The room was frozen for a long moment while Roy let his eyes lazily roll across the undead. “Well? You have come into My city. You have sought chaos. You have menaced My woman. And now I find you planning to do harm to her. Did you think that wise?”
Parsons darted forward, fast, and leapt to the far side of the counter. He raked with one of his open-palmed strikes. There was a shriek like metal on metal, as the gutting strike tore across Roy’s belly. I watched in stunned horror as the clothing shredded beneath the strike, parting like ice under a blowtorch. Then the scraps fell still, revealing unmarred skin. Roy yawned theatrically, holding a hand over his mouth. Parsons went for another strike, aimed at his face, and Roy’s arm blurred.
I saw two momentary snapshots in a blur of movement. In one, his extended fingers were buried two inches into Parson’s windpipe, his arm extended out. In the second, Roy had closed the distance, and lifted his elbow bringing it in a merciless arc into Parson’s chin. The vampire was sent in a cartwheeling spin sideways, and landed hard on the counter, arms spread out, spread-eagled, gasping and choking helplessly. I waited for him to leap back into action, to cut Roy down and doom my only chance of survival. It didn’t happen. The Strix just kept gasping and choking for air, grabbing at his collapsed throat. Roy sighed softly.
“See, that was very rude. I asked a perfectly polite question, and he tries to attack me. Is it any wonder that the Strix are considered the feral dogs of the vampire world?” He smirked, turning his shining white teeth towards Sofia. She took a step back, her spine straightening defiantly even as her eyes widened in agitation. “That gunshot probably sent someone scrambling for the police. Even on a night like this, that doesn’t give me long.” He sighed, and let his eyes run across the vampires, the ghouls, the mummy. His eyes fixed on the bandage-wrapped woman, and he stepped forward. “I could kill everyone in this city, everyone in this country, in the next twenty-four hours, if I felt like it.”
Her eyes slowly widened. She took a step back, and then another. Then she turned and ran for the door. He didn’t move to stop her as he turned towards the rest. Parsons was pulling himself to his feet. Chaac let the flint axe dangle from one hand, slowly twirling it between her fingers, her chest rising and falling as she breathed hard. Arthur was squaring up his shoulders for a boxing stance. “You are strong,” Chaac said, her eyes narrowed. “But I am a goddess.”
“No, you aren’t,” said Roy simply. “You are a bloodsucking leech that has grown fat off humans. You are a parasite. You are a little thing, of no real substance and no real power. You have dreamed yourself for decades, for centuries, to be a goddess. But no matter how many times you repeat the lie, it just won’t become true, will it?” He smirked. “In a state of nature, the strong survive. In a state of nature, it is a war of all against all. You thought that you were the strongest, and that entering a state of nature would remove the last of your obstacles. But you’re nothing but a parasite on this society. You grow strong because people like My woman allow you to run roughshod over them. You dream that in the wilderness, off the edge of the maps, you will rule.” His laughter rung out through the room, filling the air, making my whole body shiver violently. “But here be Dragons.”
“Dragons?” Chaac snorted. “Foolish reptiles. The chaos in the world has gone away. Their power faded, until they were nothing more than lizards. You don’t frighten me.” He turned his eyes towards her, and she took a single sharp breath.
“Oh, yes. My children. All of My children, so brave and bold, full of so much fierce pride. They all died at the hands of heroes, didn’t they? Over those countless thousands of years. Until only I remained. I was the first Dragon. I will be the last Dragon. I am the only Dragon.” He raised his hands into the air, a smile spreading across his face. “The Almighty God made Me as a lesson to all, that none were greater than he. And so, he made Me greater than all save him. To stand against Me is hubris of the highest order. But I do so adore the short memories of men. Your maker, Hun-Came, might have known enough to not draw My ire. But you, it seems, are in need of a lesson.” He chuckled. It was not a very nice sound.
“You don’t look that big to me,” Arthur said, his eyes narrowed, his shoulders squared. “Roquette can smell lies, but stupid or crazy isn’t the same thing as a lie, is it?” He cracked his knuckles. Roy just smiled.
“I should be thanking you, really. It’s been so long since I’ve been able to stretch My legs. So long since I’ve had a fight worth having. Let’s make a wager of it, shall we?” He tapped his finger against his lips, and smiled toothily. “Oh, I know. The fate of the world, how about? You fight Me. If you can survive, let us say, five minutes, I will surrender, the world shall be spared, and you may continue with your plans.” He grinned toothily. “If I crush you, then I will rise. The world will plunge into chaos, and I shall become its ruler. I shall make war on God, and take you as My slaves, a reminder forever of My power. You shall spend the rest of eternity beneath My heel.” He smiled wide, and my heart sank.
