Even through the heavy mist rolling in off the ocean, Omen could see the dragon watching them from the far cliff. The rumble of crashing waves mingled with the soft voices of Omen's little brother Kyr and their two cats as they climbed effortlessly down the stone steps carved into the side of the cliff near their home.
"Moffles!" Tyrin, the smaller of the two orange cats, squeaked. "I love &$@# moffles!"
Kyr and the cats paid little heed to the golden dragon perched upon the high cliffs or the gathering fog that spread rapidly over the white sand below.
The day had been sunny only an hour ago when Omen had promised the noisy trio that he'd take them down to the beach to look for sand urchins. But before they'd even reached the cliffs, the sky had grown overcast. And while the dragon had been completely visible mere moments before, now fingers of cold mist wrapped around its form, leaving only the occasional glint of dragonscales flashing in the muted light to betray the great winged creature's presence.
Strange weather, Omen mused to himself. Early summer in Melia is normally sunny and warm.
"You is trying moffles, Kyr," Tyrin proclaimed loudly from his perch on Kyr's shoulder. The little cat fluffed his orange fur against the crisp breeze, wrapped his tail neatly around the skinny half-elvin boy's neck, and snuggled up against his pointed ear.
Tormy, identical in coloring to the tiny Tyrin, but not in size, gently brushed up against Kyr's side, as if to assure himself that the boy was safely on the inside of the cliff's edge. Nearly the size of a horse, Tormy dwarfed the young boy and set each white-tipped paw down cautiously on the stone steps, taking great care not to knock Kyr over.
Kyr kept one pale hand braced against the large cat's shoulder, his thin fingers buried in Tormy's long orange fur to steady himself.
"Yes, you is trying moffles after Omy is making them for us," Tormy agreed happily, his rumbling voice vibrating with a low purr at the thought of meals to come.
"I'll make you waffles," Omen called down to the two cats, "but I'm not putting mice in them!"
"But moffles is the bestest, Omy," Tormy whined.
"Yes, moffles is the bestest," Tyrin agreed. "But you is making mouse-cakes instead maybe?" The little cat looked back over his shoulder at Omen, ears perked forward eagerly.
Omen's lips twitched as he shook his head in firm denial. His mother was remarkably indulgent when it came to the two cats and their odd requests, but she drew the line at adding mice to any meal. "No, mouse-cakes," he insisted. "You want mice, go catch them yourselves."
"But Kyr is never having moffles before," Tormy argued as he reached the bottom of the stone steps and hopped forward onto the white sand.
Suddenly suspicious, Omen placed his hand on his little brother's shoulder. "They haven't given you any mice to eat? Have they, Kyr?"
The boy, who had spent most of his life starving, would eat pretty much anything put in front of him. And he trusts the cats completely.
The cold wind blew Kyr's golden hair back from his face as he solemnly shook his head. "No mice," he assured Omen. "The ocean has eyes."
Only partially relieved, Omen patted his brother's shoulder. "Waves, Kyr," he corrected the boy's vocabulary. "The ocean has waves, you mean." In the five months Kyr had lived with Omen's family, the boy had learned a smattering of three languages, but he still frequently mixed up words.
A glint of red on the sand at his feet grabbed Omen's attention. He shifted the great sword strapped across his back as he bent over to retrieve the broken piece of shell. "A rosehead crab shell," he noted out loud, surprised to see it. "Rosehead crabs never appear until midautumn." His words caught the wholehearted attention of both cats.
"Is we having crab cakes?" The cats' ears perked straight up, all thought of mouse-waffles gone at the mention of another favorite treat.
Omen tossed aside the broken piece of shell, briefly noticing a few others scattered amid long ropy tangles of dark green seaweed washed ashore at last tide. "No. It's far too early for rosehead crabs," he replied. "These shells must be from last season. We're looking for sand urchins, remember? We can buy fish at the market later if you want."
Few things made the cats as happy as promised fish, and Tormy spun in the sand, whacking Omen with his great plume of a tail with each turn.
Omen steered Kyr around the large cat and toward the water's edge where the wet sand was hard-packed and easier to walk upon.
"Sand urchins look like small sandy cookies, Kyr," Omen told his brother. "They're pretty, but don't eat them. We should find some on the shoreline."
Kyr hesitated as they reached the wet sand. He stared down at the ocean foam surrounding his booted feet.
Concerned, Omen also paused, wondering what was bothering the boy. "Come on, Kyr," he urged gently. "Sand urchins aren't dangerous."
"What about the people in the sand?" the boy asked, blinking uncertainly at Omen.
