EXCERPTS: THE CHRISTMAS DRAGON
The box jumped.
Boxes are not supposed to jump. It’s a law somewhere, I think. Maybe Guyana. Apparently not in New Hampshire, because the box kept jumping.
I sat in my idling car, puffs of exhaust rising in my rear-view mirror, and stared at the uncoordinated box-dance. It was wrapped in the loveliest paper, too, which was a shame, because bouncing on my boot-scraper had roughened all the corners and torn one edge. The bow was big and purple and covered in small green somethings. I wasn’t close enough to make them out.
I didn’t want to be close enough to make them out.
If I didn’t do something soon, the neighbors would notice. The box probably hadn’t been jumping all morning, or there’d be a crowd. Or maybe it was already on YouTube. I didn’t know.
So much for a safe, boring life among the Ever-Dying. New Hampshire, you have failed me.
I turned off the car. Time to go see what invaded my (mostly) magic-free space.
I did have a little magic, though admittedly, I hadn’t used it in three years except to fix my hair on the go, so let’s just say I found myself rusty. Myself, and my wand. It was a little rusty. No, for real. Real wands are made out of iron, didn’t you know? Better conductors.
So there I was in my New England suburb, staring into my trunk at my rusted wand, while a box jumped on my front porch, and I will admit I wanted to run away. This was so bizarre that I couldn’t help wondering if (a) my family sent it, or (b) this was some kind of horrible evil trap (the kids I watch on the weekends would say ebil). Both options were silly on consideration. With one exception, my family doesn’t know where I am, and for another thing, I am absolutely and completely not worth some bad guy’s time. I didn’t even graduate college, for crying out loud.
The box kept jumping, and might have growled. I sighed, took my wand from the trunk, and hid it in my long winter coat for the treacherous walk to the front porch.
This time of year, ice covers everything. You’d think that this far north, it would be the snow that gets you, but nope: it’s the ice. Ice on top of snow, layered with more snow, and finally more ice to top off the slip-cake sundae. Even my kick-ass boots only gave me so much traction, and I had to sort of inch my way along the walk.
My neighbor’s teenage boy chose that moment to push his snow-blower out of his garage.
Almost there. Inch, inch, inch —
“Hey, Katie,” Kyle called from across the street, and I waved at him and prayed he wouldn’t notice anything amiss. “Want me to dig your mailbox out?” he said.
The snowplows had buried it. As usual. “Thanks, sure. And tell your mom I owe her a coffee for last week,” I said, pouring all my focus into appearing friendly and nice and normal. My footing slipped. I caught myself, arms out for balance, bent over like a really bad skier.
“What’s that?” Kyle said.
“Mexican jumping beans!” I announced with my arms raised high because I watch too many cartoons.
And then I fell.
I managed to grab the porch railing to prevent breaking my ass on the ice, but this was not ideal because Kyle was a good kid. He was halfway across the cul-de-sac before I had the chance to right myself.
“I’m okay!” I called, hanging off the banister with one be-mittened hand and holding up the other in the international sign for stop right there, buster. “I’m good! I’m all right!” My boot-heels squeaked on the ice as I fought for footing.
Kyle stopped, but he looked fairly alarmed, and that meant it was time to go. Arm aching, face red, I grabbed the box and threw myself inside.
Two things occurred here that shouldn’t have: one, the door unlocked and opened all by itself though I hadn’t even touched it, and two, I realized the box was hot. Really hot. I dropped it.
It squeaked. The jumping box squeaked.
Great. Something was alive in there, and since my lock wasn’t broken and my wards weren’t tripped, whatever it was, it generated enough magic to overwhelm mine and snap it like stretched gum.
I picked up the box again, hoping I hadn’t killed whatever was in there. Though maybe killing it was smart, before it got out and did what it was here to do.
No, I didn’t have the stomach for that. I couldn’t kill some helpless thing in a box. Seriously? You’d have to be an ass to do that without hesitation.
It wasn’t jumping anymore when I put it down on the counter, though it was still really hot. I tapped the top.
Something in there scratched back, trying to get out.
Screw this. I wasn’t wasting my evening playing guess-the-content with this thing. I had a date (finally), and my decidedly-normal co-worker would not understand a jumping, squeaking box that might contain something demonic.
So I pointed my wand and opened it.
