I gazed up into the milky way, the glimmering stars faintly visible among the dim aura of the city. It was absolutely dazzling tonight, purple and pink with its gleaming white constellations shining down on me from an infinite distance. Such a sight never failed to elevate me from my station in life– the difficult circumstances that threatened to bring me down. The feeling that I wasn't in control of my own destiny. That I wasn't entirely free...
I wasn't a superstitious girl– or, well okay, maybe just a little bit.
But it was hard not to look up at a sky like that and infer some portent of the future to come in those distant beacons. Thinking that there had to be some significance to them– that anything I could look up at, and have fill me with such a flood of hope, couldn't be completely meaningless.
Or maybe that was the full extent of its meaning– simply the fact that it did give me hope. Maybe it was foolish of me to look for anything beyond that. I largely suspected that it was, but such was my desperation for change that it didn't stop me from trying. Peering between the stars. Studying their movements. Comparing them to how they'd been on previous evenings. Looking for any indications of a future to come in them.
“The sky is beautiful tonight,” I said at last, after silence had ensued for far too long, and I began to worry about what was going on in the head of the man walking beside me.
Baill simply scoffed at my remark, however, and I remembered why it was that I'd allowed the quiet of the night to encroach upon us for so long. Baill and I didn't see eye to eye, on a lot of things– which was most unfortunate, considering that the two of us were engaged to be married within a few months' time...
“It looks the exact same as it does every night,” he finally snarled, and I felt the hope in my chest withering in me. I breathed heavily through my nose, trying to keep patient with him, but quickly finding myself losing the battle.
I craned my neck back up at the sky, needing more than ever its blinking reassurance.
I knew that Baill didn't give a damn about what I was looking at, or what it might mean to me, but I found myself unable to prevent the jutting upward of my right arm, a finger pointed at the sky. “Hey look! There's Draco!” I exclaimed, pointing up at the dragon-like constellation, twisting across the stars.
“Two guesses who came up with that name,” Baill snarled. “Humans! Stealing from our culture the way they've stolen everything else from us... And notice how they didn't even bother naming it after a specific dragon population– just Draco. Like we're all one and the same. Nothing to distinguish us, one group from another...”
It was getting harder and harder to hold my tongue at his bitching. I took a deep breath, exhaled it slowly, and return my sights, once more to the stars. I watched and I watched, not even paying attention to where my footsteps might happen to be falling. Then, suddenly, my attentiveness was rewarded by a brilliant white streak, cutting across the sky.
My eyes widened. I held my breath, trying to think of something to wish for. Then, still thinking, I found myself muttering, certain it would interest him, “Oh my God, Baill! I think I just saw a shooting star!”
“I doubt it,” he said scornfully. “Probably just a fucking airplane, polluting the night sky like everything else they do...”
At last my patience got away from me.
I stopped there in the middle of the sidewalk, so abruptly that it took Baill several steps before he'd even noticed. He pivoted around several feet ahead of me, one eyebrow raised, his expression appearing most impatient.
“What?!” he demanded, and I just stared at him for a long moment. His normally very handsome, very rugged features drooped with thick black shadows under the streetlight overhead. His midnight hair gleamed with white like a halo. Darkness crept along the rugged angles of his cheeks– his face appearing as though it had been chiseled out of stone. His eyes, narrow and black, looked meaner than they usually did. A single glint in his pupils the only thing to indicate that there was any kind of a soul beneath the surface of his pissed off, brooding facade.
“What the hell is up with you?” I demanded of him. “I thought for once, maybe we could just go out and have a nice time together, but apparently that was too much of me to ask?”
He snarled at this. “What's up with me?” he repeated back at me, sounding incredulous. “I don't know how the hell any of this has been your idea of a nice time...”
“Oh, I'm so sorry,” I said sardonically. “I guess it was just too much of me to want to do anything together with my fiancé, aside from just sitting around in a room full of men while he beat up other shifters within an inch of their lives!”
“I am a warrior!” Baill protested. “The last in a long line of fiercely skilled fighters! It is in my blood! And at least with us it's all in good fun! Practicing, and for sport! Judging by that bloodbath we just walked out of, it's hard for me to imagine you really have any sort of issue with violence against our kind...”
It took me a moment to piece together what he was saying.
“What– the movie?!” I asked him.
“If that's what you want to call that God-awful snuff film...”
I gripped my head, feeling a wave of tension coming over me. “Oh, for God's sake, Baill... It was a fantasy film! It was completely made up, all of it! The dragon in it wasn't real! It was special effects, computer generated! And it was barely even in the movie!”
