The next morning, when Eli arrives at the mansion at the top of Rosemont Heights, Widow Adeline is waiting for him with a lawnmower.
“You’re late,” she says, peering down at an diamond-encrusted gold pocket watch.
Eli looks at his own watch. “I’m two minutes early!” 6:58am on a Saturday. Eli hadn’t even know this time existed.
“By my watch, you are late.”
Eli splutters at the indignity. His watch gets time from his phone, which in turn gets time from wherever it is that phones get the time from. Point being, a place more accurate than Widow Adeline’s fingers can wind. Before he can figure out how to explain this, Adeline waves towards the lawnmower.
“Well,” she says. “Get on with it. The grass will not cut itself.”
Eli looks between Widow Adeline and the lawnmower. The thing must be older than he is, lurking, rust-covered and vicious, in the grass. “I thought you were going to teach me to be a dragon!” It sounds kind of stupid, now that he says it out loud.
It also earns him a scowl and a tsch sort of noise. “Discretion, boy,” Adeline scolds. “But, yes. That was the arrangement. This is your first lesson.”
“To cut grass?”
“Which is teaching me what?”
“Well,” is the answer, smirk curling blood-red lips. “You’ll have the entire time you’re doing it to work that out.”
Which is how Eli spends an hour and a half on the first morning of his life as a dragon mowing some evil old witch’s lawn.
He’s never mowed a lawn before. They didn’t have one in the city and Aunt Addi has more of a weed patch than a garden. Eli’s watched people do it in movies, of course, so he gets the general gist: turn on lawnmower, drag across lawn. Completing the first step alone takes him fifteen minutes and Google.
Nonetheless, he gets the job done. Mostly. And even puts the mower away in a space in the huge garage that, judging by the ring of dead grass, it had been removed from. By the time he gets back into the house, he’s hot and sweaty and stinks like gas. On the plus side, Widow Adeline greets him in the kitchen and—after admonishing him for tracking dirt into her house (he didn’t)—sits him down and serves him an enormous breakfast of eggs, bacon, and sausage.
“I can’t eat all of that!” Eli says, although his stomach rumbles in a way that suggests it begs to differ.
“Your appetite will change.” Widow Adeline is perched on a stool on the far side of the kitchen counter, drinking more coffee from another tiny little cup. “Your true form takes a great deal of energy. Focus on protein, primarily meat. You may find you start to lose your taste for vegetables and sugars.”
“Good thing I’m not a vegetarian,” Eli says, and eats a piece of bacon.
Despite his protestations, he practically inhales the breakfast. Even then, he still feels he could eat a whole other portion. Widow Adeline just laughs her husky laugh when he tells her this, patting him on the shoulder as if he’s just done something particularly clever.
This morning, she’s wearing some kind of silk kaftan and head wrap ensemble in gold and blues that shimmers like an ocean sunrise. She still looks about a hundred years out of date, bare feet slipping quietly across marble as she leads Eli through her home.
They go down, into a surprisingly plain-seeming basement—no velvet or curios in sight—and stop in front of a steel door with a giant wheel on the front. It looks like a bank safe, and Widow Adeline uses a little plastic swipe card, plus a code she types into a little keypad, to open it.
“Some serious security,” Eli says, laughing nervously.
Widow Adeline does not return his humor. “I meant what I said about enemies,” she says. “You’ve met one of them already, I believe: Yvonne Lacroix.” She opens the door with an ominous, metallic clanking. Behind it runs a long concrete corridor.
“Yes.” Adeline starts down the corridor and, after a moment, Eli follows her, the vault door slamming shut behind. “Lacroix is a member of something called the Lyddan Group.”
“Who are they?” Eli asks. “I heard Mr. Chung and Principal Malek talking about them.”
“They are a new coat of paint on a very, very old order,” Adeline says. “Named for the birthplace of the man they claim as their founder. Their old title was more poetic: the Argent Knights of the Most Holy Order of Saint George the Dragonslayer.”
“Oh.” That’s . . . probably not good.
“Don’t let their name fool you,” Adeline says. “They are not religious, as such, bar their blind faith in the evils of magic. But they are your sworn enemies. Make no mistake: if they discover what you are, they will stop at nothing to see you destroyed. And they are not beyond harming those you care for to achieve it.”
“Oh, man.” And here Eli was hoping this whole dragon business was just hoarding gold and setting fire to peasants.
“If you even suspect Lacroix or her ilk know of you, you must inform me at once.”
