CHAPTER FOUR - HERO OR VILLAIN?
Stop! STOP! You will bring the Gash down on people’s heads! Valerius ordered Raziel.
His Spirit was in a blind rage. It was so white hot and unreasoned that Valerius almost felt like he could be burned away by it. And the cause of that rage was something more than simply another Dragon Shifter entering their territory without permission, but stemmed from a feeling of – of connection, yes connection - to this very young dragon Spirit. Raziel raged against it. Tried to shake it off. This sense that they were not alone. They were invaded. But Valerius could not even comprehend the fact that another Dragon Shifter existed – a potential foe he had not known existed - as he was still too stunned that his own Spirit had betrayed him on the deepest level.
Raziel stopped its frantic scraping at the stone walls of the Gash, but Valerius did not believe it did so because of his words. Both of them could hear the thin screams from the people below who were fleeing from the stones that Raziel had pulled loose and who fell with thunderous result onto the ground far below.
How many are dead crushed beneath the stones? How many are injured?
And these deaths and injuries would be on him. Not the white dragon. It had done nothing but flee.
Unless it was responsible for the chaos in the square, he thought with rage of his own.
It invaded us. It still invades us. It will not win this territory! It is OURS! THE WORLD IS OURS! Raziel snarled and its teeth snapped the air. Fire gouted out and heated the rock until it glowed a fiery red.
STOP! ENOUGH! Valerius commanded. It is you who have caused damage and not to the white dragon, but to our people!
Valerius quickly scanned the area. Boulders littered the ground like children’s toys. He thought he saw legs sticking out from underneath one of the rocks. Red stained the grass. Puddles of crimson soaked into the bare earth.
We did this. YOU did this! Valerius shouted. How – how could you … our people …
He saw a young woman cradling an old man’s head in her lap, a slash of red – blood – across his forehead. She rocked him, crying tears of anguish and fear as she kept looking from the old man’s face to Valerius’ dragon form that hovered a hundred feet above them. There were three children, no older than ten in tatty clothes, huddled together, bruises and scrapes covering their exposed slender limbs. There were hundreds of others who were simply running for their lives away from the destruction. It was only when he craned his neck to follow their flight that Valerius realized that he was back in charge of the dragon form. A wave of relief went through him.
Heart slamming against the inside of his chest as he regarded the destruction that Raziel had caused, Valerius landed and immediately shifted back into his human form just outside of the Gash’s inside market. Even if Raziel could somehow wrest control of his human form away from him, the damage he could do in it would be minimal in comparison. He breathed heavily, cool breezes from inside the mountain wrapped around his naked body. He held up his right hand in front of his face. He was shaking uncontrollably.
The cries that had been faint and thin to his ears before were high and shrill and edged with pain and fear. His gaze swept around him. He saw the legs sticking out from underneath a boulder. He raced over there to see if there was anything to be done. But no. The person was crushed. Flattened deep into the earth. The outside stalls closest to the Gash were destroyed. He smelled blood wafting from some of them. Some shopkeepers had been killed.
It could have been worse. So much worse if most people hadn’t gone up to the Mid to watch me fly. The irony of that was not lost on him. He had thought himself so above the carnival like atmosphere, so above performing, but those things had saved lives today. He shuddered. Will the human leaders still be asking for me to fight Illarion after they see what this mere scuffle accomplished?
White dragon entered out territory, Raziel began again in an almost litany.
But it did not attack us! We attacked first! He reminded his Spirit. It was young. I think it was … new. And so small, but mighty.
Raziel shook its massive head. No matter! Should not have come into this world here. Foolish Spirit to do this.
Valerius did not necessarily disagree with that. To join with a human here, in his lands, was insanely arrogant or simply insane. He felt it was the latter, because the white dragon had not attacked them, but had looked … completely discombobulated. But he shook that thought out of his head. Confusion could be feigned. What had happened in the square was real. He would find if the white dragon was behind it.
But why did you do take over? Look at what you’ve done! And I will have to answer for it! Valerius shouted at Raziel.
