June 18th, 2020

_Double Dragon_ part 14

Jason started the car and headed for the gallery. He should be able to find Homer there, this time of day.

They were going to have to have a difficult talk about Herod.

Chapter Twelve

Jason stared in disbelief at the delicate little scroll of words. Under new management. He blinked at the young woman who opened the door.

"Do come in and take a look around. We've added four new artists."

"Homer sold the gallery?"

"You know Homer? He's going off in search of artistic genius. He feels the city has stifled his creativity."

"I see." Jason swept a glance around. "You're still showing his work."

"Of course. And he'll be sending us everything he create in his travels." She sighed. "It's so romantic. An Adventure."

The painting studio had also changed slightly, different holders with different paints. A watercolor flower on the easel.

"Really. Although I find it hard to imagine Homer roughing it."

Another woman looked around and snickered. "Oh, Homer's an old pro at toughing it out. His alt has dragged him though some strange places. We made him tell us all about it."

"Ah. I . . . don't recall Homer ever saying much about Herod."

"Well, they're so different. And so Bi. We hadn't thought about it before. We just hope Homer has enough time to paint."

Jason took the proffered card and walked out. Homer is just preparing for Herod's departure. He's not skipping town.

He turned for headquarters. He'd pick up Scarlet and they could work on their other leads. Because neither Homer nor Herod is the Ripper. Can't be. Damn it.

To his surprise, he found Homer waiting for him.

"Homer, we need to talk about Herod."

***

As Scarlet approached Jason's office she heard Homer. So odd, even the voices are different. She slowed, not wanting to interrupt. She knew she should also retreat out of hearing . . .

"The problem is whether Herod could be the Ripper." Jason sounded upset. "I know you trust him, but damn it, that bimbo in the apartment, she was blonde and wearing a red dress."

There was a long silence before Homer spoke. "They say a good dragon's alt is evil, and vice versa. But it's much more complex than that, and there's one basic fallacy to the saying. People assume that a dragon's good and evil are the same as a modern human's. But even wusses have a different measure of good and evil than dragons do. Jason . . . I am the evil dragon, not the good one. I am a coward. I'm selfish. I lie. I cheat other people by selling my art at ridiculously high prices. I drink coffee and alcohol. I eat too much, I crave sugar. I . . . consort with human women of low morals.

"That was my bimbo, not Herod's."

There was a long silence. Then Homer continued. "Must have been a hideous shock to him. Wish I could have seen it. I was watching the bars, as you had everyone available doing. I kept my eyes open for blondes in red dresses, consorting with a dragon. And I found one.

“I didn't know what to do. She looked drunk, or maybe drugged. I walked up to the bar beside her and ordered the same drink she was having, and switched them. I drank hers, thinking that as a dragon I could handle anything.

“But it wasn't one of the modern chemicals, it was raw jayjay. Any rational thoughts just disappeared. I didn't even think of phoning. I just poured on the charm and whisked her away. Seductions I can do. Arrests? Forget it."

"What day was that?"

"Very late on the fifteenth, lapping over to the sixteenth. The jayjay in alcohol . . . I didn’t make it to class on the sixteenth, didn’t even think of calling. By the seventeenth, I had a grip on it by noon, and made the class. But I was more obnoxious than usual, and the girl—Trouble, of course—kicked me. Herod ascended, and flew off to the mountains to poach a deer and admire the sunset and the stars. Herod can be sharp and sarcastic; he's a loner. But he fought to save those girls and guarded them. He's the heroic warrior, the dragon lord with the castle on the mountain . . . he's the good dragon, Jason. Sorry."

Long silence, again. This time Jason spoke. "Did you kill those women?"

"No! I'm not that kind of pervert."Homer snorted. “Poor Jacqueline, she had so much jay-jay she . . . well, probably slept most of it off, but still waited around for me, and got Herod instead.”

Scarlet eased away from the door, and sought the coffee pot. When she walked back she made sure her heels clicked on the floor and she walked right up to the half open door and knocked.

"Hi, Guys. Anything new?"

Jason shook his head, more like he was trying to shake his brains back into order than answering her.

"I'm getting ready for Herod to drag me off Thunder knows where, but I'll try to not leave before we catch the Ripper." Homer looked a little stressed.

Scarlet frowned at him. How to put him at ease and talking? "I really don't understand this metamorphosis stuff. How do you change your fingernails into claws. Where do your wings go?"

