Nice Dragons Finish Last – Rachel Aaron

It was a very ugly house. Two stories tall with a cheap yellow stucco finish and a roof sagging under the weight of the mismatched clay tiles, it stood alone in the vast expanse of the Nevada desert at the end of a long road meant to hold a hundred more just like it. But the second housing bust, or maybe the third, had nixed that plan, and years of bank ownership had left the property in limbo. With no landscapers to fight it back, the desert had moved in to reclaim the land, slowly covering the PVC pipes and pre-poured cement driveways until only the lone McMansion remained, sticking out of the sandy waste like a monument to terrible civic planning. By contrast, the car crunching to a stop on the cracked asphalt at the road’s end looked like a visitor from another world. Dark, sleek, and covered in black chrome with windows so tinted they would have made driving impossible in the days before computers took over the roadways, the sedan was a showpiece for its owner’s wealth and importance, and the men who got out were exactly the sort you’d expect. There were three of them, all dressed as nice as their car, but while the first two were so piled with muscle it was a miracle they’d managed to cram themselves into the designer suits currently straining over their shoulders, the third was of normal human proportions. Seeing this, one would expect him to be the most heavily armed, if only for compensation, but he carried no weapons at all. Just a single strand of long, brown hair wrapped around his first two fingers with a golden dowsing pendant dangling at the bottom, its pointed end jerking toward the ugly house. “She’s here.” The bigger of the two suited brutes pursed his lips and stared up at the house’s dark, dusty windows. “You sure? Looks empty.” The man with the pendant made a sound of absolute disgust. “Of course I’m sure.” The big man shrugged off the implied you idiot and turned to his overmuscled accomplice.

“I’ll take the front. You go ‘round back in case she bolts.” The other thug nodded and jogged off, pushing his way through the skeletons of the long dead bushes that divided the front of the property from the back. Meanwhile, the leader strode across the parched yard, up the rickety stairs to the scuffed front door. He tried the knob first, just in case. When it didn’t turn, he put one hand on the concealed stun gun at his hip and began pounding on the weathered door with the other. “We know you’re in there, sweetheart!” he bellowed, slamming his fist down until the chipped paint was falling like rain. “Last chance to do things the easy way. You make us come get you, you ain’t gonna like it.” He paused his beating to listen for a response, but the only sound was the night wind, and he turned back to the man with the pendant.

“She’s in there,” the smaller man snapped, stomping up the stairs to stand shoulder to huge shoulder with the thug on the rotting welcome mat. “I got this hair off her father’s coat before we tossed him, and material links are never wrong.” To prove his point, he held up the golden pendant, now straining at the end of the long brown hair like a tied-down missile. “It has to be her, and she has to be here. Just break it down.” The big man shrugged. “You’re the mage.” He lifted his trunk of a leg. “Mind your fingers.” The mage snatched his pendant back just in time before the door splintered under the big man’s boot, the deadbolt and the lower left corner ripping clean off.

Two more kicks took down the rest, and the thug stepped through the now-empty doorway with a menacing grin on his face. “Knock, knock, princess!” A smaller crash echoed from the rear of the house, and the third man, the one they’d sent around back, yelled, “She’s not in the kitchen!” “You look around down here,” the big thug ordered, turning toward the stairs. “I’ll take the top. Remember, we got free reign to rough her up, but nothing permanent until Mr. Magic there confirms we’ve recovered the goods.” The mage shot to his full height, his face almost black with rage in the desert moonlight. “For the last time, my name is not—oh, never mind. Just get on with it.” The big man didn’t seem to care about the mage’s anger, though he did shoot a pointed look at his feet, which had yet to cross the house’s threshold. “You coming?” “A mage never enters another mage’s house uninvited,” the smaller man said stiffly.

“Even when the mage in question is dead.” He glanced around the faded foyer with a cringe. “This was Aldo Novalli’s house. Lord knows what he left lying around.” The two big men inside froze, their scarred faces suddenly nervous, and the mage rolled his eyes. “Just go. Aldo’s or not, there’s nothing in there that could possibly be worse than what Bixby will do to us if we don’t catch that little thief.” The mention of their boss’s name had the desired effect. Both thugs immediately got to work with no further backtalk, opening closets and turning over furniture as they began their search. The inside of the ugly house was little nicer than its shabby exterior, but far, far stranger.

The scuffed walls were covered in old fashioned bookshelves packed to the edges with wire models of theoretical magical structures and even a few actual paper books on a wide variety of arcane subjects. The wooden floors in the living room and den were marked over in a rainbow of interlocking spellworked circles. Most of these were unfinished, but there were plenty of completed spells mixed into the mess, including one painted in purple in a continuous line along the crown molding that was making the mage on the porch particularly nervous. “Well?” he called. “Ain’t no one here!” the big thug shouted from the second floor. “Someone’s ransacked the bedrooms, took a bunch of stuff. Hundred bucks says she bolted before we got here.” The mage cursed under his breath and looked at his pendant again. Sure enough, it was still straining toward the house, the tiny golden weight pulling on the brown hair so hard, the strand cut into his fingers. He glanced at the thugs, who hadn’t suffered any horrible curses yet, and then over his shoulder at the sleek car that would be driving them all to their deaths if they returned to the boss empty-handed.

