I’d almost forgotten what it was like to be afraid. I’d outgrown the nightmares of my youth long ago. Burying the events that sparked them, locking away the images, I’d dismissed the power they held over me. But I still remembered…
Waking in my dark den, throat raw, fire spitting from my fingertips; in those first few moments before sleep released me from its clutches, I’d sworn the creatures’ hot breath was still on me, their barbed tongues darting out, smelling my fear on the air. In every shadow, I saw the black blur of their shifted forms, circling me. Every heartbeat bore the promise of pain as the razor-like teeth of the savage nageun shredded the meat from my bones. Every night, I waited for the creatures’ bites to penetrate, for their venom to flow in and my blood to spill out.
Those moments were far behind me. The nightmares were gone. Experience had made me stronger and wiser. Determination and training had pushed my fear of their slender, stunted reptilian forms to the depths of my mind.
Now they were crawling out.
They were stepping from my past.
The dark swarm was closing in, and the nageun’s pursuit of me was as real as the cold fear burning in my veins; twisting like a frozen blade with each pump of my legs as I ran.
Shifting out of my human form, crimson scales erupted to spread beneath the malleable confines of my uniform, covering breasts, stomach, thighs, and back. Muscles increased in size as my slender nose widened. Rounded jaw hardened. Cheekbones and forehead became more distinct as my full lips darkened. I dropped to all fours, back arched slightly, and the forest floor sunk beneath my weight. Claw tips extended, digging in, releasing the aroma of damp soil and moldy undergrowth. With a rustle of leaves, I pushed off.
Night birds scattered in haste at my swift trespass. Woodland creatures stirred and scurried. My unmistakable smell, an arousing amalgam of human female and dragon, had them skittish as I dove headlong into the clog of downed boughs and scrub. My agile hybrid form slipped through the labyrinth of timber with minimal effort. Arcs of fire crackled off the ends of my hair as it fluttered out behind me.
I was too conspicuous. I needed to blend.
Without breaking stride, I shifted the strands and their composition changed. From scalp to ends, human hair emerged, and doused the visible fiery heat wafting off the lengthy red waves. It wasn’t camouflage even close to what my pursuers were capable of creating. Their ability to shift into shadow, nearly erasing the edges of their bodies—little more than whip-like tails, long flat jaws, and serrated teeth to begin with—was one of the creatures’ greatest weapons.
It wasn’t easy to kill my kind. Death by nageun was a long, tortuous mutilation there was no coming back from. Picturing it, I tore deeper into the forest.
I tried to run and not think. But my mind was spinning, desperately seeking to understand, to conceive how a normal assignment on a normal day had landed me on the wrong end of an execution. With a single hesitation, my hopes, my future—my life—was over. The Guild was all I’d ever known. They’d plucked me from my den-mates, sheltered, fed, and trained me; promoted me to the coveted role of Executioner. They’d shown me the rewards of a life in service to our dragon elders. Dahlia Nite was a name respected in the ranks. I was known to all the tribes, decorated for fealty and bravery. Now, all had turned against me.
I carried the order through. I did as I was told. I’d just needed more time.
If the child hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t…
What? I thought bitterly. I still didn’t know what happened. Only that her emotions had been strong beyond explanation. They’d been tangible, slithering over and in me, affecting me in an impossible way. I hadn’t been merely sympathetic to the human child’s terror. Her panic had brought me to my knees. I’d felt the violence of the moment, the violence I’d been sent to inflict, in a way I never had: as a victim. I’d seen it, growing around her ankles like a black wet fog. Stunned, I’d lost hold of my fire and faltered. Pausing, even just a moment, had created a memory; a record of my uncertainty, and, therefore, a death sentence.
In a society where not even our thoughts were private, no mistake was overlooked. No performance could be embellished or hidden. Our mission reports, our kills, were pulled straight from our minds by the highest authority: Naalish, the Exalted One; mother of all firedrakes and Queen of the Elder Dragon Tribes of Drimera.
Telepathy was common in female elders, but Naalish was said to possess a superior mind. It was also rumored she’d ripped the heart from her predecessor and ate it, consuming her soul to gain her power. I’d never believed it. Naalish was the most beautiful and majestic of all the dragons. Even hours ago, standing before her wrapped in chains, I’d been in awe of her presence. Deference and pride had kept me silent as she ordered my execution. I hadn’t even thought to plead for mercy. I was better than that. I was a hybrid, a shifter, a lyrriken. The product of a human female and an elder male in human form, both human and dragon existed within me. It was by the grace of the elders alone that I lived. They had every right to judge and punish me.
It didn’t matter that I’d gone before the Queen confused, that I’d needed help and she’d called for my arrest. Mercy was a not a common dragon trait, and I would never have shamed either of us by begging. I took her condemnation with my head held high.
It was after when my outlook changed. After, as I sat in my cell, with the blood of that human child drying on my hands, as I dissected my actions and tried to comprehend—I watched the walls go inexplicably fluid and gray. And I saw her. I saw it all again: the clearing where her home sat, the woods surrounding it, the charred body of her headless father on the ground. Stretching out like a hand from the grave, the child’s terror, stronger than anything I’d felt before, had gripped me anew. It dominated everything. My status, my honor, my duty to die as commanded, had no value. My squad, not even my lover mattered. Suddenly and inexplicably, I cared for one thing.
No one had challenged my escape. They had no reason to expect such a bold move. Even facing execution, no Guild-trained lyrriken would dare defy the Queen. We would stay and take the death that was given us.
Yet something had crawled inside me that didn’t want to die.
Something that wanted to live more than it wanted to obey.
