Two dragons guarded the treasure Tate had been eyeing for the past while.
It wasn't the actual dragons. There were no overgrown lizards with wings hovering over the sparkly gems hidden in a plain cloth bag. Rather, it was their human halves who were making her life difficult.
They were a species known as the dragon-ridden. One body, two souls—able to move between both forms at will. It made them powerful—and highly dangerous.
At the moment, however, they were more of a nuisance than anything. An obstacle Tate would prefer not to face.
There was a saying in Aurelia—never take treasure from a dragon unless you're prepared to lose an arm. And possibly your life.
Tate didn’t often listen to reasonable advice. Perhaps, if she did, she'd run into fewer problems. Life would be easier, that was for certain. Less interesting, but safer.
Tate tapped a finger on her knee as she surveyed the situation from her perch on the roof. It wasn't easy ignoring the cramping in her lower extremities from holding one position for so long. Any movement, even something as small as shifting her weight to take the pressure off one side, would draw the notice of the dragons below.
It'd be game over then. A chance like this wouldn't come along a second time.
Tate sunk into thought. How exactly did one go about stealing treasure from underneath a dragon-ridden's nose? Two of them, no less.
That very important question was what had kept her on this roof for the last forty minutes.
It was a tricky prospect, that was for sure.
As dragon-ridden, their senses were superior to that of an ordinary human. Reflexes. Strength. Speed. Very few could compare.
Even though she was dragon-ridden herself, Tate wasn't certain she was their match.
The two below had been bonded to their dragons for centuries. Tate and her bonded, Ilith, might be the oldest dragon-ridden in existence, but most of that time had been spent in deep sleep.
She and Ilith didn't have the years of experience the two below had. They hadn't spent decades perfecting the bond and adapting to its power.
It left her with a sizable handicap. She and Ilith were both ancient and newly bonded at the same time. Their power unstable.
Tate pursed her lips as she considered her options. She could try rigging a rope and coming at the treasure from above…
Almost as soon as the idea occurred to her, she scoffed. Yeah, because it was so likely that the dragon-ridden wouldn't notice a person descending from the sky. Even if she got within reach of the bag, how would she escape? Climb back up the rope?
All they would need to do was shift into their more lethal dragon form and eat her.
She blew out a silent breath, making a face.
There was always the smash and grab, she supposed. Go in as hard and fast as she could, then skedaddle in the opposite direction.
It wasn't the most elegant plan, but of the options she'd come up with, it was the most likely to succeed.
My turn? Ilith, the incredibly life-like dragon tattoo on Tate's forearm, crawled up her bicep until she reached Tate's shoulder where she stopped.
More and more over the last few weeks, Tate had noticed Ilith's presence was beginning to carry a tangible weight even when she was in the form of a tattoo. Right now, it felt like a small cat perched on Tate’s shoulder.
She'd hoped it meant Ilith was close to manifesting—an ability only one dragon-ridden had mastered so far.
In their present circumstances, Ilith being able to manifest her physical form separate from Tate would have been a godsend. All Tate would have needed to do then was send her forward to steal the treasure. Ilith could have secured it and flown off before either dragon-ridden could react.
Unfortunately, such ideas were nothing more than an ephemeral dream. As far as she could tell, Ilith was no closer to manifesting than she had been all those weeks ago when Ryu demonstrated the theory behind how it worked.
It left Tate with no choice but to get her own hands dirty.
Almost, Tate thought at Ilith.
The dragon set her chin on her paws and flicked her tail in disappointment. Want the shiny.
Of that, Tate had no doubt. The shiny, as Ilith called it, had been all Ilith could talk about since the moment she saw it.
Tate chose to ignore the sulky dragon, concentrating on those below. She needed to wait for the exact right moment to make her move.
Dragons weren't the patient sort. They were creatures of the moment, fueled by passion and their own convoluted thinking.
Tate wasn't much of a planner herself, but even she was able to foresee what a bad idea some of Ilith's impulses were.
It was her fate to act as the balance to Ilith's impulsive nature. Sometimes she was more successful than others.
As it was, Ilith's impatience beat at her, sparking a concern that if Tate waited much longer, Ilith would take matters into her own paws.
Any plans Tate had wouldn't make a difference then.
Movement below distracted Tate from Ilith's brewing frustration as the scruffier of the two dragons found a spot in the garden to lay down. Fair haired and sporting a beard, the man was the easier going of the two. He threaded his hands behind his head and tilted his face toward the sun with a small smile.