Kin magic has no fanfare. Most magic is really showy (usually produced by Fey and other weirdos), but Kin magic just happens. It’s like flipping a switch. Trumpets don’t play when the bathroom fan comes on.
The box blew apart, double-thick cardboard smacking to the counter. Inside sat a tiny, perfect, snow-white dragon.
A dragon. On my kitchen counter. It squeaked at me, which could mean absolutely anything, and began to preen itself like a cat.
I may have grown up with magic all over, but dragons aren’t common. They’re nearly extinct; the eastern Elders hid themselves in the earth somewhere long ago, and the western Red and Black clans are quite occupied with wiping each other out. In fact, dragons were declared endangered sometime in the sixteenth century — yet here a baby one stood, chewing clumsily at its dark claws.
Mother-of-pearl scales gleamed all over its ridiculously long, thin neck. The wee round-bellied body rested on tiny curved legs and a tail long enough to balance that neck. Its head was a drawn-out diamond, long and narrow, and its snout was so thin that the flare of its nostrils only emphasized the entire disproportionate cuteness of the whole package.
I’d never seen anything so adorable in my life.
Without warning, he chirped at me and jumped off the counter.
I caught him just before he hit the floor. He felt fragile like a frog — warm and soft with loose, smooth skin over teeny tiny bones. I stroked his sides and his tiny little legs, winced at the sharpness of his adorable little claws, and discovered an outline of wings still hidden under the skin of his ridged back.
He looked at me warmly, leaned into my touch, and then puked fire all over my boots.
It wasn’t controlled. There was no distance achieved, just a messy splash of liquid flame straight down. I whooped and danced backwards, throwing magic in a mad attempt to prevent my toes melting, or the floor melting, since this was a rental and I really wanted my security deposit back.
I was glad Kyle couldn’t hear all this. I’m pretty sure I said a few curse-words he’d never heard before.
The little dragon clung to my hand, claws digging in for dear life. He looked as spooked as I was by what had happened.
“The hell did you do that for?” I said, carrying him to the sink.
He didn’t want to let go of my hand. Too bad. Even cute things need washing.
“Hey,” I said to him as he wriggled and protested under the hot water. “Hey. Stop being cute. I mean it. I can’t keep you.”
Of course, he didn’t heed.
“Okay, Katie,” I told myself as I rubbed his soft underbelly. “You’ve always wanted a dragon. Look how cute he is, just hatched and already barfing fire!” He’d left some black, burned spots on the linoleum, which I had no idea how to fix, or how to explain to my landlord.
Yeah, this would end well. I couldn’t keep the little guy.
Which led to a problem. It wasn’t like I could set him loose. I was also pretty sure the local ASPCA would find themselves ill-equipped.
The microwave blinked 6:52, which meant it was four-thirty (I’d never reset it after the last power-outage). I had an hour before this evening’s date was scheduled to appear.
The baby dragon trilled in my hands, a guilelessly happy sound, and wriggled to get his tiny face under the water.
If I went to the local magical authorities for help, I’d have to register myself. If I left the poor baby on their doorstep, who knew what they’d do to him? He was unregistered, too, and unlike me, didn’t have the wherewithal to defend itself.
I couldn’t keep him. I couldn’t get help here. I knew only one way to safely guarantee he’d be okay: I’d have to call my family.
Dammit, dammit, dammit. This was not how Katie Lin rolled. When I left them for a normal life, I’d meant it, and when I said I’d never talk to them again, it was a solemn vow. They didn’t even know I was dating. Or had dropped out of college. Or lived in the sticks.
Generational war has its casualties, and not all family loss is due to death. No, there had to be another way.
There was: I could take him to my uncle. I trusted my uncle. He even had my address. Maybe this could work.
Evidently, I had previously-unknown skill in dragon-wrangling. The baby dragon trilled constantly, like a purr, and pressed into my fingers. At least I wouldn’t give him a name. Nope. I absolutely would not, because I wasn’t keeping him, and Vesuvius wouldn’t care what I called him anyway.
I had no choice. It was time for the most epic way to blow off a first date via boring voicemail ever. “Hey, Darrin, it’s Katie. I —” Vesuvius puked fire again, fortunately into the sink, but it hit the sponge, and the sponge melted. I didn’t know they could do that. “Uh. Sorry, dropped something. I hate to do this, but I need to cancel tonight. Sorry this is so abrupt. I’ll call you later, okay? Bye.”
It’s okay. I hadn’t really liked him that much, anyway. I just wanted a normal date.
