BY ANTONIA RYDER
Gray was putting away a stash of unused potions when he heard the first weak knock.
He froze, hands occupied with green and gold phials and gazing across his worn square workroom with disbelief. Who could that be? He’d hung out the ‘closed’ sign almost twenty minutes ago, and save the glow from the nearby gaslight, it was already dark outside.
Not thieves, surely? But he had no friends in the Spades, having moved here from Diamond just over a month ago, and nobody had extended a friendly hand to him. Indeed, his only recent guests had been desperate, poor peasants with no money for any other town alchemist. His reputation didn’t allow a high price, and they abused that knowledge frequently.
But those people never came after dark.
The knock rapped on the door again. Gray’s scalp prickled, and he put down the phials, wiping his hands on a cloth. Someday… someday he wanted to prove that he could be a good alchemist worthy of Father’s name, worthy of a better price and status, but right now, he’d settle for having the courage to open the door.
Gray caught the door handle and huffed a deep breath, then eased it a fraction open and peered in the gap allowed by the chain. “Who’s there?” he asked, his voice much quieter and quavery than he liked.
A low wheezing groan answered.
It took him a moment to source the voice, and then stare at the inky fall of black hair, curved horns, and near luminescent green eyes that flashed up at him briefly.
Confusion followed on the heels of this thought. Why was the black dragon, defender and unofficial leader of the Spades, standing on his doorstep?
Am I in trouble?
Terror seized him. He slipped the door chain and flung it wide open, then jerked back when the dragon staggered in. Shifted into human form, of course. Gray had never seen a dragon in his dragon form before.
And he’d never seen this dragon so rumpled and undone. Sweat slicked moon pale skin to an unhealthy sheen, and a thick glaze coated his luminescent green eyes. He panted and gulped in turn, clutching at his chest.
“What happened?” Gray gasped, shutting the door behind the dragon and latching the chain.
Diasse braced himself on the wall, gasping, knees buckling.
Oh vast heavens, he was going to fall! Gray hurried to his side, and, not knowing what else to do, took the dragon’s arm and slung it over his shoulders. “Lean on me. I’ve got a sofa you can lie on.”
A threadbare sofa with stuffing coming out, but… better than the floor. Diasse leaned hard on him. Fortunately, he was very light, if unpleasantly warm. Gray’s mind raced as he helped the dragon stumble across the small workroom to the promised sofa.
Dreams sometimes felt like this. Surreal and slow motion, with his head as light as a bubble. This was bad. The sounds coming from Diasse were bad. And he had no idea how to fix it or why he had come here of all places. They were not even acquaintances, and with Gray being an outsider…
Those were questions for later. Gray gently set Diasse’s slender, wheezing form on the sofa and loosened his jabot and the tight collar of his tunic.
It did not seem to help.
“What happened?” Gray asked, fighting to keep his voice steady.
Maybe it was something he could just flip through Father’s big alchemy book to find a cure for, and whip up inside two minutes.
You know better than that, Gray, he told himself. This… whatever this is, is dire.
He’d never seen a dragon like this. Diasse writhed on the sofa, face white as chalk, lips tinged blue and sweat rolling down his cheeks. Even his tail lashed with threatening speed, clawed hands clutching at a throat marred pink from previous scratches.
It seemed to cost him immense effort to speak. “Dragon bane,” he rasped out, eyes squeezed shut. “Alchemy. Crow… concoction… in tea… during negoti… nego—”
“Crow poisoned your tea during negotiations?” Gray clarified.
Diasse managed a nod.
Sweat slicked Gray’s palms. Crow was one of the most famous, whispered about alchemists in his homeland of Diamond. And one of the most notorious criminals dancing just outside the reach of the law. He was part of the reason why Gray had left his homeland, and his father.
“You… closest alchemist…” Diasse gritted, interrupting his thoughts. “No… time…”
The dragon wheezed a groan. Bright green eyes flickered, clouded over like death’s film.
Oh hell. Father’s book had nothing on dragon bane. What even was dragon bane? He’d heard of it in children’s stories, but the plant—the concoction—it didn’t exist! This dragon is going to die, and I can’t do a thing about it! I’m so useless—
“Burns,” Diasse rasped.
