Adri woke with a start. The violet light shimmering through the curtains raised goose bumps on his skin despite the warmth of the air. Some scholars said that prophetic dreams were common when Vesti, the purple Moon of Shaping, grew large in the sky. Others dismissed those claims.
All Adri knew was his dreams had been jumbled lately—giving him scales, feathers, antlers, antennae. He'd been flying, awkward as a fledgling, and a missed stroke woke him with a start. That and Vesti's chilling light. When the purple moon reached full, they would find their Shapes and everything would change.
He turned restlessly onto his back and stared at the crude dragon carved in a ceiling beam. There were other marks in the wood: chips, graffiti, and declarations from lovers long dead. The Drake's Host had been a tavern for nearly two thousand years, and this room on the top floor had housed many people before them. In the light of the purple moon, he could only make out the barest of details. And the unfamiliar color made every scratch and figure seem a portent of doom.
Adri rose from the bed. Dru grumbled and reached for him, but Adri shrugged his hand away. He ducked behind the curtain and watched Vesti, not quite full, glowing just above the tree line. Moak, the drab moon of cycles and predictability, was tainted by Vesti's color as it floated next to the spire of the ancient bell tower. The stone buildings of Ilyan City were too dark to be affected, but even the new gas lamps in Dushara Square had a purple taint.
Dru wasn't troubled by dreams. Maybe Adri's lover was one of the lucky ones who would remain fully human.
"Adri?" The low murmur of Dru's voice made him shiver. Adri should enjoy the time they had together, but he was haunted by the violet light.
The curtains rustled, and strong arms slid around his waist. Adri sighed and relaxed into the familiar embrace. Dru was shorter than him, but broader across the shoulders with strong arms that fit around Adri like they were made to hold him.
"I didn't mean to wake you."
"You should have." Dru's hips shimmied against Adri's ass. "Time can be better spent than in brooding, my love."
"I'm sorry." Adri leaned more deeply into Dru's embrace. "These dreams... I was flying..."
"Flying?" Dru's breath tickled his ear. "That would be glorious. We could soar together..."
"It doesn't work like that." Adri sighed. "I know you don't want to talk about it."
"This myth that we won't remember each other." Dru stiffened. "I don't believe it."
"That's what all the stories say." Adri pulled away. "All the rituals are in preparation for letting go."
I closed the story book with a snap and a snort. Why would anyone, much less a dragon, choose to lie in a damp, dark cave on a heap of cold metal? Ridiculous! The very idea gave me the urge to shudder and pull my sweater tighter around my body, but I resisted, contemplating the cover of the book instead.
Modern fairy tales. Retellings. Old legends being made anew. And these were not stories meant to scare small children into behaving, or even told for their entertainment. Not anymore. These stories were sold to adults, for adults—a way of recapturing their history or feeling a connection to what they considered simpler times.
Well, I'd always liked to write, and with these adult fairy tales making a resurgence... yes, perhaps now was the time to rejoin the world yet again.
I turned the thought over in my head as I strolled to the window. Acting hastily was a great way to get one's self killed, but the idea felt like a good fit. I'd written throughout my long life, of course, but although several of my poems had surfaced over the centuries as scraps by 'unknown author'—or better yet, claimed by others—I'd never been an author, myself, as such.
Outside, the glow and glitter of Vegas was very nearly an assault, though I was used to it. People strolled the nearby Strip, laughing and tripping over one another as they reveled in their participation, however brief, in this endless Bacchanal. The sight of the colors and flashing signs of the casino resorts filled me with a strange combination of feelings.
On the one hand was the sheer, contagious pleasure that the hysterical joy of the Strip demanded. It was hard to turn away from the happiness of others without a smile of your own. But there was also a wash of almost paternal censure as I thought of those hundreds of people forgetting themselves, often in ways that they would regret. The silly creatures had no sense of discipline, but for now, that very lack made them happy.
What stories would make them happy? Few had an interest in the old tales as they had originally been known. Those tales would make the heart stutter and the blood run cold in any sane creature, and while these humans did love a good scare, I didn't think they would like the bold horrors of the truth. Anyway, so many of the Old Ones were gone, having made mistakes from which they could not recover.
One did not fight the lights and the noise and the sheer crush of humanity, lest they be crushed beneath the weight of numbers and the march of time. One had to turn where humanity turned, and walk with them. I brushed my fingers along the glass, thirty-six floors above the human crush, in the center of one of their great, busy cities.
