Bits O' Story


The following story was one of my first works, and appeared in Dragon magazine back in 1992. It's pretty rough around the edges, but it spawned a more successful sequel, "A Handful of Hatchlings." Hatchlings appeared in Asimov's and has since been anthologized.

A Wing of Wyverns

by

M. C. Sumner

I spotted the wyverns just west of Forsyth. There were three in the wing, holding a ragged line and beating their way home. I was above the beasts, so I killed the engine and tried for a silent approach, but they saw me coming.

Two executed quick diving turns to the right. The third, burdened by the prey it carried, made a more leisurely curve to the left. I flipped the plane's small engine back to life and jerked hard on the control stick to follow the slower wyvern, but even weighed down, the little beast was more maneuverable than me.

By the time I'd gotten the plane's nose around, the wyvern had dropped down into tops of the twisted cedar trees below and was looking for a place to go to ground. I accelerated until it was almost directly below me, very close. I could see the multitude of veins in the thin membrane of its green wings as they spread wide. The bloody bundle in its claws was still moving.

I twisted the rifle downward and squeezed off a single shot, more in frustration than out of hope of hitting it. I got lucky.

The shot didn't connect, but the crack of the rifle startled the wyvern. It dropped the lamb it was carrying into the forest and started to flap hard for the sandstone bluffs along the Yellowstone. It picked up speed quickly, but I was pretty sure I could hold on as long as the creature didn't get too acrobatic. When we were both clear of the trees and flying across a valley full of sage and sheep-trimmed grass, I got off two quick shots. On the second shot, the wyvern flipped over and began a ragged downward spiral that brought it to ground in a mass of creosote scrub.

The landing was a bit rough on the plane, but I managed to bring it to a jarring stop. Then I took the pistol from the door holster and went to finish the job.

I found the wyvern huddling between the narrow walls of a dry wash. With its accordion wings folded in, it looked terribly small, scarcely bigger than a child. Its prominent ribs made it look half-starved. From the blood, one of my shots must have gone through the complex joint at the junction of its wing and shoulder blade. The wyvern turned its horny muzzle back over its shoulder and hissed at me softly. I shot it right in the center of its triangular back.

It wasn't until I grabbed it by the tail and turned it over that I saw the bold markings on its belly, a striking set of colored bands that looked a lot like a sunset. It was really quite beautiful. When I saw them, I started cussing.

Carl Madely from the state conservation department was waiting for me when I taxied up to the hanger. He stood by until I'd gotten out of the plane and stowed away some of my gear, then he came over.

"Any luck today, Bill?" he asked.

"Three," I said. I pulled open the velcro flap on the cloth side of the plane to uncover the game bin. Then I grabbed the first wyvern by the neck and handed it to Carl.

He took it over to an empty spot on the tarmac and laid it out carefully, expanding its wings fully and stretching out its neck and tail. With a tape measure and a pocket recorder in his hands, he began to make his report.

"Green Wyvern, male, adult. Wingspan 6.1 meters. Head to vent, 1.4 meters. Vent to tail 1.2 meters. Taken September 4, 1990 by William Mackie." He folded the wings back against the body and bound them with a length of string. Then he put the hook of a portable scale into the wyvern's teeth and held the animal at arm's length. It weighed about twenty kilos. Big for a male.

The second one was another Green. I'd picked both out of the same wing that was circling a poultry barn near Miles City. Then I handed Carl the wyvern that had been stealing the sheep.

"Boy," he said, feeling the weight in his hand. "This one's a whopper." Carl didn't notice the belly till he had it laid out.

"Blast it, Bill! It's a Painted!"

I shrugged. "Sorry, they look just like greenies from the top."

"Well, they sure don't look the same to the statisticians back at the capitol. Western Painted Wyvern's on the endangered species list. You'll be lucky if your licence is only suspended instead of revoked for good."

Carl didn't have much more to say to me that night. I made sure to get the varmint bounty for the greens right away -- I figured I might need it if I was going to be out of work for awhile -- then I went across the street to the Sky Gator Bar.

