Fire and Death
"A dragon is not a slave …"
Sera is like the Westeros dragons (ahem! Wyverns …) in overall form, if that helps you picture her, although she has many more steering fins and frills. Dragons are actually quite showy! And scary. Very scary.
Crispin pulled me gently over a thick log in my path. I cringed when the rough bark caught at my delicate human skin. Crispin winced, too. He scooped me safely to the other side and shook his head. "How can you stand a human form when your dragon form is so strong?" he asked, softly. I snorted.
"I pretty much can't. But a human form has its uses. It's a lot easier to feed, for one thing."
Crispin kept going, sniffing lightly at the air, following the scent trails that led back to the meadow where I had arrived in Kellogg not many weeks ago. I was struggling. It was incredibly dark, and my headlamp was no replacement for the might of the Mother Sun. Crispin's sharp eyes could see perfectly, and my dragon eyes would have been preferable to these human ones, but it wasn't safe to take my true form so close to human habitation. Crispin led me along, following the trail he had left behind when he'd first discovered the place where I had touched down all those weeks ago. I watched him navigate with fierce envy. My dragon form had a nose just as powerful. I missed my acute senses.
We'd decided to step out of the house when the conversation with Crispin's vampire family had reached a lull. The other vamps needed space, and I needed some air. I needed to think. They needed to contemplate their lives as the threat of potential destruction hung over their heads. I was still internally writhing with terrible guilt. I had not planned on trying to keep these creatures alive when I had first come here. Now that I was trying to carry out the opposite of my original purpose, it looked hopeless. I tried not to let myself give up hope completely. Crispin was right that there was still a chance, and I could see a possible light at the end of the tunnel. Jumping to the worst of conclusions was not necessarily helpful.
Crispin suddenly whipped around with his blinding vampire speed and caught me as I stumbled. I grunted, leaning on his solid, stone hands. My boot was wedged between a root and a rock. I sighed, heavily, resting my head on his arm as he held me. Thank heaven for vampire reflexes. And vampire strength. Crispin gently straightened me up, examining my wedged foot. "At least this gives us plenty of time alone together," he muttered, breaking the root with a single hand as though it were made of foam. "I don't mind going slowly."
I rolled my eyes. He was only trying to make me feel better. I thought of how I would have handled this forest in my true form, crushing brush and stone beneath my muscled, armored breast while my angled, horn-crowned head cleaved the trees aside. This human form made me look pitiful and fragile. Oh, if Crispin knew the true strength behind this weak facade …
Actually, he'd probably be terrified. My stomach tied itself into a knot. It would not be easy for him to see the person behind my glowing, slit-pupiled eyes. I saw, for a moment, the way he might look to me if I were properly enormous. He'd be small, pale as a ghost, the starlight catching on his crystalline skin, shimmering in every color. He'd probably be cowering, shrinking away from my heavy head as I tried to greet him in my dragon way. He would be intimidated by the blazing glow of my fireheart as it shone in my mouth. Would my teeth scare him? A single one of my canines could have gone through his skull like a dagger. The lava-bright glow of my eyes might frighten him, too.
By the Mother Sun, I hadn't thought much about how I would reveal my terrible true form to this gentle GoldenEyes. Was there any way to do it softly? The transformation itself was so … explosive. I didn't see how not to frighten him. As much as he was now learning about my draconic form, nothing would prepare him for the truth in its full, spectacular, destructive glory.
I tripped over a rock that was taller than I had anticipated. Crispin's swift, strong hands came to my rescue once more. I draped myself into his arms and gave up on holding my own weight. Stupid! I couldn't see. It was so embarrassing. And I was sick of falling down every ten seconds. Crispin softly laughed, kneeling for a moment and gathering me up. "Alright, little Firebrand. We can rest."
I let myself relax into his arms, my cheek mushed into his shirt, kneeling in the dirt. His honey-pine scent was fragrant and wonderful. I could feel him taking breaths, even though he didn't have any real need to breathe. It was instinct. He breathed with the purpose of smelling his surroundings, and the reflex faintly lingered from his human days. He held me patiently, listening to my heartbeat. The crickets were extremely noisy. A crisp breeze lifted my hair. It was going to rain again soon. I felt no discomfort from the mild cold. My temperature was at its natural high. Nowhere near as powerful as my true form's heat, perhaps, but still too warm for a real human.
Crispin sighed heavily. His cool breath lightly brushed the top of my head. "You should stay with us tonight."
I squinted, doubtfully. "I don't know. Your family might have a panic attack."
"Not Esme. Or Carlisle. Though you might be right about Jasper."
I thought of the heavily scarred vampire and screwed up my face. "He has reasons to be afraid. He looks like he's been through Hell and back."
Crispin sighed. "You're right. He has."
Now I was interested. I perked up, looking into his gold eyes and raising an eyebrow. As with all vampires, Crispin's eyes glowed like a cat's in the darkness. My headlamp caught them in its beam. They were a shimmering, glittery gold. So pretty … my draconic instinct suddenly surged deep in my gut with powerful desire. We liked shiny things. The instinct was useful for picking out faintly glittering vampires from a crowd, but it was also good for choosing a mate. The scales on a healthy male dragon would have shone under the sun with several choice wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. I couldn't see those choice wavelengths in Crispin's eyes while I was in my human form, but they were glittery anyway … and my dragon instincts liked that.
