Svena, Terror of the Winter Sea, White Witch of the Three Sisters, and acting head of the world’s oldest and still most powerful dragon clan, was awake before noon, and she wasn’t happy about it. She was even less happy to be awake and alone, sulking in the middle of Ian’s giant bed while she watched her young lover dress through narrowed, resentful eyes.
“I don’t see why you have to leave,” she said, brushing the sleep-tangled, ice blond hair out of her eyes. “Not even humans are awake at this beastly hour.”
“On the contrary,” Ian replied, tying his silk tie in the bedroom mirror. “Lots of highly successful humans are up and busy at six in the morning, which is why I am up at five.” His reflection smiled teasingly at her. “That’s the downside of young, ambitious dragons, darling. We still have to work.”
Svena’s scathing look let him know what she thought of that. As always, though, Ian just smirked, running a brush through his perfect black hair one last time before walking over to the bed. “Go back to sleep,” he said, leaning down to kiss her. “You need all the rest you can get. We have the party tonight.”
He said this like he was delivering the gravest of news, and Svena laughed. “But the invitation was so heartfelt. How could I dash your sweet baby brother’s hopes by refusing? I’m a dragon, not an ogre.”
Ian scoffed. “If Julius actually wrote that, he’s even worse than I thought.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “You know my mother—”
“Of course I know,” Svena cut him off, snuggling back down into the pillows. “But that’s the problem with old, ambitious dragons, darling. You are free to cut your own way to the top, but the Heartstriker isn’t someone we can ignore, and I have my family to think of.”
“You think of them too often,” he said coldly. “Why must it all fall on you? Your sisters are perfectly capable of spinning their own plots. Or they would be, if they weren’t so used to Estella telling them what to do, they’ve forgotten how to function without her.”
“Perhaps,” Svena said sleepily. “But at least they never woke me up before noon.”
Ian heaved a long sigh, and then the bed dipped slightly as he reached down to stroke her long hair. “I’ll come home early,” he promised. “I want to take you somewhere before we have to go.”
Svena’s head shot up. “Where?” she asked, trying not to sound too excited.
Ian didn’t answer, just winked at her as he stood and walked out of the bedroom. Only when the door shut behind him did Svena let her suspicious expression melt into a smile as she flopped back into the mountain of pillows.
Not that she would ever admit it, but things with Ian were going remarkably well. He managed the delicate balance of courtship with the adroitness of a dragon three times his age; showering her with just enough gifts and surprises to keep her interested, but never so many that it came across as trying too hard. He was also exceedingly easy on the eyes as both a human and a dragon. A shallow consideration to be sure, but one Svena found quite pleasing. Most astonishing of all, though, was how well they got along.
It wasn’t affection; Svena barely felt that even for her sisters, but there was an ease of like minds between her and Ian that was surprisingly delightful. So much so that she often found herself granting him more access than she should, which would have to be curbed. A courtship this lovely deserved to be savored, not rushed, and after all the work she’d put into digging her clan out of the hole Estella had left it in when she’d vanished without a trace four weeks ago, Svena had earned some time to herself.
With that delightful thought, Svena rolled over, snuggling back into bed to catch another few hours of sleep before she was due to meet Katya for brunch and a status report. She’d just begun to drift off when she felt a cold, sharp twinge at the edge of her consciousness.
Svena sat bolt upright, holding her breath, but there was no mistake. Magic was rising in the room. Very familiar magic, and it was coming fast.
She sprang out of bed, trailing frost across the carpet behind her as she grabbed her dressing gown. She was still shoving her arms into the padded silk sleeves when the air in front of her closet began to warp and bulge before finally ripping apart entirely as a dragon tore its way into the world.
Svena jumped back with a curse. Not because of the dragon—given the magic, she’d expected nothing less—but because it was black. What should have been snow-white scales and transparent, frost-traced wings were coated with thick layers of tarry black residue, almost as though the dragon had been rolling in ash. The stuff didn’t smell like any char Svena had ever encountered, but before she could get a better look, the dragon shifted and shrank until all that was left was its human shadow, naked and gasping on the ice-coated carpet.
Svena ran to her sister’s side, her hands shooting out to help her up before stopping short. Something was horribly wrong. Estella’s normally snow-white hair and skin were as dirty as her dragon had been, and her fingers were bloody, as though she’d been digging through sharp stones. Worst of all, though, was what she clutched between them.
