Nice Dragons Finish Last
By Rachel Aaron
Julius woke with a jump, toppling off the slick modern couch. He landed face down on hard white carpet, smacking his knee painfully on the corner of his sister's abstract coffee table in the process. When he reached down to clutch his smarting joint, his sister kicked his hand away again with the pointed toe of her black leather flats.
"I have to be at the hospital in thirty minutes," she continued as she marched across the room to yank open the hanging blinds. "That means you need to be out of here in ten. Now get moving."
Julius rolled over and sat up, squinting against the bright ray of sunlight she'd sent stabbing across her ultra-fashionable, ultra-expensive apartment. "Good morning to you, too," he said, furtively rubbing his injured knee, which was still throbbing.
"Try afternoon," Jessica snapped. "Honestly, Julius, it's nearly five. Is this when you got up at home?" She turned with a huff, walking over to the marble breakfast bar that separated her immaculately white kitchen from the other immaculately white parts of her apartment's open floorplan. "No wonder Mother kicked you out."
Mother had kicked him out for a whole host of reasons, but Julius didn't feel like giving his sister any more ammunition, so he spent the energy he would have used explaining himself on standing up instead. "Where's your bathroom?"
She stabbed one perfectly manicured nail at the hall, and he shuffled as directed, though it still took him three tries before he found the right door. The others led into beautifully furnished bedrooms, none of which looked to be in use.
Julius sighed. Two guest bedrooms, and she'd still made him sleep on the couch. But then, Jessica had always been very conscious of where she stood in the pecking order, which was usually directly on top of Julius's head. The only reason she'd let him sleep here at all was because he was her brother, and the consequences for not helping family were dire. In any case, it wasn't like he was in a position to complain. When you found yourself shoved off a private plane into a strange airport at dawn with nothing but the clothes on your back, you took what you could get.
He found the bathroom and showered as fast as he could only to get right back into the same faded T-shirt and jeans he'd slept in, because what else was there to wear? He didn't even have a toothbrush, and he wasn't about to risk Jessica's wrath by using hers. In the end, he had to settle for mostly clean, raking his shaggy black hair into some semblance of order with his fingers and wishing he'd had a chance to get it trimmed before his life had gone down the drain. Of course, if he'd had any advanced warning of last night's personal armageddon, he wouldn't have wasted it on a haircut.
By the time he emerged into the living room again, Jessica was dressed for work in a pants suit, her long, blond-dyed hair pulled back in a tight French twist. She sat in the kitchen, perched on a silver barstool like a model in an interior design magazine as she sipped coffee from a minimalist white mug. Naturally, she hadn't made any for him.
"Here," she said when she saw him, shoving a sleek, black metal rectangle across the marble countertop. "This is for you."
Julius's breath caught in amazement. "You got me a phone?"
Jessica rolled her brilliant green eyes, the only family feature they shared. "Of course not. Unlike you, I know how to be a dragon, which means I don't give out freebies just to be nice." She hissed the last word through sharpening teeth, letting a bit of her true nature show before resuming her human mask. "It's from Bob."
Julius snatched back the hand he'd been reaching toward the phone. Bob was his oldest brother and their dragon clan's seer. He was also insane. Presents from him tended to explode. But the phone looked normal enough, and Julius had already been kicked out of his home and dropped in a strange city without a dollar to his name. Really, how much worse could today get?
He picked up the feather-light piece of electronics with tentative fingers. Cursed gift or not, this phone was much nicer than the old one he'd been forced to leave behind. As soon as the metal contacts on the back touched his skin, the phone's augmented reality system blended seamlessly into his own ambient magic. After a second's calibration, the air above the phone flickered, and a 3D interface appeared. He was still getting used to the beautifully designed, almost unusably small icons floating above his hand when a flashing message appeared directly in front of his face, titled THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT.
Hesitantly, Julius reached up to tap the floating message. The moment his finger passed through the icon, a short paragraph appeared, the glowing letters hovering seemingly in thin air.
My Dearest Brother,
Sorry I didn't warn about Mother's incoming Upset. I foresaw it last year and simply forgot to tell you due to other VAST AND SERIOUS events currently unfolding. To make it up to you, I've taken the liberty of preparing the proper credentials for your new Life in the Big City. I can only hope it's all still valid, seeing how I'm putting this phone in the mail to you four months before you'll need it, but We Do What We Must. I've also set you up with some money from my private hoard to make the transition a little easier. Try not to spend it all in one place!
Hearts and kisses, your infallible and all-knowing brother,
PS: I almost forgot to give you your advice for the day. You must be a GENTLEMAN above all else, and a gentleman never refuses to help a desperate lady. You're welcome.
Julius read the message twice before setting the phone back down on the counter. "If he knew to mail me a phone four months before I needed it, why didn't he just tell me Mother was going to kick me out instead?"
"Because he's not really a seer, idiot," Jessica replied, setting her empty mug down with a clink. "He can't actually see the future. He's just insane. You know how old dragons get." She slid off the barstool with a huff. "Honestly, his only real power is his ability to convince Mother that his stupid antics are all part of some huge, incomprehensible scheme that's going to help her defeat the other clans and become queen dragon of the world."
Julius didn't know about that. From what he'd seen, Mother believed in Bob completely, and she didn't do anything without good reason. Of course, it was hard to tell what was really going on across the enormous distance he kept between himself and the more powerful members of his family. That was Julius's entire life strategy, actually-stay out of the way of bigger dragons-and up until last night, it had worked perfectly. More or less.
He sighed and grabbed the phone again, putting his finger through the glowing accounts icon as soon as the AR interface came up. Whatever the actual status of his sanity, Bob was indisputably old. Old dragons couldn't help storing up vast piles of wealth. If Bob was giving Julius money from his own private stash, then maybe...
His fledgling hopes crumbled when the balance appeared. Ninety-eight dollars and thirty-two cents. Bob had given him ninety-eight dollars and thirty-two cents. That was barely enough to get him through half a week back home. It probably wouldn't last him a day in a big city like the DFZ.
Julius slumped against the breakfast bar, staring blankly at the miles of shiny white superscrapers and animated ad-boards looming beyond Jessica's floor-to-ceiling windows. What was he going to do? And how? His life back home might not have been great, but at least he understood it. Now he was uprooted, lost, tossed into the biggest city in the world with nothing, and he couldn't even change into his true form and fly away because of what his mother had done.
That thought made him more depressed than ever. He'd been trying his best not to think about what had happened last night, what had really happened, but there didn't seem to be much point in avoiding it now. He'd have to face facts sooner or later, so he might as well get it over with. It wasn't like things could get any-
His phone rang.
Julius jumped, jerking the phone up so fast he narrowly missed cracking it to pieces on the underside of the counter. Jessica jumped as well, and then her green eyes grew cruel. "I can guess who that is," she said in the sing-song voice he'd hated since they were hatchlings.
"It might not be her," Julius muttered, though that was more desperate hope than any real belief. After all, there were only two people who could plausibly know this number, and Julius didn't think he'd be lucky enough to get Bob.
Jessica clearly didn't think so, either. "Much as I'd love to stick around and witness you get chewed to bits, I've got work," she said cheerfully, grabbing her bag off the counter as she strolled toward the door. "Don't touch my stuff, and don't be here when I get back. Oh, and if she decides to kill you, make sure you don't die in my apartment. I just got this carpet installed."
She tapped her heel on the white carpet before walking into the hall, humming happily to herself. As soon as the door closed, Julius sank onto her vacated stool. He propped his elbows on the counter as well, shoring himself up as best he could. Finally, when he was well supported and out of ways to put off the inevitable, he hit the accept call button like a man ordering his own execution and raised the phone to his ear.
"Well," crooned the sweet, familiar, smoky voice that never failed to tie his insides in knots. "If it isn't my most ungrateful child."
Julius closed his eyes with a silent sigh. "Hello, Mother."
"Don't you 'hello, Mother' me," she snapped, the click of her long fangs painfully audible through the new phone's magically enhanced speakers. "Do you know what time it is?"
He glanced at the clock. "Five fifteen?"
"It is exactly nineteen hours since you left my company. Nineteen hours, Julius! And you never once thought to call and reassure your poor mother that you were alive and had found somewhere to stay? What is wrong with you?"
Julius could have reminded her that it was her fault he was in this position in the first place. She was the one who'd barged into his room at midnight and ordered him to get out without letting him grab his phone or his money or any of the tools he needed to make the call she was angry about not receiving. But burdening Bethesda the Heartstriker with facts when she was in a rage was only slightly less suicidal than contradicting her, so all he said was, "Sorry."
His mother sighed, a long hiss so familiar he could almost feel the heat of her flames through the phone. "This is harder on me than it is on you, you know," she said at last. "But you gave me no choice. Something had to be done. All your brothers and sisters are getting along splendidly. Even Jessica managed to work her doctor nonsense into a position of power. She'll be running that hospital in five years. But you! You are hopeless. If I hadn't watched you hatch myself, I'd doubt you were a dragon at all."
She'd told Julius as much almost every day of his life, but for some reason, the insult never stopped smarting. "Sorry," he said again.
His mother went on like he hadn't spoken. "You're not ambitious, you don't make plans, you don't try to take things over. It's like you were born with no draconic instinct whatsoever. All you've done since I let you out of training is hide in your room, avoiding the rest of us like the plague."
He'd always thought of it more as avoiding jumping into a pool of hungry sharks, but he knew better than to say so. "I wasn't bothering anyone."
"That's exactly the problem!" Bethesda roared. "You're a dragon! Dragons don't worry about bothering. We demand, Julius, and the world gives. That is the rightful order of things. I thought if I left you alone, your instincts would kick in eventually, but it's been seven years and you're as bad as ever. Clearly, something in that head of yours is broken beyond repair, and I don't have the patience to wait any longer."
He swallowed. "I-"
"Twenty-four-year-old dragons should be out making names for themselves! Not living at home with their mothers! People are beginning to talk, Julius. I had to do something. "
"So you decided to seal me?"
The second the words were out of his mouth, Julius's stomach, which was already clenched to the size of a marble, threatened to vanish entirely. But there was no taking it back. The horrible truth was out, and, in a raw, painful way, it felt good to hear it spoken. So, since he was a dead dragon anyway, he kept going.
"Why, Mother?" he asked. "You wanted me to be a dragon, so why did you lock me into this?" He waved his hand down at his lanky, too-skinny human body before he remembered she couldn't see him, which only upset him more. "Why did you send me away? Why did you send me here?" He shot a panicked at the forbidding wall of superscrapers outside the window. "This is the DFZ. They kill dragons on sight here. If I'm-"
He cut off with a choked gasp as his mother touched the seal she'd placed at the root of his magic. She might be hundreds of miles away, but he could still feel her claws in his mind, the sharp tips pressing painfully on the wound she'd made nineteen hours ago when she'd cut into his soul and locked him away from his true nature. It was only for a second, but by the time she let him go, Julius felt like he'd been sliced open all over again.