“Just… burns?” Gray asked, trying to force his shaking voice to sound authoritative as he grabbed a thick tome from the leaning bookshelf nearby and frantically flipped through the tissue thin pages. “I need something to work with so I can relieve the symptoms.”
He hoped he could relieve the symptoms. Maybe get the dragon to breathe without that horrible choking sound.
Oh, gods above. If he let the local dragon die, he really would have no chance of working in the Spades. He’d have to leave, again, and set himself up as some social pariah elsewhere, and hopethose people didn’t figure out that he allowed one of the strongest magicians in the world to die out of sheer incompetence.
Gray threw the book aside. It was useless. He needed to do something now, not read a list! “Hold on, I’ll… I’ll try something.”
He ran to the table and sorted through the remaining phials, searching them for something that would help. Come on, Gray, think!
“Doesn’t… hurt… hu…mans,” Diasse managed. It cost him an enormous effort and he gasped like a fish on land.
“I got it. Don’t try to talk,” Gray hastened to say, seizing his pouch and running to his table and shelves.
Only dragons? That narrowed things down a lot. Not enough, maybe, but not too many poisons would exclusively work on dragons, even if they were altered.
Time was rapidly bleeding out. Gray hauled his entire stash to the table, spreading herbs and phials with a shaking hand. Diasse couldn’t breathe. He said it burned. He seemed feverish. Glazed eyes. Gray was an alchemist, not a physician!
But it’s alchemic. Dragon bane doesn’t exist, so it’s a concoction of some kind, but what? Hell, oh bloody hell. He had no idea. What would Father do?
Diasse made that horrible choked sound again, clutching at his chest with one hand. Grimacing in a flash of clenched white fangs.
“Hang in there, I’m working on it!” Gray said to him. He slammed down a small empty phial. All right, Gray. Think. Think. Think!
Gray mentally filed through every alchemy poison and cure he could think of and sorted his herbs and sample phials. Which ones might help. Which ones wouldn’t. A tentative idea was formed in his head. An imperfect, hellish idea that Father would probably shred and throw away, but the dragon’s breathing sounded so bad. There was no time for perfection.
Shaking hands shredded the herbs and cut others to pieces under his knife. Dragon’s beard first, a light reddish herb with healing properties, especially for dragons. It worked in the lungs and sinuses, making it a good place to start. But not alone. It wasn’t strong enough.
Feverwood, ice heart flowers… he tore them up or chewed them, each ravaged breath from his guest urging him to work faster. This was his only chance to change his reputation, or destroy it, and he couldn’t mess this up. He shoved the herbal paste into the thin bottle neck and uncorked a flask of fire alcohol.
It was disgusting, but if the poison didn’t affect humans, perhaps getting some of his own saliva in the mix would be beneficial?
Blood, he thought with sudden, perfect clarity. An alchemic potion that does not affect men… makes him feverish and burning and closes his throat… human blood would do it.
There was no time to think rationally about this. Gray grabbed his knife and splashed fire alcohol over it, wiped the flat on a clean towel, and slashed a stripe on the back of his arm.
It burned. Gray clenched his teeth and tensed muscles. It seemed to take an eternity to collect anywhere near approaching an appropriate amount. And was it his imagination, or was Diasse’s breathing getting worse?
Who am I kidding? Of course it is! He’s poisoned! His hands were shaking as he raised his unfinished potion to the light. Then he shoved on a cork and gave it a violent shake.
Father wouldn’t approve of this. Yeah, well, he isn’t here! “Hang on!”
And maybe he couldn’t cure the dragon with an off the cuff potion, but he’d settle for getting the dragon to breathe easily until then. A gentle pulse of Gray’s weak magic turned it a deep, lustrous violet, suggesting it had some healing properties and wasn’t poison.
Deep breaths. This better work!
“I’m going to sit you up,” Gray said, already moving to slide an arm behind Diasse’s shoulders.
The dragon wheezed and flicked his tail, so Gray helped him up. Were dragons all so wiry and light? If not, thank heavens this one was, because Gray’s slight strength would never have withstood the task of heaving Diasse into a moderately upright position after hauling him to the workroom.
“Here… try to swallow this,” Gray said, his voice thin and shaking. If he hadn’t made something that would work, Diasse might not have time for a second attempt.
And I’ll be dead come morning when the citizens find his body here. Goodbye hopes and dreams of becoming an alchemist of renown.
