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Author: Jon Buck

In my father's presence, I was just a frustrated young man. I rocked back and forth from foot to foot, barely keeping in my agitation. When father came to the point he was trying to make, I just couldn't hold it anymore. "But father! I don't even know this girl, why must I be married to her?" he asked.

"Orin, we've been over this a dozen times. You're marrying her because her father is one of the greatest Dukes in the Realm! By allying myself with him through marrying you to his daughter I can gain access to his more valuable lands! So you will marry that girl and like her!"

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, father. I am ever the obedient son." With that I stormed (but not appearing to) out of the Great Room. Muttering under my breath I soon realized that the route he'd chosen was towards the chapel, and not the more direct one to his room.

Add to that that few have ever torn a section down, just added on, and the result is a labyrinth of rooms, most of which are almost impossible to get to. Such was my room in the southeast wing.

I paused in the Chapel to watch the craftsmen work to install the new stained glass windows my father insisted on having. They were dreadfully expensive, but knowing my father if the neighboring Duke had a two-foot square window like that, he'd have to have a four foot-square one.

How do I know how much these thing costs? My father can't read (few nobles can in this earldom, really) so I'm the one who actually signs his name and handles the books. Father Levy says I have a mind for such things. And I can't but agree. The thing is, unlike my three brothers I have no gift for the sword or the bow. I'm also the youngest, about nineteen, which means I'll not inherit anything greater than a piece of ground larger than a yard square. So I guess it's understandable that I tend to bury my nose in a book whenever I can (even though my father can't read, Duke Rendic down the river has a good sized library... so of course my father has to have a bigger one).

"Hello Orin!" said Charles, one of the glassmakers. That's all he said to me (all he could say, really) as he and two others were carefully lifting the family crest (a stag on a blue background) into place in the center of that huge Rose Window just behind the alter (Father Levy was livid when he found out about the stag... but my father is Lord here so there's really nothing he can do about it). I stopped to admire the detail for a moment. I swear I could see the pupils in the eyes of that animal! Amazing. The window itself was only half finished, so it would be a while yet before services could be held here again.

I grabbed a candle from one of the sconces, and resigned myself to a half hour of weaving through the many corridors to my room. There was a shorter, more direct way to get there, but the direction I'd stormed out gave me only one option. I stepped as carefully as I could in order to avoid kicking up too much dust, my candle flickering in the darkness, illuminating the doors of long unused rooms that no one has been inside in a hundred years. Eventually coming into the light of the slit windows near my room.

I'd actually volunteered to have this room. It's the closest to the Library that I could find, even though it means I get wet when it rains running across the Courtyard when it's mealtime. I went to the library first to pick up one of the smaller tomes for study. "You must know your arithmetic," Father Levy would tell me. "Since you have no skill with weapons your mind is all the more important." I agreed with him somewhat, but he seemed to think study means that I am to do it every waking moment. Not likely.

I lit all the candles I could in my room, stirred up the fire, and settled myself in my big moth-eaten chair. I usually do that after something like an argument occurs. I tend to forget little things like time also, which is why I was rather surprised to hear the dinner bell ring several times. It was only just after lunch when after I left the Great Room. "Damn!" I said, and sprinted to dinner.

Dinner that night was decidedly boring. Try having a conversation with three muscle-bound brutes that are my brothers and you can forget discussing the Great Works of the Age and ages past. The only thing those metalheads knew was arrows, daggers and broadswords. Not my thing at all. Add to that that they still make me sit at the servants' table even after becoming a man at eighteen... (one can only listen to so much talk about how the bread turned out, and rumors of what one of the one of the maids did with one of the stablehands.) And I'm pretty much known for my silence.

Father Levy of course gave thanks to the Nameless One (the God of most of the locals, including us) and all the Others before the meal, stringing things out another half hour before the serving can start. We're not a big household so it only took an hour or so to eat. But the extra time was an agony for me because I usually spend at least an hour after dinner exploring the labyrinth of corridors.

Tonight looked like an especially good night for it. Clear, but not too cold. I did not have to bundle up too much, I just hoped my string would hold out for the whole hour. I'd only barely begun to explore those rooms and hallways. But I was slowly building a map of the whole place. This night I was to explore the area around the South Tower.