"That's better," his mother said, her words punctuated by the clink of gold coins as she shifted her position. "Honestly, Julius, do you even listen to yourself? Complain, complain, complain, when all your life you've been coasting, never even considering the position that puts me in."
He hardly thought that being sealed from his powers and stranded in the one city in the world where dragons were illegal was a frivolous complaint, but he couldn't have said as much even if he'd dared. His mother was on a roll, and there was no stopping her now.
"You don't even know what I suffer for this family!" she cried. "Every day, every hour, our enemies are looking for ways to cut us down. The other clans would like nothing better than to see the Heartstrikers brought low, and you're helping them! Being a disappointment within your own family is one thing, but can you imagine what would happen if the rest of the world found out that my son, my son, spends his days locked in his room playing video games with humans? Humans, Julius! And you don't even win!"
Julius began to sweat. "I don't see-"
"That is exactly the problem!" she yelled, making his ears ring. "You don't see. If one of your siblings was doing something I wanted them to stop, I'd just threaten their plans or thwart their ambitions, but you don't have any of those. You don't have anything, and so I was forced to take the only thing I could."
She touched his seal again as she said this, and suddenly, Julius couldn't breathe.
"You are the worst excuse for a dragon I've ever seen," she snarled. "But even you still need to actually be a dragon. So if you don't want to spend the rest of your soon-to-be very short life as little more than trumped-up mortal, you'll listen closely to what I'm about to say."
She released him after that, and it was all Julius could do not to flop panting on to the counter. But showing weakness would not improve his mother's mood, so he forced himself back together, breathing deep until he could trust his voice enough to say, "I'm listening."
"Good," Bethesda replied. "Because I've fought too long and too hard to get where I am to be made a fool of by my youngest child. I really should have eaten you years ago, but a mother's hope springs eternal, so I've decided to give you one last chance. A final opportunity to make something of yourself."
Julius didn't like the sound of that at all. "What am I supposed to do?"
"You're a dragon," she said flippantly. "Be draconic. Take something over, destroy one of our enemies, win a duel, capture an advantage for our clan. I don't really care what you do, but you will do something to make me proud to call you my son before the end of the month, or I will do to you what I did to my other under-performing whelps."
Julius didn't need the snap of her fangs at the end. His blood was already running cold, especially when he realized today was already August 8th. "But...that's not even four weeks."
"Think of it as a trial by fire," Bethesda said sweetly. "You'll come out of this a real Heartstriker or not at all. Either way, you won't be an embarrassment to the clan anymore, which makes it a win-win for me, and we all know that's what really matters."
Julius closed his eyes. Trial by fire. How excessively draconic.
"I can hear you moping," she warned. "Don't be so defeatist. That's exactly the type of behavior this little exercise is supposed to correct. And sorely as I'm tempted to let you dangle, I'm not throwing you out completely on your own. It just so happens that your brother Ian has some work he's agreed to let you take on, a little jump-start to get you going on the path toward respectability." Her voice turned rapturous. "Now there is a dragon, and an excellent son."
Julius frowned, trying to remember which brother Ian was. He had the vague recollection of an icy demeanor and a calculating smile, which probably meant Ian was one of those plotting, ambitious siblings he normally stayed far, far away from. Of course, if Mother liked him, the ambitious part was a given. Bethesda never loved her children more than when they were trying to engineer each other's downfalls.
"I already sent him your information while you were whining," she continued. "He should be contacting you soon. And Julius?"
He fought the urge to sigh. "Yes, Mother?"
Bethesda's voice sharpened until the words dug into him like claws. "Don't fail me."
The call cut out right after that, but it took Julius a full thirty seconds to unclench his fingers enough to set the phone down safely below Jessica's never-used collection of copper cookware. When it was out of harm's way, he dropped his head to the cold marble counter with a thunk. He was still lying there when his phone buzzed again with Ian's terse message to meet him at a club halfway across town in fifteen minutes.
In the end, he had to take a cab.
He couldn't afford it, not really, but there was no other way to keep Ian's deadline, and Julius wasn't about to get himself eaten by his mother because he was too cheap to hire a taxi. It ended up being a good choice, though, because the drive across the elevated skyways gave him his first real look at the Detroit Free Zone in the daytime.
Not surprisingly, it looked exactly like it did in the pictures: an impossibly clean city on the banks of the Detroit River with blindingly white, thousand-floor superscrapers rising from a beautiful, whimsically spiraling lattice of elevated skyways held high off the ground by huge concrete pillars. Pressing his face against the car window, Julius could catch glimpses down through the gaps at Old Detroit, the ruined city that still lay beneath the new one like a rotting carcass, but not enough to see anything interesting. No packs of death spirits or ghouls or any of the others horrors that supposedly terrorized the Underground. But while that was disappointing, the DFZ's other most interesting attraction was impossible to miss.
Rising from the blue depths of Lake St. Clair, Algonquin Tower looked like a spire made by gods to hold up the sky. Even here in downtown, a good ten miles away, Julius could still make out the sweeping curls of stonework that made the two-thousand-foot tall granite pillar look like an endlessly swirling waterspout instead of static rock. Supposedly, there was a leviathan that lived underneath it, but even without the giant sea monster, the tower was a fitting and undeniable reminder of who ruled Detroit, and why.
When the meteor crashed into Canada in 2035, sending magic surging back into a world that had long forgotten such things existed, human mages weren't the only ones who had reawakened. The sudden influx of power had also roused spirits of the land forced into hibernation by almost a thousand years of magical drought. They'd woken with a vengeance, too, but none so much as Algonquin, the Lady of the Lakes.
Even now, sixty years after magic's return, people still talked about the night Algonquin rose to sweep the Great Lakes clean. Her purifying wave had come from nowhere, washing away centuries of pollution in a single night, and most of the cities that lined the Great Lakes with it. No place, however, felt her wrath like Detroit.
While other cities were merely flooded, Detroit was nearly swept off the map. Those who survived claimed Algonquin's wave had been over a thousand feet, a black swell of all the poisons dredged up from the bottom of the Detroit River and the bed of Lake St. Clare that she'd emptied on the city without quarter, crushing buildings and drowning millions in the process.
When the flood waters finally receded, Algonquin had claimed the ruins of Detroit as her own, and with the rest of the world still reeling from the return of magic, the U.S. government hadn't been able to tell her otherwise. From that night on, Detroit, Michigan became the Detroit Free Zone, an independent territory of the United States and the only city anywhere governed by a spirit. Algonquin had wasted no time changing the rules, either, dumping almost every law on the books, especially those limiting business and immigration, and she'd refused to regulate the new practice of magic at all. The resulting sorcery research boom had made the DFZ one of the largest, wealthiest, most magical cities in the world. It was also the most dangerous, especially for him.
For reasons Julius didn't know, but could easily imagine, the Lady of the Lakes hated dragons with a passion. His kind were tenuously accepted in the rest of the U.S., and ruled outright in China, but in the Algonquin's city, where everything from drugs to guns to prostitution was legal, dragons were strictly forbidden. Even small ones like him fetched bounties in the millions. He had no idea why his mother had decided to force him to "be a dragon" in the one city where doing so would automatically make him a target, but at least it gave Julius a reason to be happy about the seal. Awful as it was not to be able to fly or breathe fire or stretch his tail properly, he didn't have to worry about accidentally revealing his true nature and getting killed for it. So, that was something.
He'd barely finished this exercise in extreme positive thinking when his cab pulled to a stop beside a crowded, elevated square lined with trees, fountains, and high-end restaurants. Very high-end restaurants, the sort with unpronounceable names and dress codes that involved jackets. Julius looked down at his own ancient green T-shirt and slightly singed jeans with a sigh. The part of him that was still trying to stay positive pointed out that he should be glad he'd at least been wearing a shirt when his mother had burst into his room, but the rest of him just wanted to get this over with.
The automated cab had taken its fare out of his phone's account the second it reached the requested destination, so Julius got out of the bright yellow, driverless car without looking back. It took him a few minutes to push through the crowd of fashionable professionals and the tourists taking pictures of them to the address Ian had given him; a slick club/restaurant hybrid with tinted glass doors and no name at all, just a picture of a tree laser etched into the windows.
As expected for such a high-end establishment, the first set of doors was just for show. The real doors were inside a dimly lit foyer guarded by three cameras and a doorman. Normally, a human wouldn't have worried Julius too much, but this one was clearly packing some augmented implants-human arms just didn't get that bulky without medical help-and he didn't look shy about using them.
Considering how sorry he looked right now, Julius fully expected the bulky doorman to pick him up by the fraying neck of his shirt and toss him right back out into the square. From the expression on the man's face, he clearly wanted to do just that, but when Julius gave his name, the doorman simply pushed open the leather-covered inner door and told him that his party was waiting at the back.
After the bustle of the crowded square, the inside of the restaurant was shockingly silent in the way only real money could buy. Even the silverware didn't seem to clink as Julius wove his way between the white clothed tables and high-backed booths. The place smelled rich, too, a deep, subtle mix of hardwood, leather, truffle oil, and other things his sensitive nose wasn't cultured enough to recognize.
The VIP area was in the far back corner, separated from the rest of the restaurant by a wall of malachite-beaded curtains. Julius pushed them open with only a slight hesitation, pointedly ignoring the well-dressed couples who turned to gawk at him as he looked around for his brother.
He didn't have to look long. He might not have been able to place Ian's name earlier, but now that he was here, he spotted his brother at once. He also saw why their mother was so fond of him.
From the first glance, it was obvious that Ian was a dragon's dragon. Even dressed in a black suit sitting in a black booth, he effortlessly overshadowed the well-dressed men with their jewel covered women and thousand dollar bottles of champagne like a panther lounging in a flock of peacocks. Julius, on the other hand, felt a bit like a mangy dog as he slid into the leather booth across from his brother and dipped his head in greeting.
Ian did not return the gesture. He just sat there, regarding Julius through slitted, Heartstriker-green eyes before letting out a long, vexed sigh. "What on earth are you wearing?"
"What I had," Julius replied irritably. "I didn't exactly get time to pack."
"So I heard," his brother said, tilting his head forward so that his perfectly tousled black hair swept down over his dark brows, enhancing his speculative scowl. "There's been quite a bit of talk going around about what you did to send Mother into such a rage. I don't think I've ever heard of her sticking one of us on her private jet for a cross-country trip in the middle of the night before."
Julius started to sweat. Heartstriker gossip, about him. Just the thought made him twitchy. The only thing worse than being beneath a dragon's interest was being the target of it.
"Sending you away was a good sign, though," Ian went on. "Normally when she goes on the warpath, she just eats the parts she likes and tosses what's left into the desert for the vultures. She must really believe you can be rehabilitated if she didn't kill you outright."
Julius supposed that was a comfort. "She threatened to do it."
"Bethesda has threatened to kill all of us at one point or another," Ian said with a shrug. "It's how she mothers. That doesn't mean she won't, of course. A weak dragon is a liability to the whole clan. The real challenge is, how do we make her start seeing you as an asset instead of a disappointment?"