I quickly tore my gaze away. My hand darted up to turn off my headlamp. No point in leaving its light on while we were sitting still, anyway.
Crispin didn't seem to have quite noticed what I'd just endured. Either that, or he was ignoring my physical response to his gleaming eyes. He continued talking. "Jasper's story started during the American Civil War. He was found by a trio of vampires who'd been booted out of their territories by rival covens. I assume … do you know about the southern vampire wars?" He cast me a questioning glance and I peeled my lips back from my worthless human teeth. I had not been alive at the time of the American Civil War, but my people knew the truth behind what the conflict had really been about. We had struggled to intervene in the vampiric clash. Humans had been so tightly wound up in the fighting it had been a real struggle to isolate the vampires properly. Luckily, the destruction caused by our might and power had been perfectly disguised beneath the rage of the war. Still, an awful lot of vampires had escaped. Many humans had died, too. We were still bitter about it.
Crispin observed my reaction with something like amusement. "I see you know it, then."
I made a small growly noise. Crispin laughed, quietly, tucking me up closer and nuzzling into my hair. "Okay, okay. Point is, Jasper got involved. The trio he met turned him because they thought his military skills would be useful to them. They … used him to build an army. An army of newborn vampires."
I watched Crispin's eyes with sharp focus. I could feel the change in the aura around him as he quietly described what had happened to his adoptive brother. This hit home for him on a very personal level. He took a deep, steadying breath and continued, "Jasper can sense emotions and influence them. He never liked killing humans. He could feel their pain, you see. And the ones who controlled him used him as a sort of … garbage disposal. They tasked him with killing the newborn vampires after they reached a year old. They weren't useful after that, you see. Their newborn strength was gone. So Jasper had to get rid of them. That's where most of the scars came from. That and the battles with other covens, I suppose.
"He eventually escaped, looking for peace. He wanted to be free of the constant killing. Carlisle's family offered him that. It's why he's a vegetarian now. But … well, that's where all the scars came from. And the fighting experience. He's a powerful opponent in battle," Crispin added, reverently. "I'm no fighter, not by a long shot. I'm a … more of a …"
"Scholar?" I offered. Crispin smiled.
"Yes, that's about right. I don't think I was ever even in a fist fight as a human. I've never been particularly strong." I raised an eyebrow and tapped a finger on his lean, muscle-lined forearm. He was like a mink, now, all wiry and lithe. He snorted, softly. "Well, that's the vampirism talking, isn't it? I didn't used to be like this. I was a human twig."
I smiled a little, resting my head back on his firm chest. "You must have been cute."
"I was a sad little twig," Crispin insisted. "I talked to my professors and all the smart people in my classes. That was all."
I laughed, quietly. He was a sweet thing, and I liked him even if he wasn't much for combat. It wasn't what he'd been built for. He was made to battle with wits, not fists. I left my cheek on his shirt and considered what he'd told me. There was a new deep respect in my gut, this time for Jasper. As much as he'd been ravaged, he had come out alright in the end. It wasn't a fate he'd asked for, either. Yet he'd endured.
The longer I spent among these golden-eyed wonders, the more I realized that they were, in fact, fundamentally good. Fundamentally.
I tightened my jaw, suddenly feeling the steely resolve I had once experienced in the hospital as I'd engaged with Crispin. I could not let these wonderful creatures die. They were absolute marvels. They were precious and, most importantly, they were good people. Good vampires. It was so ethically wrong to destroy them it clashed against my whole soul.
I realized Crispin was very quiet and still. He'd even stopped breathing. I lifted my head to look at him. He was distant, out-of-focus, lost in his head. I nestled in close to him, watching, curiously. He blinked a couple times, coming back to life. "Hmm?"
"What?" I wondered. Crispin seemed to consider for a moment. His eyes squinted slightly as he observed me, thoughtfully. Then, he said,
"My story is like Jasper's, a little. I already told you some of it in the hospital."
I recalled what little of his early story I knew, frowning slightly. "You were part of an army of newborns. Disposable."
Crispin winced slightly, pained at the memories. He nodded. "They dragged me into it because I walked upon them by mistake. They didn't care how physically useful I was. They just wanted numbers. I had to kill humans when I was with them, but, like Jasper, I didn't like it. I couldn't feel their emotions, as he did, but I remembered most of my human life. I was still in tune with my prey, on a … somewhat human level. I knew what I was doing was wrong.
"Of course, the thirst won in those early days. Newborn thirst … it's hard to describe. Overpowering. All-encompassing. It's impossible to fight. I had no choice. What the monster wanted, the monster received. I was prey to it just as the humans were prey to me. Dark times."
I blinked up at my favorite vampire. "But you chose to walk away from the monster, eventually. That's why you're here."
Crispin smiled. In the darkness, my human eyes couldn't make out much of his face, but I could see the tiny gleams of his neat, perfect teeth. "You're right."
I made a happy noise, pressing my cheek into his collar. Crispin returned the gesture with a light snuggle. He was still and quiet again. Then he murmured, "but that wasn't the part of it that still haunts me."
I stilled, my heart sinking. I remembered what he'd once said to me—"one … wanted ME." That's what he was talking about. I'd seen him shudder at those words, recalling something terrible. I stayed very, very still, intently listening. Crispin's chest rose under my cheek as he took a breath.
"She was called Tavora. She was a … an innocent-looking little creature. She was all petite, with tiny hands and a round face and little pouting cheeks. Babyish, even. Not like you," he added, his nose pressing into my hair for a moment. "My mysterious little wood-sprite come down from the mountains to enchant me."
I snorted a little, rolling my eyes. Yes, I was short. I knew that. The human lineage that my kind had descended from had been small. All humans had been, in those ancient, early days. The world had gotten taller without us. Crispin gave me a light squeeze.
"She was a petty thing. Whined like a child when she didn't get her way. Ridiculous tantrums, too. You'd have thought she was a six-year-old, and she once told me she was twenty-three. Outrageous. Disgusting. Her human life had been one of luxury, ease, and constant catering. She was such … she seemed to me to be the most …"
"Spoiled brat?" I offered. Crispin considered, then sharply nodded.
"That's exactly right."
"Well, how the heck did she survive the army for more than a day? Seems someone like that would've been ripped to bits the minute she collapsed into one of her silly tantrums."
Crispin inhaled deeply through his nose. "Well, she shouldn't have survived, you're perfectly right. But that was where her gift came into play." He shuddered slightly. "She never told anyone outright what she could do. But it only took me a few hours of observation to figure it out for myself. She … seized control of others. They became hers, somehow, once she had touched them. Many newborns joined her section of the coven. They would do anything for her. Usually they fought for her, guarded her against the other savages. But they would do anything. Anything at all. You see, for example—"
Crispin sat up straighter, gently separating from me so he could look me in the eyes better. His hands jumped animatedly into his story as he described it, expressively gesturing. "Once, we came upon a group of humans in the alleys. Drunk as could be, their blood sweet on alcohol. We attacked like the savages we were, of course. But Tavora hung back. She was too … delicate to fight over blood meals. Prissy, actually. That's a better term. Prissy. Her followers did it for her. Snagged a couple of the humans, dragged them to her, handed them over. They even pinned the mortals down for her. So the thrashing wouldn't mess up her perfect hair, I assume," Crispin said, looking repulsed.
"Ugh," I said, cringing. "That's … creepy."
"That wasn't the worst part, Sera. I watched them closely. They weren't right. They were newborn, they should have devoured those humans for themselves. Should've forgotten all about Tavora and given into their bloodlust, battling with each other for the rights to the kill. But they showed no signs of thirst. They appeared to be completely … untempted. No desire."
I frowned, my brow wrinkling. Now this—he was right, this was bad. Wrong. Unnatural. "No temptation?" I wondered.
"Not even a bit. They looked just as still and calm inside as they always did, even when presented with such sweet blood. They served Tavora, alone. They fought the other newborns when they tried to take her kills, too. Let themselves be ripped to pieces. Not a single cry of pain. They wouldn't stop defending her, not even with their limbs taken off. It was a dog-eat-dog world, Sera. Any other newborns would have fled to fend for themselves. But Tavroa's pets? They felt nothing. They obeyed their master."
I could see where this was going. My eyes widened and my heart lunged into my throat. "They weren't following her. They were … slaves. Mindless."
Crispin nodded solemnly. "That's what I believe. None of the other vampires seemed to realize it, or if they did, they didn't care. She took several others in the few days that I was in the army. All the weakest ones, the underlings, the slavering ones who followed the leaders without much resistance. She left the stronger vampires alone. I think her powers were too underdeveloped to take them. I believe that was the case because … well, you can imagine … she tried to take me."
I tensed. She had tried to take Crispin. My Crispin! The thought angered me. Heat built in my Sun-fed soul as the emotion washed through my small human form. My temperature ticked up several degrees. "How dare she?!"
Crispin smiled a little, although his gleaming eyes continued to look sad … or scared. "She wasn't successful, of course. My mind was one of the strongest of the newborns'. I had retained a great deal of my human memory, and I was … well, you know me. She couldn't seize me. I still remember when she tried it. Awful feeling, like I was being turned inside-out. She tried a few times before I escaped. She, ah … really wanted me."
I clenched my teeth so hard they made a small cracking noise. How dare she try to take my Crispin's mind?! My Crispin! That demon! She would have destroyed the very best part of him, the brilliance of him that I now had. I would never have known Crispin's curiosity and playful conversation. I would never have been able to sit with him and read his books. And … nothing would have stopped me from killing the other golden-eyed vampires. My gut ached at the thought.
Crispin startled me by gently touching my face. "Easy, little Firebrand," he cooed, soothingly. "Easy, there. Deep breaths."
Oh. I hadn't noticed him wincing. He could feel the intense heat being generated by my anger. And my eyes were probably glowing like molten iron, enraged. I did as he advised and breathed more slowly, regaining my usual control over my bubbling, fiery soul. Crispin chuckled, softly. "My, my, dragons are very intense creatures."