Eli nods, thinking of Zoe and Aunt Addi. “She doesn’t like me,” he says. “But I don’t think she, y’know. Thinks I’m a dragon.”
“Pray it stays that way.”
They’ve reached the end of the hallway, hitting another one of the extremely locked-looking security doors. Widow Adeline opens it the same way, albeit with a different code. (Tracking the movement of fingers across a keypad? Child’s play. Eli couldn’t use the Launchpad if not.)
Then the door opens, and they step through.
Eli isn’t sure what he was expecting; some kind of vault or dungeon or bomb shelter, perhaps. What he was absolutely not expecting, on the other hand, was a cavern the size of a gymnasium.
They must be somewhere inside Mount Rhodes, Eli thinks. The cavern is open to the sky and vines and plants cascade down over the edge and grow around the walls like a garden. There’s s pool, too. Or the exposed part of an underground river, bisecting the space before vanishing back between a crevice in the stone. The whole space is absolutely beautiful.
It’s also overflowing with treasure.
It looks like a movie set for a pirate’s den or, perhaps more accurately, a dragon’s hoard: gold coins lie in heaps and piles between plush velvet lounges and beneath the broad green leaves of ferns. Goblets and crowns sit beneath cascades of diamonds like ski slopes, and huge silver platters are piled with gemstones in blue and red and green and purple. Eli’s never seen anything like it.
“Whoa,” he says.
“Oh, it isn’t that much.” Widow Adeline bustles into the cavern, rearranging trinkets as she goes. “Most of it is fake. Do you know how cheap diamonds are to manufacture nowadays? Absolutely amazing, the things they can cook up in a lab.”
Eli picks up an emerald as big as his fist. It’s just . . . there. Sitting on a carved side table by the door. “Uh huh,” he says. He’s seen gems before, of course, because of Mom. But . . . still.
He tosses the emerald into a pile of coins as high as his knee.
Widow Adeline directs Eli to stand in the centre of the room, in front of an absolutely enormous gilt-framed mirror, lying propped against one wall. There’s another table next to the mirror and Adeline retrieves an item from it, which she subsequently hands to Eli.
“Wear this,” she says.
“What is it?” Most obviously, it’s a pendant; a braided leather cord with a single silver item the rough size and shape of a guitar pick tied in the middle. Eli examines the pick-shape more closely; it looks organic, for all its unnatural, metallic luster. “Is this . . . is this a dragon scale?”
“Yes, my dear. Good work. It is an Amulet of Melding. It will allow your clothing to survive your transformation.”
“Oh. Cool.” Definitely, definitely cool. Eli’s already lost two of his favorite hoodies. He doesn’t want to lose another.
He slips the amulet over his head; it settles against his breastbone, surprisingly heavy and warm. He thinks he can feel the magic in it. Maybe. Or maybe that’s the butterflies that seem to’ve taken up residence both in his stomach and around the mirror’s frame.
“Now that’s sorted,” Widow Adeline is saying, “let’s see your true self?”
“Huh?” Eli is distracted by the butterflies. They’re nearly as big as sparrows and brilliantly colored and something about the shape of their bodies . . .
“Don’t mind the fae. They won’t bite. Hard.” Widow Adeline claps once, the sound sharp and echoing in the large space of the cave. “Now. Transform.”
Eli tears his eyes away from the butterflies (faeries?). “I . . . don’t know how,” he admits.
“Of course you do, dear,” Widow Adeline admonishes him. “Use the mirror if you need to. Concentrate on yourself; how you are, how you should be. You’ve experienced the change already. How did you feel then?”
“Afraid,” Eli admits.
“And what were you afraid for, dear?”
Eli wants to say my life, because he had been, hadn’t he? With the peryton about to lunge and the hot tingling beneath his skin and . . .
Except he’s felt that feeling before, the hot rush that heralded the change. With Arthur and with Lacroix. He hadn’t been afraid, then. Not exactly.
“I wasn’t afraid,” he says, nearly too quiet to be heard. “I was angry. I was so . . . so freakin’ angry. People were being hurt and I couldn’t do anything and . . .”
Son, never let them see your anger, his father once told him. Never give them that excuse.
So Eli hadn’t. He’d bottled up every outrage, every humiliation. Being stopped in the street and on the metro. Being followed around in shops, stared at in restaurants. Feeling strangers touch his hair and giggle at his clothes and pretend not to understand his words. Catching a glimpse of FOX from the corner of his eye, grainy photos of a body lying in the street, a blurry mug shot, a what-was-he-holding-how-did-he-act-what-did-he-say roiling beneath his skin, tucked away as cold and distant as a star because the whole of it is so hot, so fierce, that to stand within its orbit is to burn.