There were two objects. One, a beautiful golden ball the size of a large orange, was expected. Estella had never mastered the finer points of extraplanar travel, and she couldn’t have found her way back to this dimension without the Kosmolabe. But while Svena was most definitely not pleased to see the golden troublemaker again, it was nothing compared to what was waiting in Estella’s other hand.
On the first glance, they looked like coiled lengths of black rope. On the second, she saw they were chains. Pencil thin, ink black chains were wrapped around Estella’s hands and wrists, their tiny links glittering dully under the dimmed lights. The closest one twitched as Svena watched, curling around Estella’s thumb like a thin, black tentacle.
“What is that?” she demanded, recoiling back her oldest, and once dearest, sister. “What have you done, Estella?”
The seer didn’t answer. She just pushed herself to her knees, looking around the penthouse apartment like she didn’t know where she was. “How long was I gone?”
Svena winced. Her sister’s voice was as rough as the rest of her. “Three weeks.”
“Three weeks,” Estella whispered, lifting a shaking, chained hand to her face. “It felt like centuries.”
For a dangerous moment, the old sympathy came welling back, and then Svena remembered herself. “Maybe it should have been.”
Estella’s head snapped up, but Svena only gave her a cold look, rising from the floor to stare down at the dragon who’d nearly doomed their clan. She’d hoped to have more time before it came to this, but it didn’t matter. Svena was prepared, and it was best to settle things now, quickly, before Estella had a chance to recover.
“You should not have returned.”
“And you should not speak to me that way,” Estella said, lifting her chin. “I will give you a chance to take it back.”
“I don’t need your chances,” Svena growled. “I’m not your pawn any more.”
Estella opened her mouth to argue, but Svena didn’t give her a chance. “While you were gone, I convened our sisters. Eleven daughters of the Three Sisters, all together in one place for the first time since our mothers went to sleep, and for once in our lives, we were able to come to a consensus. You are no longer welcome among us.”
She stopped there, waiting for the shock, but she should have known better. Estella was a seer. She didn’t even look surprised. “That’s not something you get to decide,” she said haughtily. “Our mothers—”
“Our mothers have been asleep for over a thousand years,” Svena reminded her. “But if they woke today, they would be disgusted by how you’ve managed things in their absence. You are forever saying that we are the daughters of gods, but your endless, petty grudge against the Heartstriker and her seer has brought us closer to destruction than any other disaster in our history, including the loss of magic. Your selfishness put us all at risk, endangered Katya, and diminished our standing as a clan. That is incompetence, Estella, and we are no longer willing to tolerate it.” She bared her teeth. “Your rule is over, Northern Star. It is our consensus that your mind has finally been eaten by the seer’s madness, leaving you incapable of guiding our clan any further. From here on, I lead the daughters of the Three Sisters, and you will follow, or you will be banished.”
By the time she finished, Estella was shaking with rage, her hands curling into fists on the frosted carpet as magic began to rise. Svena called hers as well, ready to finish this. She was no longer afraid of the future. Estella was not the wise, savvy leader she’d once been, the dragon Svena had always looked up to. This filthy creature was nothing but a shadow, and Svena was younger, stronger. She would win. But as she summoned the ice to her hands, shaping the cold magic into a blast that would send Estella through the penthouse window, the seer suddenly slumped.
“I knew you would do this,” she said sadly, lowering her hands as she sat back down on the floor. “Your future vanished from my sight a long time ago, but I didn’t need to see to know. You have always been ambitious, Svena. It was inevitable that you would turn on me.”
“Congratulations, then,” Svena said mockingly. “You were right one last time.”
“Not this time,” the seer said, shaking her head. “I will not fight you, little sister.”
Svena paused, confused. “Then you will bow?”
“No,” Estella said with a crooked smile. “You will.”
And then her arm shot out.
Svena dodged automatically, throwing up a barrier of razor sharp ice, but it didn’t help. The moment Estella’s arm extended, one of the black lengths of chain leapt from it, curving impossibly in mid-flight to slide over her barrier and wrap Svena’s throat. But while she saw the black chain hit, the metal had no weight against her skin, and when her frantic hands shot up to tear it away, there was nothing. Nothing at all.
“What did you do?” she roared, grabbing frantically at her bare neck.
“I fixed you,” Estella said sweetly. “Don’t worry, love. I’m going to fix everything.”
