CHAPTER FIVE - GODFATHER OF THE UNDERWORLD
Caden was trying not to panic. As he brushed past clusters of people talking about what had happened, his throat felt like it was closing up with anxiety.
“... there was a bomb …”
“... Humans First behind it …”
The girl with the bomb might have had nightshine.
“... white dragon appears when there’s a terrorist attack? C’mon what’s the likelihood the white dragon isn’t involved?”
I saved people from the bomb!
“ … is the white dragon here to challenge King Valerius …”
Oh, Hell, no!
“Would that be so bad?”
“What? Are you crazy? Did you see the dead people from just this battle?”
People died? Oh, my God! I’ve got to get out of here! I’ve got to get home! And then I can forget all this!
He curled forward and hustled away. How had he gone from selling dragon plushies to being a dragon? How had he gone from having a really good day to this? He was hunted. He was alone. He had no idea what he was going to do!
First things first. Breathed. Second thing, figure out how to get out of here.
There were three ways out of the Below. The first was to simply go outside through the Gash and walk or catch a ride up the winding roads to the higher levels of Reach. But that wasn’t possible for him, because a very angry black dragon was sitting out there. He tried to imagine sauntering past Valerius and a cold well opened up in his stomach. He wanted to stay as far away from the Dragon King as possible. He wasn’t sure if Valerius could tell that he was a Dragon Shifter, too. Maybe he would smell different. Even though there seemed to be a disagreement between Valerius and Raziel, which must be the name of his Spirit. Which was so crazy in and of itself, because he had never heard that the Spirits were separate entities after the joining who could just take over.
What’s your name? He asked the Spirit inside of him.
He didn’t know if he was imagining this or not. But when he thought of the Spirit, he could see it in his mind. The white dragon was asleep, curled in a ball, head tucked beneath one wing with the tail wound around its body. The Spirit did not answer him though one of its ears flickered when he spoke.
You’re no help, you know? I could use a little guidance here. But maybe it’s the blind leading the blind, he sighed. Okay so walking out of the Gash is a no go. What else can I do?
The second way out was the Lifts. There were over 100 glass elevators that could take you from the Below to any level of Reach, well, and a level that you were approved for. But you had to swipe your ID to be allowed to use them. People normally had free reign to go from the Below to the Mid, but nothing above that unless you had business there. Even if Caden was willing to swipe his ID and make a record of being down here today - which he wasn’t - his wallet and ID were gone. Probably destroyed when he became the white dragon or in a pile at the bottom of the Drop.
Great, so I’m going to have to go to the DMV to get a new license and cancel my credit cards.
This mundane thought had him laughing, which had people staring at him. He quickly clamped his lips together. But a few chuckles still managed to burst out.
If that’s the least of my worries, awesome. I can’t wait to have to do that.
So that left the Stairs as his way home. The Stairs were exactly what they sounded like though they were an artistic wonder. A huge winding staircase, two hundred feet across at some points, carved out of the mountain’s interior. The stone was polished to a high shine in places that it was almost mirror-like whereas in others elaborate engravings graced the surface. There were massive banners that hung down from the ceiling, representing all of the Shifter types and one for humanity. The Stairs were a wonder. He and Tilly had spent quite a few rainy days going up and down portions of them while snacking on pretzels and cheese he’d purchased for them from the many food stalls that dotted the Stairs.
Tilly … oh, God, she thinks … she likely thinks I’m dead.
His hand went to his back pocket for his cell phone, but it was gone, too. He gritted his teeth. He was going to run all the way up the Stairs to get to her and their parents. As he picked up the pace, his legs seemed to move more fluidly than before. Even dashing didn’t have his breath coming in gasps. He felt amazingly good. That was the one positive thing about this experience.
Caden had stolen a baseball cap which he pulled down over his face. Whenever a Claw came by he would look down or turn his head away and stared in the opposite direction very intently. He had never been afraid of the Claw before. He’d only noticed them around Reach because of their armor-like uniforms in red and gold. Now his heart leaped into his throat anytime he caught sight of those fiery colors. He kept reminding himself that they didn’t know he was the white dragon. Maybe they weren’t even looking for the white dragon.
Right, sure they aren’t. God, I’m an idiot!
When he reached the huge arched threshold that would lead to the base of the Stairs, he jerked to a halt. Ahead of him were hundreds, maybe over a thousand, people all clamoring to leave the Below. But there were hundreds of Claw blocking their way. There was a wrenched squeak that came out of the ancient PA system as an announcement was made.
“Attention citizens of Reach, due to the incident that occurred today no one is being allowed to leave the Below until your ID has been checked and you have been screened,” the speaker shrieked.