Turning full circle, Omen looked up and down the deserted beach. The day was overcast and cold, the out-of-season weather likely the cause for the absence of beachgoers. "We're the only ones here, Kyr," he told his brother. "There's no one in the—"
Tormy's growling hiss was the only warning Omen got as the sand at his feet exploded upward in a shower of salt water and grasping claws. Tormy pounced, the heavy cat coming down hard on a flailing, multi-segmented limb emerging from the sand.
Omen leaped back, grabbing ahold of Kyr and dragging him away from the snapping claws. The long ropy strands he'd mistaken for dark green seaweed were all moving as spidery shapes emerged all around them. Crawling out of the sand along the shoreline, creatures lifted themselves up on hard-jointed legs and pulled themselves across the ground with lethal purpose.
"Sandlures!" Omen yelled as he unslung the great sword from his back and drew the weapon from the scabbard. He swung the blade and sliced through the nearest dark green limb, severing it at the first joint. Several more sandlures reached for him, but one curved pincer clamped around his left ankle and pulled him hard toward the water's edge. Yanked off center, Omen hit the ground and nearly lost his grip on the sword.
He heard Kyr shriek in fear, followed by the voice of tiny Tyrin shouting, "I'll bite the &!%@* monster!"
Bracing, Omen pushed himself upright and brought the full weight of his sword down upon the limb that had captured him. The heavy blade cut through the segment.
Omen spun, leaping to his feet as he turned toward his brother. Kyr too was lying in the sand, prying at a claw wrapped around both his legs, while the tiny orange fluffy bundle that was Tyrin scratched and bit at the green limb trying to drag the boy into the water.
Like a flea trying to eat a stalk of celery!
Before Tyrin could get hurt, Omen severed the spindly limb holding his brother.
Two more claws reached for him, and several bulky spider shapes skittered across the sand, swiftly approaching.
"Tormy, get Kyr!" Omen shouted to the large cat.
Tormy, ears flat against his head, looked up from where he'd been ripping apart one of the claws, the wiggling appendage still locked firmly between his teeth. The cat leaped with one great bound and landed over Kyr, enormous furry paws surrounding the child like a protective cage.
"Climb on Tormy's back, Kyr!" Omen shouted and deftly cut away another grasping limb.
The boy scrambled through the sand, reaching for little Tyrin in a panic, more worried about his tiny cat than about himself. Realizing that his brother wasn't going to flee without the kitten, Omen hummed a bar of music. Instantly, a familiar psionic pattern formed in his mind, triggering vibrant, pulsing power as energy sparked through him. The power came easily to him these days, and he reached effortlessly out with his thoughts and lifted the little cat into the air, floating him across the sand and dropping him neatly into Kyr's outstretched hands. Then Omen spun and slammed his sword down on another snapping claw.
Kyr stuffed the kitten down the front of his tunic and then scrambled monkey-like onto Tormy's back.
A multitude of claws reached for them, the segmented limbs closing around them like a trap. Desperately, Omen tried to remember everything he knew about sandlures. These claws are just the end of the creature — a tail with a hand attached to it!
He recalled seeing an ink drawing of a sandlure in a book. Like a spider on a ball and rope. The book had depicted large, twelve-legged spiders attached to a single long tail which ran back out to sea and connected to the actual body of the creature floating on the surface of the water and watching for prey upon the shore.
He scanned the sand. Just below the surface he could see something moving. He leaped high in the air and brought his sword down with a powerful overhand strike, cutting into the wet sand and severing the long tail leading back out to the water. Instantly the claws around them spasmed and went limp, cut off from the main creature.
"More &$#@! monsters!" Tyrin chirped at the top of his lungs.
Dark green shapes moved across the sand in ripples, clicking and crawling spider-like toward them, uprooting their trailing tails from the ground.
"Back to the staircase!" Omen shouted to Tormy. "They can't get farther inland!"
The nearest set of claws reached them, and Omen swung his sword, guarding Tormy's retreat.
With Kyr clinging to his ruff, Tormy stumbled across the dunes, the dry sand slowing his progress considerably. One of the clawed clusters had already cut him off, barring the way as two more approached from behind.
Omen rushed forward, his feet sinking into the sand as he hacked at the creature blocking Tormy's path. The cat spun and clawed at the sandlures coming up behind him.
"There's too many! We have to get to the stairs, Tormy!" Omen gasped.
And then a great shadow arced over them, and a rush of wind from unfurled wings threw sand into the air. A thundering boom reverberated as the enormous scaled form of the glittering dragon dropped from the sky and closed merciless claws over the nearest crawling spiders, crushing them utterly.
Omen and Tormy backed away as the dragon raised another deadly claw and crushed two more sandlures. The rest skittered swiftly away, long tails exploding upward along the shoreline as they were instantly retracted and pulled out to sea, leaving the beach empty once more.
