Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 57
Stories
Leaders Taste Better
by Stephen Lawson
Good Fairies
by Megan Lee Beals
The Buried Children's Club
by James Edward O'Brien
IGMS Audio
After the Matilda Briggs Went Down
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Warm Space
by David Brin

Leaders Taste Better
    by Stephen Lawson

Leaders Taste Better
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Prologue

Rain pelted the poncho shelter over David Finch's head. To his left, Terrell Blake read a Ranger Handbook with a red-lensed, crook-necked GI flashlight. They'd snapped their ponchos together to make a larger shelter, which they'd tied to trees with 550 cord and propped up in the middle with branches. He and his designated battle buddy now lay a foot apart under the driving rain.

David had enjoyed the first week of Camp Challenge, Fort Knox's annual single-serving ROTC camp for curious kids. He was seriously considering joining the program in the fall.

"I watched a TED talk the week before I came here," he said, raising his voice so that Terrell could hear him over the rain. Terrell shone the red light directly into his eyes.

"That sounds fascinating," Terrell said.

"It was about leadership and biochemistry," David said. "Instructor Dooley made me think about it today when he talked about being cool under pressure."

Terrell said nothing, but still shone the light in David's eyes.

"This chick on the video said that in primates, when a new alpha gets ready to take over, his body naturally increases the testosterone in his bloodstream, and lowers the cortisol. It makes him more aggressive and less stress-reactive."

"Maybe there's hope for you yet," Terrell said, "if some monkeys elect you as alpha."

"I'm excited about STX lanes tomorrow," David said. "I think--"

The ground shook, and they both fell silent. Terrell turned out his GI light.

"Was that an earthquake?" David whispered.

"Maybe an explosion," Terrell said. "Maybe Combat Engineers are doing--"

Something moved in the dark, just beyond the edge of their poncho hooch. They were supposed to have a perimeter watch, but he'd abandoned his post once the rain started.

David had the sense of something moving closer to them in the darkness, though he couldn't quite make out what it was. He only knew that it was big. The echoes of rainfall were hushed in places that grew nearer and nearer their camp, as though great invisible legs were walking through the clearing toward their tree line.

Red and white lights came on under other ponchos twenty and thirty yards away as the remainder of their platoon searched for the disturbance.

The poncho over David's head disappeared in an instant, and rain poured down over his sleeping bag, his clothes, and everything else he'd brought with him to the field. Blinking through the downpour, he looked up into glowing yellow eyes.

They must be eighty feet in the air, he thought, and huge--the size of basketballs.

"Your leader," a voice rasped through the rain and darkness. "Where is your alpha male?"

"What do you--" Terrell started to ask, but a clawed hand reached down from the dark and hurled him into the night. David thought he heard a scream, but it vanished too quickly to be sure.

"Your leader," the voice rasped again. The sound of it crawled through him, like termites through rotting wood or like the decay of time.

"I'm the platoon leader for the day," a voice said next to him. Jeremy Hargrave's hand pushed David back, shielding him. Jeremy stepped forward, his high school quarterback frame obscuring the thing's foot from David's view. Jeremy seemed not to notice the rain.

That foot though, David thought. It looked like--

"You are the alpha?" the voice asked. "You're so young."

"What do you want?" Jeremy asked. "I'm not afraid of you."

"Good," the voice said. "Less cortisol. I watched a TED talk last week and. . . oh never mind. Amy Cuddy's brilliant though."

Jeremy was light on his feet and ready to dodge any attack, but the talons that plucked him into the night were larger and faster than any threat he'd faced on a football field.

David heard the crunching of bones through the rain. He stood, rooted to the earth, unable to form a single thought.

For a long moment, nothing moved. No one blinked.

"So much better when they're young, too," the voice said.

A scaled foot the size of his body and talons as big as his head stepped within an inch of David's face.

"Tell the rest of your herd about this," the voice rasped from somewhere above him. "Tell them that the end is nigh."

Blue flames illuminated the darkness, and he saw the thing. It towered above their camp--immense, and unspeakably powerful. An endless stream of fire poured out of its nostrils, melting ponchos to children and setting wet trees aflame.

Later, David would remember the screams of his platoon most clearly--even more clearly than the sound of Jeremy's bones snapping through the rainfall.

Jason was missing.

My Jason.

I'd risen from my gold hoard around ten in the morning, stretched my wings, shaken a few chicken bones from my scales, and yawned. Thin blue flames licked from my nostrils as I looked around the subway platform.

Did you know that Louisville almost had a subway? An ambitious mayor in the early 1940s broke ground on it and constructed the first four-line hub before a war in Europe demanded the funding. The subway project was forgotten as men were drafted and steel was used to build tanks and machine guns. The remnant, this long-forgotten cavity in the ground with support pillars and polished tile, was all that was left. I'd been living in it since 1943.

Anyway, back to Jason.

He was noticeably absent from the leather couch I'd brought down here a decade ago with the hope of acquiring a new human pet. He generally rose fifteen minutes after I started rummaging around in the kitchen, making dragon noises, and subtly encouraging him to get up and start making people noises.

"How's the book coming?" I'd asked him yesterday, as I ground coffee beans.

"It's--" he began, then sort of oozed off the couch.

"It's?"

"It's not. I'm stuck again," he said.

"Did you make an outline this time?"

I lit the wood stove with a quick snort from my right nostril. Given the abandoned-ness of my home, we didn't have gas or grid electricity. The engineers had, however, gotten as far as basic ventilation, so I'd built a sort of chimney to carry smoke to the surface and thereby avoid smothering Jason.

"Maybe I'm not meant to write a novel," he said. "I'm better at short fiction. I can do beginnings and endings fine, but all that middle stuff--I get lost."

"That's what the outline's for," I said as I put the kettle on the iron, "and all the money seems to be in novels."

"Yeah," Jason said. "I guess."

He picked up my stack of magazines and moved them to make room for breakfast.

"Why do you have so many copies of Soldier of Fortune and Guns and Ammo?" he asked.

"Not everyone likes dragons," I said. "I try to keep up with slaying technology."

I'd found Jason in the alley behind Pete's Drag Show late on a Saturday night three months ago. I didn't know he was Jason at that point, of course. I only knew that a person in a giant chicken suit lay curled in the fetal position on the bricks, groaning.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

I was wearing the man suit in order to blend in, as I normally do when walking among humans. The average human frame is a lot smaller than mine, so I hide most of my body on the spectral plane and manifest words and actions through the man suit.

Think of it like a duck blind--you put up a piece of cloth that looks like a bunch of reeds and marshy plants, and the ducks can't see you behind it.

"Urgh," the chicken suit said. "I'm a millennial and everybody hates me?"

"That seems unlikely," I said. "You're outside a gay bar. Did the people who attacked you yell anything, like, 'Take that, you gay person!'?"

"No."

"What about, 'Take that, you not-gay person!'?"

"They said something about a furry."

"Probably they were the first kind, then. What were you doing back here anyway?"

"I just got fired. I was walking home."

"Fired from where?"

"Chick-Grill-A."

