The Mystery of the Black Nail Part One
By: Walter G. Esselman

Regent strode out of the castle—and towards the harbor—when he heard a whoop of laughter from above.

Back inside, a fifteen year old boy ran away from the young dragon that snapping at his heels.

The boy, Gideon, slid around a corner and kept going. However, the dragon, Pavataro, was not so lucky, and he skidded right into the opposite wall. Shaking himself, the dragon quickly resumed his chase.

"Lunchmeat!" roared Pavataro, using his old schoolyard nickname for the boy.

The dragon soon drew close to the boy.

"Too slow!" called out Gideon, and he leapt off a balcony, high above a courtyard.

And Regent's heart lurched for a second. Quickly, he had to remind himself that Gideon was a little different. Already, the boy's descent was slowing appreciably.

Pavataro roared and hopped over the rail, aiming for Gideon. And while the boy was not going to plummet, he also could not fly out of the dragon's path.

"Snailburgers," muttered Gideon.

Popping his wings open, Pavataro grabbed Gideon with his back legs, and they soon crashed to the ground. The two rolled across the courtyard, and finally stopped in their own respective heaps.

"Tag," grinned the young dragon. "You're it!"

Gideon began to laugh, and Pavataro quickly followed suit.

Suddenly, an ominous shadow stood over them. Haloed by the sun, Gideon looked up at their teacher, Regent, who was not smiling.

"With me," growled Regent.

*

The Pintfull cut across the sea, and away from the harbor of Bon Su Pear. Apart from the crew of the Pintfull, Regent and his four Nymphari soldiers sat in the boat. Seated with them was a boy and a dragon, who were now reluctantly pressed into service.

"It was our day off," whined Gideon.

"And you nearly brought down the castle," commented Regent. The teacher/soldier leaned back and shut his eyes. "This will be put all that energy to good use."

Glancing over, Gideon saw that Pavataro was asleep. No help there, he thought sourly.

"Where're we going?" asked Gideon. He shook his fighting staff. "And why am I armed?"

One of the soldiers, Spike, chuckled dangerously. "Going on a little picnic little boy."

"Gonna have some fun," added another named Dirigible.

"Going to the Black Nail," whispered Spike.

"What's that?" asked Gideon.

"What's that, he asks," said Spike to Dirigible, who chuckled darkly in response. Spike looked back at Gideon. "The Nail is last place people go. It's an island of sorts. Got sandy beaches and everything, even a few palm trees, and then right in the middle of the island, whoosh! There's column of black rock that sticks a good two hundred feet in the air."

"They carved a stairway into the side of the rock," said Dirigible. "No railing, just a few feet between you and the open air."

"That doesn't sound so bad," shrugged Gideon, and this derailed them for a moment.

"And there's no water to be had at the top of the Nail," said Dirigible. "You gotta carry it up yourself. A good job for a young strapping fella like yourself."

"Actually—the fountain up above—they got it work again," said Regent without opening his eyes. "Someone had put a big slab over it."

Spike looked lost for a moment, but he quickly rallied.

"So anyways, on top of the Nail is a fortress, but no one knows who built it," said Spike.

"And all the inhabitants just vanished one day," said Dirigible.

"If no one knows who built it, how do they know that all the people just vanished one day?" asked Gideon curiously.

"Shut up," said Spike off–handedly.

And from where he pretended to sleep, Regent gave a chuckle.

Spike ralied. "What I'm saying is that—two weeks ago—we sent a team out to the Black Nail, but we haven't heard from them for days."

"They could be all right," said Gideon. "Maybe a problem with the signal device."

"It ain't," said Spike. "Something wicked this way comes."

"Oh, that's probably just Pav," said Gideon sympathetically. "Dragon farts are the worst."

Spike just gaped at the boy. "What?"

"You should try rooming with him," said Gideon, and Regent gave a snort of laughter.

