Spirit of Fire - 13. Change
She was waiting.
Gun raised and trained on the door, Natalia crouched, ready. Her arms were steadied on the nightstand's edge, the furniture moved next to the bed for cover. Her knuckles were white, and she was afraid, but she stayed focused, her attention not leaving the door for a second.
Around the handle, a faint circle was beginning to glow yellow.
It was changing colour; orange, then brighter, to a red, the circumference beginning to char black.
Something was heating it, from the outside.
Her grip tightened, finger resting on the trigger.
"You're out of options, lady." The voice on the other side of the door laughed, and there was a thump as a shoulder, a fist, a knee, was pushed against the door, testing if it was yet ready to give. "Count your seconds, 'cause they're almost gone."
She took a deep breath, but didn't flinch.
In moments more, the heated circle pushed at last fully through, the handle and frame-attached lock loosening. There was a powerful crack of force from the other side, and with a splintering sound as the lock set was dislodged, tearing from the veneer, and the door swung open at speed.
Through they came.
Natalia did not hesitate.
The first cultist she shot square in the chest, the woman tripping and slumping against the dresser. The second she nailed with two more, the man toppling to the opposite side, at the foot of her bed.
The third, however, went differently.
A red glow burst in front of him, a shield emanating from an orange gem bound to the man's left palm, like a ward. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly away, going through the ceiling with a dull thwip. The man advanced into the room, a fourth and final companion behind, protected.
In his right hand, a long curved carving knife.
Just like something a butcher might carry.
"Our lords give us mystic armour." The man stepped carefully over the bodies of his dead and dying comrades, approaching around the bed. Behind him, his companion followed in, and Natalia backed up at the same time, until she was pressed into the corner of the room. The gem was held in front, the barrier in place, and his eyes were staring. They were empty, his expression sunken and somehow void, like something in him was missing.
Dead eyes, a broken mind.
"They demand your secrets and your blood," the cultist whispered as he rounded the end of the bed, his foot bumping the dresser, just feet away from her position of last resort, "and they shall have it."
He lifted the knife hand, taking another step, and ...
... from the door came a sound, a soft thunk onto the carpet as a little silver orb, roughly the size of a golf ball, bounced twice, the lead cultist's attention flicking down as it rolled, settling next to his companion's feet.
The orb exploded, a pulse of blinding white light and kinetic shock blasting the room. Natalia was spared the worst of it, the cultists themselves absorbing most of the burst, and though her head was ringing, her vision cloudy, she was able to make out what came next.
Striding in, the interloper was a pudgy trenchcoat-garbed PI, sunglasses worn, Colt in hand. He immediately capped the nearer foe with a single shot, the man hitting the wall from the close-range ballistic impact, and then swiftly switched targets to the stunned leader. With no qualms, he shot the man five times in the upper back and side, depleting the rest of the cylinder.
"Lords and masters?" He whipped off the sunglasses, grimacing at the four bodies splayed across the bedroom, surveying it all with a pissed-off irritation. "I don't think so. Yer all fuckin' worthless doormats, just like those snake bastards givin' the orders." Then, to her: "Ma'am, y'okay?"
She leaped onto the bed, past the dresser, and then to him, engulfing the man in a terrified hug. "Thank God for you! I- ... I thought that- ... that I-"
He was caught off guard, but only for a moment, then he hugged her back, albeit awkwardly. "Hey. It's over. They're gone now." She clung to him, the experience traumatic. "Dunno if I'd be thankin' 'God' because it was more like real good timing on my part, but someone you could thank is the one that called me. That'd be her."
He jerked his thumb to the doorway.
Peeking around the frame at the carnage and mess, Lucy Atkinson smiled; cautiously, gingerly. "Ms W." She blinked, concerned, and just as unsettled by everything as Natalia was. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"
The distance from the Barents-Whitehouse factory had taken minutes to run on foot, but by air, it took no more than a few dozen seconds. Though I was very stressed about what was happening, the experience was still an incredible one. We climbed to a good couple of hundred feet before gaining any real forward movement, his intention clearly to avoid flying too low over housing, even with the cover of night. Araziah's neck and head stretched out in front of me from where I was held, the wind blowing in my face as we cruised above the council land, the rhythmic whoosh of his wings a testament to a single fact that would sound like pure fantasy if I was to say it out loud.
I was being carried through the evening sky by a dragon.
I could see the lights of home beneath us, though Araziah kept his altitude over the empty field, flying past, and then circling over the space, once, then twice. His head swiveled as he did this, his vision focusing on the house the entire way, before he was satisfied. Slowing, he began to hover, then descend, his lower body dropping first, the momentum gone and gravity taking hold. The wings beat a little faster, the back legs striking ground, then the front left, then lastly, with some care, he placed me on the grass.
