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~ For the children and teachers ~
Fire exploded right in front of Holly as the Shellpoint Inn went up in a flash. The young veterinarian raised her cloak to protect her face and quickly ducked into the alley at her back. The flames roared past, but the intense heat still scorched her exposed skin; the acrid tang of her frizzing hair filled the winter morning air. The fireball crashed into Bradi’s Bakery at the end of the street, sending the shop up in a bright orange blaze.
The small dragon perched on Holly’s shoulder cooed; it loved fire.
It seemed as though all of Shellpoint was burning now. Stifling black smoke and, incongruously, a smell of burnt sugar (from Bradi’s, most likely) filled the air. The snap of burning timbers and the cries of terrified people mingled with the roar of the conflagration.
Holly smudged tears from her eyes and dashed toward the far end of the alley, desperately seeking escape from the holocaust. A single thought screamed in her mind as she ran:
How did we ever let it come to this?
She exited the alleyway, emerging across from O’Crick’s Apothecary. Fire licked up the building’s gingerbread-shingle siding and danced atop the spired roof, flickering at the peak like the flame of a candle. And beyond it … Gods of Mercy! … The school had been set ablaze, too!
Oh, gods! William!
She’d just seen her fiancé at lunch, and now his workplace was…!
Were there any children still in the building? Surely headmaster Sheldon and Will must have gotten everyone out once the fires started.
If only she and her fiancé had tarried at lunch! If only they’d gone to the Town Hall, as they’d discussed, to pick up a marriage license. If only!
Gods! The children!
Without thinking of the danger, she started running toward the schoolhouse, hoping, praying that she might help somehow, even though the small building seemed entirely consumed by the flames.
Pyewacket shifted restlessly on her shoulder, his small talons digging into her cloak. His golden eyes sparkled in the firelight, and he purred appreciatively.
Holly resisted the urge to smack him.
What would be the point? She could no more stop her pet admiring a blaze than she could extinguish his inborn flames. But couldn’t he see how terrible all this was?
No. Dragons will be dragons.
Suddenly, Pyewacket squawked in alarm, tugging at her crisped hair with his tiny claws.
Holly stopped dead in her tracks as the library crashed into ruins, the entire stone façade falling into the street scant yards from where she stood. Smoke and dust billowed over her, and she coughed, trying to catch a breath.
As she waved the murk away from her eyes, a huge black shape loomed up out of the library’s wreckage.
Holly backed up, tripped over some fragments of fallen debris, and landed hard on her backside. Pyewacket sprang from her shoulder as she fell. Spreading his wings, he circled overhead, shrieking protectively—a housecat trying to face down a lion.
The titanic beast lumbered forward, bellowing with rage—or perhaps triumph—embers flickering between its dagger-sized teeth. It gazed at Holly with baleful yellow-green eyes.
As the veterinarian stared up at Pyewacket’s monstrous cousin, preparing to die, a swirl of thoughts flashed through her head.
Dragons had seemed so … useful when the dragonseller first brought them to Shellpoint Isle nine years ago. Dragons—even diminutive, household ones—could be dangerous in other parts of the Blue Kingdoms, certainly, but not here. After all, the prosperous people of Shellpoint were very responsible, and these dragons—like Pyewacket—were very small.
As pets, dragons didn’t require much care, and they were quite handy to have around: they could start fires (even on the wettest nights), they could be trained to fetch objects, and one need never worry about mice, rats, or other vermin with a dragon in the house! They could act as guards to home, family, and valuables as well. Plus, they felt warm and comforting in one’s arms on a cold, lonely night. If you owned a dragon—and nearly everyone in Shellpoint now did—you had almost nothing to fear.
Except, maybe, for other dragons…
Or their owners!
Holly met the monster’s gaze, trembling with fear, sweat drenching her body.
The beast craned its long, scaly neck down at her, its terrible jaws opening as they came closer. Pyewacket’s protests did not slow it in the least.
Holly smelled the brimstone of the monster’s breath, saw the flicker of flame within its gullet.
Then, another roar—raised in challenge—from farther off, near the town hall.
