Authors: Jaime Rush
lle had insisted on driving. She liked being in control, and where Kirin was concerned, that was getting harder and harder to do.
He ran his finger down the window. “It always bothered you not knowing why your mother turned her back on her family, her heritage.”
Kirin’s words pulled her from her thoughts.
“Yes. Nana made it clear that something had happened.”
He nodded toward an older woman walking three dogs down the sidewalk. “That’s your great aunt Zelda. You could ask her.”
Elle slowed down, taking in the woman with the long white hair. “My mother’s aunt. Mom got a little drunk on wine one night when Dad wasn’t around and let some family history slip. She told me the family legend of how Zelda single-handedly fought off a group of marauding Dragons who’d attacked her family’s home over a hundred years ago. I could hear the pride in Mom’s voice when she whispered that we were descended from a pirate.”
“Pirate blood still flows strong through some of their veins,” Kirin said. “Your cousin is a treasure hunter, searching the ocean’s floors for old ships. You have another cousin who is a ghost hunter. What she’s really hunting, and getting rid of, are Elementals, but the Mundanes don’t know that.”
Elle flicked a glance at him. “It’s not fair that you know more about my family than I do.”
Kirin gave her a soft smile, obviously taking her comment as sad and not bitter. “Dragons know each other.” He shrugged. “You hear stuff.”
“I want to talk to Zelda.”
Elle turned right at the next street and found the nearest parking lot. She had no idea what she would say to a relative she’d never met. They reached the small park where three gangly Afghans were playing Maypole with Zelda, wrapping their leashes around her legs.
Kirin nodded in greeting. “Zelda, good to see you.”
She looked up, laughter in her eyes. “You too.” Her eyes narrowed. “There’s something not quite right about your energy. Maybe from being out of town too long?”
“Exactly that.” He pulled Elle up beside him. “This is Elle, Tara’s daughter.”
Zelda moved closer to Elle, scrutinizing her face. “I haven’t seen you since you were a baby. Tara brought you to the house once, showed you off. But never again.” She grasped Elle’s hands. “You took after your Deuce father. A shame. But”—she glanced at Kirin with a hint of a devilish smile—“maybe you have some of your mother’s Dragon in you after all. Come visit, yes? Deuce or not, you are family.”
Elle took all that in with a deep breath. “Thank you. I’d like that. Very much.”
Zelda hadn’t released her hands. Her skin was dry but soft, like old parchment paper. “You have your mother’s eyes, the big, almond shape and rich color. We’ve missed her.”
“You know she’s…missing, don’t you?”
Zelda nodded. “We saw it on the news and then contacted your father to find out more. He filled us in but wanted no help or support. We didn’t know how you would feel about hearing from us. There’s been no update? No word of her?”
Elle said, “Nothing.”
Zelda’s mouth turned into a frown. “On the news, they said the police suspected your father and Kirin’s father. I think your father loved her too much to hurt her.” She glanced at Kirin. “And Stein, I do not see him as a murderer.”
Elle forced out the words. “The police eventually came to the conclusion that she ran away.”
Zelda touched Elle’s cheek. “I saw the light in your mother’s eyes, in her heart, when she brought you here. She would never leave you.”
Hadn’t Elle thought the same thing, deep down inside? Still, that was better than her being dead. Elle’s heart ached at the thought. She nodded toward Kirin. “I obviously don’t agree with my father’s disdain for Dragons. I need to know why he feels that way. Why my mother turned her back on her family when I know how close Dragon clans are.”
Zelda’s face shadowed. “You want to hear this? It’s ugly.”
Elle nodded, her heart beating faster. “I need to.”
The dogs pulled at Zelda, each wanting to go in a different direction.
Kirin held out his hand. “I’ll take them.”
Elle gave him a look of gratitude, for the introduction and for letting Zelda focus on her and not the dogs.