Your mother is unharmed. The Scourge failed. His vocal projection was softer, the equivalent of an undertone. I could see your friends, through the windows. You need not fear for her safety.
Just like that, the weight pressing down on me was removed.
Next to me, I could feel him moving, the slight tremours in the soil as his weight altered position, his outline shifting in the dark. Then the hand that had carried me was rising until the point of the index claw was just touching my cheek, his head lowering simultaneously and leaning in until it was almost at my height, the horn tip less than a foot in front of my face.
It should have been terrifying having a dragon practically invading my personal space, but the intimidation I felt from previous encounters was no longer there. Instead, there was only my desire for answers and an appreciation for how impressive he was becoming.
The face-to-face moment was like something out of Game of Thrones, but Araziah was already at least Drogon's size, having increased a little more in the few days since I last saw him. He still fell short of where Theo was, and probably even more so Darren and other fully adult dragons too, but given how large Araziah was in comparison to them already, his growth and maturation were nothing short of astounding.
Celeste and Crawley were right.
Araziah was something special. He was an exceptional and unusually capable example of his kind; the same that he just turned on -- for my sake.
His own blood relations.
The air swirled, drawing inward, and in a blink, the claw point was a fingertip brushing my cheek, and he was standing so close to me that our noses were almost touching.
"Araziah," I whispered, my breath for some reason coming up short, his proximity making me so nervous, though I didn't understand why. "What you said back there ... were you really going to join the Conclave?"
"No." He murmured it, and his finger stroked my skin, oh so delicately, before very gently cupping the entire left half of my face. I shivered, and just let him, a confused deer in the headlights.
Unable to look away, unable to react.
What's wrong with me?
"I lied." He continued. "I would say anything, do anything, to fool them and prevent them touching you. If it was necessary for me to burn that building to the ground and shred Darren with fang and claw until he fled, then I would have done so."
"Why? I thought you wanted my- ... my obedience, and the power they could give you."
"I do want something greater, but I have since come to realise that the solution to these problems eluded me because it required a different perception than my own." He was thoughtful, an odd thing to see on him. "It needed a mind less bound by the conflict of fire and water, a mind free of the politics of Order and Conclave. The answer was delivered to me by another."
Two days earlier, central Mirrorvale:
It was the tallest building in the town, and Araziah stood on the rooftop, unnoticed and unobstructed, observing the town below. He was watching the movements of people, but more importantly, lying in wait to catch glimpses of the one who was Thyndorag's brother.
A contact point for the Conclave.
More than this, to make a judgement from afar, to get a sense of character and motivation, if that was possible. To discover if the more adept agents of the Conclave were superior in temperament and capability to Thyndorag, or if there were significant differences in their strategic approach that he could discern.
Mostly, to decide if an alliance was worth the cost.
To do so, reconnaissance was needed, and there were few spots better suited than the highrise of the commercial district.
He was focused on the task of passive investigation, when there was a sudden squalling gust, accompanied by the soft footfall of a landing behind. Araziah spun in a rapid half-circle to face it, only to see a microsecond of the dragon; there was merely a flash of gleaming platinum before the human form replaced it two dozen feet away.
"You." Araziah growled it, eyes wide. "So it is now you reveal yourself."
"You were not easy to track, I admit, but there are few who can hide from the children of the breeze." The air dragon walked across to the building's edge, at an angle to Araziah's position and taking care not to come closer than he already was. "I am Sebby. You may not know my name, but you do know who I am."
"What of it?" Araziah turned back to his observation, the newcomer leaning on the railing a dozen feet to his right, not constituting a threat so long as he stayed within visual range.
"I met Torsten. He told me what you did, but my insight told me even more. We saw each other in his future, you and I. We may both be important to him, if we choose our paths with a true heart. You knew this from the moment you were close to him. It affected you. I know it did." He nodded slowly, his voice softening. "It affected me. In the smallest space of time, everything was reborn, and I was given a new purpose."
"A true heart." It was a sneer, condescension. "If you believe sayings about virtue as reality, then you are a fool who misunderstands the powers of this world."
"Am I?" Sebby's response was vexatious in its verbal dalliance, matching the speaker's evasive humour. "If you believe pure dominance is the answer to everything, then you are a fool who confuses subjugation with strength."
"What is it you want, oh 'child of the breeze'?" His patience with this type of personality was small and quickly used up.
"I want that you understand this." He gestured to the town below, the sweep of the arm encompassing it and the landscape beyond; hills, plains, forest, sky. "This war is fought by forces bound to their natures; to the inferno of their dreams, or the ocean of their hopes, or to a basic wish for survival. It is true, the Conclave could offer you power and a great deal of it were you to prove yourself the best of their chances, but ... if you choose that, you would become the purest expression of your kind. A creature of extreme rage and bountiful energies, believing yourself an invincible champion, but, ultimately, just one more soldier chained to his own essence. In body, a lord, with the mind trapped inside a willing unrealised servitude."
