Nearly all the monsters were gone from the world. Werner Von Glave knew this well, for he had a hand in their near extermination. He was a Von Glave, a Germanic line which had battled the strange beasts that lurked in the shadows for centuries. They had slain trolls for Popes, executed werewolves for the Kaiser and dealt with golems for the Third Reich. But with the dawn of the modern age, a terrible new realization came over the world – the shadows had all vanished and the creatures that dwelled in them were going extinct. That's why the US government had created the Blackwood National Wildlife Preserve, which was now world famous as the one place on earth where all monsters could run free. From the lowliest gnome to the majestic dragons, every monster had a place in Blackwood. And Werner Von Glave, hating his family's legacy and what had he had been raised to do, found a place there as well.
He worked as a park ranger, walking the thin line between the worlds of civilizations of that of wild and magic. Sometimes that line held and the monsters and men both behaved themselves. Other times, neither seemed keen on peace. When that happened, Von Glave would put his family's teachings to good and bloody use. He never liked it – but it was still part of the job. Dealing with the rogue dragon was no exception.
It started like any other day. Von Glave awoke in his quarters in the rangers' barracks, located in the small civilized pocket of Blackwood Valley. Von Glave and his room were both extremely neat. His weapons were cleaned and prepared, all sitting on the walls or the desk in stands and cases. He was a tall man, with chestnut colored hair parted with nearly surgical precision. Von Glave did have a slightly prominent Roman nose, another heritage of his line. Von Glave shaved, showered and dressed in the brown and khaki uniform of a Blackwood ranger. The patch on the shoulder showed the symbol of the park: a triangular black pine tree set against a silver circle. Von Glave set a broad-brimmed hat on his head, featuring a shimmering red phoenix feather in the brim. The phoenix feather's shifted and changed like it was part of a flickering campfire. It was the only bit of style he allowed himself. He straightened his brown tie, buttoned his coat and walked to the communal dining area.
As he walked to the door of his room, Von Glave's eyes darted involuntarily to the wall. A framed picture hung there, an old family photo that showing his father and his grandfather standing proudly before Castle Von Glave. Von Glave himself had grown up in that castle, training in the ancient galleries and learning how to use sword, bows and ancient weapons from his father. He looked at the boy in the photograph, who stood smiling in a miniature tweed hunting coat. His grandfather wore a similar garment. Von Glave remembered his grandfather as a kindly old man who told stories of killing goblins in the Black Forest and would gladly show his grandson the jagged scars, like a string of diamonds imprinted across his back and shoulders, given by a Yeti's claws in the Himalayan peaks. Of course, now Von Glave knew that his father was on first name basis with Heinrich Himmler. The memories burned in the back of his brain, like coals that hadn't yet faded.
He walked away and left them behind. Each ranger had their own room in the barracks, but they all dined together. Most of the rangers were already out on their shifts, but Von Glave's partner had just set down to his cereal. Alvin Corners sat at the corner of the large oak table, slurping down Technicolor candy cereal. Corners jammed the spoon into his mouth and crunched down. Milk leaked down his chin, making little rivers between his stubble. Corners rarely shaved. His dark hair hung down in ragged locks to frame his lined face. His broad-brimmed hat lay next to him on the table.
"Hello, brother." Corners pointed to the seat across from him with his spoon. His eyes were loyal and kind. They belonged to a dog. Von Glave supposed that was appropriate. Corners was a werewolf. Blackwood Preserve was the only place he was allowed to run free. "Sleep well? I truly hope you did. Got us a hell of a day ahead of ourselves." His voice was craggy and weathered. He sounded like he belonged in one of those movies with horses and revolvers.
Von Glave prepared his breakfast – tasteless, crunchy cornflakes and a steaming glass of coffee. He sat down across from Corners. "Is that so?" he asked. There was a hint of a German accent to his voice, though he had attended school in America and nearly crushed it. "And more than usual, perhaps?"
"Hell yeah," Corners agreed. He tapped the table as he spoke. "First off, we got ourselves a couple of young visitors. A band of Forest Scouts is showing up today, to tour the area and maybe see some of the wildlife. Now we gotta stop a bunch of blundering kids from getting munched on by chupacabras and such. And you know who the mother of one of the little tykes is? And who's coming along to oversee her boy's wilderness education?"
The cornflakes crunched audibly in Von Glave's mouths. "Who?" he asked. Von Glave was only half-listening to Corners. He was staring out the wide window behind Corners, looking out at the open meadow. The green fields, known as Frazer Meadows, stretched into the distance, broken by only the occasional copse of trees or still pool. In the center of the meadow, reaching up to the sky and bordered by phalanxes of smaller, rocky hills, was Mount Bullfinch. It was the tallest peak in Blackwood. Dragons nested there, living in the caves. The great, fire-breathers had finally found a place where they could live at peace.
Corners let out a low growl that made Von Glave look up. "His name's Toby Gold. His mother is Dr. Ramona Gold – folklorist, professor, and advocate for monster preservation. You turn on the radio, you hear her debating some right-wing blowhard thinks all the monsters ought to be killed. And now she's visiting the place with her son."
"You do not like the idea?" Von Glave asked. "She seems to care about the creatures."