Now the coin had flipped, and I was the target. I was the one striving to outrun the oncoming death on my heels, clinging to life even knowing the odds of surviving. Fleeing was foolish. My impulse to do so was puzzling, but I couldn’t stop. Even now, with my cell in the depths of the Citadel far behind me, with the lights from the City of Spires dim in the distance, the sounds of the child’s scream rang as strong as the wind in my ears.
I’d left her alive too long. Her noise had brought the nageun out of the forest. My hesitation, my compromised aim when I recovered, had left her not quite dead when the horde descended. She’d watched them swarming. Felt their teeth puncture and tear. I’d backed quietly away, out of their view, listening to the foul crescendo of the cracking of bones and the slurping of organs as soft human bodies were reduced to strips of meat and puddles of viscous matter.
They were to die, anyway. It had been my duty to kill them.
But not like that.
I’d botched the entire job, and I still couldn’t fathom how. How could one little human melt away my years of training, one mistake label me weak and untrustworthy?
Now, in fleeing, I’d earned another brand. Traitor.
Murky, black tendrils of pain slithered up my ankle. They wrapped around my legs, anxious and cold and begging to be felt. The ghost they spawned from was an old one. Shed in the last moments before death, the tattered remnant of human trauma had been drifting here for years. It was forever a part of this place now, forgotten and abandoned like the building it was trapped in.
Regret, I thought, processing the emotion’s distinctive touch. It was sad, but it wasn’t the trauma I was looking for. I shook my leg, dislodging the shadow, and moved on.
My quick dismissal wasn’t as callous as it appeared. As an empath, I understood: no matter the species, the age, or the cause, every hurt was significant to the soul that owned it.
This one wasn’t significant enough, not tonight. Not for what I needed.
Shivering, I yanked the zipper up on my hoodie. It was late. The building was drafty. But my sudden chill wasn’t sparked by cold. If it was, exchanging my human skin for scales was far more efficient. Being a half-dragon shapeshifter had its perks. Generating heat was one of them. But it was the end of August. There was plenty of heat to go around. It was disgust that had me trembling.
I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m terrible, I thought.
At least, I would be if I continued on my current slippery slope. It was a figurative decline. The crumbling concrete floor of the derelict apartment building I was trespassing in was as flat and unwavering as it should be. My morals, however, were careening steadily downward. If shifter-hell was a place, it was a sure bet I had a standing reservation carved in stone.
Of course, the name Dahlia Nite had been on that list for a while now. A former executioner for the dragon-queen, Naalish, there was no way my elevator had ever been going up. Not even the last ninety-seven years I’d spent performing (mostly) good deeds in the human realm could change my eternal destination. But this… Trolling the slums, looking to loot the trauma from whatever poor souls I could find and use it for target practice—this was going to plummet me straight to the bottom.
But I had to do something. My empathic abilities had been a mystery from day one. Over the years, they’d grown to become an important part of my life. The clues my empathic glimpses provided were mostly reliable, even if the results were inconsistent. Since moving back to Sentinel City three months ago, that inconsistency had flown off the freaking chart.
I’d tried not using my empathy, but I didn’t like being limited. I solved crimes and hunted monsters for a living. I needed every edge I could get. Unfortunately, this edge had become too unpredictable to be trusted. Hurting an enemy with an involuntary psychic attack was one thing. Sending an innocent man into cardiac arrest was a near-fatal mistake. I wanted it to be my last. If absorbing and reassigning pain was something I could do now, I needed to get a handle on it.
Yet, the last four weeks, I’d been dragging my feet. Because there was only one way to train my sixth sense. I needed pain. I needed to feel it and play with it, and doing so, for the sake of my own gain, made me feel no better than the creatures I hunted.
Ignoring the issue, though, was dangerous, which was why I was spending my Monday night touring one of the city’s most notorious buildings in the old waterfront district.
The Fletcher had been condemned for years. Rumors of spirits and ghouls fed into the city’s love of legends, but the only activity in the ramshackle structure was the unseemly kind. There was no electricity. Most of the rooms were missing doors. Grime coated the few remaining broken window panes. Termites and humans had riddled the interior walls with holes. Fire had scorched the rest. Graffiti bubbles colored nearly every surface. A few surviving furnishings were coated in layers of filth. Just looking at them warranted a shower.
The kids who snuck in to party mostly stuck to the lower levels. The junkies who stumbled in to forget their lives for a few hours or days favored the solitude of the higher floors. Runaways and vagrants, however, made use of the entire six stories. Most would crash for a while, then get smart and move on. Some graduated into permanent residency. Now and then, the city came in and cleaned the place out, rounding up the runaways, busting the dealers and the junkies.
They came right back.
Curling up in dark corners and old closets, hiding from the world, shooting up and fading away; their decaying souls shed trauma like autumn leaves in a perpetual windstorm.
There were certain places empaths preferred to avoid. Hospitals, nursing homes, cemeteries, prisons, the sites of ancient battles, all made the top ten. I wasn’t sure where drug den fell on the list, but I couldn’t walk five feet without someone’s suffering reaching out to me. It was everywhere: darkening the fissured concrete, drifting over the decomposing garbage and mold-infested blankets—clinging to the hunched human forms that had moved past unfortunate to wretched a damn long time ago.
What I saw and felt wasn’t your typical ghost, but I’d found no other word to describe the residue that haunted a soul. It grew with each new trauma, polluting humanity’s insides. Eventually, it manifested into a shadowy form that clung to their bodies; tainting, suffocating, sloughing off bits of trauma with each step. Sometimes, after death, their ghosts stayed behind. Here, so many had stayed, not even a spotlight could have penetrated the layers.