Araziah did not reply.
"That is what the Conclave will give you. The alternative is no more and no less than one thing: change. I cannot tell you with certainty what the future with Torsten will hold, but I do know it is his future, and if I am to play a part in it, I must respect him, trust him, protect him and give him whatever I can give when he needs it. It may kill me, one day," he mused, a faint smile flitting by, the idea morbidly amusing on some level, "or it may bring me blessings greater than I can conceive of. I have already chosen, and if you choose the same, you will have every chance to seize the glory that you saw when you first looked into his eyes."
"And if I decide otherwise?" It was a short statement, but the challenge was clear.
"I am watching." Nimble, Sebby vaulted up onto the railing to balance in an easy crouch on the precipice. "If you embrace the worst of your nature, you become a threat to him. In such a circumstance, my obligation is to find and end you." He glanced to the side, making direct eye contact, the reserve and whimsy turning deadly serious. "And I will."
"You can try."
"Pray that I do not," he said, standing straight and offering a final look to Araziah, "for the vengeance of the heavens may quench any flame."
With that, Sebby leaped, dropping for only a second below the roof's level before there was a blast of air, and then the winged form was rising. The fire dragon watched the other ascend into the blinding halo of the noonday sun, gone as quickly and without warning as he had arrived.
There was no denying it.
His strongest instinct had been aggression, to kill Sebby as soon as he saw him. There was a calling that painted the notion in broad strokes, and itched for him to act on it. Even after Araziah met the other dragon from their common insight, it had not faded but intensified; this newcomer was a rival and a danger, in a way none of his own kind were. Still, he had buried that sentiment under rationale, allowing a semblance of conversation.
Ultimately, this was not really about the Conclave, nor the Order. They were mechanisms, though powerful ones, that worked to enforce or deny a bigger truth, depending on the point of view.
It was about the reshaping of the world.
The restraint had come from the same place that allowed him to act with such complete certainty when it was necessary to remove Thyndorag from the equation. The future was a myriad of possibility and there were a thousand paths it might take, but, always, there was one factor that haunted him. One, alone, that offered more, a different chance.
It was precious, and he was finally recognising that if he did not grasp it with the full care it deserved, the web of fate surrounding would be broken and the possibility lost, destroyed and gone forever.
Araziah could not allow that to happen.
"What is that answer? What did you realise?"
"That I must change, if I am to meet my destiny," he told me, still cradling my face, so close, so intimate. "Those hints of conquest and victory are seductive, and they call to me more strongly than you can imagine, but ... the promises are hollow. It is not power but folly. A great reckless foolishness."
"You called Darren 'weak and blind'," I whispered. "Is that what you meant?"
"He is. All the Conclave are. They cannot see. Darren laid eyes on you, and all he understood was a road to the dead god's triumph; all he saw was a resource, a means, a tool he could break and use however he wished, to achieve a goal." Araziah's upper lip curled at the edge, the disdain heavy. "Nothing more than kindling for the fire. To begin with, I was no different, but, I had insight. It alters everything, and none of them have known mine, none have seen what I see. My vision was of the gift that you are, and not a single one of my kind shared it." For just a second, his eyes flicked away, to the side, distracted by an errant thought, his voice shifting to a murmur. "Strange that it should be a 'child of the breeze' that is my only peer. Such foreign competition is an oddity."
Child of the breeze? Competition?
"But ... Theo." I breathed his name, a shudder going through me. There was still anger and sadness over what had occurred, but also gratitude, anxiety, and other feelings besides, because Araziah had saved my life. I wanted to hate him, but I also wanted to thank him. "You- ... he- ... he wanted to help me, he really did-"
"Torsten." His jaw tightened, expression pained, frustrated. In my name alone, there was a new tone. It was one of self-discipline and control that I knew was going against his impulse to simply command me. "Hear me now. Thyndorag's intentions did not matter. Had he claimed the position he wished by your side instead of me, then it would have led you both to ruin, one way or another. I had to fight him for it." Again, he quietened to a whisper, his fingers giving a gentle squeeze for emphasis, still holding me. "I had to. You may not believe it, but it was to save you from what would have been. Killing has always been easy for us, yet ... I did not want that. Not until he had refused the chances to yield, until the warnings were all ignored."
"I- ... I wanted-"
"To save him. I know." He drew in a slow breath, then a faint sigh. "I will never ask forgiveness for protecting you, and I do not apologise for Thyndorag's death, but, for you?" His nose twitched, his eyes narrowing, and there was a totally new emotion there, something I had not thought he was even able to feel. It was grudging and reluctant, a tortured admission that I instantly understood was very hard for him to say, much less show, but it was there, and it was real.