Julius shifted his weight on the buttery leather seat. He had no objections to what his brother was saying, but the we part made him decidedly nervous. He didn't know Ian at all personally-he was the sort of powerful, popular sibling Julius normally steered well clear of-but if he met their mother's definition of a good son, then he'd rather hang himself with his own tail than help a family member for free. "What do you want?"
Ian smiled. "You," he said. "For a job. It just so happens that I've come across an intriguing opportunity for someone with your...unique talents."
Julius had no idea what that meant. "So you want me to do something?"
"Yes," his brother said crisply. "For money." He shot Julius a skeptical look. "Do you understand how a job works?"
"No, no, I get that part," Julius grumbled. "I just want to know what you want me to do before I agree to do it." Because the list of things he wouldn't do for money was very long and included a number of activities most dragons would do for fun. Of course, being one of those dragons, Ian missed his point entirely.
"Don't be stupid, Julius," he said, picking up his drink. "Mother's the only reason I'm bothering to speak to you at all. Naturally, then, it follows that I won't be asking you to do something she'd object to, especially not here. I know you've spent your adult life as far under a rock as possible, but even you must understand that doing anything remotely interesting in Algonquin's city would bring Chelsie down on both our heads, and we can't have that."
His casual mention of Chelsie put Julius even more on edge than his talk about Mother. Chelsie was one of their oldest sisters and the Heartstriker clan's internal enforcer. Julius had only seen her from a distance at family gatherings, and even that had felt too close for comfort. Mother might rant and rave and threaten to skin you alive, but most of the time, it was Chelsie who actually wielded the knife, and unlike Mother, you never heard her coming.
"Do you think Chelsie's here in Detroit?" Julius whispered.
Ian shrugged. "Who knows? Bethesda's Shade is everywhere. It might as well be the family motto: 'Watch what you say. Mother's in the mountain, but Chelsie's right behind you.'"
He chuckled like that a joke, but even Ian's too-cool front wasn't enough to keep the fear out of his voice. Not that Julius thought less of him for it. Every Heartstriker was scared of Chelsie.
"So, what's this job for, exactly?" he asked, eager to get back on track and out of this conversation before saying Chelsie's name too many times summoned her. Instead of answering, though, Ian's eyes flicked to something over Julius's shoulder. Before Julius could turn around to see what, his brother leaned back in the booth, his body relaxing until he looked lithe and limber and confident as a cat. But while his posture was suddenly almost obscenely casual, his whispered voice was sharp as razor wire.
"Too late to back out now," he said. "Sit up straight, and whatever you do, don't stare. You don't want to embarrass yourself any more than is inevitable."
Julius was opening his mouth to ask whom he was going to be embarrassing himself to when she was suddenly there, appearing beside their table without a sound. And even though Ian had warned him, Julius couldn't help himself.
She was a dragoness. Of that there was no question. Even in human form, she radiated danger of the casually cruel, playful kind. She was not, however, a Heartstriker. Julius didn't know his entire family by sight-only his mother could do that-but he was pretty sure he'd remember someone like this.
She was beautiful, of course, but as a snow leopard taking down a stag was beautiful. Every feature, from her pale, pale skin to the white blond hair that slid over her bare shoulders in a snowy stream to the razor-sharp nails at the ends of her elegant fingers, was cold and otherworldly. Even her smile was deadly, the sort of delicate half smirk ancient queens must have worn when ordering slaves to fight to the death for their amusement. But what really got Julius was the calculating look in her ice-blue eyes as she gave him the speculative once-over dragons always performed when sizing up newcomers. Player or pawn? it asked. Tool or threat?
For Julius, the assessment was over in an instant. He could almost feel the word "pawn" being affixed to his forehead before the female dismissed him completely and shifted her gaze to Ian. "This is the one you told me of?"
Her accent was as cold and strange as the rest of her, a mix of Russian and something much, much older. Ian, of course, seemed completely unaffected. "My brother, Julius," he replied, gesturing with his drink.
"Julius," the dragoness repeated, her accent slicing off the J so that his name came out more like Ulius. "He is one of your youngest brothers, then? Or did Bethesda clutch again while I wasn't paying attention?"
Ian and Julius winced in unison. No Heartstriker liked to be reminded of their mother's ridiculous naming system, or the reason such a thing was required. Most dragonesses who chose to dedicate the enormous amount of magic required to bring new dragons into existence laid no more than two clutches of eggs in their entire lives, usually with five hundred years or more in between. Bethesda had laid ten, once with fewer than fifty years between broods. This fecundity had made her something of a legend among the other dragon clans, and to help her keep track of her unprecedented number of children, she'd named each clutch alphabetically. A names for her first, B for the second, and now finally down to J. At least the new dragoness hadn't called their mother Bethesda the Broodmare, or Ian and Julius would have been honor-bound to attack, and that wouldn't have ended well for anyone.
"No," Ian said crisply, setting down his drink. "We're still on J. But as you can see, he's decidedly non-threatening. No guile I've witnessed, but I'm led to believe he's not an idiot. Just soft."
"Soft?" The dragoness said this the same way a human would say leprous.
"Non-aggressive," Ian clarified. "But clever in his own way, I think. And if he fails, my mother will kill him, so motivation won't be an issue."
Julius knew better than to offer his opinion to this summation. He was used to powerful dragons talking about him like he wasn't there. Still, he didn't like the way the female was eying him now. Family would threaten him all day, but no Heartstriker would risk Bethesda's wrath by actually killing him. This foreign dragon, on the other hand, was studying him like she was trying to decide which of his organs would make the best hat.
"I think you may be right," she said at last. "He will do well enough." With that, she sat down next to Ian and turned to Julius like she hadn't just been ignoring him for the last few minutes. "I am Svena, daughter of the Three Sisters. Ian assured me you will be of assistance."
She paused like she was waiting for a reply, but Julius couldn't manage more than a choking sound. The Three Sisters were among the oldest and most powerful dragons left in the world. They were so magical, legend had it that they'd created their eggs one at a time using only their own power, no male consort needed. The offspring of this unconventional arrangement, all daughters, were in turn some of the most mysterious and feared dragons alive, which meant that Julius was sitting across the table from, at minimum, a thousand-year-old dragoness who was also one of the Heartstriker clan's sworn enemies. The Three Sisters hated Bethesda, and as far as he knew, the feeling was mutual. What was Ian doing?
He glanced at his brother to ask just that, but Ian was shooting him a lethal caliber version of the shut up and play along look. So, with effort, Julius turned back to the dragoness, who he now knew for a fact could turn him into a gooey puddle with a snap of her fingers, and plastered what he hoped was an obliging smile across his face. "What kind of assistance did you have in mind?"
She pursed her pale lips. "It is a delicate matter. My youngest sister, Katya, has run away from home. I want you to bring her back."
Julius blinked. "You want me to find your sister?"
"Not find," Svena snapped-a literal snap of her too-white teeth that gave Julius the distinct impression Svena didn't spend much time in her human form. "I know where she is, but she is being headstrong and difficult. I have indulged her as long as possible, but I cannot afford to do so any further. Unlike your clan where a dragon might vanish for years before someone notices, there are only twelve of us. If our mothers discover Katya's absence, things will become difficult. I need a neutral third party to stop her foolishness and bring her home before this happens."
She was very good at keeping her voice haughty and superior, but Julius had been appeasing bigger dragons his whole life, and he'd become very good at picking up subtle changes in tone. Between her cool disinterest and the not-so-subtle digs at his family, Julius could just make out the faint trace of real worry in Svena's voice. Whether that concern was for her sister or herself when her mothers found out, he wasn't sure, but what he really wanted to know was, "Why me?"
"Because you're a failure," Ian said with a superior smile. "And you're sealed. Katya's running from her sister because she knows she cannot defeat Svena, but you're another story. Unlike us, you're completely benign, a non-threat, which means you alone will be able to get close to Katya with causing her to bolt."
"And do what?" Julius asked. "Even if she doesn't run from me, how am I supposed to convince a-" powerful, magical, likely centuries older than him and still in possession of her true form, "-dragon to go home when she doesn't want to?"
Svena waved her hand dismissively. "You can't. If Katya could be convinced of anything, she would never have run in the first place. You only need to get close enough to put this on her." She reached out as she spoke, placing something on the table with a soft clack. When she removed her hand, Julius saw it was a thin, silver braided chain. "There's a binding spell woven into the metal," she explained. "I created it specifically to placate my sister, but it must touch her skin to work, and I haven't been able to get closer than a kilometer to Katya since this nonsense started."
Julius stared at the chain glistening like frost on the white tablecloth, heart sinking. He had no interest in getting tangled up in another clan's family drama. He especially didn't want to trick a runaway into going back to a home she clearly wanted to escape. As someone who'd seriously considered running away himself dozens of times, tricking this Katya out of her freedom and forcing her back into the kind of situation that would make a dragon flee felt unspeakably cruel, but what was he supposed to do? Argue against his qualifications as a failure?
"This is a great opportunity for you, Julius," Ian said, his voice calm and rational and completely not open to negotiation. "You've gotten an unfortunate reputation for being softhearted over your short lifespan, but there's still time to turn yourself around. Mother has entrusted me with your rehabilitation, but if you insist on being lazy-"
"I'm not lazy."
Julius regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, but he didn't try to take them back. Backpedaling would only make him look even weaker, and anyway, he hated being called lazy. Staying alive in their clan was a full time job for someone like him, because Julius wasn't just the youngest Heartstriker, he was also the smallest. Big dragons like Ian never understood just how much work it took to fly under the radar in a family of magical predators with a sixth sense for weakness and a pathological need to exploit any opening just because it was there.
Speaking of which, Ian was already watching him, his calculating eyes weighing Julius's hasty words as much for what they didn't say as what they did. "So resentful," he said. "But you have no one to blame but yourself. The fact that I didn't even know your name until this afternoon perfectly illustrates your complete and utter failure to be an asset to anyone. That you are alive today is due entirely to our mother's magnanimity, and since we both know how fickle that can be, I suggest you stop making a spectacle of yourself and consider your next words very carefully."
He didn't even need to add because they might be your last. By the time Ian finished, the threat in his voice was like a noose around Julius's neck. Beside him, Svena was observing the back and forth with the sort of bored impatience of a sports caster watching a veteran boxer taking on a volunteer from the audience.
That was how Julius felt, too-punch drunk, completely overpowered and outmatched. He still didn't think it was right, and he knew he'd regret his actions, but Ian had his back against the wall, and they all knew it. So, with a heavy sigh, he reached out and scooped the silver chain off the table, shoving the unnaturally cold metal into his pocket as quickly as he could. "Where can I find her?"
"I have word she's going to a party tonight," Svena said, reaching into her silver-spangled clutch purse to pull out a sleek, expensive phone. "Some kind of gathering for human mages." She paused. "You can still do magic, can't you? Your mother didn't seal that as well?"
She hadn't, but then, she hadn't needed to. Unlike humans, who drew magic from the world around them, dragons made their own. But while J clutch had been one of Bethesda's more magically inclined broods, Julius hadn't been keen on the idea of competing with his cutthroat siblings in an arena where it was perfectly acceptable to banish your rivals to another dimension. He'd learned the basics he needed to survive, but everything else he knew about sorcery, draconic or otherwise, could probably fit on a small note card. Not that he was going to admit that to Svena, of course.
"No problem," he lied. "Where is it, and when should I show up?"
Svena looked down at her phone to find the information. Beside her, Ian met his eyes across the table and mouthed, good job. Julius nodded and quickly lowered his head over his own phone, trying not to look as nauseated as he felt when Katya's information, including pictures, movement notes, and Svena's practical instructions on where and how to deliver her runaway sister's unconscious body once the deed was done, popped up on his screen.
Sometimes, he really, really, really hated being a dragon.
Thirty minutes later, Julius was sitting at the club's bar, ignoring the bitter and expensive cocktail Ian had bought him as a fancy way of saying get lost while he finished his "discussion" with Svena, and he wasn't feeling any better. Thanks to the information Svena had given him, he'd had no problem finding the party Katya was supposed to attend tonight. Getting in, however, was another matter entirely.
From the listing on the DFZ's public mage forums, it seemed the gathering was being hosted by a circle of shamans, human mages who did their magic with the help of spirits and natural forces, something Julius decidedly was not. Despite Ian's dismissive assurances that his little brother was "good with humans," he had absolutely no idea how he was going to convince a bunch of secretive mages to let him into their exclusive magic-nerd night. He wasn't actually sure how Katya had gotten in since dragon magic was entirely different from the human variety, though considering Svena's "little sister" was a thousand years old if she was a day, she probably had her ways.
Julius's ways, on the other hand, were decidedly more limited. Not surprising considering who ruled it, the DFZ was packed with spirits. The presence of so many powerful allies gave the local shamans a decided home-field advantage. With so much magic at their fingertips, a good shaman might be able to spot his true nature even with his mother's seal, and then he'd be in real trouble. What he needed was a mage of his own, someone who actually understood how this stuff worked and could act as cover, but where was he going to find a mage on short notice in an unfamiliar city who would be willing to work on credit until Ian paid up?
He was still puzzling over this when he felt the telltale prickle on the back of his neck that meant someone was watching him. Probably Ian preparing to call him back to the booth so they could "discuss his plan," or maybe Svena with some last-minute advice/threats. But when Julius turned around, it wasn't a dragon watching him at all. It was a woman. A human woman sitting at one of the small tables by the door.
She got up the second he made eye contact and started straight for him, cutting through the expensively dressed crowd like an arrow with him as the target. Julius thought frantically, trying to remember if he'd met her before. It was true he knew a lot of humans for a dragon, but that was only over the internet. Face-to-face contact was limited to the residents of the New Mexico desert town his mother's mountain complex supported, and this girl definitely wasn't someone from home. She was sure acting like she knew him, though.
As she got closer, Julius's confusion grew, because she looked like she belonged in this club about as much as he did. Her combination of sparkly silver vest, long-sleeved white shirt with dramatic, oversized cuffs draped over chunky plastic bracelets, and tight black pants tucked into glossy black, calf-high leather boots reminded him of an old-school stage magician. It wasn't unattractive, especially not on her. She was actually very cute in a warm, human way that was a relief after Svena's chilling beauty. Still, her getup definitely didn't fit in with the rest of the club's too-cool aesthetic, and her hair was patently ridiculous.
The thick, dark brown strands had been chopped into uneven chunks ranging from almost buzz-cut short in the back to chin-length wisps around her face. It was uneven over her ears as well, with longer strands trailing down at odd places, like she'd pulled her hair back and chopped it off in a mad panic. She didn't look crazy, though. Just determined as she walked up and slid between him and the stool on his left, leaning one elbow on the bar so that she was directly in his field of vision.
Under normal circumstances, a pretty girl coming at him out of nowhere would have sent Julius into defensive retreat. Today, though, half-panicked already and stuck in survival mode, he stared straight at her, holding his ground out of sheer desperation as he breathed deeply to catch some hint of the trap this had to be. When he didn't smell so much as a whiff of draconic power other than the chain in his pocket, though, he said, "Can I help you?"
"No," the girl said, flipping her hand with a flourish. "I can help you."
A white card appeared between her fingers, and Julius jumped before he realized he hadn't felt any magic. It had been sleight-of-hand that produced the card, not a spell. The paper itself, however, told another story.
Marci Novalli, it read. Socratic Thaumaturge, MDC. Curse breaking, magical consultation, warding services. Below that, a smaller line proclaimed, No job is too big or too small! References available upon request.
A mage, he realized dumbly, staring at the card with a growing sense of dread-an impressive feat, considering just how large his dread had grown today already. But a mage appearing out of nowhere at the exact moment he realized he needed one? If that wasn't a set-up, then he was his mother's favorite son.
He leaned away from her offered card like it was poison. "Sorry. Not interested."
"Just hear me out," the girl said, closing the distance he'd just put between them. "I can understand if you're apprehensive about mages. You're under a very nasty curse."
Julius blinked. "Excuse me?"
"The curse," she said, gesturing at him. "It's all over you. I can't imagine how you must be suffering, but you don't have to worry any longer. I have a lot of experience in curse breaking, and I'm very gentle. Give me an hour and I'll have that thing off you no problem."
Julius stared at her, uncomprehending, and then it dawned. She was talking about the seal, the one his mother had put on him to trap him in his human shape. After that, it was all Julius could do not to burst out laughing, both at the notion of a mortal mage breaking his mother's seal in an hour and how Bethesda would react if it actually worked. He glanced at the girl again, just to make sure she wasn't kidding, but her expression was deadly serious, and all he could do was shake his head.
"I'm afraid my curse isn't the sort you can remove," he said. "Thank you for offering, though." That last bit came out surprisingly heartfelt. Her unexpected sales pitch was the nicest thing anyone had said to him all day.
The girl stared at him a moment, and then her shoulders slumped. "Well, do you have anything else you need done? Wards? Spirits banished? I can show you my portfolio."
She'd started pulling a binder out of the enormous black messenger bag on her shoulder before she'd even finished the question, and Julius fought the urge to sigh. Humans.
"I'm good, really," he said, putting up his hands. "You don't have to show me anything. I'm not interested."
The girl stopped short, and then she stuffed the binder back into her bag, her face falling in utter defeat. "Sorry," she muttered, flopping down on the barstool beside him. "I'm not normally so..." She waved her hands as she searched for the word, making the chipped silver glitter polish on her nails sparkle in the club's low light. "Car salesman-y," she said at last. "It's just that I really need the work. If you have anything magical you need done today, anything at all, I'll give you a huge discount. I swear I'm completely legit. I'm fully licensed in Nevada, actually, but I'm new in town and, frankly, getting a little desperate. So if there's any work you need a mage for, just say the word. If not, I'll stop bothering you."
Julius opened his mouth to say sorry, he had nothing, but the words stuck in his throat. The girl was looking at him so earnestly, and that word desperate kept rolling around in his head. Bob had told him to be a gentleman and help desperate women. Of course, Bob had also once told Julius that he would have dinner with a phoenix on his birthday.
Turning away from the human, he pulled out his phone and reread the seer's message, but he hadn't made a mistake. There was the warning from his maybe-insane, maybe-future predicting brother who'd mailed him a phone loaded with a Detroit ID and money four months before he'd needed it, and here was the desperate woman said brother had told him to help, and now Julius had to make a decision.
On the one hand, years of well-honed paranoia told him for certain that this was a trap. No one's luck was good enough to have a random mage walk up and offer her services at the exact moment she was needed. Far more likely was that this Marci Novalli was working for someone else from the Three Sisters who didn't want Katya found, or maybe another clan entirely. If he took her offer, he'd be playing right into the clutches of his family's enemies like the idiot failure his mother always said he was. On the other hand, though, rejecting her meant he'd be going against his brother's advice, and therein lay the quandary. Unlike most of his family, Julius didn't think Bob was crazy, or, at least, not only crazy. He wasn't sure if his brother actually saw the future, but Bob definitely saw something. Trouble was, Julius wasn't sure which side this particular warning fell on: the crazy or the something. He was still trying to figure it out when the girl slid off the barstool.
"I'm really sorry to have wasted your time," she said quietly, looking down at her feet as she adjusted her bag on her shoulder. "Thank you for listening, and I hope you have a nice-"
The girl looked up in surprise. Julius was surprised, too, because he hadn't thought he'd made up his mind yet. But while he still wasn't sure if the mage was a trap, a vision of Bob's unsettled mind, or some combination thereof, he had come to a decision. The sorry had been the deciding factor, but the thank you had sealed the deal. Julius couldn't remember the last time he'd heard those words from anyone's mouth except his own and, trap or not, he couldn't let the person who said them just walk away.
Of course, now that he'd stopped her, he had to come up with something to say.
"Marci, right?" he asked, clearing his throat as she sat back down on the stool. "Can you do illusions?"
"Absolutely," Marci said, counting off on her fingers. "Area, personal, spatial, full sensory immersion, though I'll need a day to set that last one up if you want it on something bigger than a ten by ten square."
Julius didn't know enough about human magic to gauge whether that was good or not, but Marci certainly sounded like she knew what she was talking about. "I guess it would be a personal illusion," he said. "On me. But I'd rather not explain it here. Do you have somewhere else we could talk?"
Marci nodded and hopped to her feet. "I'll need my workshop to do a credible illusion anyway. We can discuss terms on the way over. Would that be okay?"
Julius glanced over his shoulder, but his brother and Svena were still sitting in the VIP area with their heads together, and he was loath to interrupt. Really, though, he saw no reason to deal with Ian again at all. He had the chain, he had the information about the party, and now he had a mage to help him get inside. If he moved quickly, this whole mess could be over by midnight.
"That sounds great," he said, smiling at Marci as he slid off his own stool. "Let's get out of here."
Getting out of the club was much simpler than getting in. Rather than running the gauntlet past the augmented bouncer, Marci led them out a side door and down the alley, away from the tree-lined square and its well-dressed crowds. Then she led them down from the street, descending a long set of cement stairs from the elevated skyway.
"I swear I'm not taking you off to mug you," she said as they walked away from the evening sunlight and the bright glow of the Upper City's ubiquitous halogen street lamps. "It's just that you don't have to pay for parking down here."
"No worries," Julius said, glancing around. Even with his dragon sealed, he wasn't terribly worried about a human mugging him, and he was far more interested in his first look at the underbelly of Old Detroit.
Going below the skyways was like entering another world. All the brilliance of the Upper City-the fancy tree-lined square, the towering superscrapers, the elegant curving roads full of luxury cars and computer driven taxis-was like a model sitting on a table, and underneath it, an entirely different city thrived in the dark.
After all the stories he'd heard, Julius had expected Underground Detroit to look like a war torn ruin, but this looked more like Shinjuku in Tokyo. The buildings, many of them apparently dating from before the flood given the high water marks on their second stories, had been completely renovated to hold as many shops as possible. Every window seemed to have at least two signs hanging in it, and the combined glare of all the neon, back-lit plastic, and flashing LEDs, actually made it brighter down here than it had been up top in the sun.
If there was any organizational system, Julius couldn't see it. Bars, restaurants, and theaters shared walls with banks, private schools, and massage parlors in a chaotic jumble. Some establishments didn't even bother making divisions, advertising salon services and gambling at the same time. Even the buildings themselves were mismatched. Some, the short ones, looked like the normal office buildings and strip malls they must have been before Algonquin had built an entire other city on top of them. Others, ones that had collapsed and been completely rebuilt in the years since the flood, or the ones had been too tall to fit under the skyway's eighty foot clearance and had been cut to fit, reached right up to ceiling, using the huge cement base of the Upper City in place of an actual roof.
The chaos continued on the ground as well where food carts and semi-permanent kiosks competed with cars for room on the ruler-straight grid of the old roads. Trash and advertisements and people were absolutely everywhere, crammed into every nook and cranny and selling everything under the sun to anyone who was willing to pay regardless of age. The only breaks in the madness were the enormous, city-block-long cement support pillars that held up the skyway overhead, but even these were plastered with billboards advertising everything from concerts and exotic pets to drugs and pay-as-you-go augmentation clinics. Just trying to wrap his brain around the chaos of capitalism gone crazy was making Julius feel overwhelmed and dizzy, but most astonishing of all were the people.
Back in Arbor Square, the crowd had been ethnically diverse, but still so uniformly wealthy and well dressed that they'd all blended together. In the Underground, though, there was some of everything: ethnicity, class, religion, occupation, everything. It was like some power had swept the world, picked people at random, and dumped them all here. It was nothing short of extraordinary, and Julius almost fell down the stairs in his eagerness to get a better look.
"First time below decks?"
Julius winced and glanced up to see Marci grinning at him over her shoulder. "That obvious, huh?"
"You are gawking a bit," she said, slowing her pace until they were climbing down side by side. "Not that I'm judging, of course. I was shocked too, my first time."
"It's actually a nicer than I'd thought it'd be," Julius admitted, nodding down at the young, excited crowd waiting to get into a five-sense theatre. "I'd always heard, you know..."
"What? That the whole place was a giant slum of rotting buildings and desperate characters straight out of a corporate dystopia? Oh, don't worry, there's plenty of that, too. This is actually one of the tourist areas the DFZ Visitor's Board pays to keep colorful and edgy, but not so scary that outsiders won't spent money."
Julius looked over at the brightly colored, music playing, fully automated gun, alcohol, and party drug vending machines that lined the landings of the stairwell. "This is the tourist area?"
Marci spread her arms wide. "Welcome to the DFZ!"
A proper, crafty dragon would have shut his mouth after that and kept his ignorance hidden, but Julius was curious, and this seemed kind of important. "What about security? I mean, I know everything is legal here, but isn't this kind of excessive? How can so many corporations have their headquarters in the DFZ if there are vending machines selling drugs to tourists only fifty steps down from Arbor Square?"
There's plenty of security," Marci said. "It's just reserved for people with money, spirits, and fish. Especially fish, actually. Life's great here if you live underwater."
He arched his eyebrows in question, and she pointed over at a giant yellow hazard sign posted on the nearest support beam. Julius hadn't noticed that particular billboard amid all the other advertisements, but now that Marci had pointed it out, it was impossible to miss the giant wave crest logo of the Algonquin Civic Corporation followed by a list of substances that you were not allowed to dump into the water system and the horrible punishments that awaited anyone who did written in a world tour of languages. There were more signs when they reached ground level with similar warnings against littering and burning illicit materials, but nothing for human on human crimes like theft or assault, which made a pretty clear statement about the Lady of the Lakes' priorities.
"I see what you mean," Julius said, stepping closer to Marci as they pushed into the teeming, noisy crowd that smelled strongly of sweat and human at bottom of the stairs. "Crime here must be ridiculous."
"It varies," Marci said, turning them down an side street that, while still crowded, at least had breathing room. "If you stay in areas where people can afford to pay their police fees, it's not bad at all. If you go where they can't, well...better not to do that."
Julius nodded silently. Now that they were actually down in it, he could see the glitz of the tourist area was only on the surface. The main streets were full of vendors and tourists, but the side streets were packed with a very different crowd. Humans in filthy clothes sat together against the buildings, their eyes glassy and empty. Others waited on corners, watching the crowds of tourists like predators eying a herd. Every now and then, one of them would duck off only to come right back with a purse or shopping bag tucked under their arms. Julius shook his head, rolling his eyes up to the sooty black underbelly of the elevated highway that served for a sky in this place. "Why do people put up with it?"
He'd meant that to be a rhetorical question, but Marci answered immediately. "Opportunity. The Lady of the Lakes might care more about fish than people, but this is still the Magic City. There's no immigration office, no background checks. Anyone can come here with nothing and try to make a new life. That's a powerful draw, and there are a lot of jobs here, especially if you aren't too squeamish." She shrugged. "I think of it as a gamble. The DFZ dangerous and unfair and full of weird magic, but if you're willing to brave the risks, you can win big."
"Or lose everything," Julius countered, eying a line of drugged out humans taking refuge behind a dumpster, several of whom were children. "I don't know. It seems kind of like a step back."
"Maybe," Marci said. "But it is what it is, and the city's held on this long, so something must be working."
"I suppose," Julius said, but only to be polite. Honestly, he didn't see how a city ruled by an ancient spirit who clearly didn't care at all for human life, where the rich lived literally on top of everyone else, and you had to pay a fee just to call 911 could be anything other than a dystopia. He didn't want to rain on Marci's enthusiasm, however, so he kept his mouth shut, sticking close to her side as they walked away from the bright, jangly tourist area into a slightly quieter, more residential part of the crowded Underground.
"So," Marci said, smiling at him. "I probably should have asked you this way earlier, but what's your name? Unless you want this to be a secret contract, of course. Again, not judging."
"Not that secret," he said, laughing. "And my name's Julius."
She nodded. "Julius what?"
Julius faked a cough to buy himself time and grabbed his phone in his pocket, popping up the AR display only he could see right through the fabric of his jeans. It still took him a few seconds of fumbling before he was able to navigate the new menus to see what last name Bob had put on his residence ID. "Quetz," he read, gritting his teeth. "Julius Quetz."
"Quetz?" Marci repeated incredulously.
"Short for Quetzalcoatl," he explained, letting the phone go with a huff. "It's an old family name." And Bob's idea of a joke. Or at least, Julius hoped it was a joke. There was no other reason a sane individual would think using the name of the most infamous feathered serpent ever to terrorize the Americas as a cover alias for a dragon in hiding was a good idea.
"Wait, you shortened your last name?"
Julius missed a step on the uneven sidewalk, eyes wide. Was that not something humans did? "Um," he stalled. "It was too hard to spell?"
That explanation seemed to fly, because Marci nodded. "I see. It's too bad, though. I think Quetzalcoatl would have been a pretty awesome last name." She shrugged and flashed that infectious grin of hers at him again, stopping to put out her hand. "Well, Julius Quetz, I'm happier than you can know to be doing business with you. And speaking of which, I hope you don't mind signing a standard U.S. contract. As I said, I just moved here, and I haven't had a chance to get my DFZ paperwork in order, such as it is."
Julius shook her hand after only a slight hesitation. He was about to tell her a U.S. contract would be fine when Marci turned around and walked over to the dusty car parked on the sidewalk beside them. It was a beat-up old junker that looked a good ten years older than Marci herself, but it wasn't until she walked around to the trunk and started wiggling the key-a metal key, not a wireless fob-into the ancient lock, that Julius realized this was her car.
With that, the last of his fears that Marci was a trap set by another clan vanished. If there was any draconic trait even more universal than their love of plotting, it was snobbery. No dragon, no matter how cheap or desperate, would be caught dead using a human who drove a car like this. With that settled, though, there was only one question left. Why had Bob set him up with this mage?
He was still wondering when Marci finally got the trunk open. "I normally charge a flat hourly fee plus expenses," she said, pulling out a stack of slightly creased papers. "But I promised you a discount, so I'm cutting my rate in half and waiving my retainer." Closing the trunk again to use its hood as a writing surface, Marci crossed several clauses off the top of the contract with an expensive-looking marker she'd pulled from her pocket. Once it was all marked through, she wrote in the new rates by hand before giving the contract to Julius. "Is that okay?"
Julius took the pages with trepidation. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen an actual physical contract, let alone signed one. The paper felt odd, too, almost tingly. "Is there a spell on this?"
Marci's eyes widened. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I forgot to mention that. Yes, a minor truth spell, just the usual security against falsification. It's all on the up and up, though, see?" She pointed at the top of the page where the paper had, indeed, been notarized by the State of Nevada Magic Commissioner's Office. "Nothing nefarious."
Julius studied the seal for a moment, and then he glanced through the rear window of her car at the backseat, which was packed high with bags and boxes. There'd been boxes in her trunk as well. Clearly, Marci Novalli had left Nevada in a hurry. He wanted to ask why, but he wasn't exactly in a position to pry, and with the discounted rate she'd written down, he was getting her services for almost nothing.
He felt kind of bad about that, actually, but he needed a mage, she needed work, and a paper contract would keep his name out of any databases that could come back to haunt him. So, before he could second-guess himself into paralysis, Julius took the pen she offered and signed his first name on the dotted line. Only his first name, since the truth spell would have outed his last as a fake. Marci arched an eyebrow, but she didn't comment as she signed her own name on the line below.
"You won't be disappointed," she promised as she snatched the paper up, tucking it into a plastic envelope, which she then slipped into one of the many pockets of her shoulder bag. "Now, what kind of illusion did you need tonight?"
"Well," Julius said, walking around to the old car's passenger side. "I need to get into this party."
Marci's eyes widened in astonishment, and then, to his surprise, she blushed, her whole face turning bright red. "What kind of party wouldn't let you in?"
He tilted his head curiously. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing," she said quickly, hurrying around to the driver's door to unlock the car. "It's just, you don't look like the sort of guy who has trouble getting in anywhere, if you get my drift."
Julius didn't, but Marci was still blushing for some reason, so he didn't push the issue. "Not this one," he said, getting into the car. "It's some kind of exclusive mage thing, and I'm not a mage."
"Say no more," she said, tapping a destination into the flickering console that passed for an autodrive in this relic of a vehicle. "We'll have you looking magical in no time. What kind of mage do you want to be?"
Julius winced as the car sputtered like an asthmatic old dog, but it made it out of the narrow parking space and down the road without dying, and he eventually relaxed into the threadbare seat. "What are my options?"
Marci's enormous smile caught him completely off guard, but he had plenty of time to recover as she passionately recited the seemingly endless variety of magical vocations, with commentary, that he could choose from.
Considering the sorry state of Marci's car, Julius expected her to drive them somewhere truly scary, like one of those hourly Underground motels where they always found the body in DFZ crime movies. He was pleasantly surprised, then, when her route took them out of the dark undercity altogether, driving north away from the water and the skyways into one of Detroit's few surviving historic neighborhoods.
By some miraculous happenstance, the old University District had avoided the worst of Algonquin's initial wave. There was still visible flood damage on the rotting telephone poles, but most of the area's quaint brick and stone houses with their odd little towers and arches were still intact. Unlike the heavily renovated buildings of the packed Underground they'd just left, though, there were no shops or vending machines or noisy crowds. There didn't actually seem to be anyone out here at all.
After experiencing the oppressive, cave-like atmosphere of living below another city first hand, Julius though people would be fighting tooth and nail to live out here where there was still sky and fresh air. The moment Marci had driven them out of the shadow of the skyways, however, the crowds had shrunk to a trickle. Even stranger, most of the nice houses here seemed to be abandoned. Some had even been grown over entirely by yards turned wild over years of neglect, which didn't make any sense at all.
"Why is this place so empty?" he asked, glancing in the side mirror at the cliff-like edge of the two layered city behind them. "We're only fifteen minutes from downtown, and there's so much space. Why isn't it all one giant suburb?"
"Those are all on the south side," Marci said. "I mean, if you want to see the corp towns, I can totally take you later, but no one builds that stuff up here."
She looked at him like he was joking and pointed out his window. When Julius turned to look, though, he didn't see anything but the same collapsing houses that had prompted him to ask the question in the first place. He was about to ask again when he spotted a glimmer of silver above the rooftops, and he realized he'd been looking too low.
About a hundred feet behind the houses lining the street on his right, a chain link fence topped with razor wire rose high into the evening sky. This far away, it was almost invisible, but now that he was staring straight at it, Julius could feel the faint hum of magic coursing through the air like electricity. "What is that?"
"Reclamation Land," Marci said. "All the area east from here until the skyways pick up again by the shores of Lake St. Claire is designated for spirits. It's sort of like a refuge. Spirits live a very long time, which makes them kind of curmudgeonly. A lot of them haven't adapted well to modern life after the comet woke them up. Some people say that's the real reason the Lady of the Lakes took Detroit in the first place; she wanted to give her fellow spirits somewhere safe to adjust to their new world. Personally, I think that's giving Algonquin way too much credit for selflessness, but the Reclamation Land does seem to be a legitimately safe space. Humans aren't even allowed inside unless they work for the Algonquin Corporation."
Julius looked at the fence again. He couldn't see any spirits beyond it-just collapsed houses surrounded by trees and open fields-but after Marci's story, he could feel their power stronger than ever. The magic here smelled of wild places, of forests and water and mountains. Magic like this did not belong so close to a city, and yet here it was, layered over the rundown homes and overgrown lawns like a blanket of wet snow.
"Anyway," Marci went on. "That's the reason this strip of land hasn't been developed. None of the big companies wanted to build this close to the spirits, and no one else can afford to live here. The lots are spaced so far apart that there aren't enough people to split the fees for roads, trash, and cops down to an affordable level, and that's not even counting the wards you'd need."
"That fence is to keep people out." Marci said, nodding at the Reclamation Land border. "The spirits don't mind it at all. Plus, look at all this open land. Trees and grass and open ground attract supernatural activity everywhere, but this close to Algonquin, the pull is super charged. If you wanted to live in one of those houses, you'd practically need a mage on staff just to keep your property from being overrun."
Julius leaned away from the car door. "Overrun by what?"
Marci laughed. "Everything. Spirits, magical animals, feral dogs-you name it, it lives out here. I actually chased a water nixie out of a guy's bathtub just this morning in exchange for breakfast. I should have charged him, but he was such a nice old man, and he was clearly dead broke anyway. It worked out okay, though. He made really delicious pancakes."
Julius was about to ask if chasing away spirits was how Marci made her living out here when the car's automated route ended. Marci took over with a jerk, grabbing the steering wheel for the final turn into the driveway of a house that left him speechless.
"It's only temporary," she said quickly. "And it's not nearly so bad on the inside."
Julius nodded dumbly, staring out the window at the ruin that had once been a Tudor style brick mansion.
If the neighborhood's other houses were in decline, this place was nearing the bottom of a nosedive. Technically, it was two stories tall, but the top floor was caved in completely, the collapsed roof utterly overgrown with ivy. The bottom level didn't look much better. The brick was cracked in several places, and one corner of the foundation was sinking, causing the whole structure to tilt. Given the state of the roof, it was probably even worse on the inside, but Julius couldn't tell for sure since every window was blocked by huge, dusty piles of boxes and furniture pressed right up to the glass. Apparently, whoever had lived here before Marci had had a serious hoarding problem.
The lot was just as bad. Though clearly once a fanciful garden full of benches, stone paths, and cutesy statuary, the side and front yards were now a jungle of ornamental plants gone wild. Bushes ten feet tall battled elephant-sized tufts of pampas grass for every inch of arable land, devouring the poured cement garden statues of cupids and angels until all that remained were their weather-stained hands reaching up out of the vegetation like victims of the Blob. And then, of course, there were the cats.
Julius didn't normally see cats. Felines of all types had a natural nose for magic that could sense a dragon a mile away, sealed or not. Here, though, there were cats everywhere. Maybe they were too muddled by the thick magic of this place to notice his arrival, or maybe they just didn't care, but everywhere Julius looked, there they were, hiding in the overgrown bushes and peering out through the ivy of the collapsed roof. Still more watched from the house's dusty windows, their eyes bright with feral wariness as they followed Marci's car around the back of the house where it eventually rolled to a stop in front of the collapsing back porch.
"I can see why you were desperate," Julius said as they got out of the car.
"Yeah, well, a roof's a roof," Marci grumbled, walking around the tree sized azalea bushes to the dug in cement stair that led down to the house's basement, scattering cats as she went. "Mrs. Hurst was my first customer when I got into town. I took care of a spirit that was giving her trouble, but she didn't have the money for my fee. We were still working it out when her son heard about the incident and sent his mother a plane ticket to come live with him in Chicago. So, since she wasn't going to be here anymore, the old lady said I could stay rent-free in lieu of payment until they sold the house. Free was about my price range at the time, so I took it. Not exactly the Ritz, I know, but something's better than nothing, right?"
Not always, Julius thought, casting another skeptical look at the house's sagging foundations. He didn't want to be insulting, though, and it wasn't like he was going to be living here, so he followed Marci down the steps and into the basement without a word.
Given the state of the house above, he'd braced for the worst, so Julius was shocked when he stepped through the basement door into a neat, well-lit space. It was still a basement with a cement floor and ground-level windows set high on the cracked brick walls, but unlike anything else he'd seen in this place, it was immaculately clean. Or, at least, part of it was.
The basement was as huge as the house above it, but only half of it was nice. The half by the door was bordered by a strip of yellow plastic caution tape covered in spell scribbling. On their side of the plastic line, it was a clean, orderly space that smelled faintly of artificial lemon. On the other side, it was chaos.
Beyond the line made by the yellow tape, filthy, sodden trash lay in huge piles. Julius couldn't even see far enough back to spot the stairs that led up to the house itself. His view was blocked by mountains of discarded boxes, old clothes, broken furniture, stacks of old magazines, and cats. Uncountable cats, their eyes gleaming from the shadows as Marci clicked on the tall parlor lamp sitting on top of the mini fridge in the corner.
"Don't worry," she said, nodding at the caution tape. "The cats can't get through the ward. It keeps out the smell, too. You would not believe what this place was like when I got here."
Julius believed it just fine. "Free or not, why would you live down here?"
If he'd thought better of it, he wouldn't have put the question quite that way. Fortunately, Marci didn't seem offended.
"It fit my needs," she said with a shrug. "My father died suddenly Tuesday night, and I ended up having to move in kind of a hurry. I haven't had time to pick up my Residency ID yet, and I don't have a stable source of income, which makes it kind of hard to get a lease even in the DFZ. I've just been trying to roll with the punches and make do."
She'd certainly done that, Julius thought, looking over the tiny island of order and cleanliness she'd carved from the vast, disgusting sea of trash and cats. In addition to the mini fridge and the lamp, she'd acquired a couch and a gigantic wooden wardrobe that looked like it might contain Narnia. There was also a large, open square of floor off to the side that was covered in chalk casting circles, which he assumed must be her workspace. Not bad at all for someone who'd only been here...
"Wait," Julius said. "Tuesday? Like, three days ago?" When she nodded, he cursed himself for an insensitive idiot. "My condolences for the loss of your father."
Marci's face fell for a split second, but then she was right back to business, throwing open the doors of the huge wardrobe to reveal, sadly not fur coats and a snowy forest with a lamppost, but a neatly organized collection of magical paraphernalia, which was far more useful at the moment. "Thanks," she said. "I miss him a lot. But hey, at least I haven't had time to dwell on it, right? Hard to be sad when you're under an endless siege of cats."
Her voice was bright and cheery, but Julius's ears were tuned for dragons, and he could hear the falseness of her words clear as a bell. But it was neither his problem nor his place to call out her deception, so he let it go. He had to, anyway, because Marci was shoving an intricately carved wooden box into his face. "Hold this a sec."
He did, using both hands when the box proved much heavier than it looked. It was also vibrating slightly, the little motions making the paper seal on the lid flutter like a flag in a high wind. Julius grimaced and moved the box to arm's length. Family competition aside, this sort of creepiness was the other reason he'd stayed away from serious magic.
"So," he said as Marci climbed up into the wardrobe to grab a meticulously labeled box of multicolored casting chalk off the top shelf. "You're from Nevada?"
"Las Vegas," she said proudly. "My dad and I used to have a magical solutions business there."
That explained her card. "What kind of solutions?"
"All kinds," Marci said. "Though we specialized in curse breaking. Las Vegas is a vengeful town, and that makes good business for both sides of the curse market." She paused. "I was also going to school at UNLV for my doctorate in Thaumaturgical theory, but I had to quit when my dad died."
"That's too bad."
She shrugged. "Nothing to be done. It was probably for the best, though. I was getting tired of the limits of academic magic."
The false ring in her voice was back again when she said this, and again, Julius ignored it. He didn't think she was lying outright this time, more like telling only half the story. That was still enough to make him uneasy, but considering he hadn't told her a hundredth of his story, it was far simpler to just let it lie. He kept his mouth shut as he followed her over to the interlocking magical circles she'd drawn on the cement.
"Give me a moment to redraw these and we'll get started," she said, grabbing a dry mop from the corner and using it like an eraser, scrubbing the circles off the cement with a few deft strokes.
"What was wrong with the old ones?"