The girl came in when I was on my third or fourth drink. I don't drink much, so any number of drinks that's above one soon becomes kind of blurry.

Sleek. It's not a word I use a lot, but that was the first word that came to my mind when I saw her. She had a heart-shaped face, big dark eyes, a wide mouth, and smooth brown hair cut very short. A worn pair of jeans and long-sleeved jersey shirt that might have looked junky on somebody else, but fit her very well. Sleek was definitely the word. Just looking at her I could feel my heart accelerating and the blood starting to sing in my ears.

She stood in the doorway for a moment, blinking. As soon as her eyes had adjusted to the dark interior of the Sky Gator, she headed towards me. I thought maybe this wasn't going to be such a bad day after all.

"William Mackie?" She even had pretty teeth.

"That's me," I said, and I stuck out my hand. She took it and began to pump.

"I'm Janey Bochie," she said. Then she said something else. Over the noise in the bar and the buzzing in my ears, all I could pick out was the word "conservation."

That one word was enough to send my temperature down ten degrees. "What a waste," I said. I took my hand back and picked up my drink.

"What?"

"All my papers are in order. Anything else you want to know about the Painted, just ask the local worm police."

"I don't understand," she said.

I glanced over and saw that she did look a bit confused. "You aren't here about the Painted?" I said around a mouthful of vodka.

She shook her head.

"Then, what do you want?"

"Everyone tells me you're the best in the state at tracking wyverns. Is that right?"

"Some people seem to think so."

"Good," she said. She climbed onto the bar stool next to me and flashed a smile that was fairly stunning in its brightness. There were mounted wyvern heads on the wall behind her; they seemed to be smiling, too. "I want to hire you."

"You want to hire me to kill wyverns?" I asked.

"Not kill them, just find them. Find one. Are you for hire?"

I doubted that she would be paying as much to locate the beasties as I got for killing them through the combination of state bounties and under-the-table funding from the local ranchers. But then again, it didn't look like I'd be collecting any bounties for awhile.

I looked over at the girl. Her eyes were very large and very bright. Sometimes there are other considerations than money for taking a job.

"Would you like something to drink?" I asked.

***

"Is this an ultralight?" Even from right beside me in the passenger seat, she had to scream to be heard above the wind and engine noise.

"It's a Mackie," I yelled back.

"What?"

It's hard to do humor when you're yelling. "Made it myself. Too big and too much range for an ultralight. The FAA calls it an experimental aircraft."

"Oh." She seemed content with that and leaned to the right to watch the lightly forested slopes pass. I pulled my eyes off her and concentrated on where we were going.

The rumor was that there was a really big wyvern hanging around up near Glacier Lake. Janey -- we were on a first name basis -- thought it might be a Red Lion, and Janey was a student at Colorado State with a thesis project in "dracian diversity in the Northern Plains." No one had seen a Red Lion Wyvern in the States since 1983. Finding one would be a "significant determining factor in evaluating recent trends in wyvern population patterns." At least, that's what Janey said. She seemed very excited about it. She'd filled the back half of the plane with camping gear, cameras, and some instruments I didn't try to understand.

The plan was to head up by the lake, find a good camp site, and start our search in the morning. For something with a ten-meter-plus wingspan, a wyvern can be blasted hard to find when it doesn't want to be found. There are several kinds that get around on the ground just fine, and in a pinch they can hunt in the forest without ever taking to the air. A half-dozen or so are exclusively nocturnal. Probably the most common wyvern in all of North America is the Night Capewing. Even city parks generally have a few hanging about. Still, you can hardly find a person that's seen one. I never have.

"Look over there," I shouted. When she turned I pointed out a wing of greenies headed south.

"Beautiful," she yelled.

I watched the sweep of their wide wings catching the sunlight, and had to admit that they were impressive. They also represented a month's rent.

