Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Epilogue

Epilogue

It was a bad week. Everything was going fine, but it was a lot of little things building up. The girls were giving the usual attitude the end of the school year brings, and the shop was busy with summer break coming on, which was stressful, albeit a good kind of stress. Kyne was trying to set me up on dates to get me out of my emotional rut, and clucking about like a mother hen.

Intellectually I understood it came from a place of concern, but it was annoying, to say the least.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I said, and picked up my things to leave.

“Erryn–” Kyne started, but I leveled a look his way that had him backing down. “Tomorrow, then.”

I stomped out, the happiness of those around me grating on my nerves. The sun was bright and warm on the skin of my lower legs where the dark wash, jean Bermuda shorts didn’t cover, and I rubbed at the sweat trickling down my spine beneath my black tank top. My flip-flops slapped the ground in an angry staccato on the way to my car, and people moved out my way, their smiles falling when they met my scowl.

When I got home, which was thankfully silent as the girls were still in school, the doorbell rang not long after I’d gone inside and sat down.

I groaned, got up, and walked to the front door. When I opened it, there was a small package on the porch, but no one was there. I picked it up and took it inside, turning it over. There was no return address, or even my address. Whoever had left it had done so by hand, and then skedaddled before I could get to the door.

Curious.

When I got to the counter I opened the package, tossing the brown paper in the recycling as I pulled it off. Inside was a book, even older than the one Danika had given me a few weeks prior. There was no writing on the front or spine, but when I opened the front cover, my breath caught.

Portals: Pathways to the Other Dimensions, no author.

Blood rushed in my ears, and my heart pounded. They found the mages, but no Pullman, and no records on how Keeper Voss discovered how to open the portal. They all assumed it was a book, much like this one, lost somewhere in the wreckage, as they hadn’t found anything in his library, office, or home. 

How did it get here? What should I do with it? And most importantly, why me?

Maybe Pullman sent it…but he hated me. I couldn’t see him sending this, unless it was a way for him to try and get the clans to execute me. Or blow myself up. I regarded the book suspiciously.

I thumbed through the rest of the pages, and found a note in the middle of the book. The handwriting was meticulous and elaborate, but I was no expert, and I couldn’t tell if it was written by a male or female.

Claviger Erryn,

 

The Nameless deserves a better fate, and so do you. 

 

Maybe this can help.

 

Nothing more followed. No signature. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with the information. Become an expert on portals, and maybe manage some kind of suicidal rescue mission on my own? Who knew if Warren was even still alive…Then my stomach fluttered. The note said deserves, not deserved.

Could he still be alive? I had wanted to hope against hope, but the odds were stacked against it. I mean, I didn’t have human mages at my disposal, and it had been weeks. There was no telling that even if he’d survived the portal, that he’d be able to survive living in a world with crazy Dragons. But if he could, maybe whoever sent this knew something.

How?

I flipped back to the front of the book and started to read. I was no expert by any stretch of the imagination, and some of the formulas were insanely complicated. But I was getting the gist that, as long as we weren’t trying to move Dragons around, it wasn’t going to take as much to go through.  Especially if we were making one-way portals. One to go and find him, and one to come home.

The issue, apparently, is Dragons are pure magical beings, unlike Drakkens, and as such it took more mojo to move them around. Just getting one, maybe two people over there was easier, and possible.

I closed the book and let it slide from my hands onto the counter.

I could save him.

It was absurd. I was one person, and a baker. What was I going to do? Throw treats at the Dragons while I searched whatever dimension they’d been thrown into? Still…

I had to go for a drive. Get out of the house. I texted Mina to let her know I wouldn’t be home when she and Talitha got there. I threw on my sneakers, grabbed my keys, locked up the house, and headed out to the swamp where the bunker had been.

It was a long drive, and I vacillated between turning around and going back home, and having nervousness clench at my innards like a fighter tightening his fist. Between this being a fool’s wish, and actually being able to do it, and possibly even succeed.

It was the most alive my emotions were since the portal collapsed.

When I got there, I had to park a ways away and walk in. The swamp was unforgiving to my sneakers, and the mosquitoes worse on my exposed skin. When I passed the tree where the kid had puked, the large depression in the ground where the bunker collapsed, had been dug out, and then filled back in, came into view.

Despite the heat, a chill settled over my sweat-soaked skin.

Warren…

I hugged myself, and tears welled in my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I whispered.

When I collapsed to the ground, just shy of the depressed earth, I had myself a good, long, pity cry. It was embarrassing, and not something I usually subscribed to, but once I was finished my insides were empty. Almost as though it’d cleansed me in some way.

I wiped my eyes on my bare arm, the warmth of the humidity seeped some feeling back into my limbs. Awareness of my surroundings returned slowly. The hearty St. Augustine grass was scratching at the skin on my legs. The cicadas were droning loud in the heat, and a light breeze managed to make its way that deep into the swamp, stirring the stagnant air and making the Spanish moss sway gently. I stood, wobbly, and clenched my fists.

I was going to make some calls and do some planning. The girls would need to stay with someone, of course, and Kyne would be the only one in charge of the bakery. I didn’t know how long I’d be gone, if at all. But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I at least didn’t try.

“I’m coming for you, Warren,” I whispered, the promise falling heavy through the air like an anchor sinking to the ocean depths. “If it’s the last thing I do.”

 

Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Final Chapter

Final Chapter

Fragments—everything was in fragments. It was like when you hit that button on your console controller and it jumped forward to a completely separate scene or event in a movie. It wasn’t slow motion or fast forward, things were just…skipping. Then there was Warren, or rather Warren wasn’t, and the portal was collapsing as it destabilized. Portals and other magical energies didn’t tend to do so in a quiet and orderly manner—it would look something like my bakery counter after the half-kin died and released his energy. Only it would be on a scale about fifty times as powerful. Blood magic always packed a more powerful punch.

Chaos raged as people fought the few, smaller creatures that had managed to come through, and gunfire was dangerously close to everyone as well as killing our hearing. Better than human hearing could be an advantage, except when you have weapons firing near your ears.

Then Mina’s face came into view, panicked, bloodied, and yelling in my face. Our eyes met and we paused as she calmed down now that she had my attention, and after I drew in a full breath everything resumed it’s normal flow of time. A little more sound made it through to my brain as it shed a couple layers of shock that padded it from the horror.

“We hav—et—itha—d—riel!” her voice coming in snatches of sound.

“I can’t hear!” I shouted and she flinched back, so I lowered my volume. “But I think you said we need to get Talitha and Meriel out of here,” I finished and scanned the room, her emphatic nod and face slack from relief visible in my peripheral.

I caught sight of them hiding behind a few of the crazy-pants adults, who were fighting with a couple of Dragons almost the size of the Drakken. The girls were crouched behind the fighters and cowering with the majority of the other children.

My body was beaten, tired, sore—not to mention the state of my mind—but there is no accounting for how much adrenaline can do for you in these situations. I faced Mina and jerked my head toward the girls. She gave me the thumbs up and got behind me as I moved low and fast across the floor. With all the commotion and racket, the loose Dragons didn’t pay us too much mind since there were targets that were attacking and thrashing about far more than the two, small targets trying to get across the room.

I trembled as uncontrollable bursts of energy shook my limbs. I did my best to breathe and drive on. We made it over to Talitha and Meriel, though the fighters guarding them glanced back from us to the Dragons, conflicted on which target to annihilate. I didn’t give them a chance to ponder further and grabbed Talitha, who had Meriel attached to her, and Mina grabbed Meriel’s hand to take up the rear. I motioned for the other kids to follow, pulling a couple of them from their crouches.

“Follow them!” I yelled, motioning to Mina. Some of them simply refused to move, and we didn’t have time to waste.

I left them.

We beat a hasty retreat from the portal room, and though the noise lessened outside the room, it still wasn’t like whispering a library. I had no idea where we were headed, but our luck held out, and two baby-faced recruits spilled out of the room and ran down the hallway like, well, Dragons were on their tails. I wasted no time and tugged the girls along after them, but after three or four turns that seemed to get us nowhere I started to ponder my decision. Then we found a metal-rung latter that led up a tunnel, to what I prayed to the Dark Goddess was a porthole, or whatever they called the damn things.

The kids scrambled up and we followed, and for the first time I realized the only noises I heard was the ragged breathing of our group and my blood pounding in my ears. Either someone had won the fight, or we’d gotten far enough away that we couldn’t hear them anymore.

As we climbed up the latter and into the bright Florida sunshine, it sharply contrasted with the blood on my naked flesh and on the girls’ cloths. I sucked in a deep breath of the fetid air, made heavier by the fact we were in some kind of swamp, but the rotten air was as welcome as roses in my book. The two kids huffed, bent over at their waists with hands on their knees, and one of the boys hurled bile onto the soggy roots of Live Oak that was draped in Spanish moss like a Mexican woman’s grieving veil.

The ground rumbled beneath our feet, and erratic magic bit and burned along my skin like fire ant and jellyfish stings all rolled into one theme park delight of sensation. It got us moving again, though, and as we ran the ground trembled as the spells holding the pressure against the bunker at bay, collapsed like a poorly made soufflé.When I looked around again after the dust had settled, the two boys were nowhere to be found. I hoped it didn’t come back to bite us later, though the rest of me could only say; “Good riddance to bad garbage.

“All those other children…” Talitha gasped, and fell to her knees, looking over the five or so we’d managed to get out with us. “They didn’t make it out. Why?” she asked in disbelief and looked to me.

My lips tingled with the remembrance of Warren’s kiss, and my heart wrenched so painful it drove the air from my lungs.

“Because sometimes the universe feels the need to remind us just how unfair life can be,” I said, tired.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eventually they dug out all the bodies, and I felt a grim satisfaction when I was told that Keeper Voss had died from an, “animal-like,” attack prior to the building collapse. The man wanted Dragons, and by the Gods, he got them in spades. Call me a bad person for relishing in the suffering of another, but I was willing to tarnish my conscience a bit to enjoy his pain.

Apparently Keeper Voss had a half-kin son many long years ago, but before it became unpopular, (and the full-blood Drakken numbers dwindled in the face of human breeding), his son had been caught in a half-kin purge. He’d been a lowly scribe at the time, but it set him on the path that led to trying to open the portal. It didn’t justify his actions or ideology, not one bit, but it did give us insight into the, ‘why?’

As for Pullman, no one could seem to find any records on him, or at least none they were willing to share. He had that feel of someone whose records were so redacted you might as well just read a blank sheet of paper, for all the good it would do you. His body was supposedly the only one not recovered, though no one could say if he was alive or dead.

They never did find Warren’s body. It’s hard to quantify the struggle between mind and soul in the desperate hope that arises from glaringly, obvious hopeless situations. Portals like that one were one way, and though it destabilized after he disappeared—not disintegrated like the human—it didn’t mean he was still alive. Maybe I’m just doomed to pursue those who were dimensionally unavailable. It certainly made for a very safe relationship.

I have days where I battle back from the edge of hysteria, with nothing more to set me off than an ill-timed bad noise, or a glimpse of a face that looks like Terry’s, Vern’s, or any of the people seduced into joining Keeper Voss’s cause. The clan was footing the bill for the girls to go to therapy, but I must have been a disposable resource, because I was essentially told to suck it up, buttercup. As long as it helped the girls, though, that was all that mattered. They both still woke with nightmares, and it might be a while before my bed was exclusively my own again. It centers mostly around the children for Talitha, since she spent the most time with them, and unfortunately she had to learn some hard, grown-up lessons about survival. I didn’t mind. Nights were hard for me to be alone, too.

Meriel was doing well, given what she’d been through, and still came to the bakery with her father for visits. Turns out she a macaroon fan, and I made sure to have some of those strawberry tarts for Lord Kieran. She’d called to talk to Mina and Talitha a few times since the kidnapping, and a small seed of optimism lodged deep in my heart. I didn’t want it there, but try as I might it was determined to stay. Maybe someday half-kins and full-bloods would be equal in the clans, and nothing like what happened would transpire again.

It was a few weeks into being back at the bakery, and what little media coverage had been gained by the melting of our counter and the obscure happenings in a little swamp just south of Jacksonville, had all but vanished. Life was getting back to normal, and Aida whirled around the tables in that graceful, dance-like way of hers, cleaning them and getting refills for customers on food and drink. I’d been worried she’d leave us after almost being vaporized, but she shrugged and said she’d seen worse at the courts of the leannán sídhe. I didn’t bring it up again—my nightmare chest was full, thanks. The girls were at school, since they’d missed enough of it recently, and were complaining every night about the crazy homework load. I promised I’d try to plan the next Armageddon during their Spring or Summer break. They were not amused.

I was behind the spanky new counter, restocking on some of the cookies wiped out by the late lunch rush, when the front door tinkled as it hit the bell above it.

When I looked up and saw Danika my stomach dropped to my toes and my mouth went dry. I hadn’t seen her for a while. Not since Lord Kieran had been over during one of her visits and seen my increased panic at her presence. Getting PTSD was almost worth it, if it meant fewer visits from her. Almost, but not quite.

She rolled her shoulders and nervously glanced around the bakery, it was the first time I’d ever seen her in a state other than malicious self-assurance. When she caught sight of me her demeanor faltered, like a person almost taking a step and then not, but she straightened her posture and started over to me.

Her heels struck the tile like a perfectly timed metronome, and any lack of confidence was lost in the confident sway and sashay of her hips as she moved through the bakery.

