"What is that thing?" Phyllis asked, staring aghast at the huge creature far above.
"That's a dragon," Eddie said. "I think it's the same one Kardhoom had in Holcomb."
The soldiers on the upper stadium tier shouted, those closest raising their rifles. The dragon ignored the men. It peered down into the shadows. Eddie knew where it was looking. He turned to find Kardhoom standing in the shadows, grinning up at his dragon. Kardhoom waved his arms and laughed.
How had it found him, Eddie wondered. Had it followed them all the way from Holcomb? It couldn't have followed them through the turnpike, could it? Had Kardhoom called to it somehow.
Gunshots. The dragon roared. As the soldiers closed in, the dragon leapt into the air, soared towards the nearest soldiers and grabbed one in its talons. It swooped up over the playfield and dropped the man. He plummeted, screaming and hit a bunker below. More gunshots followed. The dragon dove towards Kardhoom but reared back as a new barrage of bullets converged. It roared once more and retreated into the sky.
Soldiers rushed onto the field to retrieve their fallen comrade. Shouts of command echoed around the stadium. All the while, the refugees sat with mute indifference. Eddie spun back towards Kardhoom. The dragon rider still stood, still grinning his wicked smile. His dragon hadn't rescued him, but it looked like he had gotten what he wanted.
The dragon would return, most likely with reinforcements.
Eddie turned to Bryce. "Did you see that?"
Bryce blinked. "Guy fell."
"Yeah, the dragon was here."
"You need to get up."
Eddie glanced around. He didn't see Kai anywhere. She'd gone on the playfield. She couldn't have passed the stream running through the...
Eddie thought again about the Lamia's rock. He had agreed to put it in a stream. Well, there was a stream.
"Let's go check out that stream."
"Because it's there."
Bryce shrugged and stood up. He followed Eddie down the last few steps onto the playing field.
"They play something called Pyramid here. It's a wild game."
Bryce made a noncommittal grunt.
"It's like capture the flag meets war games meets football. I don't remember how they use the bunkers. What do you think those are for?"
"You know, you can beat the spell they're casting on you if you focus."
"The one I spent ten minutes telling you about."
"I guess it makes you stupid too."
Eddie stopped at the stream. He stared into the water. He should toss the rock in and keep his promise. But what would happen? Whatever the Lamia's motives were for sending Eddie out with this rock, it wasn't good. She feared the pale warriors would find out about the stone. What did that mean?
A head popped out of the water, startling Eddie backwards. He tripped over a clump of weeds and fell on his butt.
"It's you—it's you, I remember you. You're the one from the dry place with the bars and the buckets and the mean people and the no water."
Eddie recognized the gray-green face of one of his former cell mates. It was one of the frog boys. A moment later, a second head popped out.
"Hey, look, Rittiton. It's that guy and the other one and they're both here and did they follow us here to this place that's got bad energy but good water but not enough mud?"
The smaller of the two frogs cowered back in the water, his eyes peaking out from the burbling surface.
"How did you get here?" Eddie asked.
"Angry men put us here—angry men with weapons and mad teeth and they have no swamps but they have a river and they can't talk like we talk but they try to talk and it was sad."
Eddie blinked. "Um, okay. But we saw you more than a week ago, and that was hundreds of miles from here."
The talking frog scratched at his head. "There was a swimming pool car."
"But that was a bad memory and we were prisoners and now we're prisoners but this is bigger than a car and after all the land of dirt and sun and angry, a stream is here the first stream in many days and we are content now and a little sad which I don't understand why but sad yes and tired and the stream is cold and we want a pond but a stream is better than dirt."
Eddie nodded as he listened. He glanced down to where the stream disappeared in an arched culvert. "Is there a way out through there?" he asked the frog, pointing.
The frog looked from him to the culvert and back. He scratched his head. "Dunno," he said and disappeared under the water.
Eddie turned to Bryce. "There might be a way out of here."
He waited. Would the frog check for an exit, or would he get distracted?
As Eddie waited, he drew the rock out of his pocket. It was nothing special. Blue-gray, round—if he threw it in the stream, it would be indistinguishable from any other rock.
Bryce drew a sharp breath. Eddie turned to find Bryce staring at the rock, his eyes bulging.
"Where did you get that?" Bryce demanded. The sudden energy took Eddie by surprise.
"Uh, down in the badlands."
"You need to throw that into the stream."
Bryce stepped forward, his posture threatening. "Don't screw around. Just throw that into the stream, now."
Eddie stepped back, drawing the rock away. "I don't think I should, actually?"
"Because you want me too." He shoved the rock back in his pocket.
Bryce lunged forward and caught Eddie by the wrist, but his eyes had gone distant again. He stood that way for a moment, uncertain. Then he dropped his hand. "Wait. What?"
Eddie frowned up at him. "Do you know what just happened?"
"A rock? Something about a rock?"
So, the rock had a spell on it after all. It didn't affect Eddie, but it probably affected everyone else. It was enough to break the soldiers' psychic hold on Bryce. But now Bryce was back under the influence.
Eddie couldn't throw the rock in this stream or any other. Something bad would happen. He knew it. If he got back out into the desert, he'd bury it.
He spotted Kai down the field by the pyramid. She'd made a friend, some boy with spikey red-brown hair. She was ignoring Eddie's warning to appear sad. She laughed and chased the boy, tagging him, then he chased after her.
A burbling glub came from the stream. Eddie turned to find an amphibian face grinning up at him.
"Bars—there are bars at the end of the stream and we can't get through but they're rusty but they're bars and if we had tools we could break the bars but we don't have tools but the stream runs into a river a big river and we think it looks promising and sometimes there are ponds beside rivers and we prefer ponds or swamps and do you know someone who can break rusty bars?"
"I think I do," Eddie said.
Phyllis could get through. But how would her cyborg body react to the water?
Eddie turned to Bryce to discuss this, only to discover a group of six soldiers standing around them.
"You're coming with us," said a soldier in a red beret.