He was angry. Flying at night always made him angry.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t see. Two eyes as tall as a small child and as yellow as the sun scoured the skies and the ground below, seeing just as well in the moonlight as in the bright of day. Wings as wide as a bus beat up and down with a slow, creaking rhythm that threatened to lull him to sleep.
Moonlight pierced the mild cloud cover with a brilliant silvery beam, splaying across scales of malachite, making them glitter. Rowe hissed and banked right, fleeing the light. Not because of how he looked or from any sort of false pain. He sought the darkness for the same reason he was forced to only fly late at night and in rural areas.
Because humans had no idea his kind existed.
The time was coming when they would, and a part of him suspected it was coming far sooner than anyone expected. Things were happening that the majority of the population didn’t know about. The partnership between humans and dragons was stronger than it had ever been, and it was only becoming more so. For the first time in recorded history, dragons were taking humans as mates.
Strange times indeed.
It bothered Rowe that his kind couldn’t reveal themselves. He wanted nothing more than to be himself.
The thin lips around his snout pulled back in what could be mistaken for a snarl, but was more smile than anything. It wasn’t until he’d been forcefully assigned to liaise with the human military that Rowe had even begun to discover just what it meant to “be himself.” His perceptions had changed greatly in the few short months that he and his fellow dragons had arrived to live among the human defenders.
The Rowe that took to the skies this night was a vastly different person from the one who had first set out from the dragon enclave. Vastly different.
But he was still angry about being relegated to flying only at night. He longed to be able to soar through the skies on a bright summer day, scales warmed by the rays from the sun as they beat down with unrelenting fury. The closest he’d come to that daydream was tanning on a warm rock near the mountainous entrance to the enclave.
It wasn’t the same.
Snow-dusted farmland rolled past underneath as he made the trek to see his friends. At the start of his journey, Palin and Torran had been his comrades, a warrior trio out to prove their superiority over humanity. How things had changed. Both his comrades-turned-friends had found mates in the human population. In a pair of best friends no less. They had settled down with them to, get this, become farmers. Now there was irony.
The mighty Palin, once a ferocious warrior. Now the proud owner of a tractor, a straw hat, and a pair of overalls to match those of his mate. It certainly was a sight to behold, and one that made the massive dragon chuckle, even in memory. He’d never forget watching his friend bounce frantically as he tried to control the contraption, the entire cockpit bouncing crazily as he went over the uneven land.
It had been quite hysterical. He was never going to let Palin live that one down. Ever. Centuries from now they would be having a drink around a campfire and he would tell that story and they would laugh about it. Sometimes being a dragon sucked, because they had long memories.
Without much in the way of warning Rowe was suddenly nearing his destination. Up ahead his keen eyes picked up the sight of the huge ranch house that would be his ultimate endpoint for the evening. Banking to the left, he sought and found the much smaller farmhouse on a different piece of property just beyond the huge building.
Palin would be there, and while he may end up bunking down at the ranch house where Torran now lived, he intended to pay his respects to the owner first.
Movement below caught his eye. Instead of beating his wings to carry on, Rowe spread them wide, eagle-like eyes peering down into the murk as he picked up a shape slowly stalking its way across the land toward the ranch house. What the hell?
He was losing height, gliding silently through the air, but it didn’t matter. He banked around in a slow, lazy circle, lining up his prey. It had been too long since he hunted, and the thrill of sneaking up undetected flowed through him. He smiled that terrifying dragon smile again as he lost more height, zeroing in on the unsuspecting quarry.
Suddenly the animal’s ears flicked and the head pivoted in an odd manner. Gleaming eyes stared upward. Right at him.
Rowe cursed as the beast took off swiftly across the landscape. There was something odd about it. He pursued, mighty wings beating powerfully now as he descended, pulling him through the air faster than the creature below could run. Gaining ground, he saw the wolf look back. The eyes bugged out, spurring it on even faster.
Cursing, he realized that the four-legged creature would reach the tree line ahead before Rowe could get close enough to stop it. Irritated, he swooped lower, still gaining but slowly now.
The wolf disappeared into the foliage.
Rowe went right after. At the last second he tucked his wings in tight and willed himself to change. The fog came and went around him, and suddenly he was back in his human form. He dropped like a stone, hit the ground, went through a small sapling sideways, and then was on his feet.
Leaves flew behind him in a roostertail ten feet long as he sped through the forest faster than any human could match. He seemed to almost float from place to place, the only giveaway the trail of debris his churning feet threw up in his wake. Yet somehow the wolf managed to keep ahead. It tore through the thick forest growth, surefooted and lithe.
Much to his frustration Rowe realized he was losing ground. Irritated, he snapped off a branch as he passed and with a grunt heaved it like a javelin. It skinned the left flank of the wolf, but did no other damage. With a yip of pain the creature broke right and disappeared, the movement catching him completely off guard.
Angry at himself for not catching it, Rowe slowed to a halt next to a dead tree. He channeled all his rage into his fist and smashed it into the trunk. Bark shattered and the tree exploded under the impact. It groaned as half the support vaporized from his punch, and then with a slow majesty it toppled over, taking branches from other trees with it.
Blood trickled down his knuckles. Even for a dragon shifter that had been a lot to take. His fist would ache for the next twenty minutes or so, until his advanced healing knitted everything up. Meanwhile he’d be left with a painful reminder of his own incompetence.
The trip out of the forest seemed to take ten times as long, and even the quick hop over to Palin’s farmhouse felt like forever. By the time his friend answered the door, Rowe had lost much of his anger, and was instead purely irritated by it all.
“Rowe? What are you doing here?” Palin came outside, closing the door behind him.
“To round you and Torran up.”
“For what?” Palin leaned against the siding next to the door, arms crossed in front of him. “I don’t recall asking for any vacation days.”
“Funny. No, the council asked Torran and I to return at this point—whether we’d made a decision or not—simply to report in. I figured it would be good for you to come with this time. You’ve had a human mate the longest.”
Palin eyed him. “That was an awfully nice ask, compared to the last time.”
Rowe smiled tightly. “Things have changed.”
“So they have,” Palin agreed. “So they have.”
“What do you say then?”
“Not tonight. Let me tell Sandy. She’ll need to organize things. If Torran’s coming, that means Lilly will probably want to come here. We’ll leave tomorrow night, if that’s satisfactory?”
“It definitely is. Truth be told I wouldn’t mind catching a few extra hours of sleep.”
Palin snorted. “I’m sure you would. But it ain’t happening here. You can crash at the ranch for the night. It’s open.”
Palin nodded and turned to go inside.
“By the way, when I arrived I thought I saw a wolf running around the fields near the ranch. Just south of that big forest that runs along the northern border. Seen any signs of that?”
“A few. Haven’t caught anything but the tracks. It started coming around recently, but so far hasn’t ventured in closer.”
Rowe worked his jaw. “Do you think it has anything to do with—”
“Maybe,” Palin said, interrupting him. “I’m not sure. It’s awfully late for that.”
“Yeah.” Rowe bit his lip, deep in thought.
Something about his earlier encounter just didn’t add up.