Without further ado...
I glanced at the clock sitting on my desk, noting absently that I’d lost track of time again, and that I was five minutes from class time. I sighed, folded my laptop shut, and carefully tucked it away in my bag. Then I looked around grabbed the strap of my bag to head to class—the last final of the week—dropping a few more things in the box sitting on the visitor’s chair between the filing cabinet and the door as I stepped past.
It had been five years since my life had changed. Yes, I still sometimes missed my dad, but not all of the changes had been bad, even if they had almost all been triggered by his passing.
I shoved my blond hair out of my face, and locked the door behind me, then headed down the hall to give my Intro to Modern Linguistics final.
I started to round the corner to go from the short hall just off the main hall my office was in when Mei, my apprentice, barreled into me and tackled me back into the short hall, just as something exploded outside the door, sending a fireball up toward my office. I whispered a syllable, and we were shielded from the heat and the flame.
I thought we were okay, but then Mei lifted her head and smiled, blood staining her teeth, and throwing me six years into the past. “Thank goodness I was in time, Sara-shifu,” she wheezed, sinking back down and laying her head on my shoulder. Her breath shuddered out of her in a long sigh, and she stilled. I raised my head, wincing at the painful knot where it had bounced off of the carpeted cement floor, and looked down her back to find a large, twisted chunk of the steel door facing protruding from her.
And suddenly, I wasn’t in the hallway near my office, but on the back of a dragon.
Merlin coughed, and I felt something wet hit the back of my neck. He took a deep breath, and I realized that I’d been too late as I heard it gurgle.
I strained against the straps to look around, and screamed. The dragon above us had the talons of one foot sunk into Merlin’s body. The other had been reaching, part of my mind noticed for Mordred’s left wing, where it attached to his shoulder. Both of the other dragon’s legs caught in the shield were badly broken.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Merlin said, voice thick. He tried to smile to reassure me, but the blood pouring out of him, frothing from his mouth, and staining his teeth had the opposite effect. So did the breath that rattled from his chest as he relaxed against me, his eyes glazing over.
I blinked, almost shocked to find myself lying on my back on carpeted tile with Mei lying limp on top of me. I blinked again and pushed myself up to sit, and eased her body off of me. I laid her face down on the floor, stroking her hair out of her face as I did. I felt myself going into that strange state of shock where my mind raced, but my emotions died…and found myself grateful for that small mercy.
“Fuck!” a strange voice hissed in Mandarin. I snapped out a command without looking up, and the individual collapsed on the debris-covered floor, just outside of the hallway. The sharp crack of skull meeting tile floor was particularly satisfying.
I pushed myself to my feet, staggering a little as the knot on the back of my head made it known that it came with mild vertigo. I wobbled back down my little hall determinedly, looking down at the Chinese male lying bonelessly on the shattered fire door, a half-burned hanyu tag clutched in his left hand.
A dragon. And, apparently, not one of Ling’s bunch.
I glanced around, noticing that the hall was deserted. Grabbed his ankles, and dragged him into the little side hall, and then further into my office. I came back out, knelt next to Mei, and whispered,
“I’m so sorry. I should have listened to you.”
I brushed myself off, whispered a few syllables that had broken masonry and shattered door (and door facing) flying back into place, and re-situating itself, almost as good as it had been before the moron in my office had set the explosive seal. I eyed it closely—no more than a few chips in the paint in unobtrusive places stood testament to the spot of trouble—then nodded.
I brushed myself off again, fastened my jacket to hide the blood stain on my shirt from Mei’s death, hissed the syllable of my very first ever working spell to seal the door (since I was the last in the offices until summer classes started) and headed purposefully toward my classroom. My students—the last twenty-five I’d see, considering that this was my last semester teaching—all looked up. A couple of the more perceptive looked a little concerned—I suppose I was still disheveled. One of them was the young French woman who I was tutoring on the side, the one that had made fast friends with Ygraine. “Attention, everyone,” I said, forcing a small smile. “As you all know, I’m quitting after this semester. So, as a gift to you, and to myself, I’m cancelling your final exam.”
Cheers rang out, and most of the class jammed notes and books from last minute cramming back into their bags, hustling out the door in a flood. Mirim stayed behind, packing much slower than the rest of them. “Professor, is there a problem?” she asked, her voice quiet and grave.