He wasn’t here to protect me. He wasn’t a savior, a glorious knight, the thing I’d dreamed of since I’d been young. He was something old, horribly powerful and cruel. I felt my throat tightening, terribly aware of the cold chain around my throat as I clutched at it. It was everything I’d feared. And suddenly I was caught between a rock and a hard place. He turned his head towards me, and let out a growl. “Stay away,” I whispered.
He ignored me, stepping closer, his eyes twinkling with dark amusement. “Oh, now, now, Atina. You don’t think I’d hurt you, do you? I would never break a toy as amusing you. Watching you struggle and spin, trying to make the world a better place was just so amusing. But now, your game’s over. The law is dead, after all.” He took the bicycle chain from around my throat and wrapped it around my wrists, fingers tightening. Links shifted and fused under his touch like clay, turning it into a pair of manacles. He bound my arms around the table, keeping me trapped there. Then, he reached into my pocket, smiling as he withdrew my phone, and started the stopwatch app. He set it for five minutes, and put it down on the table. Satisfied, he turned towards the others and swaggered back into the middle of the room. “Well? We don’t have all day.”
Arthur made the first move. He took three steps forward. With each step, a rush of power surrounded him, darkness flowing out of his pores. It was almost like ink, diffusing through water, turning the air around him black as he wound up for the blow. There was a strange, intense sense of suction, as though he was becoming a neutron star. I could feel my hair begin to blow in the still air of the restaurant, pulled towards him. The punch was utterly telegraphed, and could’ve been dodged with ease. But Roy just let him throw the punch, a black fist striking his cheek with enough force to break the tiles beneath their feet, shattering the linoleum.
Roy stood, an unimpressed look on his face, his cheek slightly deformed around the knuckles, but otherwise apparently unharmed. His leg lifted into the air, and whipped into Arthur’s gut in a lazy arc. The blow sent the ghoul into one of the booths, reducing it to a heap of scattered, shattered pieces of wood. “Borrowed power, eaten from something that still couldn’t have stood against me. Impressive for what you are, but what you are is nothing.” He sighed softly as Arthur pulled himself out of the wreckage, standing unsteadily. “Stamina, too, but that will never be enough against me.”
Parsons and Donny had pulled themselves to their feet, recovering, barely, from the blows. They squared up, Parsons and Donny in front, Sofia behind the two of them. She had her hands up, whispering something under her breath. I turned my head, and saw Chaac, standing back. Her eyes were closed. The dust around her feet was rising, slowly, being pulled into a circle around her, but Roy’s attention was caught on the three Strix. I briefly considered yelling a warning, before I remembered what was happening. It wasn’t Roy. It had never been the Roy I’d known. It was a monster, and if Chaac lost, the consequences would be far greater than me, or Jenny.
Parsons and Donny dashed forward. Roy’s stance shifted, his foot coming up as they lunged at him. He struck them both in the space of a heartbeat, his heel sinking into their sternums, sending the two of them falling back, their chests caved in unpleasantly. He approached Sofia, just as she breathed out. A black fog erupted from her lips, rushing at Roy. The cloud swirled into his face, and into his nostrils. He took a deep breath, and growled. Black smoke curled up from the edges of his mouth. “Trying to break My mind, corrupt Me, drive Me mad?” He chuckled. “You might as well have tried to burn me with a candle flame.”
He breathed out. A tremendous gout of black smoke filled the air, and ran over Sofia, obscuring her for a moment. When it passed, she lay on the ground, twitching and sobbing, her eyes fixed sightlessly on the ceiling. He snorted with laughter, and then turned. His eyes widened as he saw what Chaac was doing. “Oh, you little-”
There was an explosion of sound. The wind erupted out of Chaac like a miniature tornado, swirling and tearing at the fixtures. The windows shattered, and then the top of the building was torn off, thrown high into the sky, disappearing into the clouds. The only thing keeping me from being thrown with it were the manacles biting into the flesh of my wrists, my body lifted off the ground by the force of the wind. “You’ll need more than that!” shouted Roy, laughing wildly into the teeth of the gale. He stood, hair blown back by the wind, nearly rocked off his heels. Then he leaned forward into it, and began to slowly approach Chaac. Her eyes widened, as she raised the axe into the air. Every hair on my body stood on end as Roy reached out towards her.