“You say all of these things like that's supposed to make it better,” countered Baill. “But to my ears, it just goes to reinforce how great the humans' contempt for our kind us really is... Depicting us as wild, untamed beasts– not a civilized bone in our bodies! Parading us around onscreen, only to savor the depiction of our bloody demise at the hands of some pathetic being of their kind masquerading as a hero... It's all bullshit! Utter nonsense, all of it!”
“It. Was. A. Movie,” I emphasized, really starting to get impatient with him at this point, but not in the least hopeful that I might be about to get through to him anytime soon.
Baill stepped closer to me beneath the streetlights, his eyes growing fierce, hit temper getting the better of him. “You would say that... You would stand there like you have been, your head in the clouds, your eyes on the stars, like you always do! You're just like your father...”
“Is that supposed to be an insult?” I demanded, furious at this. My father, Idra, King of the Earth Dragons, had come to love Baill like a son, just as he had loved his father before him. It was due almost entirely to my father's wishes that I was engaged to this– this very difficult person, in the first place. So to hear him now, attempting to insult me, by comparing me unfavorably to a man I viewed as so much greater than himself...
“Don't get me wrong,” said Baill, seeming to realize that his toe was right on the line, and not wishing to cross it. “Idra is a fine king. But he could have spent his reign doing great things! Were his head not so far up his– “
“His what?!” I said scowling, daring him to push past the point of no return.
“Had he kept his mind on worldly things, instead of indulging his ridiculous fantasies... Astrology, and prophecy. Alchemy, and all of his hocus pocus, new age spirituality...”
“It's not hocus pocus!” I snapped, my patience with him now razor thin. “You and I both know that! My father and I possess powers unbeknownst to any other Earth Dragon alive today! Powers that were once common among our people, but that survive only among the two of us today thanks to our unwavering dedication to the divine arts of our people!”
“Powers that have profited neither your father, nor his people, a single damn lick in the time it has taken to cultivate them! Our kind have become so marginalized as to become as good as nonentities! We have been reduced into the furthest recesses of obscurity, by a vicious, inferior race of creatures who believe they own the world!”
“Humankind is not our enemy!” I snapped, knowing that he was resolute on this point, but refusing to accept his line of reasoning. “It is my father's hope, as well as my own, that we might make peace with them again, as it was once in times past. We hope to reveal ourselves to them, when the time is right, and then at last we may– “
“When will the time be right?!” roared Baill, his hands curled into fists, and I truly believe that had I not been a woman– or even simply his fiancé– he might well have taken a swing at me. “For decades we have rolled over and accept our subjugation! Taking whatever abuse those vermin could throw at us in its course! Acting like it was perfectly normal, like it would all smooth over with time and things would return to how they once were! Ignoring the fact of our own obliteration! Simply ignoring it! Acting like it would just go away if we hid who we truly were! We can't even transform in the open anymore, or fly any higher than the tops of the fucking trees!”
“What, then?!” I demanded, smaller in stature, but exerting myself to seem nearly as threatening in his presence. “What do you propose we do? Transform in full view of the human world? Start exterminating them, town by town by town, until there's no one left but us?!”
“That's what they've done to us...” he snarled, his eyes gleaming.
“And then what, Baill? There are about seven hundred Earth dragons in existence... What do we do once this revolution is underway? After we've exposed ourselves to the world? Answer me that! Just keep fighting and fighting against them? Against their armies? Their missiles, their tanks... Their nuclear weapons???”
“There are a lot more than a mere seven hundred of us,” hissed Baill, his eyes narrowing seriously. “All around the world... In every corner on every continent. There are shifters suffering the exact same fate as ourselves. Who've allowed themselves to be subjugated, because they believed themselves to be as alone as we do. But it doesn't have to be that way... We could lead the charge! We could take back what's ours! We could fight, we could destroy each feeble human who thinks he can stand in our way! And by the time we were finished, there wouldn't be a creature around that didn't know the name Earth dragon... Who didn't appreciate us for who we were, or understand that our kind are not to be– “
Everything suddenly froze.
My blood ran cold. My eyes went wide. Baill stopped mid-sentence, his heaving breaths sending clouds of white billowing up from his lips, in the punishing cold of the night.
A third figure had just appeared. Emerging from behind the next streetlight down. His eyes gleaming in the darkness. The silver barrel of a gun, glistening in his hand.