I inclined my head once. “No, not with class,” I hedged. “Why don’t you find everyone else and meet at the pub later? Ask Mike for me, and he’ll lead you the rest of the way. I’ll explain there, if I can. If I can’t, I’ll arrange that someone else can.”
Mirim nodded, and I hurried back to my office. I still had things to clean up…and to hide.
I considered my invented language—my magical framework—for a few minutes, while I made my way back, then nodded. I owed it to Mei to get her remains back to her father, if I could.
Especially since I’d all but ignored her warning earlier in the week that her father was having trouble solidifying his position, and that my small group of trained mages and I were in danger.
I’d sighed as I’d sank down onto the shaped stone bench, facing the sunrise, my hands wrapped around a large mug of coffee. One of my mage-students had given it to me as a joke, but it had quickly become my favorite mug—an eighteen ounce stainless steel interior travel mug, wide at the base and narrow at the top.
Late April was still chill, up in the mountains. Mordred’s redoubt had become my refuge as my need for silence and solitude had grown. I’d become the cranky old sage in the mountains, running a weekend school for mages both human and dragon, European and American (and a couple of Chinese and Japanese students and Eastern dragons, over here as a diplomatic gesture of good will from Ling).
I had spoken with Mordred through the scrying bowls every night for nearly five years, had gone to Europe for the summer every summer for five years, with him visiting the U.S. for Christmas for five years, and it just wasn’t enough for us, anymore. Not for him, and not for me. I missed him, terribly.
So, in February when my department head had handed around class schedule request forms, I’d visited him in his office and quietly made it known that I was done. I didn’t want any classes for the next year. He offered to put me on sabbatical, but I just didn’t want to come back. Not when Mordred wouldn’t.
It had been a lovely weekend. A nice, long one. My schedule this semester had been on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, with Wednesdays reserved for office hours. I had left my Raleigh apartment, in the loft above my favorite bookstore and bar Thursday evening, and today was only Sunday. I didn’t have to be back until Monday night.
And even better, Friday had started finals week. I had two on Tuesday, and two on Thursday, and then I was done. Finished.
A soft, gentle cough alerted me to company just before Mei sat down on the bench next to me. She watched the sun rise in silence, stillness. I glanced at her as the peach and pink faded into bright blue sky, and noted that she looked…troubled. “Mei? What’s wrong?” I asked.
Honestly, if you were to ask me, I’d deny that I had a favorite amongst my students. It just wasn’t done.
However, I’d be lying. I’d gone into the whole plan of apprenticing Ling’s daughter with many and serious doubts that it was a good idea. Her gentle nature, and wicked sense of humor as well as her determination to learn won me over. I couldn’t have asked for a better first student, and we’d become almost as close as sisters.
A good thing that was, too—Mei had been married to a dragon, for a while. He’d passed on a few years ago from a flying accident, but she’d explained a few things that Mordred had done that baffled and infuriated me, and had done from the beginning.
“Sara-shifu…my honored father contacted me early this morning,” she said softly, frowning. “He says that there has arisen a challenger, one who is a leader to those who feel threatened by you, by me, and by any not an Eastern dragon. He fears…he fears that we may be in danger. Shifu…I think you should cancel your finals, and just stay up here until it’s time to go to your beloved.”
I sighed. “They couldn’t have waited until after next week, could they,” I grumbled. “I have four finals to give. I don’t have office hours, just the finals. I’ll be careful, but I really can’t flake out on this.”
She smiled, wringing her hands, her eyes desperate. “But Sara, they must have you dead. You, the young dragons, and Mordred. They must. And they will use your schedule to catch you where they can,” she said urgently.
I shook my head, feeling helpless. “The young dragons are safe, for now. They stay with the American dragons, and they’re under some of the heaviest wards I’ve ever even read of. I think I can manage to get from my office to the bookstore, and my loft apartment above it, and back without exposing myself unnecessarily. I’ll be fine,” I said, voice firm.
She didn’t look happy, but she dropped it.
And when Monday evening rolled around, Mei worried all the way to Raleigh, and all the way in to the bookstore, and the loft she shared with me. I sent her upstairs to lay down, since she’d given herself a migraine, while I went looking for Mike.