"I am truly sorry that I caused you pain." His eyes reflected the struggle inside him, bloody red and intensely driven, but he was honest and his attempt to make amends was not faked. "I must change. I must be more than just the destroying flame. I must find a purpose that is equal to yours. For you, I will do this. For no other will I debase myself; not any human, not any dragon, nor a god. Whatever is your heart's desire, we will achieve it, I swear."
My heart's desire.
The enormity of what Araziah was saying was not lost on me.
He was binding himself to whatever I wanted, resisting his instincts and his essence, and attaching to me without any strings and manipulation. It was so drastic, so different and unexpected from a dragon like him that for a good few moments I had no idea what to say or how to react.
He's putting everything aside for my sake. His pride, his ego, his racial desire to just rule and take what he wants from everyone and everything in his way.
All for me.
Am I really that important to him?
"I know what I want." I told him. "I want the rest of the Fear found and destroyed. I want the Spirit of Fire to be dead, and stay dead, forever."
"Then we shall seal him for eternity and cast down the Conclave. In its place, I will create something better for my kin: a world without delusion. They will accept this and follow me, or they will descend with their dead god into oblivion." His head tilted a fraction, his eyes bright; earnest and sincere, sending a silent message about how serious his dedication was. "Would this satisfy your heart's desire?"
"Yes." My answer was breathless and I was weirdly lightheaded, his words impacting me like some kind of drug. I didn't know why Araziah did such contradictory things to my emotions from one minute to the next, nor why I never stopped him from getting so up-close-and-personal. The only thing I knew for sure was, in that moment, he was giving me fresh hope, and it was what I needed to experience after all the crazy negative shit from the last few days and weeks. It was a natural high, and it made me optimistic and giddy. "You- ... you really mean it?"
"I cannot guarantee my mood will always be to your liking, but, yes. I mean it." The hand that had been lightly cupping my jaw the whole time moved, and his thumb stroked my cheek, his voice dropping to a soft rasp. "As I said: for you, I will do this."
For me ...
From nowhere, heat was rushing into my neck, ears, and then every pore on my face felt like it was burning, the skin flushed hot.
"I- ... I, uh ... l-let's go inside," I stammered, flinching away from his hand, which withdrew smoothly from my awkward self-excusing. "Mom will want to, um, know that, uh, I'm okay."
"As you wish."
I turned and began to walk across the darkened field to the back gate of the property, Araziah right behind me.
What ... was THAT?
I didn't know what was going on in my head, so instead I just focused on the few remaining steps left to the rear slider, and home.
The moment Mom and Lucy saw me enter the lounge, they basically threw themselves at me, smothering me in hugs. When they let go, giving me enough space to address Agent Crawley, he merely nodded in passive affirmation, before his gaze shifted behind me and he frowned.
"Him?" A brow raised, questioning Araziah's presence emerging after me. "What's he doin' here?"
"Okay, listen," I addressed all three, "he saved me. I'd be dead right now if he didn't step in. He wants to help us beat the Conclave, and stop all of this."
"And you believe that?" Crawley muttered.
I looked at Araziah, making full eye contact again.
He did the same.
I believe him.
Then, back to the older man.
"Yes." I told Crawley. "I do."
Mom crossed to where Araziah stood, just inside the rear entrance. She was an inch shorter than me, which made her nearly half a foot beneath him, but she was not shy about confrontation. "Thank you for bringing my son back. If he's decided he trusts you, then that's good enough for me." Then she nudged his shoulder with a finger. "BUT ... if you do anything like that to him again, I won't forgive you."
He blinked, momentarily taken aback at her assertiveness, but then he smirked, amused. "He has nothing to fear from me. None of you do. I have chosen my enemy."
Crawley nodded slowly, his mouth opening, about to speak, when there came a knock from the door, and then the handle moved, though uselessly as it was still locked. The agent whipped out a revolver with his left hand, and strode to the peephole. After a second of inspection he was satisfied, lowering the gun, and with his free right hand unlocked and unbolted the door. It opened, to reveal none other than ...
"Agent Crawley, you don't look pleased to see me." His eyes danced, as if there was some private unexplained joke going on, though Crawley didn't seem in on it. The agent swung the revolver's cylinder out and began to unload the rounds, not interested in banter. Sebby did not step inside, and his attention flashed across the rest of us, skipping over my mother and Lucy without pause, lingering on me, then even longer on Araziah, his expression not changing all the while, before returning to Crawley. "I don't mean to be rude to you all, but I need to speak with the agent here, briefly. If you don't mind?"
