Dragons. Of course it would be dragons making me scale a seaside cliff on my Saturday morning. No farmer’s market for me, because dragons. “This is the modern world. You don’t need to keep your hoard in a cave.”
The wind made the climb unpleasant, but I didn’t feel like doing the job naked, so flying up there wasn’t an option. It was a real bitch not being able to take my clothes with me when I shifted, but at least the Magical Object Division of the Faerie Affairs Bureau had sprung for an enchantment that allowed me to take my swords, their belts, and their sheaths with me through the shift. It had saved my tail feathers on more than one occasion.
Because I needed to be able to talk, and pecking out eyeballs was not always the appropriate action, I sometimes needed a big hunk of steel to tell people I meant business. Intimidation helped avoid actual violence. That was where Epic came in. He was the large sword strapped to my back. Haiku hung at my hip, ready for the more subtle jobs. In most cases though, I tried not to draw either of them. It wasn’t that I abstained from violence or anything. A good fight had its time and place. It was just more fun to find a clever way to steal an item from someone who shouldn’t have it.
I took a minute to catch my breath and steady myself before poking my head over the lip of the cave. There wasn’t a gigantic dragon ready and waiting to eat me, so maybe I’d gotten lucky and Lou was out hunting for more stuff to add to his already impressive collection of priceless objects. It was always hard to walk away with only the object on my warrant when I visited Lou. Most of his collection would never be classified as dangerous by the MOD. It was just pretty. So much pretty. Today, however, we’d gotten word that Lou was in possession of a heavily enchanted necklace. I hadn’t been given any particulars about its power, just a strict warning not to put it on and a description. I’d pushed for more information, but they said it was “need-to-know”. Apparently, as the person designated to retrieve said item, I didn’t need to know if it could melt my skin off if I looked at it the wrong way. No, that’s not a hypothetical. That actually happened once. It wasn’t a large chunk of my skin, but still, that shit
Aching muscles pulled me into the mouth of the cave. I would have been grateful for a moment of rest, but that wasn’t how these jobs went. Sure enough, a voice echoed out to me, and I flitted to one side. So much for my good luck. Lou was home, in his human form. Dragons were shapeshifters, like me. They were also covetous, like me. That’s pretty much where the similarities gave way to differences like scales, feathers, and the fact that they’re total assholes. Not that there aren’t people out there who would call me a name or two—I’m proud of all the Most Hated lists I’m on—but at least I’m not a dragon.
The ones I’d met weren’t that different in their human form than their toothier one. Since they could hurl balls of flame regardless of the shape they held, they tended to get what they wanted. It made them common offenders, and natural enemies to crows who had similar tendencies. Well, natural enemies to me anyway, being that I was the only crow shifter I knew. Daughters of the Morrigan were banshees. Except me. I’d have to ask Dear Old Mom why that was someday—you know, if I ever met her.
The talking started up again, this time angrier. I only heard one voice. It sounded like Lou, except that Lou never sounded angry. A little sarcastic, a little annoyed that I showed up to take things he’d gone through the trouble of collecting, but that was expected. Mostly, he was a relaxed guy, not bad people as far as dragons were concerned. He never held it against me when I had to take something the Magical Object Division sent me after. Not that he gave his treasures up easily, thus the hiding.
I listened carefully, hopeful I’d catch a second voice, some hint of who Lou was talking to. He’d never had anyone with him before. Dragons rarely brought people to their hoard unless it was a person they had collected. A shudder traveled down my frame. I thought Lou was above collecting people. I guess that’s what I got for thinking well of a dragon.
Flickering torches lined the cave wall. It was super cheesy, but it made me feel like I was a hero in a movie as I crept under their light, so I let it slide. Lou paced at the base of a mountain of gems and gold trinkets. His eyes remained focused on a spot at eye level, drawing my gaze. My vision narrowed, and it was with herculean effort that I refocused on the task at hand. Just a couple things from that mound would set me up for life, but I wasn’t about to take anything I wasn’t meant to. I had no doubt the dragon would eat me if I took something without a warrant. Rumor had it that dragons marked their hoard with a scent they could track anywhere in the world.
A few more steps, and I got a better look at the item that had stolen Lou’s attention.
“I won’t put it on,” said the dragon, over and over again. His hands twisted as he paced, keeping him from reaching out and touching the necklace. Every now and then he changed up his routine with a desperate cry, “But it calls to me!”
Of course. The dragon was obsessing over the very object I was there to collect.
There was no one else in the cave; he was talking to himself. Not a good sign, but at least he hadn’t kidnapped anybody. Had to keep my eyes on the silver lining where I could find it.
Epic slid silently out of my back sheath. Dragons couldn’t be dealt with subtly. Hopefully the sight of the sword would keep him in line, but if it came to a fight, I wanted the biggest piece of steel I had.
The necklace winked firelight, beckoning me. Gold wrapped snug around three glittering rubies. They weren’t so large as to be ostentatious. It would work with just about anything. I was already mentally matching it with my wardrobe. I shook my head. No. This wasn’t mine. I had to turn it into MOD if I wanted to get paid, and I needed to get paid. Rent was due soon, and Phoebe, the interloper dryad who claimed to be my roommate, wasn’t about to pay it. I didn’t know what my problem was—I was usually better than that. I could control myself. I wasn’t some dragon, unable to answer for my actions, and I didn’t have a hoard. No more admiring the pretty, I admonished. Time to get to work.