My father always tells me, "never go there, it's dangerous." But he's never told me exactly what the danger is. The South Tower itself is only left standing (I think) because it's the tallest Tower in the area. Which is in character with my father. But something didn't seem quite right about that for some reason. Which only doubled my curiosity.

I started with my trusty candle (with a firestarter and a spare candle for safety) at a spot that I knew. I then tied the string to a doorknob and off I went into the darkness.

I was immediately lost of course. Only my string could lead me back to my room, which is why I try to use the strongest thread possible, stolen from the nanny's knitting case. My mother (the One bless her soul) owned that case. Which actually made me a bit reluctant to steal things out of it, but no person can be a saint, really.

After about a an hour or so of exploring I came to what had to be the base of the Tower. The corridor suddenly opened up into archways along the left side, and revealed the base of the structure in the moonlight. It is said that the Tower itself was here even before the castle itself was, almost five hundred years ago. It certainly looked like it.

The base was huge, maybe a few hundred feet in diameter. The entrance was two huge oaken doors, surely once ornately carved, but now worn down and rotting a little. Around the base were all sorts of little plants that looked sort of familiar. I really couldn't place the species, though. The full grown plant looked rather short, maybe knee height, with small heart-shaped leaves, woody stems, and rather long thorns all over. Curious. I looked down at my string, and it was almost gone. "Well," I said aloud, "It's not far. I think I can at least look inside those doors to see what it looks like."

I took out a small glass chimney from my pack and put it over my candle to protect it, put the reel on the string down in an obvious place, and stepped across the archways into the small area. For a moment when I crossed the boundary, I felt a strange feeling. It was almost like the barrier between water and air, a small tickle that crossed my skin. I attributed it to the growing cold, of course. I would have laughed, but the eerie light that seemed to reflect on those plants. They seemed to give off more light than they reflected. Which was of course illogical, so I dismissed it.

The doors were surprisingly easy to open. My candle illuminated a space that was covered with dust, softening the contours of everything. In the light of my single candle I saw furniture long rotted away, huge pillars which surely bore much of the weight of the structure (since it was pretty much hollow inside), large chandeliers with old candles still in place, and a stone staircase that wound around the outside wall. "Well, this is enough for tonight," I said aloud. "I can do more later."

But I found a minor problem when I went back to pick up my string (crossing over that strange boundary again). It was gone!

I looked around frantically for it. To make it more visible, I'd lit my spare candle and stuck it right next to the string. It was gone too. But the mystery of what happened did not take long to solve itself. I heard the voice of Marcum, my next oldest brother yell, "let's see you find you way out of that, Bookworm!" It echoed in the corridors, "-worm! -rm! -rm! -rm!-" There was no way I could tell which way he'd gone.

"Damn you!" I yelled back. My voice repeated itself as well. I sighed once, deeply. There was really no use for me to get even more lost by exploring those tangles of rooms. The Tower just behind me was my only real option. So I turned back to it.

Just before I turned around I heard a scraping noise, and an uncanny feeling that I was being watched... Not a pleasant feeling, I might add. It never is. I came to the conclusion that my other brothers (the thick-witted idiots) must have gotten a hold of one of those Mage-made stealth powders in the Armory. The only way they could even try to sneak around like that, and one of the less common Mage items available through the Warrior's Guild, to which my father belongs.

I saw signs of someone having been in the area in front of the doors, the strange plants looked like they'd been disturbed just a bit, a few leaves picked off here and there. Funny.

The doors opened just as easily as before, and I went inside. Again I felt like I was being watched, but surely it was just my brothers... "Welcome." I heard a voice say.

"Hello? Is somebody there?" The sudden female voice had nearly scared me out of my shoes!

"Indeed there is," the voice continued. Then, I saw a light coming down the stairs. And in the light, a figure. A shapely female figure in a long robe and cowl. "Welcome to my home, my boy. You are surely tired. Please, come with me and I'll give you something to warm your belly."

I was way too shocked to resist, really. (Dead tired, too) So I followed her up the stairs, very mystified by this strange woman, but my curiosity level had jumped. Her cloak was large, and she perhaps looked a bit deformed by the small hunch that the cloak seemed to cover. The back of the cloak seemed supported by something... but that was silly of course. The candle light must be playing tricks, I thought.