Understatement of the year.
"Sorry, Crispin," I said, apologetically. "I just … that makes me pretty upset."
"I can see that," Crispin murmured. "And you have every right to be mad. If she'd been stronger, she would have taken away years ago what we now have, before it had even happened."
I gritted my teeth again. "That witch."
Crispin sighed, nodding. "She was determined to have me. I'm glad I could see through her facade. She was a dangerous one."
I scowled at the ground, still harboring the desire to torch something. Preferably that baby-faced slaver. "What did she want you for?" I asked, trying to redirect my thoughts. "You said yourself you're not much of a fighter."
"Um … well, she didn't … want me to fight for her."
My head jerked up. Crispin's tone was different, now. He sounded … small. There was fear in him. I read his glittering golden eyes, taking in the nauseated look. He tried to avoid my gaze, trying to hide the residual terror. Uh oh. "No … she didn't," I whispered.
Crispin closed his eyes, trying to keep me from reading them. Or maybe he was trying to stop seeing something in his mind's eye. "She was … lustful," Crispin muttered. "She thought herself the pinnacle of beauty, I'd imagine, deserving of all she wanted whenever she wanted it. Never in her life had she been told no. All that she had ever desired was hers. And … she pursued many of us. Caught us, too. A few of her slaves were … meant to be played with. I'm not sure why she chose me. She must have found my body attractive in ways the other vampires didn't have it … oh, I don't know!" He burst out in sudden frustration. "I thought us all the same, then! We were all vampires, we'd all been made inhumanly beautiful, and we were all fighting for our lives. We were all the army. There were no differences between us. I couldn't understand. I didn't know what she was looking for, at first. I just wanted to live. I didn't understand … didn't fight back. Why didn't I fight back? Why didn't I fight back?! I should have … struggled harder to get away from her goons. Seen it coming sooner. Something."
He was looking at the ground. His shining eyes were sparkling differently, now—with tears. I was sick to my stomach. I wanted to hold him and comfort him and tell him he was safe, but I didn't dare touch him when he was seeing those terrible memories. I couldn't believe my poor, gentle Crispin had been victim to such evil. I wanted to cry. It was so wrong. It was awful.
Alongside my sorrow, the roiling anger had returned, at tenfold its previous strength. She had forced him. She had forced my gentle, sweet Crispin! That demon. That hellspawn! Incubus! Monster! Devil! I couldn't find terms in English strong enough, and so furiously grated out a few choice words in my native tongue as it had been adapted for the human mouth. I wanted to destroy her. I wanted to bring the Flame of the Heavens on her gastly little perfect head! I would beat her to pieces with my tail, shatter her into dust! Torch everything within reach!
I staggered to my feet and took several paces away from my vampire boy. My bloodlust was overpowering. I still had control over my transformation, but not so much over my fire. As predicted, flames exploded to life in my clenched fists. Bits of the forest around my little human body spontaneously combusted, small pale flames bursting into being. Crispin yelped.
I heard him move. I held up a hand. "Stop! Not yet. Give me a minute. You'll get hurt."
Crispin was very still. I leaned against a tree and dropped my face into one hand, breathing heavily. Oooooh, I really needed to kill something. But it certainly could not be my gentle vampire. I reigned in my breathing, fighting to re-master my temper. The fire I'd started licked painlessly at my legs, devouring all the plants and the carbon in the soil. I breathed slowly, keeping Crispin in my mind's eye. I didn't want to hurt Crispin. Had to calm down. Kill later … Crispin needed me now. Right now. My fire would hurt him. Had to control it …
Slowly, the light of the flames began to dim behind my eyelids. The fires were shrinking, fading, responding to the will of my soul. The fires in my hands were the last to go, fizzling out with showers of sparks against my face. I sighed, drooping against the blackened bark of the tree I was leaning on. Okay. That was better.
"I didn't know you could make fire in your human form," Crispin whispered.
I let out a low, shuddering breath, lifting my face from my hand. "Yeah, I can. It's my fireheart. Flame is an integral part of my being. It responds to my emotions. Not a good thing, sometimes, but … well …" I looked around at the forest. My fire had not caused too much damage, thankfully. The bark of a few trees was blackened, but they would survive. The circle of death was small around my feet. Thank goodness Crispin had stayed back when I'd asked him to. Vampires were extremely flammable. I looked back up at him, taking a deep breath. "I'm so sorry. I should have stayed in control. This isn't what you need right now."
Crispin cautiously inched a little toward me. I winced when his foot got close to a tiny fringe of singed leaves on the ground that were still glowing. Poor, flammable vampire … I went to move him away from the tiny coals. He gently took my hand. "Are you okay?"
I nodded. "I'm just … mad. Really mad." I closed my eyes for a moment, reigning in the fury. "Tell me she's still alive."
Crispin was very still. I looked up at him. He looked sick again. "She is."
My teeth locked, savagely. "Good. Now I can kill her."
Crispin made a tiny, shaky laugh. I squeezed his hand with my weak human fingers. He shook his head a little. "Well, I got away," he murmured. "Eventually."
