The Dragon's Tooth (Ashtown Burials #1) is a part of the Ashtown Burials collection.
For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room.
Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world's secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.
N. D. Wilson, author of Leepike Ridge and 100 Cupboards, returns with an imagination-capturing adventure that inventively combines the contemporary and the legendary.
An Excerpt fromThe Dragon's Tooth (Ashtown Burials #1)
North of Mexico, south of Canada, and not too far west of the freshwater sea called Lake Michigan, in a place where cows polka-dot hills and men are serious about cheese, there is a lady on a pole.
The Lady is an archer, pale and posing twenty feet in the air above a potholed parking lot. Her frozen bow is drawn with an arrow ready to fly, and her long, muscular legs glint in the late-afternoon sun. Behind her, dark clouds jostle on the horizon, and she quivers slightly in the warm breeze pushed ahead of the coming storm. She has been hanging in the air with her bow drawn since the summer of 1962, when the parking lot was black and fresh, and the Archer Motel had guests. In those days, the Lady hadn’t been pale; she had been golden. And every night as the sun had set, her limbs had flickered and crackled with neon, and hundreds of slow cars and sputtering trucks had traveled her narrow road, passing beneath her glow. When young, she had aimed over the road, over the trees, toward Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Now, thanks to the nuzzling of a forgotten eighteen-wheeler, her glow has gone and she leans back, patiently cocking her arrow toward the sky, waiting to ambush the clouds.
The motel is nothing like its proud lady archer. While she stands tall, it sags, shedding yellow paint like an autumn maple casting off its leaves. The walkways are powdered orange with rust. The cracks in the small courtyard are thick with thistles. Behind the motel, a battered and split chain-link fence imprisons a swimming pool too small for a diving board even if its cracked bottom could have held water. Behind the pool and the fence, a thick and tangled barrier of brush and stunted plum trees protects the motel from sprawling unused pastures, murky streams, and the gray peaks of distant cattle barns.
To a traveler’s eyes, the motel is dead and useless, a roadside tragedy, like the remains of some unfortunate animal in a ditch--glimpsed, mourned, and forgotten before the next bend in the road. But to the lean boy with the dark skin and the black hair struggling in the thick brush behind the pool, the motel is alive, and it is home.
Branches snapped as Cyrus Smith grunted, fighting the many fingers that held him in place. He had paths. He had tunnels through the hedge that he could follow doubled over with his eyes closed, hollows hidden from the outside world, floored with beaten earth and plum pits. To him, the hedge was no obstacle.
Unless he was carrying a tire. And today, he was carrying two.
Gritting his teeth, Cyrus surged forward. Wet rubber dug into each arm. Water sloshed out of the tires onto his sides. His schoolbag snagged on a branch behind him. He was close. The branch snapped and he was closer. Brittle wood clawed at him and gave way.
Cyrus lunged out of the hedge and let the tires fall from his arms. Panting, dripping, he leaned his back against the old rattling fence, braced his hands on his knees, and looked around. His hair was more than black. Wet with sweat, it glistened like obsidian--like his eyes. His legs and arms were smeared with mud. The tops of his shoes were hidden with silty muck from the bottom of the stream where he had found the tires. He kicked off his shoes and let his toes splay in the scraggly grass, breathing hard, listening to a team of cicadas electrocute the air from the brush behind him.
He didn’t know what time it was. Dan and Antigone might be back. Might not. He didn’t care how late he had been; they shouldn’t have left him. Skipping out of school had thrown him off, and he’d gotten back to the motel just in time to watch the red station wagon disappear.
And then the front-desk phone had started ringing. He shouldn’t have answered it, but he’d been irritated. His days were always filled with shouldn’ts.
“Archer Theme Park and Resort,” Cyrus had said. And then, though he wasn’t sure why: “This is Dan.”
A throat had cleared on the other end. “Cyrus?” The man’s voice was low, his breath thick, like he was underneath a blanket.
“I’m Dan,” Cyrus had said. He couldn’t sound that different from his brother. He lowered his voice. “What can I do for you, sir?” Totally Dan. Nice. Patient. Groveling.
“Well . . . Cyrus Lawrence Smith . . . I need a room.”
Cyrus had squirmed. “We’re full,” he’d said quickly. “But please try us again sometime.” He should have hung up. Right then.
The man breathed in slowly. His rusty voice sharpened. “Listen up, kid. I’m just a few miles down the road, and tonight I’m sleeping in one-eleven. Not one-ten. Not two-eleven. Room one hundred and eleven. You understand? That’s my room. Tonight. I don’t care who’s in it. Clear them out, or I will.”