Hot drool from the beast’s enormous jaws fell on Holly’s lap as the dragon paused, listening. Then it whipped its horn-crowned head in the direction of the answering cry and thundered off. It bellowed with rage and crashed through two more buildings, smashing them into blazing splinters as it went.
Holly gaped, the image of those distinctive spiky horns burning in her mind.
This was not Lumbina the Outcast’s monster; this one belonged to Ragen the Smith. This wasn’t the dragon that had started the blaze!
Holly clambered to her feet, brushing off the dust and ash. As her eyes followed the wake of destruction left by the smith’s “good” dragon, she wondered:
Is there really that much difference?
Quickly, but more cautiously now, Holly picked her way through the fiery wreckage toward the school. It was too late to help, she knew that in her heart, but she still had to make the effort.
Perhaps it was already too late when we started down this mad road!
She couldn’t quite remember when the people of Shellpoint had begun growing their dragons larger.
Maybe it was after the furrier’s wolfhounds killed that one—had it belonged to Danvar, the miner?—yes, that was it. The town had decided to license dogs after that; there had been incidents with dogs hurting other pets and livestock before. Some suggested that perhaps dragons should be licensed as well, but no one took the idea seriously. After all, the dragon had been the victim here, not the perpetrator. And why make life inconvenient for all pet owners?
Soon, it wasn’t uncommon to see hound-sized dragons walking in town alongside their masters (though cat-sized, shoulder-perching dragons remained far more common).
The first time Holly had seen a dragon the size of a horse had been at the Danvars’ mine. The beast wasn’t feeling well, and as the only trained vet in town, she’d been called to tend it. She’d been shocked at how large it was. “Guarding the place from thieves,” old man Danvar had told her.
After that, an even larger one had appeared, prowling the grounds of Brookfeld, home to the town’s most prominent money changer. “Protecting me from kidnappers and murderers,” Brook had explained. Dragons, albeit smaller than the one at the mansion, had been stationed outside his office in Shellpoint, too.
And this competition—this insane race for larger, more powerful dragons—had just seemed to escalate from there, though no one had meant it to. For some, like Ragen the Smith, having a big dragon had become more a matter of pride and status than a measure of security.
Look what that pride has gotten us!
Who knew what had prompted Lumbina—who had always been a social misfit—to grow her dragon to such enormous size. Pride? Envy? Paranoia? Did it matter?
Gazing at the ruined, burning town before her, Holly realized it didn’t matter at all.
Pyewacket squawked again, and Holly froze.
But it wasn’t another dragon lumbering through town, this time … only a body—another body—lying at her feet. She’d seen too many corpses since the fires broke out, but she’d been so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she hadn’t noticed this one.
The instigator of the catastrophe lay dead. Yet the carnage continued.
Holly’s heart ached at the senselessness of it all, and tears streamed down her face as twin, thunderlike roars shook the ruins of the town.
The charred skeleton of the schoolhouse tumbled into flinders, as the titanic dragons—now visible beyond the Temple of Paxis—crashed into each other.
The monsters leaped into the air, smashing the temple to pieces with their tails.
They whirled through the sky, claws as long as swords slashing, daggerlike teeth crashing. Flames flew from their mouths, bursting unfelt against iron scales, but setting even more of the village ablaze.
Nearly the whole town had burned to ashes now, and with Shellpoint went the remains of Holly’s hope. She saw no one left alive in the conflagration. Surely her fiancé—her dear William—had perished, along with the rest of the town.
If only they’d listened to him! He’d been against owning dragons from the beginning. He’d never even warmed to Pyewacket, whom Holly had raised and trained right from the egg.
With Will gone, did she have anything to live for?
If only we’d listened!
Roaring loudly enough to sunder the heavens, the enormous dragons ripped into each other, spraying the air with fire and black blood. Bones snapped with a sound like thunder, enormous wings ripped, and shattered scales fell from the clouds like iron rain.
With a fearful screech, Pyewacket flitted away from Holly as his enormous cousins plummeted from the sky.
The fiery titans trumpeted their death screams and crashed down into the center of town. The earth quaked, and the whole world exploded into a blaze of flame, smoke, and debris-filled dust.