“Sorry to interrupt your little lover's quarrel...” he said, stepping forward, each inch he grew nearer to us causing me to become more and more tense, my heart thundering in my chest. I wasn't at all worried for my own safety– it was the man I was concerned for, so confident that the piece of metal in his hand was the equivalent of a checkmate over the two of us. Lacking any idea what the two of us were, or what the man standing next to me was truly capable of...
“You picked the wrong night for a stroll,” he continued, drawing nearer under the streetlight. He was just a kid– probably between eighteen and twenty, possibly even underage. His face was gaunt and he had deep bags under his eyes. His hair was an unruly sandy blond, his eyes an unfocused blue, like two marbles pointed stubbornly in opposing directions. His pale skin appeared covered in scabs, and I sensed almost immediately that he was some kind of junkie.
“We don't want any trouble,” I said, trying to keep the situation as calm as I possibly could. Baill was standing next to me, not yet having said a word. His eyes, however, were fixed violently on the boy. His teeth bared. His nostrils blaring as he blew hot breath through his nose.
“That is most excellent news,” said the boy, smiling a gap-toothed yellow grin at me. “That happens to be exactly what I want as well. All I need you to do is to cooperate with me– no funny business– and we can all be on our merry ways... Sound like a plan?”
I nodded nervously at him, my eyes wide, trying, more than anything, to warn him of the danger he was getting himself into. Baill still wasn't saying a word, and the longer the silence went on, the more and more certain I grew that things were all about to implode– it was just a matter of time.
“That is what I like to hear!” said the boy, oblivious to any danger. “Toss over the purse, then, beautiful. And that lovely diamond ring on your finger... Both of you! And you, Scowly. Let's have your wallet!”
It was like he was shoving a stick into a hornet's nest. Baill, already as irate as I had seen him, stood there with his dark eyes locked on the boy. Clearly at his limits. Clearly without a thought of even beginning to consider his demands. Trying to show the kid I was cooperating, and praying that my doing so might encourage Baill in turn, I very theatrically– so that it was clear to the thief what I was doing in the darkness– removed my engagement ring. I held it up for him to see, the diamond glinting briefly in the light. The kid was nearly drooling at the sight of it, and I found myself thinking, I hope it's worth your damn life, kid...
I slid the ring into my purse, and then, very slowly, I stepped past the place where Baill stood, and stooped down to set the pocketbook and the engagement ring at the kid's feet. Once it was down on the ground, I drew my hands up in the air in a pose of surrender, stepping back to the spot I'd just vacated. Watching as the kid shuffled through the purse– counting the hundred dollars or so in cash I had on me, and examining my ring up close.
“Nice job, gorgeous,” he said, holding up the ring appreciatively. “See? That wasn't so hard, now was it? Now what about you, buddy? You deaf? I know you think all those muscles of yours are scary, but I can promise you a bullet will find its way straight through them, like a warm knife through butter...”
At this, Baill's muscles tensed. I could tell he was thinking about it. And I knew that, if it weren't for me standing there beside him, he would have already done it.
“Give him the ring, Baill,” I said, as calmly as I could. “And your wallet. It's just money. There are more important things... Just do what he says, okay? Think of our people...”
Baill took a very, very deep breath through his nose, and I could tell that this was absolutely killing him inside.
“Come on, pal, I don't have all fucking night!” and I was certain this would be the last straw.
Just then, however, to my great surprise, there was a tick of movement. With a flash of motion, Baill had popped off his engagement ring, not even looking as the gold band slid up along his knuckle. Once it was off, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, his eyes never straying once from those of our assailant.
“That's it... Nice and easy,” muttered the attacker, rolling his tongue excitedly over his gross teeth. Very slowly, Baill reached over, handing him the wallet and the ring, and not until he had fully drawn back again did I cease expecting him to deliver a last second surprise attack.
The thief's eyes were shining. He pulled out the cash from Baill's wallet, threw the rest through the ground, and thumbed through the bills. Then he stuffed the money into my purse, and slid the ring into his pocket.
“See? Easy peasy lemon squeezy... Not a bad night's work, if I do say so myself! Now, you two stand there for a moment or two and wait for me to make a clean getaway... Then you can be off, and enjoy the rest of your night. Just be sure to stay safe now, alright?”
Neither of us said anything, and I'm certain he didn't really expect us to respond. He just kept smiling at us with that shit eating grin on his face, and backed slowly away, gradually diminishing under the streetlights. I was honestly amazed that he had gotten through his entire plan with his head and limbs all still together on the same side of the street. But then, just as he had stepped within range of saving his own neck, he paused under a light. He stared at us for a long time, then he moved a few paces back in our direction– a fatal mistake, I was instantly certain...