Fairy tales and old stories... the human love for heroism and the 'underdog'... I glanced at the cover of the book in my hand, and contemplatively crossed to my kitchen to set it down on the counter, so I would remember later to return it to the library. Unexpected twists... humans loved to turn things on their heads.
A story began, slowly, to unwind in my mind. A dragon as the hero. Yes, the humans would love that. A corrupt knight who overthrows his king. A maiden whose fate hangs in the balance. Perhaps the daughter of the king, now at risk of being married to the knight against her will. And the slumbering dragon, awakened by her tears, who must battle to save the kingdom. I chuckled to myself as I crossed to my laptop, but before I had even booted it up, I turned away.
No, there were some things that just felt better done the old fashioned way. With a pad of paper and a pen in hand, I tipped back in my chair and began to write.
Daire hissed in a long angry noise and spray of bubbles as he cut through the water. His massive body stirred the ocean around him, warning off any fish and most of the bigger predators that might try to get in his way. Turning his head to look up toward the surface of the water, Daire sharply hissed again as pain lanced through his body. There was a long gash along his left side where the creature had bitten him, barely missing his throat. He'd never seen anything like it before, all tentacles and teeth. He hoped he never would again. Daire became more wary as he approached the city's docks, diving deeper to mask his presence as he moved between the ships.
He shouldn't have gone into the water in the first place, but it had rained the night before, cold rain, the wind stirring up the water in the harbor and the ocean beyond. Throughout the night, Daire could smell the storm, practically taste it on his tongue. He had longed for the dark open water. In the early hours of the morning, he could resist the temptation no longer.
Daire ruffled the massive frills that fanned out from the back of his head, angry with himself for getting into this mess. If he'd stayed at home, it wouldn't have happened. When he felt he was close enough to the wharf, he gritted his teeth and pushed his body upward, moving through the water as fast as possible. The surface rushed toward him, bright with moonlight. Daire chanted in his head the small rhyme which would trigger the charm he wore. Daire broke the surface, body changing and shrinking simultaneously.
Black scales lined with silver changed to soft skin. His long snout, huge coiled body, and fan shaped frills shifted into a decidedly human form. Daire landed without any grace on the edge of a pier and bit his lip hard enough to taste blood as he clung to the side. He cursed softly as he pulled himself onto the docks. Glancing up and down the street, he made sure he was alone before making his way toward the wharfs and warehouses. It was too much damage for the few healing charms he still had; he would have to find himself a doctor.
Daire ducked into an alley and sorted through the pile of abandoned boxes and rubbish until he found the canvas bag which held his clothes. After dressing as quickly as possible, Daire headed down the alley toward streets more likely to have cabs to take him back to his apartment.
Daire rented a basement apartment that was down a short flight of stone steps and through a heavy metal door he kept locked at all times. It was one huge room underneath a large, rickety, wooden tenement house. Daire unlocked the door and let himself in before locking it behind him. He lit a lamp and set it on the side table before going to poke at the small brazier he used for warmth and cooking. Half of the room was set up for him to live. Floor to ceiling bookcases lined every wall, stuffed full of books and trinkets he'd taken a fancy to. A bed was shoved in one corner, a scarred wooden table took up the middle of the room, and a battered arm chair sat next to the brazier. The rest of the space was taken up by the machine.
After stoking the flames back to life, Daire pulled off his overcoat, jacket, and waistcoat, tossing all of it onto the bed. He pulled his necktie free and peeled off his shirt before turning toward the mirror. Even in human form the wound was ugly, long and jagged where skin and flesh had been torn way. He'd bled straight through his shirt and waistcoat. Even his frock coat had blood on it, which meant he'd need to get a new one if he didn't want to attract attention. Humans tended to get even more nosy than usual when you walked the streets in clothes covered with blood. Daire fetched a knife and cut up what was left of his shirt and bandaged himself.
There was another shirt and waistcoat among the blankets piled on his armchair. Daire pulled the clothes free and put them on. He could feel that the blood had clotted. He no longer had the magic to heal himself, but his body's natural resistance still worked. If he had the luxury of resting and eating a meat rich diet for a few months, he would probably be fine on his own. He did not have the time for that, though, which meant searching out Doctor Faulkner.