Zelda handed the tangle of leashes to him and turned back to Elle. “Someone broke into your mother’s bedroom when she was eighteen. He raped her, Dragon to Dragon.” She gave Elle a moment to absorb that terrible picture. Then she continued. “It is most vicious that way. The beasts can get out of control, even kill each other. The Guard investigated, but they found no evidence to identify the rapist. At least that was the official report. Someone in the Guard phoned us anonymously and told our father to drop it. It had something to do with the Stramaglias.”
Kirin’s head whipped around at the name but he didn’t interrupt.
“These are bad people, I take it,” Elle said.
Zelda hissed, and the way she bared her teeth, Elle could see the Dragon in her. “They’re Obsidian Dragons, the most powerful, and the most vicious. Like the mafia with scales. They have been our family’s enemy from the days on Lucifera. Now they live in the Fringe, where many of the Dragon clans who descended from pirates settled.”
“It’s on the fringe of the Field, south of Homestead. It’s a lawless land. Even the Guard doesn’t mess with their feuds and clashes. Some of our family went after them, determined not to let the Stramaglias take what they wanted. We lost two of our own that night, and so did they. Our father, and the rest of the family, backed down.”
Zelda continued. “No one was to mention the assault or our losses. It was a black mark upon the family honor. Your mother was hurt and angry. She went to a Deuce to find out exactly who raped her. She couldn’t stand not knowing, having no face to aim her hatred at. That Deuce was your father.”
So that’s how they’d connected. “And he saw the perpetrator?”
Zelda nodded, stroking her long, painted nail down the front of her throat. “Loran. Huff was outraged for her and went after Loran. He thought his magick would be strong enough.”
Everything inside Elle tightened into a hard ball. “What happened?” He’d lived, so it couldn’t have been that bad.
“Huff and Loran had a showdown in the Fringe. Huff was badly hurt.”
“The scars on his back.” Those criss-cross scars he never wanted to talk about other than a vague explanation of a car accident. “And his limp.”
“It took a lot of magick to heal him. He almost lost that leg.”
The dogs pulled Kirin closer, their noses reaching for their mistress. “Huff got in a good one or two on Loran, I hope,” he said.
Zelda smiled. “He cut off the end of his pecker. Loran is not a happy Dragon.” Her smile faded. “Your mother pledged her allegiance to Huff, her hero. He had done something, even if he had not succeeded. Huff felt we had turned our backs on her. And maybe we had. He considered all Dragons immoral, disloyal, and beastly.”
Maybe he’d worried that Kirin would hurt her the same way. “Thank you for telling me. I’ve wondered for a long time.”
“Tell your father we think of him. In a good way,” she seemed to need to add.
“I will.” Elle didn’t want to say that her father was missing.
Zelda nodded toward Kirin, who handed the restless dogs back to her. “He knows where we live. You are both welcome any time.”
“Thank you.” Emotion rippled through Elle.
As she and Kirin walked to the truck, she turned to him. “We didn’t see her there by accident, did we?”
“She walks those dogs here every day about this time.” His mouth twitched in what might be a smile. “Seems like you have enough mysteries in your life.”
“Isn’t that the truth.” She tried not to let her heart melt. “Could this Loran be responsible for my dad’s disappearance, after all these years?”
“When a man is faced with that kind of reminder every day, that someone got the best of him, he could be harboring a lot of hatred. The question is, why now? If he had it in for Huff, he would have gone after him long ago. I doubt he’s involved. We’ll get my father out, and if he doesn’t have any more information, I’ll investigate the Stramaglias.”
Just like that. No fear, although he obviously knew them to be dangerous. He would go into a den of lions for her father. No; for her.
Damn it. How was she supposed to stay angry at a man like that?
fter a quick lunch, Elle and Kirin returned to the factory so they’d be ready to charge inside the second Kirin’s Dragon returned. She could feel heavy, angry energy, not in their immediate vicinity but probably inside. No doubt the tulpa knew they were there and was gathering its form.
Elle checked her watch. Twenty minutes before Kirin’s Dragon was due back. She worked up a small orange orb to get the feel of it. The fiery ball, the size of a lemon, hovered above her open hand.