"Everything is short and chunky and dense in human form, and long and thin or hollow in dragons. Bulky human muscles, wiry dragon muscles. The hairs stick together in spikes." Homer shrugged.

She rubbed her face. "Herod looked bigger, I guess it was the long thinness."

"And air and water added—hollowed out bones, thinned blood vessels with a larger blood volume. We use the dust and humidity of the air, but really need to drink water for the blood volume. Herod was operating without extra water, for the fight. He probably felt stiff and cold and slow until he drank a gallon or two. Then when we change back, we mostly sweat it out, along with extra minerals and, umm, well, metabolic byproducts in the blood stream or lymph system and the extra minerals in scales that skin doesn't need gets dumped with the extra water. Quite messy and smelly, and we need a lot of extra mineral supplements in our diets."

"Wow." Scarlet shook her head. "Do you ever suffer from mineral deficiencies?"

"Oh yeah. Now we can just take pills, but it used to be hard to replace everything we needed. That's why there's all those tales about dragons hording gold and so forth. Sometimes we'd grind up ores and eat them. Gah! I still remember the grit, and needing it so badly I ate it anyway."

"Good heavens." Scarlet thought that over. Cravings. What actions can cravings drive? Rape, murder, eating livers and other body parts? "So. How many more Desotas do we need to check?"

Jason's phone buzzed.

"Got him!" The ME's voice was loud and boisterous. "Both your Ripper and Trouble Meyers have dragons for fathers and their mothers are either half dragon or half wuss. The dragon look didn't show up in the parents because they were also half second comer. You're looking for a dragon who was raised probably by an unwed half-second comer woman."

"Right. School records . . . no. Where the hell can I look, honestly?"

"The Church." Scarlet nodded. "We heard them threaten this unknown. Can we subpoena their rolls on that basis?"

Chapter Thirteen

A Beautiful Night for a Murder

It was the day before the full moon. Or night, if you wanted to be picky about it. Homer adjusted the sleeves of his blazer. Ring, watch, cufflinks, tie clip all gleamed with the unmistakable sheen of solid gold. People who didn't know him thought the stone in the ring must be an unusually dark aquamarine, not a blue diamond, at that size. Ha! His tie was just loose enough to suggest he was relaxing after a hard day at the office. He danced. He drank. He moved from bar to bar. In the fourth one he found a blonde in a red dress. He kept his distance. She danced with several men. From a distance he couldn't tell the wusses from the dragons, but one of the large dark haired fellows was persuading her right out the door.

Just for once, be as brave as Herod.

_Double Dragon_ part 15

He followed them out. Homer was taller than the fellow, he must be a wuss.

"Hey, do I know you?" Homer staggered to show how drunk he was. Trying to act like a friendly drunk. The man's hair was brown, not black. But the hand on the woman's bare arm had the heavy nails of a dragon. Longer and sharper than Homer's and slightly hooked.

"No. Go panhandle elsewhere, Grandpa."

Young, hence the size. Hair dark brown, but the claws . . . Homer straightened. "Miss. This man is a dragon, and you should not go anywhere with him."

The blonde rolled her eyes.

The young dragon took half a step toward Homer and lashed out with claws that were starting to lengthen.

Homer jerked back, catching a single shallow scratch across his neck.

Car doors slammed and footsteps ran toward them.

"Police! Freeze!" Jason's voice.

Homer sagged in relief.

The young dragon still had one hand around the blonde's arm. He spun and threw her at Jason and bolted. Shedding clothing as he dodged out of sight.

"Damn! Homer, change, I need you aloft." Jason dropped the woman and ran weaving through the cars.

Magana had run to the side, gun in hand, but hadn't gotten a shot off. She sprinted after the dragon as well.

Homer swallowed a whimper of terror, and undressed with all haste. The ring alone was worth more than the apartment building he lived in. His favorite watch, the unique, hand hammered chunky gold links and clip . . . he leaped into the sky and flapped for altitude.

The young dragon was ahead of him, dodging around buildings instead of going for height. Homer climbed as he followed the dark, dodging form. Above most of the roofs, he could cut corners, see the young dragon clearly silhouetted against the street lights. The youngster dodged into an unlit alley. Homer hovered until he caught the flick of movement darting across the street to the north. He cruised overhead, coasting, watching the lights below.