This time, Eli does not shy away from the star. This time, Eli grabs it.
The world changes. Grows smaller, more fragile. Eli feels his body swell, expand, stretch. Feels the wings erupt from his back and the tail lengthen from his spine. Feels his teeth grow sharp and his nails grow hard.
Mostly, what he feels is a sense of peace. Of rightness. Like a cool rain across the embers of his rage. He still feels it, that burning rejection of injustice, but it’s tempered now. Soothed. He’s no longer powerless. He will never be powerless. Not ever again.
Widow Adeline says:
“Magnificent. Truly magnificent.”
When Eli opens his eyes, he finds a dragon staring at him from the mirror. When he blinks, so does it.
“A Blacklight Tch’ku,” Widow Adeline is saying. “I haven’t seen a Tch’ku in . . . a very, very long time.”
“What’s a chu-koo?” Eli says, walking closer to the mirror.
“Tch’ku,” Adeline corrects. “And it’s your Legacy, darling. The gift that gives you form. The Tch’ku are the Mouths of Justice, one of the Seven Great Flights.”
“That’s a lot of portentous capitalization.” The dragon in the mirror, Eli has to admit, does not really look much like he was expecting. There are scales, more like a crocodile than a fish, smooth and pebbled and mottled such a deep purple as to be almost black. Bright flecks of bioluminescence peek between the seams at his throat and down his flank, glimmering like stars. His limbs are stocky and powerful, tipped with claws like bismuth and rising into thick spines around the bicep and shoulder.
There’s a long tail, of course, fringed with more spines, and huge, bat-like wings rising from his back. Even horns like a bull, curving from his skull. So he’s definitely a dragon. But there’s something almost leonine about the silhouette of his body; no long, arching necks or reptilian snouts. His face is broad and cat-like, short neck hidden beneath a mane of feathers as fine as fur. More spines peek through the plumage, and continue down his back, and all-in-all Eli isn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“I look like . . . some kind of flying lion,” he announces. It’s strange watching himself speak in this form. It looks like the enormous teeth should get in the way, but he doesn’t so much as slur.
“You’re a Tch’ku, my dear,” Widow Adeline states, as if this explains everything. “Open your wings and see.”
Eli does, rearing onto his hind legs to get a better view. He’s probably about the size of a small car, all up, and his wings are absolutely enormous.
They’re bat-like in the sense they’re a membrane spread over “fingers”, but that’s where the similarities end. The skin is thick and heavy, and scalloped along the edge almost like the outline of feathers. As for the color . . .
It looks like a nebula, seen through a rainbow. A mix of luminescence and iridescence that shimmers and seems to shift with every movement. Eli has never seen anything like it.
“The Tch’ku are characterized by bull’s horns, a leonine form, and rainbow patterning on the wings,” Widow Adeline says, as if reciting from a textbook. “Mesopotamian in origin, though of course that was a very long time ago. The Tch’ku were some of the first of the xyl’tkkan to follow humans into the cities. My dear, your ancestors dined with Hammurabi and were tutors to Hatshepsut. Their likenesses grace the Ishtar Gate and were memorialized by Ezekial. You inherit a legacy of wisdom and law, of raising some of the most bountiful empires known to man. It is a legacy of greatness, and you should be proud.”
“It sounds . . . like a lot to live up to,” Eli says, still studying himself in the mirror. He does look pretty cool, if not quite what he was expecting.
Widow Adeline just laughs. “You’re young yet,” she says. “There’s plenty of time. Now. Go. Learn your new body. The grotto is safe; move about it as you will. I will be here when you’re done.”
Eli looks at her in surprise. “Really?”
“Of course, my dear. Run before you can fly, and all that.”
Eli feels his jaws split apart in his current form’s approximation of a smile. “Awesome,” he says, and leaps.
Being a dragon is. The. Best.
Eli has no words for it, just whoops—or rather, roars—of pure glee as he runs through the cave. The chamber they’re in extends further back into the mountain, and Eli spends a good hour moving through caverns, climbing walls, and swimming through the pools and streams. The place is magical; literally magical, with witchlights floating in the darkness and strange creatures flitting through the shadows. Plus the butterfly things which, it turns out, are actually tiny dragon-like creatures with two legs and four wings.
