***Nega-Garth, six weeks ago.***
“God, these colors are hideous,” Garth said, inspecting his new outfit. “I mean, I’m no interior decorator, but I look like a goddamn wasp.” Garth grumbled for a moment, picking at the man-cleavage window before shrugging and looking back up at Rhenara. “I guess you’d need red skin to pull it off.”
Rhenara shrugged. “What’s the deal with the little girl following you around?”
“Oh Leanne?” Garth asked. “She’s a scrappy little bastard, got her head out of the fog almost as fast as me with a little help. If she had been older and experimented with more drugs, I shudder to think how quick she might’ve gotten free. We worked together at Garth-Topia, my city, until a dickhole burned the whole thing down.”
She processed that for a moment, delicate black eyebrows furrowing.
“Posthumously renamed,” Garth said with a shrug, picking up his backpack from the bed. Dead bastards on the city council couldn’t stop him from renaming it now.
“Garth!” Leanne shouted from the distance. “Where the hell’s the Gate?”
“Plus I always kinda wanted to be a dad. With the glassy, exhausted stare and the five-o-clock shadow? Leanne makes me think of that.”
Rhenara shook her head. Apparently she didn’t see how anyone could want that.
“Ah well. COMING!” he shouted to Leanne, heading out of Geda’s personal room, the crime-lord’s gold treasures jingling in the backpack. They came down the hall, entered the grand oval overlooking the lobby and walked down the marble steps, where Leanne was waiting for them at the bottom.
“Okay, where the hell is the Gate? You said he’d have a Gate.” Leanne said, arms crossed in the center of the fanciful gilded lobby.
“Calm down, the guy was a remorseless drug smuggler shitstain on the asscrack of the planet.-“ he turned to Rhenara. “No offence.”
“Smuggler being the key word.” Garth said, reaching up to a lantern and pulling it down with a clunk. A door leading down into the darkness peeled away from the wall as if by magic. Probably was magic, Garth thought as they descended into the tunnel.
The tunnel was completely unlit, and Garth had to summon a light above his head halfway down, spilling pale light on the stone steps. The stone was smooth and worn from decades of use, and completely undecorated, unlike the palace they had come from.
At the bottom of the stairs, the tunnel widened out into a massive cavern the size of a football stadium, with a glowing blue portal at the center. In the blue light of the Gate, Garth could see crate after crate of illicit goods stacked on top of each other. He could smell mildew and the rot of perishables left too long.
“Looks like the black dragon syndicate a better sorting system,” Garth said, wrinkling his nose at the smell. Rhenara was covering her nose and turning pale. Leanne grunted and pretended not to notice to prove how tough she was.
Garth patted her on the head for an instant before she knocked his arm aside.
“Maybe they could outsource to Amazon.” Garth said, glancing up at the featureless expanse of the ceiling. “Get some overhead lights, pallets, steel shelves and a forklift. Shipping labels.”
“They’re dead, so what does it matter?” Leanne said, tromping down the path that led to the Gate.
“Just making conversation,” Garth said with a shrug and trotting to catch up. A glint of pale blue light off a different pattern in the distance made Garth stop in his tracks.
“Leanne, stop.” Garth said, putting as much Dad-Says-Right-Now into it as he could.
Leanne halted and glanced back at Garth quizzically.
“Keep your eyes open, I think I saw something move.”
Garth closed his eyes and pulled up the memory, isolating and enhancing the brief glimmer of light that had caught his eye. It was about fifty yards away, a patch of…scales glimmering in the light. Moving.
Extrapolating their size from the crates beside them and the total distance, each shiny black scale was about the size of two hands held together.
“I think I figured out why they call themselves the Black Dragon Syndicate.” Garth whispered.
A cacophonous rumble echoed through the chamber, and Garth’s head swiveled, spotting Rhenara’s arm holding some kind of lever before the entire passageway collapsed, filled with stone and dust.
Garth heaved a sigh.
“Worth a shot anyway.”
Rhenara sprinted up the stairs. Between Sass’ia and the cave-in, she’d have enough time to reach the rest of her family, to warn the Fen Sha clan about the terrible monster born out of a nightmare.
She had no tears for her father or her bitch of a sister, but Bell…the sweet boy didn’t deserve any of this. It had taken all of her years of experience bottling up her emotions and putting on a charade for her snake-pit of a family to convince the monster to spare her long enough to get the upper hand.