Normal. No food that changes colors, or magic singing tablecloths. Normal.
I told myself this. I had to, every day. And that meant I couldn’t be the magical one on a date, either, or the Mythos — the magical beings of this world — would get pissed because I’d revealed the truth to the Ever-Dying.
They called my kind Kin, which meant part Ever-Dying (such a flattering word for “human,” isn’t it?) and part something else. Technically, I’m about as human as the next guy (I can give blood and everything), but there’s just enough other in my family tree to extend my lifespan and give me access to magic.
I know someday my attempt to live like a pure-blood human and love one and spend my life with one (whoever THAT may be) is going to crash and burn in my face, but that day is not today. Today, I will keep lying, as long as it takes, to preserve this fragile and ever-dying life.
Out of curiosity, I checked flights to Wales, but the tickets were out of my price range. I don’t really know what I was thinking, anyway. How do you smuggle a baby dragon through customs? Never mind that wands tend to upset the TSA a lot. Something about traveling with a giant metal stick bothers them, for some mysterious reason.
I could go by ship, which is how I got to America in the first place, but I doubted that kind of time was available to me. I knew how huge dragons got, but I didn’t know how fast they got there. What did he even eat? I didn’t know.
That left magical transport. That meant hiding Vesuvius, because I wouldn’t risk him being taken away, but without x-ray machines, it might actually be possible.
I put Suvi (Suvi! Even his nickname was cute) in my black oval roasting pan and set him on my bed. He peered sideways over the top to watch me, resting his head on his tiny cheekbone.
Clothes: no formal robes, because this was not a “real” visit. I planned to show up at my uncle’s door, give him the baby, and leave. If anybody else related to me was there, too bad for them. I didn’t want my family to think I was thriving without them — they might react to that — so I settled for a really comfy jogging suit, all plush on the inside and a glorious purple color that made me feel better for no reason at all.
Shoes: practical. Not the boots, because while they were really sturdy, they were useless to run in, and I might need to run. Also, those boots were expensive. Plain old tennis shoes, it was.
Underthings: nobody’s business.
Winter coat: the men’s coat I used for snow shoveling. Dark green and stained with salt-residue, it hung to my knees in a perfect manifestation of leave me alone, I am not worth your time.
The rest: my wand, three books for boredom, and a baby dragon nest. I had enough skill to transform a beach towel into something round and squishy and self-heating and soft, and I did my best to make it fire-resistant. Just in case, I threw in a ward to let me know if Vesuvius puked.
I had a sandwich and gave the dragon water in a quarter-cup measure, which he lapped up with his tiny, forked tongue. He wouldn’t eat. He had no interest in anything in my fridge, meat or otherwise, though he did chew the spinach thoughtfully before spitting it out in squeaking complaint. Well, I’d just have to travel with a hungry baby dragon, then. Hopefully, that didn’t mean he’d eat my books.
Now, there was nothing else delaying me beyond raw, unfiltered cowardice.
I hadn’t seen anyone among the Mythos in three years. I’d gone off the grid completely. My failed scholastic career and my current job were sad, but I was proud of them. Success or failure, they were normal. Ordinary. Unmagical — and all of it could go up in smoke if this went wrong.
“Are you worth it, little guy?” I whispered to the warm, soft bundle of scales in my hands, and I kissed him. He chirped and bonked his tiny head against my chin.
Yeah, he was, and I was committed. I put him in his new little home, zipped the bag, and headed out the door.
Those with magic in their blood always know where a Conflux is. It pulls us, even the “us” who don’t know they’re not purely human. Have you ever been pulled in a direction for no reason you could understand, or even felt better just facing that way? Maybe you had time to wander in that direction for a while, following some wordless urge, only to find nothing to explain your desire. You were probably being called to a Conflux. I’m sorry you didn’t find it. They’re a hell of a thing.
From the outside, they’re usually innocuous — a shed, or a nasty-looking bus-stop nobody would want to stand in, or an outhouse that some construction company evidently left behind. It’s carefully warded; no one among the Ever-Dying wants to go near these things, not even for something illegal.
My nearest Conflux looked like a funky little hunting shed, long-abandoned, with the door missing and animal-droppings everywhere. I ducked inside, stepping carefully (the dung was real), and tapped my wand-tip against the floor.
Like an old-fashioned turntable, the cabin started to spin.