Caden took a few steps back, his heart pounding so hard he felt it might break through his rib cage, when he ran into someone. He reflexively apologized and tried to move away from them, but the person grabbed his forearm in a firm, unyielding grip. Fear swept through him as he tried to yank away, but the hand did not let go. Caden whipped around to see who had a hold of him and it was a woman with strange yellow eyes. She was young, not much older than him, with streaked black and yellow hair like one might see on a bumblebee and two lip rings in her lower lip. The yellow and black motif continued in her makeup. That pierced lower lip was black while the upper lip was yellow. He was sensing a theme here.
“Hey! Let me go! I’m sorry I bumped into you! It was an accident!” Caden said as he tried to yank his arm out from her, but she kept a hold of him.
“I’m your only chance at getting out of the Below not in Claw handcuffs,” she told him, her voice low.
For a moment, panic had him speechless. How could she know who he was? Had she seen him shift? Maybe, but he’d been twenty feet in the air so she couldn’t be sure. There was no way for her to know. So he needed to simply play dumb and walk away.
“Sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He wrenched his arm away from her and stepped back.
She leaned in and put her yellow and black lips were just inches from his right ear. “Listen, White Dragon, you need to talk to the boss. Otherwise, I’ve been instructed to hand you over to the Claw. So what is it going to be?”
He went very still. “I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about. I’m not a Shifter.”
Her yellow eyes flickered up to his face. “So new that you almost still believe that. But you are. I never thought that there was a worst type of Shifter to discover you are than an Swarm Shifter. But now I’m thinking that being the ninth Dragon Shifter has to totally suck.”
She smiled at him. A vinegary smile as his mouth popped open and he asked, “Are you -- you an Insect Shifter?”
“Swarm Shifter, dragon boy,” she corrected him without much heat.
The Insect - of Swarm - Shifters were among the worst of the worst. They would associated with disease, death and crime. How many times had he heard on the news about yet another Swarm Shifter being taken in for custody due to a stinging death. They were known to have short tempers and no regard for human life.
His breathing increased as did his heart rate. He had never been this close to a Swarm Shifter. Her strange yellow eyes seemed to read his fear and her smile grew. He scowled.
“Now I’m definitely not going with you,” he growled, surprised at how his voice dipped.
For a moment, she blinked in confusion. “You want me to call those Claw over there?”
“Go ahead.” He stuck his chin out. “I bet they know you’re a Swarm Shifter, yeah?”
Her eyes flickered away from his. “What does that matter?”
“We both know they won’t believe a word you say,” he told her. Before this would have bothered him, that anybody would have been discriminated again, and it made him sick to his stomach that he was using this prejudice against her, but there was no way he was going to be blackmailed by anyone.
She caught his arm again, but this time gently. Her expression was a mixture of anger and desperation. “Look, you’re not getting out of here without help. The Stairs, the Lift and the Gash are all checking IDs. I’m betting you don’t have yours after the Shift. But there are other ways to get out of here that could be opened to you if you just come with me.”
He glanced around at the lines of people snaking all throughout the market as they queued up to present their credentials. Even if by some miracle they let him pass without his ID - so unlikely as to be laughable, wouldn’t they look for people who didn’t as Shifting was evidently Hell on clothes - they would take down his name. One more link between him and the white dragon. He couldn’t risk it.
“Okay, I’ll go with you. But I’m warning you, do anything funny and I will freeze your ass.” He was talking tough, but he had no idea if he could do such a thing. And the very idea of hurting anyone made him sick. The Spirit in him slept on, oblivious to everything.
You really are no help at all!
She held up her hands as if in surrender and started walking backwards. “Okay, sounds like a plan. Come on. Things are getting a little closed in here.”
He swung his head around as he realized that three Claws were coming their way, asking people for the ID even here. His heart thumped heavily in his chest and adrenaline squirted into his bloodstream. He turned and hustled after the girl.
“So what’s your name?” he asked her.
“Are you going to give me yours?” she asked back with a faint sneer.
“No,” he agreed. “But I’m the one in danger. You’re not.”
She let out a huff of laughter. “If you’re captured I will be. They’ll ask who helped you and my name will leave your lips.”
He supposed that was true. Again, a sense of unreality stole over him. How had this happened to him of all people? He’d never wanted to be a Shifter! He’d never even considered a Spirit choosing him! But then again, he never pictured himself jumping off the Drop to stop a bomb from killing people.
No good deed goes unpunished!
Hysterical laughter wanted to pour out of him, but he managed to bite it back this time.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked her. “I can know that at least.”
“To the Warrens,” she said without slowing down.
“What are the --”
“You’ll see. It’s a place where people go to disappear,” she answered.
It was then that he noticed the crowd thinning out around them. People parted for her as if afraid of her. He saw from their expressions that they were afraid of her, but also act as if she was diseased. Lips writhed back from teeth. Noses scrunched. Looks of disgust flitted across various faces. They knew who and what she was even if he did not. A wave of sympathy fell over him. What would it be like to go from being liked one day to loathed the next? She hadn’t changed just people’s perception of her had. She wore insect colors like a defiant flag, but he wondered if it bothered her. He glanced at her pretty face. Her expression was blank.