Daire hissed angrily to himself, searching through boxes of odds and ends until he found a pocket watch. It was too early; Faulkner would not be free from his obligations to the other alchemists and the young people they indoctrinated. Neither would Doctor Wong, not that he had the experience treating Daire's kind. Wong was adept at treating magic based ailments, but had no experience with normal injuries to non-human bodies.
Daire hissed, this time in pain, as he jarred his injured shoulders, sending fire lancing down his back and side. For a moment, he couldn't breathe, and dizziness overwhelmed him. An older, deeper pain from his forearms started making his belly churn with nausea. He swayed, and then made his way over to his armchair, curling himself up among the blankets and other soft bits of clothes. Daire used his good hand to lift a book from the stack next to the chair and pulled it into his lap.
The fire and the one lamp did not cast much light, but Daire didn't need much light to see, even with his weak human eyes. It was easy to make out the shape of the machine where it loomed in the apartment. Its metal frame caught and reflected some of the fire light, and Daire's gaze traced the glass tubing and colored glass panels contained within the frame. Chains hung half in shadow, and Daire would need to complete the tank, but it was mostly finished. Soon, he would be able to test it and see if it worked. Daire's fingers curled around the edge of the book, cradling it tighter to his chest. If the machine worked, he would no longer need the charms, no longer need to rely on human doctors or a human body.
Daire smiled a little to himself and let the thought comfort him as he drifted into sleep.
The world has gone to shit.
Complete and utter shit.
Standing on the corner of Louis and Pine, Rayvak waits for the annoying little lighted man to appear, signaling him to cross. Instead, an orange hand prevents him, despite an empty street. He'd much rather cross, but dragons are dictated by the laws of humans. A low growl forms in Rayvak's throat, and the young idiot human next to him jumps. It definitely isn't a sound any human is capable of. Nor, by human standards, is this man young. To Rayvak, this fifty-something man is nothing more than a hatchling.
His jaw tightens in frustration and anger. He and his kind were once feared and respected, worthy of sacrifice. They were once proud and noble. Now, they are thought of as legends, nothing more. A fairytale. Another twitch aggravates his jaw; his teeth begin to ache from the force.
The orange hand finally changes, allowing him to cross with his two grocery bags from the local market. A dull, pounding ache along his gumline threatens to take over. The need to morph into his truest form almost wins. Only the voice of The Emperor cutting through his anger at the last mandatory meeting of his kind keeps him in check. The threat of mutilation keeps him—and he's sure others—in check. Doesn't mean he has to fucking like it. He wants a fresh kill, not this processed and bled dry lump of what humans call meat. It's insulting.
The human jogs past him as they cross, almost making him laugh. Despite not knowing what he is, humans tend to avoid him at all costs. He's not exactly complaining. The small town of Lillian, Connecticut sees Rayvak as a quiet loner; it's something he's secretly proud of. After all, the last thing he needs is a bunch of humans at his door. Humans worry over everything and solve nothing. Only a select few stand up and take charge of what they believe. That, to Rayvak, is a rare thing.
The walk to his truck one block over makes him feel as if he is on display. Almost everyone stares at him. It's mainly three young females giggling in a house across the street.
"He's so handsome," the thirty-something says.
Her friend, the forty-something, tsks. "But he's so rude!"
"He," a different thirty-something than the first sighs, "can get away with it."
The women's chatter makes him smirk inwardly. Their stupidity is something he finds both amusing and annoyingly frustrating. He's called this town home since before it was a town, and not once has he taken a female lover. Then again, he's never taken a human male lover, either.
Shrugging, he continues on, uncaring of the females or males in this town. Only a younger, more arrogant—maybe even stupid—dragon would try to impregnate a human female. Dragons are almost exclusively male. Mating is a big deal since only one chance typically comes in a lifetime. There's the rare triad mating, but those are so few and far between that young males believe triads a legend. Pairings with human females were tried, but every infant conceived died within the first six months of pregnancy. Not to mention, every male Rayvak knew who tried such a drastic thing said they'd never do it again.
Nothing against female humans, but it's not in his species' nature to want a female. They're just not pleasing to dragons.
I was dreaming. A pretty good dream, as they go. I was lying on an enormous round bed, silk sheets whispering sinfully under me. Dappled sunlight in the pale roses of early morning shone through the mist-wreathed green tree leaves around us.