Still wordless, Crawley nodded, clicking the empty cylinder back into place, the rounds going into a coat pocket. With no more ceremony, he stepped through after Sebby, pulling the door closed behind them.
"So," Agent Crawley asked the air dragon, as they stood outside the front door of the Wilde residence, "what've ya got for me?"
"A gift." With a careful flourish, a blade seemed to materialise from nothing in Sebby's right hand, and he held it up in the half-light of Mirrorvale's suburban nocturnal gloom. It appeared to be diamond or some kind of translucent crystalline material, the construction of the same intricacy and finery as the clothing Sebby wore. He held the dagger horizontal, and Crawley could see the fresh blood collected on the surface, with beads of it trailing away and dripping off the edge.
"Oho!" The man's eyes widened. "Is that what I think?"
"The countess told me you needed a specific sort of dragon blood." A shrug, whimsical. "Darren wasn't interested in donating, but after I encountered him, he got the point." Another shrug, and a snippet of mirth with it, a chuckle. "Well, the edge, at least. The point might have been too much."
"That'll do nicely." Crawley fished around in his coat's inner lining, pulling out the glove. "Bit more'n I needed, but I ain't complainin'." With care, he dipped a finger in it, then held the blood-covered fingertip over the glove's middle finger gem until a couple of droplets dripped onto the surface. On contact, the blood dissolved through the exterior, and the gem's colour immediately changed from a blue tinge to a dim red, the same as the ones on the thumb and index finger. Pulling his coat open, he stuffed the glove back where it came from, before wiping his bloodied fingers with a handkerchief. Likewise, Sebby was cleaning the blade now that the transfusion was done, before with a flick of his hand it vanished again.
"Thanks." The agent's acknowledgement was gruff. "That's exactly what I'm lookin' for."
"It's not all I have for you." Sebby produced a little silvery orb, not much larger than a marble. He held it out and Crawley took it. "When I wasn't busy tracking Araziah, I took a little time to investigate the Corridor."
At some point before the American Civil War, the Conclave had established a safe north-south inland travel route spanning the majority of the length of the eastern seaboard. The system of paths was known as the Corridor, and its purpose was to allow more rapid travel between the Conclave's court and other sanctuaries in the north, to their many ventures in the southern states. As the continent became more populated, the magic protecting the route was reinforced and given extra complexity to the point where, even in the 21st century, it was not just viable for the fire dragons to use it, but actually safer and more discreet than many other modes of travel. They could fly freely along it, and the inbuilt magical defences kept them anonymous and effectively invisible to prying eyes. It could fool satellite imaging, military-grade tracking technology, human senses, and even other dragons.
While the Order and the water kind that aided them had been trying, for more than a century, to gain specific details on the connecting branches of the Corridor and how to counter the enchantments, they had made very little progress. The clairvoyant tendencies of water magic had not helped, and although the Tempest herself had very recently destroyed the northern court and ejected the Conclave's leadership from the eastern United States, the vast majority of the Corridor remained unmapped, its passageways only a speculative blur on the Order's maps.
All this, Crawley knew. It was an old conundrum, and he was not expecting a solution to this puzzle any time soon.
"The Corridor?" He stared at the orb, dubious. "What's this?"
"A map. When you get home or some other secure place, activate it. It took some scrutiny and concentrated effort, but I have identified nearly a dozen entry paths around the southern delta, and a portion of the main route. There are focal points for magical interference marked also, but I was less sure of those. They are approximate."
"What?" It was not really a question at all but a rhetorical utterance of pure incredulity. Crawley's expression was somewhere between angry disbelief and stupefaction. "You- ... YOU ... did this?"
"Agent Crawley, your lack of familiarity with my kindred skill is unfortunate." Sebby's soft sweet voice was a tease, though for the man opposite him, it passed well beyond teasing and into irksome exasperation. "The ocean knows and keeps deep secrets, but the sky? The sky sees everything under her domain, for she is the master of illusions, and I am her champion. There is little that escapes her eye. The veiling magic of cloud, shadow, flesh, smoke; with her art, it can all be stripped away."
"Yer kiddin' me." He pocketed the orb, shaking his head with pissed-off vigour. "The Order could've used this help decades ago, longer even, and you fuckers were sittin' on it. Neutrality, my ass. Ever think to, y'know, maybe act instead?"
"It wasn't our fight, then." The air dragon blinked, doe-eyed. "My lady does not walk blindly into war, and the decision to intercede was hers alone."
"Intercede." He scoffed the word. "Spoken like the mad god ain't gonna come for every last one of us if he gets outta prison. We're all targets. It was always yer fight. I ain't a big fan of the water snakes, but at least they were in it from the start, not off playin' cloud fairies, prancin' through rainbows and admirin' yer own reflections."
