I woke up the next morning with the sun already up. There was some thumping going on in the next room over, sounding like heavy footfalls, but not quite; there was a bit of a scraping sound mixed into it as well. I wondered what Sarah was today.
I got dressed, then went over to her room and knocked. I wasn’t really ready for the sight that greeted me as the door swung open, though!
Sarah was looking dramatically different, like, even more different than she usually did. Most of her forms looked more or less like Sarah, essentially human with some differences. But this… if I hadn’t known it was a possibility, and known what room Sarah was staying in, I wouldn’t have ever imagined the being that stood in it that morning was her. She didn’t look half-human at all; she looked like an eight-foot-tall bipedal dragon!
She was covered from head to tail in shimmering sky-blue scales. And yeah… tail. Almost four feet long, a bit bigger around than my arm at the base and gradually tapering to a point, sticking out from a hole in what appeared to be a skirt custom-made with a hole for tailed forms. Though the fabric appeared to be torn a little back there. Maybe she wasn’t used to tails as thick as this one? I kinda hoped she had more than one, or she’d be rather embarrassed if she woke up tomorrow in her catgirl form!
And speaking of overtaxed clothing, she was wearing the same blouse as she had the day before, with slits in the back for her wings, but again, the ones she had today were far too large to fit through, and she’d had to rip them open almost all the way down. With her overall frame being so much larger than usual, larger even than her angelic form from yesterday, the blouse was very tight on her, except up top where it hung a bit loose, as she didn’t appear to actually have any breasts in this form!
Her long blonde hair was still there, though, looking a bit out of place on her scaled body. She was barefoot, as her large, clawed feet would have demolished any shoes she tried to put them into.
Sarah had to stoop a little to keep from bumping her head on the ceiling. She gave me a toothy grin when she opened the door, and twirled around slowly, mindful of her tail, to show off the new form. She didn’t seem at all humiliated or mortified by the torn clothing. “Look at me, Paul!” she rumbled in a loud, enthusiastic tone more than an octave below her usual voice. “I’m all dragony today!”
“Peter!” I corrected her, worried someone might hear.
She gave a deep laugh. “Whoever you are. I swear sometimes you change more than me!”
The innkeeper came up the stairs, drawn by the loud voice. “Is everything all right?” he asked on the way up. Then he stepped up to the open door, and he went all pale when he saw Sarah.
I gave him a gentle smile. “You’ll have to pardon my companion’s appearance, good sir. She suffers from a curse by which she is transformed into a new being each day… and today it would seem she has become a dragon.”
The poor guy looked well and truly freaked out. “Have you come here to ruin me?”
I felt bad for him. First last night, and now this?
“Not at all. My apologies, good sir. It appears our luck is rather poor lately. We’ll leave momentarily.”
“Without any food?” Sarah asked, a little bit petulantly.
He looked nervous. “I’ll provide you with some.” He turned, glad for an excuse, and headed off in a big rush.
Sarah giggled, which sounded strange in her much-lower voice. “Did you see him?”
“Yeah, and he’s all afraid of you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this, Sarah.”
She grinned. “I’ve never been like this! This is a new form for me. And being a dragon feels amazing! I have so much magic swimming around inside me, it’s like, what I normally have is a mighty river already, but this is a whole lake!”
Each of her forms came with a different set of emotional baselines, which she had had a lot of trouble getting used to at first. Apparently the dragon version was a very happy and energetic form!
I got packed up pretty quickly, and the innkeeper heated something up in a big hurry, a breakfast of fried sausages and potatoes, big enough for three people. Or, apparently, one of Sarah. She polished it all off very quickly, using the large serving spoon to convey food directly from the skillet to her mouth, and only when it was all gone did she look over at me. “Oops!” she rumbled amusedly with another of those too-deep giggles. “Some of that should have been yours, shouldn’t it?”
I sighed a little. It was way too early in the day to be feeling this weary. “I’ve got some trail rations,” I said. “I’ll be fine. Let’s get going.”