"You were probably going to get jumped back here either way then," I said. "People are generally horrible no matter what they believe."

After assessing Jason's injuries, mostly by flopping him around in the chicken suit to see if he screamed, groaned, or asked politely what I was doing, I decided it was safe to move him. (Mostly he groaned.)

I glanced down each end of the alley, and sniffed the air.

Sensing no one nearby, I pulled away the man suit and stretched my wings. A cat hissed at me from behind a dumpster.

"You're a--" Jason said.

"Well I'm not a giant chicken," I said, "and neither are you. I guess we've both been deceiving people."

I scooped him up, flapped my leathery red wings, and shot up into the moonless night.

Now he was gone. Had he run away?

"Jason?"

No answer.

He certainly hadn't taken any of my gold with him. I take stock of every coin, crown, goblet, medallion, and bar as I close my eyes each night. Dogs walk in a circle three times, people stare at their phones in the dark, and dragons take stock of their hoard.

I looked back at the pile just to make sure. All there.

"Holy crap. That's a lot of gold," Jason had said the morning after I found him. He'd gotten over the Holy crap, you're a dragon! part faster than most people. Without his chicken garb, Jason stood about five-ten, with dirty blond hair that looked like it hadn't been combed in years. He was thin, with a slight stoop to his shoulders and a constant look of disappointment on his face.

"Well I've been building my hoard for a while now," I said, trying to restrain the pride in my voice.

Jason scooped up two handfuls of Swals, the ninety-nine percent pure gold coins used by the Swalians in 3000 BC. I watched them fall through his fingers, restraining the impulse to shoo him away from the hoard.

Pets had to feel comfortable with their new surroundings, or they'd run away at the first opportunity.

I'd raided Swalia's nautical tax shipments at the Straits of Urthan for five years after they harpooned Jegraagh. They'd referred to him as "Leviathan" and killed him when he came to investigate the shadowy thing sailing across the roof of his home.

"Why don't you sell it?" Jason asked.

As the last coin fell from his hands, I remembered watching the highest peak in Swalia sink into the ocean. I'd gone to live among the Hyperboreans then, farther from the sea and the blistering equatorial sun.

"Sell it for what?"

"You know," he said. "You could buy stuff--like a castle, or a Lamborghini."

"Have you noticed these?" I asked, spreading my wings. "I've no use for cars, especially not ones whose sole purpose is to attract women. As for castles. . . "

"What?"

"Bad memories--knights, damsels--it's better if I live in abandoned places like mines and subway stations."

"You could buy me a Lamborghini," Jason said.

"And then you could. . . what? Drive to the apartment you got evicted from, or to the job you don't have anymore?"

"That's not very nice."

"Neither is powering your machines with the bodies of my dead friends."

"What?"

"If you're lucky enough to live forever," I said, "tell me how you feel when the next dominant species digs up your cemeteries to power their little vehicles."

Jason considered this, then sat silently down on a one-armed chair I'd found. I poured him some coffee, and toasted a bagel by blowing on it briefly.
"Don't dragons live forever?" he asked finally.

"Not if someone slays them," I said, "which has happened a lot. I was talking mostly about what you call dinosaurs, though. They don't get much credit nowadays, but they had some interesting things to talk about."

"Oh," Jason said, then chewed silently for some time. "Do you have Wi-Fi?"

Maybe he was outside.

The cityscape had changed significantly since the subway's engineers lost their funding. A thick forest now surrounded the entrance to the tunnel and had been designated a city park. Walking trails circled the entrance on every side, but since humans rarely, if ever, stray from their trails to peer beyond the leaves, I was in very little danger of being discovered. Given mankind's modern proclivity for staring down at a smart phone all day, I could probably walk around undisguised in broad daylight without anyone even being aware of me.

Nonetheless, I pulled the man suit from its hanger. I shrank back into the spectral plane, leaving enough of myself in the world of flesh to speak and manipulate objects.

If the duck blind analogy didn't help, picture the physical world as a stream, and the spectral world as the air above that stream. Time flows in your physical stream; it stands still in the spectral plane. To penetrate the physical world, I put my face, or a claw, or whatever mass I need to manifest, into the stream of time and decay. As long as I touch it, I get wet with time.

This is an oversimplification, since you're picturing a two-dimensional barrier between three-dimensional spaces. I can manifest in a man shape, or practically any shape, because I'm stepping through a three-dimensional barrier between one four-dimensional plane and another.

Having folded my visible self into the appropriate shape, I donned the man suit and climbed the stairs.

"Jason?"

Still nothing.

I swiped my finger over the lock on the tunnel door, outlining the glyph that sealed it in its frame. I let the hanging vines fall back into place over the door, turned, and abruptly froze.

I smelled her before I saw her. She'd used watermelon body wash to clean herself, and it carried through the leaves despite her being downwind from me. I scanned the forest, and noticed her yellow-green aura as she stepped over a tree root. She seemed to be coming directly toward me, while glancing down occasionally at a cell phone. As she approached, I took in her details: black hair, trim figure with pale skin, and too much eyeliner. She wore a black t-shirt with a drawing of the sun on it. She looked down at the phone again, then up, and finally saw me.

"Are you Arnold McDragonson?" she asked.

"It seems odd that you'd be looking for anyone in a forest," I said.

"Jason said he was crashing at your place," the girl said, judging me through her eyeliner. "You're the dragon, right?"

"What?"

"From Jason's blog? I'm probably the only one that doesn't think it's his newest story gimmick, but Jason isn't this creative. He'd have to be getting it from somewhere. I'm Emily by the way."

"He's blogging about me?"

Emily tapped her phone's screen a couple of times, and held it up for me to see:

Blogging Tall: One Writer's Journey for Truth, Justice, and a Cure for Writer's Block, it said at the top.

"Could I borrow that?" I asked.

"Knock yourself out," Emily said, handing me the phone. "Is Jason in your dragon dungeon, though?"

"It's not a dungeon," I said. "It's an abandoned subway station."

"Louisville doesn't have a subway, so," she said, trailing off obligatorily after the so. . . . "You'd better not have eaten him."

I scrolled through Jason's posts. Thankfully, he hadn't taken any pictures of me sleeping on my hoard, but he'd written quite a bit about my habits and idiosyncrasies.

March 2nd: You'd think he'd get over me wearing a stupid old crown while I try to write. This naggin' dragon keeps pushing me to focus on my writing, and when I find a muse in a shiny head-ornament, he starts breathing smoke and whipping his tail around. (That thing has spikes on it, bro. It's dangerous.) I mean, I put it back when I saw he was upset, so I don't get what the big deal is.

"Did it belong to someone you cared about?" I asked him.

"No," he said. "It's the crown of the King of Hyperborea. I ate him after he sent seven knights to slay me."

"So what's the big deal?"

"It's special to me."

"So is the whole rest of that pile of gold."

"I don't pick through your comic books, do I?"

"I don't have any comic books."

Then he stormed off and didn't talk to me the rest of the day. Now it's been three.

April 6th: I've never eaten so much meat in my life. Every other night, Arnold disappears for a couple of hours, and comes back with five pounds of beef.

