Darius hit the ground hard and rolled, bringing his arms up to protect his face and turning his head so his nose didn’t break against the rocks. He came to a rest against the cave wall with a soft, “Oof!” as the breath left his lungs in a rush.
When his body remembered how to breathe again, he rolled to his knees, chest heaving and spots dancing in his vision. He shoved his fingers through his hair and felt along his skull, but there didn’t seem to be any injuries aside from the lump from earlier.
“What the hell?” he wheezed when he could manage it. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and glared at the creature. “You have the worst fucking timing, you know that?”
The dragon huffed. Steam poured from its ears as its systems cooled down from the long flight. Smoke leaked out from between its massive, metallic teeth, and dimly Darius knew he should be frightened. But all he felt was a deep, burning rage, because honestly. If the creature was going to kidnap him, it couldn’t have done it the day before? Or, hell, even tomorrow? No, it had to be today. He almost laughed—after the disaster this past week had been, he should honestly have expected it.
“What is it you want?” he demanded. He pushed himself to his feet, wincing as his joints protested and popped. He put his hands on his hips, summoning what he hoped was an imposing glare, even though the creature loomed thirty feet over his head. “Gold? Silver? You’ve kidnapped the wrong man, you know. I’m certainly not a member of the royal family, nor am I a rich merchant. I think I have a couple of spare credits to my name, if you want them.”
The dragon cocked its head slightly, considering him. Its eyes glowed red—he doubted that was a good sign, and finally a trickle of trepidation broke through the anger. Not that it was enough to stop his rambling. Raf had always said his self-preservation instincts were non-existent, and Darius supposed there was some truth to that.
“You kidnapped me on my wedding day,” he snarled. “The entire city saw you do it, too, and they’re probably tracking you right now. You aren’t exactly inconspicuous.”
Not that he was important enough to come after, Darius thought ruefully, but the dragon might not realize that. Maybe it would let him go, let him walk out of the cave and make his way back to his city unharmed.
Sure. And maybe his goats would wake up one morning and start talking to him.
“All right, fuck this.” Darius brushed the dirt from his knees and slapped his hands together. He straightened his jacket, settling it properly over his shoulders, and drew himself up. “This has been fun, truly, but I’m afraid I have to leave. Good day.”
He made it almost to the mouth of the cave before the dragon’s tail swept his feet from under him, sending him careening into the opposite wall. Even through his clothes, even though they had been in shade now for some time, he could still feel the heat radiating from the metal, superheated after their long flight on a brilliantly sunny day. Thank all the gods it hadn’t touched his bare skin.
“Right,” Darius snapped, springing to his feet. “Either tell me what the fuck I’m doing here, or I’m walking out of this cave, and I honestly don’t care if you incinerate me for it.”
The trouble was, he did care. He cared a lot. His life was finally starting to come together after years of false starts, and failure after failure after failure. He had a home, he had a business, and he had a husband — well, almost had a husband. At least until some pain-in-the-ass dragon decided to kidnap him right as they’d been about to exchange vows.
The tail swept in his direction again, but didn’t make contact. Darius felt the whoosh of air as it glided past. The dragon paused, considering him, and then repeated the action. On the third time, the tip of the tail touched his shoulder, gently nudging him.
Darius frowned, glancing from the dragon to its tail, and slowly it dawned on him that the dragon was trying to usher him toward the back of the cave.
“Hell, no.” He pointed. “Go back there? Sorry, I’m not stupid enough to do that. I know what happens when the dragon finally gets its victim into the back of the cave. We’ve all grown up on the stories. Nice try.”
The dragon huffed, turned its head, and spat out a thin stream of fire. Darius only just managed to keep himself from jumping backward in surprise. The flames caught on a series of lanterns strung up against the wall, bringing sudden illumination to the darkness.
“Oh,” Darius said faintly. He blinked several times, then took a tentative couple of steps forward. “That’s yours, then, is it?”
The cave was strewn with debris—Darius recognized broken phonographs and daguerreotype cameras, engines and motors, gears and tools of every shape and size. Heaps and heaps of what amounted to scrap metal, but to a mech like the dragon, it was as priceless as gold.
And in the midst all that scrap, a tiny dragon lay curled in a tight ball, steam rising from its exoskeleton. Darius approached it slowly, making sure to keep well out of range of its fire. A dragon that size and in the shape that it was likely couldn’t scorch anything more than ten feet away, but he didn’t want to test out that theory.
“You needed an engineer,” Darius said finally, looking up at the dragon. “You needed someone to come and fix your -”
He waved a hand awkwardly at the little dragon. Offspring, perhaps? Could mech dragons have offspring? He wasn’t aware that they were anything but solitary creatures, though he supposed that new mech dragons had to come from somewhere.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it. Do you have tools? Not these, I mean functional ones.”
He waved a hand at the piles of scrap. The dragon bent over one of the piles, snagged something in its teeth, and deposited it at Darius’s feet. He raised his brows.
“Well, at least you’re prepared,” he muttered, stooping to pick up the engineering kit and examining its contents. It seemed well-stocked, though he had no idea the extent of the damage yet. “Is it going to – er – incinerate me?”
The dragon shook its massive head. Well, that would have to be good enough, Darius decided. If he died trying to save this creature, then so be it. It was better than turning his back on it and having to live with that.
The little dragon hissed as he approached, feebly trying to lift its head and failing. Darius held up his hands in what he hoped was a universal non-threatening gesture, and after a moment the tiny creature quieted. The equipment kit had a scanner, thank the gods, and he started with that.
“What did you get into, little one?” Darius muttered as he examined the readings. It was clear that this wasn’t the result of a random, mutating computer virus, nor was it self-inflicted. Damage like this was methodical, purposeful, and inflicted by an outside source. “Looks like you were beaten pretty badly. Who did this to you?”