A stiff head wind slowed us down and made the three hour trip take something more like five. By the time we came in sight of the lake, there was less than a quarter tank of gas left, the sun had already set behind the mountains, and it was getting pretty chilly in the open cockpit plane. Janey reached through the slit at the back of the cloth-walled cabin and pulled out our jackets. I gained altitude as we drew up to the water's edge, then cut the engine to glide. My passenger jumped as the engine stopped; I probably should have warned her.

"It's okay," I said. "This plane glides real well." With the engine off, the noise level dropped considerably, and we could talk much easier. We began to circle the south shore, discussing the available places to put down. It was growing dark very quickly, and it would soon be impossible to evaluate landing sites.

"Look!" cried Janey. I followed her pointing finger toward the rising quarter moon. For just a moment, I saw silhouetted there a dark form with scalloped wings and a dangling tail. Even after ten years of hunting the beasts, that glimpse touched some internal cord of unease.

I turned the plane toward a grassy vale that looked like our best bet for a safe landing. "It looked big," I said.

"Yes."

"Which way did it go?"

"I don't know. I lost it."

We were still a hundred feet above the ground when it passed over us. The dark form moved fast, the wind of its passage caused the plane to skew as the wyvern swept by. Then the monster banked up and right with a powerful thrust of wings and was again out of sight.

"It must be fifteen meters across the wings," Janey said. She was leaning over the side of the plane, trying to peer up and around the wing for another look at the wyvern.

"Closer to eighteen," I said. I pushed the nose of the plane down, willing it to descend faster. The ground, still forty feet below us, suddenly seemed like a very good place to be.

The wyvern struck the right wing a slashing blow from its claws. Moonlight glinted off the exposed aluminum tubing in the wing and the wind whipping past the ragged edge of the nylon cover made a fearful shriek. The plane began to slip to the right. I fought it as best I could. I got one look at Janey -- her hands locked around the edge of the open cockpit, her face turned up toward the dark sky -- then the wyvern struck again.

This time the wing folded in half. In a moment, we were upside down. In another, the plane rolled back and I saw the moon shining against the beast's scales as it turned to watch us fall.

The wheels struck the ground hard, and the whole frame of the plane sagged with the impact. Somewhere a guy wire snapped like an overtaut guitar string. The undercarriage broke away, and the plane was left sliding on its nylon belly. We struck a tree and begin to turn, struck a second tree and came to an abrupt halt in a tangle of low limbs and a shower of pine needles.

"Well," I said as soon as I could catch my breath. "We're down." The plane was sprawled against a small copse of trees at the center of a tiny valley. Heavily forested slopes rose on all sides.

Janey was still looking at the sky. I looked up and saw the wyvern swoop down past the wreck of my plane. It settled on a rise to our left, extended its neck toward us, and made a sound like a brass bell struck hard. Even with its wings folded in, the wyvern had a body bigger than a grizzly bear and a rattlesnake's head that was larger than a man's chest. There seemed to be an uncountable number of long teeth in its open mouth. It took a step toward the plane.

I felt Janey moving beside me and when I looked her way, I saw that she was already over the lip of the cockpit and running up the hill toward the woods. I fumbled at my harness, sure that the monster would be on me at any second, then I was free and following Janey up the slope and between the dark trunks of the pines. Once among the trees, I chanced a look back and saw that the beast had stopped by the plane and was snorting around the cockpit. Janey came up beside me.

"It's a dragon," I whispered.

"No," she whispered back. "It's a wyvern. See how the forelimbs are completely involved in the flight structure articulation? True dragons have independent forelimbs. Besides there are no dragons left in North America."

"It's got to be a dragon. Wyverns don't grow that big!" My whispers were getting close to being screams.

"I think it's a False Dragon, Psuedodrak canadensis. That's a species of wyvern with a demonstrated propensity toward large size."

"Yeah, so how come I never heard of it?"

"Well," she said. "It was supposed to be extinct. Nobody's seen one since 1948."