This was it. The opening Tate had been waiting for.
She stopped resisting Ilith, dropping the barriers she constantly kept in place between the two of them.
The barriers were a necessary precaution to preserve both their minds. Without them, Ilith and Tate would blend together, making it impossible to know where one ended and the other began. That way lay madness.
Ilith surged to the forefront as energy built within Tate. Her skin prickled as a sensation that was both pain and pleasure took over.
Before she could do more than initiate the change, a small fuzzy creature shot out from one of the hedges. It dashed across the gravel, snagging the bag of gems off the table and sprinting down another hedge-lined path.
The shock of the unexpected theft jarred Tate out of the change. She stared open mouthed after the creature.
That little jerk.
As if the theft was a signal, children darted out from their hiding places in the hedges, fleeing in the wake of the thief.
My shinies! Ilith wailed.
Tate cursed, standing from her hiding spot and racing along the roof edge. One of the thief's cohorts spotted Tate and gave her a chipper wave.
Dewdrop. She should have known he was the instigator as soon as Willa made off with the bag.
"Traitor!" Tate yelled.
Dewdrop ran backwards for several steps. "You shouldn't have waited."
Ilith grumbled in agreement.
Tate sputtered. How was she supposed to know Dewdrop and his band of troublemakers would pick that exact moment to strike?
Though she supposed it wasn't entirely out of the realm of possibility. Most of those in Dewdrop's crew were dragon-ridden like Ilith. Although they were children, they had the same instincts—the same attraction to shiny objects. It stood to reason they'd be as invested in liberating the gems as Ilith and Tate.
It was the use of the Veles that threw Tate off her game. Until recently, she'd referred to them as bearcats because they looked like a cross between a barbed tail cat and a sunbear.
Willa was the daughter of one of Tate's best friends. She'd babysat Willa and her twin Pax on more than one occasion, fought for food with them. You'd think a bond like that meant Willa would think twice about stabbing Tate in the back.
Maybe it would have if Dewdrop wasn't also the best friend of Willa's father.
"I need better friends." Tate approached the edge of the roof at a sprint. One thing was clear—
she was going to get back those gems. Best friends or not.
You should be assertive more often.
Tate felt an inkling of warning before Ilith surged up in her consciousness.
"Don't you think about it, Ilith!"
Too late. Ilith wrested control of their body from Tate, racing forward with no regard to the sharp drop.
Her Savior's protest fell on deaf ears as Ilith sprang off the roof, their body still in the beginning stages of the transition.
You stupid dragon. We don't have wings yet.
Ilith embraced the pain of the shift. For one long, glorious moment, she was neither dragon nor human but some meld of the two.
For others the shift would appear to take place in an instant. Not so for Ilith and Tate.
They could feel every cell in their body mutate, muscles and bones reconfiguring as their skin split and scales poured out. It was a pain that was all consuming, yet easily forgotten as soon as they were out the other side again.
Gravity caught her just as she completed the shift. Ilith's wings snapped out, turning their fall into a fast glide.
She chortled to herself. Her Savior was such a worrier. She was dragon. Even if they'd crashed into the ground, it wouldn't have left so much as a scratch on her magnificent scales.
My body isn't as sturdy.
Ilith flapped her wings once to adjust her course as she pushed Tate's voice to the back of her mind. It was time she retrieved her horde.
They’re not part of your horde.
Yet. And Ilith had every intention of changing that.
Worry from Tate filtered through their bond. Please remember this is just a game. The dragonlettes find your presence soothing, Saviors know why. Let's not do anything to jeopardize that.
An excited warble left Ilith as she spotted her quarry streaking through the garden, bounding over hedges and bellying under obstacles as she fled toward the house in the distance.
Aaannd the dragon isn't listening.
Ilith arrowed toward Willa, picking up every stray detail with eyes that saw more than a hawk’s.
The Veles wasn't alone. The small faces of her companions turned toward Ilith. Alarm filled their expressions.
The boy her Savior considered precious cupped his hands around his mouth. "The dragon is on the move. Everyone, you know what to do!"
The children converged on Willa, shielding her.
Ilith snorted. As if they could stop her. They needed at least a thousand more years of growing to even have half a shot.
So arrogant. One day that's going to bite you in the tail.
Unlikely, Ilith thought smugly.
There was an undercurrent to Tate's words that put Ilith on guard.
It only took Ilith a moment to understand. You helped them.
It was so unexpected of a development that it caused Ilith’s wings to miss a beat. When did Tate even have time to put that plan into action?
A part of her was disgruntled over the betrayal, even as the rest of her admired Tate’s presumptuousness. After all this time, her Savior could still surprise her.
If true, her tactics needed to change. More than anyone, Ilith was familiar with how underhanded Tate could be. She was very dragon-like in that respect.
It was one of the reasons Ilith chose her.
You'll see, Tate sang.
Ilith slowed, approaching the group with a caution that hadn't been there before. If they really were acting under Tate's orders, the other side couldn't be underestimated.
The children split, each one shooting in a different direction as Dewdrop pursed his lips.
Sound ripped from his throat, a wave of force rushing at Ilith. It buffeted her, threatening to knock her out of the air.
Ilith whistled, the low-pitched noise canceling out the sound waves Dewdrop had directed at her.
Heh. Such insignificant tricks.
Dewdrop looked disgruntled. "How did she do that?"
Ilith preened. She was dragon.
Some of Ilith's arrogance drained away as she caught sight of Willa perched at Dewdrop's feet. The Veles tilted her whiskers at Ilith in her version of a grin.
There was no sign of the bag anywhere to be seen.
Ilith’s gaze darted to the rest of the children, understanding following a second later. They'd used Dewdrop as a distraction, moving the gems from Willa to one of the children while Ilith was preoccupied.
They knew that in a race, Ilith would win every time. But give her half a dozen moving targets to track and they significantly increased their odds of reaching the finish line with their prize intact.
Smart little dragonlettes. They were worthy of her Savior's attention.
It was just too bad Ilith wasn't so easily fooled.
She sniffed, picking up the scent of the treasure coming from the figure of a girl wearing a bright yellow shirt the color of sunshine.
The smug expressions dropped from Dewdrop and Willa's faces as Ilith changed direction.
"Shit." Dewdrop, Willa at his heels, raced in the girl's direction. "Daisy, you have incoming."
Another boy jerked, his head spinning toward Ilith and Dewdrop. "You said this would work."
"I said it might work," Dewdrop corrected.
Alarm spread across the boy's face as he took off toward the girl. "That winged lizard better not throw her over another cliff!"
Ilith easily left the three behind. Her shadow cast the girl in shade seconds before she back winged, careful to land without crushing the dragonlette. The surrounding shrubs and hedges weren't as lucky. Her majestic weight flattened them into twigs.
Daisy squeaked and toppled over. She scooted backwards, keeping her wide eyes on Ilith.
Ilith paid her no attention as her gaze darted from the girl's face to the bag clutched in her fist. Still, Ilith didn't move immediately to take it.
This couldn't be the extent of their plan. Her Savior was much trickier than this. There had to be a second, more diabolical, part.
There came a series of yodeling cries as Ilith was attacked from several directions. She stood still, the insignificant weight of her assailants barely registering.
Confused, she peered over her shoulder. A gem-like gaze met hers; the dragonlette screeching a challenge.
Tate snickered. Didn't expect that, did you?
Of course, Ilith hadn’t expected it. In what universe would such a pitiful effort be considered a plan?
Daisy took advantage of Ilith's brief distraction to scramble out of reach. She beelined for the statue to their left and the building beyond it.
Ilith shook herself hard. The dragonlettes lost their precarious hold, tumbling off her with disgruntled squawks.
Unwilling to concede the battle, several of them latched onto Ilith's tail with their teeth and dug their paws into the gravel.
Even with all their efforts, Ilith felt nothing but a light pressure from the would-be nuisances as she waddled forward.
Is that all you've got? Ilith asked Tate smugly.
Ilith lifted her tail and waved it lightly, dislodging the dragonlettes. They lost their grip, their irritated protests filling the air.
I'm disappointed, my Savior. I expected better from you. Ilith didn't wait for a response, bounding forward to trap the dragonlette again.
The girl stumbled to a stop.
Ilith sat and pointed at the ground.
An exaggerated expression of confusion filled the girl's face. She shook her head gently as if to say she didn't understand.
Ilith blew out a puff of hot air, knowing exactly who had coached Daisy to act like this. Dewdrop got the same look on his face when he was trying to fool Tate. It didn't work on her Savior; it wouldn't work on her.
Ilith pointed more emphatically, adding a warning rumble as well.
Daisy's eyes shifted to become her dragon's as a low sibilant hiss left her.
Ilith's head reared back in affront. That little upstart. She couldn't believe a dragonlette would be so bold.
It had to be her Savior's fault.