She stopped in front of the counter, and even the patrons were holding their breath, sensing the two of us weren’t here to exchange pleasantries. At each male gaze drawn to her, she pulled their interest and sexual hunger around her like a cloak, and regained whatever balance she’d lost by coming here today.

“This is for you,” she said, almost hitting the neutral mark with her tone. She pulled a worn, leather-bound tome from the breast pocket on her jacket and thrust it at me. Without any further explanation she turned on her heel and left, leaving me there as patrons peered at the book in barely veiled interest.

The lettering on the front of the book said, Nameless, and my breath caught. It was about Warren. No one owed me an explanation, least of all another clan, and I wonder who had pulled strings to get this to me. If Danika’s reaction was any indication, she’d read it, and had been thrown for a loop. No matter, I was sure she’d be right back on her devilish feet again once she got a hold of some half-kin. Some Drakken never learn.

I mumbled something to Aida, who had come up to the counter not long after Danika had left, and I went through the kitchen doors to the back without waiting for her reply. Once I was in the office I closed the door. Thankfully it was Kyne’s day off. He’d been upset and overly protective since we’d gotten back, and I’d had to tell him to back off or have his head bitten off. He’d wisely gone down to the Keys for a few days.

I sat down and just looked at the book. When I think about it rationally, he’d only been in my life a couple short days, although they were highly traumatic. I think what hit me the hardest about Warren leaving was he was so like my father in personality. Being fair and teaching a half-kin daughter about her powers was something my father had to fight for every minute, of every day. It was that kind of fight and desire for equality that I’d seen in Warren, and the world was a poorer place for having lost him.

I opened the book, and while the old leather was supple from age, the pages were far more fragile. With a tenderness most reserved for their young, I flipped through the pages that detailed Warren’s birth, life, fall from grace, and recently added death. The ink was so fresh in those last pages that I almost feared I would smear it if I looked at it wrong.

He’d risen through the clan ranks to the trusted head guard in the clan leader’s household. When the clan leader’s daughter had been kidnapped, he was tasked to find her. Unfortunately, the daughter had been taken by a plot constructed by her mother, the clan leader’s wife. He was promiscuous, and she was angry as a result. In the attempt to get her back, the girl was killed.

The wife was beloved by the clan, not to mention her family, and the father was grieving, but the stability of the clan came before everything else. They blamed Warren for all of it. They cut off his wings, struck his name from all records, and he was cast from the clanslands to live among humans.

The book was held in trust by the clan leader, stating that if he perished, her horrible deeds would be made public by the book, hidden somewhere out of her reach. At the end there was a note, cautioning me against spreading the tale. If I did so, I was warned worse would be rained down upon me by not only their clan, but mine as well.

Typical.

When I finished tears welled in my eyes. Not just for something that was lost before we even knew what we’d had, but for a man who had continually done the honorable, right thing, and always got the raw end of the deal. 

There was never another choice for you in that room, was there? I choked out an unamused laugh and placed the book safely in my purse, to read at my leisure once I got home.

I went back out to the front of the bakery, and allowed myself the luxury of laughing and enjoying myself for the first time since my life tried to crash around my ears. 

I wish we’d had more time. Well, I still had time here on this lovely green Earth, and it would do Warren’s memory and sacrifice ill if I did not live each day without at least trying to live, laugh, and maybe even find love in the future. Life is just too damn short to live any other way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

 

A few bodies and broken limbs later we hadn’t found Talitha or Meriel, but we had been motioned in the general direction of where we could find them. Another good indication was the surge in security. The more people we ran across increased the chances we were headed the correct way—or we were about to find the cafeteria. Even the bad guys had to eat.

What was surprising me had to be the amount of half-kins we were running across. With how horrible the clans treated us and looked down on us, you’d figure there wouldn’t be as many of us.

Mina’s footsteps echoed against the walls, her feet making more noise as time went on and she tired. Or it could be that she was pouting because I hadn’t let her change form.

“I can help!” she said, repeating the words she’d used at the bakery, but even if she could have shifted, my answer was still the same. I wanted to spare her from bloodying her hands as long as I possibly could, because living within the clans’ system meant it would happen at some point.

Warren slowed as we neared another corner and crouched down, and I motioned Mina to do the same and received rolling eyes in response. Echoes were funny things, and something that was far away could sound exceedingly close. Boots clomped, almost panicked and frenzied, as though we’d kicked a beehive and were now seeing the reaction.

Warren peeked around the corner and I did my best to breathe quietly. He nodded his head and we stood and moved around the corner. What he hadn’t seen was a blind hallway that blended into the wall and concealed five of the enemy. A club swung down from that entrance, and Warren barely had time to lean back and dodge the blow. They all spilled out a scant second after the weapon connected with the floor, swarmed us, and the fight was on.

It was all I could do to avoid being hit, and I couldn’t keep an eye on Mina as well. A ferocious, slavering blonde came for me, straight, yellow hair like a sheet just past her shoulders, and her mouth open to bare killing teeth and a forked tongue. Her scales were the color of molten gold, and glittered in the low light emitted by lamps on the walls. Eyes like burning sapphires blazed with the promise of pain, and her claws were widespread and ready to slash.

She reached for me a little too soon, so I grabbed her left arm and pulled her past me as I slid my foot just off the ground to sweep one of her feet. She crashed to the floor, her chin hitting with a dull thud and her teeth clacked together on her tongue. When she rolled onto her back she grabbed her mouth, and blood flowed between her fingers. She continued to roll back and forth in pain. Her eyes squeezed shut and choked sobs came from deep in her throat. Our teeth weren’t only dangerous for other people, but us, as well.

Even though time tended to slow down for me in fights, it didn’t mean I could stare at one of the enemy and relish, just a little bit, in their pain. Someone connected with me at my lower back and tackled me forward, and I did my best to protect my face and head from smacking into the floor. I also made sure my tongue was safely ensconced in my mouth.

The two of us hit the floor, and a quick look told me the person holding me was either male, or a very muscled woman. I’d barely had time to make friends with the stones before they picked me up and slammed me back into the stone, again, and again, and again.

“Enough!” a male called out, and aside from the ringing in my ears and heavy breathing, no one made a move or sound.

“Pullman wants them in the portal room,” the same one said, and the arms picked me up like a duffel bag and threw me over an equally muscled shoulder.

“What about Gina?” another male voice asked, though didn’t sound overly concerned.

“Ackerman, take her to the medic and don’t forget the rest of her tongue. Maybe if she’s lucky Tovar can put it back on, and is she’s not lucky at least we won’t have to listen to that mouth of hers anymore,” the male I guessed was the leader, stated. A round of masculine chuckles rumbled through the hallway, and I felt the vibrations from whoever was holding me, join in.

Apparently Gina wasn’t liked much. It also indicated they weren’t entirely a single unit bent on some fanatical purpose. Maybe we could work with this. We were at a disadvantage now, but in my book they were taking us right where we wanted to go, we weren’t chained up, and they all didn’t like each other. The day was looking up.

As I came out of my daze I continued to play dead, and Muscles occasionally re-positioned my weight, which in turn caused some air to be shouldered from my lungs. It wasn’t comfortable, but capture rarely was. I kept my eyes closed, though I wanted nothing more than to open them and try to locate Mina and Warren. All I could do was stay still and hope they were okay. There hadn’t been any injury reports in the hallway on either of them, but that just might mean they didn’t care enough about their captives.

Ten, maybe fifteen minutes later, a door creaked open ahead of us and there was a rush of sound. Chanting, steady and low, swallowed me as we made our way through the doorway, and the door clanged behind us a couple of breaths after we were through.

“Put them over there,” Pullman said, disgust and annoyance mere hints of emotion in his voice. I did my best to imitate a sack of potatoes as Muscles dropped me, and I opened my eyes just a slit but something blocked my view.

“Meriel! Talitha!” Mina’s voice rang out, and I inwardly cringed.

“Restrain her, Morton. You two, get up and shift back to human—I know you’re awake,” Pullman commanded, and while I thought for a moment of staying down just to irritate him further, Muscles, or I assumed it was him, grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked me up to a seated position.

“Do it,” Pullman said, though I couldn’t see him beyond the man in front of me, and I gritted my teeth but swallowed an argument. I so did not want to be naked in front of these people again, but Pullman wasn’t the type to push my luck with.

Shifting back could be more painful than shifting to, especially when you’re not doing it in the heat of the moment. Liquid agony spread through my limbs. After I finished, I huffed and groaned back into a sitting position; I’d fallen to the floor and on my side while I changed back. I shivered against the chill in the air on my bare skin.

I opened my eyes to a room with a high ceiling, which must have spanned a few of the levels, and against the wall across from us were painted symbols I didn’t recognize, full of ominous squiggles and sharp lines. Five men were chanting in front of the wall, bare chests, backs, and shoulders gleaming with sweat in the lantern light, and from the smell they were putting off they were human. Keeper Voss had said human mages were needed to open the portal.

They were up on a platform, about a foot above the floor, and as my eyes scanned left one of the guards held his gun at a half-ready position. On the wrong-end of the barrel were a group of kids, among them Meriel and Talitha. Most of the kids were crying while some of the older ones, around Talitha’s age, did their best to comfort them. Meriel clung to Talitha like a lifeline, and had her face buried in Talitha’s shoulder. I saw a gleam of silver at her ankle.

Warren had blocked my view earlier, and one of the men shoved him to sit next to me against the wall, while Mina fought another as they put her on my right.

“Stay still, or I’ll begin removing appendages,” Pullman said to her, his eyes dead and promising to make good on his threat. Mina stilled next to me and swallowed. He said nothing further, just turned around to watch the mages.

“Far be it from me to point out flaws in your villainous scheme, but don’t you think it’s a better idea to summon a portal for the Dragons above ground?” I asked, my mouth getting away from me again.

Pullman didn’t turn around. “We are harnessing the energy of the Earth to help power the portal, and there is one small layer of stone between the Dragons and their freedom. Hardly a challenge for them,” he responded, careless in his confidence.

There was so much power filling the room, one more added on wouldn’t be noticed. “Yes, but what about everyone here when they come through and rain stone down on our heads,” I queried, and supported the words with the slightest hint of power, pushing it especially toward the men in fatigues.

A couple of them shifted from foot to foot, and looked at each other.

“Now, now, Erryn, no more of that,” a kindly voice came from my right in the corner, the one side of the room I’d not looked at.

Keeper Voss sat comfortably in a pale, wooden rocking chair, which was ludicrously out of place given the scene in front of us, but he just rocked away as though he was on someone’s front porch.

“Ah, don’t give me that look, child, this is all for the best,” he said, putting emphasis on the word, ‘best,’ as he titled his head and dropped it just a smidge. “Though I am surprised to see the Nameless here,” he said with a slight chortle, and he stopped rocking for a moment to lean forward and steeple his hands on his knees. “Just think of how they’ll praise me for bringing the Dragons back and getting rid of him,” he finished and smiled. A smile that had once seemed grandfatherly and kind, now held just a twitch of madness, and his eyes gleamed a little too bright.

“Using the unwanted of the clans to bring back the Dragons might work, since they are so much easier to explain away as dispensable sacrifices, but how will the clan leaders greet you when they know you’ve been the one kidnapping their children?” Warren asked, but Keeper Voss ignored him. “Ah,” Warren said, and sat back against the wall as though slammed there by realization, “they won’t be around for much longer. Did you plan on taking over yourself?”

Keeper Voss sighed and shook his head. “Such disdain for my grand vision. One clan united under a single banner, with the Dragons to back us and lead us on toward power. No more bickering between clans, no more loathing for half-kins, and no more bowing and scraping for the humans,” he spat, the first stirrings of anger and zealous ambition heating his voice.

“All it takes is the lives of some children, human mages, and half-kins. Yes, how grand and noble,” Warren mocked.

My words had pushed the uncertainty of those around us to the forefront of their minds, but Warren’s words now had them looking toward the exit.

We might have been able to clear the room of some of them, but at that moment the wall with the markings shimmered, like water and light reflected in a mirror. The stones weren’t moving, yet, but the ceremony was almost at the apex. The sight caught everyone’s breath, and solidified the resolve of the half-kins around us—we’d lost our edge as quick as we thought we’d gained it.

“Bring the first child,” Pullman said, and my blood froze.

That moment sharpened into crystal clarity, and all I could see was the little, pastel pink bow at the end of a girl’s braid; her cinnamon hair a vibrant color against the hair accessory. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and when a man grabbed her, she screamed, and the moment shattered.

I looked at Warren, and Warren looked to me, but I couldn’t think except; ‘She looks so small.’ I must have moved because the barrel of a gun wavered into my view, and I looked up to a man next to me, his scalp gleaming with sweat beneath his buzz cut hair. He shook his head once and sharp. I stilled, and tried to relax my muscles before I got myself shot.

“Silence, girl, we only need a little blood,” Pullman said, deadpan, but still annoyed. The man hauled her up to the platform where Pullman held an old, tarnished metal goblet, the size of my hands with wrists together and fingers up, mirroring the shape of the large cup. In the other hand he held a knife that gleamed wicked in the light, and though the girl struggled and tried to push back from Pullman, the man who held her brought her forward.

