There’s a beast of a storm cloud boiling over an isolated clump of trees. It spits angry blades of rain onto the ground and onto her face and arms, so sharp they sting like insect bites. The cloud is marbled brown and grey, hunched in on itself like a cat poised to pounce.
Someone is holding her and running at full tilt across the murky grassland. That someone smells like Dog. That’s good, at least.
Because Dragon doesn’t really remember how she got here. Or where here is, at the moment.
They were at the Spyglass, last she remembers. There was fighting, shouting—talking, before that? She wants to shake her head to try and clear it, but she doesn’t have the strength. Besides, the rain lashing at her face is incredibly distracting.
Then she registers it: the ball of fire in her gut, as if someone’s torn a chunk out of her. Dragon gasps, arching her back instinctively before she realizes she’s going to flail out of Dog’s arms. Dog huffs with surprise at her sudden movement, but by some miracle they manage to catch her under her shoulders and knees before she hits the ground and before they stumble in their run.
They look down at her with such fierce love that she touches their cheek, even though it hurts to move her arm. Neither of them say a word. She doesn’t need to; she knows as well as they do that they’re thinking the same thing, a rush of words and sentiment: I love you we’re going to stay alive.
Dragon takes inventory. She’s hurt, badly—she’s pieced that together from the amount of pain she’s in and the way Dog just looked at her. They’re outside, running through a near-deadly torrent, with—there are at least three pairs of footsteps around them, so—company, though she’s not sure who. She remembers approaching someone at the bar, but her intact memories end there.
A healthy pile of swears build in her mind, but she’d rather not waste her breath.
She focuses on the cloud. It swallows up most of the sky. A hint of blue, or at last a paler grey, wavers at the edges of the storm, but it’s mostly nothing but the storm as far as she can see. It feels like a prophecy or a foul promise from the malevolent half of the universe.
Dragon narrows her eyes at the cloud. It’s just a cloud, she thinks hard at it. You’re nothing but a damn stormcloud.
It manages to spit sharp little drops in her eyes before she looks away.
A strange man shouts from behind Dog, and Dragon tenses up before she remembers herself and her wound and bites off her reflexive shriek. The man shouts again, and this time Dragon makes out the words, albeit muffled by the pain roaring in her ears.
“Leave the path!”
The man sounds…tall, Dragon thinks, then realizes she’s starting to drift into that cozy, senseless space between awake and asleep, and she brings herself back with a shake of her head. The fire is so intense in her side now, she hopes she won’t burst into flames.
Dog drops from a run to a trot, panting, their forearms trembling with the strain of Dragon’s weight. She tucks her face against their arm and kisses it. The ride grows bumpier as Dog heeds the stranger’s cry and leaves the smoother dirt path they’d been running on.
Then they’re into a copse of velvety, mossy grey trees, and the dagger blades of rain are gone. Instead, gravity gathers the drops into thick, cold bombs that strafe them just as mercilessly. Dog zigzags between tree trunks, avoiding roots by high-stepping in a way that Dragon knows she’d find inexplicably attractive, if only she were running beside them.
One of the strangers—Shames, is the word that bubbles to the top of Dragon’s mind, and she orients slightly to her memories—lopes up beside them. It’s a woman with fiery golden hair and a resting expression to match. “You know where you’re going or something?” she demands of Dog.
Dragon is lifted a couple of inches as Dog shrugs as best they can. “Not really, but Urand said the woods to the east of his house. These are the only woods for miles.” Their words are labored, and Dragon wishes the woman would get that and stop making them try to talk and run.
“’kay, well,” the woman says, but before she can make any further declarations, something huge and black rams her onto the ground.
Dog sweeps Dragon out of the way as another of the forms leaps out from behind the closest tree trunk and tries to lay them flat with a sweep of its massive limbs. Now that Dragon’s eyes have adjusted to the gloom under the forest canopy, she can make out a canine shape, but heftier, built like a bear. Fangs drip with golden, glittering saliva, snapping at the air where Dog just was, snapping in the woman’s face as she holds it at bay with a rifle lengthwise under its jaw.