I didn't know exactly how to make him feel better. What he'd endured at the hands of his enemy were beyond the aid of simple words. He was scarred. I squeezed his hand as tightly as my weak human fingers could, looking at the ground, my jaw still locked. I kept seeing in my mind's eye how she must have come upon him, my gentle, innocent Crispin. I imagined her lunging on him like a descending monster, clawed and slobbering. He would have been so shocked and confused. He wouldn't have been able to defend himself from her mindless slaves as they'd pinned him down. Maybe he'd been recovering from a fight with bigger, nastier vampires. It was hard to imagine a powerful newborn vampire being unable to fight back, but that was how it had happened. He'd been totally overwhelmed, panicking inside as she seized him … tearing off clothing …
I rested my forehead on his arm. If I ever came across that little demon, I'd rip her to pieces. I'd take her to the Great Siege. I'd give her to my grandfather. The fate I feared Crispin might one day endure on the examination table was perfect for that … worm. Grandfather could have at her with his diamond needles all day long and I wouldn't feel the slightest taste of remorse. It was the least that she deserved for what she had done to Crispin.
I took savage satisfaction from the mental image of Crispin's abuser on the table, bound with the ancient dragon-skin restraints. Crispin would never have to be scared of her, then. Her filthy hands wouldn't be able to reach him.
"I won't let anyone hurt you ever again," I muttered, fiercely. Crispin pulled me a little closer and deeply inhaled my scent from my hair. He rested his cheek on my head. It had to be painful—my body temperature was still raging with my anger, and the heat had to be almost overwhelming to him.
"I wish that were a promise you could keep. It's easy to say that when the threat is a vampire. Not so simple when the threat is another of your kind."
I closed my eyes. He was right. It would not be so easy to keep this promise as far as my vampire-hating people were concerned. Hence the reason why I still needed to visit the Matriarch. I squeezed Crispin tightly. Still. I would not let anyone hurt him. Not now. I couldn't. It would kill me. I clenched my jaw. I had to go home. I had to see the Matriarch right now. I had to prepare myself to fight. Immediately. I couldn't wait a second longer. In that instant, even though my heart was cracking in two at the thought of it, I realized I needed to go. Now.
As soon as we reached the meadow, I had to leave.
Crispin was quiet for a long time, holding me close. I was relieved that he could find comfort in me. I let him relax, giving him time to settle down after what he'd revealed to me, wishing the whole while that I had something I could give him to help him feel better. My instincts wanted to give him a cupcake, which was ridiculous on many levels. I wondered if vampires liked blankets.
Crispin had no heartbeat for me to listen to, so I tried to focus on his breathing to see if he was calming down. His soft breaths on the top of my head slowed after a minute, becoming more rhythmic and less frenzied. After a moment, he made a low, gentle purr and lightly nuzzled into my hair. "Thank you."
I sighed with relief. "Are you going to be okay?"
"I love you," Crispin murmured. "As long as I have you, I'll be alright."
I winced. I was supposed to be getting ready to leave. This was not helping at all. Crispin took a final happy sniff of the top of my head, and then stepped back a pace. "If we're going to make it back in enough time for you to get any rest, we should keep moving. The meadow is still pretty far away."
I groaned. "I'm hopeless. It'll take me all night in this form."
"What if … you took your dragon form?" Crispin asked, almost nervously. I shook my head.
"Too close to humans, still. We'd have to get out there more."
"Ah, I see. Shall I carry you?"
I considered this proposition. On the one hand, I liked to make my way on my own two feet—or wings, if I was in my proper shape. On the other hand, it would be nice for many reasons to be in Crispin's arms. He'd never get tired, anyway. It wasn't like I weighed anything to him. "Okay, that's a good idea."
Crispin took me up delicately. He scooped my legs out from beneath me and caught me behind my shoulders, straightening. He made small adjustments in an effort to help me hold up my head. "Comfortable?"
"Yep. More than comfortable." I peered down at the ground. "You won't need my headlight, will you?"
"How fast do you intend to be moving?"
"Er … cruising speed?"
Oh. I looked at the ground again, a little nervously. Cruising speed for a vampire might make it hard for me to breathe. The wind would rip the air from my human lungs. "So …"
"Off we go," said Crispin, happily, before I could make any objections. He started away at a light, jaunty trot. I buried my face into his shirt in preparation for the onslaught of speed. Not a moment too soon. He swiftly picked up the pace, his gait shifting, his movements perfectly smooth. His strides came rapidly at first, and then slowed a little as he practically flew. I could feel the momentum we'd picked up, as though we were in a car, except that the wind screamed past my ears and made a spectacular mess of my hair. Crispin held me close, shielding me from whipping branches, trying to make sure my head was protected. He weaved through the dense trees easily, following a path he'd been through before. I felt him make a huge leap at one point, and my stomach was left behind. What on earth was that?
It was mere minutes before we reached our destination. I had just started to get used to the feeling of going much faster than my human body was meant to when I felt him slowing, easing us out of the momentum of our speedy flight. He resumed his gentle trot. I blinked rapidly, nervously peeking out of his chest. The ambient atmosphere had changed. We had emerged from beneath the shadow of the brooding clouds and had stepped into shimmering moonlight. Compared to the pitch-blackness previous, this was a great improvement. The only trouble was, I'd peeked too soon. What had felt like a gentle trot was still zipping between trees so close I thought for sure they'd take my toes off. I replaced my face into Crispin's sturdy bosom. Safer there.