When Pullman put the cup underneath her arm, she collapsed onto the ground to try and get away, but another man vaulted the platform and held her up, arm below her heart, while the original captor held her forearm over the cup for Pullman. He slit her wrist, the sharp blade splitting the skin with ease, and blood rushed out like a river being freed from a dam. Pullman only let it flow for a few seconds, while the girl cried and whimpered at the pain and fear. Then he called a whisper of power and cauterized the wound with the flat of his blade.

They repeated this for each of the children, and the level of struggle and cooperation varied between each of them. Meriel was last, and they had to pry her from Talitha’s arms. She was small, but I knew from experience toddlers could pack more of a punch than people realized. It took two of them to get her on the platform and hold her down for the cut. When her wound was cauterized, they took her back to Talitha where she cried and hunkered down into Talitha’s arms.

Pullman turned to the portal, carefully stirring the cup of blood, filled almost to the brim.

“May blood call to blood, and bring our brethren home once more,” he said, and threw the blood against the wall. It was like the wall truly was water, because instead of dripping down the wall, it spread until it became a pool of red, and the stones melted into nothingness.

Before anyone could react, a small form darted through and a scream sounded from the man to my right. My head snapped up and all I could see was scales, a whip-like tail, and a face buried into the flesh of the man’s neck.

Then all hell broke loose. People were running around and trying to get out of the room, while others were trying to keep them in. I couldn’t see the children through the pandemonium, and I could only hope they stayed out of the way and away from anything coming through the portal.

“Portals only go one way, and this one needs pure, royal, clan blood to power it,” Warren said, next to my ear. I jumped and flinched back from him, but my eyes met his. “I wish we’d had more time,” he said, and before I could utter a single word he kissed me, hard and fast. He took my breath away, and then grabbed a knife from the thigh sheath of the man who was being eaten. He dashed up to the platform, and in all the chaos no one stopped him when he grabbed one of the humans and slit their throat, then threw the man into the portal. The man didn’t so much as fall through as disintegrated into it, and the portal spat like an angry cat, and wobbled along the edges.

Shouts to stop him came from Pullman and Voss, but there was too much going on as a couple larger forms made their way through. Warren slipped around them, avoiding teeth, claws, and tails, and cut deep down his forearm, the blood pouring from his elbow in a stream of red. It hit the ground like small drops of rain. With his profile to me I saw him smile, a sad turn of his lips, then he rushed to the portal with his bloodied arm leading the way.

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Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen

 

I have to go on record and say my sense of direction can be compared to that of a pickle, and being underground made it worse. Or I assumed we were underground since there were no windows to be found. I reckoned we could be in the middle of a building, but the stone exuded a damp chill rarely found in a Florida summer. The walls and floor also had an aura of subtle power, which meant a spell had been laid into the very foundation of the building. Florida’s high water table meant you wouldn’t find houses with basements, or anything underground, unless someone went through quite a lot of trouble or spelled the structure. The spells were the only thing keeping this place from turning into a watery tomb for us.

I ran my hands along a wall, and as my clawed fingers trailed across the time-worn edges with soft scratches of sound, they met the slightest resistance before pushing through. Almost like stones were surrounded by a thin layer of water with a slightly more resistant surface tension. When I gave that extra push to break through, my fingers tingled from the contact with whatever magic was there. It was a low-level buzz that bordered on the edge of being uncomfortable, but if I had to I could stand it for a while. The lack of oomph from the spell meant they had to be renewed once a year to keep them fresh. No magic is perfect and self-sustaining, and while some spells could last a very long time if they were powerful enough, they did need to be freshened up, like putting a new coat of paint on a house.

Warren cleared his throat and I glanced up. He was a little farther ahead of me than he’d been a minute ago, and I hadn’t realized it but I’d slowed down to check out the spell. Given my gung-ho, go-and-get-‘em attitude from earlier, the spells were also providing a sort of befuddling to those who touched the stones. Sneaky bastards. He nodded once, to show he understood what had happened, and I picked up the pace to catch back up with him.

Warren was doing better than me as far as navigation was concerned, but you know that old saying about men and directions; he could be just as lost as me, or worse, and I’d probably never know. At this point I wanted to run into one of the bad guys just so we could beat our bearings out of them.

The long hallways were not straight, and they all curved just enough to provide the barest hint of cover. The walls didn’t overly echo our movements though we did try to keep any noise at a minimum. Unless someone else was trying to be as cautious as we were, I doubted they’d get the drop on us.

Shouts and sounds of alarm came from ahead of us, and the pounding of boots on the floor reverberated up through the soles of my feet. Anticipation tingled down my spine, and adrenaline washed through me like liquor hitting an empty stomach. I curled my claws and grinned. Ask and ye shall receive.

The wall curved to the left, and Warren motioned for us to crouch down low right next to the wall. Most people aim center mass, and since Terry and Vern had weapons it was safe to assume others would, as well.

The first person that burst around the corner was male, young, and carrying a big gun. Shock widened his eyes when he saw us. He was another half-kin, as was the girl who crashed into his back when he stopped short. Warren rushed the guy and slammed him into the opposite wall, while I sprang forward and tackled the girl right at her midsection. The air whooshed out of her when we connected, and what little she had left in her lungs was slammed out when we met the floor, but the hallway wasn’t overly large and her head also hit the opposite wall.

While I wasn’t anywhere in the same class as the best fighter in the world, Dragon form versus human would always win out. Though I guess the floor and I could take equal credit in taking the female down. She was dazed, the wind was knocked out of her, and she was too young and too panicked to shift. Still, I kept her pinned in much the same way Terry had pinned me earlier, and I made sure to take care that I didn’t shred her wrists with my claws—though I did exert close to bone-crushing pressure.

I glanced over my right shoulder to see Warren holding the kid up in a choke-hold, one-handed, and shaking him like a rag doll.

I turned my attention back to the girl, who had just gotten her first, almost complete lung-full of air and I leaned down next to her face.

“Scream and die,” I hissed into her ear, and the fly-aways from her dark brown hair tickled my lips. Then I leaned back to see her face. They were my only words, but combined with my Dragon form, mouth full of throat-tearing teeth, and pitch black eyes, the threat worked. She swallowed past whatever she had intended to say, or scream, and nodded once with a short, jerky motion.

“Where are the girls?” Warren asked the male, but I kept my eyes on my own captive. Distractions were the quickest way to gain the upper-hand. Just look at Terry and Vern.

“Go to hell, you full-blooded jackass,” the male choked out, and under other circumstances I might commend him, but right now I wanted to find the girls and get out of here. 

If they were still alive, a small voice said. I clenched my jaw and narrowed my eyes at his words, and my thoughts, but all the girl knew was I was getting angry and she was the only one in my sights.

“For fuck’s sake, Kendall, just tell them,” she squeaked out, and her pulse pounded at her neck.

“No—screw them. This is the first time we have the upper-hand and I won’t back down,” Kendall said, pride and triumph in his voice like he was waving the victory flag on a battlefield.

“So you’ll murder three girls, one of them a six year old, simply because you don’t like a group of people?” I asked, the question ground out from me like rocks trapped in my throat, and the word ‘murder,’ hit like an off-key piano note.

The girl furiously shook her head.

“No,” she gasped out, after my hands clenched even tighter against her wrists and arms, “not murder. No one is going to die—we just need a little blood to open the portal!” she finished.

“Yeah, we wouldn’t hurt no kid,” Kendell said, offended that we’d think so low of him.

“Oh, yeah? How dense are the two of you?” I asked, furious. “A little blood to open one of the most powerful portals seen on Earth since it was opened the last time? Did you completely skip out on all lessons dealing in magic and energy?” My words were scornful, and doubt crept into the girl’s eyes.

“Don’t listen to that crazy bitch, Crystal—she’s one of them!” Kendall almost screeched, but the sound ended with a gurgle. Warren much have tightened his grip.

I kept my eyes locked with the girl’s.

“But she’s not, Kendall. She’s a half-kin, too,” Crystal said, surprise in her voice.

“She works for the full-bloods,” the boy spat, his voice a little more hoarse than a minute ago.

“I take care of other half-kins for one of my clans,” I said, “and two of the girls taken were half-kins, as well, and the little girl might be a full-blood, but she’s a child,” I growled.

Crystal’s resolve didn’t appear to have been rock-solid in the first place, which was why she’d likely been paired with a zealot like Kendall. His passion would eventually wear down her common-sense, was probably the working theory.

What I didn’t get, was why the half-kins would want to see Dragons returned to the world.

She wavered, and in the moment I saw a chance that we might be in time—a glimmer of hope I could save them.

“They killed Richey!” Kendall howled, in a final, desperate attempt to keep her firmly on his side of the matter. Richey must have been Terry’s brother, and his death kept coming back to bite me on the ass, because unfortunately Kendall’s last-ditch play worked.

Shock registered in her expression, followed quickly by anger. She screamed in my face, a cry of anguish and fury of a person who’d had their heart ripped from their chest. With her mind more focused and balanced, her bones shifted beneath her skin for the change.

She bucked against me, but I was fully shifted and stronger. I wasn’t taking any chances, so I moved forward quick as a flash. One minute her throat was intact, and the next it was a bloody, ragged mess. I spat cartilage and tracheal flesh from my mouth, and it hit the stone with a wet splat. Blood coated the inside of my mouth, around my face, and down my throat. It was hot, metallic, and while the more human side of me deep in my soul squirmed, the Dragon side of me wanted to roar in triumph. Her blood pulsed and sprayed from the wound at her throat, and she was dead almost before she realized what had happened, life leaving her green eyes as quick as the blood from her body. 

Death to our enemies.

I’d pay for my actions later, I knew, and some dark night I’d have nightmares about this. But for right now the reptilian part of my brain saw nothing more than a necessary precaution.

A thump sounded behind me and I let go of the girl and whirled around. Warren dropped the boy to the floor, his head at an odd angle, and nodded to me.

“I can smell the girls on his clothing. Not like he was close to them,” he hastened to add at the narrowing of my eyes, “but definitely in the same room, and recently.”

Before I stood, I wiped my face and hands on the bottom of the girl’s t-shirt. It was tie-dye, and the fact I was just noticing let me know how far down the Dragon rabbit-hole my mind was spiraling. I needed to shift back, and soon. 

Not before we find the girls. All of them.

The fact was I was far more deadly, and dead useful, in this form.

“We’ll follow their trail back,” I said, and stood, slightly more clean than before. I moved my tongue around in my mouth, gathering as much blood as a could, and spat it out onto the floor.

“Sounds like a plan,” Warren said, and moved ahead of me back down the hall from where Crystal and Kendall had come, stepping over her body along the way.

We left them there, though it probably didn’t matter—the chances that Terry and Vern had been found were high, and trying to conceal them wouldn’t do too much good. They knew we were down here, and loose.

Before I followed Warren I checked Crystal’s pockets and found some keys. When I bent over her I took a deep breath and faintly smelled the girls. Drakken weren’t trackers on the same level as certain Weres, or other supes with keen senses of smell, but it was better than human. It was a sense we could develop but I’d never done so. Since Warren was a DSR agent it was a pretty good bet he had.

We moved low and quick, just in case we ran into anyone else. Periodically we heard noises coming from various hallways but Warren didn’t hesitate or stop. He kept moving with the single-minded purpose of those tracking. Once we turned down the third or so intersection he slowed, and at each door he took a long, slow, inhalation of air. At the second door on our right he stopped and motioned for me to pull out the keys. There were no numbers on the doors or the keys, and as the ring jangled I wondered how long it took them to memorize which key was for what.

On the fifth key the lock tumbled, and Warren swung the door open. No one was in the room that we could see, and he slowly walked in. From the right side, opposite of where the door swung in, a figure pounced on him. Before he could do something regrettable, and final, I pulled Mina from his back and pushed her away from me. She was reacting, and not seeing, and that meant she might attack me, too.

She was still in her human form, crouched, after she’d turned back to us. Her eyes narrowed when she saw us, and her gaze flickered between the two of us.

“E-Erryn?” she asked, her voice wobbling just a touch.

“Yes, Mina—it’s me,” I said. Before the words finished she’d thrown herself at me, and I gently caught her in my arms, not wanting to accidentally injure her. She sobbed her relief in my embrace, and it broke my heart into a million pieces and melted them all at once.

“I thought you were dead! You looked so pale and still when they dragged you from the house,” she said between sobs. I patted her back and looked around the room. It had a small cot with a thin blanket and lumpy pillow, and a pail in the corner. I walked her over to the cot and sat her down, but she pulled me along with her. The cot might not hold us both, but at that moment I didn’t care. 

One down, two to go.

“I’m fine, Mina,” I soothed, and gently rocked her with me. “Where are Talitha and Meriel?” I asked. She shook her head.

“I don’t know where they took Tally or Meriel. They separated us almost immediately after getting here,” she said, and reluctantly sat up and away from me, the teenager in her taking over and insisting that comfort was for little kids.

Warren stepped out into the hallway, and came back in a moment later.

“I can smell Talitha, but Meriel’s scent is weaker, like she was here for a short time then gone,” Warren said.

I checked Mina over, to make sure she wasn’t injured.

“Can you shift?” I asked, but she shook her head again and pointed to a tiny circle of metal around her ankle. It was a small, unchained version of the shackles placed on us.  It was strange, though, and didn’t have any keyhole.

“They slapped these on us when we got here—they block the shift,” she scowled down at the offending anklet.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Warren said, and walked over to us. He held out his hands and helped the two of us up from the cot. “We’re going to find Talitha, and continue looking for Meriel. If we find the exit before we find Meriel you three will get out while I continue looking for her,” Warren said.