"That ain't the point," Corners replied. "My point is that she's an amateur. She's a scholar, who spends her time dealing with books about monsters, instead of the monsters themselves." Corners raised the bowl to his lips and slurped down the rest of the milk. His tongue lapped it up. "And she thinks that she knows everything and can show it to her son – regardless of the danger."
"At least her heart is in the right place," Von Glave answered.
That made Corners quiet. "Hey," he said, as Von Glave stared out the window again. "You can't help what your grandfather did, or what your father did. You can only help what you do. Brother, you're doing the right thing right now." Corners stood up and grabbed his hat. "Let's get moving."
But as he stood, the radio in the corner of the dining hall crackled to life. Static hummed and filled the room. A panicked voice cut through the static. "All available rangers, please come in! All available rangers, respond immediately! We have a Code Black at the visitor center! Repeat – a Code Black! All rangers, please respond!"
Von Glave hurried to the radio and picked up the receiver. "What's the situation?" he asked.
"Rogue dragon approaching the visitor center! The staff there are overwhelmed– and the Forest Scouts are here, for god's sake! We can't let those kids-" The voice cut off. A roar sounded in the background, like the rumble of endless thunder. Von Glave could make out voices as well – children's voices raised in panic. His mind raced. Monster attacks were unfortunately not rare. Many monsters knew their power and weren't shy of showing it. Still, as long as humans stayed away from them and respected their territory – and listened to the rangers – peaceful solutions could be achieved. A dragon attacking the visitor center was far from normal.
Von Glave slammed down the receiver. "You were talking of danger," he said. "It seems it has arrived. I'll fetch the tools while you prepare the vehicle." There was no time for discussion. Von Glave darted back to his room, while Corners hurried outside to prep the jeep. Quickly, Von Glave selected his weapons. He grabbed his father's crossbow and long sword with a carved dragon's head tipping the pommel, and then a quarrel of various enchanted bolts. Those would be necessary to subdue – or perhaps destroy – the rogue dragon. He grabbed an automatic as well and then pounded back down the hall and headed outside.
The jeep was waiting for him by the door, Corners behind the wheel and the motor already rumbling. Corners had his shotgun slung across his back, an old pump-action model. A pair of revolvers rested on his hips. He waited for Von Glave to jump in and then he started the engine. They shot into Frazer Meadows, the all-terrain wheels of the jeep spraying up grass and mud behind them like the wake of a ship. They sped down the meadow, to the visitor's center near the entrance to the valley.
In the distance, they could see a plume of smoke rising into the air. It looked like the curling top of a question mark. "Something is odd about this," Von Glave announced, as he loaded a bolt into his crossbow and pulled back the string. "The dragons of Bullfinch Mountain rarely attack unprovoked. They are intelligent creatures. There must be some purpose to this action."
"Maybe," Corners agreed. "But maybe it don't matter right now. One of them little Forest Scouts gets gobbled down or barbequed by dragon fire, and it'll be a PR nightmare for Blackwood. The Feds might even close us down, run us out." His eyes were grim. He gripped the wheel tightly. "And then it'll be back like it used to be, when anyone with a blade and the love of God could hunt monsters."
Those were the days when Von Glave's family had done their work, but Corners didn't mention that. They drove on and neared the Visitor's Center.
They were the first rangers on the scene and found the place already in chaos. The visitor center consisted of a serious of rectangular structures, all resembling oversized, elongated cabins. They were made of cement and wood – which burned well. Most of the tourists and staff had scattered, running into the nearby pine woods or the meadow. Von Glave guessed that others were trapped inside. One of the structures, maybe just a maintenance shack, was already smoldering with dragon's fire. He could make out some of the Forest Scouts running as well, adults shepherding them to shelter. The kids wore khaki uniforms, billed caps and kerchiefs – a little like Von Glave's own clothes. Up above everything - like a vulture over a fresh kill - was the rogue dragon.
It was deep red in color and stood out boldly against the blue, cloudless sky. The dragon's wings were thin and glowed faintly with red veins that ran through the leathery membrane. They were expanded to cast a wide shadow over the visitor's center. The scaly bulk of the dragon filled the sky, with four large claws that could have ripped apart a cow. The dragon's head swung around on a stout neck, with two pointed horns and a narrow snout. Von Glave looked into the red eyes of the dragon and saw lines of smoke rippling from the beast's nostrils. The smoke was growing. The dragon let out another blast of fire from between its jagged white teeth, which reached down in a single, sparking waterfall and crashed into the large building in the visitor's center.
Corners slammed on the brakes. The jeep rushed to a stop before the visitor center and both men stepped out. Von Glave selected an arrow for his crossbow as Corners racked his shotgun. "Looks like we got here just in time, brother," Corners said. "You got yourself a plan?"
"You get its attention," Von Glave suggested. "Bring it away from the tourists. I'll finish it."
"You got it," Corners agreed. He walked closer to the dragon, raised the shotgun to his shoulder and fired. Von Glave saw sparks as the shells ricocheted off the dragon's flank. At this range, the shotgun didn't do much more than make noise, but that was just what it needed to do.
The crossbow string went taut. Von Glave slid the bolt in. He was remembering his father's lessons, on the best ways to bring a dragon down. Their armored scales would usually require heavy bullets, which he didn't have on him. Even the skulls of dragons were armored. Still, there was one shot that could bring the dragon down – and he had just the enchanted bolt to make it work. Von Glave knelt down and took careful aim. His finger rested on the trigger. He stared into the dragon's eyes.
As he aimed, Von Glave remembered the first monsters he had killed –a family of kobolds in an abandoned mine in the Alps. He had been eight-years-old and he still remembered the heavy weight of the flamethrower's gas tubes on his shoulders. The kobolds – lizard-like creatures about the size of chimpanzees – huddled together and cheeped as Von Glave stood over them and raised the smoking firing tube of the flamethrower. Their cries had been strangely musical, reminding Von Glave of birdsong.
"Werner!" Corners shouted. "Take the shout!"
Von Glave pulled the trigger. The crossbow twanged. The bolt shot into the air, flying as a black blur towards the dragon. Von Glave reached for another enchanted bolt as he came to his feet, his eyes following the arrow. But the dragon noticed it as well. The dragon's mouth opened and another cone of fire leapt out. It wrapped around the arrow. When the fire cleared, there was no arrow at all – not even ash. Von Glave gritted his teeth as he loaded a second arrow. The dragon was already swooping down.
This time, the rogue dragon didn't bother with burning the visitor's center anymore. Its claws smashed through the smoldering roof, sending fragments of blackened wood spinning through the air. For a second, the claws vanished into the visitor's center and then they were yanked out – and one of them was wrapped around the little body of a Forest Scout. The dragon lifted the boy into the air and flapped its great wings, gaining height. Von Glave raised the crossbow again.
He looked through the weapon's telescopic sight and could make out the boy. The Forest Scout was around eight-years-old, with straight, coppery red hair and a pair of glasses. The boy wasn't screaming, but simply clutched the dragon's claws and held on as he was carried away. His kerchief flapped in the wind. Von Glave knew a fall from that height would kill the boy. He couldn't bring the dragon down. Slowly, he took his hand away from the trigger and came to his feet. His heart was still pounding.
"Hell." Corners racked his shotgun and stood next to Von Glave. The dragon was diminishing in the distance, bound for Mount Bullfinch. "She's going back to her mountain home, I figure. Go to hide out in a cave." Corners patted Von Glave's shoulder. "And that was a female, brother, of mothering age. Their horns ain't as long as the males." Corners shook his head. "Means a harder job for us. There's not much worse than a pissed off mother."
"Toby!" A woman's voice came from the smoking visitor's center. She forced her way through the doors and hurried towards Von Glave and Corners. Her face was streaked with tears, but she was already composing herself as she hurried to the two rangers. "Toby…" She repeated her son's name at a whisper, like she knew there wasn't a chance that he'd hear her.
Von Glave and Corners exchanged a glance. "The good Dr. Gold," Corners announced.
"Uh-huh," Von Glave agreed. He slung his crossbow over his back and approached Dr. Ramona Gold, his hands outstretched. "Ma'am," he said, trying to keep his voice calm. "I need you to go over in the field there with the other survivors. An ambulance and fire engine should be arriving from Cyprian's Vale soon." That was the city just outside of the Blackwood Preserve. "You may need to be treated for shock. I guarantee that Ranger Corners and I will find your son—"
"I'm not in shock. I'm feeling many things, but I am not in shock." Dr. Gold reached Von Glave and Corners. She had her son's copper-colored hair, though hers was a little darker and set in a neat pony tail. She wore a dark brown jacket and worn jeans, with even a pair of hiking boots. She had a few freckles on her face, which was now lined with worry. She seemed to be struggling to keep her face frozen in a determined scowl. "Now, you know my name and I'd like to know yours." She straightened her jacket. "I'm going with you," she announced. "I'm getting my son back."
"I'm Ranger Alvin Corners," Corners replied. "And I don't think you ought to, ma'am. I know you're an expert on monsters, but you don't know how things work here in Blackwood."
"I wrote my dissertation on dragon behavior," Dr. Gold replied. "I know that they rarely carry away human children - or bother with abducting humans at all. They'll go for easier prey if they want something small to feed their hatchlings." Dr. Gold jammed her hands into the pocket of her coat. Her face remained frozen in the scowl. "But they are intelligent creatures and a female dragon wouldn't steal away my son unless she had a good reason. Something on Bullfinch Mountain has disturbed her and she's taken action. And that means there's a good chance that Toby is unharmed and can be rescued if we work fast and waste no time with arguing."
She was tough. Von Glave had to admit that. But he didn't want to have to look after her. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said. "I understand how you must feel, but you can't come with us."
Dr. Gold glared at him. Her eyes darted to her badge. "I'm sorry –I didn't get your name."
"Werner Von Glave." Von Glave nearly whispered it.
"You're a Von Glave. You're part of a family of Germanic monster hunters. I know exactly the kinds of things your family has done, Von Glave, and I sincerely doubt you understand anything about how I feel." She seemed to be delivering a speech, with almost practiced confidence. "I believe in the right of all animals – including so-called monsters - to live freely and happily. Unlike your parents, I've tried to instill that respect and kindness in my son and Toby loves my work as much as I do. This is the first time I've taken him to Blackwood." Her voice began to soften. "And he was so amazingly delighted. I won't let him be taken from me. And I won't stand down on your orders, Ranger Von Glave. I simply won't."
Von Glave fell silent. He couldn't think of anything to say. Corners answered instead. "The jeep seats four," he explained. "You can come along, but only as an adviser and only if you do what me and Von Glave tell you and with no argument." He stepped back and walked over to the jeep. "We ought to get moving. That's boy in danger every moment we dawdle."