He spotted the dragon at the last second, before the youngster loomed suddenly below him, sprinting almost straight upward. He swerved . . .

Jason watched Homer swing away from the charge and slash at the terminal sail of the other dragon's wing. He had a sudden flashback. Herod clawing the priest. Sending the man flying. Bruised, no doubt, but not eviscerated. "Neither Homer nor Herod could have killed those women. Homer keeps his claws too blunt."

Scarlet stared at him, then looked up at the dragons in the bright moonlit night. "Does he keep them too blunt to win a fight with another dragon?"

Up in the air, Homer was suffering a rapid series of epiphanies.

Oh, the claws. Bad idea, to shorten and blunt the claws.

He hadn't hurt the young dragon a bit. And he'd let the youngster get above him. Bad tactics, even he knew that. The diving dragon hit him hard, and he spun wildly, dropping like a rock.

And I have no idea how to fight.

When he spread his wings to check his fall, the young dragon lashed out. Claws scored down his outer sail, pain scorched through his awareness. And kept right on hurting him.

And I'm too drunk. Herod can't ascend and save me.

He climbed for height, whimpering a bit. Looking. There. Climbing like there was nothing to it. Homer couldn't keep up. The young dragon climbed above him, tucked his wings and dropped.

Just like an aerial dance.

On the downstroke, Homer tucked his hurt wing, and rolled. The youngster looked indignant as he whipped by.

Dancing, I can do. It's fighting where I have problems. I'll just have to keep dancing as hard as I can.

Homer headed up, keeping an eye on the other. The Ripper. An experienced killer. Homer quivered, faltered. The Ripper came at him from below, and Homer pulled his wings in and dropped, whipping a wingtip out long enough to spin away from a raking claw. The Ripper spat fire, a thin streamer that missed. The young dragon spread wings and climbed. He coughed but couldn't come up with more fire.

Homer breathed out a proper gust of flame. The Ripper was way out of range, but the youngster veered away. Homer spread wings and tried for speed instead of height. The other dragon was faster, came up behind him. Homer pivoted to the right and tucked his injured wing as he grabbed the tip of the Ripper's wing. They made an excellent windmill descent, until the Ripper wrenched his wing out of Homer's grasp.

I should have flamed him while I had him held close. Homer shuddered at the thought. Skin crisping, the screaming as he plummeted . . . I should starve my imagination. And pay attention to the dragon who's trying to kill me.

They circled, watching each other as they spiraled higher. With neither of them flaming, they were as close as a pair of aerial dancers. Homer caught the updraft from the Chambers building, and passed the other. The Ripper yelled insults and found the updraft himself. Homer reversed course, somewhere down there Jason and Diamond were trying to keep an eye on the fight. The Ripper climbed higher again. Didn't he ever get tired? Homer just wanted to drop somewhere, anywhere . . . The Ripper dived.

At the last second Homer folded his wings and somersaulted, whipped his tail to snag the other's tail just long enough to bend and grab. And keep hold. He might not be able to sink his claws in, but by Thunder and Lightning, he could hang on. And keep his wings tucked.

And fall.

Because he was not alone. Because he had friends, people he could rely on. Help. Something Herod had trouble accepting.

The young dragon started flapping frantically, but he couldn't lift more than twice his weight, especially as he was tilted so badly . . . The ground was coming up fast, a brightly illuminated major street intersection. Homer spread his wings and flapped enough to not hit the ground too hard. Squad cars came screaming in. Homer hopped backwards, jerking the other dragon's tail, so he couldn't turn and rend anyone. Nets flew. Homer released the tail as the frantic dragon tangled himself.

Homer just laid down with a huff of relief. Nets over him as well. But hardly anything to get excited about. Nice warm pavement. He sprawled and soaked up the warmth.

Jason panted up to them. "Herod? Are you all right?"

Homer grinned. Then started laughing. Swallowed acid.

"Homer?"

"I did it. I caught him. Bite that, Herod!" A bit of flame escaped; the troopers tensed.

"Homer?" Jason sounded stunned.

"I was too drunk to change. That'll teach me to drink too much on a stake out. How did you know he would be there?"

The pretty lieutenant panted up, and glared at him. "We didn't. We were following you."

Homer stared at them with his mouth open. "But, but . . . the ME's reports. And the Meyers sisters said it wasn't me."