Breathing heavily, Omen stared as the mighty Sundragon turned his huge, horn-tipped head and fixed his azure gaze upon him. Despite the muted cloudy light, the dragon gleamed golden and bright, his shimmering scales glinting with the underscales' vibrant blue as if a piece of the sun and sky had landed upon the beach.
"Thank you, Lord Amar." Omen inclined his head to the Sundragon respectfully, mindful of the dagger-sized teeth in the dragon's jaws. "I've never seen sandlures in Melia." He still held his sword in his right hand, blade pointed downward and away from the dragon.
"Nor have I," Sundragon Amar replied, his voice low and deep, resonating in the musical tones of the Melian language.
Omen's eyes widened. Amar is hundreds of years old. If he hasn't seen sandlures here—
"They are sometimes found up north in Nelminor," Amar continued, "but they never enter the warmer waters of Melia. And even in Nelminor they are only seen in mid or late autumn." The dragon glanced at the bedraggled cat still carrying an equally bedraggled Kyr. "Are you and your companions injured, Prince Armand?"
Omen flinched at the use of the formal name, but knew better than to correct a Sundragon. He glanced over his shoulder at Tormy. Kyr was still clinging fiercely to the cat's back. Tyrin, who had wormed his way out of Kyr's tunic and was perched on top of Tormy's head, opened his mouth to answer.
"We're fine!" Omen spoke before the cat could. Can't have that little pottymouth blabber to a Sundragon.
"Do you hear the singing?" Kyr asked breathlessly from Tormy's back, seeming mesmerized by the crashing ocean waves.
"What singing?" Omen stared at his brother. Does he hear singing from the Temple of the Untouchables? The wind is blowing the wrong direction for that.
"Coming from the water," the boy explained. "Thousands of voices singing the song of Urgolath."
"Urgo—" Omen began only to be cut off by a low hum from the Sundragon. He turned. Lord Amar's draconic eyes were fixed on Kyr. "Do you know that name?"
"Urgolath, the Widow Maker, is the name of an ancient leviathan," Amar explained. "But it only appears in the western Luminal Sea on the night of the autumnal equinox. It is said that those doomed to death can hear its song. You had best keep your brother away from the ocean until we can figure out what these strange occurrences mean. The Widow Maker devours the souls of drowned sailors, and it is attracted to mystics."
"My brother is not—" Omen cut off his own protest at the dragon's sharp stare. My brother is not a mystic, he thought to himself instead of speaking the words out loud. But every time he tried to insist that was true, Kyr did something to prove him wrong. "I'll keep him away from the ocean," Omen promised.
"Go and tell the Untouchables to keep people off the beach," Amar said. "I will search for more sandlures." The dragon turned, sand spraying up as his long tail slithered behind him.
Omen watched in silence as Amar moved farther down the beach, his claws sinking deep into the sand with each step. More sandlures reared up as he neared them, all scampering back out to sea as the dragon approached. Several of the fleeing creatures were horse-sized — more than capable of dragging a grown man out to sea.
"That's not good," Omen said quietly through his teeth.
The dragon too seemed startled at the sandlures' size and after a few moments, he opened his great jaws and roared. Fire bright as the sun rushed from those jaws, an enormous flare shooting out across the sand and heating it. The salt water instantly turned to steam as the sand glowed red hot.
Tormy brushed up against him, and Omen reached out to steady Kyr who was balanced on the cat's back. "Did Tyrin say a naughty word?" the large cat asked sincerely as they watched the dragon scorch the sand with his fiery breath.
"I is cursing the &!%@* monsters!" Tyrin scolded loudly. "You is allowed to curse when there is being monsters!"
"Yes, yes," Omen replied, distracted. He reached out to pat the little kitten's head. "You were very brave, Tyrin."
Spying his sword sheath near the surf's edge, Omen hummed the familiar tune again in his mind, summoning his power. He reached out with his thoughts and grasped the sheath, lifting it silently into the air and floating it across the dunes toward his outstretched hand. Carefully sheathing his blade, his eyes still fixed on Amar and the far-too-numerous creatures fleeing the dragon's wrath, Omen felt an ice-cold shiver splash down his spine.
Kyr was right, the ocean did have eyes, he thought. Melia is the safest place I know, but this is the second time we've been attacked on this beach.
"They sound sad." Kyr gave a heavy sigh.
"The sandlures?" Omen asked. As far as he knew sandlures didn't actually make any sort of sound.
"The singers," Kyr explained, looking toward the water. "Sad and frightened."
"Let's go tell the Untouchables." Puzzled, Omen patted Tormy's flank to get him moving toward the staircase once again. "And then I think it's time I teach you how to use a sword, Kyr."