CHAPTER THREE - THE NINTH DRAGON SHIFTER
“Hey! HEY!” Caden cried at the girl by the bomb. He was waving his arms frantically in the air to get her attention. “What are you doing? Get away from that!”
The moment he said the last, he knew it was stupid. She was setting the bomb. She wasn’t unaware of what it was and needed to be protected from it. Her head immediately snapped up and towards him. She had dark brown hair drawn into a high ponytail on her head. She had sharp features in a fox-like face with deep brown eyes. He thought he saw a yellow flare pass over her eyes. This nightshine was peculiar to Shifters. But it was there and gone so quickly that he wasn’t really sure he had seen it at all.
She rose up on the balls of her feet. Her hands flexed by her sides. Her eyes darted to the rapidly counting down bomb then back to him. He guessed she was considering whether to grab it and take off. Was there enough time for her to put it someplace else that he wouldn’t see? But there evidently wasn’t as she darted off and he lost her in the crowd. As important as she was, the bomb was more important. He cast around for one of the many cops that had been lining the square but there was none in sight.
“BOMB! BOMB!” Caden screamed.
He pointed towards the backpack, which already showed only a minute thirty left in time. But his voice was drowned out by the crowd’s cries and screams about the smoke. No one heard him. No one paid attention. No one was going to come and take care of this for them all. Not in time.
And then it seemed time slowed down and the roar of the crowd became muted and his own breathing and heartbeat filled his ears. He knew, in this moment, that the choice he made in the next second would decide who would live and who would die, including himself.
He could run away, screaming about the bomb, saving himself and perhaps warning a few people. A very few. In fact, he might cause a further panic and people would be trampled. And there were so many people in the square that it now seemed too small to hold them all. He didn’t know how powerful the bomb was. They might not be able to get far enough away anyways.
Or he could do what he did do …
“Tilly, I love you. Tell Mom and Dad, I love them, too,” he said to his little sister’s anguished, frightened face.
He then dropped the phone along with the sweatshirts and dashed towards the bomb. He picked the backpack up by the handle on the top without stopping running. He knew where he was going to go, the only place that could possibly be far enough away from as many people as possible that he could reach in time. It was called the Drop. And that’s what it was. On one side of the Mid there was an area where there was a sheer cliff that dropped down into an empty valley.
This is insane! What am I doing? Someone else should be doing this! I’m not a hero!
But he didn’t drop the bomb. He didn’t stop running. He dodged and weaved around people who were still half-running, half-walking from the smoke. Confusion filled their sweat-drenched faces. Had the smoke been anything? Was it really all right and just some prank? It wasn’t a prank, he knew. It was a diversion. It was to draw the cops away from the area where the true bomb was being set. It was why it was him carrying this bomb and not some burly werewolf or fleet footed Jaguar Shifter.
He couldn’t scream at them to make way, that there was a bomb, because every ounce of strength he was putting into running. His lungs burned as if the air he consumed was fire instead. His legs were cramping. But he weaved through the riled crowd. He nearly lost his footing once, but somehow he managed to keep upright. And then the railing that marked the Drop was ahead of him. He let out a pained moan.
Almost there! I’m almost there! I’ll just have to throw it off the edge and --
His thoughts screeched to a halt. He had seen the counter on the bomb. Twenty seconds. And people were clustered around the railing. Too many people. When he got to the railing he wouldn’t have time to reach back and throw the bomb far enough away. All those people would be killed. He would likely be killed, even if he dropped down underneath the railing’s edge.
Again, time seemed to slow as he considered what to do. He saw that there was a stone base by the nearest post. He could use that as a launching pad … a launching pad to throw himself and the bomb into space as far away from the people as he could. Maybe his body curled around the bomb would affect its power. Maybe save a few lives.
I am going to die.
But that seemed like a foregone conclusion now anyways. The moment he had grabbed the bomb there was no good outcome here. The only question was how many people would he save or take with him into the great beyond.