"I know, but . . . all the bartenders know you, know you go off with women all the time. And . . . you know all about forensics and DNA tests. You would know how to confound them. You had a tour of the medical wastes plant where the Ripper's contamination could have come from."

Homer sagged, adrenaline fading. "Oh. My. I should never have told you I was the Evil Alt. But I don't think picking up human women should count as a perversion. After all, they look just like dragons in human-form. In pretty colors."

The struggling dragon was shot with a tranquilizer. Untangled. Sacked—a restraint system for dragons, a wide elastic girdle that would hold the wings close to the body. Leather mittens on hands and feet, stretchy plastic restraints that wouldn't damage anything, if the dragon changed. A slug of antacid poured down his throat.

"He must be under thirty, he could barely flame." Homer started laughing again. "And I'm so damned civilized I just couldn't do it. Herod is going to be furious." He burped, and controlled his breathing.

Sergeant Diamond walked away from a confab with a bunch of the troopers. "Homer, I'm sorry, but half the city saw you flame . . . "

Homer just wormed a hand out from under the net and took the antacid from him. Chugged it all down. Turned his head carefully away and burped. Not a bit of flame. Excellent.

The youngster was fighting the tranqs. There was a limit to what the police were allowed to ask him, while he was under the influence. But identity and next of kin were allowable.

Jason stooped over the prone dragon. "Desota. What is your address?"

"Don't call me that." His lips pulled back from white teeth. "They threw me out, I won't use their name."

"Shall we call someone for you?"

"Call my mother a . . . " His eyes glazed, but he shook his head and fought his way back. "She won't even talk to me. And it's all her fault, not mine. She's the whore that bedded a dragon. I'd like to kill her. Kill all the loose women who . . ." his eyes glazed.

A squad car pulled up with the intended victim, and the two dragons' clothing.

The woman was clutching his jewelry. "Who should I give these to? Do you want me to keep them safe for you?" She bent and peered at him. "Oh my god! The Ripper! You saved me from the Ripper!" She edged away from the other netted bundle. How could she tell us apart?

The ID in the clothing the Ripper had left behind was counterfeit, but he answered to Herod Knife Edge.

"Couldn't you pick a different sort of name, something unique?" Jason flipped through the cards in the wallet.

"Herod was the best. The last of the Dragon Lords. I laugh when I hear dragons call themselves lord. But I was going to be a real lord. The ruler of all I surveyed." He panted angrily. "A reign of terror." Then the tranqs won and he went limp.

Homer bristled. "Herod never killed anyone who didn't need it. And he didn't kill women unless they really needed it."

Jason snickered. "The Herod? I suppose you are old enough to have known him. Did you ever meet him?"

Homer rolled his eyes, but then a second wave of people arrived. Jason's superiors, the District Attorney getting in at the start, reporters. As they untangled him, Homer made sure the news camera all got a good shot of his injured wing. Women were suckers for injured heroes. If he was going to feel the pain, he might as well reap the benefits.

Once the drugs wore off, they found themselves dealing with a dragon who gazed dully at the bars and whined that he hadn't done it, whatever it was, who remembered his Church prayers, and wept to have been cast out. Who changed back to human-form and refused to acknowledge being a dragon.

The prosecutor kept them briefed. "A beggar, a druggie. He started changing five years ago, when he was twenty. He first noticed the alt as a teenager. He started remembering doing dangerous, violent things. He drank to forget, and managed to partially inhibit the Ripper's ascent, purely by accident. But he couldn't stay drunk all the time. His alt started stalking women, stealing, got clothing that would get him into clubs, where he could find the women he wanted. Where he could play with them before he raped and killed and . . . partially ate them."

Jason shivered. This part wasn't up to him, and he was really glad.

Homer was so pumped up, he didn't seem to mind his stay in jail. Herod had surfaced early in the morning, and been sarcastic, but just a bit proud of his alt. He'd only been a little rude about the stitches in the wing, which would require that they stay in dragon-form for two weeks.

Jacqueline, the blonde from Homer's apartment; Betty the blonde from last night, Gale and Trouble had all ID'd Desota as the Human-form dragon they'd met in bars on the strip. "Except now he looks pathetic." Trouble said.

"They always do, once they're caught." Jason shrugged. "And this is his other personality."