"Yes," Von Glave agreed. "A good point." He walked back to the jeep as well and Dr. Gold followed. They set off, just as the emergency vehicles arrived from the paved road that led out of Blackwood and to Cyprian's Vale. Corners kept the jeep's engine humming. They roared back off towards the Frazer Meadows, without slowing down.
They sped straight for Mount Bullfinch.
Nobody said much as they crossed the open grassland. Corners drove swiftly, zooming for the bulky peak of Mount Bullfinch and its surrounding hills. They passed the various groves, creeks and lakes that split the Frazer Meadows and stared at the thicker woods in the distance. Some of the monstrous animals of Blackwood were already active. Von Glave saw a unicorn slowly grazing by the side of a creek. The unicorn gave them a disinterred snort as they rolled past. Up above, a flock of gargoyles filled the sky with their creaking obsidian wings. They cast bat-winged shadows over the meadow. If times were different, Von Glave might have enjoyed the outing.
Soon enough, they arrived at the foot of Mount Bullfinch. Corners slid the jeep to a stop and killed the engine. "Path's too tough for driving," he explained. "We'll go up on foot. Von Glave and I know a couple of mountain trails that'll bring us to the dragon caves." He looked back at Dr. Gold. "You stick with us, Doc, and hang back a little – don't go running on ahead, even if you think your little boy is in danger. We don't want you getting in hot water too."
"Of course," Dr. Gold agreed, though Von Glave didn't much trust her.
They left the jeep and started up the trail. Corners located the trailhead, which wound between the tall conifers and stretched up the mountainside in lazy switchbacks. The trail grew steeper as they worked their way up, passing more jagged gray rocks and only the occasional spray of vegetation. The day was cold, but Von Glave sweated a little as he hiked. Corners took the head and Von Glave fell back and walked alongside Dr. Gold. She didn't complain or slow. Von Glave watched for a while, trying to think of something to say.
After the trail leveled out a little, Von Glave settled on something. "I'm sorry about your son," he announced. It seemed neutral enough – and maybe even a little comforting.
"Thanks." Dr. Gold didn't look at him when she responded. "We'll find him. We'll get him back." She continued forcing her way up the slope, pausing to haul herself over a slight rise in the trail. She matched Von Glave's pace. "He means everything to me," Dr. Gold said, almost like she was talking to herself. "His father was a prick who ripped off my papers and spent his time with coeds – instead of with me or Toby. He didn't like me bringing Toby here." She lowered her eyes. "I'm beginning to think that he's right."
"He isn't," Von Glave pointed out. "Blackwood Preserve is perfect for visitors of all ages, as long as they follow the proper rules and respect the wildlife." Of course, little Toby Gold had done all that and still been snatched up by a dragon.
Dr. Gold turned to stare at him. "Thanks," she said again. "And I'm sorry I snapped at you earlier, Ranger Von Glave."
"No trouble," Von Glave said. "And you may call me Werner, if you wish."
"I don't mind it." She offered him a quick smile. "You do seem to care about the animals here, Werner – and I believe your care is genuine." Dr. Gold brushed a few strands of hair from her forehead. She didn't slow as she talked, but continued tramping ahead. "You mind if I ask why?"
"No." Von Glave tried to compose his answer. The proper words refused to arrive. "Why do you care for these monsters?" he finally asked.
"I learned about them when I was a girl," Dr. Gold explained. "I learned about all these fascinating creatures being wiped out, hunted and destroyed with an almost religious fervor. I knew that unless I did anything, they'd be gone and I could never get to experience them – and neither would my children. That's why I became involved with monster conservation." She didn't let up. "But what about you, Werner?"
"I have plenty of experience with them," Von Glave replied. "I think for everyone in my family, they have inspired as much fascination as hatred. We learned to respect them, even as we hunted them down. And I think I realized that these respected creatures deserved something more than just destruction." He lowered his voice, suddenly nervous. He was aware of the shine in Dr. Gold's eyes and the meticulous, fearless way that she clambered up the steep trail. "Is that a good answer?" he asked, realizing how pathetic the question sounded.
Before Dr. Gold could respond, Corners called from up the trail. "Werner!" he cried. "Doc! You'd best get up here right away! You're gonna want to see this." Von Glave and Dr. Gold doubled their pace. They hurried up the rest of the trail and soon caught up with Corners. The trail bulged out a little and there was a kind of wide ledge overlooking the meadows, which wrapped around the side of Mount Bullfinch and disappeared with view. More trees grew here, obscuring the trail up ahead and the higher slopes of the mountain. Von Glave quickly saw what had roused Corners.
There was a campsite, placed on the rocks. It consisted of three nylon tents in discreet cameo, a steel stove and a few crates of equipment – including a stack of assault rifles. Von Glave walked past the tents and the guns, shaking his head. "Campers aren't allowed here," he said. "This is troll territory, after all." He pointed to the firearms. "But I doubt these are usual tourists. Assault weapons do not really go with bags of granola and portable stoves."
"What do you think?" Corners knelt down next to the guns. "Poachers?"
