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Dragons Wild

(Griffen McCandles - 1)

Robert Asprin

One

It was early June, which in Michigan meant one could almost count on summer being here to stay. The state was notorious for its “Indian winters,” which lingered forever. When the snows melted, it was all mud. When the mud finally dried, it was summer…maybe. One could never be sure when the warmth would come for good, if ever. Something about that thought resonated deeply with a young man whose life should be just beginning, but who had no idea where it would, or should, go.

Griffen McCandles, a recent graduate from the University of Michigan—by the skin of his teeth—was about to attempt something unthinkable, unimaginable, frightening. That is to say, he was out to get a job in the real world.

He was sitting in his uncle’s office in what was still referred to as Downtown Detroit. The office was impressive, as it was designed to be. As large as a hotel suite, it was plushly furnished for both business and relaxation. Light poured through one glass wall, which provided a view looking out over the tops of lesser buildings to the river beyond. It was a view that testified to and gloried in success, but Malcolm McCandles, the man who dominated the room and the company, ignored it, choosing instead to study his young visitor.

There might have been some similarity between the two in their tall height, light brown shade of their hair, or the strong lines underlying their faces. That was where the similarity ended. Griffen had boy-next-door features and a disarming smile. Where Malcolm seemed to dominate the scene, his nephew barely made a ripple in it. He sat in the pants and shirt from his one suit, tie but no coat. Choosing to look casual with family but coming off as slightly rumpled.

“So, Griffen,” Malcolm said at last, breaking the long silence, “what did you think of college?”

“To be honest with you, Uncle Mal,” the young man said, leaning forward to speak earnestly, “I wasn’t that impressed with it. I mean, the theories and grand concepts were interesting and informative, but now that I’ve graduated I’m looking forward to learning the hard lessons you can only get from working in real life with real people and situations.”

Malcolm cocked his head.

“Cute,” he said. “Did you write that and memorize it in advance, or did you crib it from somewhere?”

“Excuse me?” Griffen said, blinking.

“Let’s cut the crap, shall we?” Malcolm said flatly. “I’m fully aware of your college career. I should be, since I paid for it.

“It is only by charm and quick wits you’ve managed to graduate at all. Not seeming to really care about your chosen major, you rarely attended your classes, but seemed to have a knack for writing essays and papers that were exactly what your teachers were looking for. If you’ve earned anything it’s your nickname, ‘Grifter.’ A name derived from the time you spent playing poker, at further expense of your studies. You seem to have an utter lack of ambition in any terms but the extreme immediate. Now that you’ve graduated, you’re suddenly faced with the horrifying possibility of having to actually work, and you’re hoping to land a cushy job with me to maintain your lifestyle with as little personal exertion as can be managed. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

The youth held his gaze for several long moments before shrugging and leaning back in his chair.

“As you said, Uncle Mal,” he said, “let’s cut the crap. You seem to know me pretty well. I guess the next question is, if you have such a low opinion of me, then what am I doing here?”

Malcolm raised an eyebrow at Griffen’s directness. He had expected him to evade for a time yet. He considered for a moment and shook his head, sadly.

“You should learn to listen to what is said without injecting emotion or judgment into it,” he said. “I never said I disapproved of your actions, simply listed the facts as I see them.

“As to what you’re doing here, that gets into why I originally stepped forward to provide for you and your sister after your parents died. You see, I felt a bit guilty, since I was responsible for those deaths.”

He paused, waiting for a reaction, but Griffen simply looked at him, levelly. The young man had suspected as much, since this uncle that he barely knew had paid his way through college. Mostly he was worried about what to do with his life. His one interview at Microsoft for a sales position had been a disaster lasting less time than it took for the interviewer to look at his transcript from the University of Michigan School of Business. He was just changing mental gears to react to the part about Uncle Mal causing his parents’ deaths when the well-dressed executive spoke again.

“I didn’t actually cause them,” Malcolm clarified, “but I did nothing to prevent them either. Since my noninterference resulted in the two of you becoming orphans, I felt it was only right that I oversee your survival to your majorities. Unfortunately, I’m a busy man, so that assistance was mainly in the form of financial support, and without direct supervision, both you and your sister have been free to run wild and do things pretty much the way you wanted. Now that you’re finally coming of age, however, there are some things you should know.”

He paused to organize his thoughts. Reaching into a humidor on his desk, he produced a cigar and unwrapped it, but didn’t light it.

“Tell me, Griffen,” he said, “what do you know about dragons?”

The youth blinked in surprise at the sudden change of subject.

“Um…I don’t know,” he said finally. “Mythical beasts…big lizards that fly and breathe fire. Why do you ask?”

Malcolm smiled at him.

“Wrong on every count…except one,” he said, ignoring Griffen’s question. “Not surprising, really.”

“Okay.” Griffen shrugged. “We’ll just leave it that they’re mythical beasts. What does that have to do with anything?”

Malcolm pursed his lips as if to whistle, then exhaled a small jet of flame to light his cigar. Griffen’s eyes widened even more as his mind whirled.

“That wasn’t the point you were right on,” he said.

Two

Like most people when seeing something utterly beyond the depth of their experience, Griffen was trying to rationalize what he had just seen. He wracked his memory for some other time he had seen his uncle do prestidigitation or even card tricks. Nothing came to him. Could this be some vague hint that he was going to get a chance at heading up a magic store division?

“Nice trick,” he said nervously, trying to maintain some foothold. Malcolm merely rolled his eyes, but Griffen did his best to maintain a smile. His uncle’s expression then faded, becoming distant, as if he was no longer seeing Griffen, but something far beyond the walls of the office.

Whatever minimal control Griffen had felt coming into this meeting had been completely lost. He felt like he was falling, and couldn’t even see the ground beneath his feet.

“Dragons have been around a long time. Longer than humans. Their ability to shape-shift gave them a great advantage in the competition for survival, to a point where they had few real enemies. An old race, ancient really. If one believes the oldest legends, no asteroid was needed to take out the dinosaurs. The early dragons just didn’t like competition. But without massive and cunning predators, dragons really had no challenges. In hindsight, they became smug and complacent.”

The jobless recent graduate could see Malcolm was choosing his words carefully. Malcolm noticed him schooling his features, trying to look attentive. Despite his comments, true though they were, about his nephew’s shortcomings, there was a fine mind there if the boy had incentive to use it. Malcolm was about to give him a big

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