"Where'd you get that?" I asked the first time.

"From a Judas steer," he said.

"A Judas steer?"

"It's the cow that leads the others to the slaughterhouse. They work for the butcher, so they're the only ones that actually deserve to be eaten. Besides, leaders taste better."

"Where's the rest of it?"

"I don't like people watching me eat," he said. Then he blew fire on the beef and tossed it on a plate. "Hope you're hungry."

I never pictured dragons having a code of ethics.

I looked up at Emily. She'd found the door behind the vines and was fiddling with the lock.

"It's a glyph lock," I said. "It's magical. You're not going to open it that way."

"You open it, then," she said.

"I feel like Jason is misrepresenting me in his blog. He makes me sound so moody and insecure."

"Great," she said. "You can talk to him about that when you open the door."

She tugged on the knob and kicked the bottom of the door for emphasis.

"He's not down there," I said. "I'm not sure where he is."

"You could've said that five minutes ago."

I sniffed the air again. Emily's watermelon aroma nearly overpowered my olfactory palate, but I picked up Jason's scent when I crouched closer to the ground. I followed it one way, then another. It got stronger going south.

"He left about sunrise," I said. "Have you tried calling him?"

She stared at me, and blinked several times.

"Yes," she said finally. "That's why I came here. Are you trying to smell where he went?"

"Was he your mate?" I asked, studying her anew. Her face held some remaining baby fat, but it was what I understood to be beautiful in women. Her clothing seemed to curve in the right places to attract a boy like Jason.

"My--" she said, a scowl growing on her face. "No, he wasn't my mate. I was his manager at Chick-Grill-A. He never came in to pick up his last check."

"You shouldn't scowl," I said. "You'll get wrinkles. If you were just his manager, though, why would you come all this way looking for him? Why do you read his blog?"

The furrow in her brow disappeared under conscious effort, but her eyes hardened.

"If you really are a dragon, and you can smell which way he went, let's find him. Then I can give him this check and be done with it. And you can stop asking me questions."

I sniffed the ground again, and started walking south.

"This would be easier if there weren't so many people around," I said as we walked. "I could just fly up and look for his aura."

"Sure you could," Emily said.

"What do you mean, 'Sure' I could?"

"You think you're a dragon," she said. "I get it. Boys think they're girls now and vice versa. You can identify as a dragon if you want to. I just think flying will be a little hard for you is all."

"Whatever," I said.

We came to the edge of the park. Taco Luchador had parked its food truck across the street, right next to Curmudgeon Coffee with its wafting espresso. I looked for Jason's distinct bluish-purple aura in several windows, but couldn't see him.

"Why are we stopping?" Emily asked.

"Between the chorizo, mocha lattes, and the last three dogs that peed on that fire hydrant, I can't smell Jason anymore."

"Some dragon you are," she said.

I considered, briefly, dropping the man suit and eating her whole. Instead, I walked into Curmudgeon's and asked the guy behind the counter for a pen. From my experience, Jason was a caffeine addict but indifferent toward tacos.

On one of their napkins, I carefully sketched Jason's likeness, capturing the slump of his shoulders, general look of disappointment with life, and unkempt fur. Emily watched my masterful artwork unfold. Her eyebrows rose with what I perceived as growing awe at my skill. I added his bluish-purple aura and placed the drawing on the counter.

"Have you seen this boy?" I asked the barista. He looked at the drawing, then at me.

"Is that a person?" he asked. "It looks like a cloud monster."

"This boy," Emily said, holding up her phone. She showed the barista a photo of Jason and herself. In it, Jason wore an ill-fitting tuxedo, and she wore a blue dress. The flower in his lapel matched her dress exactly.

"Sure," the barista said. "He was here this morning. He worked on a laptop for about an hour until some guy met him and they left together."

"Some guy? What did he look like?" I asked.

"Big dude," the barista said. "He had a pretty sweet bike--BMW I think, about a 1200. Quiet, too. It wasn't one of those noisy douche-cycles the accountants ride around with the pipes and the chrome to attract attention."

I felt my eyes narrow.

"Did you see anything painted on this bike?" I asked. "A coat of arms perhaps?"

"You could buy something, you know," the barista said. "College kids coming in for two dollar coffees and free Wi-Fi doesn't give me a huge margin. Folks asking about missing prom dates helps even less."

Emily ordered a macchiato and I tipped the guy twenty bucks to expedite the process. (Despite my earlier assertion that I don't enjoy selling gold, I do occasionally part with junk silver to finance normalcy among humans.)

"It was too far away to really see," the barista said, "but there was some kind of shield thing on it. The guy had a long case with him too. It looked like one of those art cases for posters or whatever."

"Or a sword," I said.

"I guess if you took the guard off it could be a sword," the barista said, "--or if it was one of those Japanese ones."

"You only need a wide guard if you're fighting someone else with a sword," I said. "It's for catching a blade before it cuts your hand. They put a very narrow guard on vorpal blades--just enough to stop your hand from running up the blade if it slips."

"Sure," the barista said, "vorpal blades." He studied me for a moment, then hit himself on the forehead as though he'd suddenly remembered something.

"Is your name Arnold, by any chance?" he asked.

"For now," I said.

"The dude with the bike left something for you," he said, and passed a scroll across the counter. "He said you'd be weird."

"Weird how?" I asked, but didn't wait for a response. I broke the wax seal on the parchment and unrolled the scroll.

Vlar'el,

Greetings. Your newest pet has come with me without incident. You have until sundown on Odin's Day to bring me the crown of Hyperborea in exchange for his life. I will await you at the mouth of the Cavern of the Moon. It is warded against your tricks and glamours. If I sense your magic, the boy will die.

Rolothon

I crumpled the scroll in my fist. I knew now that the motorcycle bore a crest with a unicorn and seven wreaths of evergreen ivy.

I walked out onto the sidewalk behind the Taco Luchador truck.

"What did it say?" Emily asked as the pneumatic door closer squeaked shut behind her.

"You read all of Jason's blog entries, right?" I asked.

"Yes," she said. "It's a good way to keep track of him. Sometimes he gets. . . lost."

"Unfortunately, right now, he isn't lost. The King of Hyperborea sent seven knights to kill me. I let one of them live. That's who has Jason."

"I've never heard of Hyperborea," Emily said.

"It's not exactly on the map anymore--at least not by that name. The last ice age wiped out what was left of them."

"That doesn't make sense," Emily said. "If he's from a place that old, he'd be dead by now."

"No," I said. "Hyperborean mystics uncovered a secret that would allow a man to live forever."

"Really?" Emily asked. "What was it?"

"I have no idea. Some sort of special diet or something. Dragons live forever no matter what we eat, so it never interested me."

"I bet he went gluten-free."

"I'll ask him when I find him," I said. "I'm curious though: If you were Jason's manager and you're so attached to him, why did you fire him?"

"Is this really the time for--"

"You might be able to help me get him back," I said. "Rolothon clearly has some sort of trap in mind for me. He's been chasing me for a little over five thousand years. He doesn't just want the crown of a long-dead kingdom. He wants my head in his trophy room."

