CHAPTER ONE - WITH A BANG
The black dragon flew through the peerless blue sky above Reach City’s soaring towers. This flight took place at high noon, which was rare. Dragon King Valerius seemed to prefer moonlight flights where his massive scaled body was silvered by starlight and he could stretch out his wings against the bone white moon.
But this flight during the day was going to make Caden Bryce’s life much easier. It meant the tourists would be jazzed to buy more merchandise. Wally, the owner of Wally Nutt’s Emporium of Rare and Exotic Goods and Caden’s boss, promised a bonus to the employee who could sell the most black dragon plushies during this 30th Anniversary of the Great Awakening and Caden was game to win it.
With a grin, Caden grabbed an armful of black dragon plushies and walked out into the massive crowd of tourists who had flocked to Dragon Strike Square. They were there to catch sight of Valerius or maybe even take a picture of the Dragon King circling High Reach, the castle at the top of the mountain where he reigned. His appearance was causing people to hoot with delight and, hopefully, lighting the flame of materialism in their breasts to take a souvenir.
“Plushies! Get your Dragon King Valerius plushies right here!” Caden called, holding up one of the soft two-foot long stuffed animals in the air and twisted it this way and that to show it off.
A middle-aged woman with unfortunately highlighted hair turned towards him with an “O” of excitement on her lips. She was already turning red from the sun. Likely she was one of those people who had been there since the early morning hoping to see the Dragon King. Many people traveled from the far corners of the kingdom to see Valerius and the 30th Anniversary put dragon sighting up at a fever pitch. Some even came from one of the other seven kingdoms to simply catch sight of the most powerful of the Dragon Shifters that now ruled their world.
“I’ll have three plushies please. Oh, make it four! So many people at home will want one! They’re so cute and -- oh, it’s not sacrilegious to say they’re cute, is it?” She froze as she was opening her massive purse to get money to pay him, clearly, realizing what she had said.
“New member of the Shifter Faith?” Caden asked, keeping his voice as low as he could in the roaring crowd. Evidently, Valerius had spit fire into the air, which was causing a practical frenzy in the tourists.
Excellent job, your majesty. You’re keeping the crowd happy. A few loops might not be unwarranted. That will really get them going.
The woman’s pudgy hand went up to the silver chain around her neck and clasped the pendant on it. The pendant was a stylized sun with wavy lines. It represented the Spirits who, when they joined with human souls, turned humans into Shifters.
“Yes, I am. How did you know?” she asked.
“Your necklace.” He nodded towards it.
Her expression became crestfallen. “Oh, I hoped that --”
“And you have that special -- special glow about you,” he lied to spare her feelings.
“Really?” She brightened immediately. Her hand tightened on the pendant. “I have been feeling … well, feeling different since I joined the Faith.”
“Like the Spirits are all around you?” he guessed, his smile become a little pained.
She nodded vigorously. “Yes, exactly like that!”
Caden repressed a sigh. He knew a lot of these people like this woman. They joined the Faith because they hoped that would mean they or someone in their family would be chosen by the Spirits to become a Shifter. His mother was a believer and complained about this woman’s type all the kind. According to her, they cheapened the Faith, because they wanted something out of it. Whenever she brought up this argument, his father would remark dryly that people joined every faith to get something out of it like an afterlife in paradise, material riches, etcetera. Caden would always then point out that at least the Shifter Faith gave you eternal life and material riches in this life for certain. No faith required. So he didn’t blame this woman for wanting the jackpot in life.
Caden wasn’t sure what he believed himself. In some ways it seemed worshipping the Spirits was like worshipping gravity. For thirty years, the whole of humanity had known that the Spirits existed. They knew that spirits could change mortal humans into immortal Shifters. Science couldn’t figure out why some Spirits turned certain people into werewolves, others into big cats or even others into snakes, rats or plagues of locusts, not to mention the formerly thought mythological creatures like phoenixes, sphinxes, unicorns, and, of course, dragons. But, in the end, he was pretty sure that scientists would figure it out in the end. Maybe the scientists would even be able to determine how to lure the Spirit to a person to join with them and choose the type of Shifter they would be.