So we headed outside and I retrieved Wyntaf from the stables, only to run across another complication. Apparently etaria, like their celestial masters, don’t get along with dragons very well. Or maybe it was just a horse/alpha predator thing in general. Either way, Wyntaf seemed just as freaked out by the sight of her as the innkeeper had been. She danced around nervously and snorted, and when Sarah tried to approach her slowly, to gently touch her and soothe her, Wyntaf let out an irritated whinny and snapped at her with her teeth. The dragon form must have come with some sort of Spider-sense or something, as Sarah pulled her hand back incredibly quickly.
“Well,” she huffed, “if she’s going to be all obnoxious about it…” she took a few steps back and held up a hand, then growled out a spell. It was too quick for me to do anything to stop her, and Wyntaf promptly fell asleep, still standing as horses generally do.
The stablehands saw this demonstration of power and scattered. Even I was a bit nervous by this point. From what I’ve heard, sleeping a person, particularly involuntarily, was very difficult, and she’d just done it to something a lot bigger than a human being, as if it was nothing!
“Sarah! How am I going to ride now?”
She shrugged. “You weren’t going to anyway, not with her being all unreasonable like that. Even if I flew, she’d be all nervous, you know, ‘oh no, big scary predator overhead that could swoop down on me at any moment!'”
“Is it really that unreasonable to be afraid of someone whose first reaction to difficult behavior is to throw a spell at them like someone with no self-control?”
She gave an aggressive little snort, complete with a puff of smoke issuing from her nostrils. “I don’t know,” she said bitterly. “Try asking my dad!”
Ouch. Yeah, he’d done that to her a few times, back when the curse was new, when she’d been in some of her bigger, more aggressive forms and hadn’t learned to deal with their impulses yet.
“And besides, that wasn’t my first reaction. My first reaction was ‘lunch!’ But you see I didn’t act on it, because I do have self-control!” She sounded inordinately proud of having managed to refrain from trying to eat Wyntaf.
I just sighed. “Be that as it may, how are we going to travel now?”
Sarah gave me a positively fierce grin. “Like this!” She held both arms out in front of her, elbows bent, palms upward, as if about to carry something. Then she crouched slightly, spread her massive, leathery wings, and pushed off, wings flapping as she took to the air with a distinct sound of tearing fabric.
I flailed my arms as some unseen force lifted me into the air… and the sleeping Wyntaf as well! Sarah cried out gleefully. “Wheeeeee!” She quickly raised the three of us up above the level of the treetops and headed off in a northwesterly direction, wings flapping powerfully as she moved.
“Hey! Put me down!” I cried out, clinging to the lute case with white knuckles. “What happens if the Twist rips your spell apart? This ring isn’t perfect, you know.”
Sarah laughed, her deep voice clear even over the rushing of the wind in my ears. “I’m not using magic! It’s an awesome thing; I don’t even need to! You’re flying along with me just because I want you to.”
That was a bit chilling. Aylwyn had told me that “the power of a dragon’s will” was a fundamental force of its own, able to reshape reality without using magic. First, that meant I had a fine line to tread; I’d really better not make her not want me to! But second, the broader implication: if that power was in Sarah’s hands right now…
I thought frantically. The dragon instincts were clearly very strong in this form, but there was some of Sarah present as well. There had to be something I could say that would get through to her. The dragon just wanted to have fun with its newfound phenomenal cosmic powers, but what did Sarah want?
What did Sarah want that I could give her? When I thought about it that way, it was simple enough. For all her blatant throwing herself at me, she had always tried to be a good friend, even if she wasn’t quite clear on the details of how to go about it when you’re also attracted to someone. I think underneath it all, she wanted approval. She wanted “that Paul” to approve of her. Well, I had just the thing.
“Sarah,” I called out over the wind of our movement, “do you remember what I told you, about geeks?”
“They’re people from your world who value knowledge for its own sake and place a high value on enriching their mind. People like you, and me. Remember? And Gerald.” She scowled a little. “But Aylwyn thought the whole thing was a waste of time.”