"Jason loves me," she said. "He told me that for the first time when we were eating paste together in Kindergarten. I think I giggled like someone gave me a puppy to play with. It seems to be the only consistent thing in his life, and probably in mine."

"That doesn't seem like a reason to fire him."

"He was a terrible chicken mascot, though," she said. "I got him the job because he was broke, and he couldn't work the counter because he's terrible with people. I put him on the fryer, and he burnt three batches of fries. I put him on sandwich duty, and he fought with the new fry cook. So I put him outside in the chicken suit, and he'd just space out. I asked what was going on, and he said he was working on a story--in his head, mind you. He couldn't even show me his notes. He gets great story ideas, but--"

"He doesn't make outlines," I finished.

"Yes!" Emily said. "He won't make a plan to save his life. I had to fire him. They would've fired me if I didn't."

"And yet you seek him out," I said. "You worry about him. He loves you, but he's not your mate."

"It's not like that."

"Then what's it like?"

For the first time, I watched a bit of color flush into Emily's pale cheeks.

"Can I read that scroll-thing?" she asked.

"Knock yourself out," I said, and handed her the crumpled parchment.

"What's 'Odin's Day'?" she asked after a quick scan.

"Wednesday," I said. "So we have until tomorrow."

"And where's the 'Cavern of the Moon'?"

"It's in Eastern Kentucky," I said, "where the limestone caves haven't attracted tourists. It's about an hour's flight from here."

"Okay," she said. "So how are we really getting there? I don't have a car either. I walk to work."

"What do you mean, 'how are we really getting there?' I just said it's an hour's flight. We're flying. I'll carry you."

"Okay, stop," Emily said. "I get that Jason found an interesting person--albeit a seriously deluded one--to tell him stories about Hyper-boring-a or whatever as source material for a story. Going homeless and living in your abandoned cellar is probably the most dangerous and desperate thing he's ever done, but maybe it's time for him to have some rough experiences and grow up. Maybe this'll look great on the back flap of a book when he actually publishes all your crazy stories. I don't know if this Rolothon guy is another one of your wacko friends, or if he's your drug dealer and you owe him money. I don't care, honestly.

"What I do care about, though, is seeing Jason and making sure he's okay. Apparently, today's zany adventure involves taking him to the other side of the state on a motorcycle. However powerful your psycho delusions are, though, they aren't going to carry us there. So I'd like to know where we're really going and how we're really getting there."

"I need you to go back to your lair and pack for two days," I said. "I'll meet you there at sundown. Bring sturdy shoes."

"You don't know where I live," she said. Then, with a raised eyebrow, asked, "Do you?"

"I'll be able to follow your scent. If you don't like the mode of transportation I offer, don't come with me. You can call the police and tell them a homeless psychopath has possibly murdered your non-mate."

Emily mulled this over.

"Fine," she said.

Without another word, she turned and walked down the sidewalk.

Before I left, I stopped to look at the window display at Morton's Jewelry next door. The rings and necklaces, though small, glistened at me with come-hither appeal. They would've made fine additions to the hoard if I weren't so concerned with blending in now.

The old you would've smashed through the glass, burned everyone inside, and flown away with all of their sparkly diamonds, I told myself. You would've reveled in their screams and the ecstasy of gold.

I pictured it--tossing engagement rings and diamond bracelets onto my hoard before I dove in to swim through it.

I sighed.

The old you would still be eating people, though.

"Hey, man, I'm glad I caught you," the barista said. I hadn't heard him come out of Curmudgeon's. "Your friend left her phone."

"Oh," I said, taking it from him. "Thank you."

After the barista left, I turned on Emily's phone again and pulled up Jason's blog.

May 16th: I'm keeping my fingers crossed. An agent has been reading my blog and is interested in exploring a book deal.

He said I have enough content to turn Arnold's story into a novel. With the number of followers I have, he says he could definitely get a publisher to buy it. I could get an advance. I could be on the flap of a book at Barnes & Noble!

So that's how Rolothon had lured Jason away. Posing as an agent for a desperate writer. . . The Hyperboreans had never embraced chivalry or honor, but this was a new low.

Thankful for the moonless night, I shot into the air. Louisville's residents rarely look to the stars, which are mostly hidden by light pollution. If someone did look up and see a silhouette with broad wings and a pointed tail soar overhead, they'd dismiss it. Even if they could get out a phone fast enough to take a picture, what would the picture show?

I followed the latent scent of watermelon from two hundred feet above the ground, watching the night unfold. Bats squeaked in the darkness and I watched their violet auras swoop and glide as they caught mosquitoes. Then I picked out Emily's yellow-green through the window of a two-story house.

Still living with her parents, probably. No mate, no car, and she didn't get enough sun or exercise. This one needed some work.

I landed silently in her back yard, alighting at the edge of a wooden deck. I extended the corner of a wing to cover a porch light, and immersed myself in total darkness. A cat approached on the deck railing. When it noticed me, the hair on its back rose. It hissed at me.

I purred, a deep rumble in my throat. The cat cocked its head at me and it relaxed.

"Honey, I think the porch light went out again," a woman said inside.

"I'll look at it in the morning," a man said. "Is Emily upstairs?"

"Yeah. She said Jason's missing. I think she's worried about him."

"With that boy, there's no telling what he's into. He needs a role model or something."

"That's just how kids are now, Babe--no direction."

"Well, let's hope we don't see his face on the news, I guess."

I extended a claw and tapped, as gently as possible, on Emily's window. She started, then turned to look at me. Knowing she wouldn't be able to see anything beyond the glass, I pulled my wing away from the top of the light and illuminated my face.

Her eyes went wide. She staggered back, and sat on the bed as she stared at me. I smiled my best dragon smile, and covered the light once again. People always take a few seconds to accept strange things. When I stormed castles, I used this to my advantage as I barreled through, burning and maiming everything that moved. Now, kinder and gentler, I simply waited for her to accept what she'd seen.

A moment later, her window opened.

"Holy crap. You're a dragon," she whispered.

"Are you packed?" I asked her.

"Well, yeah," Emily said. "I mean I figured it was a fifty-fifty chance Jason told you where I live or something. I just didn't think--"

"You'll want a coat," I said. "The air gets colder by two degrees Celsius for every thousand feet you go up. Then there's the wind-chill. . ."

"Okay," Emily said. She went to her closet, then looked back at me, eyes still wide. She flipped several hangers until she found what she was looking for.

Now clad in a pea coat, Emily donned her backpack and popped out her window screen.

"My folks will ask questions if I go downstairs. Also, I need to text Jeremy to see if he'll pick up my schedule tomorrow. I lost my phone somewhere, though."

I spread the first and second fingers of my left hand, where'd I'd held the phone in flight. It dropped onto the windowsill.

"Curmudgeon's," I said, then turned my head so that my neck was even with her window. "I want you to know this is something few people have ever experienced. Normally only wizards of great power and--"

"Hang on, I'm almost done," Emily said, and I heard an electronic swooshing sound as her phone sent the text. "Sorry."