The line clicked dead.
“Whatever, old man.” Cyrus had dropped the receiver and exhaled, trying to ignore the tightness in his throat, the sound of his own voice. Had the man watched Dan leave? Did some stranger really know his voice? He couldn’t be scared. He wasn’t that kid. He survived school by not being scared. By not seeming scared, at least.
Still, he wasn’t going to hang around alone. Instead, shouldering his schoolbag, he had locked the front door and tromped out into the pastures to burn daylight. Dan shouldn’t have left him behind. Waiting around for psychos wasn’t his job, and he wasn’t about to clean a room. Not any room. Especially not 111.
Two tires. Blinking away sweat, Cyrus nudged them each with a toe. Not bad. He’d never managed two at once. He’d never even found two in the same week, let alone in the same muddy stretch of stream. He dragged his arm across his forehead. Had the kook already shown up? Why would anyone insist on a particular room at the Archer? It wasn’t like any of them were mold-free or had Jacuzzi tubs or uncracked mirrors.
Cyrus pulled up the hem of his shirt and ground his face into it. The white cotton was already soaked with tire slosh, but it was better than nothing.
California had never been like this. Warm, sure. Sunny, always. Well, almost always. Not during the winter storms. But muggy? Never.
Cyrus closed his eyes and tried to picture the cliffs of Northern California falling away beneath him, the slow-rolling white lines of surf breaking off of the points, ruffling the kelp beds, tumbling the tourist surfers.
It didn’t work. There would be a cool breeze coming in off the ocean. Sweat wouldn’t stick to him like this. He’d been ten the last time he felt that breeze. Two years ago, and still his skin remembered.
Cyrus glanced up at the dropping sun. He’d been in the fields for a while. Dan and Antigone might be back. Sighing, he bounced slowly against the chain-link fence and then straightened. He needed a storm, something to break the heat’s stranglehold on the day. There was supposed to be one, but he’d go crazy if it didn’t break before dark. He bent over, grabbed the closest tire, heaved it to his shoulder, and launched it over the fence. It hopped on the concrete lip and flipped, scattering drops of filthy water, bouncing into the pool, where twelve other tires and two twisted bicycles waited. The pool was a mass grave for worn rubber. An open grave. Someday, when Dan wasn’t around, he’d try to melt them all down. Maybe with a black rubber bottom, the pool would actually hold water. Or not. Things would find a way to go wrong.
The second tire followed. Fourteen.
Cyrus adjusted the strap of his bag, saluted the tires, and, leaving his shoes, walked barefoot around the side of the motel and into the parking lot. Empty. No strange man. No Dan. No Antigone. He walked to the peeling white door labeled 111 and checked the knob. Still locked. He slid his key into the dead bolt. Sticking knee-high out of the wall beside him, an air conditioner hiccuped. The knob turned and the door swung in.
Compared to the parking lot, the room was arctic. The lights were off, and Cyrus didn’t turn them on. This was his space, and after two years, it no longer felt like a motel room. Maps--his father’s--were tacked all over the walls. Tired shelves slept beneath his overcrowded collections--scavenged animal skulls, comic books, bones, license plates, oddly shaped or glistening rocks, and army relics that had been his grandfather’s. In the corner by the bathroom, a plaid couch drooped with a broken backbone. Four skis stuck out from underneath it, mounted the previous winter. Dan had refused to pull it behind the station wagon. There was no television. Most of those had been sold. A three-legged record player sat on a dresser covered in dust. Six months ago, when Cyrus had found it in a ditch behind his school, he had intended to fix it. Now he had no intentions at all.
Cyrus threw his bag onto a rickety desk covered in pocketknife scrawlings and dropped onto his bed. When he’d skipped out of school at lunch, there had been stacks of papers in his bag--it was always that way on the last day. Grades. Accumulated math tests and quizzes. Science. Compositions. And they’d been good. Good enough. Not great. Better than his brother and sister would have guessed. Not that it mattered. After the red station wagon had disappeared without him, Cyrus had carried them into the fields for a somber ritual. They were all underwater now. Pinned beneath a heavy stone, never to be resurrected. Fish would learn the taste of math.
He would have shown his parents.
“That was different,” Cyrus said out loud.