I nodded. “But there’s something important you need to understand.” She looked over at me, then flapped her wings, and the ground below us started moving by faster. The wind got louder in my ears as her speed increased. I gasped a little, forcing myself to look over at her and not down. I’m not afraid of heights, at least not usually, but that was anything but usual, and it was taking every bit of self-control I possessed to not act as terrified as I felt up there. I guess the “don’t show fear in front of a predator” instinct is even stronger; even if I knew, rationally, that she had no desire to harm me, I also knew that she was acting heavily on instincts that she hadn’t really gotten used to yet.
I forced myself to stay calm as I continued. “It’s a very important principle, almost a sacred creed to us. You can never truly be one of us if you don’t understand it, and it actually touches on your powers as a dragon.”
She looked intrigued by that. I had thought she might; combine initiating herself as something I would approve of with the lure of secret knowledge; it appeals to both Sarah and the dragon! “Tell me, then,” she said.
I shouted over the wind–we seemed to be continually moving faster and faster as time went by. “I can teach it to you, but can we land, please? It’s hard to concentrate on this when every instinct is screaming in terror, telling me I should be plummeting to my death.”
Sarah laughed, but she slowed down and began a gliding descent towards the ground below. She set Wyntaf and me down surprisingly gently; I barely felt any impact when my feet touched the ground. It did feel good to have solid ground beneath my feet again. I was shaking, gasping for breath.
“Thank you,” I said, sitting down and breathing slowly, trying to get my heart rate down to something reasonable. “That… that was…”
“That was awesome!” she enthused. “I’ve never been able to fly like that before, even with magic. It’s just not the same!”
I groaned. “Well to me it was terrifying.”
“Why?” she asked. “Didn’t you say that you have flying carriage machines on your world, to transport people quickly?”
“Yes, but they’re carriages,” I said. “They have an enclosed cabin so you don’t feel the wind or see the ground far below you with nothing holding you up.
“They sound boring,” Sarah said dismissively. “Anyway… what’s this secret creed?”
I looked her right in the eyes. “It’s something simple, but very important, especially the way you are right now: With great power comes great responsibility. It means that the stronger you are, the easier it is to accidentally break something or hurt somebody, and that you always need to be aware of that and be careful so you don’t cause harm.”
She scowled. “You sound like my mom. She was always saying things like that to me, growing up.”
I nodded. “I’m not surprised. She was a geek too. And she’s dedicated her life to using her power for the betterment of others. Same with Gerald, and he’s one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
Sarah growled a little. “She always told me that,” she repeated. “She and Dad always seemed to know every bit of mischief I might get into before I ever tried it. They had all my tricks figured out before I did, and they stifled me. I never really had the chance to be good, not of my own accord at least, because I never had the chance to be bad either. Mom was such a hypocrite, because she would say that to me without ever understanding that it works both ways.”
“Works both ways? What do you mean?”
She looked at me as if it should be obvious. “With responsibility… must come power. Denying that makes the entire principle worthless.”
Argh. Why did she have to go and be right like that, when I needed to persuade her that her behavior was wrong? OK, I could work with that. “You’re right, that was wrong, but I think I know why she did that.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s… something strange, about the land she’s from–her home and mine. It’s a wonderful place, but it’s got its faults and its problems, and one of the bigger ones is how we treat young adults.”
“What do you do?” she asked.
“Essentially what she did to you. My people have invented something absolutely insane that they call adolescence: it basically means that when a person matures physically, they’re still many years away from being recognized as truly grown, and during that time, they’re expected to mature emotionally as well, to behave like adults and be responsible, while enjoying none of the rights and privileges of that state.”
Sarah looked floored by that. “That’s even worse!” she said. “How does that even work?”
“It doesn’t,” I responded. “Never really has. And so ever since they invented the idea, entire generations have been essentially written off for being unable to live up to this impossible and unnatural ideal. They call them ‘bad kids’ because they never seem to realize that they aren’t children at all anymore, but they’re not being allowed to be more than that. And that’s what your mother grew up with. Things are a bit different around here, but I think she still has that idea in the back of her mind, and it affected the way she raised you.”