I didn’t agree with his plan of action but it was the best we had at the moment. I’d go along for now, but I would help get Meriel back.

“Lead on,” I said, and we followed him back into the hallway.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen

I bit down on the clothing we’d confiscated from Terry, torn and rolled, my jaw aching. I desired nothing more than to screech and thrash against Warren, but we didn’t know how many enemies were down here, and noise could draw them to us. Thankfully, we’d been able to find a relatively safe place to hide out while Warren reduced my shoulder.

I’d taken a first aid course as a requirement by the clans—we weren’t much for hospital visits for some very legitimate reasons. The basics on shoulder reduction were floating around in my brain, but I wasn’t looking forward to this. I lay on my side, and slowly extended my arm above my shoulder, pausing when the pain washed through me like a storm wave rushing the beach. Warren gave gentle support of my arm when I needed to pause, to make sure I didn’t tire and put it back down before the reduction was complete. Appearing as though I was scratching the back of my neck, I reached behind my head and toward my uninjured shoulder. After some grinding, and a small, meaty pop later, the tension flowed from me and left my body slack, shaking, and sick from the absence of pain.

It had taken longer than I liked, though maybe not as long as the agony made it seem, and I sat up. The blood rushed to my head making the room come into hyper-focus, and my brain reminded me that not all of my injuries would be so easily assuaged.

“We need to shift,” Warren said, as he checked over my other numerous injuries. It wasn’t an awful idea, and the shifting would help to heal some of the more grievous damage; the Drakken blood in my veins giving me a leg up in the healing department. There was a reason advanced spells called for Dragon and Drakken blood—it was mighty powerful.

But I couldn’t help but hesitate. Our Dragon forms gave us certain advantages, to be sure, but our minds entered a more primitive state that reflected Dragon behaviors and tendencies. In our alternate state of body and mind, we lost much of what gave us our moral compasses, and survival of the fittest was the name of the game. If we walked into a precarious situation in our other forms and the girls were in trouble, but to rescue them would risk our lives, our reptilian brains wouldn’t hesitate to walk out or pull punches and not give a full effort.

“I’m not so sure that is a good idea. If we shift and they’re in danger, we might not rescue them. If we shift to heal, and shift back, we’ll be drained of any energy,” I frowned, and grimaced as he poked a particularly tender spot near my left temple. Must have been where the guy with brass knuckles socked me.

“Normally I’d agree with all the above, however you have a serious concussion and your arm is nearly useless. We won’t be able to save anyone like this,” he said, and shook his head. With dark circles underneath his eyes and his grey hair highlighting the pallor of his complexion, he was close to the grave level of sick and tired.

“I’m so sorry, I’ve been all, me, me, me in regards to injuries. Are you injured anywhere?” I asked, and scooted closer to him, slowly though, because, ouch.

“They gave me quite the beat down outside of your house, but I’m healing. I’m just not sure if I’m healed enough to do what needs to be done,” he finished, and looked to me with grim resolution set into the deep worry lines of his face.

I closed my eyes against the truth in his expression, because the only thing worse than not getting out of here alive would be for my alternate self to leave the girls high and dry. I could survive many things but I wasn’t sure that would be one of them. My heart ached, in some ways more torturous than anything physical at the moment, but it couldn’t be helped.

I let out a shaky sigh and opened my eyes.

“Yes,” was all I said, and he nodded.
“I’ll go first—yours might be slowed because of your injuries and I need to protect you while it happens,” he stated.

After stripping back down, he knelt, as though getting ready to pray, but his arms remained loose at his sides. I got up and hobbled around him, and sat with my back against the door to give us an extra second or two if someone tried to get in. Unfortunately, none of the rooms we’d encountered had locks that could be used without keys, and none of Vern or Terry’s keys had matched this room or others near it.

It was always interesting to watch another Drakken shift, especially full-bloods, because from what I understand the transition for them is less painful and more freeing.

His eyes were dark and difficult to read in the low light of a single candle. The hallways were all lit by electric means, but none of the rooms had bulbs or switches, just candles. Everything about the place was giving me the creeps. As he breathed out, his shoulders relaxed and his eyes closed. The skin and bones of his face rippled and shifted, like something alive moved beneath the surface, just waiting for the right moment to get out.

His jaw lengthened and grew, to make room for needle-like teeth, while his nose flattened and the flesh of his nostrils melted into slits. Hard, diamond-shaped, scales appeared along his nose and brow line, which was now more prominent in the same way as a caveman. Though the light washed out all color, the scales sliding from beneath his skin to cover his body from head to toe reflected his clan: grey. Two, large curling horns grew from his skull around where his hairline used to be, though now it was only scales. The horns drew my attention to where his ears used to be, though what remained were barely discernible holes between scales.

As with his face, his arms, legs, and feet grew longer, toes becoming talon-like, and along with the larger balls of his feet they would support most of his weight. Our heels remained off the floor, and our knees and longer femurs made us appear as though we were always at a slight crouch. At his knees and elbows, harder and larger than usual scales sharpened and at a point, lending additional weapons when striking with an elbow or knee; punch daggers conveniently attached to his body. A tail whipped out from behind him and slapped the floor with an acute, hostile ring, and the triangular, daggered end of it bit into the stone, sending fragments pinging against the wall to my left.

He stood and stretched, his claws nearly brushing the ceiling, and when he put his hands behind his head and twisted his upper-body, I got the view of what those scars looked like in this form. They didn’t appear quite as large, likely because he himself seemed bigger, and they left ravaged, broken scales in their wake. Small spikes, straighter and littler versions of the ones on his head, marched down his back, with a couple damaged like broken stalactites where scars crossed over them.

But what took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes, was something his human-form hadn’t revealed: two pitted, ugly craters, one on each shoulder blade, and all that remained of his wings.

A shocked, sorrowful exhalation of air from my lungs brought his attention around to me. My lips pursed and my brows drew down in sadness, and it was all I could do to not weep. To take away a Drakken’s wings is cruelty beyond measure, and usually reserved for only the most heinous of crimes. Not every type of Drakken had them, but those that did relished their ability to fly in the same way bipedal beings cherished the ability to use their legs.

What had he done? Having not only your name stricken from all the clans, but to have his wings removed, as well? I couldn’t reconcile the image of the man I knew, with one of a person who could do something so atrocious to receive such punishments.

He’d remained still in only the way reptiles can during my absorption of the implications, and gave me nothing but a carefully neutral expression. Drakken in that form are focused on very few basic needs: survival, mating, fighting, and hunting, among them. We also display only the base-range of emotions: anger, fear, need, lust, and so on. To be able to control such base desires and give me nothing in his expression spoke volumes about his control, and likely his age.

I stood up and kept eye contact, and slowly made my way over. Though his control appeared superb it would be difficult to resist a fast-moving target, especially since the shifting makes us hunger. When I came close enough that keeping our eyes locked hurt my neck, I looked away, turned my head, and leaned into him. I pressed my cheek against his chest and listened to the nervous beat of his heart; the only clue he was worried. My arms slid carefully up his back, the gentlest of touches to not go against the grain of the scales, or cut myself on their edges. I rested my palms against the physical remains of a painful past, and hugged him to me.

“I don’t care what happened in your past, Warren, and it is not for me to judge. I only go off what actions you’ve displayed, and done, to me, which so far have been nothing but helpful. This changes nothing,” I finished.

A fraction of a second later, his arms gently circled me, not wanting to accidentally hurt me.

“You do not consider me…damaged?” The question came out sibilant and hissing, his forked tongue and teeth making speech like the talking snakes portrayed in movies and television shows.

“You are a strong, intelligent, and capable individual; losing your wings doesn’t make you any less of those. We all have scars, Warren. The only thing I see when I look at yours is strength—the strength to live after most in your position would have chosen not to. So, no, I don’t consider you damaged,” I finished, with a final squeeze to let him know I was backing away.

He released me, and when I moved backward I looked back up into his eyes. He nodded, the gratitude and surprise evident in the way tension left his body, built up from his expectation of horror and disgust from me. I truly did not see them as deformities, especially not after the way he’d treated me as an equal and not the scum of the Earth as most full-bloods tended to do.

“Now,” I cleared my throat, and took an even bigger step back, “it’s my turn.” He nodded, and took up my place at the door.

Half-kins whose other half was human couldn’t transform fully as Warren could, or me, since I was just two different Drakken types. It was also far more painful and slow for half-kins, because their human halves were not insulated from the magic and shifting of the change. In a way, it was the difference between two seasoned boxers duking it out in the ring, versus Joe Schmoe on the street taking on Muhammad Ali. It wasn’t pretty, and whatever gave full-bloods the ability to change painlessly, and in some cases enjoyably, was lost for half-kins.

For me, on the other hand, it took longer because my body always fought to try and transform into both my red and black forms, fully, at the same time. It didn’t work, and one time after I’d first come into my powers I had tried to let it do just that. Think of any pictures of deformed animals and it would be close to the mark. I learned my lesson, and it was painful and beyond the pale embarrassing, and I never let it happen again. My pain, on the other hand, stemmed from having to fight my body wanting to do it again.

So, human half-kins and I had pain and slower transformations but for different reasons. The injuries were only going to make it more difficult to concentrate, and in effect would slow me down even more.

I sighed, but I couldn’t put it off any longer. I, too, closed my eyes and searched deep down in the center of my being where all my power resided, and opened myself up to the other half of my soul. It wasn’t like drawing on power, which made you pull it and concentrate, like trying to drink a sorta thick milkshake through a straw. That took effort and focus.

Shifting, however, was more like opening a door to a room filled with water; it spilled outward and filled up the available space given to it. Seeking and pushing against the confine that was my body. Next I had to separate the two Drakken forms in me, which mingled but remained separate like a delta. It took time, precious time, to shove my red form back into the room within my soul, and it fought like a trapped animal to not go. It drained me, perilously close to not being able to do it at all, but I managed to contain it once again. The effort left me sweating and breathing hard from the pain of the struggle. Though it did feel minimal in comparison with everything else that was wrong me. Small miracles, I guessed.

The rest was easier. I just let the shift push its way out through my skin, and spill along it in a hot wave like a shower that walked the line toward scalding. It was a strange sensation, letting parts of your mind go dark, and having situations became clearer. This mindset was black and white, where grey areas were rarely seen, and when they were they were not tolerated.

When I opened my pure black eyes, like two pits crafted from the emptiness of space itself, I saw Warren, and slightly opened my mouth containing shark-like teeth and hissed my anger. The emotion came on far stronger now that my injuries were almost completely healed and the situation came to the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t directed at him, but at those who encroached on my territory, hurt me, and taken what was mine to protect.

I curled my clawed fingers, the closest movement we can get to clenching our fists, and though my tail did not possess the ability to cut into the stone, I slammed it into the wall with all my strength, and some of the stones groaned at the abuse while dust sifted to the floor.

Black scales ran along my form, eating the light and reflecting nothing back, making me blend almost completely into the the darkness of the room. Perfect for sneaking up on prey and killing them before they knew what happened.

Instinct took over and my mind coldly calculated our priorities. Survival, first. Kill all those not on my side, second. Reclaiming what was taken from me, third. Stop the Dragons from entering the world, fourth. All reservations about being in this form gone, I snarled and moved to the door. Warren moved out of my way, not wanting to get between my and my goals. Smart Drakken.

“Time to hunt,” I growled, and pulled on the handle.

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Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen

Magic is a handy tool to have in your toolbox about ninety percent of the time. It can get you out of a tight spot, fix things, be helpful for a wide range of circumstances, or even make your life more convenient. The other ten percent can be split into two distinct groups of: makes matters worse, and is completely useless in your current situation. I’ll bet you can’t guess which one our current situation fell under.

I wasn’t a particularly powerful Drakken in terms of straight-up firepower. I had no talent for the red half of my heritage, and the power of persuasion I get from the black was meant for something more subtle than guns, knives, and the end of the world. I had the ability to steal someone’s freewill, but it was never an ability I practiced, therefore my control was spotty, at best. They weren’t going to stand around and wait for us to shift, either. I didn’t know what kind of magic Warren wielded, which probably told me all I needed to know about the priorities in my life. As I glanced over to his naked form, our make-out session the night before, (before last?), sent a rush of heat through me. Cut me some slack. I was a baker, for Goddess’ sake; not someone who asks a man about his magical arsenal in case of kidnapping.

Terry went out into the hallway ahead of us, to keep an eye on us from the front, and Military Man remained behind us. We shuffled to the hallway, the chains not having enough slack to allow for a normal stride. Terry had backed away to the side before I made it through, and when I entered the hallway there was a rather large weapon pointed right at my chest. Panic, pure and undiluted, clawed through me like a thousand cats set free at once.

I’d frozen in my tracks and Terry merely twitched the weapon toward the wall opposite the doorway, telling me in one intimating motion to keep moving—or else. My heart started back up with an excruciating thud-thump, and I moved. We all managed to get into the hallway, a tight squeeze for two people to walk abreast, and Military Man picked up his weapon from the side of the doorway.

Military Man grunted at Terry, and jerked his chin upward in a, ‘go on,’ motion. Terry gave me one, final, lethal look before turning his back on us and moving down the hall.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I blurted out, and all the men stopped in their tracks. The hallway filled with a sense of exasperation men reserved for typical female stereotypes, but it’s not like I could help it.

“I’ll take her,” Military Man said, deadpan, and Terry whipped around at that.