"Celeste said you were a cynic, but I think she understated it."
"Ya don't know the half of it, princess." Crawley growled, extracting his cigarettes from yet another pocket, lighting one and then inhaling deeply. "Enough of this crap. Gotta go organise the cleanup at the site. Boys will be wantin' some confirmation on bodycount. How many Scourge was it again, six, seven?"
"Eight, though one is ash."
"Mm, figures." He took a long drag. "I know yer goin' in there, so make some excuse for me. Removin' dead mindfucked zealots is a real damper, but needs takin' care of." Crawley turned, and began plodding his way toward the road, giving his farewell in the form of a cavalier arm-wave over the shoulder, his mood thoroughly spoiled. "Be seein' ya."
"Agent." Quiet in response, a tiny momentary smile bloomed in the wake of the man climbing into his Cadillac, before Sebby opened the door and entered the Wilde residence.
While the others were outside, Mom told me what had happened after I escaped the house. Though her situation had been about as frightening as mine, she had handled it well and didn't seem to be disturbed by the fact that she had shot two people. My mom didn't like violence, but I'd always had this image of her as being mentally tough, and despite the stress of the situation, in my opinion, she had proved it.
It helped that Agent Crawley had made a point of telling her that the Scourge weren't just puppets for the Conclave, but willing ones. They were people who had chosen to help the dragons bring about an apocalypse that would ruin their own species if it was successful. According to Crawley, they had surrendered their humanity, and along with that, any right to mercy and compassion. He apparently felt no guilt about shooting them, and his insistence had been that Mom not worry over the ethics of killing another human, especially in self-defence, when that human was a traitor to their own.
She also told me that Crawley had wrapped the dead Scourge in lengths of canvas and left them in the lee of the front hedge until a cleanup crew could arrive in a few minutes time. He had used his leverage with the Order to avoid the Mirrorvale PD showing up, as gunshots in our neighbourhood were definitely going to be heard and reported by someone. Apparently, when it came to dragon-related incidents, the Order was well practiced at making criminal investigations and official records simply disappear. This was achieved by Men-in-Black-style creative use of magical devices, and also through the Order's secret extra-judicial government-sanctioned power that basically cut organisations such as the FBI and state police out of the picture completely.
Lastly, Mom made special mention of Lucy's role in everything. She had been on her way over for our movie night when she saw the Scourge arriving. Remembering her lesson from the encounter with Darren at school, she had done the sensible thing and called Crawley right away by cellphone. Though she had been mercifully silent through most of the conversation, I knew she wanted to talk to me, made all the more obvious by repeatedly catching my eye and her inability to stop peeking at both me and Araziah when she thought I wouldn't notice. However, right as there was a chance for her to interject, the door opened again and Sebby stepped in, alone.
"Agent Crawley had somewhere else to be." He entered the lounge and sat, choosing a spot at the opposite end of the room to Araziah. "He asked me to pass on his apologies, as it is getting late."
"Late?" Lucy looked at her phone, then sighed dramatically. "Yeah, guess it is. I really wanna stay and keep you guys company, but I told dad I wouldn't stretch it too far. It's been a messed-up evening anyways, so I should let you get some peace and quiet."
She stood and Mom did also, pulling her into a hug. "Honey, you can come visit whenever you want. You're practically family. Take care and say hi to your father for me."
"Thanks, Ms W. I will." Lucy let go of Mom, then gave me a very pointed look. "We're gonna hang out tomorrow, right? I mean, we've got some catching up to do, and I owe your mom money."
There was no getting out of it now.
"Ah, yeah," I mumbled weakly, "tomorrow."
"Good." Her grin was sugary and so predatory she could have been an eagle. "See y'all later then!"
With that, Lucy bounced to the front door with more pep than should have been allowed, and was away.
I'm going to hear ALL about this.
"I wouldn't change her for the world, but, honestly? That girl hasn't got a middle setting." Mom shook her head, weary but amused. "Zero to one hundred, every time."
"No kidding," I stated flatly, deadpan. "She's a Porsche without brakes."
We stared at each other for a moment, and simultaneously burst out laughing.
"Baby, that is so true." Her laughter died down, and then abruptly, she yawned wide. "I think Lucy has the right idea though. I'd like to take a bath, an Ambien, and then fall into bed in the spare room. Mine is a mess and cleaning it can wait 'til tomorrow. I'm exhausted."
"Mom, are you sure you're okay?" I didn't want her to suffer any emotional upset over what Darren's assault on our lives had forced her to do. "I'll understand if you aren't. It's pretty shocking."
"Oh, Torsten, I'm okay. I'm tougher than I look." She shrugged. "It wasn't much fun but I won't need a therapist. I think I'll be just fine. We're being looked after."