Okay, not a bed after all. A nest, woven out of branches as thick as my arm, perched in the crook of a tree trunk the width of a double-lane highway, piled with soft down and silk.
Next to me lay Ferdie, bare as a newborn chick, gorgeously, gloriously nude. His auburn curls glowed like fire in the sun, above high-cheekboned features so perfectly proportioned they'd make a classical sculpture weep. His hand idly caressed my stomach as he watched the rising dawn in silent appreciation. Which was how I knew I was dreaming.
That, and I could easily read his mind, sense the full scope of his enjoyment. Even when I'm trying, he's usually a blank wall to my telepathy. But mostly, it was the silent thing.
"So what are we doing up here, besides the obvious?" I asked him. There had to be a reason we were in a tree, I understood, with the causeless, nonchalant certainty that you get in dreams. I just hoped it wasn't some silly nesting metaphor. We hadn't even been together six months, and besides, surely my subconscious is more creative than that.
Ferdie turned his head on the plush feather pillow to look at me. Green and gold and ember-red glinted in his hazel eyes. "David?" he asked.
"Yeah?" I replied. "You know why we're here?" It seemed like he should know, but the answer wasn't coming up in his thoughts. They were flowing away, dissolving like the mist in the rising sunlight. David—where are you—are you—David?
"David?" he repeated without getting to the question. "David! Where are you, David? David!"
His eyes were wide, mouth opening in a shout that hurt my ears. I winced and said, "I'm right here! I just want to know why—"
"David!" Ferdie hollered instead, even louder, and I woke up.
Or thought I did, anyway. It was so dark that I wasn't sure if my eyes were actually open. I wasn't sure that I wanted them to be open, anyway. Awake, my head was throbbing like a subwoofer at one of Ferdie's dance clubs. I lifted my hand to rub my temples, and something rustled. Not silk sheets; a drier sound, like paper but not. The cool, sharp scent that rose up my nose confirmed it—dry leaves.
That explained why the ridge under my left shoulder felt more like a tree root than a pillow. Though not why there was a tree in my bed.
Unless, as I was beginning to suspect, I wasn't in my bed. Or in my bedroom or my apartment. Or within the Boston city limits; it was too quiet for Boston. The shushing murmur overhead wasn't tires on asphalt but a breeze through branches, and that was all I could hear.
That, and: "David, where are you?" Ferdie's voice, just like he'd sounded in my dream, only even more worked up.
Ferdinand George Griffon the Third (or Sixth, or Esq., or whatever he was going by this week), most lately of Boston, the sole employee of David Sleight, psychic investigator for hire. The irony being that his paycheck came out of the funds he'd paid me when he'd hired me those months back. Or it would, if I gave him an actual paycheck, which I don't, since it's a pain working out the tax paperwork for a guy with no social security number or birth certificate. The volcano he'd hatched in hadn't had a registrar's office. I wasn't sure if it even had a name.
Buwei watched his mother and grandmother sip at the thin gruel that was all they had for dinner. He had told them his stomach didn't feel well and he didn't want to eat. He hoped the few mushrooms he'd found would help make the broth more nourishing. His grandmother was so frail that she rarely got off of her pallet anymore.
The drought meant that there was next to nothing in the rice fields, and he was still obliged to pay his tithe to the governor. Little was left for the family.
He knew that his family was not alone. His neighbors were in the same position, and he'd even seen children dying in some outlying areas. It was nearing three years since the drought had started, and if it went on another season, there would be no one left to work the fields when the nourishing rains did come.
A knock on the door startled the entire family. Buwei pushed off the bench and crossed the room to open it in the gloom of their one poor candle. He was surprised to see one of the governor's representatives standing before him, holding a lantern.
He bowed slightly. "To what do we owe the honor of your visit?"
"Zhang Buwei? Farmer of this holding?"
"Yes, sir. How may I be of service?"
"You have been selected."
Buwei glanced back at his mother and grandmother, but they didn't seem to understand more than he did. "Selected for what?"
"To deliver the offerings to the great dragon Lord Shenlong, in the hopes that he will bless our land with rain and deliver us from this horrible dryness."
"But, but... I didn't ask to be considered?"
"All eligible men in the province were entered. You should be happy with this great honor bestowed upon you by the Governor."
"My family? There is no one to care for them if I leave."