“What type of Shifter would you be if you had a choice?” Caden asked her, suddenly curious what she hoped to be.
She put a finger to her lips, her eyes glittering with the possibilities. “Oh, that’s so hard to say!”
“A werewolf?” he teased.
Almost every werewolf joined the military or police. The plump, soft woman in front of him was ill-suited to that sort of life.
She tittered. “Oh, I don’t think so! But I am a paralegal so … perhaps a Raven Shifter?”
All Raven Shifters were lawyers or judges. His father complained that because of their immortality and the fact that Shifters no longer had to “retire” to avoid people noticing that they didn’t age, that the profession was now stuffed full of Shifters, leaving no room for humans to join their ranks. And who would want a mortal helping them when they only had many fifty good years to master a profession while a Shifter had forever?
“That would be cool, I’m sure. But I wonder … I wonder about the people who end up being the type of Shifter that they don’t want to be,” he found himself saying.
But this woman, evidently, had no fear of that happening to her. She sniffed superiorly. “Everyone knows that your personality is what determines what kind of Shifter you are. It’s not like a good person could become a Rat Shifter or, ugh, a Snake Shifter.”
Caden found his sympathy towards this woman waning. She made it seem so simplistic. Good person equaled good type of Shifter. But bad person? Well, they would be revealed in the end. But the pressure to conform, Caden imagined, was strong. When a person became a Shifter they were sent to a Clan of the same kind. So if you happened to become a snake, rat or a plagues of insects, that person was sent to one of those Clans. The Snake, Rat and Insect Clans were full of criminals, or at least, thought shady, just as the werewolves were considered fine military stock. So what choice would a person really have if they were surrounded by criminals, rejected by their human friends and family as all Shifters were, and expected by everyone to become a thug? Caden was pretty damned sure that person would become a thug. It would take a force of will to be anything else.
He caught sight of Dragon King Valerius flying over head again, this time lower, almost dive-bombing the layer cake-like city of Reach. His wingspan was longer than four city buses. There were massive horns on the tip of his snout and jutting back from a head the size of a house. His long black tail whipped behind him as he circled the entire stronghold of Reach. There were ooohs and ahhhhs.
You’re earning your keep, your majesty.
Valerius was handsome - more like beautiful - in his human form. But his dragon one was awe-inspiring even to someone as jaded as Caden who saw him flying every night on his way home from work.
“I wonder what it would be like finding out you’re a Dragon Shifter,” he murmured.
The woman looked up at Valerius speculatively. “Few would know. Only eight of them exist, right? There are more sphinxes than dragons!” She sighed then and fanned her reddening face as the sun in that clear blue sky beat down upon her. “But it’s probably best there are only eight Dragon Shifters. The world’s already carved up like a pie for each of them anyways. Imagine what would happen if there was another one!”
“Yeah, you’re right. It would be chaos,” Caden agreed with a nod of his head.
The woman was looking at him hopefully again. “So … about those plushies … you don’t think they would be sacrilegious, do you?”
He smiled. “Don’t worry, ma’am. It’s completely respectful. Dragon King Valerius supports our efforts.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful to hear! I’ll take them all then!”
She thrust a bunch of twenty dollar bills with Valerius’ image upon them into his hand after he quoted her the price. The Dragon King’s face - strong jaw covered with a closely shorn beard, intense eyes and dark hair tumbling to his shoulders - stared up at him from his palm. Was it an accusing stare? Because what he’d told her about Valerius supporting them wasn’t exactly true. It wasn’t exactly false either. Wally said often enough that if Valerius had a problem with the selling of plushies or any other Shifter merchandise, the king could very well fly down to Dragon Strike Square and tell him about it. Since he hadn’t, Wally was going to sell the hell out of it. Besides it was nice for the tourists to have something to take back besides pictures of the Dragon King, though the Emporium sold those, too, and much better than the blurry, out of focus photos that the tourists managed to snap on their cellphones.