"And that's what I'm going to do." It was Araziah's first and last contribution to our talk. "My mind is restless. I will take to the sky, until dawn's light."
"You don't have to." She stood as he did, wrapping her robe close, but also addressing Sebby too. "Both of you. If you want to stay, you can."
"Yes," he nodded, sober and reflective, "but not tonight. For me, there will be no sleep while the dark remains, but I will return."
He stood too, eyes flicking briefly between me and Mom in acceptance, whilst ignoring Sebby completely. Then, with no ceremony, he turned and slipped out the rear slider and into the blackness.
"G'night, baby." She ruffled my hair and kissed my cheek. "Don't stay up too late. I'll see you in the morning."
Then she was off too, leaving me alone with Sebby.
"I will go too, if you want privacy."
"I, um," I stumbled, pausing a moment to think. Do I want him to? "No. Stay. I want to talk to you, please."
"I would like that."
"Come on. Let's head to my room."
We left the lounge, switching of the lights on the way, and wandered through the house, Sebby trailing me. Dumping my backpack and bow in a corner, fresh from the craziness of the evening's events, I set about tidying the room so it was a bit more livable. Moving discarded clothes off the bed, and smoothing the bed covers over was enough to make the space comfortable, while he glanced over everything. Posters on the walls, computer, desk, figurines, CD and DVD collection, books, comics. I took a seat on the bed and so did he, right next to me.
"I like it." His approval was short and sweet. Just like him. "It's very 'you'."
"Thanks." I shrugged. "It's my little piece of home."
"It is fitting."
"Sebby." I changed the subject, a certain thought having stuck with me from earlier, still unexplained. "Araziah said something, and I wasn't sure what he meant. He mentioned someone persuaded him to change, to reject the Conclave. I can tell he doesn't really like you much, but, was that ... you, that convinced him?"
His laughter was playful, and angelic. "Your intuition is clever. Yes, I spoke to him, and yes, he was undoubtedly hostile. I daresay he would have attacked me without a second thought if I was any other dragon."
"Because very early on, when he was newly hatched from the egg, his insight told him how vital you could be to his future. He was no more than moments old when he experienced it, but he saw much of what might be; of himself, of you, and also of me. He may never like me, but he will tolerate my presence for your sake."
Moments old? How could Sebby possibly know what Araziah went through?
"How do you know that?"
"My own insight told me so." He said it simply, matter-of-fact. "In the same way as him, it came to me when I met you."
"Will you tell me what you saw?"
"Are you sure you wish to know?" His mood went serious. "Knowledge can be a curse."
"Please. I want to hear."
"Very well." He nodded. "I saw his birth, and both of us in your life. I saw that he will war with his own kind over you, and remain fiercely possessive. I saw that I would share this defensiveness, though for different reasons. I saw that I would befriend you, and that maybe, it would be more than that. I saw that we might be ... lovers."
He took my hand, on the bedspread between us, and held it. "Does that idea make you uncomfortable?"
Uncomfortable is the wrong word.
"Not uncomfortable, it's just that, uh, well," I struggled to find the right words, "I'm sixteen. I had my first kiss a few days ago. Everything seems so fast. What's the rush to things like relationships and ... sex? I mean, I'm not even sure what I want. You're different from Theo too. Uh, I don't mean that in a bad way, I think you're ... gorgeous. Beautiful." I felt like I was babbling, though I couldn't stop myself. "It's just that he was strong, taller than me, and you're-"
"Smaller? Shorter?" He teased. "A pocket dragon?"
I snorted, a nervous giggle following. "Y-yeah. That."
"Well," he sighed, still smiling, "it is strange for you. Most humans are not used to magic and mysticism showing up in their lives. It must feel unusual to have new rules imposed with so little explanation, but I'd like you to imagine another view, for just a short time."
"I am not from the United States. You may not be able to tell, but English is not my first human language, nor even the second, third, fourth, fifth. No, it began with French and Alsatian German, as I hatched in Alsace-Lorraine in the early 1920s. A much different time and place from where we are now."
In the 1920s?! He's nearly ... a hundred years old.
"I am considered young for my kind, not so different from what I have heard of Theo, though I guess he was younger, less than half that. Still," he mulled, "I am not like other air dragons. Most feel at home in the mountains, where they are closest to the sky and the touch of our lady's grace. Like our cousins of the earth, we avoid your cities and your industry, prefering to keep our own company. I was one of the few who was curious enough to defy that tendency. I took your form, as we are all able, and explored the west of Europe. France, Switzerland, the Rhine and Bavaria, the Dutch lowlands, England, and other places.