“Why do you get to take her, Vern? It’s closer to my side of the hallway.” From the gleam of animosity that shone from Terry’s eyes like flames of hellfire, I was going to have to side with Vern on this one.

“Because I see the way you look at her, like you’re out for blood, and Mr. Pullman wants her alive and not damaged further,” Vern said, and I turned my head to look from Terry to him. “But that doesn’t mean violence is off the table if they resist,” he added, more for our benefit than Terry’s, but Terry latched onto the words like a blood hungry Vamp to a neck.

It took a bit of maneuvering to get Vern and me on the other side of Terry, what with their weapons and trying to keep an eye on us. The caution they showed thus far slowly crushed my slim hope for escape.

When all was said and done, Terry was closest to the door leading to our cozy dungeon accommodations, Warren hadn’t really moved, Vern took my place, and I stood where Terry had been.

“Come with us till we get to the intersection, then wait there,” Vern said, and the group moved on. There was enough space between Warren and Vern that he couldn’t grab for him, even without shackles, and Terry would have plenty of time to shoot him in the back. If we tried to turn around and grab our individual captors, that would result in death by bullet, as well.

A painstaking five minutes later, because the manacle shuffle is not something easy to master or use, we came to the aforementioned intersection. Warren was placed at one corner, and Terry at the opposite.

“If you’re thinking of trying any funny business with your powers, just know those chains have wards on them to keep you from using them, or shifting,” Terry said, keeping his weapon in the general direction of Warren, though not at the ready. Just like holding power, keeping a weapon trained on your target is tiring.

Warren and I said nothing, but irritation shifted behind his eyes for a split second before being washed away in a tide of nonchalance. Warren shrugged. As for me, I scratched a viable choice for escape from my list. Or rather, most of them. Can’t a girl catch a break?

Vern nudged me toward the left hallway, and I continued on. This hallway curved to the right, and twenty seconds after leaving we were out of sight of the other two.

After another twenty seconds–because I had nothing better to do than count the seconds–we started to pass doors, and when we got to the third one Vern commanded me to stop. He pulled a key ring with about ten keys on it out of a pocket, and unlocked a door that looked like every single other door in this place. Confusion to thy enemies, I supposed.

He motioned me inside, and I shuddered at the thought of putting my bare bottom on the metal toilet in the corner. I shuffled over, but he made no movement to leave.

“Um, a little privacy, maybe?”

He didn’t respond, just leveled an impenetrable stare that made Fort Knox look like a child’s make believe fort, and I sighed.

I’m not sure there was anything more humiliating that has happened to me in my life, than having someone watch me go to the bathroom while I was naked and chained. I’d have to say this took the cake, and bakery for good measure. The toilet seat did not disappoint as far as chilling my assets went, and I kept my eyes averted in an illusion of privacy.

I’d like to say that I was cunningly hatching a plan to escape, but in the moments I didn’t fear for my life, I was worried about the girls. It didn’t leave much room for someone as inexperienced as me about these situations, to entertain the idea.

I finished, and he moved around the room to follow me out. Since the door swung inward, there wasn’t even a chance I could slam it on him. Not that I had the key to lock it once it was closed. Hurdle, after hurdle, after hurdle.

I shuffled my way back to the intersection, and what greeted us there made me go still as a statue. Like the delicious scent of food when you’re starved, hope fluttered through me like a cloud of butterflies. Terry lay on the ground, his head bleeding profusely as head wounds were wont to do. He was shackled with what I presumed were Warren’s shackles, and Warren was nowhere in sight.

My mind hemmed and hawed between disappointment and fierce joy. He left me behind, was the sound of betrayal hitting a discordant note, but he might be moving on to rescue the girls, it finished with a satisfied, inner Cheshire smile. That is, if he wasn’t just trying to get himself out, which was possible, too. I’d like to think I was a pretty decent judge of character, and it didn’t fit with the whole, ‘out to do what’s good for Drakken,’ vibe I got from him as a person, or DSR Agent and liaison. But…there was always a but, and survival was survival. Maybe he saw zero chance and skedaddled. Crappity crap.

Vern did not rush over to Terry’s side to check on him, he scanned the immediate area first, then motioned me to the wall with the barrel of his weapon.

“Face the wall, get on your knees, cross your ankles, make sure your knees, body, and forehead are touching the wall, and lace your fingers behind your head,” he intoned, the instructions paced with my compliance to his commands.

I’m not going to lie, it hurt, like so many other things today. My knees dug into the stone of the floor, as the bone ground downward and my skin screamed. Beyond my knees, the only way to balance was to dig the tops of my feet into the ground, which sent razor-sharp pain through my bones. Crossing my ankles wasn’t easy with the shackles on, and I wobbled, but did as I was told. My shoulders began to loudly protest and ache as the weight of the manacles added pressure to a position I wasn’t able to relax into.

“If I so much as hear a single clink from the metal, I’m coming back and putting a bullet in the back of your head. Do you understand?” The threat was made with no inflection, no emotion. Just a guarantee that left my blood chilled.

“What if Terry moves and makes noise?” I asked, as my harsh, fearful hyperventilation had my breath hitting the wall like a warm fog and rebounding back to me, making my head start to feel light.

“Control your breathing, or you’ll pass out and I’ll shoot you on principle,” he said, with not a hint of concern.

I slowed my breathing as best I could, the edges of my vision going from a hazy white to something a little more solid and Technicolor. “I doubt Terry is going to be moving for a while, but if he does…well, you just better hope he doesn’t. He thinks you killed his brother, and after what your friend just did to him, I doubt he’s going to feel very magnanimous,” Vern finished, and from my peripheral he crouched to about half his height, and slowly headed down the hallway across the one for the bathroom.

He was silent, not making a single sound, and in seconds he was out of my limited field of vision. What I could see was Terry, and as I looked around as much as I could without moving, it was still his prone form that drew the eye. Kind of the same way a single red spot on a white shirt grabbed your attention. Except a red spot wasn’t going to get up and murder me for supposedly killing his brother. As far as I knew I hadn’t killed anyone lately. I’d sold a lot of cupcakes and gotten into one hell of a mess, but murder? Not really my gig.

However, as the seconds ticked by in my mind as loud as a pickaxe against stone, Terry looked more and more familiar. It had been hard to notice the green eyes before, because I couldn’t get past his want for my death, but they looked just like the kid’s from my bakery. I sucked in a breath of surprise, the realization shocking me as if I’d seen a ghost.

The half-kin from the bakery was Terry’s brother, and he’d been killed on my property. I guess it would be easy from Terry’s standpoint to draw the conclusion that it was my fault; he’d been at my place of business, and I had what they wanted but hadn’t given it to his brother, thus bringing about his demise.

As everything fell into place, he shifted and moaned. Adrenaline spiked through me and I bit my lip, stuck between one death and another. If I moved to get away from Terry, but Terry didn’t come to full consciousness, Vern would shoot me—of that I had no doubt. If Terry came to and went after me, Terry would rip me apart with his bare hands, and I likely wasn’t exaggerating. Fuck a damned duck.

If I thought the clinking would draw Vern’s attention before Terry fully came to, I was disappointed. Apparently Terry shook off blows to the head better than me, because his eyes snapped open, saw me, and he lept to his feet before I could even think the word move, let alone have my body comply.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” he asked, and when he moved the shackles ominously clinked again.

To hell with Vern’s threatened bullet—Terry was imminent danger versus a potential one. I leaned to my right and tried to get a foot beneath me to get up, but Terry was on me in a flash and I crashed to the floor. My side hit the cold stone with a meaty sound and my shoulder slammed into the floor with his weight and mine, followed by a dull pop. A red haze of agony washed over my vision, and new levels of excruciating injuries were created in the span of seconds.

A manacled hand clamped over my mouth, but though the metal hit my chin I barely felt it over what was going on with my shoulder. When Terry rolled me onto my back, I screamed repeatedly against his hand and tried to bite down, but he just pushed harder against my mouth until biting was no longer an option. I could choose to fight or breath, but not both. I stopped resisting, just sobbed and tried to breathe through my now clogged nose. I was an ugly crier, with everything stopping up and running at the same time, as my face goes splotchy.

Terry leaned down, putting us eye to eye, and the triumph I could make out through the haze of pain was nothing short of epic.

“Alone at last,” he crooned, and placed the heel of his other hand against my dislocated shoulder and pushed.

I passed out a second time in likely as many days, but this time didn’t last as long, and only a minute or two went by. When I came to his hands weren’t on my shoulder and mouth, and the resurgence of oxygen to my body and brain were probably the culprit for bringing me back around.

“You’re going to pay for what you did to my brother, you traitorous bitch.” He literally spat the words in my face, as he held the manacles down and over my head with his left hand. At least I wasn’t conscious when he moved my shoulder into that position. Small favors, to be sure. He was straddling my waist and sitting down on me, and there was simply no way to gain leverage.

When faced with insurmountable odds, awful injuries, and sure death, what is there left to do?

“Sticks and stones, you deluded jackass. Or are you all talk and no action?”

Smart off, of course.

He narrowed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and raised his hand above his head for a truly colossal blow. I refused to avert my gaze, because if I was going to die here it would damn sure be with my eyes open. Except the blow never landed.

A hand came into view and pulled Terry backwards and off of me. There was a brief scuffle, but I didn’t watch. I lay there in pure shock over how close I’d come to, and missed, being beaten to death. A hysterical laugh burbled up in my throat, threatening to spill out and never stop, but when I tried to move my hands to cover my mouth, my shoulder informed me it was an unwise move.

The short fight over. A familiar face hovered over mine, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever be happier to see Warren than I was right that second.

“I’ve…taken care of them, but we need to get a move on before they’re missed, or someone comes along,” he said, and pulled a key ring from the pocket of some pilfered clothing.

I didn’t ask who it belonged to, since Terry had had all of his on, but at that moment the little details didn’t matter. Even the one where I suspected that ‘taken care of’ meant he’d killed them.

I was alive, albeit injured close to uselessness, however Talitha, Mina, and Meriel were still here, somewhere.

Once more unto the breach.

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Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen

There is a subconscious, or at times conscious, desire to avoid problems that have been thrown in your path. Issues can hit like landmines and cause utter devastation to a person’s life, so who can really blame us for not wanting to confront them? The trouble with avoidance is we attempt to utilize it way too late in the game, when we’re already eyeball level and sinking fast in the quicksand. I didn’t want to wake up to whatever nightmare was going on; I just wanted to remain drifting aimlessly in the darkness that was blissful unconsciousness, but I couldn’t. Mina, Talitha, and Meriel needed me.

Pain lanced through my skull like vicious lightning and throbbed in time with my pulse. Nausea roiled through my stomach like a treacherous sea and I barely had enough time to roll onto my side to empty the contents of my stomach. Chains clinked in the near darkness when I moved, and I couldn’t get my hands and legs beneath me to get off the floor away from the vile liquid. Short chains in conjunction with wobbly coordination threw my muddled brain for a loop, so I simply stopped moving until I could finish puking and collect my thoughts.

Bile coated my mouth and tongue, and with each heave the pressure in my skull fairly exploded outward. Finally, mercifully, it ceased, and I cracked open one eye, since the other was stuck shut with something itchy and crusty. Even the dim light, from an unknown source, made me wince and the movement ended in pain shuddering through me like a convulsion.

I swallowed against another surge of queasiness, and weak as a newborn I pulled on the chains to determine where they were anchored. They quickly tightened, as I was at the absolute end of them, and I hissed when the movement rubbed the metal manacles against the raw skin of my wrists. Surprising what you don’t notice when your mind is fuddled and you’re puking your innards out. To add insult to my injuries, I needed to go past my vomit to get some slack for the restraints. Using the chains as my new frenemy, I pulled along them as though I was climbing a rope. The major difference being I was on the ground, scraping skin away on the cold, stone floor, and sliding through my own vomit. Who says I never have any fun?

I couldn’t smell, or feel, any food particles in my puke, and I urgently needed to use a bathroom, which led me to believe I’d been wherever I was between one and two days. We’d had steak which takes longer to fully digest than other foods, but we’d also had veggies, so it was a crapshoot, (hardy har har), in figuring it out. Or, perhaps, I’d already sicked it all up. It was difficult to tell.

Through the vomit, while resolutely breathing through my nose, I made my agonizingly slow way to the wall where the chains were anchored. I groaned, rolled to a kneeling position, and then fell back like a limp noodle against the stone to keep me in a sitting position. My head didn’t appreciate all the movement, and when I sat up consciousness wavered like a distant heat wave on the desert sand.

I took a deep, steadying breath, and flinched at the sting when I licked my cracked and swollen lips. My tongue didn’t have enough moisture to help anything, and reported back to me that I was in desperate need of a toothbrush and mouthwash. It was bad enough that I couldn’t ‘scent’ anything beyond that, but my awful halitosis and fuzzy teeth could get in line; what I needed was to get out of these chains.

When only one eye opened again, I reached up and gingerly felt around it to make sure it was just sealed shut with something, and not swollen from an injury. Finding nothing outside of the norm, I bit back a sob as I pried open my eyelid. It was probably blood keeping it closed. I doubted I had much in the way of eyelashes left over after the ordeal, but at least I could see out of both eyes. Small miracles, I supposed.