"Most likely," Von Glave agreed. Poachers kept the Blackwood Rangers busy. There was a great demand for monsters, ranging from captured live specimens to their pelts, horns, organs, bones and teeth. A great black market existed in Cyprian's Vale, with fortunes made from those who hunted the federally protected monsters. And now a small group of them were here, between the dragons and trolls. Von Glave wondered which species they were after.
He got his answer. Dr. Gold had popped the lid of one of the crates. "Corners, Werner – look at this!" she called. "I think I figured out the reasons the dragon went rogue." She pointed to the contents of the crate. There were half-a-dozen speckled dragon eggs, each the size of a football and set on black foam cushions.
The shells varied in color from brilliant crimson to striped blue to obsidian black, each bearing the shade of the dragon hatchling inside. They could be worth a fortune to the right buyer. Wealthy men the world over wanted dragons for pets or guards. Von Glave had even read a recent news story online about some Latin American drug lord feeding his rivals to a trapped dragon and watching as they were burned and devoured. He walked over to Dr. Gold and joined her. He noticed that she was shaking slightly and then he closed the lid on the case.
"She's a mother," Dr. Gold explained. "And she's had her children stolen away."
Corners had already reached for the radio on his belt. "Don't worry," Von Glave told Dr. Gold. "We'll get your son back first and then we'll go and replace these eggs as soon as it's safe. Ranger Corners is radioing for back-up and we'll get a helicopter over here to secure the site. We'll get this whole business sorted out."
He spoke too soon. Von Glave heard a boot crunch on pine needles. He turned around, reaching for the pistol on his belt – but he was seconds too late. Three men stood on the slope above them, aiming assault rifles and combat shotguns down at Von Glave, Corners and Dr. Gold. They were rough-looking men, wearing long coats of dark cameo. Von Glave recognized the man in the middle, from his familiar thick bristly beard and the way the tip of his nose was replaced with only white scar tissue. His head seemed wedged between his shoulders, like was permanently crouching. A machete rested in a plastic scabbard on his hip. Von Glave had read this man's record. He was Orville Hood, an internationally wanted poacher who had been rumored to be active in Blackwood for the past few months. And now Hood had them all covered.
"Hands up now, folks." Hood's voice was a dark rumble. He and his men walked down from the hill and entered the camp. "A couple gunshots won't be heard by no one, all the way out here. And I can get rid of your bodies just as easily."
"I know who you are," Von Glave announced. "Orville Hood. You've picked a bad place to hide, Mr. Hood. It's far too dangerous."
"I don't think so." Hood stood next to Von Glave. His voice remained low. "It's hidden enough on this side of the mountain, and the trees cover the camp from the air. We can even have a fire, as everyone will think the smoke is from dragons. Bayliss here cooks a mean jackalope." He put his face close to Von Glave, giving him a good view of his nose.
"You're endangering everyone in Blackwood with your reprehensible actions," Dr. Gold said. She glared defiantly at Hood. "Swiping dragon eggs has enraged the animals and they're taking it out on innocent people."
"I'm afraid that ain't my problem, miss." Hood turned to face her. He kept his rifle pointed in her direction. "Your presence is, though. Why don't you go and stand over there, right near the ledge. Just walk on over there slow-like with your hands high." He raised his rifle. "Get moving or I'll give you encouragement."
Dr. Gold didn't move. "I won't—" she started, but then Hood slugged her in the gut and doubled her over. Von Glave felt his heart thunder as Dr. Gold crumpled. He reached for the long sword at his side, gripping the handle and pulling some of the shining blade free from the scabbard before the nearest poacher walked over to him and pressed his shotgun into Von Glave's chest. Von Glave froze with his hand still on the sword. Corners' hands dropped to his revolvers, but the third poacher covered him and he went still. There was nothing for it. Dr. Gold crouched on the ground and coughed.
The poacher looked back at Hood. He had a bit of a gut, which formed a cameo-colored hill above his waist. He was smiling. "You can hit her again, Hood," he announced. "Hit her all you want. This boy ain't doing nothing."
Perhaps Hood would have done just that, but then a rasping, roaring noise echoed through the woods. The call was taken up and more roars followed. Branches and pine needles snapped and cracked. Some of the pebbles on the ground danced, bouncing a little above the rocky soil. Hood turned back to the woods and raised his assault rifle, scanning the woods. He didn't know what was causing the noises and the other two poachers started to feel his unease. That was obvious just from looking at them. But Von Glave had some idea as to the source of the noise. It was something far more dangerous than Orville Hood and his gunmen.
"What the hell's that?" The third poacher asked. He was a string bean of a man, with a lazy eye that seemed focused permanently on his shoes. "What's making up that racket?"
"I don't know," Hood replied. "But it's no reason to go soft – not when we've got hollow points and armore piercing rounds just waiting to be fired."
"You're a pack of damn idiots," Corners announced suddenly. "Fools who picked a foolish campsite." He nodded to Von Glave. "You know why my partner said y'all were sequestered in a dangerous place?"
Hood turned to face Corners. "Go on and enlighten us," he said.
"It ain't because you could get noticed by us rangers," Corners said. "It's because you decided to set up camp right in the middle of troll territory." He pointed to the woods. "And trolls don't like to share."