Kirin inspected the bubbled flesh of her palm. “You’re getting blisters.”
“It’s a bitch of an orb.” Yeah, the singed flesh was starting already. She met his gaze because he wasn’t looking at her hand anymore, but at her.
He still loves me.
The thought tightened her chest, and she pushed it from her head before she did something stupid, like lean forward and kiss him. The orb disappeared as her concentration splintered.
She conjured the orb again, telling herself she could handle the pain. But she didn’t want to wear her magick out before she really needed it. She extinguished it and watched Kirin work through basic fighting moves for a few minutes. He flicked his hair out of his face as he rolled and came up ready to fight, his focus on an imaginary enemy. He checked his bare stomach, and his expression darkened. It was odd to see him without the Dragon across his chest. After the third futile check, he kicked the side of the building and dented the corrugated metal.
She checked her watch. “It’s not quite time yet, you know.”
He dipped his head in acknowledgment. “But with every minute that passes, my pop could be dying in there.”
The thought crushed her chest. “As much as we hate that creature, we can’t go all kill-crazy on it.”
He stared at the building, his hands flexing at his sides. “Hell, you’re right. My pop’s inside that thing. What happens to him if we incinerate it?” He turned to her. “Another bit of information that crafty son of a bitch Goron didn’t tell us. I’m sure he knew someone was inside that tulpa.”
“The face you saw was in the tulpa’s midsection, right?”
“Yeah.” He raised his fist. “So we blast it in the head.”
“But remember what he did tell us. We’re supposed to send it positive emotions to throw it off.”
He grunted. “Positive. Yeah, I'll be thinking nice, happy thoughts…while I’m slicing off its head. And that’s if Goron can be trusted. Sounds like something he’d make up just to screw around with us.”
A faint discoloration on his chest caught her eye. “I see something!”
He ran his fingers over his ribs. “It’s tingling.” Relief saturated those words.
Faint red lines began to appear across the ridges of his stomach, along with goose bumps.
He threw his head back, the tendons in his neck going taut. “Feels like it did when it first appeared.”
Crescents Awakened at puberty in a ceremony that honored their deity essence. He’d told her the Dragon came out during the ceremony, changing the cells of his skin as its essence opened a doorway into the world. He’d described it as amazing, but it had sounded scary and painful to her. Now the blood-red Dragon slowly came alive, expelling flames from its snout and stretching its wings. Then it opened its mouth in a silent roar, and Kirin dropped to his knees. His muscles bunched and tensed as he grimaced, his hands clenching.
She knelt beside him, gripping his arm. He was burning up. “Kirin. Are you all right?”
With a shudder, he opened his eyes, still breathing heavily. He looked at the pissed-off Dragon that was glaring at him. “I had to find answers,” Kirin said to it. “I’m sorry, but trading you was the only way I could do it.”
He got to his feet and shucked his pants and briefs in one move. He Catalyzed, his body stretching to beast in an elegant blur. His scales shone blood-red, sliding into smooth interlocking armor. Black wings tucked close to his back. He was terrible and beautiful and shocking all at once.
He raced toward the front door with Elle right behind him. As they entered the large space, her light orb barely penetrated the murky depths of darkness.
Kirin paused, his nostrils flaring. “Something’s different about it.”
“It feels heavier. Bigger.”
She made the orb brighter and cast it into the air as they entered the gaping space. The tulpa stood in the middle, huge arms akimbo. Waiting for them. It didn’t look different, but it sure felt different.
She was already working on the orange orb. Even though it was only the size of a marble, it stung her tender flesh. She kept working it, ignoring the pain.
Kirin crept along the edge of the light, slipping in and out of shadow. She went the other way. The orb was the size of a melon now.
The tulpa took a giant step toward them, its hand swiping at Kirin. He rolled out of reach, came back, and tore off the tulpa’s hand with his teeth. It screeched as though in pain, its muddy essence pouring out of the stump. Within seconds, the hand regenerated.
The severed hand on the floor didn’t fade away, though. It morphed into a blob that moved, shook, and became an independent form.