He gave the woman a last smile, folded the notes and put them in his pocket, ready to hand over to Wally as soon as he got back to the store. Delighted with her purchase, the woman toddled away with two bags full of plushies. Caden raced back to the Emporium, feeling like he might just win the plushie bonus money.
Caden was able to sell over two dozen plushes in three trips before Valerius landed on the large courtyard outside High Reach and transformed back into his humanoid form. Dragon Strike Square was two layers down from High Reach so they were too far away to see Valerius’ human form. The tourists groaned.
Caden wondered if the people in the Sky Garden could see Valerius’ naked body when he touched down and transformed back into his human form. The Sky Garden was just below the castle and it was where the richest and most powerful Shifters and humans lived along with Reach University. Dragon Strike Square and the Emporium were on the middle layer, simply referred to as the Mid. This was also where most middle class people lived. Shifters mostly occupied South and East Reach while humans were in North and West Reach. His family lived in West Reach. Below the Mid was the ground level of the city where the working poor and a lot of industry was located. This was called Low Reach. And finally, there was the Below, which was underneath the city itself. This was where a lot of criminal Shifter underground and the poorest of the poor lived far from the sky and the view of Dragon King Valerius.
“Is that it? It’s the Great Awakening! Please tell me we didn’t drive eight hours for one flight!” One mother of three cried. She looked hot and sweaty and exhausted from taking care of three rambunctious boys who had only been quiet when the Dragon King was flying.
Caden took pity on her and said with a sympathetic smile, “No, he’ll fly every hour until sunset. At least that’s what he did on the 25th anniversary.”
Her three boys started shouting with joy. She gave him a genuine smile.
“Thank you so much for letting us know,” she told him. “I’ll just take the boys for an ice cream while we wait for him to return.”
He nodded. “Fluorno’s has the best. It’s on the southwest corner.”
He pointed towards the shop with the brilliant white sign with red letters. She smiled again and headed towards it, her boys trailing after her like the tail of a kite. The Emporium had ice cream, too, but it was not the freshly made, gloriously creamy stuff that Flurno’s had. Even if there was an incentive to sell ice cream, he wouldn’t have even tried to compete. Besides he was first in the plushies.
Speaking of which, I need to get some more.
He headed back to the deliciously air conditioned interior of the Emporium. The Emporium filled the first floor of an impressive blue stone building. The gold lettering that arched above the half-moon shaped door proclaimed that there was no better place for Dragon King Souvenirs! The shop though looked pretty empty at the moment as most of the tourists were outside, not wanting to miss a single instance of Valerius flying, but they would wander in after they realized Valerius wasn’t coming out for awhile.
Caden pulled open one of the brass handled doors and stepped into the enveloping coolness. But he soon forgot the air condition as the first thing he saw was a gigantic black balloon dragon perched atop Wally’s very round head. He blinked. The balloon dragon turned towards him when Wally turned to face him. He wasn’t sure if he should stare at the balloon dragon’s face or Wally’s. His boss was only five feet and that was when he wore his lifted shoes so it was actually easier to look at the balloon dragon’s face than Wally’s considering Caden was just shy of six feet. Wally’s whole body reminded Caden of a tiny snowman’s: round legs, round torso, round head and now a hat on top! He repressed a snicker.
“Hey! Put one of these on! The kids will love them and bring their parents into the store!” Wally’s gruff voice called as shoved another of the balloon dragon hats into Caden’s hands.
“I refused to wear one,” Landry said from her perch behind the checkout counter. She was nineteen, only three years younger than him, but acted as if she was as old as Valerius. The classic adult in a teenager’s body with a rapier wit and a laconic drawl, Landry hid it all behind the long, dyed black hair that perpetually hung in her eyes and the sack-like black clothes she invariably wore. She wasn’t goth or a slacker or anything at all. She simply refused to conform. “Stand with me in solidarity and say no to balloon dragon hats!”
“Down with the balloon dragon hat empire?” Caden’s right eyebrow rose as he held out the balloon dragon hat.