Just as he spoke, the first of the trolls came charging through the woods. The troll seemed like a terrible cross between a buffalo, a gorilla and a wolf – all covered in shaggy, tawny brown fur. It was hulking beast, standing head and shoulders above most men and walking ponderously on clawed hands and feet. Its head featured a long snout full of curved teeth, like a furry alligator. Two curling horns twisted up from the top of its head. There were more trolls running behind the pack leader, all howling and waving their clawed hands as they made their way through the woods. They pounded down on the camp, hungry for easy prey.
The foremost troll bounded into the camp. It ran towards the poacher with the lazy eye, who raised his assault rifle and reached for the trigger. The troll was faster. Its clawed hand rushed out and took off the upper half of the poacher's head, removing everything above his nose. Blood sprayed on the stones. The poacher's body remained upright before a few seconds before crumpling down. Hood raised his assault rifle and started shooting. The roar of gunfire echoed across Mount Bullfinch. Dr. Gold lay forgotten on the ground, staring in horror at what was happening.
Von Glave knew he had only seconds to act. The poacher in front of him was distracted by the trolls, so now was the time to move. He grabbed the barrel of the shotgun, pushed it to the side and then rammed his elbow into the poacher's chest. The poacher stumbled back, left sucking air from the blow. He raised his shotgun. "You goddamn sneak!" he roared. "Trying to slip by me. You'll pay for that. You'll pay with everything you got!" He pulled the trigger – just as a troll tackled him. The troll carried the hunter down in a screaming mass, its claws and teeth already gouging into his body. Von Glave quickly turned away as redness spread in a pool around the poacher and the snarling troll. The poacher screamed for a long time.
Quickly, Von Glave hurried to Dr. Gold's side. He grabbed arm and helped her up. She was breathing heavily, terrified out of her mind. Von Glave didn't blame her. He looked through the carnage of the camp and spotted Corners, standing near the mountain trail with a revolver in each hand. Von Glave ran to him, a hand on his automatic pistol. A troll lurched into their path, both clawed hands raised high to shred their faces. Von Glave drew his pistol and emptied the clip into the troll's face. They were heavy bullets, designed to stop the monsters of Blackwood. They put the troll down.
Corners turned and saw Von Glave and Dr. Gold approach. They stepped onto the trail and hurried up, away from the campsite. "Damn lucky, huh?" Corners asked. "Them trolls showing up and saving our hides, I mean." The roars of trolls came from the camp, along with the fading screams of the dying poacher. Another troll headed their way and Corners blasted it with his revolver, pumping a pair of shots into the beast's chest and knocking it back.
"I don't think anyone's been lucky today," Von Glave replied. He stared down at his smoking pistol.
Then he heard another roaring barrage of automatic gunfire from the camp. Orville Hood ran through the ranks of trolls, his assault rifle roaring at his side. He blasted down every troll that tried to stop him, the heavy bullets of his gun severing an arm as he pounded past. He headed for the trail, dashing up the slope and slinging his rifle over his back. He didn't look at all at Von Glave, Corners or Dr. Gold. Hood was panting as he headed up the trail, but he gave no sign of stopping. Von Glave's mind raced. He knew that an angry sociopath with an assault rifle would disturb the dragons even more – perhaps at the cost of young Toby Gold's life.
He stepped away from Dr. Gold. "I'm going after him," he said. "Stay with the doctor and follow slowly. Radio for help. Tell them to hurry." Von Glave gave Corners and Dr. Gold no chance to protest. He turned and ran up the slope, slamming his pistol back into his holster without the time to reload. Von Glave still had his sword and his crossbow. That would have to be enough.
As he pounded up the slope, his fatigue began to get the better of him. It was a difficult going and by the time he reached the top of the slope, he had to pause and reclaim his breath. The slope leveled out on a wide plateau, with the higher peaks of Mount Bullfinch in the distance and numerous rocky outcroppings and formations that turned the area into a forest of gray stone. There were caves and tunnels too – where the dragons made their nests. The air on the mountainside tasted smoky, like Von Glave had walked into some old-fashioned barbecue joint. He sucked in the smoky air and tried to calm his pounding heart and try to breathe. That's what he was doing when Hood stepped out from behind a rock and opened fire with his assault rifle.
The bullets hummed through the air and kicked up dust around Von Glave. He dove for cover, leaping behind some rocks and crouching down. Bullets cracked into the stone above him, sending flakes of rock flying. The gunfire was deafening. It felt like the shooting would never end. When it finally did, Von Glave reached his sword and stayed still. He peered out from behind his rock and saw Hood walking back, towards the mouth of one of the tunnels. Hood still had the assault rifle, but he was fumbling to jam in another clip.
Von Glave started crawling in his direction, forcing himself to stay low. "Put the weapon down, Hood!" he ordered. "It will do you no good up here – not in dragon country." He pulled his sword free from its scabbard and moved closer, still staying behind cover.
"Come on, ranger," Hood called back. "You think I was born yesterday? I ain't buying that crap." He slid the clip into place. "Now come on and show yourself. I can play this game all day, if you'd like. Why don't we have an end to it? Just come on out and we'll get this over with."
"You got it," Von Glave answered.
He stood up behind cover and charged for Hood, swinging his sword down as he ran. He'd gotten close enough to Hood and now had only a few steps before he reached the poacher – and his sword reached Hood's throat. The blade slashed down, cutting the air and making an audible hum. There was no time for Hood to raise his rifle and gun down Von Glave. He swung the gun up instead, using the barrel of the assault weapon to parry the falling sword. That gun barrel was the only thing keeping Von Glave's sword from splitting Hood's skull. The sword cut deeply into the metal, causing sparks to fly. The shock of the impact raced up the blade and into Von Glave's arms. It made his arms ache and he stepped back. It gave Hood an opening.