Up, up, up we went. I dared not look down, it was a long drop. Eventually, we came to what had to be the top of the tower. The stairs came up through a stone floor, supported by an interesting series of pointed arches underneath. What was above the opening took my breath away.

Hundreds and hundreds of plants. Foliage of every kind, most of which I did not know the names of, though I did see a lot of those strange plants I'd noted at the base. There was more light up here, but it wasn't made by candles. "Magic." I said aloud on amazement.

"Yes, my boy. Magic. Not quite as common as it used to be, but still very much alive. Now, sit down. I'll get you some tea." The strange woman said. She pointed to a comfy looking chair, and I sat down gratefully.

She came back carrying a steaming pot of water, two mugs, and a few teabags. "If I may ask," I said while she was pouring. "Who are you, and why are you here? Father said that no one lived here."

"Well, your father is... mistaken." She said a bit hesitantly, putting in the tea bags to steep. "Why I'm here is a long story. And I think you're too tired to hear it at the moment. But won't you have some tea first before I put you to bed?" She was very insistent. I dipped out the tea bag and took a sip.

"This is wonderful," I said. "Where did you find this?" She had a kind, wonderful face. She looked about middle age, yet had an agelessness about her features that was interesting. Her eyes also seemed to glow slightly yellowish in the dim light. I must be really tired, I thought.

"That is my little secret. Now drink, there's more where that came from."

I must have had five cups! But this tea, unlike others I've had, seemed to make me even more tired, rather than waking me up. I yawned hugely. "You're tired. It's almost midnight, perhaps you should sleep." She said.

"You know, Madam, that's not a bad idea," I replied, yawing again. She was surely a strange woman, but she seemed sincere. She also seemed oddly familiar, but... no. Impossible. I'd never seen her before. Though for some reason I just knew she meant me no harm. I was dizzy with fatigue as she helped me up, and onto a mattress on the floor underneath some kind of potted tree.

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I awoke an unknown amount of time later feeling quite bad. It was still dark outside, I could tell by looking out the window just visible a few yards away. It felt like the worst heartburn I'd ever had! I wheezed a few times in pain, clutching my burning stomach. I heard a noise, "Madam! Are you there?" I said aloud. No answer.

"Madam!" Wherever the strange woman was, she was not around to hear me. Though I did hear some kind of noise. Almost like breathing, but it did not sound like a person. I got up, feeling quite dizzy and my vision swirling around like a whirlpool. I really had no idea why I was doing what I was doing, but stumbled towards the strange sound.

The interior of this top room was divided into sections, I staggered towards the center, through a veritable jungle of foliage. I rounded a corner and saw... and saw... "DRAGON!!" I screamed.

It was large, maybe twenty five feet from tip of snout to end of tail. It was a solid silvery white, and seemed to glow a little. The head, pointed and triangular, with two long, smooth horns extending from the back of its skull, and several smaller ones spiking out from the backward curve of the jaw. The tail had a triangular fork on the end, and several serrated triangular ridges ran along the back. The leathery wings were folded against the sides along the ridges, relaxed but out of the way. But it was asleep, and did not appear to notice me.

I resolved to leave (though how I was going to get down the stairs in my dizzy condition escaped me), but my curiosity got the better of me. I carefully, even though my stomach was still roiling, reached out and touched the dragon on the snout... POP. The dragon awoke.

But not before the force of the shock had blasted me back against... against a dark cloak hanging on the wall. The woman's cloak. The dragon must have eaten her! I thought. Then I saw the dragon open its eyes. Its yellow, glowing, slit-pupiled eyes. My dizziness had mostly disappeared for some reason, but my heartburn was no better. Worse, really. I was burning up inside! And frozen in fear.

The dragon lifted its triangular head and looked at me for a moment, seemingly both surprised by my presence, pleased, and apologetic at the same time. My only thought was how strange it was that I could even tell she (she? How did I know it was a she?) was even showing these expressions. A bit of mirth even crossed her features for a moment. Then a deep, but eerily familiar feminine voice said, between scaly lips "I'll give you a head start." So I ran.