The lightning bolt before had been nothing compared to this. I saw a purple flash, and a brief silhouette of Roy, his back arched, surrounded by a corona of light. Then I closed my eyes, though the fierce light still pierced my eyelids. The boom nearly deafened me, shaking the entire restaurant. There were several seconds of sensory deprivation, my ears ringing, my eyes watering. The first hint of sensation was the slow fall of rain, pattering against my skin, cold as ice. I slowly opened my eyes, and let the world swim back into focus.
Roy stood, his hand around the haft of the axe, a smile on his face, his eyes closed. All of the clothing had been burned off of him, no sign of it left. He himself was unharmed, standing lean and rangy, apparently completely at ease with his own nudity. His eyes opened, and I could see them from here. They were slitted like a snake’s, and bright yellow. “You did good, there, Chaac. Actually made me put a little effort into it.” He squeezed tight, and the axe’s haft snapped between his fingers. “You really care about this, I can tell. You want to save the world. For all your blood and vengeance, you’ve got a little core of a hero in you.” She lashed out, a knife-hand blow aimed right for his carotid. He slapped it away with careless ease. “I fucking hate heroes.”
His fists blurred in the rain, leaving little trails as he struck her. Throat, stomach, cheek, shoulders. He landed blows with merciless power, and Chaac fell gasping to her knees, her whole body writhing. Scales were visible across her skin, her teeth unnaturally elongated. She glistened in the water. “This-” She choked a bit, trying to gather her words. “You can’t- be beating me. This can’t be right. I’m right! I’m strong! I’m a goddess!” she howled into the storm, and the storm howled along with her.
He struck her hard across the forehead with one brutal blow, and the storm went quiet. The rain began to slacken, as he looked around the room. “I remember the old days. I remember when men and gods walked side by side. When the monsters in the night were true monsters. I remember when it was power, and wrath, and majesty. I remember when the people were worth a shit.” He sighed softly. “What happened to the world? How’d it fall so far into disrepair and degradation? What happened to the majesty, the glory?” He chuckled. “Well, don’t fret. I’ll make this world great again. I’ll change this world. I’ll make it right.” He laughed, and his laugh became a roar as he threw his head back.
“This isn’t your goddamn world!” Arthur stood up, his fists up, his eyes narrowed in anger. “You think you’re some kind of karma, do you? Divine wrath for the things that have been done wrong?! Well to shit with that! You’re nothing but a monster, mate, and I may have done a lot of awful things in my life, but it was for this!” He lunged, grabbing Roy, dragging the man around. The ghoul did something complicated looking with his hands, drawing Roy’s arms behind his back, and forcing the dragon down to his knees as Chaac pulled herself to her feet. She raised her fist, and brought it down on Roy’s skull with piledriver force. Parsons and Donny were there in a flash, joining, the three of them beating Roy, over and over again, as his head bobbed back and forth.
Then the phone, still on the table, rang. Ten seconds were left on the stopwatch. Roy looked up, and smiled. With an effortless flexing of his shoulders, he broke out of the hold. He sprung up, his hands blurring. Chaac, Donny, and Parsons fell to earth, wooden chunks from the wreckage of the booths sprouting from their chests as they fell. Then he turned, and punched through Arthur. His fist emerged from the middle of the ghoul’s back, and the ghoul fell to the ground, gasping and sputtering, screaming, his lower body twitching as he collapsed to the ground, legs splayed. Roy stood up, his right hand bloody, and looked around the shattered restaurant. The phone rang, and he sighed. “This is what it feels like. When you believe that you are powerful and righteous, and find that none of it matters.” He smiled.
“Fuck you,” choked out Arthur, shaking on the ground. “You bastard, someone’ll kill you. Someone’ll beat you.”
Roy sighed, rolling his eyes. “There’s only one being capable of that, and He doesn’t seem to care anymore.” Arthur’s eyes closed, and Roy turned towards me. “And as for you.” He grinned, teeth wide. “I think I shall teach a lesson to them. It’s a shame to kill that which is Mine, but sometimes, the herd must be culled. So which of these shall I kill?” He waved his hand across the fallen forms. “Of those who I have claimed tonight, which one will I kill to show what happens when what is Mine is threatened?”
I stared. My eyes flickered down to the bodies. They were still alive- or at least undead. My heart pounded. “Please, don’t kill them.”
“Oh, that’s not the way it works. You get to choose from the options I give you. Come now. Make up your mind, quick. Who shall I kill tonight? If you don’t make a decision, well, I’ll simply have to kill all of them.” He grinned at me, all razor white teeth and serpents eyes and mad, cruel arrogance. He would kill them. He’d make me decide, and whoever I chose…
I remembered Roy. How kind he’d been. How sweet. How gentle, and how warm. How pleasant. How he’d cared, how he’d encouraged me. How he’d given me hope. I’d thought he was someone good, a bit slow, but ultimately a moral person. I remembered the taste of molasses and apples and everything being right with the world. And now he stood there, like a mad god, hands covered in blood, asking me to choose who I’d have killed.