The cabin, not me. Undisturbed, I tucked my wand back in my bag as the cabin picked up speed, whirling faster and faster until everything blurred. Right at that moment, lights blazed into existence. The spinning walls and ceiling smoothly pulled away, expanding, brightening, granting ever-slowing glimpses of fancy molding and marble columns.
People (human-looking and otherwise) walked the suddenly-marbled floors as if they weren’t wildly spinning around me, and vertigo briefly stole my balance. I closed my eyes, waiting for it to slow down, and when I opened them again, I’d arrived. Warmth and happy seasonal smells greeted me, with hints of pine and cinnamon and something that might have been cranberry. Light marble columns and walls kept it feeling open and airy, regardless of the crowd and the complete lack of windows or doors. Booths built into the distant walls boasted gold scrolling along their eaves and sales reps who managed to look like they wanted to be here.
In spite of all this, the lines were horrifying, stretching all the way to where I stood at the point of arrival, and even with magic, nothing was moving very fast. Dang. Holiday travel sucks, no matter where you go.
I took the line going east.
Sure, with magic it was possible to just go bouncing from country to country, but there isn’t a government in this world that likes unwanted visitors. Given the current tension between the seven Peoples of the earth, Confluxes were the wisest way to go. I’d pay my money, receive a neat little stamp, and arrive in Wales without risk of political ripples.
In front of me stood a trio of ogres. Their suits fit them pretty well, considering the shape and size changes ogres go through on a weekly basis, so they must be ogres with money. I kept my head down (which in this case meant around their elbows) and my hand on my bag. Did baby dragons have a smell? None I could detect, but that didn’t mean somebody here couldn’t smell it.
Behind me queued a tall Fey fellow, lovely as they all were, and oh, he knew it. He wore his fitted black pea-coat over a white shirt and jeans, emphasizing the admittedly interesting ratio between his shoulders and waist. His hair lay like spun silk over his wide lapels, and his black, buckled boots added enough of an edge to keep him from being boring.
That coat had loops on the shoulders. It was double-breasted. I would wear the dickens out of that coat.
He smirked at me.
Envying his coat had led to bad things. Too late, I turned away.
“Hello, there,” he said.
I didn’t have time for amorous Fey. I opted for ignoring him completely.
Which was a mistake. Fey only grow more obnoxious when ignored. “I don’t see many Kin in this area,” he said, all smooth and resonant.
For crying out loud…. “Leave me alone, please.”
Fey have pretty laughter, of course. Everything they have is pretty, but I don’t like people who get everything so easily in life. Not that I’m jealous. Because I’m not.
So anyway, he laughed. “My apologies. I’ll do that, but… well, I hope you aren’t in a great hurry today.”
I stepped closer to the ogres. “As a matter of fact, I am.”
“That’s too bad. They’re closing soon.”
I scowled at the distant booths. “Nonsense. Why would they be closing?”
“Thirty minutes to close,” came over the loudspeakers. “Thirty minutes! Buy your tickets now, or don’t buy ‘em at all!”
I just stared at the speakers. Let me tell you something about magical business: when they say something like thirty minutes, and no more tickets, they mean it. I was boned.
“Construction,” said the Fey fellow cheerfully. “They’re refitting this whole Conflux to handle all the new traffic, which of course, is to be expected.”
New traffic to be expected? Why? This was the worst timing possible. I’d have to drive into Boston, or something. Fifteen-dollars-an-hour parking, huzzah. I groaned. My line didn’t move, so I left my place and jogged in a wide circle.
No lines were moving. Everything was packed. Everybody else in the room looked upset, and that didn’t help me at all. “Dammit!”
“I kept your place,” the Fey man said helpfully, and gestured at my former spot with a delicate sweep and an eyebrow-wriggle.
I was torn between laughing at him and burning his eyebrows off. Correction: dreaming about burning his eyebrows off, because a fire-mage, I was not. “Thanks,” I said, and stepped back in. Guilt niggled. “Sorry I was rude.”
He leaned around my side and beamed at me. “No problem.”
No problem, he says. Not you’re welcome, or my pleasure. This guy’s been stateside for a while.
We stood in slightly less frosty silence for a whole three minutes.
“So what happens if you don’t manage to get a ticket?” he said, peeking at my profile. His gaze tracked appreciatively over my straight black hair and my slanted black eyes.
I kept those eyes straight ahead. “Nothing.”