I grabbed a golden chalice off a redwood table and chucked it into the back of the cave. It hit with a resounding clatter, but Lou didn’t so much as glance in that direction. He only had eyes for my necklace. So much for the sneaky approach.
It was time to dive in and get this handled. “Hey Lou,” I said casually as I stepped into the open.
His head spun so fast I expected him to grimace in pain. Instead, he let out a decidedly wicked and unearthly hiss. “It’s mine. You can’t have it.”
He didn’t even look at the sword. That wasn’t like him, or anyone else with an instinct for self preservation. Epic intimidated; that was his primary job. Flicking the sword in a showy flourish did nothing to grab Lou’s attention. His unfocused eyes were the yellow they became in his dragon form, and they were consumed by covetous instincts. “Lou, it’s Sophie.” I took a small step forward, hoping my voice could break through to him. “You know I’m not here for me. MOD sent a warrant for that necklace. It’s dangerous.”
“It’s mine,” he repeated, as if that meant I didn’t have to take it.
I closed the distance between us while I talked. Only a few yards separated us now. “I know it’s yours, Lou, but it’s enchanted. That’s why you can’t stop looking at it.” The dragon was more unsettled than I’d ever seen him. His dark hair was a mess and his chin showed several days of beard growth. “You look tired. When was the last time you slept?”
The dragon’s eyes flickered back to their usual light brown. “Sophie?” He met my gaze for the first time. “Why are you here?”
Normally I would have been less direct, but he clearly didn’t have the faculties to keep up with our usual word games. “The bureau sent me with a warrant for that necklace.”
“Oh, thank you.” He reached an arm out toward it, though it wasn’t within reach. “It calls to me.”
That was a first. No one had ever thanked me for confiscating their stuff. Fae, as a rule, were careful where they gave thanks. There must have been something truly sinister in the enchantment if a dragon was willingly giving up one of his treasures and offering me a favor for doing it. “You got it, Lou. I’ll get it out of here and then you can get some sleep.” I stepped around him and reached for the golden necklace, again marveling at the way it caught the light. It was the prettiest thing I’d seized in, well… possibly ever. I was sure it wouldn’t hurt to try it on before I dropped it off at the Faerie Affairs Bureau…
I didn’t notice the rush of hot, metal scented magic until I had already ducked. Instinct: saving my life more often than my boss ever needed to know about. My back burned and I rolled to the right without skewering myself on Epic. There’s something to be said for good training, too.
A fireball the size of my head hit the pile of treasure. If I had any false notions about how hot dragonfire burned, the melting metals in front of me remedied them.
So much for the existence of friendly dragons.
I came back to my feet with the necklace clenched in my fist. A protrusion of rock jutted from the cave wall and partially protected me, but I needed to get out of there. I glanced over my shoulder as I slammed Epic into his sheath and saw the human form of Lou disappear in a massive fireball. When the smoke cleared, his blue dragon form filled the cave. He looked right at me—or the necklace—and flicked his tail. The cave shook like it wanted to topple down on us. Like I said, there was nothing subtle about dragons.
“So, uh, Lou? Any chance we could talk about this?” He’d never so much as made a spark in front of me before. I didn’t want to hurt him. The necklace was safe in my grasp. I just had to get out of there. Preferably before he lit me on fire.
I put my hands up, palm out, showing him that Epic was sheathed. I was no threat. “This is just a silly misunderstanding, right?” Lou’s magic tasted like hot pennies dug out of an ashtray. I gagged as it pervaded the air. “Hey now—” Beautiful balls of light suddenly hovered in front of my open palms. No. Go away, go away— Heat like I’d never felt before sucked the air right out of me. Lou, and his dragonfire, weren’t going to give me the time to deal with my own deadly powers before he attacked. In the periphery I watched his building flames, but I couldn’t look away from my hands. Instinct—my long trusted friend—told me the balls of light would reach him first. I could end this before I could blink. But I couldn’t kill someone like that. Not again. A stream of flames rushed toward my head. I pulled the light back into my palms and fell to the side. As if in slow motion, the burnt ends of my hair drifted in front of my face.
No time to think about that.
Rolling to my feet, not looking back this time, I ran as fast as my legs would carry me. I hurled myself off the cliff just in time to avoid the gout of flame that poured from the beast’s mouth. I had a moment to think, The necklace!, before I felt it thump against my chest. I didn’t remember putting it on, but that would have to do. My feet kicked open air until my mind caught up and I let the change come over me. It wasn’t difficult. The crow was always there, like a partner waiting outside a wrestling ring, ready to be tagged in. Shimmering darkness enveloped me. The magic, like thick smoke, was there one moment and gone the next. I was always a girl, and always a crow, but my skin only exposed one of those states at a time, and right now, I had wings.
That would have been a better thing if they weren’t tangled in my clothes. Rookie mistake, not adjusting for the fabric, but in my defense, I had just jumped off a cliff. Not that an excuse like that mattered much as I failed to free my wings. I dropped like a feather-covered rock into the churning ocean.