The words fell soft as snow, and when they were done, the invisible thing around Svena’s neck wrenched tight. She sank to the ground, choking as she clawed at whatever it was Estella had thrown, but like before, there was nothing to feel, not even magic. Her throat was simply closing, cutting her off, not from air, but from the world. It was like she was being squeezed out of her own body, and as she fought helplessly on the floor, Estella knelt beside her, reaching down to brush Svena’s hair out of her face as she had when they were young.
“Go back to how it was,” she whispered. “Come back to me.”
That was the last thing Svena heard before everything ended.
Three thousand miles away, in the heart of the mountain that rose like a thorn from the center of the vast expanse of New Mexico desert that now belonged exclusively to Bethesda the Heartstriker, in a cave stuffed to bursting with treasure and trash collected in equal measure, Brohomir, Great Seer of the Heartstrikers, fell out of his hammock.
He landed on his feet only by habit, shaking his head in an attempt to clear the horrible dream. Sadly, this too was only habit. He already knew what he’d felt was no dream.
It was a problem.
Bob turned away from his hammock with a scowl, clambering over piles of antique chessboards, watering cans, crowns, ancient artifacts, and hubcaps in his rush to get to the cork board propped up on top of the unpainted, sideways door that served as his desk. His actual desk was currently being used as a stand for the massive bird habitat he’d installed for his pigeon.
His sudden fall must have woken her, because she came fluttering over to perch on the shoulder of his threadbare t-shirt, her talons picking tiny holes in the design that wouldn’t be suitably ironic for at least another decade. For once, though, Bob didn’t notice. He was too busy digging through the massive layers of pink and yellow sticky notes that covered the cork board like overlapping scales, looking briefly at each one before tossing it on the ground.
“No,” he muttered. “No, no, no, no—Ah ha!”
He clutched the neon orange slip of paper like a winning lotto ticket and turned to the bird on his shoulder. “Darling,” he said sweetly. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to do some flying.”
The pigeon tilted its head, blinking its beady eyes with a questioning coo.
“Yes, far,” Bob said, showing her the paper. “As far as it gets, I’m afraid.”
The pigeon cooed again, and Bob sighed, walking over to grab the tin of butter cookies lying on top of a dusty pile of VHS tapes. He cracked the lid and picked out a sugary square. The bird perked up immediately, hoping into his open hand. When she’d pecked the bribe to crumbs, Bob stroked her rainbow-feathered neck with a gentle finger. “Now, please? It’s kind of important.”
The pigeon bobbed her head and took off, beating her wings hard as she worked her way up through the heavy air to the tiny window at the top of the artificial cavern. Bob watched her until she was out of sight, and then he slapped the lid back on the cookie tin, tossed it on his hammock, and began picking his way through the maze of boxes that led to his door.
In a dark corner of the DFZ Underground where the touristy, old Detroit kitsch of lower downtown collided with the clapboard factory neighborhoods, in the top floor walk-up of a crumbling apartment building so poorly constructed, it had to lean on the nearby skyway pillar to stay upright, Julius, youngest son of Bethesda the Heartstriker and greatest failure of the Heartstriker dragon clan, was engaged in a standoff.
He stood with his back to the water-damaged drywall, his green eyes locked on the shadowy kitchen, where another pair of eyes—these round, reflective, and traffic-cone orange—watched him from the dark. Below the eyes, a massive jaw was open in a threat display, showing off twin rows of short, shark-like teeth with a growl that sounded like a miniature chainsaw. It wasn’t nearly the scariest wall of teeth Julius had faced, but he knew from unfortunate personal experience that whatever those fangs lacked in size, they made up for in sheer power. A tank badger could bite through steel if it got mad enough, and this one seemed to be well on its way, stomping its stubby, long-clawed paws on the stained linoleum as it paced back and forth, looking for a way past the dragon’s guard.
He was not going to find it.
The moment the badger’s pacing brought it into range, Julius attacked, sweeping in with his catchpole. The long, carbon-fiber rod flexed like a fishing pole as Julius tipped it sideways, deftly slipping the steel wire loop at the end over the tank badger’s armored head. The moment the noose was in position, he turned the pole again to cinch the loop tight, trapping the animal in a choke at the end of the stick.