I found him in front of the fireplace, a paperback copy of The Hobbit in one hand, and Monty the ancient (for a cat) and ageless Maine Coon cat curled around his hip, with his other hand slowly stroking his ears. Monty noticed me first, standing and stretching with an odd sound stuck somewhere between a meow and a purr. Mike looked up and grinned. “Some of your youngsters managed to shift back and forth in less than a minute, today,” he said. “Progress.”
“Indeed,” I agreed, smiling. When the young dragons had arrived, they’d been…slow wasn’t quite the right word. Terrified was a better one. It took the better part of twenty minutes to shift from dragon to human and back to dragon. Nothing like the lightning fast changes I’d seen adult dragons capable of. Some of them had refused to even change forms for the first few weeks.
After having slept for over a thousand years, and having the modern world suddenly shoved in their face in the form of a chartered Boeing 707, flown for hours over an ocean, then disembarked in a place where none of them understood what was being said around them, I couldn’t blame them in the slightest.
Now? Five years later, most of the younger ones were indistinguishable from American teenagers. The oldest two—Yvette, and Iseult—were not adapting well. They didn’t want to go back, didn’t want to have anything to do with me or any of the young mages I was training to be partners to the dragons, and had actively tried (once—only once) to harm Mei Ling, because her father had killed theirs.
They refused to try to shape shift. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me, or with Mordred. And, again, I couldn’t blame them. They were old enough, when put into sleep, to remember what had happened to ruin their lives.
“Will they be ready to go back to Europe soon?” I asked.
“Give it another five years, and definitely,” he said, grimacing. “The oldest of the ones willing to try to repopulate Europe isn’t old enough yet, and the rest simply aren’t ready.”
I nodded. “Five years is fine. Mordred told me last night that he’d gotten a lead in the Urals, on some near-impossible to reach high-pass valleys. He’ll be looking that over to see if it would be livable for the next couple of days. If it is, I’ll join him.”
“And if it’s not?” Mike asked, pushing himself to his feet and leading me into the bar for a beer.
I shrugged. “I’ll join him anyway. I’m tired of this long distance, twice a year thing we’ve got.”
“You miss your mate.”
I nodded. “I miss my mate. Two more days at work, and I’m done.
“Which reminds me,” I continued, “Mei spoke with her father. She said he’s having trouble, and that my mage students and I are all in danger of being harmed or killed.”
Mike frowned. “And your young dragons?”
I shrugged. “I assume that they’d be targets, too, but they’re nowhere near as soft of targets as the rest of us. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’d be bloody impossible targets.”
Mike had smiled, a thin, feral smile. “That they are. And if you stayed up on your mountain, or would stay here in your apartment, you would be, too. I’ve already gotten your students’ living areas warded like I do yours and your young dragons’.”
I had smiled back, relieved. “Thank you. But I have four finals to give, that I have to give.”
“And if you risk yourself, and you are killed, what will that do to your students?” Mike had asked. “And worse, what will that do to your mate?”
I’d winced. “I’ll be careful,” I‘d said. “I’ve got some spells in mind to use. They won’t even see me between here and my office, and I sincerely doubt they’ll try to hit one of my classrooms. Think of the bad publicity that they’d have no way to avoid.”
Mike had sighed, scrubbing both hands through his hair. “I was afraid you’d say that.”
I sighed, staring down at Mei’s body. The chunk of door facing was gone—worked back into the spot where it belonged—so my job was somewhat simplified, until the cold, analytical, adrenalin-fueled reaction faded, and I had time to mourn. I whispered a series of phonemes, putting her into a sort of stasis, and shrinking her to the size of a Barbie doll, which I picked up and carefully and gently tucked into my laptop bag. I was still undecided on how I’d get her back to her family.
The other problem was still unconscious in my office. I glanced back up the hall toward where Mei had lain waiting for me to come back, and noted the blood stain. I hissed a syllable at it, and it vanished, leaving me only the problem in my office to deal with.
Well, that, and getting myself back to Mike’s bar and bookshop safely. I needed to get out of here.
I shuddered, then whispered a shield into existence around me, stepping through my office door.