"There are many things humans make that fascinate me. The ability to build and engineer sets you apart, and your minds are suited to complex philosophies and forms of art that no other creature has achieved. Yet, my biggest obsession was the human body itself. You see, dragons mate for procreation only, and the partner is always the opposite gender; it is purely functional and nothing else, but inhabiting a human body? Sex was a pleasure I did not expect to find so common and so cheaply bought. Male, female, the gender did not matter to me. I would sleep with whatever pretty thing caught my attention, in whatever way seemed most enjoyable. I would charm them, enthral them, draw them in with a wink, a smile, and an easy haze of the senses, then when satisfied I would leave to find parts anew in my wandering. Maybe I would return, if I enjoyed their company, maybe not if their lovesick pangs clung to me too strongly."
"Uh, are you saying that you were-"
"Promiscuous?" He interrupted. "Yes. From year to year, decade to decade, I slept with hundreds, thousands, of people. It was a divertissement through my travels, and it was done with little attachment outside the temporary joy of union. After all, in the same mold as my kind, what was there to become attached to? Humans come and go, they grow old and die well before we finish our youth, they are devoid of magic and fixated on petty things. Human wars, human greed, monuments to dead human kings, arguments over human gods. No matter the virtues, the vices always have outweighed them, and investing our hearts into anything so transitory and diminished has never been the case. It has been this way for as long as our two species have mingled, and exceptions to this are practically unheard of. I was no different, either, until my lady spoke to me, and told me her will."
The Spirit of Air.
"She came to me unbidden, on a moonlit night in the rugged hills of Sutherland. I was chosen as her advocate, and instructed to go to the Americas and give my service to the Order's Grand Secretary. She said it was to aid her sister, as the time had come for our intervention. She also said that it would transform me, though not how. So, I did as she directed. I went to the Order, and then here. To you."
"And what did change?"
"Imagine," he said, "what I have just described. Then, imagine the very whispers of fate, your own insight, contradicting it totally. Imagine you are told, that not only will you become devoted to the welfare of a single human, but that you will shield him, sometimes blindly, from terrible things. Imagine knowing that you will desire him in body and in heart, as so many have desired you, but that your desire might not be returned." He let go a breath, and his eyes seemed to grow distant, sad, gleaming with a remote starry white light. "Imagine that all of this was realised within a moment, and then you may have an idea how extraordinary this is for me, too."
"I- ... I'm sorry." I shook my head. "I had no idea. I didn't know it was like that, for you. That's pretty heavy stuff."
"Don't be sorry. I'm not." He squeezed my hand, his smile returning. "I cannot regret my path, wherever it may lead."
"I'm glad," I agreed, "and, um, I do want to know you better." Without meaning to, I blinked, then stifled a yawn. "Apparently, I also want to sleep."
"Then now is the time for me to go. You should rest." He let go of my hand and stood, ready to make his leave. It was very obvious to me he was being courteous for my sake, but I stopped him before he could move.
"Wait a second. Don't go anywhere."
Perplexed, he watched while I quickly removed my shoes and socks, then hoodie and pants, until I was in just boxers and shirt. Lifting my butt for a moment, I pulled back the covers then sat again, sliding my legs under the duvet.
"If you want to stay, and I think you do, you'll have to sleep with me."
"Sleep ... with you?" Sebby repeated it, staring childlike.
"Just sleep." I clarified, patting the empty space beside me. My bed was a double-size, so there was easily room for more than one person, especially one his size. "You might want to take off a layer or two though. I don't usually sleep with clothes on. Oh, and if you can hit the lights too, that'd be great."
I didn't have to say another word.
He was across the room in a flash, the switch flicked, and the room was plunged into darkness. His shadow was moving back and his silhouette paused by the bed, the outline morphing as he removed the outer garments. Then the sheets were moving as he climbed in next to me. He was tentative, respectful, and I reached out, dragging him closer by the hip so our legs and arms were touching, and his head was closer to mine on the pillow.
"Are you comfortable?"
"Yes. Very." He murmured it, gentle and appreciative. "Thank you for trusting me."
"Sebby, thank you for being as honest as you promised you would." I leaned the short distance, barely able to tell in the darkness, and kissed him, very light and chaste, on the lips.
"When we are alone," he whispered, "you can call me Sebakâli."
His true name.
"Good night, Sebakâli."
"Good night, Torsten."
Oh, Sebby. You are adorable, but flying over Mirrorvale undetected in broad daylight?! What kind of sorcery is this?!?
So ... Araziah explains himself (at least a little), Crawley comes to the rescue (and throws some shade), Lucy knows the truth (boy does she know), Natalia makes a stand (and doesn't flinch), and once more, Sebby brings the charm, along with a well-earned Casanova history. Who knew?
As always, if you're enjoying this story, please leave me a like, a comment or jump into the discussion thread!
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