Hood slammed the broken rifle into Von Glave's chest, and then let the fractured weapon fall. The blow made Von Glave's ribs contract and bend. He stumbled back, his vision spinning. He struggled to keep his hand on his sword. He struggled to stand. He saw Hood standing back, pulling the machete from its scabbard and raised the blade.
"Easy there," Hood said. "You just take it nice and easy, boy." He stepped closer, the machete outstretched. He slashed for Von Glave's neck.
It took all the strength Von Glave had to raise the sword and parry the blow. The machete's curved blade cracked against the long sword, nearly tearing the weapon from Von Glave's hand. Von Glave steadied himself and found his stance. He remembered fencing lessons in Castle Von Glave, hacking apart skeletons from the dungeons for practice under the tutelage of his father. He'd used that sword on sasquatches and elves ever since and – occasionally – on men. He lashed out at Hood, unleashing a blinding array of slashes and strikes. Hood was forced back. He was untrained and weak and soon bleeding from a dozen cuts.
"Damn." Hood stepped further into the mouth of the cave. He passed under shadow. "Very nice. You handle that pig-sticker well, I tell you." Hood let the machete fall. The curved blade sank into the gravelly ground, raising dust. Hood's hands fell to his side. Von Glave saw the holster and heavy revolver there – but was too late to do anything about it. "It's a pity, then," Hood announced, drawing out the pistol. "That guns were always more my style." He leveled the gun at Von Glave and reached for the trigger.
Before he could fire, something stirred in the dark of the cave. Von Glave knew what it was and stepped back. Hood wasn't so lucky. The fire came first, reaching out of the cave in a long red tongue and washing over Hood's body. It clung to his skin and clothes, igniting them in a single blast. Hood clutched to the pistol as he burned. He fired madly and stumbled forward, smoking pouring from his body. Von Glave smelled roasting flesh and hair. It made him feel sick. Hood managed a few more steps and then sank down to his knees. The dragon stepped out of the cave and stood above him.
It was the red female - the rogue dragon who had abducted Toby Gold. All dragons had scale patterns and colors that were as unique as finger prints. There was no denying it. The rogue dragon stepped out of the tunnel and looked down at the writhing Hood. Her dark eyes seemed bored. She watched Hood twist and burn for a while and then her tail snaked out and struck him. The crack was loud, sounding like the flash of lightning. The blow struck Hood like a bat to a baseball. Hood was lifted off the ground and hurled into the air. He soared over the edge of the plateau. Von Glave didn't bother watching his burning body fall.
He turned back to the dragon. She was emerging from the cave and staring down at him, judging him to be a threat. Von Glave kept his hands visible and his sword angled down. He took a step back. The rogue dragon took a step closer. It was Blackwood policy to put down every monster who took a human life. This dragon had just done that – even if she was disturbed from losing her children and only trying to defend her territory. Von Glave couldn't imagine destroying her. It seemed much more likely to be the other way around.
Footsteps sounded behind him. Von Glave turned around and saw Corners and Dr. Gold heading up. "Back-up's on the way!" Corners called. "They'll scare off the trolls and then we can go down and—" He came to a stop when he saw the dragon. "Holy Toledo," Corners said, his bluster fading. "That's her. That's the rogue dragon."
"Oh god." Dr. Gold looked up at the dragon. "Toby?" she raised her voice, ignoring the dragon in front of her. "Toby, are you there? Answer me, honey! If you're there, just let me know and I'll get you! Just let me know!"
Her call was returned. "Mommy?" The voice came from inside the tunnel. It was a child's voice, nervous and vulnerable. "Mommy, is that you?"
Dr. Gold made a choking noise. "I'm going to get him," she announced.
"You can't—" Von Glave started.
"I'm going to get my son," Dr. Gold repeated. She dashed into the mouth of the cave, running straight for the dragon. The rogue dragon turned to watch her. The dragon's mouth opened, revealing the jagged teeth and the glowing fire inside. The dragon was going to release another blast of fire and fry Dr. Gold before she could get int.
Von Glave moved quickly. He raised his crossbow, slammed in an enchanted arrow and pulled back the string. He pulled the trigger. The string released its twanging song and the arrow flew up and smashed into the dragon's neck. This time, the bolt sunk between the dragon's scales and stuck. The tip was carefully laced with a cold perpetual cold spell, learned from Arctic shamans. It burst to life. Veins of ice appeared on the dragon's neck. Her breath came as pained reddish smoke – and no fire. She roared in pain and turned back to Von Glave and Corners. Dr. Gold was forgotten and hurried past the dragon. Von Glave saw her disappear into the tunnel after her son's voice.
The dragon kept her attention focused on Von Glave and Corners. They did their best to earn it. Corners kept his revolvers flashing, holding out both guns and firing blankly. He sent a hail of lead into the flanks of the dragon. Von Glave used his crossbow. He was saving the last of the frost bolts and used other arrows instead – especially the ones laced with an explosive compound that blasted against the dragon's scale. The dragon recoiled from the sudden barrage, roaring piteously. Von Glave hated the sound. A plume of fire shot their way and Corners grabbed Von Glave and pushed them down. The scorching blast of fire ripped over their heads. The sudden heat made sweat bead on Von Glave's neck. They couldn't last long against the rogue dragon.