"This isn't a joke," warned Dirigible. "That island'll eat you up in a heartbeat."

"Okay guys," said Regent. "It was a good attempt to scare the boy—bravo!—but he's too brave, or stupid, to fall for it."

"Thanks, I think," said Gideon in confusion.

"Besides, you're making Fish and Romo worried," said Regent, and he nodded his chin at the other two soldiers on the team. "And I can't have that."

"I…I'm not worried," stuttered Fish.

"'Course you're not," agreed Regent kindly.

"We're here," called out Captain Riktor. The boat slowed as it drew close to the island. It was every bit as imposing as Spike had said.

"Thank you for the ride," said Regent.

"Don't thank me yet," said Captain Riktor, and then he stopped. Riktor was about to say something, but he looked across the deck. He suddenly walked away from Regent, who watched puzzled.

Regent turned to his men, and the boys.

"Spike and Dirigible, get the boat in the water and get everyone to land," said Regent. "And make sure you have our supplies."

"Why us?" whined Spike.

"Because I'm a Son of a Brass," said Regent as he followed Riktor.

"What about you?" asked Gideon.

"I'll swim in," said Regent. "It'll do me some good."

"Boats are for mammals," grinned Pavataro. He snapped open his wings, which made everyone jump back, and took off towards the island.

"You could've taken me," shouted Gideon after him.

"Not a donkey," said Pavataro.

"Ass," grumbled Gideon.

Regent left the squabbling and headed over to Riktor, who was watching one of his people intensely.

"What?" asked Regent.

"Trouble," replied Riktor. He indicated the young man he was looking at, who was skinny with jet black hair. "This is Tai–Fa, my navigator. He can also smell storms. What is it Tai–Fa?"

"Big storm," said Tai–Fa sniffing the air. "Really big. Came out of nowhere."

"Can we ride it out?" asked Riktor.

"It will be hard, but yes," said Tai–Fa.

"Snail burgers," growled Regent. He looked at his people in the water and then turned to Tai–Fa. "How long till the storm hits?"

"Soon," said Tai–Fa.

"Okay. We can do a quick sortie—one hour tops—and see if anyone is hurt," said Regent. "Then we'll be right back."

"Will that be enough time?" asked Riktor.

"It'll have to be," said Regent.

"Okay, one hour," said Riktor.

Regent went to the side of the ship and the water nymph dove into the water. He took a few extra moments swimming about, while his team rowed to shore. It would also be time enough to get clams for their dinner as he shot off through the water.

When the boat pulled ashore, Pavataro was asleep on his back. Gideon walked over and kicked him lightly in the side.

Gideon barked. "Time to move, you lazy Lima bean."

Pavataro snapped his teeth at the boy, but only half–heartedly.

"Okay, here's how it's going to go," snapped Spike. "You boys grab the medical supplies—just in case someone needs them—an' start carrying them up."

"I'm not a pack mule," said Pavataro.

"You sure look like one," said Dirigible, and he threw a bag at the dragon's feet.

"Fish and Romo, we're going to need a…," started Spike when he saw that everyone was looking at him funny. Gideon was grinning. Spike turned to see Regent's eyes boring into him. Regent held a net bag full of clams. "Um, I was just…"

"Okay people, big storm coming so we have a small window," bellowed Regent. "Captain's given us an hour."

Then, Regent looked at Pavataro. "Pav, I want you to fly up and scout the fortress, but don't land. Do you understand! I just want to know what you see. Fish, Romo and Gideon, you're with me. We'll start walking up those stairs. The sooner we're up, the better in my book."

"What about us?" asked Spike worriedly.

"Well, there's only two jobs left at the moment," said Regent as he walked toward the Black Nail. "Scout down here, and carry up the supplies. And be quick about it. We're making soup when we get back on board, and I don't want these clams going bad before dinner."