“By the way, this ain't none of my business, really... But I heard you two talking before I came out, and I have to say... I think you really should consider seeking out professional help, the both of ya... I mean really– fucking dragons?! What are ya, five years old? Or just fucked up in the head?”
And here, finally, was the straw that broke the camel's back.
“Baill...” I said warningly, but I knew that it was already too late.
Baill was through listening to anything but his most basic, horrible impulses.
“That's right,” he said, eyeing the thief with malevolence. “Let me show you just how fucked up in the head I really am...”
It happened in a flash– so quickly that I barely even realized what was happening, despite having expected it right up until the last second.
Baill threw his body back, and jutted his chest forward. He let out a howl of fury, and his body began to expand. He tore through his clothes. His limbs grew long. His neck expanded. His face stretched outward, the very skeletal structure beneath it becoming fierce and reptilian, huge fangs jutting out, bared and threatening, from jet black gums. A writhing tail shot back from between his legs, spiked and swaying behind him, and he spread out a massive set of bat like wings, beating them heavily, rising feet up into the air beneath the streetlight.
The thief didn't move. Didn't breathe. Didn't say a word. He simply looked up, mouth agape, his whole-body trembling– in the spot where Baill should have been, there was now a massive, blood red dragon, leering down at him with cool blue eyes, resembling gemstones.
“Baill!” I screamed, trying my damnedest to divert this, but I already knew that it was no use.
A monstrous roar emitted from Baill's throat, surely provoking the man, looking for any excuse to strike first.
The thief rose to the bait without a second thought, nearly wetting himself, but managing through his terror to whip his pistol up into the air, and firing it several times at Baill's swollen red stomach.
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
The bullets tore through the air and found their way to their intended target– but to absolutely no effect.
With a series of sad PINGs, the little silver bullets sprung from Baill's thick hide, failing to pierce it whatsoever, leaving him wholly unscathed– and more pissed off than ever. In retaliation for his attempted murder, Baill shot down toward the man, jaws open, eyes aglow with fury. The man screamed, tried to turn away, but was too late. Baill's powerful teeth closed around the man's ankle, and his neck craned upward, drawing the man from the ground. Baill thrashed his head furiously around, and the thief hung from his jaws like a rag doll, limbs flailing uncontrollably, my purse and our valuables, as well as the assailant's gun, flying from his grip, tumbling to the ground beneath him.
I prayed this would be the end of it, and for a moment I was almost foolish enough to believe that it might be. Baill jerked his head back, then flung it forward hard, tossing the man from his jaws, and sending him rocketing through the air. The man screamed, and then went abruptly quiet as he smacked into the pavement, the air knocked clean from his lungs.
I'd never wanted this, as much contempt as I'd felt toward the thief for robbing us at gun point– this was exactly what I'd been afraid of...
It wasn't over yet, though. Already, the man was pulling his broken body up from the concrete despite his body being largely devoid of oxygen. His limbs shook as he drew to his feet, blood dripping profusely from his ankle. Nevertheless, he forced himself into a run, limping as he tore from the spot as fast as possible– only to have Baill follow after him, still unsatisfied, as though he considered this man an ambassador for all of humanity, the distillation of every horror they had ever had the nerve to carry out against our kind.
“Baill, no! Stop! That's enough!” I shrieked at him, but I might as well have been shouting at a brick wall.
Horror flooded my system as I realized what he was about to do next. His jaws opened, and from behind I could see a golden aura forming around his parted lips, surrounding the thief as he fled the scene.
“NOOOOO!” I screamed, and I knew that no amount of protesting was going to save him.
I had to act.
I leapt into the air, and tore through my clothes as well. I felt my body change. Vermillion scales erupting along my increasingly muscular arms and legs. Wings spreading out from my shoulder blades. My entire body manifested with an energy that had remained latent until now.
I hovered there for a fraction of an instant, a dragon nearly identical to the one several feet ahead, if considerably smaller. I could already tell I was too late to prevent it entirely.
A plume of golden flame poured out from between Baill's teeth, rocketing down at the thief, his eyes wide, his hand jerking violently up in a vain effort to protect his face.
He screamed, and was wholly engulfed by fire.
I watched, horrified, as the man threw his arms threw the air, straining to put himself out, crying in agony as the flames whipped and lashed around him.
I pushed through my revulsion, and surged forward in the man's direction. I shoved Baill out of the way– he'd just been hovering there, watching passively, clearly enjoying the spectacle of his burning.