I am dead already. So I can have no fear of death. I’m already there.
He pictured his parents and his sister. Their smiling faces. Not the tears they would shed, but the pride they would have knowing that he did what he could to save others. It was all he had to hold onto.
“BOMB!” he screamed “GET BACK!”
People turned around to look at him, murmuring about what he was on about. And how it wasn’t funny to yell bomb. And who did he think he was. Some of them saw the backpack and glimpsed what was inside. These people screamed, high, thin-pitched screams, as they shuffled backwards, but were stopped moving any further because there were too many people in the way. Caden could only help them by doing what he was about to do.
Please let them all be all right. Please let my family know I love them. I will always love them.
Caden brought the backpack up and hugged it against his chest with both arms. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the black dragon - Dragon King Valerius - soaring down from High Reach. Maybe he was simply flying for entertainment purposes or maybe he sensed that something was wrong. But Caden had no time to admire the black dragon’s flight. He had a flight of his own to attend to.
He leaped onto the stone base and used it as a step to the top of the railing. He saw the sky before him. He didn’t look down. He just stared up at the blue, blue sky. And he launched himself into it.
Caden did not hear the screams of the people behind him who thought he was simply committing suicide. He did not hear the other people who had seen the bomb shouting for others to get back. He only heard the whistling of wind in his ears and then the shrill beep of the counter on the bomb having hit 00:00. He didn’t expect to live long enough to hear the blast that would turn him into dust.
And he didn’t.
All he heard was silence as the sky went red then white then gold all around him. He wasn’t aware of his body. There was no pain. No pleasure either. It was as if he had no form at all, but was a spirit just hanging in the void. And then a voice seemed to fill everything all around him. It was toneless. Sexless. It simply was.
Brave, it said.
Noble, it said.
Sacrifice, it said.
And finally, it uttered one word that did have a tone to it, and that tone was a mixture of joy and excitement, Worthy.
And the world that had been stripped away to blankness came back in a rush to Caden. There was a boom and he felt something impact his chest, but it was more like a feather had hit him, no big deal. He was hovering in mid-air.
“Is that …”
“It can’t be!”
“But it is!”
“It’s another dragon!”
What? Another dragon? Where? Why am I not dead?
He turned his head towards the voices. His whole body moved and something - some part of him - brushed along the mountain. He jerked this part of himself away from the mountain and suddenly he was plummeting towards the bottom of the valley.
What the Hell is happening?! Up! Up! Up!
He twisted and flapped -- flapped? Yes, flapped -- frantically. The plummeting stopped and he began to rise up and up and up until his head was level with the railing of the Drop.
How am I doing this? Why aren’t I falling? And really, why am I not dead?
People were staring at him with open mouths. One woman pressed both hands to her cheeks, eyes and mouth wide open. Another person was weeping, but not in grief … in joy? A little boy shrugged off his father’s protective hands and rushed towards the railing towards him.
Hey! Be careful there! Don’t want you to fall!
Caden leaned forward to urge the boy back. His head snaked towards the boy. He was still several feet from the boy, but he almost lost sight of the boy’s face unless he tipped his head - snout - downwards to view him.
The boy gasped, “Whoa!” But then he was laughing and smiling. “You’re nice! Dad, he’s nice!”
“Johnny, c-come b-back h-here,” his father’s voice shook as he reached towards his son.
But Johnny was having none of it. In fact, he climbed up on the first rung of the railing to get a better look at Caden. “He’s a white dragon. What kind of things do you think he can do?”
A what now? I’m a … what …
He looked down at his body. Pearlescent white scales covered a massive dragon form. His serpentine neck allowed him to see his tail. Yes, he had a tail.
Oh, my God, I have a tail …
And wings. And claws. And …
I’m a dragon! I’m dreaming! I’m dead! No … no … I’m a dragon!