“Holy crap,” she said. “I don’t think it’s supposed to do that.”
Kirin watched, his body rigid. “What the hell? It didn’t do that before.”
The smaller tulpa rushed at him, and Kirin knocked it like a baseball with his tail. It shot up into the darkness of the ceiling. She was so shocked she didn’t even see the huge hand before it smacked into her, sending her skidding across the floor. The orb spun several yards away, floating just above the floor’s surface. The tulpa reached down toward her. She backed away but came up against the wall.
Nowhere to go
Kirin roared, diving between the tulpa’s spread feet and sliding across the floor toward her as the tulpa’s hand slammed down—right on top of him. The spikes on his back speared right through the tulpa’s hand. It jerked upward, looking at its palm. She scooted sideways and summoned the orb back to her. It trembled but wouldn’t move. The orange wasn’t as reliable because of the amount of energy it contained.
Kirin rolled to the side as the tulpa inspected its hole-ridden hand. Little bits of the displaced “flesh” jumped to the floor and scrambled like cockroaches toward Kirin. He spun and stomped down on them.
The tulpa kicked him while he was distracted. Kirin flew through the air and slammed into the metal wall, leaving a huge indent. He slid down to the floor in a heap. Elle screamed, inadvertently catching the tulpa’s attention.
“Yeah, come and get me, you big, fat blob.” She worked up a blue orb, dodging the hand that kept trying to grab her.
The tulpa groaned in what sounded like pleasure. Did it like what she’d called it? “Yeah, I hate you too, you ugly, worthless piece of crap.” She spared a glance to Kirin. “You all right?”
He was on his feet but wobbling. “Don’t worry about me, love. Keep your attention on killing that thing.”
The tulpa made another pleasurable growl. It
like negative words. They were feeding the hatred that already fueled it. How easy it was to fall into anger and fear. What she felt for Kirin was close to the surface and easy to dredge up. She looked at him. “I love you, Kirin! Do you hear me? I love you. You were everything to me, too. When we made love last night, it was the first time I’ve felt complete since…the last time you touched me.”
He gave her a dumbfounded look. “You’re telling me this right now because…”
She nodded toward the tulpa as it started moving toward her. “Positive emotions, remember? Goron was telling the truth. It likes the negative ones.”
He got it. “I’ve never wanted anyone but you, Elle, not since that first day I started working here and met you. You’re beautiful and smart and everything I want.”
The tulpa groaned, pausing.
Kirin took advantage of its temporary confusion and slammed it from behind. But he wasn’t moving as gracefully as he had been a few seconds earlier. He was hurt. Her spear of panic spun the tulpa toward her.
She shouted, “I’m so in love with you—”
But her fear overpowered her love. The tulpa grabbed her, bringing her to its chest. Its mouth opened. Good God, it was going to devour her. Inside its mouth and throat, she saw nothing but roiling darkness.
Do it for Kirin’s father. Because your father did this. Make things right.
If it ingested her, she could break them out from the inside. She stopped fighting as the tulpa lifted her toward its maw.
“No!” Kirin’s voice echoed from somewhere.
He flew down from the top of the huge space. His red and black wings were spread, the smooth, leathery membrane stretching for a span of ten feet. He whipped around so that his tail sliced off the tulpa’s head. The body stumbled, its hand loosening enough so that she could get out of its grip. Its essence poured down its chest like black lava, cold and clammy where it touched her.
She landed on her feet. “Kirin, I had it under control!”
He landed hard on the floor. “Fine. Next time I’ll let it eat you.”
The head rolled on the floor, bumping into the table…and began to move of its own accord.
“Uh oh,” they both said simultaneously.
“Quick, get the orange orb. We need to do this before it regenerates.” Kirin moved around the back, and she raced toward the orange orb where it hovered near the wall.
The head rolled at her like a huge bowling ball with eyes, letting out an eerie keen.
Just another second. Almost there.