"Totally inappropriate initial casting parameters," Marci said, putting the mop away and selecting a fresh piece of gold-colored chalk from the box she'd pulled out of the wardrobe. "Is this your first time watching Thaumaturgy in action?"
This was his first time watching a human cast anything, but before he could say as much, Marci charged right ahead.
"Thaumaturgy is the best form of magic," she said in the bright, excited tone of someone getting a chance to explain something she truly loved. "It's the process of using logical spell notation to create detailed instructions that tell the magic how to behave. Watch, it all starts with a circle."
She grabbed a metal folding chair leaning against the wall and taped the stick of chalk to its leg. Before Julius could ask why, she unfolded the chair halfway, stamped the back leg down, and then, using the half-folded chair like a protractor, she touched the foot with the chalk taped to it against the cement floor and spun the chair like a top, drawing a perfect circle. Julius watched, dumbstruck. Apparently, Marci Novalli's ability to make do extended to all sorts of things.
"There," she said, setting the chair back against the wall. "Now we have a place for the magic to gather before we use it, sort of like a holding tank." She looked up expectantly, which Julius took as his cue to nod. This earned him a brilliant smile and the resumption of the impromptu lesson. "So, now that we've got a place for the magic to pool, it's time to put down the instructions that will tell it what to do."
She retrieved her chalk as she said this, kneeling at the circle's edge to begin writing a line of Greek symbols, numbers, and abbreviated words along the inner curve. "I use Socratic notation because it's the most precise and I like it the best, but there are several other spellwork languages that all do basically the same thing. The idea is to create a progressive series of algorithms that tell the magic how to behave, kind of like writing a computer program. Once the spellwork is finished, all I have to do is pull the magic through the circle and voila, the spell is cast." She glanced up at him. "Speaking of which, have you decided what kind of mage you want to be?"
He considered the question. "Well, it's a shaman party, so probably a shaman of some sort. Preferably something quiet." Because if anyone actually tried to talked to him about magic, he'd be revealed as a fraud in no time.
Marci thought for a moment, and then bent back over her circle. "I've got a good one," she said, clicking chalk across the cement floor in deft strokes. "Just let me get it down and we'll be golden."
Julius nodded and settled in to wait, watching in fascination as Marci worked. He'd always thought of magic symbols as just that: random mystical shapes that controlled magic. Now that she'd explained what those long lines of spellwork actual did, though, he was surprised to see it really did look like code. Parts of it even looked almost readable. He was about to kneel down for a better look when something cold brushed against his leg.
He jumped before he could stop himself and glanced down to see a large, fluffy white cat. And then he jumped again, not just because this cat was inside the ward where cats weren't supposed to be, but because this cat's body was transparent. It was glowing, too, shining with its own strange, blue-white light, almost like a-
He looked up to see Marci kneeling with her hands on her hips and a furious scowl on her face. "You know you're not supposed to bother customers," she said firmly, pointing at the far side of the basement. "Go on! Get out of here!"
The transparent cat gave her a disgusted look and stalked off toward the couch. He turned his back on them when he got there, silently grooming his paws like this relocation business had been entirely his idea.
"Marci," Julius said, very slowly. "Why do you have a ghost cat?"
"Technically, he's not a ghost," Marci said, going back to her spellwork. "That's just his name. He's actually a death spirit. You probably noticed Mrs. Hurst had a bit of a cat problem?"
Julius glanced over at the wall of reflective eyes peering at them from the shadowy mountains of trash on the other side of the yellow plastic ward. "I noticed."
Marci shook her head. "Nice old lady, but way too soft-hearted. She told me she couldn't stand to turn away strays but never had the money to get them fixed, so naturally the house began to fill up. They've had the run of the place for years, which sadly means a lot of dead cats hidden in the garbage, and dead bodies bring death spirits."
Julius looked at the transparent cat sitting on the couch with a cold shudder. "You're saying he's the job you did for the lady who owned this place? The one you traded for free rent?"
"Yep," Marci replied. "I was going through the public job boards when I saw this listing from an old lady who swore that a ghost cat was trying to kill her. I don't normally take crazy jobs, but no one else had answered it and I needed the money bad, so I told her I'd come over and check it out. When I arrived, I found Ghost there sitting on top of my future client's chest. He'd nearly sucked her dry by that point, and I ended up having to bind him just to make him detach."
Julius recoiled. "That's horrific."
"You're telling me," Marci said, laughing. "I had to dodge furious cats the whole way in, and that was before I knew I'd be doing a binding."
"But why did you bind him?" Julius asked. "Why not banish him?" He didn't know much about human magic, but he knew binding was a serious commitment that tied spirit and mage for life. That didn't sound like the sort of thing you did on the fly with something as openly hostile as a death spirit.
"I thought about that," she said. "But if I banished him, he'd just come back again and bother someone else. Besides, he's a bit of a rare specimen. It's been hypothesized that cats have more natural magic than other domesticated animals, but this is the first time I've seen or heard of a death spirit specific to the species. He'll be a great thesis topic if I ever get a chance to go back and finish my doctorate."
Julius stared at her, mouth open, an expression that was rapidly becoming his default around Marci. "You mean you bound a death spirit to yourself for all time on the off-chance you can write a paper about him if you go back to school?"
"Well, he's also pretty useful," she said, brushing the chalk off her hands as she stood up. "When I can get him to obey, that is. Would you hand me the box, please?"
Julius did as she asked, silently handing her the shaking wooden box he'd brought over from the wardrobe. The soft rattling stopped when Marci broke the paper seal, and she reached inside to pull out something long, black, and slightly ridged, like an animal horn. "What's that?"
"Chimera tusk," Marci said proudly, holding the black object out for him to see. "And before you ask, it's from a licensed humane farm in Canada. I don't buy from factory mills. It taints the magic."
Julius hadn't been about to ask, mostly because it had never even occurred to him there would be chimera farms in Canada. He was, however, suddenly feeling very uneasy about this spell. "Why do you need a chimera tusk?"
"Well, I don't need it," Marci said, placing the tusk squarely in the center of her palm. "But it takes a lot of magic to do two illusions thick enough to trick a room full of mages, and since I'm pretty sure you don't want to stand around here all night waiting while I pull down that much power manually, I thought I'd employ an outside source. Think of it as using a battery." She looked down critically at the tusk in her hand. "Besides, this one's getting kind of old. Better to use it up now than wait and risk losing potency, you know?"
"I'll take your word for it," Julius said. "But why are you doing two illusions?"
"Because I'm coming with you." Marci gave him a sideways look. "What? You didn't think I'd let you go alone, did you?"
"Well," Julius began. "I-"
"You're my client," she said, clearly appalled. "I can't let you just go in without backup. What if you get dispelled? Also, and please don't take this the wrong way, but you talk like a total null. It doesn't matter how good a cover I slap on you, you'll be outed in a second if you don't have someone standing by to feed you lines."
Julius couldn't argue there. "I'd be happy to have you along, but I still don't understand why you need a disguise. You're already a mage."
Marci's eyes widened like he'd just called her a dirty name. "Weren't you listening? I'm a Socratic Thaumaturge. You know, logical thinking, repeatable results, known best practices, all the tenants of real sorcery? We're sneaking you into a shaman party. Shamans consider themselves artists at best, spiritual gurus at worst. Most of them just throw magic around and hope it works out. There probably won't be a single person in that place who could write out a spell in proper notation if their life depended on it. They'll take one look at my personal magic and know what I am for sure. The real challenge will be masking my well-maintained aura in enough random nonsense that they don't see the good stuff underneath."
"I didn't mean to insult you," Julius said quickly. "I'm sure your way is better, but theirs can't be all bad. I mean, they might not do magic the way you do, but there are a lot of shamans around." Including a guy he'd been in a gaming guild with last year who'd been really decent, if a little odd. "They must be doing something right, or they wouldn't keep getting work."
Marci made a face. "I guess you could say that shamans are better at casting on the fly. Thaumaturgy does require some set-up time since we're not just, you know, making things up as we go along. For the sort of illusion you need, though, Thaumaturgy is waaaaaay better."
Julius had the feeling Marci would claim Thaumaturgy was better for everything, but he was perfectly ready to let it lie. "I'm lucky you found me, then."
She rewarded him with a beaming smile as she placed the bit of chimera tusk into the middle of the meticulously marked chalk circle. "Ready?"
Julius nodded and stepped into the circle where she indicated. He felt the hum of her magic as soon as his body crossed the chalk, an intense vibration that sang like a tuning fork against his bones before fading to a pleasant buzz.
Marci put her hands on his shoulders and moved him around until he was standing directly over the bit of tusk in the center. "I'm going to start pulling magic through," she warned him, stepping out of the circle. "You might feel a little pressure."
He took a deep breath. "Go for it."
The words were barely out of his mouth before the chalk circle flared up like phosphorus. Magic landed on him at the same time, nearly sending him to his knees.
The sudden panic at being buried by foreign magic almost caused Julius to throw it off with his own. He stopped the reflex just in time, clutching his magic tight and breathing through the pressure until it felt more like a wave than a landslide. When he was sure he could take it, he opened his eyes again to find Marci giving him a funny look.
"Did you ever get tested to see if you could be a mage?" she asked, moving her hands through the air between them like she was conducting an invisible orchestra. Every time she moved, another line of the notation she'd written on the floor lit up, and the magic pulled tighter around him. The process felt uncomfortably like being tied up, and it took Julius several seconds before he got himself together enough to shake his head.
"Maybe you should. You have a surprising amount of natural magic. Your curse seems to be warping it, though. I've never worked with magic that feels like yours." She gave him a concerned look. "Are you sure you don't want me to try breaking it? Because that can't be healthy."
"Positive," Julius said. Now that he'd felt Marci's magic, he was more sure than ever that she couldn't break his mother's seal. Their magic was just too different, and trying would likely only end up with Marci getting hurt, not to mention blow his cover. That said, the seal was actually working out astonishingly in his favor right now. It was much easier to let Marci assume that his magic felt odd because of a curse and not because he wasn't actually human.
She didn't look happy with his answer, but she didn't press again. She just kept working until, at last, she lowered her hands, and Julius felt the magic lock around him like a buckle clicking into place. "All done," she said with a proud smile. "What do you think?"
Julius looked down... and saw he was exactly the same. "Um, did it work?"
"Of course it worked," Marci said. "If anyone looks at your magic, you'll look like a rock. That's what I made you, a stone shaman: flat, boring, and naturally silent. Will that do?"
He blinked and looked again. He saw magic naturally as a dragon, so he'd never bothered learning how to do it as a human. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult, but if he squinted, he could just make out the haze of Marci's magic hanging over his own like a golden curtain, and the more he looked at it, the more he saw that she was right. He did look like a rock.
"I thought I'd go for a badger shaman, myself," Marci said, motioning for him to step out of the circle. "Something nice and nasty no one will want to mess with."