I ran for where I'd seen the entrance to the stairs, but there was nothing there. Only cold stone. I heard the dragon stir a moment later, true to her word. I instead stumbled towards the large openings that led to the balcony that encircled the top of the Tower.

My sweaty clothes started to become uncomfortable. I pulled at my suddenly tighter shirt, then my vision seemed to change. I started seeing strange halos of light around all sorts of things, the plants mostly. I must be dreaming, I thought. Yes, that's it. It must be a dream! There must have been something in that tea! Then the dragon appeared out of the round, plant-filled and glowing room. She was glowing too, a steady, silver light surrounded her.

"Humans," she said, somewhat exasperated, rolling her eyes. "What am I to do with you?" She seemed to think a while, drumming one foreclaw in thought.

I backed against the edge, brushing against a pot that had one of those odd plants I'd seen at the base and in the Tower. One of the thorns pricked me on the right arm, just above the elbow. "Ouch!" I said. Then I looked back.

It must have been a hundred-fifty feet down! Then I looked back at the dragon. Her breathing was the sound I'd heard earlier, almost horse-like in it's tone... then I thought of the cloak on the wall. "You ate her didn't you!" I yelled. My arm started to throb.

"Yes," she said simply, looking at her large, long claws. "And a tasty morsel she was, too. I'm just going to wait another minute before I gobble you up. You'd make a nice little midnight snack."

"I'll throw myself over the edge first!" The throbbing grew, and in time with the pulsing of my heart. My skin started to itch all over.

"If you did I couldn't eat you then. Humans are best eaten while still alive. So which will it be?"

I looked over the edge once more, and back at the dragon, who was idly looking at its finger claws, and scraping them on the stones of the balcony. Seemingly sharpening them. Then the throbbing stopped, and I looked at my hand.

Well, this is certainly a dream I'll remember, I thought. The skin on my right arm appeared to have a blue tint to it, and my fingernails seemed to be growing longer and sharper. My whole hand was larger, too. My shirt ripped suddenly and putting my other hand in front of my swollen-feeling face my breath felt scalding hot, though it did not burn my hand. There was a strange twinge from the base of my spine, my pants ripped... but I did not have time to enjoy the weird sensations. The dragon chose that time to leap.

I threw myself over the edge, jumping forward. "You'll never eat me now!" I yelled back in a seemingly roaring voice. The drop seemed to last forever, I'd jumped over the side that faced the Great Plain towards the river. The last image I saw before I blacked out was not the single blade of grass that I expected, but the ground rushing by at an incredible rate of speed!

I heard the dragon cry out in triumph...

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"Orin! Wake up boy! You fell asleep on the Library roof again!"

My father's voice and him shaking me awoke me from my... dream? Yes, of course it was a dream. "What father what?!" I said. Not like I hadn't done it before.

"Damn it, boy you know Father Levy doesn't like you taking books outside! Which one is it this time?" My father could not tell, of course. The book was resting upon my chest, I picked it up and looked at the cover.

"Um... Dragons and Their Kin." I said. Which sort of made the dream I sort of remembered from last night make a little bit of sense. I mean, a dragon in the South Tower? Impossible! Nobody lived there! The thing was... I didn't remember returning from my explorations to the library, nor did I remember climbing the ladder to the Library roof. Then again... when I get into a book I get into a book. Ack! It was a dream, I'm sure of it.

My father had returned to the roof access door, and was descending the ladder. "Get down here boy and read me some figures! While you were dozing up here all cozy last night Raiders sacked one of the outlying villages! I need you to tell me if we have the money to hire more Guardsmen."

I sighed. "Yes sir," and picked myself up and carefully descended the tall ladder. I carefully put the book (wonderful illustrations in that one, mage-made, they say.) back on the shelf. It was one of my favorite books after all, and I'd had one or two dreams like that before. Though that one seemed especially vivid...

My father opened the correct tome (out of habit), and I looked at where I'd written in what was in the coffers. It didn't look good. "Father, I'm sorry I have to say this, but with the windows, the new chimneys and fireplaces, the wedding, and the new waterwheel down at the river there just isn't that much left." Not to mention the normal operating costs.