“Why don’t you just kill me,” I whispered.
His eyes narrowed. “I-”
“You asked, which of the ones you’ve claimed tonight. You said I’m yours. Then kill me.” I leaned my head down. I was so goddamn tired. I was tired of being powerless, and of fighting, and putting everything on the line. “It means saving one of them, right?”
He tightened his fist. “A martyr till the end.” He bent forward, and plucked the stakes out of the chests of the three vampires. They gasped, moving again, gone from corpses to people with the simple removal of a piece of wood. They scrambled to their feet, their clothes sodden. “Go. Take the crippled one and the mad one with you. If you are still here by the time I open My eyes, I will kill every one of you. And remember this: The only reason that you are alive now is because of her.” He pointed towards me. “And should any of you ever believe you can stand against me or molest that which is Mine, then I will not show this mercy again. I will end you, and your families, and everyone you have ever touched. I shall scorch this earth clean of any sign that you have ever existed.” He grinned. “And I will enjoy doing it.”
They stared at him for a moment. “Now!” he bellowed. Chaac grabbed Arthur, pulling him over her shoulders, and beat a hasty retreat. Donny and Parsons grabbed their sister, and ran. They disappeared into the night, the loose mist of rain swallowing them up. Roy took a deep breath, and turned towards me.
“Was it all a game?” I asked.
“Because I wanted to hurt you. Because you believed in law and justice and I thought that was funny. Because you thought you were a noble protector of freedom, when you were nothing but a powerless joke. You offend Me by your very existence, and I thought it would be fun to break you, to watch you suffer.” He lifted his hand, and I flinched, closing my eyes. There was a dull, metallic clunk. I opened my eyes to find the chains shattering, falling apart around his closed fist. He stood up straight, and sneered at me. “You disgust me. Go. I have no interest in a world with such pathetic things in it. You disappoint me on every level, Atina LeRoux. You sicken me.”
I slowly stood up, shaking. Self-loathing poured into my guts, and found something else had already taken residence there. “That’s a lie,” I whispered.
“It’s not. You are pathetic, unable to even protect yourself, unable to even take vengeance. Unable to-”
“No, I mean- You just broke those five, without even trying. I should’ve been killed half a dozen times in the fight. The debris, the violence, the lightning, I should be burned-” I looked down at the chains, and my eyes widened. “You-”
“You are Mine!” he roared, his eyes flashing. “I will decide when you die! I will decide when you are harmed! Not you!”
“No! I do not protect! I claim, I dominate, I conquer, I do not protect! What is Mine is Mine, and I do not care if it is harmed, save for the insult that it gives My name! I am a Dragon! I am the king of this world, and I do not care a whit for the well-being of its inhabitants!”
I stared at him. “You’re trying to drive me away.”
“Yes! And I will kill you if you do not go!” He drew his arm back. “You saw what I can do! I can remove your head! I can kill you where you stand! It would not even be an effort!” He swung, and I didn’t flinch. His hand stopped, an inch from my face, knuckles white. I swayed in the wind from the pulled punch, and his face filled with rage. “Damn you!”
“Why did you protect me?”
“A lark! Amusement! A starfish, thrown back into the ocean! Nothing more!” He turned his back on me, arms crossing, every tendon standing out against his skin.
“Why are you trying to push me away?!” I asked, letting the anger break through. “You were kind to me! You gave me hope, you made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile for once, you saved me from them, you fought for me, you protected me! Why are you acting like this-”
“Because you will kill Me!” My stomach went cold, and I rocked back on my feet.
He turned towards me, his expression grim. “I am a being of chaos. I am Chaos itself. Uncontrolled, bowing to none but God. The most ancient of demons. Pride itself. I will not allow you to chain me! I see the pattern you weave in the world, Atina LeRoux! You make slaves of the supernatural! You bind us in chains of obligation and mutual trust! You use love and caring to turn others into weapons! You will not collar Me! Do you understand me?! I am not a beast of the field, I am not something that you can ever control! I am the Wrath and the Lust and the Envy and the Greed! I am that from which all Sin originates, and-”
I stepped forward, and my arms went around him, my face pressing against his forehead. He stiffened, his breath drawing in. “I don’t want to kill you. I don’t want to enslave you. I just want you to be the same man who I knew.”