Moments later, we came to a gentle stop. Crispin trotted to a halt. He crouched low, half-kneeling, and deposited me softly into the tall grass. I laid myself out for a bit, breathing heavily. Crispin peered worriedly down into my lightning-blue eyes. "Are you well?"
"Humans were not meant to go fast," I said. Crispin smiled, delicately.
"They don't seem to realize it. Have you seen how fast a race car can go?"
"Well, my human body isn't much for high speeds, then."
"Sorry," said Crispin, meekly. I sighed, rolling over onto my stomach. Ah, good, solid earth. It felt nice to lie still in my human form. I thought of the ridiculous flight speeds I could pull off in my true form and snorted. This fragile, mortal frame was such a wimp. Crispin popped himself cross-legged next to me and patted my back. "You are very fiesty."
I folded my arms under my chin for a moment, frowning. Then I turned over again and looked at the sky. I stared at the stars, at the familiar patterns in their sparkling arrangements. They were thick diamond dust across the black canvas of the night. I wanted to show Crispin and talk to him about them. I wanted to lie here all night and look at the sky with him. But I could see which direction the stars were pointing me to go home, back to the Alps. I was supposed to be leaving. I had determined that I must leave to face the Matriarch. I was supposed to do it now.
How could I fly away? I didn't want to. I wanted to stay with Crispin. He needed me.
I took a deep breath through my nose. He needed me to keep him safe. And that required confronting my ancient leader. In the Alps. It was a very long way from here, across the world. Crispin would not be able to follow. Indeed, he had better not try to follow. He'd be destroyed if he got within fifty miles of my Seige. My people would pick him out of the sea like a pelican going after fish.
A flaming, hate-filled pelican with a mission to do in vampires.
I closed my eyes.
I felt Crispin settle down beside me. He sprawled on his back and laced his fingers over his chest. "I love the stars," he said, softly. "I've always been fascinated with the map of the sky. They're incredible, don't you think? Spinning around our world … that eternal celestial dance. They've been doing it for billions of years, before our little pebble in the universe had even the most basic of life forms on it. And now, at last, there are intelligent eyes that look up and wonder."
Crispin shuffled around. I looked into his glowing eyes. He grinned, fiercely. "And to think we're all made of bits of stars. The whole Earth, too. All this life," he gestured around us at the forest, "thriving on stardust. It was all here eons and eons before it took an intelligent shape. Makes me feel small."
I smiled into the open sky. We had all been crafted from ancient materials, it was true. Every atom of my body had been birthed from the refuse of a dying star, long before my planet had existed. I felt new and young, but my invisible building blocks were ancient beyond my comprehension. Crispin's too. It made me feel braver and meeker at the same time. I looked at Crispin's pale face under the moonlight. All these tiny bits of star stuff had combined to build us, and, somehow, we had gained minds and souls. And now, here I was, deeply loving those bits of stardust over there with my whole heart, holding every atom in usually high esteem. Who was I to choose which bits of dust were more precious than others?
Well, that was what our world had come to. It was the way we had evolved. Every day, little clumps of star stuff we called "people" found themselves loving some other clumps of star stuff with all the determination and vigor they could muster. It was weird, but it was wonderful. Wonderful that these bits of dust could feel something as precious as love.
I sighed, closing my eyes once more. Crispin shuffled around again until the top of his head pressed against my shoulder as he lay in the grass. "I love you."
My sweet goofball. I suddenly pushed myself up, turning onto my stomach in the grass, and held Crispin's head in my small, brown hands, pressing an upside-down kiss to his forehead. My throat was tight and my eyes were hurting as tears battled their way to the surface. "Crispin, I have to go."
Crispin's intense golden eyes blinked. "You have to go? Now?"
"Yeah," I mumbled, pressing my forehead to his. "I've got to go home. I have to make sure you'll be safe."
Crispin was up so fast it was like he was made of the spirit of wind. He knelt in front of me where I was sprawled and grabbed my hands. "Wait, no, we still need to make some plans."
"Crispin, I have to." I pushed myself to my knees and tried to take my hands out of his, but his grip tightened. I winced. Too tight for my fragile human fingers.
"No, not yet. We haven't made any plans. I'm coming with you."
And that was exactly what I could not have happen. I pulled fiercely, trying to get free of him. "Crispin, that's a no. You can't come. They'll destroy you. You know that."
"You can't leave yet! You just got out of the hospital. We haven't had any time to be together. You can't leave. Please wait!"
"Crispin, my family is going to come looking for me. If I don't leave now, I … I might never be able to. Not … not in time." My words were getting jumbled as I struggled within.
"Sera, you can't. What about—but we still—you left your bag at my house. You can't leave without it."
My heart ached. Now he was just making stuff up. "Crispin, I have to. What about your family? I have to make sure you'll be protected. I have to talk to my leader."