Then I felt her soft, tiny hand against my scales. Then a leg. Then the other hand and the other leg. She pressed her body against the back of my neck and slid down a bit to rest just above my wings.

"Sorry about earlier too," she whispered. "I didn't think dragons were real."

"That's the idea," I said. "It just means some relationships take a bit longer to get going in the right direction."

I stepped out into the open yard, spread my wings, and leapt into the cool night air.

"Did you hear a scream?" Emily's dad asked as we flew away. "It sounded like it came from the back yard."

We passed out of Louisville's city lights in less than two minutes. I watched the deer at Taylorsville Lake, bright pink auras pulsing around them as they drank. I soared up and over the flashing anti-collision lights of a National Guard helicopter out on a night training flight.

"It would've been a lot windier if I'd gone under it," I yelled back to Emily.

We swept over the lights of Hardinsburg, then Richmond. I looked to my left and saw Lexington fading into the distance as I flew south and east. The towns got smaller, the lights became fewer, and the hills started to rise.

I set down at the edge of a cliff that overlooked a river bed. Tall grass billowed out as I flared my wings and stepped gracefully back onto the earth.

"We'll make camp here," I said.

"But Jason--"

"--will be fine until morning," I said. "I'm going to have enough to worry about without you falling into a chasm in the dark."

I pulled a birch from the ground, roots and all, and laid it horizontally across the lowest branches of its neighbors. Then, I uprooted several pine saplings and hooked their roots over the horizontal birch, so that their tops hung diagonally on the ground. I added a few more saplings for insulation, then swiped two claws into the dirt at the opening of the shelter. A few snapped and shredded bits of kindling later, and I spread my wings to hide the light from any distant observers. I blew fire onto the dry wood.

"This will keep you warm and dry," I said. "Don't build the fire higher than the mouth of the hole though, okay? It gets air through the little tunnel I dug to connect them. If you make it too high other people will see it."

"Where are you going?"

"I need to do reconnaissance. Rolothon clearly has a plan for me that doesn't involve my leaving with Jason. It'll be easier for me to approach in the dark."

"What about bears, then?" Emily asked. "I think I just heard a coyote."

"Right," I said, and snapped an ash tree off at its base. I split the end with a claw to give it four points and stuck it into the dirt next to the fire. "The fire will bake the wood and make it strong."

"Are you making a spear?" Emily asked, appalled. "I can't spear a bear! Or what if it's a whole pack of coyotes?"

I sighed. People are so fragile.

"Fine," I said. I dug a rough circle in the dirt around her camp with one of my hind-claws. "God didn't do you any favors by depriving you of scales and talons."

"Or immortality, wings, and fiery death-breath," Emily added. "Don't go throwing your dragon privilege in my face."

I pierced my left palm with a claw, and let the blood fall into the narrow trench.

"Falaka Vlar'el Numia," I whispered. Then, to Emily, said, "No bears or coyotes, or incubi for that matter, will harm you as long as you stay in there. I can't help you with cherubim."

"What's an incubi?"

"Incubus. It's something you don't want to deal with right now. Just don't leave the circle."

Then I dropped off the cliff and flared my wings before landing next to the river.

Now, far enough away from Emily's watermelon scent, I sniffed the air.

Brimstone? I sniffed again. No--not the real stuff. Just a sulfur deposit.

I smelled muskrat musk and a rotting carcass, but nothing that had Jason's. . . tang. Bats swooped and squeaked, their auras playing out an aerial circus that most men would never see.

I slipped invisibly into the spectral realm. The energy of living things ebbed and tossed around me, but they had no knowledge of my passing. Trees whispered to me of the nonsense things trees always do when they're young. The ancient redwoods or a quaking aspen colony like Pando, in Utah, generally have something worth talking about, but never the new growth.

Streams of disassociated life force hissed around me like a breeze. Mosquitoes and fireflies eaten in flight, a rabbit killed by a coyote, and a vole caught by an owl as it looked for food now whirled and dissipated in the ether.

"Light, hm, yes, the new light," a spruce tree said.

"Warden lights of the caveman," said the next.

"What's that?" I asked the trees. "What caveman?"

"Shielding things and traps aplenty," said another.

"Did someone set a magical trap nearby?" I asked, but they seemed not to hear me.

"Swirly light shield and deathly death-traps," said the first spruce.

Nonsensical. Every one of them.

Then, as I walked further up the river, I saw it: a glowing curtain that extended upward to the heavens. It stretched outward from the cliff face, across the river bed, and into the trees. The Cavern of the Moon was just ahead, and this was clearly where Rolothon had established his perimeter.

No sneaking this way anymore.

The air wouldn't carry me here, since there is no air in the spectral plane. I couldn't breathe fire, or breathe at all for that matter, but it was irrelevant since I moved in the space between breaths while fully spectral. As long as I kept my mass partially in the physical world, as I did in my disguise, I felt the passage of time. Now, though, I existed apart from it. I looked as far as I could into the tree line, but couldn't see where the ward ended. It was magic similar to what I'd used to protect Emily, but not one I knew how to bypass.

I stepped back into the realm of flesh.

Instantly, I felt an explosion to my left. My scales deflected the tiny shards of

shrapnel, but the flash blinded me temporarily.

Rolothon must have stepped up to using motion-sensing IEDs. Charming.

I staggered back, hearing the whir of servo motors aiming motion-sensing, thermal-

sighted machine guns down at me from the mouth of the cave. 7.62mm bullets erupted from their muzzles like a swarm of angry hornets. With that many rounds, even my scales wouldn't stand a chance, and my wings would be shredded. In the instant between the whir of the motors and the first bullet's impact, I snapped back into the spectral plane.

Automated machine guns and IEDs. That must be the trees' "deathly death-traps."

I backtracked downstream and shifted into the physical world. Bullets sprayed rocks and water from the streambed where I'd been an instant before, but I was out of their line of sight. The servos whirred for several more seconds as they searched for me, then went silent.

I leapt into the air, flapped several times, and looked down at the cave from a thousand feet up. I soared over it, came down on the other side, and slipped into my spectral form.

The ward curved around and met me on the upstream side of the cave entrance also.

"Two dragons now," a tree whispered.

"Two dragons too many," whispered another.

"What do you mean by 'two dragons'?" I asked them, but the trees said nothing further.

I cursed, got a safe distance away, and became flesh again.

"I heard an explosion," Emily said when I returned to camp, "and guns. Did you get hurt?"

"Everything's fine. We're going to have to come up with a better plan than what I'm used to."

"Did you see Jason?"

"No," I said, and explained about the ward, the IEDs, and the machine guns.

"Oh," Emily said. "The fire went out. I've never really--"

"That's alright. I'll keep the cold at bay. Try to get some sleep."

I settled over the trench where I'd spilt my blood earlier, and wrapped my tail completely around her shelter so that it met my neck. I lay like an ouroboros without an appetite. I opened a protective wing to cover the pine roof I'd made earlier, nearly forming a cocoon around Emily while leaving a small gap for air.