“Are you sure?” he said, lacking my obvious clue when to shut up. “Given the Hunt’s presence, it seems a little risky to stay here.”
I snorted. “The Hunt isn’t around. This isn’t their season.”
“That doesn’t matter.” His eyes lidded, and he stood back out of sight again. “They were actually hired, didn’t you hear? Something of great value was stolen, and they’ve been hired to get it back.”
Okay, that was different, and of course I hadn’t heard, because I hadn’t been listening at all. This was big. This was bad. “What was stolen?”
“Oh, something small. The Hunt has traced it to this area, which, of course, is why everyone’s leaving.” He gestured gracefully at the room. “We won’t make it to the counter in time. I have another option for you, if you’re interested in taking it.”
I barely heard what he said because I was busy freaking out.
This was about Vesuvius. I knew it. Why hadn’t I stopped to question where this baby came from? Was there an egg in some treasury, somewhere? The Wild Hunt was unpredictable at the best of times, and I had a baby dragon in my bag. A baby dragon with enough power to pop minor wards and probably set off magical alarms. They would find me.
“Oh,” I said, which was lame, but I didn’t know what else to say without implicating myself. I should probably watch more lawyer shows.
“Oh?” he repeated, and peered around my side again. “Is that a yes?”
“Is what a yes?” I said, trying to remember what he’d offered.
He opened his mouth, but before he could speak, the earth shook.
There’s a distinct rhythm to footstep-tremors. Even when they’re enormously spaced apart, you know, know, that something is coming, and all the buzz of conversation stilled as everybody looked around.
The floor shook again, rattling the tiny fairies inside their glass lampshades, and their panicked squeaking crawled up my spine and made the overwhelming silence creepier. Another step, louder, shook plaster-dust down our heads.
“To hell with this,” announced the ogre in front of me, but whatever he was going to do, he ran out of time.
The pressure changed so suddenly it felt like icepicks in my ears. I staggered, gasped, and looked up just in time to see mind-blowingly huge hands appear out of nowhere and rip a hole in the air.
Foreign and inimical atmosphere poured into the station, and far away, the sound of hooves rang on something hollow and unforgiving. Unmistakable, unthinkable, inescapable: the Hunt. It was the Wild Hunt, pushing before it a wave of mindless terror because they enjoyed the chase.
In that jagged hole crouched a darkness so deep that it made my eyes ache and water, even though it was hard to look away. Beings large and small stampeded in all directions, and I cried out as the ogres knocked me over in their haste to get away. There was nowhere to go. No doors or windows, just one spinning exit directly beneath that tear which no one was going near because really, and yes the no-exits policy seems unwise, but magical people are just arrogant like that. There aren’t many things out there that could tear the magical protections of a Conflux. The Hunt had brought big, bad help to rip into our dimension.
Just then, the Fey ducked low and ran. He didn’t look panicked. He scuttled with purpose. Where the hell was he going? I followed.
Fey are devilish slippery things, but I managed to keep up in the chaos. Everyone shouted and ran around, waving weapons or cowering behind puny magical shields. I weaved between large hairy bodies and bounced off leathery, brick-hard ones, reflecting that I hadn’t been in a situation like this in ages, and boy, I had not missed it.
I was so tiny compared to most of the things in here. A blue-furred Gorgad knocked me down, and when I looked up, the damned Fey was gone.
Some idiot cast a fog spell, and now no one could see anything. I crawled one-handed through the screams, awkward, clutching the bag to my chest and praying Vesuvius hadn’t been smothered or smushed or anything worse. I didn’t dare stand. Wet, ripping sounds filtered through the screams and spell-casting. I panted and moved forward, trying to reach the wall.
The fog was lighter there, and I spotted him again: the Fey, fiddling with an item I couldn’t quite see.
This dude had a way out. I didn’t bother shouting. I just jumped to my feet and ran at him.
He saw me coming, and his face flickered through annoyance, surprise, and then welcome as he gestured at me to hurry.
He had a portal. It gleamed at his feet, a small, silver disc the size of a dollar coin, emitting light in thick white rays like the beams from a cartoon sun. In the middle of this chaos, the Fey bowed and gestured me toward it with all the grace of an old-world gentleman, and I revamped my original theory: he may have been in the States for a while, but he definitely started out somewhere else.
I leaped into the rays without bothering to ask where we were going. Whoever said I can’t be spontaneous?
At These Stores: