-guy in the white lacrosse t-shirt had said it when they were talking with the storyteller: chup-a-cabbbbb-bra.
This is the 6th installment in a story I’m writing called Flash Flood: In Search of Dragons. If you want to read from the beginning, you can access the rest of the chapters here.
I’m trying to decide whether I should continue to post the story as I write it. While the first installment showed promise, interest has waned down to a dismal few views per post. I plan to finish the story, but I think it might be better to post on other topics.
WEIGH IN: Keep posting or move on to something else? If you like these posts and are interested in continuing, let me know. If you’re just as happy to read it when it’s finished, let me know that too. I appreciate your input!