I closed my eyes and, exhausted, started to drift.

"Arnold?" Emily whispered.

"Yes?"

"You're not very good at being alone, are you?"

"No," I said. "I guess I'm not."

She didn't say anything else, and I heard deeper breathing several minutes later.

My mind drifted to the first human I'd adopted, Margeth the Cripple.

Margeth had fallen prey to bandits on the road from Borea after her family died in a plague. She'd limped her way to the border of Hyperborea, penniless, hungry, and nearly dead, but found the Hyperboreans somewhat less hospitable than the legends made them out to be. They tolerated her in their midst--barely--until the day they caught her stealing food from one of their collective farms.

I'd lived at the outskirts of Hyperborea for three decades, and they'd come into the custom of chaining their criminals to a tree near my cave as an alternative to my raiding their herds.

"What've you done?" I asked her. "You don't look like much of a meal."

Even before the bandits beat her half to death, Margeth's left arm and leg had twisted with the onset of the disease that had orphaned her. She'd grown pale and thin from hiding in the shadows with no food.

"I stole something," she said.

"Stole what?"

"Half a loaf of day-old bread and some fruit."

"That doesn't seem like it's worth killing you over," I said. "Usually they bring me meaty thugs and murderers. You're nothing but a sack of bones."

"It's going to happen anyway, soon," she said. "Please just make it quick."

Margeth closed her eyes and waited. She didn't tense up like some of them did.

She opened her eyes only when she heard the chains break and fall away from the tree. She nearly collapsed from hunger, but managed to keep her feet.

"Wait inside the cave," I told her. "Water comes from the ceiling into a pool. You can drink and wash yourself. I'll be back soon, with food."

"You're not going to eat me?"

"I don't think I'm going to eat anyone ever again, except possibly the King of Hyperborea," I said. Then I leapt into the sky in search of a yak herd.

I stopped eating their criminals. The Hyperboreans didn't know I'd spared Margeth, of course, but they did notice when I started stealing their livestock again.

That was when the seven knights showed up at my cave.

After I'd crushed six of their charred corpses into dust and dropped Rolothon's battered body in a nearby stream, I visited the Hyperborean palace.

"You won't be safe here anymore," I said to Margeth when I returned. She'd gained weight, and a soft light had come back into her eyes. I found a crack in the side of Mount Klennai where no road went and no man could scale. I hid her in it.

Prince Hylor III was away when I burned the palace, so he became king in his father's stead. Hylor III was cruel, as his father had been, and raised taxes on his people. He threw many wild parties and ignored justice. He ignored the appeals of his people.

Many kingdoms have vanished into the dust of time from mismanagement. Surely I helped Hyperborea on its way, but I didn't help much.

Margeth was the last person to die of old age in Hyperborea before global cooling made it inhospitable. On her deathbed, as she drifted away, she whispered, "I can still see you, Vlar'el. I can't see anything else, but I can still see you."

Her aura faded, and I knew she'd left me alone again.

It took another hundred years and a wizard that thought I was his pet as much as I knew he was mine before I understood what she'd seen. I trained the wizard to find gold for me, and he trained me to disappear from reality.

Then he died too, and I spent a year wallowing in self-pitying isolation before I found another pet.

Now, I drifted off to sleep listening to the beat of Emily's heart, watching her aura pulse under my wing.

Emily pulled a dark green t-shirt down over her bra just as the sun peeked over the tops of the trees. She turned as I looked over my tail, and I found that this shirt also had a drawing of a sun on it.

"The sun symbol's the same," I said. "Is it a brand of allegiance, or family crest of some sort?"

"They were on clearance and I needed clean clothes, okay? Don't judge me," Emily said. She pulled a toothbrush and bottled water out of her pack.

"If you're hungry, I can--" I said.

"I ate a fruit and nut bar," she said. "I'm a vegetarian. I read Jason's blog about your meat obsession, so I came prepared. What's the plan?"

"I did a recon last night," I said. "Rolothon brought some serious hardware this time, and he's built up heavy defenses against me sneaking in. Meeting on his terms will probably get Jason and/or me killed."

"Could he kill you?"

"My scales are pretty thick, but yes. The vorpal blade he carries is enchanted with preternatural sharpness. It never loses its edge."

"Can't you just breathe fire on his guns to get past them?"

"I don't breathe napalm," I said. "My fire has much less range than those guns do. I guess I could drop a boulder on them from the air, but then he'd be on high alert inside the cave, and I might even manage to trigger a cave-in on Jason."

Emily looked up at me, studying me for a moment.

"If it comes down to you or Jason," she said, "I'm saving Jason."

"Me too," I said, "but I think I have a plan that can save both of us."

Emily hiked down the narrow cliff-side path that led the cave's mouth. She tried to avoid looking down to her right, where the river foamed white over boulders two hundred feet below. She'd tried to make herself feel safer by holding on to a cluster of vines that hung down the cliff, but they'd come away in her hand and she'd almost fallen.

"Hello?" she yelled when she was almost to the cave. "Can you help me?"

I'd cautioned her to go no further until she got a response from Rolothon, since I couldn't chance her getting riddled with bullets. I watched from my hiding place as she nearly rounded the corner into one of the guns' firing sectors.

"Hello?" she yelled again. "There's a thing in the woods! Is someone there?"

She poked her head around the corner.

The gun covering that sector whirred to life, locking on instantly to her motion and thermal signature.

Emily!

Before it could fire, though, the gun abruptly deactivated. Rolothon stepped into the light, scanning his surroundings with a Fabrique Nationale SCAR 17 at high ready. The modular special forces assault rifle was a step up from an M16 or other run-of-the-mill weaponry. I noticed he'd mounted an FN 40 grenade launcher on the bottom rail as well, and wore body armor with pouches for extra magazines and airburst grenades on it. He'd hung his vorpal sword over his back, but it seemed Rolothon meant to do his dragon-slaying from a distance if possible.

He looked up, scanning the cloudless sky, but did not see me.

Satisfied finally that Emily was alone, he lowered the SCAR.

"Who are you?" he asked. "What are you doing out here?"

"There was a monster," she said, "I got separated from my friends, and--"

"A monster?" Rolothon said, "What did it look like?"

"It was huge," Emily said, playing a great breathless damsel. "I thought it was a big red dinosaur, but it had these wings, and it breathed fire! I think--"

"Come inside," Rolothon said, "quickly. If it's what set off my traps last night, I've been waiting for it."

Emily took several steps, then pretended to roll her ankle on a patch of uneven ground. Rolothon checked his surroundings again, then walked to Emily and helped her to her feet.

"Lean on me," Rolothon said. "I'll get you inside where it's safe."

The mouth of the Cavern of the Moon stretches roughly fifty feet across and twenty feet high. Several hundred years ago, when I first came to this part of the world, a powerful underground river had emptied through that mouth into the chasm and the river below. As the hydrography changed, that underground river dissipated to a trickle, leaving the cave in its wake. Before I'd migrated west, I'd seen a coven of witches use the cave as shelter, then a gang of moonshiners, then a family fortunate enough to find it during the Great Depression.

