Chapter 1, Section 2 of Stones of Dracontias
Armstrong grimaced when the hot water from the shower hit his cut and bleeding knuckles. He’d have to ice his fists before he turned in for the night. Closing his eyes and shifting fully under the spray of water, Armstrong fought to regulate his breathing and calm his anger.
When he’d seen those men tonight, first one and then the other, approach the young woman who sat at a corner table, he knew they were up to no good. Sure, the girl, maybe nineteen, if a day, shouldn’t have been in the bar in that part of DC and by herself. Far too pretty and innocent for the local flavor, the girl stood out the minute she stepped into the joint.
Armstrong didn’t know if she’d been given bad directions, someone was playing a joke on her, or whether she was one of those females who got off on living dangerously and testing boundaries. He hadn’t known her story, and he hadn’t cared. From his perch at the bar, he’d seen her reject, with a definitive shake of her head, the tall blond guy with a bad haircut and even worse taste in clothing. She’d given his friend, who’d approached a few minutes after the first, the same rigorous head shake.
The men had left the girl alone after that, or so Armstrong had thought. In the men’s room, he’d overheard the assholes and hadn’t liked a damn thing they’d said. So, he’d watched them watch her for over an hour.
The soap stung his bruised fists. They throbbed, but it was a good kind of pain. The kind that came with the satisfaction of being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. Hell, he knew, this close to his interview with the US Secret Service, that he didn’t need to do anything stupid that would ruin his chances. He’d been keeping his nose clean for the last six months. No fights. Hardly any drinking. And damn near no women. He liked all three too much, according to his brother Isaiah, the owner of Knight Life Bar.
Isaiah had been right when he’d told Armstrong to disappear. The cops would have a lot of questions. His older brother, a smooth talker from way back, could handle DCPD. The man could talk his way out of damn near anything, which had saved their asses over the years. Isaiah had kept them in school, off the streets, and out of jail when too many neighborhood guys had taken the wrong path to manhood. The cradle to prison pipeline in his neighborhood was all too real.
He toweled off. Armstrong contemplated shaving, then decided against it. The bathroom mirror, thanks to his broken exhaust, had steamed over and the bathroom was too muggy for anything more than a quick brush of the teeth. Two minutes later, he strolled buck naked across the cool wood of his living room floor and into his kitchen. Snatching the black kitchen towel from the oven door handle, Armstrong opened the freezer and shoveled a handful of ice into the towel.
It was a little after one in the morning, maybe he’d catch an old western on television while he iced down his knuckles. Either the action would keep him awake long enough to do both hands or the corny dialogue would put him to sleep.
He grabbed a can of soda from the frig, turned off the kitchen light, and made his way to the living room.
He stopped. Blinked. Rubbed his eyes. Blinked again.
What in the hell?
Grape can of soda, ice, and towel were dropped from his hands. Armstrong was also sure his mouth hung open. He couldn’t feel his fingers or toes. And his brain, something was wrong with his brain because all he could think about was that he was standing in front of a dragon buck naked.
Not that there was an actual dragon in his home, one who’d entered his apartment and he hadn’t heard a thing. Not that a hungry-looking dragon stared at Armstrong from a crouched position beside his couch. No, none of that registered with him. Instead, his stupid brain thought about post-shower shrinkage and first impressions.
More out of embarrassment than modesty, Armstrong covered himself with all that he had, his hands.
The dragon didn’t move; it only watched him. He didn’t know what to do. Armstrong figured if the creature had intended to eat or kill him, it would’ve gobbled him up already. That was his human brain rationalizing an absurd situation. He had no idea how dragon’s thought. They were majestic beasts he’d admired his entire life.
The world knew little about them, except they always seemed to be part of human history. Where dinosaurs had died out, leaving behind fossils to mark their time there, the dragons remained.
They flew, healed, and disappeared. No one knew where they went when they weren’t answering the prayers of humans or flying away from cameras.
From the little he could make see of the dragon, with no light on in the living room, Armstrong could hazard a guess as to which dragon had invaded his home with its scaly presence. The youngest dragon among the ones humans had cataloged over the years. Until tonight, he’d never seen it alone. Normally, the dragon flew beside much larger dragons; its family, he assumed. Not that there was anything small about the reptile.
Why haven’t you screamed or run away in terror?
“Did you just speak in my mind?” He shook his head, then smacked his forehead. Twice.
That’s quite unnecessary. Your brain’s function is at it should be. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with you telepathically.
“This isn’t happening. Dragons aren’t telepaths.” He glanced around his apartment. No broken glass. How in the hell had the dragon gotten in there? “I’m dreaming. That must be it.”