"Fear not; they shall reside with the Governor for the time you are away. They will be well-cared for in your absence."
Buwei was torn. It would be an opportunity for his mother and grandmother to have proper food and care. And maybe, just maybe, Lord Shenlong would bless their province, and the rains would come. He, Buwei, a lowly farmer, would be a hero to his people. It was not often that a peasant such as he had the opportunity to experience such a great achievement. Yet, he knew leaving his small farm, with what little it could provide, would mean he would return to nothing.
Najlah grumbled and shifted restlessly on the campfire until he found a more comfortable position, thinking longingly of his homeland, Tahjil. He hated Restuel's wretched winters. He had not realized how much worse the cold would be when they reached the mountains that formed the northern border.
Back home, it was all hot sand, hot sun, hot stones. Only natives could endure the brutal heat. When foreigners had started arriving in droves, he and his fellow dragons had struggled to keep the idiots from getting themselves killed.
He shifted again, hissing his discontent. A few of the men regarded him sympathetically, and a couple built the fire up higher for him. Najlah thanked them with a soft rumble. To distract himself, he flicked his tongue out, tasting the air, but he came away with nothing but wintry forest, fire, and his companions, the cat and bird shifters that comprised their small unit of the Royal Shifter Corp.
It was frustrating to be so close to their goal, only to be thwarted by the mass and might of the Shide Mountains. They had hoped to catch Kay sooner, but the bastard was slicker than a brown scale bitch on the prowl.
Najlah tasted the air again—and jerked his head up with a spitting growl, alerting the men, sending embers and sparks flying into the air and out across the snow.
He uncoiled his sinuous body, black scales glistening wetly where they were struck by moonlight and flickering flames. He flexed his claws, spikes springing up all the way down the length of his spine to the tip of his tail, drops of poison gleaming at their ends. He growled loudly, baring his teeth as seven figures came out of the shadows, their scent the wildest he'd caught since leaving home.
It was similar to dog, but sharper, more feral, with the bitter tang that always accompanied the scent of shifters. They also carried the smell of predators: the hot bite of blood and lust for the hunt. Najlah's battle brothers were no slouches, but they did not compare—and everyone present knew it.
Najlah hissed again, not backing down from his protective stance. He was intrigued, but he would be just as happy to rip their throats out, drink their blood, and devour their flesh. It would warm him better than conversation.
The wolves growled back at him, hackles rising, but Najlah did not stand down. They were large—standing shoulders to hips to his brothers—and better suited to the environment, but he doubted they knew how to fight a dragon. The foremost of them, a wolf of pure black with eyes the same silver-gold as the moon, stepped forward and barked, then let his tongue loll.
Unamused and unimpressed, Najlah turned to Fayth, the captain and his brother-in-law, for orders. "Stand down," Fayth said, motioning to Najlah and the others before turning to the wolves. "Why the bloody hell are you bothering us? We've done nothing to anger the Lukos."
The lead wolf barked again, and the air grew thick with the tang of wild magic as the Lukos began to shift into their human forms.
Najlah huffed and began his own shift. He did not particularly care if everyone thought him rude if he did not shift, but he would not reflect poorly on his battle brothers. Not that shifting really made much difference in the end; unlike most shifters, dragons did not have a completely human-looking form—it would get them killed in Tahjil.
Shifted, he stood tall and slender, his skin as black as his scales but lacking their glisten. Much of his body was still covered with scales, however. His head smooth, jaw shaped to accommodate his fangs—and he still could not speak, because his forked tongue remained, and his teeth were too many, too long, too sharp, for speech to be possible. Human speech, anyway. He flexed his hands, examining his poisonous claws and retracting them when he was satisfied. He hated the softness of his human-like skin where the scales did not protect it, and he sorely missed having a tail.
Even with the warming stone around his neck, he could feel the cold biting and wanted badly to crawl back into the campfire. Stupid wolves forcing him to abandon the only real warmth he had in the detestable cold. One of his battle brothers brought him a heavy cloak and Najlah rumbled in thanks. Wrapping himself in it, moving closer to the fire, he finally gave his full attention to the wolves.
Of all shifters, the Lukos, the wolves, were the most mysterious and notorious. They were ferals—shifters with no close ties to humans. Dragons had been ferals until recently; many still considered them feral. Najlah hardly cared—why should the opinions of humans matter to him? He was a dragon, infinitely better.