The Spirit’s head was lowered, red eyes were closed, but the fires inside of it though were not banked. Smoke poured from the Spirit’s nostrils and flames flickered through its parted jaws.
Go inside. Track it. Find the white one and –
Answer me! Valerius demanded, not making any movement at all.
But Raziel remained stubbornly intent on tracking the invader in their territory. It made him wonder if this anger masked something else in his usually cold-blooded Spirit. But any thought processes he had were scattered to the winds as he realized he was being stared at, but not with the usual awe, but with fear and hate.
In this case, it was a group of Rat Shifters clustered near the entrance of the Gash. They all had the characteristic round bodies with skinny limbs, mostly brown hair and twitching noses. Their black beady eyes were fixed on him. There was little love lost between himself and the criminal underclass Shifters. He tolerated them, as he must represent the interests of all Shifters and all humans, and they flouted his authority and the law. But they kept it respectful for the most part. But now … now he had killed some of theirs.
He met the eyes of the leader, a slightly larger, more rotund version of the others, who did not look away when their gazes met. The Rat Shifter took a step closer. His lips writhed back from his teeth and the Rat Shifter’s nose twitched. He stopped in mid stride.
Go back into your hole and you will not be added to the death toll today, Valerius thought and he knew that his face showed that thought.
The Rat Shifters scuttled back into the darkness, but not without narrow-eyed glances at him. Just as they disappeared inside the Gash, a phalanx of the Claw ran towards him. In the lead was Captain Simi Lash, a Snake Shifter who had against all odds, defied tradition and had not become a criminal, but instead had joined the Claw. He had risen in the ranks until he led his own Legion.
Claw Captains were moved from layer to layer of Reach to lessen the risk that they would become beholden to the people that resided there. Simi was in charge of the Below this quarter. Many had claimed that he would betray the Claw and Valerius due to his snake nature. But that had not been the case at all. Simi was one of his most trusted officers. Valerius’ shoulders relaxed, relieved to see him. Simi skidded to a halt two feet from Valerius. He and the phalanx of ten Claws behind him dropped to their knees and crossed their right arms over their chests.
“My king,” Simi greeted him, his voice hushed with respect.
“Captain Lash,” Valerius was relieved that he could speak. He still felt so fragile as if his human form could burst apart at any moment.
How could you do this to me, Raziel? He asked, his voice full of sulfurous anger.
The Spirit kept its head lowered. Follow the white dragon –
Speak not to me unless you answer my questions! He snapped.
Raziel said nothing more.
He focused on the Claws before him. None of them looked at the dead or the destruction. But they must see it. And when they counted the dead they would think that he had done this. That he had flown into some kind of blind rage. The Rat Shifters – though enemies anyways – still showed him that his people would think him responsible, too. When Shifters were young there were plenty of times when the Spirit and the human pulled in opposite directions, but all humans were taught to find peace – though not absolute control, for the Spirit was equal to the human in terms of rights –with the Spirit.
So while Simi and the other Claw members could understand that Raziel could have acted on its own and overridden Valerius, they wouldn’t believe that had happened to him now. He was millennia old. And it would only alarm them to know that someone as old as him was not in complete peace with Raziel. He took in a shuddering breath. He would have to own this tragedy. And wasn’t it his fault? He hadn’t found peace with Raziel. He had been overcome by the Spirit. He had failed.
“Rise,” Valerius commanded and gestured with his still shaking hand for them to do so.
The Claws quickly rose to their feet, but kept to attention with arms held rigid at their sides, chins lifted and backs ramrod straight. Simi’s black eyes searched Valerius’ face and the Dragon King wondered if his Captain guessed what had happened somehow. But then Simi looked back at a Werewolf Shifter - from the look and smell of her - behind him. She was taller than him by six inches and bulky while Simi was lean as a whip with lithe muscles that allowed him to move with incredible speed. Simi’s look was enough and she stepped forward with clothing in her hands. Black pants, shirt and boots. He took them from her. She bowed low and retreated to her place again.
While Valerius pulled on the clothes, he asked, “The white dragon, did you see his or her human form?”