Rolothon helped Emily hobble through this immense opening as she winced in feigned agony. Ever cautious, he reached into a pocket with his free hand for a remote control to re-arm the automated guns. At this exact moment though, Emily stumbled again, placing a hand in the middle of Rolothon's chest.

Forgetting the remote control for a moment, Rolothon used both hands to support her as they hobbled inside together.

"Thank you," Emily said between pained breaths. "I'm so glad I found you."

Once they'd disappeared into the shadows, I folded my wings and free-fell toward the mouth of the cave. Having positioned myself three thousand feet up directly between Rolothon and the sun, I'd hidden myself in its blinding light. Even if he'd used a thermal sight on his SCAR, it would've proven useless.

Soldiers with parachutes call it a HALO jump--High Altitude, Low Opening. It's used when you don't want to be detected or shot in the air, but you also don't want to crash into the ground. I'd been using my wings a lot longer than mankind had had parachutes, so flaring my wings at the last possible instant was more a matter of instinct than calculated timing. I stepped gracefully onto the cliff at the mouth of the cave and shrank back from the realm of flesh as much as I could without going fully spectral. Small as a mouse, I hid behind a rock next to one of the gun tripods. I had to keep riding time downstream.

A bright flashlight swung around from inside the cave.

"What is it?" I heard Emily whisper from far ahead in the tunnel.

"The light at the mouth went dim for a second," Rolothon said. "Dragon wings would do that. Hold on a moment, I still need to re-arm the guns."

To my left and right, I heard the M240B machine guns power up again. They did a quick scan of their sectors before reverting back to idle mode, and the flashlight turned back away from the mouth.

I stepped out into the physical realm until I was roughly man-sized, and hugged the wall of the tunnel as I crept along behind Emily and Rolothon. Ahead, Rolothon's headlamp illuminated the tunnel. He slapped something on his body armor, and a pair of flashlights he'd mounted there turned on.

The tunnel twisted and turned back on itself, as the underground river had once chosen the least-resistive limestone to wash away. Several times I watched Rolothon turn and check behind them, during which I shrank back to being barely visible once again. He didn't seem jumpy, though--just cautious.

Up we went until the tunnel widened and a soft glow lit the path. Rolothon switched off his headlamp and flashlights.

"What's this?" a voice asked. "Did you bring me food?"

That voice. . .

"She's not for you," Rolothon said. "She saw Vlar'el last night. I want to get an idea of where."

"She stinks of him," the voice rasped. "She stinks of Vlar'el and watermelon mate-attractant."

I knew that voice. Yagr'el.

Apex predators--dragons, for instance--are extremely territorial, since so few are needed at the top of a food chain in a given area. When they don't hunt in packs, and are born of the fires of the earth rather than by typical mating rituals, they may go their entire lives without seeing more than one or two others. Everyone knew Yagr'el, though. Yagr'el, the great green dragon, the largest and most merciless of our race, showed up in so many legends that I thought one of the dragon-slayer stories that depicted his death had to be true.

Like fishermen, frat boys and hunters, dragon-slayers often exaggerate their success.

"He's near," Rolothon said. "Once we take his head to Fort Knox, I'll have avenged my king and you'll have all the gold you can carry."

"I want his hoard," Yagr'el rasped, "not just a bunch of bars from a gold repository. He has things in that pile that are literally priceless. If you'd pressed the boy harder, maybe we could've assaulted him at his own lair."

"If I'd pressed the boy harder, I would've killed him," Rolothon said.

"No loss," Yagr'el said, "as long as Vlar'el comes to us."

"I won't spill innocent blood," Rolothon said.

"You didn't seem to mind me eating a herd of soldier hatchlings."

"It was necessary," Rolothon said. "I needed weapons from the government arsenal, and you wanted their gold. We had to provoke them to get the old men to open their vaults. I'm just glad none of them got you on film. Your scales aren't exactly red, and there would be questions when I brought a different-colored--"

"You talk a lot," Yagr'el hissed, "and I've grown hungry. If Vlar'el is on his way here, I'm not so sure I need you anyway. Give me the girl, or feed me with your own flesh."

Rolothon ripped the grenade pouches from his body armor and tossed them into a corner--a wise move, since regardless of the Nomex coveralls he wore, dragon-fire would surely set off the grenades and blow him to pieces. He raised the SCAR 17 to meet Yagr'el's malevolent gaze.

"I've killed five dragons in my hunt for Vlar'el," he said. "Each one gets easier. You're so predictable."

"Wait," Emily said. "Please, wait. I just think that--"

"Emily?" Jason's voice echoed from somewhere further in the cave. "Is that you?"

"Who is Emily?" Yagr'el rasped, then cocked his head at her. "They know each other? You've let a spy in, fool."

Yagr'el took a deep breath, and exhaled blue flame. The fire arced across the ceiling of the cave as I darted from my hiding place, now fully flesh, and dug my teeth and talons into the scales of his neck.

Rolothon, smart enough not to enrage two dragons at him simultaneously, did not shoot at either of us. Instead, he slung the SCAR 17, grabbed Emily by the neck, and put the edge of the vorpal sword to her throat.

Yagr'el, more powerful than me by a third, kicked me away, lacerating my right leg with his hind talons.

"You've never learned to love the little pink monkeys," I said. "They're not bad once you get to know them."

"You're a barbarian," Yagr'el rasped. "I couldn't converse with my food and still eat it."

Yagr'el whipped his tail at me, catching me in the midsection. I crashed into the cave wall and dislodged a stalactite in the process. I rolled away just in time to keep it from crushing my head. He leapt at me even as I rolled. The cave wasn't huge, so our melee felt about like an MMA fight in your living room. We nearly tumbled over Rolothon and Emily, but Rolothon pulled her out of harm's way even as I braced a wing against the cave's ceiling to keep from crushing them. At the last instant, Rolothon pulled back with the vorpal sword and thrust it at my neck. Seeing this, I pulled Yagr'el's wing so that the vorpal sword cut into one of his bones.

Yagr'el howled in rage, ripping the vorpal sword from Rolothon's hand. It skittered across the floor of the cave and into the shadows. Yagr'el whipped his tail in Rolothon's direction while swiping at me with his claws.

He hasn't spent much time with humans, so he probably hasn't learned from them, either. He may not know the things I know.

"The trees outside told me to expect you," I said. "They warned me there was another dragon."

"You talk to trees now, too? You are pathetic, you little red runt."

I stepped backward into the spectral plane, and time froze. Yagr'el's gray glowing form stood still in the center of the cave, lashing out in my direction. If he knew about this place, he'd step out of the stream any second.

But he didn't. If he had ever come here, he would know the trees were the loudest creatures of all. He didn't, because he'd never heard them speak.

I walked behind him and phased back into flesh.

"-ere did he go?" Yagr'el snapped. "What sort of magic is this?"