The air conditioner choked, struggled, and died. Cyrus didn’t notice. Rolling onto his side, he shoved his hand under his mattress and pulled out two worn California drivers’ licenses. Splaying them between his fingers, he studied the faded photos. His mother, known to the State of California as Catherine Smith, was described as 5'7" and 122 lbs. Her eyes were bright, even in the smudged photo on plastic. Cyrus had gotten her dark skin and black hair. So had his sister. Daniel was an early reproduction of their father. Straw-blond, at least when there had been California sun and salt water to keep it that way. Daniel’s hair had been brown by their first Wisconsin Christmas.
Cyrus picked at a bent corner on his father’s license. Lawrence Smith. 6'3" and 190 lbs. Smirking, not smiling. Cyrus had gotten the smirk. And the height.
Cyrus held his two grainy parents next to each other.
Twelve years ago, on a cliff overlooking the sea, he had startled these two people by being born. According to family legend, he had spent the rest of the day wrapped in a picnic blanket. For ten years, he’d heard his parents tell the story--he could hear them now, bantering in front of friends, his mother’s accented voice assigning humorous blame to his father for the ill-timed hike, and finally, always together, delivering the closing line of his birth story with a pair of proud smiles: “That’s Cyrus for you. He hasn’t changed at all.” And he wouldn’t. Not ever.
But that story and its closing line were from another life and another time. Cyrus would never hear his father’s voice again. And his mother breathed only the faintest whisper of whispers, trapped in her hospital sleep.
Cyrus exhaled, long and slow.
Thrusting the keepsakes under his mattress, Cyrus slid off the bed and jumped toward the door.
Backing out into the parking lot and the sun, Cyrus looked up. At least the wind was moving now. The Pale Lady was wobbling and a black cloud range was chewing on the horizon. Old Mrs. Eldridge was perched on the walkway outside room 202. She was wearing her pink robe and a straw gardening hat. Last time he’d seen her, she’d been in 115. Before that, it had been 104, overlooking the empty pool. Three rooms in the past month, closer to a dozen switches on the year.
“Daniel Smith!” she yelled again. This time, she cinched her robe tight and began to move toward the stairs.
“You’re looking pink today, Mrs. Eldridge.” Cyrus moved farther back, shifting bare feet on the hot asphalt. “Do you need something?”
Mrs. Eldridge stopped, covered her right eye, and leaned over the rail, squinting down at Cyrus. “What if I do?” she asked.
“Then I’ll try to act like Dan,” Cyrus said. “What do you need? But it better not be your toilet. I don’t do toilets. You’ll have to plunge it yourself.”
The old woman straightened up and pointed down the stairs. “No one is answering the phone. Someone ought to answer. What if a guest had an emergency?”
“Daniel’s gone, Mrs. Eldridge. He ditched earlier. And you’re the only guest.”
“Well, what if I had an emergency?”
Cyrus grinned up at her. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Lotta good you’d do me.” The woman scrunched her mouth. “I want the girl. Where’s Antigone?”
“She’s with Daniel in the city. Visiting Mom.” Cyrus spread his arms wide. “I should be with them, but I’m not. It’s me or nothing, Mrs. Eldridge. What’ll it be? What’s your emergency?”
The woman sniffed. “I want my waffle. Daniel knows I usually like it at six, but there’s a storm coming and I want it now. I’m not going to miss my waffle for any power outage, no sir.” She squinted at Cyrus. “And scrub those hands before you make it. And change your shirt. You’re filthy. Where are your shoes? You should eat something yourself. You look like you’re made of broomsticks. Your poor mother would be ashamed.”
Cyrus felt his body tighten and his toes clench at the pavement. His smile vanished. “Not like your mom, then?” He closed his mouth; he swallowed. His forehead was suddenly clammy, cool in the breeze. He shouldn’t have said that. Another shouldn’t. He liked Mrs. Eldridge.
“Sorry. I--” He bit the rest back. “Sorry.”
The old woman in pink and the boy in bare feet stood in silence. Dust shuffled across the parking lot. The Pale Lady shook on her pole. Cyrus could feel guilt in his stomach, but he wasn’t going to look away.
After a moment, Mrs. Eldridge turned slowly and began to walk back to her room. “Scrub your scrawny paws!” she yelled. “And you better not turn up at my door in that shirt. Not too doughy, and no crunchy bits either!”
The door slammed on 202, and Cyrus puffed out his cheeks. The sky above him was filling with dust, and the wet, warm air was growing heavier. It might rain mud. The day needed the storm. He needed the storm. And he hoped the station wagon roof leaked on Daniel and Antigone all the way home.