"Great." Down in the valley, the extinct animal had finished its look at the plane and turned to follow the path we had taken up the hill. It held its broad head near the ground as it came. Its long forked tongue darted out to taste the evening air.

Without a word, we both turned and ran deeper into the woods.

The smell of pine. That's about all I remember from the rest of that night. Pine needles made a soft bed on the forest floor, hissing beneath our feet as we ran. The woods were impossibly dark. More than once I ran glanced off the rough trunk of a tree. I heard Janey do the same thing. The air was cold and filled with the scent of pine. Through occasional holes in the green canopy above us, the moon illuminated a sky filled with racing clouds and a horde of bright stars. Several times we tried to stop and rest, but each time the sound of the wyvern sniffling through the woods behind us sounded nearer. After a few hours, our headlong run had turned into an exhausted shuffle. Just as the sky was showing the first streaks of grey, we ran out of forest.

The smart thing to do might have been to veer left or right and keep to the protection of the surrounding trees. We were too tired to do the smart thing; we plunged blindly ahead. Full dawn found us leaving the forest and scrambling over the boulder-strewn slope at the foot of one of the glaciers. We hadn't heard the wyvern in hours, but I don't think either of us thought it had given up.

"Wait," said Janey, the first word either of us had managed in some time. She pointed out a meltwater stream trickling from the base of the glacier and we both ran through it for a hundred yards. The icy water came up to my knees and spilled into my boots. By the time we left the stream, my legs felt like they were carved wood.

There was a ringing bellow from the edge of the forest. We made a last dash across the slope and plunged into the gaps in a large cluster of boulders, just in time to see the wyvern burst from the woods and take wing. We huddled close together while the monster flew toward us, its long neck sweeping the ground. When it reached the point where we'd gone into the stream, it bellowed its frustration. It hovered for a moment, the wind from its wings beating the water into foam, then it spiralled up and away from us.

We stayed crouched amid the boulders until the wet stone beneath us began to feel uncomfortably cold and the arms I'd thrown around Janey's waist started to feel uncomfortably intimate. I eased to my feet, knees creaking in protest. The western sky was still tinged with the purple of night, but the east was a clear, deep blue. Nowhere was there any sign of the wyvern.

"We've got to get to a phone," said Janey.

"Phone?"

"I need to report this sighting to the National Dracian Research Society."

"Report the sighting?"

"Yes. The presence of a large dracian so far south, not to mention one thought to be extinct will surely be of interest to the entire..."

"It tried to eat us!" I cried.

She looked at me like I'd just said something really stupid. "Of course. We're close to the optimum prey size for a wyvern of that mass."

I opened my mouth to reply, but there was a sharp roar that echoed around the valley. The False Dragon swung into view over the mountains to our north.

Janey yelled something that I didn't catch, but I saw her point toward the glacier. Against the wall of compacted snow, a ragged black inverted "V" marked an opening. Again we ran from the wyvern. I glanced back over my shoulder several times, but it seemed oblivious to us. Janey reached the opening first and disappeared into the darkness. I followed on a run, slipped as soon as I stepped inside, and fell hard on a floor of smooth, black ice.

Further in the ice cave brightened. "There must be a fissure on top of the glacier letting in some light," I suggested. Everything was blue. It was like a scene from beneath the ocean where every color but blue has been filtered from the sunlight. The ceiling was blue-white. The slippery floor blue-black. Everything in between was blue-blue.

We walked carefully, often helping each other over tiny frozen Niagaras and around dark boulders encased in transparent coats. When we were out of sight of the entrance, we stopped and sat on a shelf of ice so clear I could see down for what seemed to be miles, but must have been only feet.

"We need to get back to the plane," I said.

"I'm sure my cameras are ruined."

"Maybe, but I bet the guns survived."

"Oh," she said. Then a minute later she spoke again. "You don't mean to shoot the wyvern?"

"Absolutely. I've got some hollow points out there that ought to put a serious hurt to just about anything."

"But you can't! It's an endangered species. It's more than endangered, it may well be unique."