"What? You're kidding, boy! I know there's more than that! Your figures are wrong!"

"Father, you know me. I wouldn't lie about something like this. We're going to have to cut something. You know what I think needs snipping."

"Forget it, boy. The wedding is in three weeks and the arrangements are too far along as it is. The Rose Window will have to be finished, too. And your fiancee's father just had fireplaces installed in his place. And you know how I feel about things like that."

"Yes father, I know all too well." I sighed. "We'll have to cut the waterwheel, I suppose. I just wish the well hadn't dried up last year. Digging it deeper would have cost double the entire waterwheel." That was because the well was already so deep it would require a mage to dig it deeper. And mages cost. "I'll organize some servants to start carrying buckets from the river."

"You do that," my father said. "But get some breakfast first. And make sure it's something hot, too. You look a little blue in the face."

"Thanks." One of my father's few redeeming virtues is that he believed that no one should start a full day of work without a good meal. I went down to the Great Room and sat at the servants' table like I always did, and tried to ignore the gossip. But one thing caught my ear...

"Did you see it last night?" said one.

"See what? I was sleeping, I don't know what you were doing."

"I've got sentry duty, idiot. And last night I swear I saw a dragon!"

"Naw. Impossible."

"No, it's not impossible! I spoke to one of the locals who came in this morning about it, he saw it too. He told me, 'it's good to see again. I've not seen one in twenty years!' or something like that."

At that point I stopped listening and started thinking. Though I had seen one or two in my life, in other parts of the Realm. They simply were not all that common around here. Along with unicorns, pegasi, and griffins, dragons were among the most rare of the magical beasts in the Realm. But, I reasoned, from my spot on the roof I may have seen the dragon, and it had appeared in my dream somehow. Yes, that was it. "Well, I'm glad I put that at rest," I said aloud.

"Orin! Quit breathing on me! Your breath is hot!"

"Oops, sorry." Taking the clue, I got up and went to the library for study. But not before my morning ride.

"Good mornin', Orin," said Goth, our Man-at-arms.

"Same to you. Is Misty ready for me?" I said cheerfully.

"As always. Go right in."

Misty was my favorite mare. Docile, yet smart and with a spring in her hooves for when I want to go fast. I usually took her on a once-around of the area, just to Nighthaven and back, for my exercise. But when I approached her she seemed nervous for some reason. She, along with the other horses (except one stallion) would shy away from me, nickering, when I approached.

I grabbed my tack and opened the gate, then I noticed I could see the whites in her eyes. "What's wrong, girl?" I said softly. She moved into the back of the stall, ears back. "Come on, I'm not going to bite." She still moved away.

"What's with her this morning?" I said to Goth. Goth was a bit rough around the edges, but a nice guy compared to my brothers.

"Ida know, mate. But methinks you'd better back out real slow like. She looks about to hit you or somthin'."

I looked at her again, she'd even started to show her teeth. "You know, I think you're right. I guess I have some studying to do anyway. I guess I'll have to try again tomorrow." I was a little disappointed that I'd not be able to take my normal ride, but oh well. But as I walked out I noticed that the other horses were acting in the same way (except that one stallion...). Afraid.

I sighed once and headed for the Library.

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A knock on my door awoke me from my room two days later. Not like I was sleeping anyway, I'd had strange dreams both nights. I opened the door. "What's going on?" I said tiredly.

"What's going on Bookworm?" said Brennan, my oldest brother. "Marcum and Goth went out on night patrol, and they were nearly killed by Raiders who were attacking your servants who were bringing water from the river! We chased them off, but..."

I bolted out of bed, and grabbed my robe. "Take me to them!" I yelled at Brennan. Perhaps with a bit more force than I'd intended, because he gave me a shocked look and we raced for the infirmary. Strange, he'd never given me a look like that before.

Marcum was unconscious with a bump on the head, but Goth wasn't. Though when I asked Nanny about his condition, she just shook her head.

They'd gotten him in the stomach, too near the heart. I swallowed my gorge and walked over to him when he asked for me. "If only we had one more!" he said through the fog of pain killers. "One more, and we could have prevented it!" He died later that night, but I left the room with his blood on my hands. Three servants had also died. There was no real reason for the attack than to be cruel, which put on another cord of guilt.