The dim light was coming from three large candles, each as thick as the thickest part of my forearm and close to it in length, across the small, square room. I was near the back left corner, if you were looking at me from the doorway, which was metal with one of those nifty sliding doors for the prison guards to see and talk to the prisoners through. It was old, the metal rusted and ominously stained dark in certain places.

A groan send a thrill of surprise and fear through me like shit through a goose, and I finally noticed I had a guest. I was beginning to suspect a potential concussion, as if the pain and vomiting wasn’t a big enough clue, because how else could I explain missing an entire person?

Whoever they were, they were male, lying on the floor on their side with their front turned away from me, and there was nothing between him and the Dark Goddess but a smile. It left nothing to the imagination, or covering the long, thick, and savage scars that criss-crossed and overlapped on his back like wicker in a chair.

He stirred, head tucked toward his belly in a fetal position, and the vulnerability belied the strength evident in the muscles of his back, butt, and what little I could see of the rest of him. I cleared my throat, and he stilled the way a predator did when they scented a potential enemy.

“Hello,” I barely choked out trying to sound calm, but the dryness and swollen tissue in my throat barely let me sound like a person.

“Erryn?” an equally harsh voice questioned, and Warren rolled up to his knees. I averted my eyes, trying to give him some semblance of privacy, and looked down to note I was still—thankfully—clothed.

“Yes,” I tried, and made a poor attempt to clear my throat and possibly conjure moisture from somewhere. “Um, you’re naked.” Pure wit and brilliance, I tell ya.

“I shifted at the house and our captors didn’t bother to re-clothe me,” he replied, the words coming out as painful as sandpaper along the skin.

Shifting forms was difficult on clothing, which is why most people did so without, if given the choice. While the Law of Conservation of Mass meant we didn’t shift into a form much bigger than what we were as human, for most our Dragon form tended to be bulkier. Not to mention the mechanics for our legs were different, and we didn’t exactly remain still as the agony of a shift poured through us like molten gold.

“Do you know where we are, or who took us?” I had a pretty good idea on the latter, but the former was somewhat more enigmatic.

“The people trying to kidnap Meriel, I’m assuming, and they took care in covering my head and keeping me unconscious for most of the trip. I—” he started, but stopped as emotion sat thick on his words like fresh tree sap and stalled him. “I tried to keep them from getting her, from getting all the girls,” he continued, and dread pooled in the pit of my stomach while rage danced through me like a bonfire, “but I failed. I couldn’t protect people, again,” he finished, as his grief and regret sat heavy on the air as though a boulder crushed the wind from me.

“Hey, I didn’t do anything but get hit and lose consciousness. If anyone should be embarrassed it’s me,” I said, the words spat out and more bitter than the bile blanketing my tongue. I was supposed to protect them, and I’d come up short on that vital finish line.

“They took us all by surprise, though Mina was able to get a few chunks out of the one who hit you. I heard them yelling for a medic to take him while they brought her down. I’m not sure about Talitha, but we know they have Meriel because she was the primary target,” he said, the despair making way for a more logical angle on the discussion.

“Yes, she certainly was,” a muffled voice came from the other side of the door.

We both stiffened, and our gazes zeroed in on the door across the room. When the tumblers keeping it locked slid back and the door began to open, we both moved to our feet. The chains nearly yanked me back down; they were only long enough to let us hunch, not stand fully erect.

The man who came through the doorway was dressed in a business suit, and it was so out of place in the grungy dungeon that the absurdity and hysteria almost had me cracking a smile. What stopped me was the cold, dead stare in his icy blue eyes, as unforgiving and merciless as a Russian winter. He was a half-kin, like me.

It was hard to explain how Drakken recognized each other, and knew whether they were full-blood or half-kin. It was some kind of ability hardwired into our brains. It’s not like Drakken routinely sent their bodies in to be studied by scientists to know how we functioned, so it was all theory.

His skin stretched taut over his frame, leaving him with a skeletal and sickly appearance, further emphasized by the gauntness of his cheeks. Weak, the thought jumped, and as though he shouldn’t be alive, but it was foolish to underestimate an opponent based on looks. His hair was wispy and white, like spider webs, and cut just a little too short to allow a comb-over. A chill emanated from him, somewhat like leaving a freezer door open and standing next to it, and a deathly pallor hung from him as though it was a heavy cloak; leaving his shoulders with a slight hunch.

“Who are you?” Warren demanded, breaking the silence and whatever magic he’d woven around me.

I dragged in a breath, as though I hadn’t been breathing since he opened the door and our eyes met, and my oxygen starved lungs screamed in agony. My eyes watered as I did my best to squelch the need to cough, and I closed my eyes against his unwavering stare.

“My name is Raymond Pullman, though that will likely mean little to you. Clans rarely intersect, and half-kins from different clans even less, Nameless,” Raymond answered to both of us, though I knew his gaze never wavered from me as he spoke.

“I know of you; you were sent into exile many years ago from one of the white clans,” Warren said, and I opened my eyes a crack to watch Raymond’s reaction.

He merely slid his gaze, as slow and full of potential violence as a great white moving through the water, to Warren, who seemed completely immune to the man’s presence. Lucky duck.

“Yes, because I refused to be a disgusting pawn to the will of the clans, as this woman chose to be. They say I’m a traitor, but the real traitors are those like her, who bow and scrape to pompous fools obsessed with pure bloodlines,” he spat, though kept his attention on Warren, dismissing me as nothing more than a piece of garbage in his presence.

“Seems the clan Drakkens aren’t the only pretentious asshats among our race,” I said, and returned the insult, my mouth shooting away like a Wild West pistol in a showdown.

He still didn’t look at me.

“Careful, whore, or my men will slit your brats’ throats and let you watch the light die from their eyes, and I’ll be sure to let them know it was your careless words that did it,” he said, voice mocking, and daring me to say more.

I closed my mouth with an angry clack of teeth.

“That’s better,” he said, and made the most lazy, arrogant motion with his hand over his shoulder, as though he couldn’t be bothered, or needed, to do more. He twitched two of his fingers forward, the slightest of movements, and two men dressed in all black fatigues entered the room.

One had the implacable stare of man who has been through combat, saw it all and did it all, especially if his survival was in the balance. The other had pure, undiluted murder in his jade eyes, and the look was directed at me. This wasn’t like Raymond’s disgust for my life choices. This was someone who had a major bone to pick with me, and I had no idea what I’d done to warrant it. I made a habit of not offending people badly enough that they wanted my head on a platter.

“Hose them down, unchain them, and bring them to the chamber,” Raymond said, and left, his gait as smooth as molasses and just as unhurried.

After a minute, when a door opened and thumped shut much further down the hall, the military man, (because it was rare for a guy to get that look anywhere else), turned to murderous dude. I had to make light of the guy in my mind, because this wasn’t the time or place to give in to hysterics.

“Go grab the hose,” he said, words brooking no argument. Never taking his eyes from me, Murderous Dude backed out of the room.

Military Man advanced and pulled a knife from a sheath at his thigh. My breath caught in my throat and fear clamored for control in my brain, but he wasn’t aiming for me specifically. It didn’t take long for the sharp knife to cut away my vomit-soaked clothing—all of it. I remained as still as I could, not wanting my flesh to be collateral damage. When he stepped back I was naked and feeling more vulnerable than if I was swimming in a gator-infested swamp. My nakedness held no importance to Military Man–he was simply completing a job.

When Murderous Dude returned with the hose, though, his eyes lit up with an evil pleasure that shook me down to my toes. All this terror and pain was going to do me in before the bad guys ever got a chance; I wasn’t sure how much more of this my heart could take. The nozzle on the hose was the cylindrical kind that could widen like a flower in bloom, or narrow down into a stinging line of high-pressured liquid pain.

Before he started it up I knew what he was going to do, and barely had time to turn my face as the narrow stream punched me like a fist in the jaw. He kept it there, aiming for my mouth and nose as much as possible, and I turned away as best I could. I shivered as the freezing cold water sluiced over my skin, and grimaced when the water managed to catch where I’d been punched by the brass knuckles.

“Stop fucking around and clean her off, Terry,” Military Man said to Murderous Dude, his tone curt and annoyed.

Terry growled at him, like a tiger defending a piece of meat, but after a tense moment the water moved on.

It hurt. Dark Goddess, did it ever.

“Turn around,” Terry said, the satisfaction in his voice in the face of my pain like a layer of grease running over my skin. He finished cleaning me, though made sure to concentrate on any bruises I hadn’t noticed at that point, and moved on to Warren.

When we were clean, Military Man unlocked the chains connected to the length of chain between the manacles at our wrists and ankles. He motioned for us to move through the doorway, staying just out of hobbled lunging reach, and we complied.

“Go,” he said, the man of many words, and we went. To what, though, I’m not sure I wanted to find out.

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Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve

 

Being a supe DSR agent is just about as fun as having to choose between walking on tacks or broken glass—neither are appealing in the least, and you won’t be happy no matter which one you choose. The same can be said of deciding loyalties: your supe race, or the DSR. The DSR needs the supe to stay in good standing with their race in order to gain useful information as it pertains to any crimes, but they essentially need the supes to ‘rat out’ their fellow people. The agents have to carefully filter what they do and do not say, and damned if you do and damned if you don’t has a hard time finding a better situation to apply itself.

In a way I could sympathize with Agent Warren and the precarious position he was in, because I, too, walked a path where I rarely won. As Danika, Lord Kieran, and Keeper Voss took their leave, after Kieran said goodnight to Meriel, Agent Warren remained behind after they left–much to the dismay of Danika. My heart fluttered and my stomach did a trapeze act, and I could only wonder why he’d chosen to stay behind.

It was late, so the older girls went off to bed, while Meriel was already in hers. On her way down the hallway, Mina waggled her eyebrows at me in the most inappropriate manner when Agent Warren couldn’t see. I shooed and shushed her, but once again the heat rushed to my face in a blush to end all blushes. She just grinned and followed Talitha down the hall to their bedrooms. With all the doors closed and children to bed, I hesitated before going back to the kitchen.

My mind was frozen in indecision, but my body knew exactly what it wanted, the damned traitor. I was jolted from my vacillation by my kitchen faucet starting, and the muted clink of dishes. Feet quick, I came out of the hallway to the bedrooms and looked across the living room to the kitchen, where to my profound horror Agent Warren was doing the dishes. The southern hostess in me almost died on the spot.

“Oh, no, Agent Warren, you don’t have to do that!” I almost yelped, and nearly sprinted across the living room before he shrugged, but never turned around.

“It was a delicious meal and you weren’t expecting me, so the least I can do is help out,” he said, the low bass of his voice rumbling out like thunder, and sending warmth flooding through my lower body.

“But you’re a guest…” I started, but quieted as he turned a resolute look at me over his shoulder. I snapped my mouth shut, and he gave a small, satisfied smile before turning around.

The sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled up to just below his elbows, exposing well-defined forearms and a small hint of the bottom of a tattoo. The black stood out well against his olive complexion, and the little I could see indicated something tribal, or maybe Celtic. I wasn’t an expert by any means, but the tantalizing taunt made me want to see how far it went and what the tattoo was.

His back to me, I got to watch the exquisite muscles move beneath the fabric of his shirt. I had to busy myself with gathering more dishes from the table before I did something embarrassing, and set them next to him on the counter.

“Thank you,” he said, but he was thanking me for more than the dishes.

“I need more employees like you, if you’re going to thank me for handing you dirty dishes,” I joked, and moved back to the table for more. It was easy to forget how many dishes were used for eight people.

“For that, yes,” he chuckled, “but really for not asking about the Nameless thing the second we were alone,” he finished, and put another rinsed plate into the dishwasher.

“I…well, I guess it’s not really any of my business,” I said, and he stopped his work at the sink, wiped his hands on a towel and turned to me, interested. He leaned his tight derriere against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. His brawn wasn’t so much that he couldn’t do so, but just enough that it wasn’t easy, either.

With his complete and undivided consideration leveled at me, I started to babble.

“I mean don’t get me wrong—I’m curious, no two ways about it, but I figured you’d tell me if you wanted. No need for me to pry,” I said, almost desperately, and he started to move toward me, slow and self-assured like a lion creeping through the grass toward prey.

I backed up until I hit the table, and I still held silverware in my hands as I brought them up close in front of me.

“Also, Agent Warren, it would be a poor way to repay you for not treating me, a half-kin, like most full-bloods typically do. The Nameless thing seems like something painful, and I do my best not to cause others pain, if I can help it.” I continued taking, as though it were a shield to ward him off, though mind and body were still conflicted on whether him moving toward us was a good thing, or not.

The barrage of words did nothing to slow him down, like a superhero shrugging off a fusillade of bullets, and a second later he stood close enough that the silverware was the only thing keeping us from touching. I looked up at him, which sent a jolt of electric surprise and liquid delight through me. It was tough finding guys taller than me, when I actually looked, and men tended to be intimidated by a woman their height, or taller—especially if I wore heals.

He leaned down, and I tilted my head back to keep eye contact though, I couldn’t get a read on his thoughts. Lips stopped just a hairsbreadth away from mine, and sorrow filled his greyish-blue eyes like rain filling a small depression in a weatherworn rock.

“Do you know how rare that is in a person, supe or not? You are quite refreshing, kind, beautiful, and you are wasted on the likes of the clans,” he finished, and with no more than a sigh was able to close the distance between us for a gentle brush of lips.

Dark Goddess, were they soft. My breath hitched as he drew back, just enough to take the silverware from my limp hands and set it back on the table, and then leaned back in. His scent filled my nose, clean like the moisture on the air after a storm came through and washed everything away.