Eventually the Church rolls turned up the teenaged demon who had been cast out when they spotted his scales. A woman who refused to admit she had a son with dark hair and scales.

Trouble had visited Homer, and left looking thoughtful. Scarlet had intercepted her.

"I'm fine. I just . . . I always thought I was a hybrid, half Wuss. But Herod said I may be a dragon. Homer said the weird way some of the stuff I remember seems kinda remote, how sometimes I'm cheerful, and then I'll turn around and hit people . . . He says that's just like a dragon. He says it'll get worse, until I'm two completely separate people. I wanted to go to the Gold Country. Stake a claim. I didn't even care about getting rich, so long as I could make a living out there, away from everyone."

"Don't dragons ever mine?" Scarlet scratched her head. "I read a book about a dragon that was a pioneer. There's not a whole lot of difference."

"Yeah. If I can fly . . . and if I grow big claws, I could dig . . . " She frowned at her fingernails. Thick and strong, but nowhere near a dragon’s.

"I suspect a shovel would still work better."

"I suppose. And I can stop worrying about going crazy, because it's all normal for a dragon." A hesitant smile peeped through and the girl’s shoulders relaxed.


_Double Dragon_ part 16

A judge quickly found that Homer had flamed in self-defense and shown admirable restraint in merely threatening, not actually burning the other dragon. Homer was released.

They brought him the clothes he'd abandoned in the parking lot, and all his jewelry. "I had trouble getting the woman to give it up. She was sure I'd steal it 'from that brave dragon.' I've got her name and number." Jason grinned. "At least you can't blush in dragon-form."

Scarlet snickered. "I don't understand how dragons became the minority of the population. As tough and strong as you are, the flying, the flaming breath . . . I'd think you'd be on top."

"Oh, we are. In everything except numbers."

Jason made a rude gesture.

Homer folded his wings and climbed carefully into the back seat of Jason's car, and started lecturing. "The slow growth of the dragon population isn't because we have a low birth rate. It's the generation times. Females average four children, but they don't generally start having them until they're at least fifty. I was born when my mother was a hundred and eighty."

Scarlet bit her lip. "All right, assuming I believe you, do you, or Herod, or does it count for both of you? Have any children?"

"Yes. A dozen of them. We've done our duty to further the draconic race. Over two centuries ago, I might add. I left the physical details up to Herod; he's a big fan of scaly type females."

"Over two centuries ago?" She shook her head. "That's before cars, trains, all that sort of stuff. How old are you?"

"Three hundred and fifty eight. For a dragon like Herod, those are the Good Old Days. He was quite the dragon lord. A pioneer up here in the Wild North."

He kept nattering on, but Jason had stopped dead.

"Wait. You don't. You can't. Not that Herod! I figured he was named after . . . I didn't actually realize you were that old . . . "

"Stop gibbering, Jason. Yes, Herod Landbreaker. Herod The Explorer. Herod North Pole—and wasn't that just a jolly place to ascend in, all unsuspecting! The same Herod that every third baby boy gets named after. Or did for a while. That craze has pretty much worn off. Herod doesn't like the attention. The few dragons who know, respect his wishes. Most people don't realize. Even the Ripper didn't know he's still alive."

Jason restarted the car. "And that was why the Foothills Grand Jury delayed everything?"

Homer snickered. "Yeah. They probably got about as far as the affidavit of identity from King Ferris and decided they needed to talk to their legal experts. Probably their chamber of commerce and publicity agents as well. No one doubts that the old dragon lords believed in expedient, fatal and personally administered punishment for crimes, but do they really want to put that particular dragon lord in the dock?"

Scarlet sighed. "I definitely need to do some more reading."

"Don't bother. The motives they impute to him make him laugh, the atrocities they blame on him make him furious. For half of them he wasn't even on the same continent. And the legends are just silly."

"Maybe I should ask him?"

Homer snorted. "There's a reason they have to make up silly stories. He doesn't talk to people about his past. Although there's an echo, now and then, in his fiction."

Jason nodded. "And that's why you've sold the Gallery."

"Herod wants out of here, so I might as well withdraw on my own terms. And I didn't sell it, I hired a pair of wussies to run it for me. I'll pack, and store nearly everything. I have a traveling paint box and easel, some canvases. One set of nice clothes, and not my favorite jewelry, that's all going into a safe deposit box."

Scarlet looked worried. "Don't you have any control about where you go?"