Landry pumped her right hand into the air. She held up a pin as if it were a tiny sword for justice. “Let me pop that for you.”
“Now wait a minute!” Wally’s head – and the balloon dragon hat – went from him to her and back again. “I have compressed air and balloons. That means balloon hats. Which equals profits if we play our cards right!”
Caden turned the balloon dragon hat around so he could look at the twisted face. “It is sort of cute.”
Landry’s head made a thump as it landed on the top of the counter. “Caden, you’re hopeless!”
“Why? Because he won’t fight for lost causes? Because he wants the store to profit?” Wally harrumphed. “You should learn something from him, Landry!”
Despite what both of them said, Caden put the balloon dragon hat on the glass counter by the door so that incoming customers would see it and buy it. It was too hot outside to wear that on his head even if he had been inclined to. He then threaded his way through the racks of werewolf hoodies, raven t-shirts, unicorn mugs, sphinx statues and phoenix embossed pens to Landry and the cash register. He dug out all the money he’d gotten for the sales of the black dragon plushies. She took the sweaty Valerius bills from him and scowled at him from behind her bangs.
“How many more plushies have you sold to the gullible now?” she asked.
He grinned and with a slight note of pride, “That would be ten more.”
“You’re on fire!” Wally hooted from over by the compressed air tank where he was filling more balloons.
“Materialism is a rot in this world,” Landry sighed.
She turned in her stool, and with a dry erase marker updated his total on the whiteboard behind her. He was ahead by over two dozen from any other employee. He was definitely getting that bonus. His little sister’s birthday was coming up and he’d have the money to get her that new RPG video game she’d been eyeing for a few months.
“You know you’re only encouraging Wally to sell more cheap schlock to the tourists. It turns Shifters into something … tawdry,” Landry muttered.
“You don’t even like Shifters,” he pointed out. “Why do you care if Wally makes a buck off of them?”
It wasn’t that Landry disliked Shifters or was even really prejudiced against them as far as he could tell, but she hated that they were made a fuss over, as if they were more special than humans. It was strange though that she would work at a store that celebrated Shifters as something cool. But almost immediately he could almost hear his father droning on in his head that Landry had little choice in the job she could get, just like he had little choice - even after getting a degree - to obtain a job outside of retail.
Caden wasn’t so pessimistic. It had been tough for young people to get a job before Shifters came into the light. He didn’t think that much had changed. He would find a “real” job when he was ready, but right now the Emporium was just fine while he figured out if he was going to get his master’s degree or go directly into the workforce.
“This whole thing – this 30th Anniversary – is all about how humans lost the war to the Shifters, you know?” She crossed her arms over her front.
Here we go again.
Caden rolled his eyes. He already heard Wally huffing and puffing across the store to respond to Landry’s arguments. This happened every anniversary since Landry started working there when she was fifteen.
“I thought the Great Awakening was to celebrate how we all came together after the war,” Caden answered her.
She leaned forward, dropping her voice conspiratorially. “You mean when humanity had absolutely no choice other than to surrender after the dragons decimated every nation’s military and the other big Shifters overcame their police forces, too? It’s like someone agreeing to whatever the person says who has a knife at their throat. It’s not truly consensual.”
Caden started organizing the big cat Shifter shot glasses in order of size on top of the counter as he pointed out, “Humans attacked Shifters first. The governments were vivisecting Shifters to find out how they worked so they could make super soldiers, not to mention the human religious zealots who were burning Shifters at the stake as agents of darkness.”
But Landry was shaking her head. “Shifters have been preying on humans and hiding each other’s crimes for millennia so they wouldn’t be found out. It was just the advent of DNA testing that forced them to come clean.”
“There are bad and good humans and bad and good Shifters,” he argued. “Maybe neither side was wholly in the right, but I’m glad that Valerius organized the Shifters so that the war ended quickly without too many people dying.”
“How can you feel that way when the Dragon Shifters took over the world and --”
“Is she trying to fill your head with her Humans First propaganda?” Wally asked as he waddled over.