Dragon feels sick as fingers of fear dig into her guts. Her side is aflame, but it’s a secondary sensation next to the horror she feels as the dog-bear creature staring down Dog turns its piercing red gaze on her.
She’s hypnotized by the beadiness of its eyes, two pinpricks of light and malice aimed straight at her. She registers the chain dangling between its eartips where it’s been pierced and fitted with an odd sort of collar.
Without forethought, Dragon wrenches her fingers up to her lips, ignoring the mind-numbing pain that follows, and blows a piercing whistle. Both creatures whip their heads up to face her, stiff and uncertain. It gives the woman on the ground the split second she needs to kick the beast away and spring to her feet and bring her weapon up to bear between its eyes.
“Heel!” comes a new unfamiliar voice, a bellow not to be disobeyed. Faster than anyone else can react, the two creatures dart to flank the newcomer. It’s another woman, taller than her hulking guardians by a head and dressed like she’s just come from her garden. When she folds her arms and sets her stance wide, no one moves or fires a weapon or says a word.
Everyone just stares at each other. Even the dog-things.
A wave of pain washes over Dragon and she moans, leaning into the wash of red that threatens to overcome her vision.
“Please,” Dog says through their teeth, “help my wife.”
Then Dragon is being jostled up onto the back of one of the creatures, with Dog behind her to hold her waist and keep her from falling off. The other Damn Shames (Dragon remembers now, it’s Fray and the Damn Shames, her personal heroes—how did they manage that?) load their own wounded onto the other creature, and the man who Dragon’s sure she heard earlier, the one who sounded tall, gets up behind her. (Riph, she recalls, the tall one is named Riph.)
Their mount keeps craning its head around to sniff at her boot, which she’s too exhausted to move, so it’s a mess of glittery slime by the time the strange woman leads them up to a smattering of low buildings well hidden in the trees. Dragon is starting to float, her vision swimming with colorful dots, when she feels Dog sliding her off the creature’s back and into someone’s waiting arms.
It’s the strange woman, who looks down at Dragon with a mix of pity and clinical judgment. “You’re half as bad as the other one. I’m getting her into stasis, and then we’ll take care of you.”
Dragon figures the stranger’s words are as much for Dog’s sake as for hers. She whimpers, not for her own pain, but for the idea that someone’s twice as bad off as she is. She doesn’t wish that on anyone.
Stasis is an interesting concept, though, even in her half-dazed state. Most larger hospitals in central UEE worlds only have one stasis chamber at most, for dire emergencies. How an unregulated herbalist on an outlying world got her hands on one, Dragon has to seriously wonder.
The woman carries her into the largest of the structures and lays her on a table in a clean, sterile room that’s clearly for treating patients. Once Dragon is lying prone on her back, the woman vanishes, leaving Dog to take her place at Dragon’s side.
Dragon stares up at the silvery-white on the ceiling and tries to gather up a coherent thought to give Dog, anything to reassure them. They hover into view and flash her a smile that frees her of that responsibility. She reaches for their hand and squeezes it; it’s the only thing that seems real right now, the way Dog’s fingers are hot and fluttery against her palm. She focuses on that and nothing else. She can tell Dog is regulating their breathing to match hers, trying to calm her, to remind her that they’re with her.
She wishes she could remember more, and not hurt so much. She wishes she could curl up with Dog in their bed at home and sleep until her body is healed.
She tries to forget that home is gone.
In no time, the strange woman is back. With her are the others, except for Fray. Dragon notices the lack of the Shames’ leader more from the pirates’ glum expressions than from Fray’s actual absence.
“She’s going to be fine,” the healer woman says firmly to the Shames who are gathered awkwardly on the other side of her care room. She pulls on a pair of sterile gloves and walks around the examination table to Dragon’s wounded side.