"Why? I never asked Herod where he wanted to live. No, it's his turn. He flies with the Thunder and Lightning, and goes where the wind blows. I'm used to it."

The next day they drove up into the foothills, to the Calusa County Courthouse for the Grand Jury. It was short. A brief summary of events. The forensic reports. The blood around the subterranean altar, the hundreds of remains buried on the grounds. Some nearly a hundred years old. Mostly small.

"Now we know why there were no Dragon-Comer hybrids." Herod had made a brief appearance, then turned things back over to Homer, commenting on the wisdom of not scaring the jurors.

The Grand Jury stepped out briefly, returned and instructed the District Attorney to pursue murder charges against any Church Members involved. "Obviously, the dragon killed and flamed in self-defense. There will be no charges against Herod West Plateau."

***

". . . so they begged the Captain to let a couple of you come up for a complete exam." Scarlet looked from one man to the next.

Homer got his mouth closed. "A space ship. A real space ship! I get to go on a space ship!"

Jason grinned. "That, lady, is an offer I can't refuse."

Scarlet beamed. "The shuttle will use your airport. The Transportation Department has provisionally accepted that our airplanes meet your standards for safety and reliability. So we can start skipping that awkward hopping about, pretending we're from an island the far side of Taploi."

"A space ship!"

Halfway up, the sky darkened to black and the stars came out. Homer started hyperventilating and Herod ascended. He snapped a look around the shuttle interior, then his eyes defocused as he hunted down the memories of where he was and how he gotten here. Then he started grinning. "Homer wins. This is definitely the least expected place for either of us to ascend." He sat up straight and fastened his gaze on Scarlet. "This Hesparus, your ship. Does it travel faster than light? How?" He grilled her mercilessly, then the flight crew, and studied the ship as they neared.

"It looks damaged."

"We hit something in hyperspace. We're lucky to have survived."

"Is that the bow? From the metal splash, I'd say something hit you, from behind."

“Possibly, but things are very odd in hyperspace.”

They got a complete tour of the ship, and got poked, prodded and extremely X-rayed, Herod while morphing. The doctors were as fascinated by him as he was by the ship. When they were done, they were invited to dine with the Captain. Herod grinned. "This is where I take pity on your Captain and hand things back over to Homer."

Then the dragons had to switch back and forth with their head covered with electrodes wired to a machine. The doctors were fascinated all over again.

***

Herod bowed formally to the King, and as always, his Majesty laughed. "You always bowed before you dawdled me on your knee, or terrified Mother by flying off with me. You look good, Grandfather."

"Your Highness is too kind. I should have made Homer come, so you could hear firsthand about his great battle. I dare say that would make you laugh as well."

"I have films of most of it. It looks like a parody, one dragon fighting, the other dancing. How's your wing?"

"Fine. I'll baby it for another few weeks, but it's healed nicely."

"So, have you formed an opinion of the Third Comers?" His eyes narrowed. "I understand you got a tour."

"Yes. I talked to several of Lieutenant Magana's compatriots, while visiting the Hesperus. Fascinating. I've written up all my observations. The people are remarkably lacking in prejudice, very tolerant of religions, much less so of crime. Well educated, intelligent. Their medical facilities are advanced. I recommend admitting them. Make sure you split them up enough that they integrate into society, let them build that hospital and research center they're talking about." Herod snorted. "I've had to change my understanding of our history."

"Yes. I talked to the Ambassador after I got your note last week. The Three coming from a completely different planet. Humans as the starting point, Dragons as a deliberately manufactured fad and Wusses as a suite of naturally occurring mutations, that block the Change and Split. I think the myths were more entertaining."

"What I don't like is the inference that the split personality was accidental, a mistake. The right personality cluster was supposed to facilitate the use of the changed limbs. It wasn't supposed to become a separate person." Herod shuddered. "They offered to try and fix that."

"What? Can't have that. I'll make sure there's something in the treaty about it."

"Thank you, sire."

"I concur with your conclusions. They seem like nice, civilized people, otherwise. Let me know if they get nasty, once they're here in large numbers."

Herod bowed himself back out.

***

Jacqueline Summers, Gale Meyers and Betsy Wilson quickly became the darlings of the daytime talk shows. The three women who got away from the Ripper. Trouble gained a small following of her own after she appeared on one show, in a low cut sleeveless shirt, and argued with her sister, live, on air.