"Werner!" Dr. Gold's voice came from the tunnel. Von Glave looked up to see Dr. Gold running out of the cave, Toby hurrying next to her. They were holding hands. The boy had a few bruises on his arms and face and his Forest Scout uniform was rumpled and torn – but he was otherwise unharmed. Von Glave felt a little bit of cool relief wash over just seeing the frightened, confused boy. "We've got to go," Dr. Gold explained. "Now."
"Right," Von Glave agreed. He looked back at the dragon. "We'll go down the slope. Other rangers should be on their way. And we can still hold off the dragon." They started down the slope. Von Glave reached against into his quiver. He selected the last of the frost arrows and placed it in the crossbow. He pulled the string taut.
"Mommy?" Toby asked. "We don't have to hurt the dragon anymore, do we? She didn't hurt me, really. She just kept me in her nest. I don't want to her get hurt or anything..." His voice was thin and plaintive. The dragon didn't seem in a docile mood now, despite Toby's words.
"It's okay, honey. Just stay with me." Dr. Gold grabbed her son and hauled him. She carried him and broke into a run away from the dragon.
They hurried down the slope – but the rogue dragon followed. Her wings expanded and she headed out of the cave mouth, and then soared over them. They were covered in her shadow. Von Glave stared at the dragon's open mouth. He knew that the fire was coming and it would roast them both. He raised the crossbow and took careful aim. There was no time to hesitate. Von Glave heard his boots pounding on the gravelly rock, and Toby's panicked cries and then the dragon's roar. He fired the crossbow. The frost arrow launched upwards and flew into the dragon's open mouth.
The dragon soared past them and then began to sink. Thick clouds of red smoke poured out of her mouth – but no fire. She lost altitude rapidly and careened down towards the edge of the mountain. Her wings stilled. Dr. Gold pulled her son's gaze way. She covered Toby's eyes. "Don't look, honey," she said. "It's okay. Just don't look." For some reason, Von Glave was glad of it. He stood on the edge of the cliff and watched the dragon crash down on a lower ledge. Her scaly chest rose and fell. Her wings beat slower and slower, unable to raise her from the ground. She went still and died, in a matter of seconds. Von Glave wished that someone had covered his eyes.
He looked back at his crossbow and slung it over his shoulders. In the distance, he heard the rumble of rotors. A pair of helicopters was finally rumbling in, filled with heavily armed rangers that would discourage any other wildlife from taking a bite out of them. Von Glave stood next to Corners and watched them come. "Shall we take the helicopters back?" he asked.
"Nah," Corners said. "They'll have their hands full with securing the dragon eggs in the poachers' campsite. We'll just take the jeep." He looked at Von Glave, concern in his eyes. "Besides, brother, I think you might need the extra time."
Von Glave watched the glassy, forest green helicopters buzz closer. He closed his eyes and let out a whispered sigh. It was finished and he didn't feel any better.
After a short hike down to the base of Mount Bullfinch, they took the jeep back to the visitor's center. Corners drove, Von Glave had the passenger seat and Dr. Gold and Toby sat together in the back seat. Dr. Gold had her arm wrapped around her son's shoulder, like she was afraid he'd be taken away from her if she let go. She was talking to him, trying to explain what happened.
"The dragon was a…a rogue dragon, honey," Dr. Gold told Toby. "She had taken a human life and attacked a building. She had to be destroyed, for the safety of everyone."
"What about her eggs?" Toby wondered. "You said someone took them."
"Don't worry about the eggs, little man," Corners said. "We'll pick them up from the poacher's camp and then send to rehabilitative camps around the country, or see if we can fit them in to pre-existing dragon populations. They'll grow up just like dragons ought to."
Toby seemed to feel a little better. "Oh. That's good, then."
Corners turned to Von Glave as they rolled back into the Frazer Meadows. "What about you, brother?" he asked. "How are you doing?"
Von Glave stared at his lap. "I did not take this job to kill monsters," he muttered.
"Mr. Von Glave?" Toby's voice was hesitant. "I just want to thank you, and Mr. Corners, for rescuing me and for letting my mom come along and everything." Von Glave looked at the boy and saw his smile. "Thank you," Toby repeated.
"You're welcome, son," Von Glave replied. He returned the boy's smile. "So, beside being kidnapped by a dragon, are you enjoying your time in Blackwood?"
"Of course!" Toby's enthusiasm was evident. "We got to see a unicorn and they had a cockatrice sitting by the visitor's center – and we got to hear it sing! They were mandrake roots too, and they looked like weird gnarled people. And there was even a pile of sasquatch droppings outside, which smelled really bad." He beamed as he talked. "This place is amazing, Mr. Von Glave. It's maybe, I would, say, the most awesome and best place on earth."
Dr. Gold smiled at her son's delight. "It may just be," she agreed. "And it's got its defenders." Her hand reached out and fell on Von Glave's shoulder. "You mentioned your family's legacy, Werner," she said. "You're changing it, you know. You're making your family's legacy a good one."
Those words made Von Glave feel a little better. He leaned back in his seat and listened to Toby's voice describing more of the wonders of Blackwood as they drove away from Mount Bullfinch.