The Black Nail stood straight into the air and its sides were almost smooth. Someone—a long ago to judge by the wear on the steps—had painstakingly carved spiral stairs into the Nail. This created a small corridor only a person wide. Regent was not so fond of heights, so he kept his eyes on the stairs in front of him.

"This isn't so bad!" cried Gideon. He started jumping up the stairs, three at a time. Halfway up, he hit a step wrong. Skidding to the edge of the stair, he teetered over a hundred foot drop. Regent looked up from below to see the boy waving his arms wildly.

"Will you stop goofing off!" bellowed Regent.

Gideon used his fighting staff to regain his balance and not plummet. Then he waited—abashed—on the steps for Regent and the soldiers. Fish and Romo were already out of breath, and Regent was having a hard time of it.

"Take five," said Regent.

"Oh thank the Goddess," exclaimed Romo, and he sat down heavily on a step.

"How…," huffed Fish. "How far?"

"Only half way," said Pavataro as he swooped in from below them and made an erratic landing.

"Nice landing," sniffed Gideon.

"Bite me," replied Pavataro.

"What's it look like up there?" asked Regent as he cut in before the bickering.

"Looks quiet," said Pavataro. "I didn't see anyone."

"Damn," said Regent. "Okay, break's over."

The soldiers moaned.

Strong winds heralded the coming storm, and they buffeted the top of the Nail. The staircase opened up into a wide corridor.

Beyond the corridor lay the fortress, which was quiet and eerie. Pavataro came in for a messy landing in front of them.

"I hate wind," he muttered. "It almost slammed me into the Nail."

"Whine, whine," grinned Gideon as he walked forward.

"Quiet," hissed Regent to the boys. "Okay, we stay together, and move slowly. Check each corner, check each room. If you go in a room and no one tries to kill you, you say ‘Clear'."

"What if someone tries to kill us?" asked Gideon.

"Scream like a little girl?" suggested Pavataro.

"I don't scream like a…," started Gideon.

"CALL out to us," hissed Regent. "And we'll be there."

Regent moved forward and drew his sword. The corridor led to a large circular chamber, which had a burbling fountain in the center. There were doors lining the outside of the circle. Regent pointed left and moved silently in that direction. He stopped by an unlit torch on the wall.

"Gideon?" he asked in a subdued voice.

"Huh? Oh yeah, gotcha," said the boy. He pulled the torch out of its holder and took a deep breath.

"What is he…?" started Fish when Gideon blew out a plume of fire and lit the torch.

Fish and Romo jumped back.

"Whoa!" exclaimed Romo. "Oh, a dragon for a mother," shrugged Gideon.

"He's adopted, and he was weaned on dragon's milk," said Regent.

"Accidentally!" insisted Gideon worriedly.

Regent corrected himself. "He was accidentally weaned. His mother did not mean him any harm."

Fish looked at Gideon in astonishment. "So you can breathe fire?"

"Well, that an' change my gravity, so I can jump really high, an' not go splat when I fall," said Gideon.

"Wow," said Fish.

"Now, let's keep moving," insisted Regent as he took the torch. He moved to the first door, but they found no one inside. By the time they had circled back to the front entrance, they knew that the place was indeed deserted.

"Sir!" said Fish urgently. "They have breakfast set."

Regent walked over to a big table by the fountain. There were several plates still on the table. Regent picked one up and squinted at it.

"Made two days ago," said Regent.

There was a distant rumbling of storm clouds butting heads.

"Shouldn't we be getting back?" asked Fish.

"We'll head down soon," assured Regent. "I want to poke around a bit more."

Gideon walked over to the fountain. Above the fountain, there was a hole in the roof. At the North, South, East and West corners of the hole were four statues that stood over the fountain. The statues, some worn with age, held up swords, pointed to the sky.

"Coolest. Skylight. Ever," muttered Gideon to himself.

Gideon hopped up on the edge of the first tier of the fountain. That tier was a basin for the water. The second tier had a large hole in the middle where water gently came out. Gideon leaned forward to look into the hole.