“Gotcha!” he cried, bracing with his arms out to keep the thrashing badger at the end of the pole as far from his body as possible. He was reaching back with his foot to slide the warded cage into position when a second tank badger jumped out of the broken cabinet above the fridge to land on top of the first, biting through the steel wire that Julius had looped over its neck like so much taffy floss.
“Oh come on,” Julius cried, yanking back his now useless catchpole as both tank badgers turned to growl at him, their squat, heavy bodies blocking the kitchen doorway in a wall of armored muscle and sheer orneriness. “I thought you guys were supposed to be territorial.”
The badgers snarled in unison, snapping their powerful jaws. Julius bared his own teeth in reply, trying to remind them who the bigger predator was around here, but he might as well have been growling at one of his siblings for all the good it did. Tank badgers were immune to poison, most magic, and their armored hides were tough enough to stop bullets. They were also fireproof, which meant they cared about dragons only slightly more than they cared about humans, which was not at all. Plus, there were two of them now, which was one more than Julius was prepared to deal with.
“Marci!” he called, keeping his eyes on the badgers as he tossed the broken catchpole away. “How’s it going?”
There was a long, frustrated silence before she called back. “Could be better.”
That was not the answer he’d hoped for. “Better how?” he asked, risking a look away from the badgers just long enough to dart his eyes back to the living room where Marci was standing over their client, a young man whose prone body was overshadowed by the ghostly apparition of a tank badger the size of a car.
“It’s not my fault,” she growled, scowling into the glowing spellwork circles she’d drawn all over the cheap parquet floor. “This should have taken ten minutes, but this stupid curse is so buggy and poorly made, it’s actually almost impossible to remove. It’s like whoever did it went all the way around the circle of incompetence and ended up at accidental brilliance.”
“I keep telling you, it’s not a curse,” the client croaked, his pale face covered in a sheen of nervous sweat that only got worse every time one of the tank badgers made a noise. “It’s a love spell.”
A love spell that attracted male tank badgers looking to mate sounded like a curse to Julius, but he kept his mouth shut. There was no point in antagonizing the client, especially since Marci was doing such a good job of it on her own.
“It’s a scam, that’s what it is,” she said, flaring her spellwork as she fed more magic into her circles. “You got yourself tricked into paying for a summoning by some idiot, no-license shaman, and now you’ve got a female tank badger spirit sitting on your head like you’re her new den. You’re lucky attracting randy males is all she’s doing.”
“So get rid of her,” he gasped.
“I’m trying,” Marci snapped. “But it’s kind of hard to undo spellwork when you have it permanently attached into your body.” She stabbed her finger down as she said this, pointing straight at the crude and obviously brand new spellwork tattoo encircling the client’s bicep. “Seriously, what were you thinking? Why would you get spellwork tattooed when you don’t even know what it does?”
The man began to look panicked. “Just get it off!”
“Too late for that,” she said, rolling up her sleeves. “It looks like the spell’s already gotten cozy with your magic, which means it’s going to take more than physical removal of the ink to get it out.” Marci shook her head. “Nothing for it. We’re going to have to burn her down.”
The man began to sweat harder. “Burn down? That doesn’t sound good. Are you sure you’re qualified for this?”
“Burning down a spirit just means Marci’s going to siphon off magic until it’s small enough to banish,” Julius explained, slipping into his unofficial job of team peace keeper. “Just relax. I’ve seen her do this plenty of times, and I assure you it’s perfectly safe.”
Marci rolled her eyes at that last bit. Fortunately, the client wasn’t looking. “Just hurry up,” he rasped, closing his eyes. “She’s crushing me.”
Like it could hear them talking about it, the giant female tank badger spirit hissed and crouched down harder over its prey. The noise caught the attention of both males, and they barked in reply, their stubby, club-like tails bashing holes in the kitchen floor in their excitement.
“Can you keep the hordes at bay for a few more minutes?” Marci asked, looking at Julius. “I’m going to try and finish this in one swoop.”
“I’ll do my best,” he promised, unclasping the industrial strength cattle prod from his belt. The voltage was calibrated to stun a buffalo, which meant it’d be enough for one of the badgers. The other was another story, but from the intent way they were staring at the female spirit, Julius knew he was just going to have to wing it. Now that they outnumbered him, any hesitation the badgers might have had was gone. They were going to get to the female, and they were ready to go through him to do it. So, before the beasts could shuffle out of the kitchen to flank him, Julius jumped straight at the bigger one, leaping through the air to shove the cattle prod’s electrode deep into the gap below its armored jaw.