This time one strong hand went behind my neck, cradling the base of my skull, while the other went to the small of my back to draw me closer. With a small moan, one of my hands came up under his arm to his upper back, while the other went around his right shoulder, my fingernails digging in a touch where the muscles connected his neck and shoulder. I melted against him, and the hard length of him pressed against my belly.

At my response, his lips parted and his tongue met mine, a slow dance and exploration of two people who had never been intimate together. Time slowed, and instead of giving into the need of every movement, caress, and breath, he remained unhurried.

After a time he ended the kiss, and drew back enough for us to look into each others eyes. His were dilated. The pause gave enough time for my lust-hazed mind to catch up, and put my libido in the backseat for a moment. Agent Warren’s eyes cleared as well, and the two of us exchanged languorous smiles.

“That was…lovely,” I said, breathy, words not quite enough to describe it. Agent Warren chuckled, that deep, masculine sound they reserved for moments such as these, when they knew they’d pleased the lady and themselves.

“Yes, and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way, but I thought it prudent to stop before things progressed,” he said and I tilted my head in question, requesting, not demanding, an explanation.

“Not that I disagree with you,” I said, voice still low from the kiss and passion, letting him know I wasn’t complaining. Certain parts of me were in protest, but my mind had cleared enough to kick them from the helm. “But why, for you?”

His thumb absentmindedly stroked across my neck and scalp, and sent shivers down through me. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the simple, yet intimate touch. It had been a long time since…anything.

“Multiple reasons,” he said, and just when I thought that would be it, he continued; “With everything going on the situation isn’t ideal, I’ve been burned before, and we just met,” he whispered the last, and I let out a lethargic, ‘hmm,’ in agreement. He chuckled again, and laid a gentle kiss on my forehead.

At the touch I sighed and opened my eyes, and met his gaze. It was full of want, charged as lightning with the promise of more, plus a hint of frustration and a dash of caution. The recipe left me with a fluttering somewhere in my midsection and hoping against hope it wasn’t some cruel dream.

He didn’t move, despite his words, and I couldn’t back up because of the table. I cleared my throat and my mouth crept into a rueful smile.

“Agent Warren, if we’re going to finish the dishes I need you to back up so I can move.”

Just as I’d had my internal battle earlier about him finding me, Agent Warren had his battle now, on what would be the correct action versus what he wanted. With a sigh, the logical one won out and he stepped back, our hands and arms sliding away from each other. His shirt was wrinkled and I couldn’t say I was sorry to see it that way.

“Warren,” he said.

“What?” I asked, somewhat confused, and I gave my head a slight shake, lost.

“You keep calling me Agent Warren, which is odd sounding anyway since it’s usually Agent Berg, but now I think you can safely call me Warren,” he teased.

I huffed and crossed my arms over my chest. Not out of anger, but to keep my hands to myself.

“Warren, then,” I said, and at the sound of his name on my lips, he smiled in a way that had me struggling to catch my breath. It was a bedroom smile, no doubt about that, but instead of doing anything about it we acted like responsible adults and proceeded to finish the dishes. Sometimes being a responsible adult sucked…no, can’t think of sucking at the moment, bad choice of words. Ahem.

Once we were done he lingered for a few minutes, though we didn’t speak, and just made our way slowly to the door. At the front door he collected his jacket.

“I’ll get to work on this new information about the Dragons and see where it takes me. Be careful,” he whispered the last, and took one of my hands in his. He raised it to his lips for a kiss, and goosebumps lifted the hairs on my body making my skin more sensitive.

“I will be,” I whispered back, and he nodded.

“We’ll talk more about…everything, once all this clears up. See you soon.” He turned, opened the door.

“Bye,” I softly replied.

One last smile, and he walked out. The door closed gently behind him, the click barely audible to me a few feet away. I stood there, staring at the door, a big, goofy smile on my face.

“I can’t believe you left it at that!” Mina squeaked from behind me and I whirled, surprise sending my pulse thudding and my stomach nearly to my throat.

“Were you watching the entire time?” I asked, voice one-part hostile and three-parts shrieking embarrassment.

She scoffed and shook her head. “As if. I was just curious because I heard the water at the sink and the dishwasher, nothing, and then they went again. So, did you smooooch?” she asked in that teasing, annoying way kids learn from their peers in elementary school.

I blew out an exasperated breath. “You are incorrigible. Go back to bed, now,” I said, tone final and impervious to persuasion.

She rolled her eyes. “Whatevs.”

As she turned to walk away, a knock sounded at the door. It was late, and Warren had been there moments before, so as I moved to the door I merely thought it was him. Car trouble, maybe?

But when I opened the door a different face greeted me, and the split second later when I realized they were half-kin, it was too late. When he shoved his way in, something smashed through the sliding glass door and Mina screamed, full of rage and fear.

Before I could let anything process and react accordingly, let alone shift to my other, more deadly, form, a hand clad in brass knuckles made its way toward my face. To that I did react and turned enough to go with the punch instead of full against it, but it still met my face with the force of a speeding train. Even half-kins can punch through steel if they choose to do so, and this half-kin held nothing back.

Color and light flashed across my vision. The last thing I heard was Mina screaming, and though I struggled against unconsciousness I slipped away into the painful darkness.

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Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

With dinner finished, and no corpses on the floor, I considered the evening a success thus far. The fact that my standard for success involved the number, or lack of, corpses, should have told me that maybe I needed to reevaluate certain aspects of my life. However, I’d have to save the introspection for later.

After the plates were cleared and the children sent out back to play in the yard in the growing dusk–much to the indignation of a certain teen–the adults sat in tense silence with various drinks. Wine for the persnickety Danika who sniffed in disdain at my selection, though as she took a few sips I kept my fingers crossed that it calmed, rather than incited, her irritation. Keeper Voss opted for tea, declaring it settled on his stomach easier after meals than anything else. He tipped a heavy hand with the cream, and sweetened it with just a touch of sugar. The rest of us decided on coffee: black for Special Agent Warren, only sugar for Lord Kieran, and just enough cream to curb the bitter taste of the brew, for me.

We sipped, and though I couldn’t speak for the others, I held my tongue in an effort not to stir any trouble. The quiet stretched for long enough that it became uncomfortable, but Keeper Voss merely met my nervous glances with calm and sympathetic eyes.

“Now,” he started, his voice soft and gaze holding mine, “why don’t you tell me what the young Drakken said, and we’ll move on from there.” He finished by putting his cup on the table, and leaned forward slightly so that his elbows rested in the table, hands together with fingers laced.

I took a deep breath and set my cup down on the table as well, though I leaned backward, using the chair for support. I crossed my legs and folded my hands over my knees to give them something to hold on to. I spoke with my hands most of the time, the way a Marshaller directs an airplane, and it was yet another fault Danika liked to harp on me about. Come to think of it, there was little I did she didn’t criticize, but I was all about keeping the peace tonight.

“He said, ‘When the skies are filled with Shadows and the rivers run with blood, take heed and count your blessings; for your final days have come’,” I finished, and watched as uneasiness grew in the Keeper’s eyes like a storm boiling on the horizon. Ominous.

“Are you sure?” he asked, and at my nod he pursed his lips into a thin, concerned line.

“I sent my report to the clan leaders on the situation, as per usual they likely threw it away or deleted it, but I did not realize the poem held such significance,” Agent Warren said to Voss. At his voice, Danika’s expression grew from mild irritation into something twisted and vile, as though Agent Warren had relieved his bowels on the table, or something equally disgusting and disturbed.

The nod was so slight only our keen eyes were able to detect it, but it was there. However that was as far as Keeper Voss was willing, or possibly able, to acknowledge Agent Warren. I’d have to do some digging to figure out this Nameless thing. I’d never heard of it, but things I’d never heard of as far as the Drakken go could fill a mighty big bucket. It might come as a surprise, but teaching the history and habits of our race to those who would never be a part of it, was viewed as a waste of time and effort.

“Lord Kieran and Provost Danika did well by bringing this to my attention. It is a recurring problem with our race since I was a child, a few thousands years past, give or take a century,” he chuckled, though the mirth fell flat like a poorly timed joke.

If what Keeper Voss stated about his age was true, then he was one of the oldest Drakken. Just how long we could live was difficult to gauge; people for many thousands of years have enjoyed the pastime of killing and skinning us. Some thought us immortal, and that by eating our flesh they would also obtain immortality, while others saw us as threats to be eliminated. Once we started interacting with human society on a, ‘If we don’t do this we won’t survive much longer,’ peaceful basis, these instances lessened in number, and we started to see Drakkens live longer.

“It all began,” he said, his voice taking on a storytelling, instead of lecturing quality, and I hunkered down for a gem of my people’s history I would otherwise never have known, “with the first treaty signed with various European governments in 1516. This peace treaty was prompted by a human, a Swiss medical doctor and naturalist, Konrad Gesner, who became friends with a gold clan Drakken. Upon hearing his new-found friend’s history, and the human’s wholesale slaughter of us, he became an advocate for our survival,” Keeper Voss said, and proceeded to take a sip of his tea to wet his throat.

“Sorry, I rarely talk with people, since it’s usually just the books and me,” he chuckled, but promptly continued. “Gesner surmised that our race was intelligent on a human level, and could be persuaded to peace if given a chance. However, he also determined that our counterparts, the true form Dragons, could not,” Keeper Voss said, sadly, and looked down at the remaining tea in his cup, as though remembering some long ago pain. When the liquid offered no comment or comfort, he continued on, voice heavy with the burden of ghosts from the past.

“Dragons had temperaments like wild fire, hot and dangerous, and could not be reasoned with, he said. Some we kept as honored guardians, somewhat in the way Egyptians kept felines, but the ones who lived and roamed the wilds were too dangerous to humans to keep alive. Being so closely related to the Dragons, the Drakken clans refused to simply destroy their true form counterparts, and instead a solution was proposed that both parties grudgingly agreed to. Three-quarters of the wild Dragon population would be sent through a dimensional portal, supplied by humans gifted in such magic, to live out their days in a place better suited to them—and more importantly away from the humans. The last quarter were kept for breeding purposes of the clan guardian Dragons.”

The Keeper’s words were more bitter than orange pith, and the anguish in his voice was thicker than molasses left in the cold. I’d bet dollars to donuts that Keeper Voss had known some of these, ‘too dangerous,’ Dragons, and had to watch them leave our world forever.

“It wasn’t many years after that, maybe a hundred, when the humans, requested, that we send the rest through. In essence they threatened us with being hunted down again unless we complied. The clan leaders at the time nearly started a war, but not with the humans, with ourselves. Some wanted to keep our treasured guardians no matter what, since they were creatures that represented one half of our souls. Others were thinking about our survival. There was quite a bit of going back and forth, skirmishes, and so on, but I won’t bore you with the details. In the end, as you can tell, they sent the rest of the Dragons,” Keeper Voss said, and slumped in his seat as though exhausted by the memories.

The rest of us remained silent, and though it was an incredibly heartbreaking piece of our history, I could not help but appreciate knowing more about where I’d come from. Still not quite an answer, though, my mind chimed in.

“You said the trouble started when you were a child, and I do not think you exclusively mean being hunted by humans. Also, how does it tie in with the poem?” I asked, though I shrunk away from Danika’s withering stare, likely turned my way because I was so audacious in questioning an honored member of a clan.

Luckily for me and the skin on my backside, Keeper Voss was not offended, and gave me a small half-smile. He shrugged the melancholy from his shoulders by straightening them, and pulled himself out of the heavyhearted memories by sitting up where he’d slumped in the seat.

“You are correct,” he said, voice reverting back to scholarly and disassociated, as opposed to something more like a victim’s recounting of an atrocity committed against them. “Since humans and Drakken have inhabited the same areas there have been conflicts and death. Humans tend to out-breed us and overwhelm us with their sheer number, and Drakken are hardier and harder to kill. The only tipping point was the Dragons. With the Dragons at our side their numbers meant less, which some took as a sign we should use them to wipe out, or at the very least contain, the humans. Other supes did not like this idea, as they depended on humans for survival in various ways, and culling the human population would detrimentally impact those groups. It was, to say the least, a mess of epic proportions,” he chuckled darkly and sipped his tea, but distaste made him scrunch his nose at the liquid.

“Would you like me to warm your tea, or get you something else to drink?” I quickly asked. At his nod and extended cup I reached across the table and collected his drink. Setting it in the microwave for half a minute, I also grabbed the tray of strawberry cream tarts, and the cookies that I’d baked the day Danika had come over to inform me of my new charge.

The realization that Danika’s visit was yesterday rocked me back on my heels, and fatigue crept into my bones as though a fat leech was stealing my energy instead of blood. It was nearly inconceivable that so much had happened in almost two days time, and it made my head light just trying to soak it all in. So much has changed. I shuddered.

I must have stood there too long, the trays in my hands, because Agent Warren appeared like magic in front of me. We’re fast, don’t get me wrong, but this was fast, which meant I was just too spaced out to notice his approach.

“Are you okay?” he asked, worry softening his words, though not his stony expression.

“I’m fine!” I said, a little too forcefully, and a single, thick grey eyebrow fractions darker than his hair color, lifted in disbelief. “Really,” I reassured him, toning it down from exuberant sorority cheerleader to somewhere closer to normal, “I’ll be fine. I just needed a second to process everything.”