"Behind you!" Rolothon shouted, discarding Emily and pulling the SCAR back to his shoulder. He snapped off two quick shots at me, missing as I dodged Yagr'el's claws. As the bullets ricocheted off the ceiling of the cave, Yagr'el swiped at Rolothon with his tail. Rolothon flew into the cave wall and landed in a heap, unconscious. It wouldn't last long, though, I knew.

"They all die now, runt," Yagr'el said. "I'll find your hoard with or without the little soldier boy."

"I think your chances are going downhill pretty qui--" I said, but Yagr'el interrupted me with another swipe. I dodged under his arm, circling him.

He wouldn't use fire on me, I knew. It would be pointless. We were both born in fire. I had to get him to open his mouth, though, for my new plan to work.

I stepped fully into the spectral plane, then walked away from Yagr'el and found Jason's glowing energy in a small recess that joined the main cave. Here, I poked my head through the veil just enough to listen to time passing.

"If you won't stop running," Yagr'el said, "you can watch them burn first."

"Jason," I whispered, "I need you to do something. Can you stand up?"

"I think so," Jason said. He sat upright on the cot, his face bruised from Rolothon's interrogation.

I quickly explained my plan to him.

"Last chance, red dragon," Yagr'el said. "The woman clothed with the sun is about to burn."

I heard Yagr'el suck in a lungful of oxygen-rich air.

I heard Emily whimper, in what she must have felt was her final moment.

I withdrew from the stream, and became fully spectral once again.

In the main chamber of the cavern, Yagr'el's frozen, glowing form stood poised to deliver Emily to agonizing, burning death. He stood with his head reared back, his mouth wide open. I'd phased out just before the blue flames would have consumed her.

I spun, cramming my spiked, spectral tail down Yagr'el's spectral throat.

I stepped back into the material realm, and instantly felt the pain of teeth clamping down on my tail. Nonetheless, I whipped my tail with all the strength I could muster, and heard the snapping of bones in Yagr'el's neck.

"Holy crap," Emily said.

"I learned about the spectral plane from a girl much like you," I said. "Yagr'el never bonded with people, and it made him weaker than he realized."

Jason and Emily helped me pry his jaws from my tail. I pulled it free, though the wounds from Yagr'el's teeth oozed blood on the cave floor. Jason, now armed with Rolothon's vorpal sword, began the arduous process of cutting off Yagr'el's head.

Vorpal swords are sharp, but Yagr'el had a big, big head.

Rolothon stirred, and found Yagr'el's lifeless eyes looking back at him.

"The crown," I said. Emily pulled it from her backpack and handed it to me. I tossed it in Rolothon's lap. "I don't want to eat you. I've killed many of your kind. You've killed five of mine. Take the crown, and stop chasing me. Hylor II was a bigger monster than Yagr'el ever was. You have to know that if you worked for him. The kingdom is gone. You're under no obligation to avenge him now."

"I--" Rolothon said, clutching the crown. He reached for his SCAR, but found that we'd stripped him of his weapons and body armor. He sagged against the cave wall. "My whole life--"

"--is ahead of you," Jason said.

Rolothon said nothing. The hate in his eyes faded into resignation.

"Take Yagr'el's head back to your Army friends," I said. "Get whatever they promised you. We're taking your weapons, though, including the sword. Good luck finding someone that can forge another."

"I've nowhere to--" Rolothon stammered, and I finally saw him for the poor, directionless sap that he was. He'd pursued me for millennia because he simply couldn't think of another thing to do with immortality than the last quest he'd set himself on.

"I have an idea," I said. "I know a writer who's horrible at coming up with his own ideas."

"Hey!"' Jason said.

"You are pretty terrible," I said. "Emily's the only one that reads your blog."

"You do?" he asked.

"Only so I can figure out if you're alive or not," she said.

"You care if I'm alive?" he asked. His eyes filled with a misty affection that almost made me throw up on the cave floor.

"You, on the other hand," I said to Rolothon, "have no creative talent. You do, however, hold the secret to a diet that's kept you alive for longer than any other human being."

"I went gluten-free," he said.

"Told you," Emily said.

"Seriously," I said, "I'm offering you a way back to humanity. It seems like the only two marketable skills you have are living a long time and embarrassing yourself trying to kill me."

"Leaders," Rolothon said. "Plants have leaders. They're not always the biggest, but they secrete enzymes that tell the others how to grow. They fight battles with other species for light and soil space. The enzymes extend life in mammals."

"How do you find them? Do you use a truffle-hunting pig or something?"

"It takes practice," he said. "You have to look for the causal point of fractal growth."

"That sounds like it could take a whole book to explain," I said. "You and Jason can write a foraging guide/fad diet cookbook together, and maybe even your memoirs. Deal?"

"I don't think--" Rolothon protested.

"Great," I said. "We have a deal then. Also, these two are taking your bike, so you'll have to hitchhike across the state with a dragon head. Good luck."

"I've never ridden a motorcycle," Jason said. He looked at Emily.

"Me neither," Emily said, shaking her head at me.

"It's a great time to learn," I said. "My tail needs to heal, and you two clearly have some weird friend-zone issues to either work out or part ways or something. I'm not carrying either of you."

Problems solved. My work here was done.

I gathered Rolothon's weapons, limped to the cave mouth, and grabbed the machine guns at the entrance as well. Then, gritting my teeth from the pain, I leapt into the air and flew out of their sight.

I hung out by the cave mouth long enough to make sure Jason and Emily found Rolothon's bike, and that Jason didn't flip it with the first twist of the throttle.

Epilogue

Five months later, I heard rapping at my door.

"We're getting married," Jason said when I opened the door.

"Finally," I said. "You look good."

"We wanted to see if you'd get dinner with us," Emily said. She'd replaced the raccoon-level eyeliner with subtler makeup.

"Where are we going?" I asked.

"There's this great steakhouse," Jason said. "It's walking distance, so we figured--"

"Yeah, that sounds fine," I said. "I just need to feed my rabbit first."

They looked at each other, apparently now in the mating stage we-share-each-other's-thoughts-and-no-one's-ever-been-so-in-love-before.

"We can go somewhere else if you want to," Jason said. "Emily's still a vegetarian, but we thought you might like it."

"It's fine," I said. "I can eat anywhere. I'll just get a salad or something. I'll be right back."

At dinner, Jason told me he'd gotten a huge advance on the book he'd written with Rolothon. The book was to be published the following summer in hardback, multiple e-reader platforms, and audio.

"We got a mathematician on board too," Jason said. "He's getting a paper on Rolothon's fractal pattern deconstruction peer-reviewed. Apparently, every time something ate the leader in a plot of turnips in his lab, a new leader emerged and the fractal pattern changed from that leader's direction. It has the potential to open up a new branch of chaos theory and forecasting."

Emily glowed with pride in her fixer-upper fiancé, possibly unaware of the work she'd done on him.

"They're calling it Leaders Taste Better," she said. "Catchy, isn't it?"

I looked down at my salad, wondering how much of it was made up of leader-vegetables. I remembered the trees, warning me of impending danger. I wondered a bit too long what the spinach on my plate might have said to me if I'd listened closely enough, and put down my fork.

Too much introspection will kill you.


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