“I am not a member of that organization,” Landry responded acidly. “They’re totally species-ist.”
Humans First was a group that stated their aim was to protect humans from Shifter overreach, but really, they considered Shifters spiritually and physically contaminated by the Spirits. They didn’t even call them Shifters and Spirits, but Hosts and Parasites. It was, as Landry pointed out, species-ist.
“Then why are you arguing their same points to Caden here?” Wally asked her. His bushy eyebrows rose and lowered.
“All I’m saying is that I have a problem with celebrating a day, which has led to inequalities for human beings,” Landry pointed out. “So Valerius is a reasonably good ruler and hasn’t changed much in the US and Canada. We still have our governments and our votes and journalists and no ghettos for humans, but it isn’t the same everywhere. Dragon King Illarion is a despot! The governments in his kingdom are just puppets. And his isn’t the only one.”
Caden bit his inner cheek. She was right about Illarion. Though journalism in Valerius’ kingdom – which constituted all of the US and Canada – was still vibrant and free to report on anything, Illarion’s kingdom was a black hole where news went to die. There were only hints of dark deeds happening there like putting humans into camps while the Shifters took over all the wealth and property. But those were only rumors. Nothing was truly known. But the silence was worrying.
“There have always been despots and there always will be. Before Shifters there were plenty of countries where the people were repressed. Don’t fall for that Humans First nonsense that things were all golden before the Shifters revealed their existence!” Wally warned. He was fifty so the first twenty years of his life had been before the war so he knew what it had been like before Shifters were outed.
“Maybe you’re right, but still … Valerius is the biggest and most powerful of all the Dragon Shifters. He’s their leader, right? He could make Illarion stop what he’s doing,” Landry protested and he heard her genuine fear and concern in her voice.
Wally, too, looked uneasy. He rubbed his mustache – or the pornstache as it was known in the Emporium because it looked like mustaches in 1970s porn videos – and said, “Look, I get that things aren’t perfect, maybe far from perfect, but I wouldn’t be so eager for a war between Valerius and Illarion. It would be like two nuclear weapons with wings fighting over our heads. Humans - us, you know, Valerius’ subjects - would be in Illarion’s crosshairs if that happened.”
Seeing the downcast looks on both their faces, Caden said, “Guys, whatever this day was in the past, it’s different now for a lot of people anyways. You go out there.” He pointed to the excited crowds outside of the shop. “And these people are so excited to see Valerius. They’re oohing and ahhing at the werewolf police that are in the square. Shifters are proof that magic exists for them. That’s a good thing for the most part.”
“You know that Shifters get benefits we don’t though,” Landry groused.
“And they have problems we don’t either like losing their families after they merge with the Spirits,” he pointed out and Landry lowered her head. She was tight with her older brothers. Losing them would be a huge issue for her.
“The boy makes sense.” Wally patted his arm. “You’re both good people, but trust me when I say that things before the war weren’t fair either. There’s always going to be someone on top. Who is on top may have changed, but the system is always there, trying to keep you down no matter what. So you just gotta do your best to keep your head above water and help those coming after you. That’s the secret of life! Remember it!”
Just at that moment, Caden’s phone began to buzz in his front pocket. He pulled it out and saw it was his little sister Tilly.
“I gotta take this,” he said and headed towards the door to speak to her privately outside.
“Sell some werewolf hoodies while you’re out there!” Wally enthused and shoved half a dozen hoodies with werewolf faces on the front into Caden’s free hand.
He met Landry’s eyes or rather her bangs, but anyways, they shared a look. He grinned and shook his head before heading out with the hoodies clutched to his chest.
“Hey, Tilly! What’s up?” he asked his sister as he pushed open the door and entered the sticky heat of the square. She’d sent him a video chat rather than just an audio call so he held the phone out in front of him so that they could see each other.
His sister had his same blond hair though hers curled and hung to her shoulders while his was short and spiked up. Her normally cherubic face was set in a Landry-like scowl. He already knew why, but he guessed she wanted to vent more than anything.