I felt quite useless. Sure, I could read and only a few others in the house could. But I was doing nothing that was really important otherwise! I had way too much free time. Marcum had amnesia, we were all saddened by his loss of memory. Which made me feel even more guilty. I lay in bed that night, too upset to even cry, and I prayed to the One, "please, if there's any way I can help, please tell me." And I fell into a fitful slumber.

Come on, Orin. Get up. I heard a kind voice say, though somehow not with my ears. I did awaken, but part of me still slept. It was a very strange feeling. We don't have all night, now. Get up, boy.

Yes ma'am, I thought back somehow at the motherly voice. My body was not my own anyway, like a golem under someone else's control I threw off the covers and put on some warmer clothes. The odd half-asleep feeling continued as I walked unerringly for the South Tower.

I entered it, and ascended the stairs. At the top, the cloaked woman met me. "I'm sorry I had to bring you here this way, but after what happened a few nights ago, and today, it's the only way."

"I understand," I said dazedly. Not really knowing what to make of the whole thing. But the doubting part of me seemed asleep at the moment, so I did not think to question what was happening. "But why am I here?" Except for that one question, though I asked it out of curiosity more than anything.

"Don't you remember? You asked if there was a way that you could help. There is one, but in actuality you've always had the potential. I merely brought it out."

"Potential for what? What have you done?" I was very mystified.

"You will see, and learn. If you are willing. Though you really have no choice anymore, I'm afraid."

My curiosity grew to record heights. "So it wasn't a dream after all?"

"No. It wasn't. I am here, aren't I?"

"Yes, you are. But in my dream you were..."

"Things are not always as they seem. Are you willing?"

It only took a moment, and I realized just who (and what) I was talking to. "Yes, I surly am. But if I may ask, before you and I do whatever we are going to do, can I have some of that wonderful tea first? What kind of tea is it, anyway?"

"Yes you may. And it's Dragonbane tea, of course."

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I slowly sat up. "That's the third night in a row!" I said aloud. The third night out of four that I'd woken up seemingly more tired than when I'd gone to sleep. But unfortunately it was the rule for the past fortnight.

I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going to wake up rested again. Add to that more strange dreams that I could never remember, and frustration was also the rule. I also had a persistent itching underneath my right arm, it looked like I'd pricked myself on something. The skin around the prick had a slight blue discoloration. But it was minor, so I just put a bandage around it and forgot about it.

There were still persistent dragon rumors running around at mealtimes. And for some reason none of my normal horses would take me, and I'd gotten father to allow me to ride his prized stallion, Star, on the excuse that he needed a bit more exercise than the type he normally got anyway. That stallion was the only horse that wasn't afraid of me for some reason.

Goth's funeral had been hard on all of us. If anything, the attacks had even been stepped up. Father thought the Raiders were sent by another Lord who was jealous of his stuff, and perhaps to disrupt the wedding. My future wife's father had insisted (whoever he is) on more Guardsmen, so father was forced to take a loan from Duke Rendic in order to pay for them (and without Goth or Marcum to filter out the applicants, none of us knew what we were getting). That irked my father no end. No matter what I did, I couldn't convince him to postpone the wedding, or at least go for Crown help.

I continued my explorations of the house, (focusing on the northern parts) but eventually I ran out of string. So I went to Nanny's room to take some more from my mother's knitting case. But it wasn't there! "Nanny!" I yelled. She came in a moment later.

"What is it, Orin? I was about to take my afternoon nap," she said in her gentle voice.

"Where is my mother's knitting case? The one with the carved wooden dragon for a handle?"

She was taken aback for a moment, clearly not expecting a question like that. "Well... I... It disappeared about two weeks ago. Can you imagine? Someone stole it right out from under me!"

"Stole it? I can't believe it!"

"Neither could I. But I don't understand why you're so upset. You never knew your mother, she was gone before you were born. Disappeared, actually."

"Disappeared? Not dead? Nanny, you're hiding something. This isn't like you. What is it?"

She broke, she had such a gentle heart. "I... I... I never could lie to you, could I? Look, I gave my word, and I love her too much to break it. It wasn't stolen. All I can say is she asked for it and I could not refuse her. I'd not seen her in so long... I've said too much already. This is for you to figure out. Now go, and don't bother me again about this, please." Her kind face was pleading.