The little bastard was still there, still lying unconscious on my floor. I rifled through his pockets—nothing. Not even ID. I thought for a minute, then rummaged through my box for my MP3 recorder, and my handyman’s secret weapon, then I trussed him like a turkey.
Then, I slapped him. Hard. And repeatedly. Eventually, after half a dozen back-and-forth slaps and backhands, he woke. And stared at me, blood drooling from his mouth where his teeth had apparently cut the inside of his mouth. I turned on the recorder for a record, since I had no intention of leaving live enemies behind. “Hello,” I said, voice kind, and at distinct odds with the thin smile I felt. “You murdered my apprentice. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Stupid Western cow, you wouldn’t understand a single thing I decided to say,” he snarled in Mandarin.
Five years ago, I’d understood what I’d heard, but hadn’t practiced speaking. Today, after five years in the company of Ling’s daughter—my friend—I could. “Of course I can, you idiot,” I replied.
His eyes widened almost comically. I smirked. “Now. If you have any hope of surviving past the next minute, you will answer me. I do not care which language you use.”
“I did not murder your apprentice, though I would have had orders not been otherwise—she was an abomination, as you are,” he said in near-perfect English. “That seal tag would not have gone off, had she been alone. It was meant for, and keyed to, you.”
“Yet…my apprentice is dead. Ling’s daughter,” I finished, watching as he paled and his pupils dilated. I stayed silent and let the panic set in, watched his breathing speed up.
“She shouldn’t even be here,” he burst out after a couple moments of near hyperventilation. “She should be home, with a new mate, raising a new generation of dragons.”
“And yet…her father decided he didn’t want to lose her so soon,” I said quietly. “Trained mages live as long as dragons, and what parent wants to bury their child?” I shot him a cold smile. “Something that he wouldn’t have had to do for hundreds of years, were it not for…you.”
He burst into tears and incoherent Mandarin. I rolled my eyes, turned off the MP3 recorder, and pulled my office phone over, quickly dialing a cell phone number I’d memorized long ago, one that was an international number.
The university could pick up this last expense.
“Yes, hello, Ling. I’m sorry I had to bother you, but I have terrible news,” I said, eyeing the young man writhing on the floor. “Your daughter has been murdered by your rival’s people. What would you like me to do?”
There was a long silence, then a shaking sigh. “I do not understand,” he said heavily. “If my daughter is…dead. Then what can you do?”
“I can either have her body sent to you, or care for it myself,” I said.
“Please. Send her,” he said, voice tight.
“And I have her murderer, wrapped up in a few layers of duct tape, ten inches from my desk,” I said softly.
There was a long, shocked silence. Then, an angry hiss that sounded much, much less than human. “Kill him. Send his head and heart with my daughter.”
“You have my word,” I said softly.
The line went dead, and I set the phone in the cradle. “I don’t believe I can do what I must do with you here,” I mused. Then I kicked him sharply in the temple, sending him back into unconsciousness, picked the phone back up, and called Mike. And waited, pacing, for him to pick up.
Finally, on the second ring, he picked up. “Mike, here,” he grunted.
“Mike. It’s Sara. I have a problem,” I said, voice flat.
“Mei’s been killed. I have her killer here, with me. He’s unconscious. Her father wants his head and his heart, as well as Mei’s body, sent to him.”
“Wait. Let me see if I got this,” he said slowly. “Mei’s dead? And you caught her killer? Who is it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I never asked his name. He’s a dragon, working for the faction opposing Ling and his ideas. He planted a seal on the door to the main hallway outside my office.”
“So Mei wasn’t the target,” he said.
“No. I was. She saved my life,” I said softly. The adrenalin was starting to wear off, but I still didn’t have the emotional reaction I was expecting.
“What do you need me to do?”
I sighed, putting my thoughts in order. “I need you to come get the murderer. I need to separate his head and heart from the rest of his body, and put them in temporary stasis.”
“I have her. I’ll take care of her.”
“Without having to lug this ass,” I said, kicking the Eastern dragon again for good measure, “I can get myself to the bookstore, no problem.”
“Even if they’re looking for you?” he asked.
“They’ll never see me,” I said.
“I’ll be there shortly.”
The phone went dead in my hand, so I hung it back up. Then I went through my desk drawers, my filing cabinets, and my shelves to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything.
After that? All there was to do was wait.