The animal’s squeal went off like a siren, piercing his ears as the tank badger’s body went stiff from the shock. It fell over a second later, too stunned to even breathe. The shock wouldn’t last long, though, so Julius didn’t waste time. He’d already whirled around, dropping the prod, which took five seconds to rebuild its charge, to grab the warded cage he’d hauled up five flights of steps back when they’d thought they’d only have to deal with one tank badger, and not a moment too soon. He’d barely closed his fingers around the cage’s spellworked metal tines when the second badger launched itself at his head.
For such a squat, heavy animal, the tank badger was impressively fast, but here, at last, Julius had the advantage. Moving with supernatural quickness, he planted his feet and spun, positioning the cage in front of him. By the time the tank badger saw what was waiting, it was much too late. It was already in the air, and there was nothing it could do but squeal as it flew into the open cage like a ball into a goal. The impact when it crashed into the back was still enough to nearly take Julius off his feet, but he caught himself just in time, bracing against the doorway as he locked the cage door in place, shutting all one hundred pounds of furious tank badger behind an inch-thick grid of spelled metal.
And just like that, one threat was eliminated. The caged badger snarled and snapped, but the slits between the bars were too small for it to gets its nose through, much less teeth around. Feeling satisfied that it was caged for now, Julius turned back to face the larger badger, who was already shaking off the cattle prod’s stun, hissing like a cat as it rolled to its feet. He was trying to figure out what he was going to do about that since they’d only brought one cage when a bowling ball-sized blast of swirling air flew over his shoulder and slammed into the badger’s face, knocking it head over claws back into the kitchen.
It hopped back up almost immediately, shaking off the magic like it was nothing, but when it turned around to growl at Julius again, its orange eyes no longer had the crazed gleam. The poor thing actually looked more confused than anything else, its pointy snout snuffing in the dark. Then, almost as though it had done the math and decided this whole mess was no longer worth the bother, the badger turned and fled, jumping through the shattered kitchen window and rattling away down the rickety metal fire escape.
Julius waited a few seconds to make sure it was really gone before looking over his shoulder to see Marci standing behind him with her arm out and her bracelet shining like a flood light. “Thanks.”
She beamed at him. “Glad I could get the assist.” Her bracelet snuffed out, and she shook her hand like it stung. “Man, those bastards are tough. That blast should have sent it flying into Ohio.”
“I’m just glad it decided discretion was the better part of valor,” Julius said, chuckling. “I take it you’re finished, then?”
“Yep,” Marci said, stepping aside to reveal their client, who was no longer being crushed under the shimmering image of a spirit. More telling to Julius, he also no longer reeked of female tank badger. This was a huge improvement for everyone, but especially for the badger in the cage, who was already noticeably calmer.
“Is it gone?” the client whispered.
“Not really, but she’s banished for now,” Marci said, reaching down to help him up.
The man looked bewildered. “What does that mean?”
“Well, a spirit can never truly be destroyed,” Marci explained. “I drained enough of her magic to temporarily disperse her, but so long as there are tank badgers and magic, she’ll always come back, and so long as you have that summoning spell tattooed on your arm, she’ll come looking for you.”
“So if I get it removed, she won’t be?” he asked hopefully.
Marci nodded, her eyes sharp. “Next time, sir, I’d suggest you stick to qualified, licensed mages like myself for your spells, especially permanent ones.” She flicked her wrist, and a business card appeared in her hand. “Our rates are very reasonable, and as you see, we get the job done right.”
By the time she finished, the young man was gaping at her, but Julius could only smile. That was his Marci, never missed a chance. Fortunately, the client was too happy to notice he was being hustled. For all the snipping he’d done at Marci earlier, he was now staring at her and Julius like they were his own personal guardian angels. “Thank you,” he said, voice shaking. “You saved my life.”
“It was our pleasure,” Julius said proudly, and he meant it. Oh, how he meant it.
Technically, their business was magical animal removal. This being the DFZ, though, the scope of the jobs that came in was much larger. In the month since he and Marci had gone into business together, they’d done everything from banishments to home warding to clearing out an entire warehouse overrun with sentient snails. They’d seen some pretty crazy stuff, but while tank badgers were definitely too high up on the danger scale for Julius’s comfort, jobs like today’s were actually his favorites. Clients were always happy when you did a good job for a fair price, but when you saved someone from a monster in their home, they treated you like a hero. That was an incredible feeling for a dragon who’d been able to count the number of times he’d been thanked on one hand just four weeks ago, and Julius couldn’t keep the stupid grin off his face as he reached down to hoist the snarling cage containing the remaining badger onto his shoulder.