Homer even made a few appearances with them. "I owe it to Betsy. I love that ring. And the cufflinks and tie clip. She picked them all up and kept them for me. Don't look at me like that! I'm being good. Mostly."

"I can't wait to hear what Herod has to say about your TV appearances." Jason smirked.

Homer sniffed. "He said I'll find out how horrible fame can be, and then thousands of babies will be named Homer. Only a few of them draconic. I told him I've sold everything I ever painted. Then he called me a shop keeper."

Scarlet giggled. "I've read tons of things about him, now, so I guess that's one of his most deadly insults?"

"Yep. I wasn't crushed, though. The new, improved, heroic Homer is made of sterner stuff."

They all laughed at that, but Jason also nodded his approval. Homer was still prissy about his clothes, but there was confidence in his swagger.

“Do you know what Herod is going to do? Or where he’s going to go?”

Homer shrugged. “I'll find out where, when he gets there. And you?"

Scarlet grinned. "Your King has suggested that a bunch of immigrants could move to the Gold Country. My former boss has asked if I'll help set up a police force for our people's town." She looked over at Jason. "But we've decided that the best way would be to expand the Regional Police, to be a single law enforcement agency from the start. We're both going."

Homer’s smile widened. “Congratulations.”

The Ripper's trial was quick, despite the media frenzy. Guilty on all charges.

The old dragon left the city the same day the young dragon received the death penalty. Brain scans had established which personality cluster was the Ripper, and which the confused youngster who'd tried to suppress his misunderstood memories with alcohol and drugs. Jason didn't watch the execution. He heard more than he wanted about the confused and disoriented dragon being treated for the trauma of having his alt burned out.

Politics reigned. The King wouldn't cede any land to the New Comers, but he'd let them in, a hundred thousand a year, more if they assimilated well. And perhaps they'd be interested in a bit of pioneering and gold mining? Jason grinned, as he realized the New Comers would be bringing doctors with them, and were talking about electrical generating plants. The King had figured out how to bring civilization to the frontier.

Epilogue

Homer looked around the thick log walls of the three story tower. He hadn't seen one in nearly half a century.

Figures this is what Herod would build.

The ground level floor held a large stone fireplace and served as living room, kitchen, and dining room. He knew without looking that the second floor was split into two bedrooms. Trouble in one; the newly-wed local branch of the Territorial police used the other when their patrols brought them this far out. Sharing his home was something new, proof that even famous old Dragon Lords could change. The third floor was all Herod's, with the hatch to the roof. Herod probably claimed it was for watching for danger. Purely a coincidence that it also let him take off easily.

There were some solar cells up there, too. Enough for lights and charging computers. At least Herod wasn't going back to scribbling his books on paper.

And a satellite antenna. I'll be able to contact friends and business partners. If I dare.

Homer walked outside, stepping carefully on the stones placed in the mud. From the state of the heavy leather boots he'd found himself wearing, Herod rarely bothered. The heavy work clothes didn't bear mentioning.

There was a bath house, with a big steel water tank over a fire box. A privvy. Ugg. Be honest. There was an outhouse.

"I am too old for a howling wilderness, Herod. You'd better hope I don't ascend more than a few hours a month, or I will make your life miserable." Herod would remember him saying that, assuming the old dragon bothered to search his memory. Homer followed the path through the trees, to the creek where the gold mining was underway.

The sun was sinking toward the western horizon.

Cloud shadows chased golden sunshine across the vivid green of spring grass and to the south white thunderheads gathered over rugged black mountains. The base of the clouds grew purple and darkened the sky. The remaining light silvered the winding stream. As the sky overhead deepened to indigo, a trail of red shimmered in the air. A shout drew his attention down from the aurora. Trouble held something aloft. A last beam of sunlight spotlighted the girl, flashing off mirror bright wet scales, and a golden spark gleamed in her uplifted hand.

Homer took a slow, reverent, breath. "Where did I pack my paints?"

FoolzCon

Which iisn't actually a con, but a bunch of us writers getting together for a writerss' retreat. I suspect much food drink and word count competition to happen. Or maybe we'll just sit around telling tall tales, and giving unwanted advise. Off color jokes guarabteed.

So _Double Dragon _ 14, 15, and 16 will have to do until it get back and reccover. Monday, I suspect.