"I'm coming with you," Crispin insisted, ferociously. "I can help. I'll show them—"
"You will not," I growled, and I reached into my soul. Heat coursed swiftly through my whole being. Crispin gasped. It had to hurt. But he would not let go. Stubborn boy! "You will stay," I commanded, my voice plunging into the grating bass as blazing energy hummed through my whole being. My eyes had to be glowing as molten iron as the transformation started to take hold. "You will stay because you will die if they see you. Until I can make them understand, they will destroy any vampire on sight."
"Show me to them!" Crispin yelled. "They'll change their minds—"
"They will kill any vampire on sight," I snarled. "You wouldn't have a chance." And with that, I ripped my fingers out of Crispin's grasp. My delicate human finger bones snapped in a symphony of savage agony. I staggered away from Crispin, briefly blinded by the pain, and fire exploded over my shoulders and down my back, cascading over my head. "RUN, CRISPIN!" He was too close. My transformation would smash him to pieces.
It was impossible to hold the change back. I'd tried to restrain it so Crispin would have time to get away, and I prayed he would be smart enough to leave the area. In an instant, the power of the Mother Sun pulsed across my every cell and particle. I felt the huge surge of strength, the wind racing past my face. The membranes of my wings spread between my fingers, the broken bones healing themselves in an instant with tiny, blazing flashes. My rear talons ripped gashes into the earth. My powerful, wedge-shaped head slammed into the trees, carving a path of destruction through them. My long, thrashing tail cleaved a whole new meadow into the forest.
In an instant, I was my scaly, indestructible self.
The wrists of my wings slammed down into the dirt, shoving huge wrinkles into the rain-softened turf. Now on all fours, I whirled on the spot, tossing my heavy head on my flexible neck, frantically staring around with liquid lava eyes. Where was my vampire?! Had I smashed him to powder?
There he was. My night-sharpened gaze fell upon him. He'd retreated at vampiric speed to hide amongst the trees at my side. I could have raged at him. He wasn't safe from my mountain-smashing tail there. He was cowering under the trees, gaping at me in all my majesty, looking like he'd been clapped over the head with a thunderbolt. I let my sorrow and fear rage through my body. My soul responded. A pale scarlet glow swiftly brightened, shining white-hot between the heavy black scales that armored my chest. The heat rose in waves around my body. My fireheart blazed like a newborn star. I parted my long, fang-filled jaws, squinting my glowing eyes, thrust my head down, and screamed at him. Get out of here!
He cried out. His hands were clapped tight over his ears and he curled over. My mighty voice had pierced through his skull. Was it enough to get my message across? Knowing stubborn Crispin, it probably hadn't been. I threw my head back and raged into the sky, a thundering, earth-shaking roar. Get out of here, Crispin! Go home! Go home!
Then I sat back onto my muscled haunches, lifting my wings off the ground and spreading them wide. A whole patch of forest bigger than a football field was suddenly in deep shadow, hidden from the light of the moon and the stars. The fins down my sides and back flared open. My tail-rudder fins flexed. Time to go.
Crispin uttered a desperate scream as I jumped into the sky. My wings slammed down, the powerful muscles in my vast chest clenching tight. Trees on all sides bent double. Several came up by their roots. Crispin's scream was cut off as he was blasted aside by the raging windstorm. I beat my wings as fast as I could, rising swiftly. The world below was chaos under the terrible, hot wind. I angled my scaly snout to the east, following the stars. The wind screamed over my shoulders, whistling around my smooth, backwards-sweeping horns. I put my huge strength into the flight. In seconds, I was shrieking away, a flaming arrow launched from a bow.
I became abruptly aware of something below me, a mouse running through the grass. It was Crispin. He was following. He was running with all the vampire power he could muster, slamming through anything that got in his way, chasing me. I was seized by despair and pain. No! He couldn't follow! He would die! I tucked my legs back against my tail and flexed the steering fins along my tail, flattening the frills around my head, streamlining my shape. Let him see just how fast I could go. Let him see just how much I was meant to kill his kind. Let him see and stay!
The Cullens' house was in the distance. My sharp dragon eyes could see it glowing in a nest of trees, safely tucked away from the rest of human society. I parted my huge jaws again and thundered forth a gigantic, booming roar. The windows of their graceful home would be shaking. Let them hear it and come running. They had to stop Crispin. They could not let him follow. I twitched my vast wings. I rose higher. And higher! I had to get out of sight. I had to be away from the eyes of the humans. And, at all costs, I had to out-fly Crispin. Trees bowed beneath my raging slipstream. The weakest ones collapsed, breaking beneath my terrible power. Let Crispin see and let him stay!
I raced away for the icy mountains of my home, my thoughts turning to my one and only purpose. I had to face the Matriarch. She was the only one who could protect Crispin, now. His life was in her talons. And, by extension, so was mine.
Alice dropped the iPad with a sickening crack that made every vampire in the house cringe. Her deafening shriek grated on their sensitive eardrums. "Crispin! We have to stop him! Emmett! Jasper! Where are you?!"
Carlisle came running from his office, skidding when he reached the top of the stairs, seizing the handrail. "Alice! What's wrong? What's going on?"
"It's Sera! Sera's decided to go home. He's going to try to follow—oh, my gosh, he's not thinking straight! He'll get us all killed! We have to stop him!"