She wasn’t sure Sass’ia would win. The monster seemed to be immortal, but if the legendary black dragon raised by the founder of their branch family could buy enough time…she could at least report his existence to her Clan.
She would be deposed. A powerless girl sitting on one of the pillars of the Fen Sha clan’s income would immediately be ousted and most likely killed.
But the one who killed her brother in his bed would die.
And that was all she cared about.
Rhenara saw the light of the main hall through the dust choking the tunnel, and sprinted for it, her goal almost in sight. It was a short jump to the nearest clan branch from here.
She emerged full speed from the tunnel, intending to turn left for the main door to the palace, when an iron hand grasped her by her throat.
Her own father bodily slammed her against the wall.
“Nooo!” Rhenara screamed, clawing at his hands. He had been dead! His corpse had been lying in the audience room! Her cries were cut short and she felt a splash of blood escape her lips as something sharp emerged from her father’s palm and bored into her throat.
“Does this feel weird for you?” Her father said, pressing forward and licking her blood from his wrist and her lips.
Her vision faded, and only one thing reached her ears.
“’Cuz this feels pretty weird for me.”
Garth turned his attention away from the dead girl and refocused on the immediate problem. Black dragon that her father’s memories had conveniently omitted. Maybe he had some kind of memory self-destruct so people couldn’t gain the clan’s info?
In any case, the immediate problem was the huge cracks trailing up the ceiling. Damn girl had pushed the self-destruct button, and it was all coming down.
Garth would be fine. He was currently eating the girl’s corpse upstairs, but Leanne needed looking after, and Garth didn’t want to have to look for another Gate that could take them to the other side of the known multiverse.
“The Gate!” Garth screamed, pointing at the shimmering blue portal. As they ran, he scraped up all the mana he could, funneling it into his own body until every fiber of his being felt like it was crackling with energy.
There was no way the black dragon would let them get there unmolested.
So Garth would molest it back.
As if on cue, the black dragon reared up in front of Leanne, scattering wooden crates to the four corners of the collapsing cavern.
It had the form of a sleek black snake fifty feet long, dancing through the air on a cloud of seemingly chaotic mana. Its scales were shining with the reflected blue of the Gate, appearing to be lit by neon lights in the darkness of the cavern. It was a very pretty snake.
Without any more ado, The aura under the dragon launched it forward, leaping toward Leanne.
Leanne jumped out of the way, delivering a blow against the dragon’s scales as she sailed through the air. There was a squeal of tortured metal as sparks flew up from the impact. The dragon turned its head without a single pause and followed Leanne’s flying body.
Whoops, Garth thought, launching forward and activating his plan. Supercharged with an abundance of mana, Garth grew eight feet of height and an extra pair of arms as he charged. He had originally planned on turning into something a little spikier, but something a bit like a four-armed King Cong seemed like the right choice when it’s scales were that hard.
Wish it didn’t hurt so much.
Garth rammed into the dragon’s head and seized it in a feral grip, pulling it away from Leanne.
“Set the coordinates!” Garth roared as the massive snake looped around his arm and pulled its head free, aiming to bite his neck. He blocked it with another hand, catching the two foot fangs just short of Garth’s face. “I’ll catch up!”
The dragon saw Leanne break into a sprint for the gate, and peeled away from Garth, soaring through the air on a cloud of brilliant green-blue mana and homing in on her.
“Not so fast.” Garth said, arresting its flight with four hands securely grabbing its wriggling form.
It yanked to a stop, and the dragon’s head turned to look back at him with what he could swear was indignant anger in its brilliant green eyes.
“C’mon, you can’t leave me alone on the dance floor,” Garth said, sucking in more mana and hardening his skin into armored plates while enormous mantis claws burst out of his back. One good stick in those peepers, and this fight would be over.
The Dragon gave him a silent stare for a moment, brows seemingly furrowed in concentration. A boulder the size of a car missed them by a few arm’s lengths.
A brilliant white light coalesced on the dragon’s forehead as all the mana in the nearest twenty feet was emptied. The damn thing made a Lantern.
Garth’s transformations halted in their tracks as his mana supply was cut off.
“Oh, you just had to make this harder on yourself.” Garth muttered, leaping forward and grappling the giant snake’s head.
It squirmed out of his grasp, but not before he’d slammed its head against the boulder twice. Unfortunately, it still had the damned lantern on its forehead.