He didn’t expect an answer. If the dragons could communicate with him, he imagined he already knew what they would tell him. That the little one had been hunting with its parent across the countryside, looking for more pieces of scrap metal, probably on one of its first outings. It was still getting used to its body, its wings, its systems and how everything worked together. It probably had been overtaken by some alarmed villagers, and attacked within an inch of its life. Darius swallowed another wave of rage, this time one that wasn’t directed at the larger dragon.
“I’m going to fix you,” he told the tiny dragon firmly. “I’m going to repair you, and you’ll feel better soon. All right, little one? Can I touch you?”
The tiny dragon slowly relaxed and closed its bright, purple eyes. That was probably as good a signal as he was going to get, so Darius set to work. He pried open paneling along the tiny dragon’s back and flank, fixing what he could and discarding pieces that were burned beyond all repair. The piles of scrap metal proved useful, and more than once he found a replacement part that worked just as well, if not better than the old.
“It’s a remarkable construction,” Darius said finally to the older dragon. “I assume this is your work? I guess I never really thought about how dragons are made, but of course you would construct your own kind.”
He shook his head. “I wish we could talk. Is this as big as it’ll ever be, I wonder? Or will it outfit itself with larger replacement parts until it grows as big as you are? Will it stay with you forever, or go off and find its own cave when it’s able to be on its own? There’s so little we know about your kind.”
He knew the dragon couldn’t answer him, but it helped having someone to talk to while he worked, even if it was a piece of mech. He soon lost all track of time, and only realized how late it was when the larger dragon blew out another stream of fire to light another row of lanterns, as the first ones had burned down already. Darius squinted at the cave entrance and noticed that the sun was almost touching the horizon.
“Almost done, little one,” he murmured. “Another hour, at the most.”
It was three-quarters of an hour, in actuality, and he felt a faint flicker of pride at that. He pushed himself to his feet and stepped back, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead. It came away smeared with grease and sweat. Gods, and this was his one nice suit, too. What the hell was he supposed to get married in now?
He supposed it didn’t much matter. Raf probably didn’t care, and neither did he. He just wanted to be married.
The little dragon unfurled its wings and flapped them experimentally. It flicked its tail and launched itself into the air. The cave’s ceiling wasn’t particularly high, perhaps fifty feet overhead, and the little dragon hovered up near the stalactites before settling on the ground next to its parent. The larger dragon nuzzled it affectionately.
Darius couldn’t help but smile. He packed the tools away and left the kit on a pile of metal. With any luck, the two dragons would never need it again.
“If that’s all,” he said, spreading his hands, “I suppose I’m free to go?”
He wasn’t looking forward to the three-day trek back to the city, especially with no provisions, but it wasn’t as though he was about to live the rest of his life in this cave. There would be no help for it. No one except Raf would even care to look for him, so he had to do it himself.
Without warning, two giant claws wrapped around his middle, hoisting him into the air. He gave a startled yelp, and before he could draw air to protest, the larger dragon had thrown itself out of the cave and soared over the trees below.
It hadn’t been fun the first time. It was even more unpleasant this time around. Darius squeezed his eyes shut as tears from the stinging air streamed down his cheeks, and he kept having to force himself to take breaths as the wind rushed past them. His heart raced uncomfortably in his chest, and he was painfully aware that if the dragon lost its grip on him, he would plunge more than a thousand feet to a certain death.
But it was effective, he had to admit. A journey that would have taken him days the dragon could do in under an hour, and it deposited Darius in the middle of the square, in the precise spot he had been taken from that morning. The dragon didn’t land, just hovered there as it swept its powerful wings through the air to keep it aloft.
Darius became aware of shouts, and then clanging filled the air as the alarms were sounded. It wouldn’t have been difficult to miss a dragon descending upon the city, and everyone was raising the alarm.
“Go,” he said urgently, waving an arm at the dragon as though he could send it away. “Change caves, too. They’ll know where to find you, now.”
The dragon flew off as the air patrol took to the skies. Their flying craft was rudimentary—they would never be able to match the dragon’s altitude or speed. Darius watched until it was nothing more than a speck, and then turned to take stock of his surroundings.
“Darius!” Raf was sprinting across the square. He skidded to a stop in front of Darius and seized him by the upper arms. “Are you all right? The dragon, did it –”
“It needed my help.” Darius let his hands settle on Raf’s hips, immeasurably glad to see him—and glad of his support, since Darius wasn’t sure how much longer his legs could hold him. “I’m sorry if I worried you – ”
“Don’t,” Raf snapped, strong blacksmith’s fingers digging into Darius’s arms. “Don’t apologize to me for getting kidnapped. Thank the gods, I’m so fucking glad you’re safe. Are you certain you’re unharmed?”
“I’m fine.” Darius brought his hands up to curl loosely around Raf’s wrists. He gave a rueful smile. “Ruined my suit, though.”
“Toss the suit, I don’t care.”
“Yes, well, we’re supposed to get married -”
“I’m marrying you, not the suit.”
Darius rested his forehead against Raf’s and closed his eyes. He drew a deep breath through his nose and then let out a soft huff of laughter.
“What a day,” he muttered. Raf snorted and pulled back.
“It’s never a dull one with you, that’s for certain.”
“Where do you suppose the clerk got to?”
“He went to the tavern as soon as the dragon made an appearance,” Raf said dryly. “Hasn’t resurfaced since.”
“Come on.” Darius grabbed his hand and dragged him in the direction of the tavern.
He was getting married today, damn it, and even dragons weren’t going to stop him.