I thought you would be more intelligent than this. Thus far, you’ve proven to be quite a disappointment. And why are you not screaming? Do I not frighten you?
Without thinking, Armstrong lowered his hands and took three steps into the living room. “Are you the cute gold dragon I’ve seen on TV?”
A huge head rose, the crown skimming the ceiling. Two rows of sharp, white teeth glistened, forked tongue hissed and eyes dilated.
I am the Bloodstone Dragon, and you will show me the proper respect. Dragons are not cute, Knight.
“How do you know my name?”
Why have you not run? Do you possess no sense of self-preservation?
“Do you want me to be afraid of you? Did you come here to scare me?”
You’re a strange human. I don’t pretend to understand why you don’t react the way a normal human would.
“If I did, we wouldn’t be having this nice conversation. To answer your question, I’m not afraid of you. You’re big and have those scary ass teeth, and I should’ve beat feet to get the hell out of here.” He shrugged. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I know you won’t hurt me.”
The dragon lowered its head again, settling its face on the floor, its tail curled around what looked to be back legs.
Armstrong smiled and moved three steps closer. The dragon was trying to not break the cheap furniture he had in his home by making itself as small as possible. He wondered how long the dragon had been there, waiting for him to notice its presence and run away screaming.
“Are you male or female, Bloodstone Dragon?”
For the first time, serpent eyes took in the most obvious symbol of his gender. If the dragon had been a woman, gazing at him the way it was, he would cover himself again because the dragon didn’t seem impressed.
Female, like the human you saved in the alley.
“Wait, you were there? I didn’t see you.”
You also didn’t see me until I made myself known. You aren’t very observant.
He was plenty observant, that’s how he’d known what the two assholes had in mind. A sexy woman had come up to him, asking Armstrong to buy her a drink. Five minutes of flirting were all it had taken for him to lose track of the men and their quarry. A few minutes more and the men would’ve raped the girl. Luckily, his big head had stepped in and reminded his little head that he was supposed to be keeping an eye on the young woman.
Returning to the mess he’d made on the floor, Armstrong retrieved the soda and scooped up the ice and hand towel. Dragon or not, he was thirsty and still needed to ice down his bruised knuckles. If she’d seen the fight, then she would understand.
He plopped onto the couch, the dragon’s head, even lowered, came nearly to the armrest.
The men wanted to hurt the female. I could smell her fear and their lust. The scent of both lingers, as does the sound of your fists beating them into bloody submission. I didn’t think I would find a diata. I’m glad I did.
“Diata? What does that mean?”
Brave as a dragon. You even roared when you saw the first man.
He hadn’t known. Armstrong had seen only red when he’d come through the side door of the bar. The one guy was right there, so close to violating the girl that all he wanted to do was knock his goddamn teeth down his throat. He’d settled for introducing his heavy work boot to the man’s drunk face.
Yes, you sounded quite feral. Like a baby dragon. Diata indeed.
“Why are you here?”
My sister told me to find a human friend. Instead, I found a diata.
The dragon’s voice had a soothing effect, the longer she spoke in his mind. The few aches from the fight ebbed, and his fists no longer hurt. They tingled, but nothing more than that wispy sensation. Armstrong thought he saw red vapors rise from where the dragon laid on his floor.
“Is this a dream?”
No, Knight. I’m real. The next time I visit, however, I will seek permission before entering your home.
Armstrong was so tired, he could hardly keep his eyes open.
Sleep, diata, and let my magic take care of your wounds.
“Armstrong Knight. That’s my name. But I like the way diata sounds in my mind. You have a very nice voice, Bloodstone Dragon.”
He swore she laughed in his mind.
You’ve never known the touch of a dragon’s magic. I should’ve taken that into consideration before I used my healing powers. The first few times tend to produce a drugging effect, especially the first.
Heavy eyelids fluttered shut, grape soda and melting ice forgotten. But not the dragon. He could hear nothing, but Armstrong knew she was still there.
“What’s your name?”
I told you. I’m the Bloodstone Dragon.
“That’s a title. What’s your real name? Do dragons have real names?”
She didn’t answer, but she did shift on the floor.
With effort, Armstrong forced his eyes to part. She was gone. With a bolt, he sat up. Armstrong wanted to leap from the couch, run to the window and see where the dragon had gone. Instead, the magic that floated around Armstrong urged him into restful compliance.
Pulling his legs onto the couch, he reclined, feeling safe, courageous and strong. For the first time since deciding to apply for the Secret Service, Armstrong Knight didn’t fear the federal agency would pass over a black man because of his race. If they did, it would be their loss, not his.
He fell asleep, certain he’d heard a voice in his head say, Kya.