In the end, the devil he knew won out. With a deep breath and a prayer to the god he hadn’t bothered since high school, the mage followed his pendant through the splintered door into the house. He stopped again the moment his foot hit the floorboards, holding his breath, but there was nothing. No curse, no trap, no spike of power. Just the smell of old drywall and casting chalk. With a long, relieved sigh, the mage lifted his pendant high. At the end of the brown hair, the golden pendant began to jerk wildly, almost yanking out of his fingers in its frenzy to get to the back of the house, and the mage broke into a grin. “This way.” The two thugs shrugged and fell into step behind him as the mage strode confidently through the scribbled over living room and down a small hallway that led to what had once been the house’s chief selling point: a whimsical hexagonal dining room. There was no dining going on now, however.

Though clearly once present from the dents left in the carpet, the dining room table had been removed, leaving the room empty except for an enclosing circle of cheap, erasable whiteboards that had been propped over the windows, their faces covered in spellwork barely visible over the stains left by years of constant marking and erasing. This normally would have given the mage pause—it was never a good idea to walk into an enclosed space with unknown spellwork on the walls—but the pendant was yanking wildly now, and he bounded into the room like a hunting dog finally cornering the fox. “Here!” he cried triumphantly, grabbing the edge of the threadbare carpet and yanking it up with a flourish. “She’s under—” He cut off, the carpet falling from his fingers. He’d lifted the rug expecting to find a trap door to a basement, or even a storm cellar. Somewhere a girl could hide. But there was no door or hidden panel beneath the carpet. Just the dusty floor and a neat ponytail of long, brown, gently curling hair held together by a pink hair tie before the strands ended in a jagged, uneven fringe where it had been chopped off the base. That was as far as the mage’s observations got before he smelled something burning. His head jerked up just in time to see the markings on the surrounding whiteboards singe themselves into the plastic.

The spell he’d seen painted on the crown molding was smoking too, the letters and symbols burning into the wood as magic flared in the air. “Go!” the mage shouted, dropping his pendant as he turned and charged for the door. “Get out now! It’s going to—” The blast cut him off, echoing through the desert like cannon fire as the ugly house exploded. *** Across the empty street, a young woman stepped out from behind the ruins of the failed subdivision’s unfinished pool shed. The hot wind from the growing house fire whipped the ragged ends of her chopped off hair straight into her eyes. She pushed them back with purple-paint-smudged fingers, scowling at the tell-tale wetness that came away as well. “Don’t cry,” she whispered angrily, scrubbing her eyes again. “Don’t you dare cry.” She was still working on that when the fire reached the house’s furnace. The second explosion was even louder than the first, blowing out the building’s entire northern face and sending a corner of the ugly house’s roof flying straight into the men’s fancy car.

The sight of one of Bixby’s expensive cars crushed under a smoldering hunk of support beams and clay shingles was enough to make her feel a little better. She watched it burn for a few more satisfying seconds, and then she turned her back on the inferno that had been her childhood home and ran across the empty lots to the failed subdivision’s lone dumpster, and the dilapidated sedan she’d hidden behind it. The old car was so over-packed, it took her several seconds to clear enough space to squeeze her body into the driver’s seat. Even the dash was piled with bags and boxes, and she couldn’t see out her back window at all. But while the rest of the car looked like a promotional shot for an episode of Magical Hoarders, the passenger seat was empty except for a glittering ball the size of a large grapefruit. At first sight, the ball appeared to be made of solid gold. On closer inspection, however, it became clear that the sphere was actually glass: hollow, ancient, paper-thin glass gilded on the inside with a gold leaf pattern so dense, it looked like a solid, shimmering wall. The combination of glass and gold leaf was as fragile as it was beautiful, and it was protected accordingly by a nest of tissue paper that was itself tucked inside a towel-lined basket and lashed to the passenger seat by both the seatbelt and a half-dozen strips of duct tape. But for all the care the girl had clearly put into packing the delicate golden orb, the glare she shot it was anything but gentle. “You’d better be worth it,” she grumbled, scrubbing again at the tears that refused to stop coming as she started the car.

It took three tries before the old engine actually caught, and longer still before the dashboard booted up. For once, though, the car’s age worked in her favor. It was too old to have integrated augmented reality, which meant she could still drive it manually whether the computer was up or not. Good thing, too, because she’d already made it all the way to the end of the subdivision by the time the screen above the gearbox finally flickered to life. “Destination?” the hollow voice of the GPS wheezed. “Detroit Free Zone,” the girl replied, wincing at the blinding glare of the burning house in her side mirror. “Fast.” That last command was pure wishful thinking, but the computer did its best. “Calculating fastest route,” it announced sedately. The girl okayed the first suggested route as soon as it came up, tapping her fingers anxiously on the steering wheel as the auto-drive took over, rolling them out of the crumbling subdivision and onto the dark highway just in time to avoid being seen by the flashing emergency vehicles coming over the horizon from the other direction.

And back in the subdivision, unseen in the dark and the smoke, a pigeon flew out of a nearby juniper bush. It was a common city pigeon, completely out of place in the desert, but it flew like it owned the smoky sky, riding the hot updraft from the roaring fire to the top of the smoke pillar before circling back around to follow the girl’s fleeing car into the night.


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