Holly couldn’t breathe; she couldn’t see. Something struck her forehead, and she fell, spots flashing before her eyes.
She lay amid the rubble, dazed, wanting nothing more than to die.
It would be so easy to just give up…
Despite what it looked like, surely some otherselse must have survived this holocaust. And those that did would need help. She’d spent her whole life working with animals, helping them when they were sick or injured, nursing them back to health.
Even in her grief, could she do any less for the citizens of Shellpoint?
Though filled with despair, she rose, turned away from the ruins, and shambled toward the waterfront.
Emerging from the debris clouds, she found dozens of other townsfolk already gathered at the water’s edge: men, women, and children of all ages, blackened from smoke or burned by fire, many of them bleeding.
She barely knew where to start.
And then she saw him, standing amid a throng of frightened children and weeping parents.
Her heart leapt, and she cried out:
He saw her and, weeping just as much as she was, ran into her arms.
They embraced, and kissed, and embraced again.
And when they broke the clench, he gazed at her with loving eyes. He ran his hands through her fire-scorched hair. “I thought I’d lost you.”
Her fingers felt his muscular shoulders beneath his burnt and tattered shirt; he smelled like warm soot. She smiled. “Me, too.”
As they stood together, happy just to be alive, Pyewacket fluttered down and landed on Holly’s shoulder.
The dragon cooed softly and nuzzled his mistress’ ear.
William backed away, jaw trembling. Hatred filled his eyes as he looked at her pet. “You should kill it,” he said through clenched teeth. “Everyone should. Before we even start rebuilding, we should slay every dragon in Shellpoint.”
Holly looked from her lover to her pet, and for a moment, she felt the same anger William did.
Dragons can’t be trusted—any of them. They’re all the same.
The smith’s “good” beast had done as much damage as Lumbina’s abomination.
Even Pyewacket, so loyal in most circumstances, could revert to his wild nature at any moment. Every dragon nursed in its heart a deadly fire, and even small monsters could become big threats.
She looked at her pet and imagined throttling it.
With the town still burning—with months of suffering, depravation, and reconstruction ahead—taking some small measure of revenge would feel so good…!
The dragon looked at her with his tiny eyes—so familiar, and yet so alien.
In those golden orbs, Holly noticed a reflection: a flock of tiny dragons—now master-less—circling over the ruined town.
Did Pyewacket want to join them?
Even though she’d trained him, he was only an animal, after all—all dragons were. They were more dangerous than dogs or cats, yes, but…
“No,” she told William. “We can’t kill them. What good would it do? There are too many in Shellpoint now. That bottle has broken, and the genie is out; we can’t put it back in. There will always be dragons, and as long as there are, people want to own them.”
His anger faded to puzzlement. “So what are we going to do?”
“We’ll control them,” she said. “While we rebuild, I’ll start a registry. If people have to get a dog license to own a dog or a marriage license to get married, surely Shellpoint can require a dragon license.”
“But licensing dogs hasn’t stopped animal cruelty, and licensing marriage hasn’t stopped divorce. People still make mistakes.”
“We’ll have to do better with this, then—because dragons are more dangerous than dogs … or even husbands.”
She smiled playfully at him, and he smiled back.
“I’m good with animals,” she said. “Magical beasts are no different. I’ll teach a class for people who want to own them, make folks understand how dangerous dragons can be.”
“I guess we could start a regulatory board…” William suggested, “like the one that oversees the school. Make sure that dragon owners keep up their standards.”
“And we can make laws to make sure that dragons don’t get out of hand again—and that crazy people like Lumbina can’t own them.”
William stroked her hair, all the while keeping a careful watch on Pyewacket. “Policing all that sounds like a pretty big task,” he noted.
“I know,” Holly replied with a nod. “But, working together, I’m sure we can do it.” She gazed across the wide expanse of smoldering ruins that had once been their hometown, feeling at once optimistic and devastated.
They must make sure this never happened again.
“We have to make it work,” she concluded. “After all, what other choice do we have?”
(Please let there be)
Stephen D. Sullivan has written dozens of novels and stories in the fantasy, SF, adventure, horror, and detective genres. Very few of them are intentionally allegorical. www.stephendsullivan.com