The White Dragon. A new Dragon Shifter has been born. How is that possible? Spirits are to keep the balance in this world and now they have made a mess of everything!
An unaccustomed blush swept over Simi’s golden skin and his lips thinned for a moment in self-disgust. “No. They disappeared into the crowd. I have a Claw phalanx where they landed right now, but so far, nothing.”
“What about the cameras?” Valerius asked. The Below, and the market especially was heavily watched due to the criminal elements that clustered here.
There was another uncomfortable silence then Simi quickly said, “The cameras in this area have been vandalized. Likely to take advantage of the tourists being present. Pickpockets. They were being fixed but –”
“But that work is not completed,” Valerius finished for him.
Simi gave a curt nod. Valerius could see in the flex of his captain’s jaw that Simi was cursing himself internally. His captain held higher standards for himself than even his detractors did. But he could not have known this would happen. No one could have known.
The white dragon is new, is it not? He asked Raziel.
No answer. Just a sullen burst of smoke.
Did you sense another dragon Spirit nearby? He pressed.
“Cameras were working in Dragon Strike Square,” Simi quickly amended. “I know that Captain Ngoye is already having the footage reviewed.”
Captain El Ngoye was a Lion Shifter. She ran the Claw under her command like a lion would its pride. She was highly efficient and absolutely beloved by those beneath her. He was sure that they would have an image of the white dragon’s human form quickly enough, not to mention a name and address to go with it. Not that this new Dragon Shifter would go home again. Surely, they would not be that foolish.
“That is quick thinking,” Valerius complimented Simi. Considering the madness of Raziel chasing the unknown white dragon everywhere, he was impressed that Simi had reached out so quickly to his counterpart. He also saw the red and white outfits that identified the medical corps streaming through the large cavernous space of the main market in the Below. “I see that you already have people assisting with the … the injured.”
The people YOU injured, Raziel! He raged at the Spirit as guilt flooded him. To be out of control like that! To harm those under his care! He may not have loved his subjects, but they were his responsibility.
The black dragon’s shoulders hunched, but it said nothing in apology or in explanation.
“Yes, my king. We already have all our medics mobilized and the Mid is sending down many of theirs as well. It appears that other than smoke inhalation from harmless gas grenades, no one was injured up there,” Simi told him.
“Please keep me informed on the status of every injury and … death,” Valerius requested, his voice catching slightly, but he immediately firmed it. “Now, I will see where the Dragon Shifter touched down.”
Simi gave a nod and immediately spun on his heel as did the rest of the Claw with him. They led him into a far corner of the cavernous space where stalls made of sheets on polls or rough tin siding were set up to sell odds and ends, second hand clothes, handmade pottery, glassware, and refurbished electronics. Not to mention piles of fake designer bags and other accessories. The smell of street food hung heavily over the area, too.
Another Claw – Sergeant Alianz from his nametag – quickly jogged up to Simi and crossed his right arm over his chest and bowed low.
“My king, my captain,” he greeted them both.
“What have you found out?” Simi demanded even as Valerius began to circle the area, his eyes on the lookout for anything that might have come from the new Dragon Shifter.
“No one saw anything. Of course,” the sergeant reported with a touch of irony in his voice. “We’ve been able to find most of the stall keepers around here. They claim they all fled before the white dragon shifted into its human form. We’re still interviewing people, obviously, but hear nothing, see nothing, speak nothing is still being adhered to despite the fact that an enemy Dragon Shifter entered our king’s territory.”
An enemy Dragon Shifter. Is that what you are? Valerius asked in his head as his nostrils drew in deep draughts of the market’s air trying to find the Dragon Shifter’s scent. But the while the cavern was redolent with a myriad of smells, none of the white dragon’s icy scent flowed into his nose. Were you just born? Didn’t you realize what a bad idea it was to join this world? To come to my city? To disturb this uneasy peace?
There was no evidence of a heavy landing here. No evidence of where the white dragon’s human form had stepped. There were piles of second-hand clothes that they could have picked from and then melded into the crowd. There was nothing here to lead him to the white dragon.
“King Valerius!” Chione’s voice rang out.