A mistake he didn’t realize until it was too late.
“Wow,” the man said, his eyes going wide. “You’re a lot stronger than you look.”
“He works out,” Marci covered quickly. “Necessity of the job. Speaking of.” She whipped out her phone. “We’ve got a dangerous animal removal plus a banishment. Would you like to add on a ward as well? You know, just in case?”
The client began to sputter, and Julius took his chance to flee down the stairs so he wouldn’t have to listen to Marci take the man for all he was worth. He didn’t begrudge her her mercenary nature; it was the main thing that had kept them afloat since they’d started this business together. He just didn’t like to listen to it. All that up-selling felt…rude.
That was a terribly undraconic thought, but Julius let it roll off with a shrug. He didn’t care about stuff like that anymore. Ever since he’d left Jessica’s apartment the night they’d rescued Katya and foiled Estella’s plots, he’d barely thought about other dragons. Other than Ian’s occasional check-ins, he hadn’t talked to one either. Even his mother hadn’t called. It was like he’d fallen off the face of the dragon world, which was why—despite crazy animals jumping at his head nearly every day—the last four weeks had been the happiest of Julius’s life. He had nothing he’d been raised to think was important: no wealth, no power, not even a proper lair, plus he was still sealed, but he couldn’t care less. For the first time ever, he was living without constantly looking over his shoulder or worrying about when he’d be attacked. It wasn’t much by dragon standards, but to Julius, it was paradise, and definitely worth risking some tank badger bites for.
Like it knew what he was thinking about, the badger in the cage chose that moment to try and bite his fingers where they held the cage handle, whining when it couldn’t get through. Julius held the cage a little farther away as he took the rusted cement stairs down two at a time to the street where Marci had parked her car.
Technically, it was their car now, though Julius could never look at the rusted out, mustard yellow sedan without thinking of Marci. They could have bought a car ten years younger for what the old rust bucket had cost to fix, but the car had belonged to her father, and Marci was noticeably happier when she was in it, which, to Julius, made the repairs worth every penny. He’d still sprung for a few upgrades, though, like a better autonav and a ventilated, expanded trunk big enough to fit cages like the one he had now. He was strapping the metal box into place when he heard Marci’s footsteps on the stairs behind him.
“How’d we do?” he asked, closing the trunk.
“Medium,” she said, still tapping on her phone. “I couldn’t sell him on the ward, but he did tip. I think you impressed him with that cage catch. We’ll have to conjure another two calls before next Wednesday if we want to actually get into the black this month, but we won’t starve for now, so that’s something.”
“We’re not going to starve period,” Julius assured her, walking around to the driver’s door. “Speaking of, let’s go get some dinner. It’s nearly sundown.”
“How can you tell?” Marci asked, looking up at the unchanging, cave-like dark of the DFZ Underground.
“Because I’m hungry,” he said, plopping into his seat. “Come on. It’s Friday night. Let’s find a nice empty lot to dump Mr. Snarls where he won’t bother anyone, and then we’ll go for pizza.”
He looked up to see if that appealed to her, but Marci was still standing beside the car. “You know,” she said quietly, leaning down to look at him through the open door. “The bounty for an intact, living tank badger is currently listed at over two thousand bucks.”
Julius dropped his eyes.
“They’re pretty dangerous nuisances,” she went on. “And two thousand bucks would go a long way toward filling the hole in our budget…”
She trailed off, her voice painfully hopeful, but Julius couldn’t say a word. It wasn’t that he didn’t agree with what she was saying. Turning the animals they caught in for Algonquin’s animal control bounty had actually been his plan to start with. But that was back at the beginning, when he’d assumed every job would be like the lampreys: nasty, aggressive, violent menaces that needed to be put down for everyone’s benefit. Once they’d actually started going out on calls, though, he’d quickly realized that most of the animals they got hired to deal with weren’t like that at all. Even the tank badgers weren’t normally aggressive toward people. They were just animals doing their best to survive in the shadow of the enormous human city that had popped up like a mushroom on top of them, and as an illegal magical creature trying to make his own way in the DFZ, the thought of turning them in to be killed for Algonquin’s bounty hit a little too close to home. It must have shown on his face, too, because Marci let out a long sigh.