Not letting them see anything.
Her yellow eyes flickered to his, noticing his gaze. “Get used to being an object of people’s attention. Good and bad. Don’t know what people are going to see the ninth Dragon Shifter as.”
“What do you think?” he asked.
For a moment, surprise appeared in those yellow eyes. “What does it matter what I think?”
“It matters,” he found himself saying. “What do you think?”
Her expression actually softened for a moment. “My sister was in the Mid when you saved people from that bomb. She saw you jump off the Drop.”
He let out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. “So at least somebody knows that I didn’t set the bomb.”
“Why would a dragon have to set a bomb? If you wanted to cause havoc all you would need to do was start a fight with Valerius,” she said, her eyes hard.
“I didn’t hurt anyone!” he protested.
“You flew in here, dragon boy. You brought Valerius right to the Gash. His claws may have dislodged those stones that crushed those people, but you led him here,” she pointed out.
“I had no choice,” he swallowed a lump in his throat. “He was going to kill me. I just wanted to get away.”
“Yeah, well, that’s the breaks, isn’t it? Imagine how the people who lost their loved ones feel? People down here have shit and you just took what little they had away from them,” she told him. “So points for what you did in the Mid, but like usual, the Below suffers.”
She sped up her walking until he was almost running to keep up with her. Finally, they reached the wall of the market. There was a grimy set of stone steps that led upwards. There were few lights for which he was actually grateful as things squished underneath the shoes he’d stole. Things he didn’t want to know what they actually were.
Within five minutes, he was absolutely lost as she led him up stairs cases, down narrow hallways that branched two, three, four and even five times. He didn’t see a straight path anywhere. The walls, floor and ceiling were all a dull gray stone - not polished like the Stairs were - and there was garbage collected along the walls and the air was still and redolent of wet stone and decay. Caden covered his mouth and nose with the collar of his shirt at points. The girl glanced at him, but made no comment. Maybe she was used to it or simply too strong to let bad smells get her down. Finally, she stopped in front of a plain stone wall.
“Uhm, what’s happening?” He tensed as he wondered if she had simply brought him to a dead end to attack him. His Spirit was still asleep!
“Relax, dragon boy, we’re there,” she said and then she pressed her hand against what had simply looked like a crack. But there was a grinding sound and a second of wall moved. A door appeared before them and she gestured for him to follow after her.
He hesitated there. The smell coming out of this strange secret opening was not foul. Not exactly. In fact, it reminded him a little bit of the spices that his mother used when she made a curry. They were rich and exotic, but also cloying.
“Stop lingering! This isn’t a tourist destination,” she hissed.
With an impatient movement the girl grabbed his wrist and yanked him through the door after her. It ground closed behind them. There was a set of stone stairs that lead up one more floor and opened up into a half-moon shaped room. The air was hazy with incense. The walls were covered with ancient tapestries that showed hordes of locusts landing on and devouring a farmer’s crop. The people shown in these tapestries ran in terror as their entire livelihood was destroyed. And on the opposite wall was a stone throne. It reminded him of the one that Valerius sat in, except it was in the Below in a secret room instead of the airy confines of the castle. Not that he had ever seen Valerius’ throne. But there had been some documentaries on television about it.
Another difference between this throne and Valerius’ was the person seated on it. Instead of the beautiful and regal Dragon King, there was an old wizened man in a dirty blue tunic with a hood. He was stooped and had a paunch that made him look almost pregnant. His hair was thin and wispy on a head that was strangely egg shaped. He had a goatee that hung well past his chin. The same yellow eyes as the girls looked at him.
“I see that you convinced him to come, granddaughter,” the man on the throne rasped out. He sounded like he had been smoking three packs of cigarettes a day for decades.
The girl nodded jerkily.
The old man asked, “Did you have any trouble?”
“With him?” she scoffed though her gaze did snap to him and then away. “No, he’s soft just like everyone from the Mid.”
“Do not be dismissive, granddaughter. Merely because he chose not to fight you, does not mean he could not,” the old man chided. “And he held his own against Valerius on his first Shift.”
Her jaw tightened, but she nodded again.
“She said that you could get me out of the Below without the Claw finding out,” Caden said, not wanting to spend any more time here than necessary. He had to get home. He had to get away from all of this.
The old man’s gaze drifted towards him and rested on him almost speculatively. Caden shifted uncomfortably under that gaze. It seemed to peer right through him.
“We can help you, but there is a price,” the old man finally said.
“Price? What price? I don’t have any money. I work … in a shop,” he quickly said, not mentioning Wally’s. He didn’t want these people to know anything about him. “I’m a normal person. I don’t have anything you’d want.”