“Mom and Dad are still saying I can’t go down to the square tonight to meet up with you and see the fireworks!” she pouted.
“There was some trouble here on the 25th Anniversary with Humans First and Shifters fighting,” he reminded her, though he doubted there would be any trouble this time. The square was packed with werewolf cops. They were in their human forms, which were still impressive – all over six feet, built and athletic – bristling with human weapons. “They don’t want to risk you getting hurt.”
His little sister let out a put upon sigh that was larger than her slender thirteen-year-old frame should have been able to produce. “I totally wouldn’t get hurt! I would be with you! And Wally and Landry! Nothing would happen to me.”
He smiled at her certainty that they could keep her safe. “I know, sprout. If you go out onto the front porch you’ll be able to see most of the fireworks. And next year, when you’re a little older –”
“They won’t be as good next year! It won’t be the big anniversary! And the porch is lame.”
She shifted and he saw she was in her bubblegum pink room that was half painted black. She’d told him that pink was for little kids a month ago. She wanted a teenager’s bedroom and had gotten the paint herself. Their mother had stopped her after one wall was painted midnight black. His sister and their mother were in a showdown about what color the room would be. Not black! According to his mother. Nothing but black! Was his sister’s roar in response. He had no idea who would win out. They were both strong willed.
“It’ll be on TV and the net, too,” he reminded her.
“It’s not the same as being there!” she whined.
He had to agree with her. He wished she could be with him, but their parents were adamant that she stay at home. One child in harm’s way was enough for both of them.
“I know. But try to make the best of it,” he told her. “The Dragon King will be flying every hour.”
“Have you seen Valerius?” she asked, hope springing into her eyes.
“Yeah, he was just out. Couldn’t you see him?” he asked her.
“The trees mostly blocked my view, but his wings looked so awesome in the sun!” she enthused.
The Dragon King inspired crazy devotion in people, including his sister, though really the man was hardly in public, never spoke to the people and seemed to think that simply posing dramatically against the sky was his sole job description. Landry was probably in agreement with Valerius that this was all the Dragon King should do here and leave the duly elected governments to do the rest. But Caden thought he should take more of an interest in people. Sure Valerius was wickedly handsome and looked like royalty, but he seemed as distant from them as they were from the sun. Yet though his sister would never meet him or speak to him, even though she lived in his royal city she was still nuts about him like one would be a movie or rock star.
“Is Wally making you sell crazy stuff?” she asked, catching sight of the werewolf hoodies.
“Yeah, he’s even got balloon black dragon hats,” he chuckled.
She perked up. “Really? Could you get me one?”
He nodded. “For sure. What about a black dragon plushie?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Stuffed animals are for kids.”
“I don’t know. These are pretty cool. I might get one for myself,” he teased her.
“You’re such a dork!” But she said it with a smile.
At that moment, he heard a popping sound and white smoke rose up from the middle of the crowd. There were cries of surprise and people starting hacking as the thick, acrid smelling smoke spread. There was another pop and another. Red smoke, blue smoke, black smoke joined the white. An almost impenetrable haze of the stuff started filling the square. The werewolf cops were immediately charging into the crowd.
“What’s happening?” Tilly asked, her forehead furrowing as she caught sight of his worried expression.
“I don’t know. There’s some kind of … I think I need to get inside the Emporium,” he said as the crowd started to panic and ran away from the smoke in waves.
“Is everything okay?” his sister’s voice went high and tight and she got upon her knees on her bed.
“Yeah, I …”
But his voice died. The smoke and people cleared for a moment and he saw a girl with a black backpack standing about ten feet away by one of the support columns of the stores. No one else was looking at her, all of them either racing away from the smoke or, if they were werewolf cops, running towards it.
She didn’t look any older than his sister yet she moved with adult determination and precision as she took off the backpack and put it purposefully by the side of the pillar. There was something else about the way she moved that he’d subconsciously recognized, but now consciously understood. She was being furtive.
He watched in shocked disbelief as she drew push a red button, which started a timer counting down. A two minute timer attached to a bomb.