Hysterical laughter bubbled inside of him, but what came out of his snout, maw, thing was a gush of ice that landed with plinking sounds on the rocks below. He quickly slammed his jaws shut so as not to … not to what? Turn people into ice statues? The boy was leaning so far over the railing that his father finally overcame his fear and was right up behind him, holding him around the waist.
“Ice! Look at the ice the white dragon made, Dad!” Johnny cried in delight.
Other people leaned over as well to look at the ice. Caden simply flapped his wings, hovering there in a state of utmost shock. Then the people began to bring up their cellphones to take pictures of him now that they realized he was friendly. He saw behind them that others were making their way from the square to his location. There was a rising tide of amazed voices, speaking about him.
“I didn’t know that any of the other Dragon Shifters were coming here for the Anniversary!” One woman with a bouffant of red hair told her male companion whose bald pate was also scorched red from the sun already.
“He was screaming about a bomb before he transformed. There was an explosion, but his body protected us from the blast,” her companion informed her.
Caden looked down at his chest and claws - at where he had been holding onto the backpack - but there was no sign of any damage. Not even a little soot or a scrap of cloth left. But when he looked far below him at the valley’s floor he realized that he could see some evidence of the bomb below.
That really happened! There was a bomb … and I saved people ...
“A bomb? Oh, yes!” That voice had him lifting his head and the woman with the red bouffant’s eyes widened for a moment and then she was smiling hugely. “Of course! A Dragon Shifter would be able to do that!”
Except I’m not a Dragon Shifter! I mean … I wasn’t … and now … Oh, man, this is crazy! Is this really happening?!
“Which kingdom is the white one’s?” A teenaged boy asked a pigtailed girl beside him.
She was already looking the answer up on her phone. Her forehead furrowed as she said, “That’s weird. It’s saying there’s no white dragon. That’s the one color that isn’t represented.”
“But he’s right there! So there is a white dragon,” the boy laughed as he pointed at Caden.
Then a middle-aged man breathed, “He must be new.”
That news rippled throughout the crowd and a chorus of voices joined the ones he could identify.
“New! He was Chosen by a Spirit! The first new Dragon Shifter in over a thousand years!” Someone cried.
“Oh, my God, he must have been trying to save us from the bomb! He was sacrificing himself without any thought for his own well-being!” another said.
“Are you sure?” another muttered darkly. “Maybe he meant for the explosion to kill us all.”
“He wouldn’t have jumped off of the Drop if he intended that!” someone replied waspishly.
Caden wanted to add to that, Hell, yeah! Are you crazy that I wanted to hurt you?
But he couldn’t of course. Just more ice tinckled out of his mouth when he opened it to speak. But even if he could have spoken, he was more focused on what else they had said.
A Spirit must have chosen me and turned me into a Dragon Shifter! Holy shit! No way! Can this truly be real?
He’d gone from a usual day at the Emporium to believing he was going to die and, finally, to this: he was a freaking Dragon Shifter! And he wasn’t sure what part of that shocked him most.
Will Wally sell white dragon plushies now, too?
He laughed and more ice plinked.
He then wondered how was he going to shift back into his human form. He also wondered how he was going to land. Apparently, being a Dragon Shifter came with no instructions. Except, of course, that wasn’t true. Shifters learned from their counterparts and there was only one other Dragon Shifter in this kingdom.
And that was when the shadow fell over him.
He lifted his head back and saw the black dragon - Dragon King Valerius - hovering about fifty feet above and in front of him, blocking out the sun. Even at this distance, he could tell that Valerius was twice his size and far bulkier with muscle. The black dragon’s fiery red eyes were narrowed. Its powerful front claws were curled dangerously. Caden swallowed.
I think he’s mad, Caden thought with another hysterical laugh that resulted in more ice forming.
Smoke started to leak from the black dragon’s nostrils and its jaws opened. Fire licked along the interior of its mouth. Caden’s head reared back in fright.
Why is he mad? I haven’t done anything bad!