“Never mind,” she said, flopping into her seat. “Forget I said anything.”
Julius started the car. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she assured him quickly. “Really. I just wanted to ask.”
It wasn’t okay. Julius was all too aware of the money his bleeding heart had cost them. Without the added cash from bounties, the fees from their removal jobs were barely enough to cover expenses. Things had gotten better when Marci had started selling her spellwork services, but Julius was painfully aware that this wasn’t the life she’d signed up for when she’d agreed to come work with him. Happy as he was to be free of his family, the money issue was one of the two giant problems that kept Julius’s current life from actually being perfect. Even so.
“Things are getting better,” he assured her. “Word’s spreading, our name’s getting around. We’ll keep taking more jobs until we don’t have the time to do them all, and then we’ll raise our rates. It’ll all work out.”
“I know, I know,” Marci said, buckling in. “Like I said, no big deal. But can we stop by the house and change before we go for food? No offense, but you kind of smell like a badger.”
Julius looked down at the padded tactical suit he wore for work. The thick fabric was meant to protect him from the bites and stings and other unpleasantness they got into on a daily basis, but it also had an unfortunate habit of sucking up every odor it came in contact with, and tank badgers definitely had a strong odor.
“Of course,” he said, blushing as he pulled them out. “Home first.”
Marci smiled and leaned back in her seat, propping her knees on the dashboard as she balanced her massively over-packed shoulder bag on her lap and started digging through the pockets, re-organizing her already meticulous collection of casting materials. Due to the bag’s size, this move bumped her leg into Julius’s arm where it rested on the console between the seats. It was a tiny touch, barely more than a brush, but he felt it all the way to his toes. It took all his self-control not to shiver, and he looked away at once, hiding his flushed face behind a sudden feigned interest in the old car’s battery system.
This was his other giant problem. He’d always thought Marci was cute, but since they’d started living together, the attraction had gone from exciting to downright debilitating. He could keep a lid on it when they were working and there were plenty of distractions, but at times like this, when they were sitting close together in the car or on the couch at home, his awareness of her went from constant to hyper. Even a tiny touch like the one just now was enough to unsettle him for hours, and given how much they were together, this meant Julius was unsettled pretty much all the time.
When he thought about it, which he did way too much, he completely understood what was happening. Marci was beautiful, strong, talented, and smart. She was also the only girl he’d ever spent real time with face to face instead of online. Add in everything they’d been through together and Julius would’ve been concerned if he didn’t get a massive crush on her. But while he knew exactly what was going on and why, he didn’t have any idea what to do about it.
He knew what he wanted to do. Thought about it all the time, in fact, and given the number of times he’d caught her staring, Julius was pretty sure Marci felt the same, at least a little. But even assuming he could overcome his shyness enough to actually act on his feelings, Julius didn’t dare. He couldn’t. Marci was the most important person in his life: his trusted ally, insanely competent business partner, and best friend all rolled into one. Their relationship was the first he’d ever had that wasn’t built on debts, fear, or obligation, which also made it the one thing in Julius’s life that he absolutely, positively, could-not-under-any-circumstances afford to mess up. If he tried anything—a confession, a kiss, even a misconstrued look—their friendship as it was would end.
That was a risk Julius couldn’t take. He was already happier right now than he’d ever been in his life. He was free of his family, doing work he enjoyed with his best friend for people who thanked him. Even his mother’s seal didn’t bother him much anymore. If he could just figure out how to solve their revenue issue, life in the DFZ would be perfect. It was close enough already. But while a proper dragon wouldn’t stop until he had everything, Julius had never been one of those, and he wasn’t about to risk what he had in a greedy grab for more.
This was the conclusion Julius had come to almost daily over the last few weeks, but wise and prudent as he knew his logic was, it didn’t do him much good at the moment. No matter how many times he told himself it was all a pipe dream, nothing could dampen the thudding of his heart that came from being in close proximity to Marci. It didn’t help that she looked ridiculously adorable today in her brightly colored jacket and zippered skirt. He couldn’t actually remember seeing her wear that skirt before, but she wore it well, and the purple tights she had on underneath it were some of his favorites. The way they hugged her legs so perfectly all the way up to—
He jerked his eyes back to the road, cheeks burning. The heat only got worse when Marci leaned closer, snapping her fingers in front of his face. “Earth to Julius. You okay?”