Edward came exploding through the back door, almost flinging it off its hinges in his haste. He'd been wandering the woods with his family to cool off after the family argument earlier, and had responded to Alice's vision at once. "That stupid idiot!"
Bella and Renesmee came scrambling in after him, Nessie's strange heartbeat banging deafeningly away.
"Dad, what's going on? Dad!" she yelled. Moments later, a panting Jacob Black entered the house, wheezing from pushing himself too hard, too quickly. He was fast and strong in his human form, but not like the undead.
"Where?" Edward demanded, seizing his small vampire sister by her shoulders and fixing her with a fierce look. "Where is that? We have to get there."
"Dad!" Renesmee yelled, furiously.
"Edward!" Bella shouted.
"What the heck is happening?!" Jacob panted. "Would you warn people before you go off like that?"
"Jacob—that place where you took Nessie a week ago? The little spring? Go there now, in your wolf form. You have to hold him there! I'll get Jasper!" Alice pulled away from Edward, lifting his powerful hands off her shoulders so she could leave. "You, follow him!" she cried. "You've got to hold him! If you can't catch him there, nothing will stop him! He's lost it!"
Jacob looked outraged. "You can't just tell me stuff like that without explaining—"
"Jacob, we have to hurry! They'll come for us if we can't stop Crispin!" Edward shoved the shapeshifter out the door with one hand, dragging Bella outside with the other. "Hurry!"
Emmett emerged from the garage, blinking around. He'd been occupied with Rosalie and hadn't responded at the same pace as the others. "What?" Everyone had streaked out of the room except for Carlisle, who jumped from the second floor to the first without bothering with the stairs.
"Crispin is going to follow Sera home to her people. They'll kill him and then they'll come for us. We have to stop him. Sounds like we'll need your strength."
Emmett looked worried. "What happened?"
Carlisle had just opened his mouth to respond when Alice came dashing back in with Jasper in tow. "Talk on the way! Just follow me!" She and her mate flew out the back door together. Emmett and Carlisle glanced at each other, then set off after her without another word. Alice slowed just enough to let Emmett catch up to her as they tore through the forest by her lead. "Sera decided to go home now," Alice yelled, her voice snatched by the wind as they scaled hills and streaked over logs like blurred shadows. "Crispin thinks he's going to follow. He's nuts. We can't let him get past us! I've never seen him—it's just ridiculous—he's out of his mind!"
The followed the reeking wolf-scent in the wind, left behind by Jacob as he'd torn off to the designated place. Within minutes, they arrived. And only just in time. Jacob was standing still, looking at them as they approached, waiting, when a massive, void form, like a black hole, raged through the sky overhead. The dragon's mighty roar shook the earth. Pine needles sprinkled out of trees. Then the slipstream hit them like a hurricane. Jacob was shoved off his big wolf paws and into Renesmee. Alice stumbled as the wind tried to pick her up and throw her. Trees snapped at their bases, toppling with crunchy crashes to the forest floor. Dirt was flung into the air, down everybodys' throats and into their eyes. Emmett audibly gagged on it.
A split second later, Crispin's streaking shape bounded over the fallen wolf, swift as a fleeing deer. He tried to swerve away from Jasper, who was on his feet and ready. They collided like two boulders, tumbling several feet with the momentum from Crispin's flight. They were a wild tangle of limbs, Crispin shrieking like a demon. Jasper yelped. His head jerked back just as Crispin lunged savagely forward, his exposed teeth catching the air with a razor-sharp snap!
Emmett lunged on top of them like a football player, flattening them both under his huge bulk. Edward joined in, seizing Crispin by the head and pinning it down. Carlisle ran to help. The wolf got up, shaking his heavy head. Crispin screamed, furiously, writhing snakelike, all his teeth exposed, his eyes wild, animal. "Get off me!"
"No!" Jasper grunted. "You can't go with her, you idiot! You'll get us all killed!"
"RRRAAAAAARRR!" Crispin thrashed. Edward grunted a little, trying to hold his brother's head down so the dangerous teeth couldn't reach anyone. Emmett pinned Crispin's legs, driving his hands into the dirt and holding on for dear life. Jasper was fighting to hold his brother's arms. The others watched in astonishment. Crispin had never been a fighter. They'd never seen him so strong. It was like some secret lock had been undone, unleashing a hidden, deeply-buried savagery. This was not like Crispin.
A low roar boomed in everyone's eardrums like distant thunder. Crispin's shriek took on a new tone, higher and more desperate. "SERA! SERA, PLEASE! COME BACK!"
But the dragon did not come back. Alice shot up a pine tree, scaling it like a squirrel. She perched in its thin crown, watching the huge patch of void shrinking, smaller and smaller, disappearing into the distance. Sera was leaving. She was going home. She was going to fight for their lives. It was all up to her, now.
Crispin's voice fell into a helpless, desperate keening cry. His pale face was tear-streaked, bits of dirt sticking to his cheeks. The other vampires looked down upon him in terrible pity as the dragon soared away, carried by the wind toward her ancient mountain birthplace. Where she was going, he could not follow. He had to stay.