"Okay, because I love you, I won't. But I hate mysteries." And I was dead tired, so I grabbed something from the kitchen and decided to take a nap. I'd done all I was required to do anyway. So I munched on a bit of sausage and went to bed.

It turned out to be a harder thing to take a nap in the afternoon. I tossed and I turned. Just couldn't find a comfortable position. On top of that my stomach was bothering me again. I did eventually fall into a doze, though. A doze that I welcomed gratefully.

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My stomach burned, which awoke me. I turned on my side, got a bit of gas, and let out a belch that burned my throat, though the pain completely disappeared after a moment. Then I smelled something right under my nostrils. It did not smell like a blown out candle. I got up groggily, feeling very strange all over, and opened the curtain.

Then I saw it, right next to where my mouth was the sheet was singed and blackened. "What the hell?" I said quietly, putting my hand in front of my face. "Ouch!" my breath burned me!

Then I felt something soft rub me against my back and neck. I reached back, and I found a pillow. A pillow stuck on something. Something long and sharp... I cautiously removed the pillow, and carefully felt the back of my skull. "By. The. ONE!" I almost yelled. If what I was feeling was actually there I did not want anyone to come running, instead I went to the mirror.

There were two horns, about a foot long each, extending out the back of my skull. Not only that, but my ears were somewhat fin-like in shape, with several smaller rays between two long ones top and bottom, but still vaguely human-shaped, with a bit of blue fur directly in front of them. I also had a short, pointed snout; my eyes were yellow and had slit pupils, and my skin had a bluish tint to it. "No, no, this can't be happening. No, not a chance, no WAY!" I said, desperate.

As if to mock me, the horns grew larger, the room smaller, and... things happened to the rest of me. I could see the snout grow longer both right in front of me and in the mirror. My skin changed to bright sky blue, covered in scales. My hands, clawed. My neck lengthened. I ripped out of my night clothes, revealing wide belly scales that were a yellowish orange. My spine cracked a bit, and I felt a tail behind me, and wings that I did not even know were there made themselves known.

I was compressed against the ceiling, my long neck easily allowing me to look in the mirror; and for brief moments I beheld a blue horned dragon that looked quite handsome to me. Not everyday one sees a dragon up close, after all. Books don't quite make the cut, either. Until I remembered that I was looking at me.

I started to hyperventilate. "Oh god, oh god, OH GOD!" I said, my voice sounding hardly different, if deeper. "Okay," puff "Okay, take a deep..." puff "...breath and calm down. Calm down, calm down. So what if you're big and blue and look like you can bite the heads off of cows! Just take a deep breath and calm down.."

I inhaled slowly through my wide, flaring nostrils. And I felt a strange force building in my belly. Just before I let the breath out I remembered, too late. Aren't most dragons... A blast of flame escaped my lips, incinerating the wooden frame of the mirror, and setting the desk afire. I couldn't control it! I was going to burn the whole house down! I finally finished letting the breath out, exhausted. But then there was a pounding on the door.

"Orin! Open up! I smell smoke!" Yelled my father.

"I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine! Just leave me alone!" I rumbled, a little desperate, trying to convince myself as well as my father. Then the door burst open, I'd taken another deep breath, unable to control the action. My father entered, and I looked, astonished and off guard, in his direction just as I exhaled...

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What had followed jolted me awake. The images of the nightmare still fresh in my mind. I was only asleep a half hour. "Oh God..." I looked at my hands, my normal, human hands. "Thank the One it was only a dream!" Then I sniffed once, and looked at the sheet next to me.

It was singed, just like in my dream. Not only that, but there were two holes in both my pillow and the mattress. "It was a dream, wasn't it?" Then, I remembered with a clarity I did not think was possible.

I didn't fall asleep on the library roof.

"The woman! The woman in the Tower! She did something to me!" Just what I did not want to think about. I checked my arms again for blue scales, stopping briefly on the would under my right arm, then I got dressed and headed for Nanny's first.

"You know something!" I said to her, just a bit strongly. "What is it?"

"I'm sorry Orin. I... I..."