As she bent down to rub out the end of the spellwork notation and rewrite it for herself, Julius stepped back a bit to focus on getting used to the weight of Marci's illusion. To his surprise, it was actually fairly pleasant once he'd adjusted. Dragon spells tended to be as sharp as their fangs, but Marci's magic was soft and thick, like a heavy blanket.
He was just starting to settle into it when a flash of light caught his attention, and he looked up in time to see Marci lower her hands with a thrust that blasted the chalk circle at her feet into a cloud of dust. "There," she said, turning around. "What do you think?"
She didn't look terribly different, but her short brown hair was now black with two white stripes, just like a badger. She'd also changed out her sparkly vest for an illusion of a long duster that looked decidedly homemade and replaced her boots with sandals that tied up her feet with rainbow ribbons. "I think the shoes are bit much."
"Then you clearly don't hang out with many shamans," she said, wiggling her toes, which were also rainbow-painted. "I'm positively sedate. Now let's get out of here. We're already ten minutes late."
Julius cursed under his breath. Between cats and ghosts and costuming, he'd completely lost track of time. Fortunately, Marci was ready to go in three minutes, though she insisted on stopping to lock the basement door behind them. This seemed pointless to Julius since the wooden door was so rotted he could have pulled the lock out with his hand, but when he saw the flare of a ward settling into place as she turned the key, her insistence on locking up suddenly made a lot more sense. It also made two wards of Marci's he'd seen, counting the yellow tape, and he was ready to bet she had more he hadn't noticed. This, in turn, made Julius wonder just how many thousands of dollars worth of magical work Marci had sunk into making her cat hole livable. It didn't seem worth it to him, but then, he wasn't in her situation. When magic was all you had, magic was what you used.
"How long do you think it will take us to get there?" he asked as they climbed back up the short run of stairs to the driveway.
She glanced at the address. "It's over on the river by Belle Isle, so about twenty minutes." When Julius winced, she added, "Don't worry. It's a shaman party. Those never start on time."
He sincerely hoped she was right. He also hoped Marci's car would make it. All the cats watched as they drove away from the rotting old mansion, and though Julius couldn't be sure, he swore he saw Ghost sitting on top of the chimney, staring after them with gleaming blue eyes. Creepy as that was, though, dealing with a dead cat spirit felt like a vacation compared to what he was supposed to do next.
He slipped his hand into his pocket to make sure Svena's silver chain was still there. It might have been his imagination, but the links seemed to jump up to meet his fingers, the metal still cold as frost even after an hour against his body heat. He snatched his hand back immediately, fingers curling into a fist. He really didn't feel right about this, but then, he never felt right when he was doing the sort of things dragons were supposed to do. It wasn't like his opinion mattered, anyway. If he didn't chain and return Svena's little sister as ordered, Ian would report his failure, and then Mother would make a chain out of Julius's intestines, which put a definite damper on any plans to buck the system. It was hard to hold the moral high ground while also trying to hold in your innards.
That lovely mental image made him sigh, and he leaned his head on Marci's window. He was being ridiculous. So what if the idea of cornering a runaway dragon and delivering her unconscious body back to the clan she feared made him feel lower than dirt? He should be focusing on how to appease his own family so he could remain alive and uneaten, not worrying about his conscience. Real dragons didn't have consciences, anyway. His certainly hadn't done him any good.
Julius jerked his head up to see Marci staring at him. "Excuse me?"
She bit her lip and looked back at the road. "You just made a really sad sound."
He looked down at his lap, embarrassed. Great, now Marci thought he was pathetic, too. "It's nothing," he lied, sinking lower.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Her quick offer caught him off guard, but not nearly as much as how desperately he wanted to take her up on it. If she'd been a dragon, such a question would have been an obvious play for information. Of course, if she'd been a dragon, she wouldn't have asked if he wanted to talk in the first place. She would have demanded.
But Marci wasn't a dragon, and she wasn't ordering him to do anything. He didn't even think she was fishing for secrets. She was just being politely concerned. Being nice. Humans got to do that, and Julius was so tempted to take her up on the treasure she'd just unwittingly offered him that he actually started thinking up excuses for why spilling his troubles to her would be a forgivable offense.
In the end, though, he kept his mouth shut. Eager as he was to confide in someone who wouldn't use every word against him later, revealing clan business to a human was a quick way to get that human killed. Fortunately, being inoffensively quiet was a survival skill Julius had perfected long ago, and he set himself to staring out the window, studiously ignoring to the concerned glances Marci shot him whenever she thought he wasn't looking.
Considering the rates most mages demanded for their services, Julius had expected the party to be up on the skyways with all the rest of the money. Instead, the address took them back into the Underground, but not the flashing tourist part this time. Though clearly once a nice neighborhood by the water, nearly all of the original buildings were now gone, replaced by large brick warehouses built to serve the massive riverside casinos overhead.
"You're sure it's below the casinos, not in them?" Marci asked, eying the lower levels of the huge hotels that poked down through the suspended skyway like tree roots reaching for the real ground below.
"This has to be it," Julius said, though even he wasn't feeling so sure himself. Other than the warehouses, the only other things down here were the massive blocks of prefab tenements built to house the armies of workers who kept the big hotels above them ticking over. There were a few crowded family style restaurants and a cheap chain grocery store, but nowhere a bunch of mages would throw a party, and definitely nowhere he'd expect to find a dragon. Still, according to the listing Svena had shown him, this was the place, so he went ahead and told Marci to find somewhere to park.
The address itself turned out to be for a large warehouse right on the river. Julius didn't want to risk scaring off his target, so he had Marci to park in an alley one block down so they could case the place first. When they approached the warehouse itself, though, Julius realized he needn't have bothered.
Apparently, this "exclusive mage party" was about as exclusive as a frat kegger. Every door, window, and loading bay in the warehouse had been thrown open to let in the night wind off the water, and music was thumping so loud, Julius could feel the bass through the sidewalk. They walked right in through the front without challenge, and while Julius wanted to attribute this to Marci's excellent illusions, he had the feeling that he could have crashed through the roof as a dragon and not turned a head.
"It smells like an Amsterdam canal in here," Marci yelled over the music, batting at the smoky air in front of her face. "What are we doing at this party again?"
"Looking for someone," Julius yelled back. "I'm going to go check the back. You stay here and try to blend in. I'll message you if I need help. What's your number?"
"I don't have a phone." When Julius gaped at her, she raised her hands helplessly. "What? You need a Residency ID to get a phone in the DFZ, and I don't have one yet. I'm working on it."
Julius heaved a deep sigh. "Just stay here, then. I'll be back soon."
He waited until she nodded before moving away, breathing deep as he walked to see if he could pick out the sharp, metallic scent of another dragon. Unfortunately, smelling anything through the overwhelming mix of river, humans, and pot smoke turned out to be impossible, so Julius began searching the old-fashioned way. Fifteen minutes later, he'd found two people who claimed to be dragon shamans, one white-haired young woman who called herself a human dove, and zero actual dragonesses. He was starting to worry Katya wasn't here at all when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
Julius whirled around, furious and frightened that he hadn't noticed someone sneaking up on him, and came up nose to nose with a tall, youngish human male with long hair and a pleasantly goofy grin plastered across his face.
"Welcome to our party, newcomer rock-man," he said, offering Julius a weird half bow. "I'm Lark, albatross shaman and the head of the local circle here on the waterfront. Are you interested in joining our communion with the spirits of the land and such?"
It took Julius several seconds before he remembered what kind of mage he was supposed to be. Deciphering the rest of the greeting took a good bit longer. "Wait," he said at last. "If you're an albatross shaman, why is your name Lark?"
The young man threw up his hennaed hands. "Don't get too caught up in labels, my brother. That way lies madness. You gotta just be with the magic inside you, ya know?"
Julius nodded blankly. Marci's rant about shamans was starting to make a bit more sense now. "Well, if you're the leader, maybe you can help me. I'm looking for a friend. Her name is Katya."
When the shaman shook his head, Julius pulled out his phone and brought up the picture Svena had given him. The moment he saw it, Lark's eyes brightened. "Oh! You mean Katie. You just missed her, man. She and the gator left ten minutes ago."
Julius stared at him. "Gator?"
"Ross Vedder, alligator shaman," Lark clarified with a wink. "They set up together last week. Great couple, really. Hilarious."
That description was so undragonlike, Julius wasn't sure they were talking about the same Katya. "Do you know where they went? I really need to find her."
Lark shrugged and pulled out a surprisingly nice phone of his own. When he got it close to Julius's, another picture of Katya appeared in their shared AR with the name KATIE beside it. In it, a happy Katya was smiling wide and hugging an equally ecstatic-looking Lark at a party just like this one, and her blatant joy hit Julius like a punch to the gut.
"Ross and the rest of his peeps have a commune downstream," Lark went on, sending a map location to Julius's phone. "Real nice setup, very 'one with the powers of the place' vibe. They're doing some absolutely amazing work restoring magical ecosystems down in the pipes. I've been trying to get something similar going up on the old Ambassador Bridge for us bird types for years, but we're kind of hard to manage. You'd think we'd flock better, right?"
Julius waited impatiently for him to stop laughing at his own joke before asking. "And you're sure she's at this place?"
"Who can be sure of anything?" Lark said sagely. "But I'm pretty sure. She said she was going home for the night, and that's their home. Ergo, et cetera."
Julius glanced back down at the address Lark had sent him. It wasn't much, but it was the best he was probably going to get. "Thank you."
"My pleasure to be of assistance to any creature," Lark replied, clapping Julius on the shoulder. "Hey, you wanna drink? We got a full bar out back. Liquid, herbal, and nitrous, what's your pleasure?"
"No thanks," Julius said, ducking out of his grip. "I've got to go find my..." He paused, trying to think of an acceptable title for Marci. "Companion," he said at last. "Maybe later."
"Suit yourself, Mr. Rolling Stone. We'll be here all night if you change your mind." Lark pressed his hands together. "Namaste!"
Unsure what else to do, Julius returned the gesture before pushing back through the crowd to where he'd left Marci. When he reached the door, though, she was nowhere to be seen. This sparked a minute of frantic searching before he finally spotted her standing with a crowd of people in the corner, watching a man in some kind of tribal costume spin a halo of fire over his head.
Julius walked up behind her and leaned down to speak into her ear. "Let's go."
"Just a second," she said. "I want to see if he's going to blow himself up." She scowled at the costumed man, who was currently waving his arms in a frantic motion as he tried to maintain the roaring ring of flames. "That is not how you cast that spell."
Julius grit his teeth. "Come on, Marci."
She heaved a long sigh and followed him out of the warehouse. When they were safely down the street, he filled her in on what Lark had told him.
"You mean we missed her by ten minutes?" Marci groaned. "That's so unlucky."
"Luck has nothing to do with it," Julius said. It never did with dragons. "We need to find the alligator shaman. If she's still with him, tonight won't be a total-"
He never got to finish, because at that point, Marci vanished from his side with a gasp. Julius whirled around a split second later...and found himself staring straight down the silenced barrel of a gun.