He turned his head to see his normally elegant, unhurried Counsellor running towards him. Her cheeks were flushed with color. Her dark eyes flashed. When she reached his side, she grasped his left forearm.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Do you think that little dragon could have hurt me?”
Her elegant eyebrows rose into her hairline. “I do not know. I have never had ice spit into my ices before. Did it hurt?”
His arrogance had fallen short. “I am … fine.”
She knew it was a lie the moment he said it. She, alone, would be the one he could tell of Raziel’s betrayal. He found he could not bear to have her think he had killed these innocents. But though she knew it was a lie, her gaze flickered to the others around them and she did not question him.
“I have news from Captain Ngoye,” she said, still slightly breathless.
“What news?” He’d gone rigid.
“The cameras in the square were disabled –”
He hissed. “Yet more cameras disabled?!”
“Yes, whoever planted the smoke grenades and then tried to set a bomb –”
“A bomb?!” His voice rose up so loud that it had every Claw in the area freezing and tilting their head to listen. He lowered his voice, “What do you mean? Explain! Did this white dragon try to plant a bomb?”
“No!” She held up a hand. “Captain Ngoye and I spoke to witnesses. From what we can tell, a young man must have discovered a bomb in a backpack. People said that he was screaming for them to run. He took it to the Drop –”
“And he tried to throw it off? That’s insane –”
“No, he jumped off the Drop with it,” she interrupted him softly.
He blinked. “He jumped …”
Sacrifice. A noble sacrifice? And we attacked him and killed people to get to him and …
“Yes, that’s what the witnesses are saying. He was going to give his life to save others and –”
“We don’t know that!” Valerius snapped. “He could have been planning to plant the bomb, but then had second thoughts or … or he could have …”
His voice petered off. He could think of no reason for the young man to jump off the Drop with the bomb other than to save lives. The Claw were all listening to him. He saw though in their eyes that they believed Chione’s version of events. He remembered that bewildered look on the white dragon’s face. He remembered the way the white dragon had seemed surprised that he had wings and wasn’t sure how to use them. He remembered how the white dragon had regarded the people at the edge of the Drop with concern. But he shook himself once more.
“It’s impossible for him to be a hero, Chione! Because I …” He shuddered and glanced back towards the entrance of the market where the dead and wounded lay.
“You were protecting us, my king,” Simi said loyally. “We do not yet know if these witnesses are correct. We need facts.”
“Yes,” he agreed faintly even as ice formed in his stomach. “We need facts.”
“Captain Ngoye is collecting cell phones and cameras from everyone who was in the square and at the Drop,” Chione said neutrally even as her eyes searched his face. She knew something was wrong. Beyond the dead. Beyond even this insanity of a new Dragon Shifter.
If he is a hero, Raziel … he let the sentence hang.
“He is a new Dragon Shifter, my king,” Chione said, her voice rustling like leaves. “Imagine how confused he is. Imagine how he expected to die, but instead became one of us. One of you.”
And then I attacked him. Raziel attacked him.
“He must be so frightened,” Chione murmured. “And alone. We must find him as soon as possible, Valerius.”
“Yes, we must find him,” Valerius murmured.
Raziel’s head rose. Smoke billowed out of its nostrils. Flames licked its snout. Yes, find the intruder. Find the attempted usurper. Find and –
SILENCE! Valerius shouted.
Red eyes regarded him steadily.
“Ngoye is looking as are the Claw here, but I think we need to move more quickly,” Chione advocated. She pressed her lips together for a moment before she made her suggestion, which was, “He landed in Marban’s territory.”
“Marban is scum!” Simi hissed. His green eyes glowed with poisonous contempt. Valerius thought that his tongue might have forked for a moment.
Marban was a Swarm Shifter and the leader of the criminal underworld in Reach. Intelligent and dangerous, so far he had avoided prosecution. But everyone knew that he was behind every criminal act not only in Reach, but all of Valerius’ kingdom. He made his seat of power in the Below as a mockery of Valerius’ rule.
“Marban will know who the white dragon shifter is,” Chione said with certainty. “And we must get to that young Shifter before Marban does. If it is not too late already.”