"In case you haven't noticed, your beast is not the one endangered at the moment -- we are. Unless we find some way to get rid of that monster, we're never going to get to make your phone call."

"How could you think of killing what may be the last member of a species?"

"Hey," I said. "He seems to have no problem about killing the last member of me!" Again our conversation was terminated by a blast of noise from the wyvern. It seemed to have located the entrance to our cave. Sliding carefully along on the glassy floor, we moved further back into the heart of the glacier.

Soon, we had left the bright light behind us and moved into an indigo gloom where the translucent walls seemed like velvet and reflections from more lucent parts of the cave were streaks of dying neon. Twice we had to get down on hands and knees and crawl through low passages. Other times we had to turn sideways to fit between narrow walls. Finally, we entered a broad chamber with a ceiling that was out of sight in the dim light and a floor as clean as a skating rink after the passage of the Zamboni machine.

Janey's hiking shoes were not much use on the smoother ice, my battered work boots only a bit better. After several painful falls, she reluctantly took my hand. I began to notice a smell. Strong. Dank. Musty like wet leather. I was not surprised when Janey stepped on something that snapped loudly. She bent and picked up a fragment of what looked like the leg bone of a deer. A few more steps and the passage widened into an enormous room.

"The wyvern's lair," said Janey.

I nodded. I'd seen the lairs of many smaller wyverns, but never anything like this. It was a great hall of bones hidden in the near darkness. Bones of all sizes carpeted the floor. Larger bones were arranged in rough piles in all parts of the room. "How could it fit through some of the places where we had to crawl?"

Janey released my hand and began to wander about the room, picking up jagged bits of bone as carefully as if each one was a Ming vase. "There must be another entrance," she said.

"Somebody out to tell this guy how to dump his leftovers," I muttered.

"Oh, the bones don't come from their meals." She was examining what looked like a fox's skull. "The female gathers them. She needs to ingest extra calcium to produce..." She dropped the small skull and fell to her knees. "Over here."

I picked my way through the bone piles and saw that she was kneeling next to a clutch of pebbly round objects the size of basketballs.

"Are those what I think they are?"

She nodded. "Eggs." She laid a hand on top of one of the eggs. Immediately, the upper half of the sphere collapsed and fluid poured through the opening.

Janey sprang to her feet, then slipped and fell hard on her side. I tried to help her up, but she just pushed my hands away. "Oh, no." she said. Over and over. "Oh, no."

"Are you alright?"

At first she didn't respond, but then she nodded her head and crawled back to the broken egg. She took a rough fragment from the floor and handed it to me. "See how there are two layers to the shell? All dracian eggs are like that. There are tiny structures between the layers that give the eggs the strength they need to be this big, without being so thick that the embryo can't get oxygen."

"If they're so tough, why did it break? You barely touched it."

She took the fragment back from me and pressed it between her thumb and forefinger. It broke into a shower of dust. "DDT," she said. Her voice was raw. "It weakens the shells."

"But, nobody's used DDT in what? Twenty years?"

"A big wyvern lives a long time. The poisons stay in the body, they never go away." The faint illumination caught the tears on her cheeks as she leaned over the broken egg.

I laid a hand on her shoulder and was trying to think of something to say, when I saw a light coming toward us down the passage. "Hey!" I called. "We're here!" The light came on down the wide tunnel, glints of orange in the blue depths. "Somebody's coming. We're going to be okay."

There was a roar that vibrated along the floor and sent bones tumbling from the piles. The wyvern burst into the room. It scrambled across the ice, its talons scrapping out deep runnels and the hooks at the folded joint of its wings scrabbling across the frozen surface. Its body was studded with rows of yellow and red spots that burned like the lights on a Christmas tree.

"Bioluminescence," said Janey with eerie calm. "That's never been reported in a wyvern before."

I looked behind us. There was only the smooth lake of ice. Ahead of us was only the monster. Janey was still sitting by the eggs, staring toward the approaching wyvern with her face strangely illumined by the banks of lights. I grabbed her by the arm, and with a sharp push, sent her sliding away.

