Heroes for Hire --- excerpt
“There,” Riley said, pointing ahead. “In the trees. That’s where they’ll be waiting.”
Peg panted for breath and squinted in the direction that Riley pointed. Something just behind the tree line made the trees rustle, something large. She stiffened. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“That… that flash of green.” At least, she thought it had been green. The light was still poor this early in the morning.
“Probably Masie. She really ought to stay back and well out of view, but sometimes she gets curious. Probably anxious to meet you.”
“And Masie is a…?”
But Riley was already moving again, leaving Peg little choice but to follow and resort to merely shooting dirty looks at the back of his head. “Watch your step,” he cautioned as they neared the trees. “Ground’s a bit uneven here.”
His warning came a second too late, and Peg stumbled even as he spoke, landing on her hands and knees. Picking herself up off the ground, she brushed dirt from her baggy new breeches and looked up to find a large reptilian face mere inches from her own.
Peg shrieked and stumbled backwards only to trip and go sprawling onto her backside. This was it. Not even officially on the road yet, and already she was about to be eaten. She would have screamed again, but her mouth was suddenly too dry to make any other sounds. Cringing, she held her arms up in front of her face as if that would somehow protect her and delay the inevitable. Yes, it was probably stupid and a complete waste of time, but with the toothy creature this close to her already, stupid was really all she had left.
But it didn’t bite her. Instead, the beast snorted softly and studied her with wide, curious eyes. “Easy there, Masie,” Riley told her, chuckling and patting her on the nose. “Give her a little breathing room. They don’t have dragons where Peg comes from.”
Peg remained frozen in place on the ground, her eyes and mouth open wide. It really was a dragon, complete with scales, wings, and those very large teeth. The only thing missing was a plume of smoke and fire coming from each nostril. Maybe she would get to see that later, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
The creature was larger than an elephant although much slimmer, and its scales were a delicate shade of greyish green with flecks of brown and black that no doubt served as excellent camouflage. Its wings, though—something seemed to be wrong with them. Squinting again, Peg peered more closely, her heart still pounding but perhaps not quite so fast as before since Riley was still petting the dragon without any apparent fear of being eaten. One of the wings looked as large as one might expect to see on an animal this size, but the other was ridiculously small, and there was no way it could possibly fly with wings like those.
The dragon hung its head then as if embarrassed by her scrutiny, and Peg quickly stopped her gaping and looked away.
“Look sharp, folks,” Riley said, reaching out a hand to help Peg to her feet, and she was too dazed to do anything but take it. “Meet Trukner’s replacement, Peg Brickner. Say hello, Peg.”
She couldn’t have managed that single word right now no matter how hard she tried, but she did raise her hand in a feeble sort of wave that faltered before it even began. She recognized Grodan when he trotted out from the shrubbery, still in his doggy chainmail, but she had no idea what to call the creature that followed him. It looked like a cross between a squid and a very large centipede. Four eyes waved at her from atop spindly eyestalks, and Peg had to muffle an exclamation. It moved closer on its mass of tentacles as if to get a better look at her, and she took a wary step back, her eyes on the gooey trail the creature left behind itself.
“Back, Kraak,” Riley ordered the creature. “Mind your manners. Humans have different notions of personal space than Nirategs do.”
A small, metallic box that Peg noticed for the first time around its… neck, she finally decided, beeped as the thing named Kraak made sounds like the squishing of water-soaked tennis shoes. “Sor-ry,” came a mechanical voice from the box a moment later.
“Nirateg?” Peg repeated, her mouth still dry but finally capable of speech. She swallowed. “What’s the Nirateg idea of personal boundaries?”
“Never mind,” Riley returned. “Let’s just say you’d consider his way of saying hello to be a little invasive. In fact, on some worlds it would be considered a felony.” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Let’s have a round of introductions, shall we?”