“Hope so,” says the golden-haired woman, in a way that’s not so much hopeful as threatening.
Dragon’s lids are heavy, but she sees the healer narrow her eyes at the Shame. “If you’d like to go test the effectiveness of the stasis unit yourself, you’re welcome to pull her out and do so. Otherwise, trust in modern medicine.” She hunches over Dragon and begins to examine her side without touching anything yet.
“That’s a bit strange, coming from a naturopath,” says the powerful man with the shocks of white hair, running his grimy hands through said locks.
“Guess we haven’t met. Maude Lightfoot.” The healer doesn’t look up from her examination. “Herbalist, naturopath, off-beat. Call me whatever you want, but I believe in what works. Sometimes that’s the natural power of plants, and sometimes it’s the box where time stops long enough for the human body to catch up and heal significant injuries overnight. Now. Let me work.” Her fingers dart forward and grasp the sides of Dragon’s wound.
Dragon howls. She tries to flail, but Dog must have anticipated her doing so, because they’ve got her by the wrists and drape themselves over her chest. “Shhh,” they say softly, “shhhh.”
“I’m sorry,” Dragon sobs, and Dog leans down to nuzzle her cheek with theirs.
“For what, love?” they ask with a concerned frown.
“Being so loud,” Dragon manages to whisper hoarsely before she cries out again; Maude is flicking a needle and thread through the sides of her wound now.
Trying to keep their expression light, Dog makes a sound that should be a chuckle, but is more like choking back a strangled sob. Dragon knows that look on her mate’s face. Her whole body responds to it, tensing up, recalling vivid sensory details. The smell of the room. The pillow cupping her head. Dog’s fingers clenching her hair, their pungent fear-sweat.
Here, now, Maude’s fingers stop moving. She leans in so her short, wild puff of black hair tickles Dragon’s cheek and murmurs into her patient’s ear, “How long ago?”
Dragon almost breaks. She manages to stifle her sob in her mouth, because this dam threatens to crumble every day, and she’s afraid to find out what’s behind it. But she doesn’t want to lie to this woman who’s trying to save her life.
She opens her eyes and forces herself to meet Maude’s compassionate gaze.
“Seven months,” Dragon whispers. She hesitates, knows what the healer’s next question will be. “Five months along.”
“Your body hasn’t given up on this one yet,” Maude says with a deep sadness pulling at her low tone, which is only for Dragon and Dog. “I can see the traces still. Someday, though.”
Dog gives Maude a look of deep gratitude.
Those two words—someday, though—are a precious treasure Dragon clasps to herself and tucks safely in her heart. For now, she can’t afford to think about it anymore, or she’ll disintegrate here in the presence of near-strangers and embarrass Dog.
“Done,” Maude says, and makes a satisfying shnick noise with a pair of scissors. Dragon registers that the fire is starting to fade from her side. “Now, breathe. Ready, one, two—there we go.” On there, Dragon hisses as a long needle goes deep into her arm, but her sound of pain turns into one of relief as painkiller floods through her body. Now she’s lifting up, up, away from the throbbing in her side, sleepy and content.
“Woah!” It’s that Riph man, his outburst loud and almost joyful, stabbing at Dragon’s drifting sensation. She comes back to her body and turns her head to stare across the room at Riph, who’s standing in the middle of the room with a bloodstained chestpack in his hands. “What in the eight hells…?”
There’s a long silence as everyone turns to regard the contents of the pack. Dragon can see scattered currency, the origin of which she doesn’t recognize, along with a weathered black book and a flat silver object about the size of Riph’s palm.
But it’s a folded square of parchment-like stuff that Riph’s pulled out of the pack and is holding close to his face. There are deep purple lines slashed across the material, connecting glowing silver points that wink to life when the light passes through.
“Oh,” Maude says behind Dragon, “it’s a Chalcedon map.”
Thanks to Steve Burardi for the source image. The UEE and all elements of Star Citizen belong to Chris Roberts and Cloud Imperium.
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