With her gaze on the approaching head, she blindly reached for the orb. Its heat singed her fingertips. The head smashed into the orb, exploding it. The force knocked her on her butt several feet away, banging her head against the floor. Black spots floated in front of her eyes. Or were they bits of tulpa, ready to re-form into killer cockroaches?
She opened her mouth to respond, but no words came out.
I’m fine. Just have to clear the rock band out of my brain.
“Elle!” His voice sounded far away. If he was all right, he would be kneeling beside her. That’s how he was. Because he cared about her.
She pushed back the pounding pain and tried to sit up. The whole building swayed. Through hazy vision, she saw the tulpa dancing with Kirin.
No, Kirin was trying to get around it to her. The tulpa, its head now regenerated, mirrored his steps and blocked his every move.
“I’m okay,” she managed.
Now if I can only get up.
No cockroaches, at least. The severed head was gone. Incinerated. Along with the orange orb. They were so screwed.
“Stay there,” she said. “We’re exactly where we want to be, on either side of it.” She called the blue orb to her. Not orange, but it was all she had.
The tulpa swung a hammering blow at Kirin, who ducked. Unfortunately, he couldn’t duck low enough and took the brunt of it on his side. He fell but staggered up again.
“Positive emotions,” she reminded him.
“Damned hard when all I want to do is”—he forced a smile—“love you. Make you safe.”
“Me too. Hold those feelings and let’s do this.” She readied the orb, infusing as much magick into it as she could muster. He drew in the deepest breath, and she counted, “One. Two. Three!”
He expelled a stream of red sparks through his fangs, aimed at the tulpa’s head. It stumbled, once again thrown off by their emotions. All they needed to do was hold them for just a few seconds. She started to throw the orb, but something knocked her from behind and sent her to the floor.
She turned to see the culprit: a piece of the tulpa. While she was distracted, the tulpa grabbed her and tossed her down its throat. She spun, going headfirst into its interior. As she moved through the dark, thick essence pulsing around her, she saw a man’s face. Vague features, as Kirin had said, indistinguishable in the inky blackness. She reached out but couldn’t touch him.
A blue glow tried to penetrate the dark. Her orb had followed her in! She called it to her.
Through the outer membrane of the tulpa, she could see Kirin. Even in Dragon form, he looked sick with worry. He couldn’t see her, just as she hadn’t been able to see the man trapped inside. Except Kirin’s eyes zoned in on something. The orb. He must be able to see the glow.
Her blue orb wasn’t strong enough to kill the tulpa, but maybe she could send it up to blow its head off again. She needed Kirin to use his Dragon magick at the same time. He rushed at the tulpa, but the creature knocked him back. Kirin stilled for a moment as he readied for another attack.
She made the orb blink. One. Two. Three. He paused. She did it again, and he nodded in understanding. She only hoped he understood that they had to do it all at once: the orb, his deepest breath, and the emotions. They had been thwarted before, but they couldn’t afford to fail this time. She had to push aside all of her fear and uncertainty and focus only on things that would weaken the tulpa.
She brought up warm memories of her mother and made the orb blink once.
Elle remembered a time her father had hugged her, a rare occurrence, and made the orb blink twice.
She thought about lying in Kirin’s arms, feeling loved and cherished. As the orb blinked three times, it changed color. It was turning…
After the third blink, she hefted it upward as Kirin’s flames rushed out in a huge plume. The tulpa’s hands went to its head as it exploded. Now that it was weakened, the flames took hold and quickly enveloped the tulpa. It started weaving and spinning.
Groping through the black, she latched onto an arm and leaned against the side of the tulpa. Kirin had said the man had pushed him out. She threw herself against the membrane. No give.
Uh oh. What if they were still inside when the tulpa died?
It lurched toward the wall. On one side, she saw Kirin smashing into the tulpa. On the other, the wall coming fast. They hit with such force that the wall bowed outward. She lost her grip on the man.
The tulpa spun, smashing into walls and throwing Kirin to the side. It was melting under the heat of the fire, its thick essence dripping to the floor. She saw no way to get out except through the flames that sucked at her.