Gray brought the phial to the dragon’s bluish lips. The liquid trickled into Diasse’s mouth, and the dragon coughed. Gray quickly tipped it back. Drowning him wouldn’t help. “Sorry,” Gray stammered. “Sorry. Try again?”
The dragon did not answer, but his tail flicked against Gray’s leg. I guess that’s a yes.
“I’m going to tip it now, just try and get some down.” Gray eased the phial back, and this time watched the dragon’s throat. Was he having trouble swallowing? “I need you to try and calm down. Otherwise you’ll choke.”
Green eyes flickered open, catching his eye for a split second. And then Diasse’s throat bobbed, a thin trickle of purple liquid leaking at the corner of his mouth. Gray tried to help, alternating between holding back the dragon’s weak hand and rubbing his throat. And somehow the dragon got down another swallow. And another.
Please help. Please ease Diasse’s breathing. There was nothing else Gray could do. Get more of it down.
Another rough swallow from Diasse.
“Come on, just a bit more… more than half of it’s down now,” Gray urged.
Diasse took another painful gulp. How much poison had he taken? How much of this potential antidote would be enough? Or would any of it work?
Gray didn’t know how long he sat there, coaxing more potion down. Listening to each painful, slow swallow. Each rough breath. Waiting in terror for them to stop. And with Gray’s medical and alchemical talents, they probably would. The dragon was still choking. The medicine wasn’t helping.
I do everything wrong! Diasse was going to die and it was all Gray’s fault.
It was all too much. He’d tried so hard, and failed, and now someone was going to die because of it, and how would he ever face anyone again after this? How would he ever be able to forgive himself for letting this dragon choke to death in his workroom?
And his vision went all blurry as he lowered the empty phial, tears streaming down his cheeks. I ruin everything.
He wasn’t creative. Never once in his training had he invented anything—or even reinvented something—and his spontaneity was absolutely dead. It must be perfect! Was what Father had always snapped at him. And well, it never was.
Maybe I should become a bookkeeper or something…
A violent cough jolted him from his thoughts.
The dragon, still sitting up, hacked and spluttered and choked.
Oh hell. Gray had actually killed him.
And then Diasse was choking up something thick and black, vomiting and arching against it, his tail cutting stinging marks across Gray’s legs.
Breathing. He’s breathing!
“Are you all right?” Gray asked. Because this had to be a dream.
Head shake. But Diasse was breathing. Raspy yes. Incomplete, maybe. But breathing!
A part of Gray half expected him to relapse. Feared that he would. But his improvement lingered as Gray took samples of whatever he’d coughed up to analyze, checked his pulse and listened to his breathing.
It was still audible and raspy. Almost like his windpipe was compressed or swollen, or he had some fluid blocking his throat. Hard to say. But it was better. Slightly. He felt feverish, too, but Gray wasn’t sure if that was just the fire within causing his body temperature to be up, or the result of the poison.
The dragon’s face still looked a bit waxy, though. So probably fever.
Minutes slipped away, merging into hours. Gray gave the dragon more of the potion as the sun started creeping up. After this draught, Diasse was able to swing his feet to the floor, leaning heavily on the armrest and breathing hard. He accepted a mug of water and could hold it in a shaking hand.
He’s alive. He’ll live. Now Gray had time to set up tests and determine what he could about Diasse’s poisoning, and possibly purge it entirely. Words couldn’t describe his elation and relief and exhaustion.
“Thank you,” Diasse’s rough voice startled Gray out of his thoughts. “You saved my life.”
“Oh… oh, it was nothing,” Gray stammered.
“It was to me,” Diasse pointed out. His tail lashed. “Alchemists of your sort are a rare type.”
The dragon managed a wan smile. “Working well under pressure.”
Had he? I guess I did.
Diasse coughed. “Tell me what reward you want, and you will have it.”
For a moment, Gray didn’t speak. He wanted to have a position. He wanted to stop being an outsider. Serve in a greater position and make something happen in the world. He took a deep breath.
“Do you have any use for an alchemist?”
A faint smile shifted Diasse’s features. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Antonia Ryder lives in the New Brunswick deep in the bush and mud where she lives with two housecats, a semi feral tomcat, and a local raccoon. She imagines dragons and other fantastical creatures living in the forest.
© Dragon Bane, 2023, Antonia Ryder