The snake mouth yawned wide and Garth spotted a flash of light from the miniature star, just before a blast of caustic green goop flooded out of it’s mouth and covered Garth from head to toe.
Pain dominated Garth’s consciousness, and he barely managed to reroute processing through the Garth upstairs long enough to slough off most of his outer flesh, consuming it for scraps of energy to transform.
The dragon seemed surprised when a human-sized, spiky Garth launched out of its enemy’s chest with all the force of a cannon, catching the snake in the mouth.
“Nice trick, wanna see mine?” Garth said, stabbing the creature in the mouth and injecting himself into its flesh, a long wormy parasite intent on burrowing through every single vital organ the creature had.
The dragon snapped its head to the side violently, jettisoning Garth from its mouth and glaring at him.
The black snake made to blast him again, when it registered an instant of confusion before it began to writhe in pain, its Lantern dropped. The fifty foot snake hit the ground when it lost control of its flight, crushing crates of cargo and flattening steel carts as it writhed in pain.
Garth didn’t let the opportunity slip by. He leapt forward, gaining size and weight, creating one massive crablike arm that erupted from his chest. In a matter of seconds, the arm dwarfed Garth, the powerful muscles seizing the dragon behind the head and squeezing the life out of it. Just a little more and he’d pop it’s head off through sheer pressure, beating his parasite to the punch.
Then it spoke.
“I yield! Have mercy on this one! On my honor!”
The dragon’s voice was that of a young woman, but not too high and cutesy. Just a scosh husky and yet it cut through the cacophony of raining boulders like a knife. Garth had a sudden image of the woman on the other side of the voice. Raven haired and sassy.
I want it.
Second time’s the charm, right?
Garth told the parasite to stop until further notice, then grew some beefy dragging legs, hauling the dragon with him towards the gate, shielding his catch from the raining rocks.
A boulder twice the size of his head flattened Garth’s skull, and he just kept dragging, shrugging off the wound. It hadn’t even cost him very much flesh.
“What the hell?” Leanne said when she saw the monsterous, flat-headed crab-man approaching the Gate with a limp black snake twice as long as most people’s houses.
“Always worth a shot.” Garth replied in a garbled, bloody mess.
“Whatever, just don’t fucking get your juices on me,” Leanne said, leaping through the Gate.
Freakin teens, Garth thought, bundling up the dragon and shoving it through before leaping into the portal.
Oh, neat, I can still communicate across realities, Garth thought, simultaneously present in Geda’s mansion and on the other hemisphere. Maybe it was the Kipling in him.
Welp, can’t leave a bunch of interrogatable corpses, he thought, picking up the other teenage girl and heading for the incinerator, whistling and setting fire to the palace as he walked.
A minute later, he threw her in the furnace, then jumped in himself.
“I was honor-bound to protect the Faren family’s secrets, but the end of their line makes the promise invalid. Since I have surrendered to you, you may name your terms.”
They were standing in a thicket outside an outpost on a no-name planet Geda had used as a staging point for distributing to the other hemisphere. Thick forest and tall mountains made the visibility atrocious. Perfect for smuggling.
The air was muggy and Garth found himself absorbing biting insects with startling regularity. Served the little bastards right.
“I can make you do anything?” Garth asked.
“Obviously you can’t make me do something that I would rather die than do.” The wounded dragon said, her head cocked to the side.
“I want…” Garth said, tapping his chin.
“Dragonskin boots?” Leanne offered.
“How about this.” Garth said. “You follow me around in the form of my choosing for the rest of my short, miserable mortal life, and once I pass away, you are totally free. Of course there’s a bunch of errata where you don’t betray me or do me harm, but that’s kind of in context, don’t you think? Wait, are you kind of an honorable fill-in the blanks sort, or a genie ‘gotta be exact or you get monkey-pawed’ type?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but why would I dishonor myself by killing the one who spared me?”
“Good enough.” Garth said. “Do we have a deal?”
“What form?” she asked.
“Relax, it won’t be a squirrel or cow or anything.” Garth said with his most winning smile, gathering the mana for his transmutation spell. Garth didn’t get the opportunity to use it too often, but shaping bodies just came naturally to him, whether it was his own, or others.
He wasn’t called a fleshweaver for nothing.
It was simply more practical in combat to enhance his own flesh rather than pin someone down and take the time to alter them. If he had them at his mercy, and that much time, he could simply kill them.