The girl let out a disbelieving laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding! You’re normal, dragon boy?”
“Granddaughter, do you not remember when you were changed?” the old man chastened her again. “You still thought that you were the same as before. But, as you know now, as all Shifters know, things will never be the same again.”
Caden swallowed deeply and then coughed. The smoky haze in the room came from incense that was lit in large bundles on tables that flanked the throne. The incense clung to his nostrils and throat, irritating them.
“I think you said it before that the only thing worse than being a Swarm Shifter was being a new dragon one,” he pointed out to the girl. “I have to hide. I want to forget all this and just …” He stopped as he felt the old man’s eyes on him and realized he was revealing far more of his fear than he should. But there was a sympathetic glint in those yellow eyes.
“People love dragons,” she snapped. “They’ll come around.”
“It surprises me that Valerius attacked you,” the old man said.
Caden opened his mouth, almost to admit hearing that strange conversation between Valerius and Raziel, but stopped himself. He shrugged and said, “Dragons are way territorial, aren’t they? I was in his territory so I guess that was enough to set him off.”
“Yes, but every bit of this Earth though is some dragon’s territory though so where will you go?” the old man asked.
“Who says I’m going anywhere?” Caden lifted his chin again. He had a feeling he was going to be smacked down one of these times when he did this.
“You’re like half Valerius’ size and you only got away because you surprised him with that ice breath of yours. And yeah, that’s on the internet. A million videos about it and millions more hits,” the girl said, crossing her arms over her chest. “There’s no way you can beat him.”
“I’m not going to challenge him or beat him. I don’t want to rule anything. I just want my life back! That’s all I want,” Caden retorted hotly.
“Are you so blind that you think you can go home to your family? You think that they are going to accept you? That’s not how this works!” She sliced one hand through the air.
“I guess not all of us are so lucky as to have a grandfather who is a Shifter. My parents will … will …” will never know. Is that possible?
She shook her head. “He’s not my blood grandfather. Your parents just like every other Shifter’s parents will reject you. Even the respectable Shifters don’t stay with their birth families. You really don’t know anything about this, do you?”
“I do know! In … in theory,” he admitted the last. “Look, all I want from you guys is a way to get home. What happens after that is my business, not yours!” He turned back to the old man. “Now, I saved her sister.” He pointed at the girl. “I assume that’s not really her sister, but -- but she’s one of you, right?”
“One of us?” The old man tented his hands. “Yes, she is.”
“I think that’s worth a way up to the Mid,” he said.
“Perhaps it is,” the old man agreed with a nod of his head. “But what is our silence about you worth?”
At that moment, there was a clatter of footsteps coming up the stairs from the secret passage. A rail thin young man with a shock of black hair appeared at the top. He was pale as milk, but there were high spots of color in his cheeks likely from running.
He was breathless as he said, “Marban, Valerius is here! He’s seeking an audience with you!”
Marban? Holy shit, that’s the name of the godfather of the underworld.
The old man smiled thinly at Caden’s shocked expression. “I see you know my name. Likely, you thought I was a myth.”
“I don’t know what I thought,” Caden murmured. He strained his hearing for the sound of Valerius’ boots on the stone. He imagined every thump of his heart a footstep of Valerius’. He swallowed coppery fear. “Listen, if he catches me, I can’t help you with anything. Help me get away and don’t tell him about me and I’ll try to help you. I don’t know how but I’ll try.”
He met Marban’s gaze. Again, that sense of being peered into went through him.
Believe me, Caden thought.
Finally, the old man nodded and smiled. “All right. I agree. Granddaughter, take him to the Mid.”
“But -- but you can’t just let him go on a lame ass promise!” she cried, clearly stunned. “We need to keep him here! There’s already videos coming out about the square. They’ll see his picture. He’ll be found and then how will he help us? He’ll just give us up --”
“No, I won’t,” Caden interrupted. “If I’m caught no one will ever know you helped me. I’ll just claim to have gotten up the Stairs before they went on lock down.”
He hadn’t thought about videos of him. Were there ones that showed his face? God, he hoped not. If there were they’d find him in a second.
I have to go home. There’s nowhere else for me to go, he thought with despair.
“Do as I say, granddaughter,” Marban’s tone for this one moment was hard and Caden felt the power of his personality behind. “I trust this one’s honor. He will help us. He will see that there has to be change.”
The girl heard that tone of command in Marban’s voice, too, and she bowed her head. “Of course, grandfather.” Then in a far more mulish tone, said to Caden, “Come on. This way. I’ll take you home.”
As she led him through another arched doorway, Marban called out to him, “Oh, Caden, please do say hello to Wally for me. I do so hope he’s well.”
Ice filled Caden’s belly and he staggered for a moment. He glanced back at Marban who was smiling and nodding at him. The godfather of the underworld knew who he was, where he worked, and probably everything else about him, too.