“Fine,” he said much too quickly. “I’m fine. Let’s go home.”
Marci frowned, but she didn’t press as Julius began madly fiddling with the autodrive’s GPS, drawing a path manually along the grid of streets back to their house.
Thankfully, they didn’t have far to go. In a move that’d surprised everyone, Ian hadn’t just made good on his deal to find Julius a building as payment for his part in finding Katya, he’d done so spectacularly. The house he’d given Julius was just across the old interstate from the river in a fading neighborhood that had once been called Mexican Town. These days, it was an industrial crossroads where the haphazardly expanded Fisher Freeway fed traffic up from the Underground to the skyways for access to the New Ambassador Bridge, which was still the only road connecting Detroit to Canada. The resulting traffic jam had nearly wiped out what the flood had left of the old neighborhood, but a few classic old houses still hung on amid the forest of highway on-ramps and support columns. Ian’s property was one of these: a classic brick three-story, pre-flood house with arched windows, a big porch, Gothic accents, and what must have once been a very nice, treed-in yard.
The trees had all withered and died years ago when the skyways cut them off from the sun, and the yard was now little more than a gravel lot, but it was still an epic amount of room by DFZ standards. Even better, being surrounded by a spiraling maze of traffic ramps meant their house was almost completely cut off from the rest of the city. The only way in was through a tiny, unmarked access road that ran underneath an on-ramp, and the house itself was hidden inside the eyes of the hurricane of ramps, bridges, and support structure that funneled commuters up from the Underground to the elevated Upper City. True, it was dark even by Underground standards, and being directly inside one of the busiest traffic exchanges in the city meant the roar of cars was constant, but the house and surrounding lot were big, private, in good repair, and, best of all, safe.
That was the most important factor when you were a dragon living in a city where you were considered prey. Marci had been a harder sell. She’d wanted a little bit of daylight, but she’d jumped on board once Julius showed her the giant, open attic with its peaked windows and marvelously pointed ceiling that he’d set aside to be her lab. After that, Marci had pretty much moved in on the spot.
Not that they’d had much to move, of course. At that point in time, everything they’d owned had fit on their backs. But the DFZ was a great place for secondhand anything. Now, one month of bargain hunting later, their hidden house was almost homey, the lit windows winking at them brightly in the dark as they drove under the ramp and pulled to a stop next to the front porch.
“I’m going to run upstairs and take a quick shower,” Marci said, hopping out of the car. “I swear I smell more like a badger than you do.”
Julius was opening his mouth to tell her she smelled fine when Marci froze. The change set him on instant alert, and he jumped out of the car. “What’s wrong?”
Marci’s eyes were wide as she turned and pointed at the flat stretch of gravel that had once been a side yard. “There’s a freaking limo over there!”
He whirled around. Sure enough, though, she was right. A huge, black, heavily armored limousine was parked in the shadows right beside their house.
“Maybe it’s a rich client?” Marci whispered, looking at him accusingly. “Did you give our address to someone big and not tell me?”
Julius shook his head, breathing deep through his nose. Now that he was outside the car, something in the air smelled off. Between the badger in the trunk and the reek of the highways overhead, he couldn’t pick out what it was exactly, but it set his whole body on high alert, which meant it wasn’t a good smell. He was still trying to sort it out when Marci turned and ran up the steps to the front door.
“What are you doing?” he hissed, running after her.
“What do you think I’m doing?” she hissed back, frantically fitting her key into the deadbolt. “There’s an unknown car in our secret base! I’m going to get my big guns.”
Julius hadn’t realized Marci had things in her attic lab that would qualify as “big guns.” When she opened the door, though, he forgot all about it. The moment the insulating seal cracked, the tiny wisp of teasing scent he’d been worrying over became overwhelming. It was the smell of his childhood, an unmistakable mix of blood and gold and fire. It was so out of place here, though, Julius couldn’t do anything but stand and stare stupidly as Marci shoved the front door open to reveal the dragon sitting in their living room.
For a shocked moment, nobody said a word, not even Marci, and then the dragon smiled. “Now Julius,” she said, her voice a thousand times sweeter and more terrifying than it ever could be over the phone. “Is that any way to greet your mother?”
And just like that, all of Julius’s happiness vanished in a puff of smoke.