She gave another smoky snort. “Then how does anyone even–HEY!” She turned and looked off to my left and behind me.
I turned to see what it was, then groaned. Wyntaf was glowing. Brightly. I knew what that meant; Aylwyn somehow knew something was very wrong. Sure enough, the horse disappeared all of a sudden.
I groaned. “She’s going to be so mad at me, and not even know what was going on!”
A low growl rumbled from Sarah’s throat. “You see? I tried to warn you about her…”
OK, that was about enough of that. “Yes, it’s absolutely Aylwyn’s fault that she responded in exactly the way she warned me beforehand that she would respond if her trust was abused, and then her horse was taken off course, scared half to death by a dragon, and then sleeped and picked up and made to fly through the air. Yep, I definitely should have been more careful in my dealings with her!”
She turned to growl at me. I just glared. “Save it.” I held up my hand, then slipped the ring off and dropped it into my pocket. “Sarah, I swear, any more of this and I’m gonna come over there and touch you, and then I’ll be ‘all dragony’ too, and I will kick your butt until you’re willing to listen to reason!”
I really shouldn’t have let her provoke me like that. It wasn’t truly her I was mad at, well not mostly at least. I was just feeling a little bit overwhelmed already, and now I had no horse, and then she goes and starts going off on Aylwyn like that about something that’s her own fault. And nobody gets to insult my friends, especially for no good reason–not even my other friends. So I snapped at her.
I’m not sure what should have happened then. She probably should have snapped back, or tried to use her power to sleep me next, or… done something angry, at least. Instead, she did about the last thing I would have ever expected: she grinned.
“Paul! That’s perfect!”
“…what?” Why did I have a feeling this was not going to end well?
“Come touch me, take my hand, and turn into a dragon too! Then you can fly without being afraid, and with as fast as we were going, we could probably make it to the Treasury by nightfall!”
Yep. Out of the frying pan and into the dragonfire. “Wait, no,” I said, backing away. “You’ve got the chance now. You’re free and on your own.” She started walking towards me. “You can choose to be bad, or to be good, and have it be meaningful now.” I put my hand in my pocket, fumbling around, but I couldn’t quite seem to get the ring back on my finger.
Sarah reached out and grabbed my other hand, very firmly. “Then I choose to get you to the end of your quest as quickly as I can. That’s good.”
I tensed and cried out as I felt the Twist try to press against her nature, and then her nature, born of the same Void as my own power, Twisted back at it. I screamed as I felt my body beginning to change, then stopped suddenly when I realized how much it didn’t hurt this time. It probably should have. It should have burned and irritated the heck out of my skin as it formed into tough, silvery scales. Wings erupted from my back, shredding my shirt, and my fingers thickened and lengthened, the nails transforming into blunt claws. I could feel my legs and hips expanding, and I knew at any moment I’d be growing a tail too.
That had better not wreck my trousers, I thought with a slight shiver of horror. And then the tail came out, and I kept growing larger and stouter… and somehow, the trousers stretched, expanding along with me. The tail made a hole, somehow, as if it had a blade-sharp tip, but no actual shredding and bursting took place. Was this how the power of a dragon’s will worked? I could get used to that…
I shook my head. That way lies corruption. I turned and glowered at Sarah for doing this to me. She just giggled and grinned. “Mmmm… you make a very handsome dragon!” She leaned in and actually licked my neck.
It felt good. A little too good. I pushed her away roughly by the shoulders. “You shouldn’t have done that, not without getting permission from me first,” I groused. My voice was a lot deeper too now. That probably should have worried me, but… I could see why Sarah was all manic. It felt really good to be a half-dragon, for some reason.
Sarah just smiled at me. My dragon instincts were telling me that she was a very pretty dragon-girl. I told them to shut up. “Let’s get this over with,” I said. I flexed my legs, did something with my back muscles that caused my wings to spread–somehow I just knew how to do that–and pushed off. Sarah gave a gleeful little squee of pleasure at the sight, and took to the air behind me.
“This way!” she called out, again heading northwest.
I sighed and flew after her. It was going to be a long day…