But he didn’t have to guess for long, because a voice suddenly boomed in his mind and he knew it was the black dragon’s, What are you doing in my territory? You don’t belong here! How dare you enter my lands! Do you think you can best me and take over? Foolish, little dragon!
And beneath those words, was the constant drumbeat of, Get out! Get out! GET OUT!
Caden had no idea how to control himself and this flying thing, but he managed to flap a few feet away from the railing. Whatever was going to happen, he didn’t want the people there to be hurt. Johnny craned his neck up to see Valerius.
He pointed at him and said, “Dad, King Valerius looks angry!”
And the father’s answer reminded Caden of the lore he’d been taught in school about dragons, “If he’s new then he’s trespassing in King Valerius’ territory. He’s here without permission. The Dragon Shifters divided up the world the way they did, because … because well, dragons fight if more than one is in a dedicated territory.”
“But if he’s new then he has no territory of his own!” That was from the girl who had looked up what territory the white dragon came from. “He’s the ninth Dragon Shifter!”
Johnny scrunched his nose as his gaze flickered from Valerius to Caden and back again. “Are they going to fight then?”
I don’t want to fight! I so don’t want to fight! Seriously, King Valerius, I’m sorry to have surprised you, but I’m surprised, too. See I live here and … he’s not hearing me!
Caden had no idea how to reach the black dragon, but he could tell he wasn’t simply by thinking at him. Indeed, the flames were reaching outside of the black dragon’s mouth though he had yet to send a spurt of fire towards Caden, but he was gearing up to. His eyes were now slits.
Johnny formed a bullhorn with his hands and called upwards, “King Valerius, the white dragon is nice! Don’t fight!”
But Valerius had decided otherwise. He did not send a gout of flame towards Caden, probably realizing that the people were in the way, but he did dive towards him. Alarmed, Caden clawed the air as if it were water and he could swim through it. He did manage to flap far enough away from the railing that the black dragon passed between him the people there who oohed and ahhed. Now they were getting their entertainment’s worth! Forget just seeing Valerius fly around, watch him attack and kill another dragon!
Maybe I am still going to die today! No, Goddamn it! Absolutely not!
Valerius swooped away from the narrow valley and was going to come around again. Caden realized that he intended to slam right into him and grind him against the side of the mountain that housed Reach. Caden was not going to be smashed to smithereens, thank you! He managed to twist over so that his belly was towards ground and he flapped his wings while stretching out his claws, rather like Superman. He started to fly forwards.
Yes! I’m flying!
He heard the rapid beat of the black dragon’s wings behind him and then a sizzling sound followed by a whump as a fireball collided against the mountainside just missing Caden’s head. He could feel the heat from it across his scales. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, which was strange, but he certainly didn’t want to find out what a full on attack would feel like. Instead, he flapped harder and he was soon zooming through the sky.
He could feel the air currents all around him. They could help or hinder him. And then, with a start, he realized that he could see them too. They were like ghostly lines that appeared before his vision, urging him to go up or down or avoid the sheer face of the mountain where air poured down at speeds that would have send him spiraling to the ground. He looked over his shoulder to see if the black dragon was still there. Another fireball whizzed past his head, but it was several lengths away.
I’m faster than he is, because I’m lighter and smaller. Built for speed! While he’s built to crush things … things like me. But only if he can catch me!
Caden had been circling around the mountain, because he needed to stay by the city. The welfare of the people was likely causing Valerius to hold back with the fire attacks. It was said that the black dragon was capable of spitting more than just fire, with fire being the weakest of his attacks. Another fireball - this one skimmed his belly - had Caden wondering what the other attacks were like if this one were weak.
I’ve got to get out of his sight and shift back to my human form then immediately mingle with the people so he won’t know that I’m the white dragon!
Caden shook with hysterical laughter again, ice forming and falling and sounding like dishes crashing against the mountain as he remembered he had no idea how to shift back, let alone if he was fast enough to get out sight long enough for Valerius not to realize which human was him. And that also meant he had to hope that the humans wouldn’t rat him out to Valerius anyways.