Not totally convinced, he took the cookie tray from me and without a word of protest I let him, but I turned around and grabbed Keeper Voss’ tea from the microwave. Then, after setting everything down on the table, just to give my brain a little more time, I topped everyone’s drink off.

Settled in my mind a little more, and with me sitting once again, Keeper Voss continued the story.

“The ones who wanted to keep the Dragons, and use them to obtain some form of world dominance, kept their ideals alive and well fed. Passing on the safekeeping of the opinions and beliefs to each new generation, like moving the embers of an older fire to the kindling for a new one, and they exist among the clans to this day. That is where the poem comes in,” he said, and held up a finger as though to mark the importance and draw anyone’s straying attention. Danika, I’d noticed, had been unimpressed and bored with the history lesson, but I guess when you have this knowledge at your disposal day and night, you take it for granted.

At his words and movement, though, she perked up and leaned forward. The only information she cared for was how to perform her job more efficiently; everything else was extraneous and unimportant.

“The words are a prophecy started by the ones who want the Dragons back, and it is a warning that they will accomplish their goal. They intend to open the portal and usher the Dragons back into this world, and in doing so assert their rightful dominance over the human race,” he concluded, and just as it had earlier, worry was etched into every line and wrinkle on his aged face.

“I won’t discount the importance of Dragons for the Drakken, and I feel as though they provided a balance for us that we’ve lost over the years. But just as they balance something in our nature, we helped to balance them, as well. I fear the Dragons have likely lost any semblance of who they were, and we would scarcely recognize them now.”

The words were a gruesome truth, filled with a sense of something just out of reach and seemingly lost forever. Like we were ships lost in a fog so thick a lighthouse couldn’t help us, and as a result it left us in constant danger of wrecking on a rocky shore of madness. A sudden fragility slipped into my soul, and sent icy claws raking down my spine.

“What does all of this have to do with my daughter?” Lord Kieran gravely asked, and spoke to the other adults for the first time that evening. That is, other than in regards to food or drink. All through dinner his attention had only been for his daughter, and now he might just get some of the answers he needed to protect her.

“I cannot say for sure, my Lord,” Keeper Voss hedged, and at the words Lord Kieran’s eyes hardened in temper. They were more black than blue in the lower, man-made light of the chandelier, but lit from within by a mixture of fury and fear only parents can muster when their child is in danger.

“What can you say, then?” he scornfully asked, and clenched his teeth against harsher words, waiting to spill from him like water breaking from a dam.

“I was not ranked high enough in the clan to attend the rituals that sent the Dragons through the portals, but if I had to hazard a guess…” he trailed off, but Lord Kieran’s look gave a wordless order to continue—or be damned. “I would say they need her for some part in the ritual to open the portal,” Keeper Voss finished, his words apologetic but holding a definitive ring of truth.

The question left unasked, though it probably didn’t need to be, was what part would she play in the ritual. Knowing what kind of power was needed to open an inter-dimensional portal big enough, and for long enough, to bring all the Dragons through, brought to mind unpleasant conclusions.

“Then we can’t let that happen,” Lord Kieran concluded, voice low, deadly, and filled with a determination that bordered on frenzied.

Even if we hadn’t agreed with him about that, no one sane would disagree within range of his hearing. When someone has a look that says they would slay armies to keep their loved one safe, more specifically their child, the only feasible response is to nod your head. Being both prudent and sensible, I did just that.

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Come Hell, High Water, or Both: Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

“Ugh, this is so lame,” Mina said, simultaneously slumping down into her chair and folding her arms over her chest. She wouldn’t make eye contact with Agent Berg, and she smacked her gum in the noisiest, most nerve-grinding way possible. However, the pulse jumped at her throat like a trapped prisoner, and her right knee bounced up and down; a physical manifestation of her nerves.

Agent Berg sat back, relaxed, a calm presence amidst the miasma of teenage insubordination, like a Zen master watching a bull in a China shop. I reckon after dealing with supe criminals, one teen was more like a molehill than a mountain. I could only inwardly writhe with embarrassment at her behavior, but I also understood where she was coming from—though that didn’t mean I condoned it.

He was calling me, her guardian, into question in her mind, and she was doing her best to slam the proverbial door in his face.

“It’s okay, Mina, he just needs to know if you saw or heard anything,” I said to reassure her, though she leveled a look my way that plainly said; ‘Are you really falling for that?’ Authority figures in Drakken clans tended to do major wrong toward half-kins, and the feelings of resentment sometimes bled onto authority figures in other areas. It didn’t help that Agent Berg was a double threat: full-blood and government agent.

She turned her gaze from me back toward Agent Berg, who patiently waited for her reply. Mina scowled, sat up, and leaned forward, her hands moving to clench the sides of the chair.

“Erryn told you we didn’t see or hear anything, we were watching cartoons. That’s the story and it’s not going to change no matter how many times or ways you ask me. Capiche?” She nearly yelled in his face and stood up, fast, almost knocking the chair over. Her jaw was clenched and her cheeks were flushed.

Resentment and enmity burned through the air hotter and faster than a backdraft, while her sclera and iris bled to the color of rubies illuminated by firelight. The pupils widened to draw in more light, and unlike Meriel’s they were not slit, but remained round. Tendrils of smoke curled from the corners of her mouth and nostrils, like lazy, noxious snakes.

The speed at which the situation intensified took my breath away, and I quickly moved to stand between Mina and Agent Berg. Since we were the same height, the shorter side of six foot, we were eye to eye. The bones shifted beneath the surface of her slightly rippling skin, ready to make the full transition to her dragon form—ready to fight and kill the threat to her territory and guardian.

She was scared, emotional, and still learning to control her powers, but if anyone got their face torn off tonight the only acceptable option would be mine. I kept my arms loose at my side with the palms of my hands turned toward her, and made no move to ward off an attack—a complete surrender to her choice.

“While we may not agree on many things, Mina, I can promise you this man has made no threats to any of us, or our home,” I said, voice low, neutral, and reasonable. It was a hard line to walk, landing somewhere between condescension and overly authoritative; either one of those might provoke an anger, instead of fear, response, and merely compound the situation.

“He will take us from you!” she growled and hissed, the terror of what the situation might yield finally bursting to the surface like pus bursting from an infected wound. Mina clacked her teeth back together, and clenched them against the pain of her jaw on the verge of elongating to accommodate a different jaw structure, and bigger, sharper, deadlier teeth.

“Then I will fight for you, Mina, all three of you!” I replied vehemently enough that it rocked her back a moment and she blinked, long and surprised. “I love you girls with everything in my soul, and I will go to the ends of the Earth and beyond to see you happy and healthy, in mind, body, and heart,” I softly continued, but my voice remained steely and heartfelt. “I would darken my soul and bloody my hands to keep you safe, but let that be my burden and not yours. Please, Mina, you have a whole life ahead of you filled with joy, sorrow, laughter, and tears. Don’t throw it away here, like this,” I finished, the words leaving me like a final prayer spoken on a person’s last breath.

She slowly relaxed her shoulders, until they slumped like a person who just got out of an actual knockdown, drag out fight. She closed her eyes and kept them that way for what was an eternity to my adrenaline heightened senses, but in reality was only ten to fifteen seconds. When they opened again, they were the usual dark brown of roasted coffee beans, and full to the brim with tears.

“I’m so sorry, Erryn, I—” she choked, and let out a sob. I moved forward to hug her, but she stepped back and shook her head. “I’ll completely come apart if you hug me, and I’ve embarrassed myself enough for one day.” Her cheeks flushed once more, this time from chagrin, and moved to stand where she could see Agent Berg. I turned to look at him as well.

He’d known better than to draw our attention during the crisis, and hadn’t moved a muscle. I don’t know if he fixed his face before we turned, or if his balls of steel disseminated the triple threat of cool, calm, and collected throughout his body like a drug, but his expression hadn’t changed, either. Then the realization that I’d thought of him and his balls in the same speculation made me blush, again. What is it with this guy that he can make me react like a schoolgirl with a crush?

“I apologize, Agent Berg, for my poor behavior. However, my story is the same: we saw and heard nothing until the police searched the back area,” Mina said, chastened.

“I appreciate the apology,” Agent Berg said, his smooth southern accent lending a heavier sense of sincerity to the words. “However,” he said, mimicking her with a small smile at the corner of his mouth, looking much the same as he had when he complimented my apron, “I still need to speak with Talitha, then Meriel.”

She looked to me and I gave her a reassuring nod, and she walked away. The only way she could have looked more dejected is if she had a tail to tuck between her legs like a chastised dog. 

Teenagers. A constant source of excitement.

The two of us remained silent, though I did move back to my original position, and we waited for Talitha. Her story was much the same as Mina’s, though more hesitant and worried, rather than defensive and full of ire. She fidgeted and squirmed, as though she’d been placed in front of a classroom by the teacher for doing something wrong. He asked her a couple of additional questions beyond what he’d asked Mina, but didn’t pressure or coerce her. The answers remained the same and, satisfied, he asked for Talitha to send out Meriel.

Being so young, Meriel realized something was wrong, or amiss, but was more confused about the ruckus than scared. She proceeded to go on a lengthy dissertation on the cartoons they were watching when my doorbell rang.

I jumped, again, and looked toward the clock. It was still a little too early for Danika, though it could be them.

Meriel and Agent Berg both gave me questioning looks of, ‘Are you going to answer that?’

I blew out a sigh and headed to the door, and proceeded to do the same ninja approach to looking out the side window, just in case. Another sigh, and I opened the door to a well-dressed Lord Kieran, snazzy business suit-clad Danika, and an older gentleman that looked as though he stepped out of a library cared for by monks. Slightly hunched in the shoulders and holding a dark-stained wooden cane in his left hand, he benignly smiled and held out his age wrinkled right hand.

“Lovely to meet you, Claviger Erryn,” he murmured, his voice meant for the quiet hush of rooms filled to the ceiling with ancient tomes. The title surprised me, as I generally only heard it at formal gatherings and rarely even then. It was another name for a warden, or one who keeps keys. For Drakken, it was the title given to half-kin guardians. “My name is Voss, and I am the Keeper for the blue clans,” he finished.

I reached out and shook his warm hand, soft from turning pages instead of calloused from physically intensive activities. He was that washed out beige coloring that people with naturally tan skin had when they stayed indoors too long away from sunlight. Keeper was short for Keeper of Knowledge, and they were clan historians and lore masters.

“The pleasure is mine,” I returned, and moved back from the doorway to allow them entrance. I nodded to my other two guests; “Lord Kieran, Provost Danika, welcome.”

They moved beyond me into the foyer, and waited for me to close the door and lead the way into the kitchen. When we entered a few things happened at once: Agent Berg and Meriel twisted to watch us as we came through the doorway; the adults behind me stiffened in surprise, which was mirrored by the look of astonishment on Agent Berg’s face, and Meriel let out an ear-splitting, “Papa!”

No one moved as the little girl ran toward him, and he collected her in a hug and rushed out of the room as though it had suddenly caught fire. As everyone remained still as a statue, I glanced between the two and Agent Berg in utter confusion.

The soft wrinkles around Voss’ mouth gathered as he frowned in regret, and his bushy white eyebrows lowered in sorrow over watery, pale blue eyes. A fine tremble came over his hands as they tightened ever so slightly on the curve of the cane, and though it sent a flash of agony through his eyes, he did his best to straighten to his full height. It gave the dark gray suit he wore a less frumpy look now that it was stretched out a touch, and the man gave one slow, deep nod in Agent Berg’s direction, but offered no more than that.

Danika simply had the deepest loathing in her eyes, like a bottomless pit of venom. “We do not interact with the Nameless! Why is he here?!” She turned that look to me, the one I had seen released especially for me on more than one occasion, and my confusion morphed into an odd sense of over-protectiveness for a guest in my house.

“Because he works for the DSR and they were called in after the bakery incident. I have no idea what this Nameless thing is, but he is my guest and I expect better manners than that from you,” I spat back, though my words were far braver than the intense beating of my heart. 

She is going to kill me, I inwardly squeaked as she took a step toward me and my mouth dried out. My breathing was shallow and fast, and I almost moved back a step until Agent Berg’s calming presence moved up behind me.

“I came over to get a statement and nothing more, Danika. I was performing my duties as a DSR agent and liaison, and Erryn was merely cooperating,” he said.

“You dare speak my name? You are defiled, unclean, and Nameless! Drakken everywhere are made lesser by your existence,” she hissed out, low and mean.

It was just the slightest of movements behind me, but Voss must have seen something in Agent Berg that I could not, because he lifted his cane and slammed the bottom of it on the tile. The sharp sound caught Danika’s and Agent Berg’s attention enough to stop whatever might have happened, and they looked toward the Keeper.

“That is enough. Danika, we are here as guests and shall behave as such,” he said, voice intense but never gaining in volume, and it brooked no argument.

Danika looked as though she’d bitten down on something slimy, but closed her mouth and nodded. Though Voss had not addressed him, Agent Berg murmured an agreement. The old man smiled and looked to me.

“Help me to the table, child, and we’ll see if we can pick an old codger’s brain to figure out what mischief is going on,” Voss said, and held out an arm.

I respectfully obliged and helped him over the table. While Danika and Agent Berg went to opposite ends of the table, like enemies setting up camp on different sides of a river, I hurried into the kitchen to finish cooking dinner.

Who knew? Maybe if I hurried we’d get through the meal without having to clean blood and body parts off my floor.

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