The wyvern's sharp nose struck me in the small of my back. For a moment, I was airborne. Then I was lying in one of the piles of bones with a dozen shards sticking into my legs and side. I snatched at the thin shaft of bone, turned, and met the wyvern's descending muzzle with a sharp blow.

It roared its Big Ben roar and spread its light-studded wings until they brushed the walls. I pulled back to strike again, but the wyvern's head darted forward and it snatched the bone in its teeth, ripping it from my fingers. It crushed the bone to powder and reached down to grab one of my boots in its mouth. I could feel a horrible pressure all over my foot. It lifted me into the air and shook me like a dog that's caught a rat.

With a sudden startled bark, the wyvern dropped me. My head rang against the ice. The beast's long neck bent back, as if it were going to bite its own wings off. That's when I saw Janey standing behind the wyvern, jabbing at it with a jagged fragment of bone. Her weapon had pierced the skin above its shoulder, producing a flow of blood that steamed in the cold air of the cave.

My hand closed on a thick club that must of come from the skeleton of a moose or bison.

The wyvern caught Janey's arm in its mouth and lifted her from the ice.

I got to my feet, blood pouring from a gash in my scalp, and swung the club.

Janey screamed.

The club struck the wyvern in the pale underside of its throat. There was a cracking noise. I didn't know if the noise came from the wyvern or from the club.

The wyvern screamed. It released Janey and she fell to the floor. One of her legs bent back at an awful angle. Blood had already soaked the arm of her coat.

The wyvern turned to me, lightning fast, and opened its jaws.

I swung again. A half-dozen dagger teeth went skittering away as the club of bone went through its gaping mouth.

The wyvern screamed again, blood pouring from its injured mouth.

The next blow caught it between the knots of bone above its eyes. The wyvern's head was knocked down onto the floor. I hit it again. And again. The wyvern collapsed. I hit it again.

I retrieved the jagged bit of bone that Janey had been using as a weapon. I walked over to the wyvern and put the point against the glassy orb of its lidless eye. My own reflection was there, dirty and bloody. I drew a breath, preparing to push the dagger into the monster's brain.

"No." I thought at first that Janey had said it, but she was still lying unconscious on the blood-streaked ice. Finally I realized that I had said it. I dropped the bone knife and went to Janey.

Her face was covered in scratches. Her coat sleeve was heavy and wet. But she was still alive.

The wyvern was still alive too. The patched of light still gleamed along its wings and sides as bright as ever. If I was still, I could hear the slow rhythm of its breath. And somehow, despite all that had happened, the other eggs were unbroken. I had no idea if they were fertile, or if their shells were strong enough to allow the embyros inside to develop.

I gathered Janey in my arms, trying to ignore the pain in my foot and ankle where the long teeth had penetrated my boot. Then I walked back toward the way the wyvern had come. In a few minutes, the lights of the beast were left behind. In a few more, I saw the impossibly bright light of the sun.

The exit was difficult. The entrance was a steep ascent through knee-deep snow and loose stones. Several times, I almost dropped Janey.
But I didn't. I didn't drop her then, or during the long miles I hiked to the ranger station on the west side of the lake. I didn't drop her then, and I haven't let her go yet.
She woke once in the helicopter on the way to Billings. Her eyes darted around wildly for a moment, then she saw where she was and relaxed. Her mouth moved. I coldn't hear her over the thump of the rotors, but I could make out what she wanted to know.

I leaned over to whisper in her ear. "It's not dead."

"What did you tell them?" she asked.

"Plane wreck. I told them we had a plane wreck."

She nodded slightly and slid back into sleep. I held her hand and leaned toward the window to look at the mountains getting smaller in the north. It was night again. A clear night with a cold northern sky sprayed with stars. Once, just once, I thought I saw some dark form sweep across the face of the moon.

THE END



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Last Update: 6 Apr 1996