Someone nudged him from behind. He teetered for a moment before catching himself. He turned to glare at Pavataro.

"Cut it out!" snapped Gideon.

"Just thinking it was bath time for you," said Pavataro, and he wrinkled his nose. "You're getting a bit whiffy."

"Boys," warned Regent. Pavataro turned and went back to Regent.

"I'm not whiffy," complained Gideon as he hopped down from the fountain. But he smelled his coat nonetheless as he walked over.

Spike and Dirigible arrived with the medical supplies. Immediately, Spike dropped to his knees and panted for a while.

"Did you see anything?" asked Regent.

"Think I saw stars around the thousandth step," muttered Spike.

"On the island," said Regent sharply.

"Nothing," said Dirigible. "Place is deserted. What about up here?"

"No one," said Regent.

"Could they have left?" asked Fish.

"Not sure how," said Regent. "The soldiers on the Nail have a two man boat in case of emergency, but that's still by the shore. Okay, so we retrace our steps and go back over every inch of this place. Me, Fish, Romo and Gideon on the left and Spike, Dirigible and Pavataro on the right. Move fast, time's tight."

*

Dirigible came out of one of the room's quickly and Regent gave him a questioning look.

"Anything?" asked Regent.

"Where's the boat?" asked Dirigible.

Regent moved into the room followed by the others. The boat was no longer sitting by the island. He turned to Pavataro.

"I'm on it," responded Pavataro to the wordless command.

"And you can go through the skylight," said Regent. "The magic is only there to keep the rain out, anyone should be able to pass through it quickly."

Pavataro lumbered out of the room, and spread his wings. He shot up past the statues surrounding the skylight. Turning on the winds, he flew in a circle around the island. Dipping his wing towards the fortress, he went back down and landed before Regent.

"Gone and gone," said Pavataro.

"Damn him," snapped Regent. "The captain promised he would give us an hour."

"We gotta get off this island," said Spike. Regent looked at him impassively as Spike's face got redder.

"And where do you suggest we go?" asked Regent.

"Why the hell didn't you call us back?" asked Spike.

"First, the captain decided to leave. He said he'd stay for us," and Regent. "And second, stand down."

Spike tried to outstare Regent, but the old soldier had him beat. Spike looked away.

Outside, the storm was getting worse.

"I'm just saying, this is really creepy," said Spike. "No one's here."

"We can see that," said Regent.

"So what's our plan?" asked Spike.

Regent unhooked the net of clams from his belt. He threw them to Romo.

"Don't burn the soup," said Regent.

"Yes sir," said Romo, and he backed away from the fight to make dinner.

"That's your big plan!" cried Spike.

"Harden up soldier," snapped Regent. "Whatever happened here took our men. We're going to find out what, and if possible, make it bleed."

"We need more of a plan than that!" huffed Spike.

"Did anyone find anything during your search?" asked Regent. "Even something small and insignificant."

Everyone shook their heads. Regent looked up at the ceiling.

"We'll continue searching in the morning," said Regent. "Both in here and back on the ground. I didn't see anything the first time, but I'll do another sweep of the surrounding water, just in case. Okay, so guard duty."

"I don't like this," said Spike.

"We have enough people for a good spread," said Regent. "One guard before the stairs going down, and another with us. We switch off every two hours. Gideon and Romo first."

"I get to stand guard!" exclaimed Gideon excitedly. "That's so cool!"

"Gideon. Top of stairs. Keep an eye on our entrance," said Regent.

"And don't sleep, and don't leave your post, even to pee," said Spike.

"Leaving is a dereliction of duty," said Dirigible.

Gideon looked at Regent who shrugged.

"They're not wrong," said Regent to the boy. Then he turned. "Romo, you watch over us."

"Right sir," said Romo.

"Now let's get some shut–eye," ordered Regent.

To be continued…

-

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