That thought brought him up short. He knew of one area where Valerius was not universally loved: the Below. That was run by the Rat, Snake and other criminal Shifters. Valerius was constantly having his security forces clamp down on them. They wouldn’t give him away to Valerius. They would likely pretend that they hadn’t even seen a white dragon land and shift. And he knew the exact place where he could get into the Below even in his dragon form. It was right around the mountain. He was almost there! But how could he escape Valerius long enough to --
It felt like a Mack truck had hit him. His wings folded. Claws dug into his shoulders, drawing blood, pained cries echoed from his mouth. While he had been plotting his brilliant plan to escape Valerius, he must have slowed his flying or the black dragon put another spurt of energy into his, because the black dragon had slammed bodily into him!
I have you now, little dragon! You think to invade my territory? Make it your own? NEVER! I will rip you apart! The black dragon hissed.
Caden’s head turned to look up at his captor and for one moment his gaze locked with the black dragon’s and he heard another voice. The Dragon King’s voice.
Raziel, stop this! What are you doing? I command you to stop! This is a child! Valerius cried. He is not a threat!
He should not have come here! He must be destroyed! Raziel answered.
Raziel’s the Spirit’s name! Caden realized. Valerius isn’t in control of him! He doesn’t want to kill me!
Rage. Will not listen. Must get free and hide, a tiny voice spoke in Caden’s mind. Ice. Ice extinguishes fire. Ice …
His connection or whatever it had been with Raziel and Valerius was broken. Raziel was completely in charge it seemed. It’s massive black jaws opened wide, revealing razor sharp teeth, and a portal of pure flame.
Ice! the small voice cried.
Of course, ice, Caden realized and opened his own mouth.
A stream of ice exited it and entered the black dragon’s maw. The fire there was immediately extinguished. Gouts of steam rose out as the black dragon choked and fumed. It’s grip on him released slightly. Caden shot more ice this time directly into the black dragon’s eyes. It let out a roar of pain and fully released him. He flew away like a shot with blood streaming down his arms. But he didn’t stop to inspect his wounds. He flew faster. He heard a roar of rage this time from far behind him. The black dragon had recovered. But Caden had made it to the open air market that sprawled out of a large opening in the side of the mountain called the Gash that led directly into the Below. He headed straight towards it.
Please let me fit! Let me fit!
The Gash might have seemed large when he was human but it was a damned tight squeeze as a dragon. He had to draw his wings in close to his body as he soared through the largest part of the Gash. At least, he knew that the black dragon could not get inside unless he shifted into human form, the black dragon was way too big.
But that means Raziel, who wants to kill me, will be replaced by Valerius, who seems more … reasonable! That’s good, if nothing else!
Those were his last coherent thoughts on anything other than how did he land and how did he shift back. The Gash lead into a vast open space, which was big enough for him to fly in, but the ground was covered in people’s stalls where they were selling odds and ends.
I can’t land! There’s nowhere big enough without crushing somebody!
Shift now, that little voice said as they glided about twenty feet off the ground.
What? How? I --
Shift now, the voice commanded.
And suddenly, he was human again. But he was also twenty feet in the air. He yelled and flapped his arms, which did nothing, as he dropped to the floor. Somehow though, he was able to roll the moment he hit the ground and was up on his feet again in a fluid movement. No injuries. No pain. Just a little dust.
Natural at this, the voice said but it sounded sleepy.
Caden’s legs were trembling beneath him, but he forced himself to keep moving. He heard the flapping of gigantic wings from just outside the Gash. The shopkeepers around him had scattered so he was able to go to one of their stalls that sold second hand clothing and pull a few pieces for himself. He was naked, soon he would be clothed. He was bleeding, but it was already starting to heal. He was in the most dangerous part of the city, but he would find his way out of here. The main obstacle that had stood in his way was now gone: namely, he was alive.
And he intended to keep it that way.