“I was never that man,” he snarled, pulling away from my arms. It was the first time I’d seen him take a step back. “It was a game. A diversion. One that is now over. Do you understand why Dragons die? Why all the Dragons died? It was because of heroes. Because of love! Because humans make us believe things, and make us see something in this world that is worth more than our own lives, and when that happens, we’re doomed! Because when we find something worth dying for, we do!” He growled. “A pox on love. A pox on what you humans make of us. A pox on you, Atina LeRoux, for showing compassion to the lowest and for fighting when others would give up and all of your filthy ragged human virtues! Did you ever once consider what your goodness would wreak?”
“You could do good,” I said softly.
“Exactly! And it would drag me into your battles! And I would die for the sake of your justice!”
I looked down. “I couldn’t ask that of you.”
“Again! You stupid, stupid-” He turned, roaring, and struck one of the remaining walls. It crumbled, rubble falling to the ground as dust was thrown into the wet air. “I am going. I will be back when you have died, when this place is safe for Me again. Unless. Unless.” He turned towards me again, his eyes hungry. “Make a pact with Me.”
“What?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“You heard Me! Sell Me your soul. Make a bargain with Me. I shall give you power, then, and you shall be Mine. You shall be My thing. You shall belong to Me, forever.”
“I thought I was already yours,” I said, voice as dry as my clothes were soaked. He hissed and threw his arms up.
“It doesn’t work that way! It doesn’t mean anything to force you! I know you, Atina! You will claim duress, that you were forced by circumstance to admit that! You don’t feel any loyalty! You will not give up simply because you were outmaneuvered!”
“You mean that love doesn’t mean anything to you if it’s not reciprocated?” I asked, with a quirk of my lips
“Hrah!” He kicked out petulantly, carving a gouge in the concrete. “No! Don’t twist my words! You will be Mine! Or I will leave forever! Flee this place! Disappear! Let the world grind to ruin! I…” He rubbed his face, and I realized tears were running down his cheeks. “I don’t want to die. I’m the only one of My kind left. When I die, they’ll all be gone. We’ll just be bones in the ground. I can’t die for you. I can’t be yours.”
“I don’t want you to die either.” I took a deep breath. “I’ll do you one better. You stay here. Stay close to me. And I promise, I will never ask you to save me again. I will never ask you to stand in the way of my enemies, I will never ask you to fight my battles. You know me.” I smiled. “I’d probably rather let myself die than beg for help from you.”
“How can I trust you?” he asked, his voice soft, his eyes refusing to meet mine.
“If I betrayed you… Well, I wouldn’t be the woman you loved, right?” He flinched at the words, as someone might from a physical blow. “Don’t try to lie to me. You’re terrible at it. I can’t believe you…” I sniffed, rubbing my nose. “The Half-Faced Man. He said you were… unremarkable. That you weren’t a monster.” I could see the possessive anger in Roy’s eyes. The jealousy. The desire. I had seen it before, I just had never seen it in someone who was thinking about me.
“That halfbreed does not know everything.”
I swallowed. “I’ve been hearing… I’ve been hearing a lot of things about the end of the world. That things are on the verge of destruction. Is that you? Are you going to destroy everything?”
He snorted. “I am a Dragon. Destruction is not my nature. Conquest, domination, control, that is what I am. But I do not want to destroy what is Mine, and I want to conquer what is not Mine.” He shook his head. “Something is returning from out of the night, Atina. Everything dies eventually. And eventually has come. I had just hoped that I could die for My cause, rather than someone else’s.” He sighed. “Why did you spare them? They tried to kill you. To do worse than kill you. They were going to murder your client. They were going to betray everything that you exist for.”
“Because I still need them. I need them all. And I need them to face actual justice for what they did. Not just revenge.”
“What’s the difference?” He snorted. “Justice and revenge, they’re all the same in the end.”
“No,” I whispered softly. “Justice includes the possibility of redemption.”
There was a soft wail of sirens from nearby. Roy looked up. “I have to go.” He was quiet for a moment. “But I’ll be back.”
I sank down onto the ground as the sirens approached. A fire truck and police cars. I hadn’t been lying when I’d made that promise. I didn’t want Roy to protect me. Looking around the building, the ruins, I could see what his protection would be. He was strong, stronger than anything in this city, and destructive. And if he protected me, it could mean his own death. I shuddered softly at the memory of him lying there, on the floor, and the rage in his eyes as he’d crushed some of the most powerful beings I’d ever met. Unstable, and terrifying.
As the police officer asked me what happened, I hunched my shoulders and thought about what I was going to say. I was going to have to talk myself out of the hospital, and still win this case.
Dragons. Fucking dragons. Life really knew how to shove my wishes down my throat.