What’s next, oh majestic one? Tate gloated.
She'd show her what was next. Ilith was bigger and faster. Daisy was going nowhere with her treasure.
Before Ilith could act, a force crashed into her side. This wasn't like the dragonlettes, whom she could ignore. She tumbled ass over end, a brief bloom of pain registering on her shoulder.
There was a crash as the statue hit the ground. Cracks appeared in its flawless marble.
Ilith careened into a wall with a loud thump that shook the building.
She scrabbled at the air as she struggled to reorient herself. With a final twist and an inelegant grunt, Ilith managed to get her feet back under her.
A rose-gold dragon stood next to Daisy in the spot Ilith had just occupied.
The new dragon was much larger and bulkier than Ilith, with an arrogant glint in his gaze that seemed to laugh at her.
I think that's Blaise's dragon.
There was fascination in Tate’s voice. Far too much for someone who was supposed to be on Ilith's side.
Tate was more familiar with a few of the other dragon-ridden, but over the last month or two she’d had more encounters with Blaise as he dropped in to monitor the dragonlettes. Ilith, on the other hand, had never cared one way or another about the other man and dragon.
Something that might have to change if he was going to be so presumptuous.
The only thing Ilith remembered about Blaise was that he’d been there during the incident when they’d first rescued the dragonlette’s from their captors and that he and Ilith’s bonded enjoyed sparring verbally.
Ilith snarled. Though this was their first meeting, she could already tell she didn’t like the other dragon.
With that thought in mind, Ilith bared her teeth at the interloper.
The other dragon-ridden from before, still in his human shape, crossed behind the rose-gold dragon, shepherding the dragonlettes away from the other dragons.
Good. At least one of you has enough common sense to make sure the children are out of harm's way.
Ilith barely paid her any attention, the claws of her front and back paws sinking into the soft stone of the courtyard.
Blaise's wings rustled as he bounced forward a step. This was a dragon’s way of saying, ‘Let’s play.’
A low sound built in Ilith's throat. The kind that would raise the little hairs all over a person's body and send their stomach crashing to their feet.
The rose-gold dragon cocked its head and grinned.
Tate's sigh accompanied Ilith's headlong rush forward. She leapt, tackling Blaise.
At least, that was her intention.
Blaise didn't go down. He lifted onto his rear paws, batting her in the nose with one paw as his wings spread wide to give him balance.
Ilith reared back and shook her head, her eyes smarting from the unexpected pain. She roared, spinning and slapping her tail into his side. How did he like that?
Neither dragon paid any attention to the statue beneath them. Their paws trampling it further until it crumbled into fist-sized pieces of stone.
Ilith's movements were a little awkward at first. It had been a long time since she’d fought another of her kind, and the memories from several lifetimes ago were slow to come back to her.
Gradually, she got the hang of it, her movements smoothing out until they felt natural.
Blaise's dragon, being bigger and heavier, relied mostly on brute force, an effective strategy against Ilith's smaller size.
She wove back and forth, using her quicker speed and more flexible body to gain the advantage.
She'd just sunk her teeth into the rose-gold dragon's shoulder when a thunderous roar came from the building.
Ilith froze in place as a murderous aura surrounded her. She slowly unlatched her teeth as Blaise's dragon held still, his gaze focused on the presence behind her.
Ilith backed away, placing each paw precisely until she was facing the person capable of creating that heavy feeling.
A dragon in human form glared at her.
He was tall with short, sandy colored hair. It wasn't until you looked in his eyes that you saw the dragon contained within. Centuries of existence lurked behind those eyes. Trials. Sorrows. Difficult choices that still haunted him.
Until Ilith, he'd been considered the oldest living dragon-ridden and it showed. Not in wrinkles or signs of age but rather in the aura he projected.
Blaise's dragon edged back several steps, his head lowering in submission.
Ilith didn't move as the human dragon observed the destruction of the once beautiful courtyard garden.
Marks that could only be attributed to Ilith's claws were carved in the cobblestone. Those flowers and hedges that hadn't been crushed were unearthed and tossed to the side. The statue Ilith crashed into was no more than dust at this point.
Ilith and the rose-gold dragon flinched as Thora's gaze snapped toward them. Ilith wasn't afraid. She wasn't. Really. The elderly deserved to be humored. That was all.
The silence deepened as Thora stared at them. The tension growing until it saturated the air.
Abruptly, Ilith retreated, leaving Tate to deal with the fall out.Type your paragraph here.