I opened my mouth wide, and reached for an energy deep inside me. Flames were the instinctive element of every dragon shifter, so far as I knew, but I bypassed my internal fire sac, and tapped into a far more soothing reservoir.
Pushing out from my lungs as hard as I could, a jet stream of icy water came surging from between my teeth, rushing straight at the man. There was a loud bang as the jet collided with him, concentrated so hard as it did so that it sent him flying off of his feet, and hurdling back several yards across the sidewalk. He hit the pavement once again, and lay there in a smoking pile– clearly in horrible pain, but extinguished.
Jittery as I hovered over him, I shot Baill a dirty look– one that he meanly returned to me, as though I had been the one in the wrong instead of he.
I did my best to ignore this. In the distance, I could hear sirens beginning to wail– someone had evidently witnessed what was going on out here, and it was now only a matter of time before things got a hell of a lot worse than they already were.
I glided back to the spot where the man had dropped my purse, and eased my way back down onto the sidewalk, transforming back into my human form the moment my feet touched the ground. I crouched naked over my purse, shivering from the cold of the night, and from the straining of my nerves as the sirens came closer and closer.
“Come on, come on...” I muttered, searching through the contents of my purse until my hand closed around two glass vials– two of several elixirs I carried with me in the event of an emergency. Brews my father and I had developed through the course of much alchemical experimentation, and which I'd come to find rather prudent to have at hand– this was, after all, far from the first time Baill had lost his temper...
Vials now in hand, I tore back around from the spot, and raced over to where the thief lay shivering. His face and chest looked awful, the skin red and blistered, though not nearly as bad as they could have been had Baill gotten his way– had I not been there to extinguish him, in other words.
“Drink these! They'll help you!” I insisted, unstopping the elixirs– one to help ease the man's pain, which must be excruciating, and one which, I failed to tell him, would eliminate all memory of recent events. Having this man spill to the police that he'd just been attacked by two fully grown dragons was about the last thing in the world we needed right now. Even if they thought he was nuts, there was still a chance that our people could end up exposed. And that simply wasn't a risk we could afford to take...
He was still shaking violently, and I thought there was a chance he might refuse my offer of help. He seemed to be out of his mind just at the moment, however, and drank down both potions without a word of protest. His jittering settled some as the liquid sloshed down his throat, and his grunts of pain settled into a series of heavy, wheezing breaths.
“Satisfied?” asked Baill, having transformed back into a man beside me, without my noticing. “Your beloved human– the thief. The druggie. The would-be murderer. You shouldn't have wasted your breath on him, Endia. I would have let him die...”
“I know you would have,” I hissed, furious at him, but an argument at that moment feeling like a luxury we couldn't afford. “Let's just get the hell out of here...”
I grabbed my purse up again and we both transformed, racing off into the sky. We ducked behind a curtain of clouds just as the police cruisers we'd been hearing in the distance pulled onto the scene, their blue and red lights flashing up at us, until gradually they receded from view.
We sailed over the clouds toward home, gliding past the full moon overhead, neither one of us looking at one another, neither saying a word.
Inside my heart ached. It felt shattered. Reduced to rubble.
In a few months I would be marrying this man... This awful, heartless, impulsive man. I despised the thought with every fiber of my being. Yet what choice did I have?
I was a Princess, and this man was the most powerful warrior in the Earth dragon kingdom– eldest son of one of its most noble families, his father once a close personal friend to my own. I could not fail in my duties to the kingdom. Our continued strength and unity were seen as crucial to our continued survival, in a modern world that was frequently hostile to our kind– as the events of the evening so clearly showed.
Yet the thought of being together with this man for the remainder of my days, with someone who was so clearly my opposite in so many ways, was unbearable to be. Like a knife to my heart. I knew that it was unreasonable to expect love. Even normal people seldom discovered the sort of connection they were craving in their lives– much less a princess like myself, and a princess of dragons at that.
Still, though. I had always imagined marriage as being almost a dream come true. A fantasy. Two people, joined in union, bringing out the best in one another. Able to see past their differences in the interest of forming a life together.
But my differences with Baill felt entirely too great to ever truly bridge– and tonight had done little more than to confirm for me what I already knew deep down, all the way inside my bones.
Tears shimmered in my eyes as the cold night air whipped my face. I kept them focused on the horizon, not wanting Baill to see. Doing my best to remain optimistic, in the face of overwhelming odds. Deep down praying, all the while, with each mighty beating of my wings, for a miracle I didn't truly believe would ever come to pass.