“Faevern,” Widow Adeline tells him, when Eli brings some to show her. “Ótchan in the old language.” She says it with a lilting rise on the o-sound.
The faevern aren’t frightened of Eli. In fact, clusters of them alight on his flanks whenever he sits still. They’re like tick-birds, he thinks; little snouts snuffling at his scales, looking for mites and scraps of dead skin. It’s kind of gross, but Widow Adeline assures him he’ll appreciate it come his molt.
Eli spends the next twenty minutes trying not to think about that particular event by trying to think of flying, instead.
He has to admit he isn’t very good at it. He is good at climbing, thick claws hauling him easily up rough stone walls. He climbs as high and he dares in the cave then . . . lets go. He manages an awkward glide a few times, and a heavy thud against the stone more than he’d like to admit. When he dares look at Widow Adeline, he finds her regarding him with amusement.
“You’re young,” she says. “In time, the skies will be yours.”
“Will I be able to breathe fire?” Eli asks. He doesn’t feel like he can but, then again, maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be feeling for.
“You’ll be able to ‘breathe’ something,” Adeline says. “Fire or ice. Acid, perhaps. Those are the most common.”
“Cool.” Eli hopes it’s acid. Being able to breathe acid sounds awesome.
Widow Adeline assures him the flight and breath will come “in time,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
“In the interim,” she says, “I’ll expect you here no less than three times a week. For exercise in your true form, and for lessons.”
“Lessons” turns out to be history and language. He gets the former first.
“Many different tales are told of the birth of the xyl’tkkan,” Widow Adeline tells him. “But they are, at their heart, all the same story. In ages past the first tkkan arose amongst the mortals. Strong and brave and true, they protected the young human tribes from evil, no matter it source. The mortals were grateful for this protection, and revered the tkkan in turn; installing them as kings and worshipping them as gods.”
“Uh-oh,” says Eli, who can tell where this is going.
“Over time,” Adeline continues, “some tkkan grew greedy. They forgot their sacred missions and demanded greater and greater tribute from the mortals, and offered less and less in return. They built castles and temples for themselves, far away from their people. Removed from the world, generations of tkkan grew up knowing mortals as a shepherd knows his flock; as beasts to be tended, not as equals. These tkkan began to hand down edicts, rules intended to keep the mortals away from evil.”
“To make their jobs easier,” Eli says.
“Quite so. Some tkkan began to blame the mortals for the asàkku that tormented them. They taught that the asàkku were manifestations of man’s corrupted nature, and that only by following the puritan edicts of the tkkan could the world be saved. Over time, as the asàkku failed to abate, the rulings grew stricter and the punishments for failing to adhere to them more brutal. Where they had once been wise men and seeresses, the tkkan had become god-tyrants. Ruling men rather than guiding.
“In the end, a group of mortals came together with the intent of overthrowing the empire of the xyl’tkkan. But they did not do so with war, or with violence. Instead, they laid a powerful curse, the Ssía’yo Xìng”—more musical vowels dropping to an an almost-growl at the end—”or Curse of Blood. With the Curse, the tkkan could no longer sire children amongst themselves. Instead, they would be forced to take consorts from among the mortals. Worse, some of their children would be mortals, and there would be no way to tell which progeny would Hatch and which would not until they had reached adulthood.
“As a result of the Curse, the great empires of tkkan slowly crumbled; first by intermarriage with the mortals they had once held themselves apart from, then by mortal children of tkkan blood ascending to the thrones and places of power of their parents. As ages passed, the lines of the tkkan became scattered, with Hatchlings awakening in lineages that had not seen a tkkan ancestor in a thousand years.”
“Like me, you mean,” Eli says.
“Like many,” Widow Adeline says. “But the crumbling of the great tkkan empires had another consequence. Mortal memory can be long, for all mortal lives are not. Even as the tkkan scattered, many amongst the mortals remembered their tyranny. Orders of mortals banded together, swearing to hunt down any tkkan still living.”
“Indeed. It’s a dangerous legacy you’re inheriting, my dear. Your allies are scattered and your enemies are many. To survive, you must have cunning and wisdom, as well as strength.”
Eli thinks about this for a moment. It sits hot and heavy in his mind, a giant lead boulder of history and responsibility. One he didn’t ask for and isn’t sure he wants. He looks down at his claws; the thick, purple-black scutes and iridescent talons. As big as a human’s torso. Big hands for a big responsibility.
“I liked the part where I could breath acid, better,” he admits.
Of all things, Widow Adeline just laughs.