"Spit it out!"

"I can only tell you this. You know how there is only six months between you and Marcum? You were not born early."

"If I wasn't born early, than what was I?"

But she did not hear me. "You know that you only vaguely resemble your father, and look like none of your brothers. But you weren't born, Orin. You were hatched."

That stopped me short. "What?"

"I'm sorry, I can't say it again. You know where to find the answers. I really suggest you go find them." And she turned and walked out, leaving me with my mouth agape.

I knew where I had to go. My answers could only be found in one place.

I discovered almost immediately that I knew how to get there, and I had a few suspicions about what was going on the past fortnight. I quickly but carefully ran up the stairs, and through the opening into the plant-filled upper rooms. The cloaked woman was waiting for me. "I suppose 'I'm sorry' wouldn't be enough, would it?" she said.

I was a bit surprised that she actually existed, but I recovered quickly. "Who are you?! And what have you done to me?!!"

"Good questions, both. As for who I am, you know. You've known for a long, long time. But perhaps you need to see something first. Come on, I have many things to explain, and I'd rather do it over a cup of tea." She walked towards the center room where I was suddenly remembering what was in it all those nights ago. So I followed, though reluctantly.

I was half sure I'd see the dragon sleeping there when she walked in, but that proved untrue. But there was a feel to the room that I just couldn't place. Things were not as they seemed. And then, alongside a strangely shaped chair, I saw it. "Where did you get that?!" I yelled. It was my mother's knitting case.

She smiled briefly. "I was ever fond of this case. Your father carved it especially for me."

"My father? You can't be... can't... Oh God." She was my mother, and I knew it. Though how I knew exactly was beyond me. My next question was understandable, considering the circumstances. "Why haven't you been around for twenty years?!" I yelled.

"Another good question. I couldn't leave this Tower until two weeks ago. I have you to thank for that, by the way. What happened all those years ago is a long story, and I don't suppose you'd want to hear it right now. Suffice to say that only one such as you could have freed me, and you have." The hump on her back seemed to twitch.

I stood there, dumbfounded. She got a look of brief discomfort on her face, and looked at me. "I'm sorry, my son. You may not like what you are about to see and hear. But first I need to stretch a bit." Then she took off her cloak, and I saw them.

Two white dragon wings unfolding from her back, not very large, vestigial, but definitely there. Not only that, but I could not make out a tail that had a series of small triangular ridges along the top, it was very short, perhaps a couple feet long. But it moved and it was undeniably there.

I backed against the wall. "What are you?" But the tail and wings looked disturbingly familiar, and something in my brain clicked into place. "You can't be that dragon! And if I really am your son that means that I'm..."

"You are not human, Orin. Not fully anyway. I am one half dragon, you are one quarter. Your father is a different man than I knew twenty years ago. Someone has done something to him. Through you, I have been watching him. Those Raider attacks, your wedding, your father's obsessive competitiveness. All of it smells funny to me. And I have an idea about who is responsible."

I did not hear her last statements, I was too much in shock (and shaking) from her first statement. I looked at my hands, shaking. "But I am huuuman," I said in complete disbelief. "See? I've g-got skin, and hands, and a n-nose, and..." But deep, deep down I knew she was telling the truth. Though I denied it with all my heart.

"Appearances can be deceiving." She said, smirking a little. "But I really must apologize, Orin. I... I... A fortnight ago, when you first appeared at my front door, you only had the potential for being what you now are. Now that it has been unlocked, you must be taught."

"Taught? What do you mean 'potential?'"

Her face became sorrowful and apologetic. "I'm sorry. I just had to know if you had the ability. The incident where I was locked to this Tower happened just before you hatched, so I did not know if you could do it. I had to know, I had to! Can you forgive me?"

"Wait a minute. You mean that whatever you did to me might not have happened if you didn't force it on me? What did you do anyway? And what am I?" I was remembering in full my dream last night, the blue dragon in the mirror. Me.

She stepped back, tail twitching. "Why, the same thing I am of course." She closed her eyes, and then she grew, expanded, and changed until crouching before me on all fours was the dragon I'd seen all those nights ago. "A weredragon."

Strangely enough, my only reaction was to laugh. "You know I thought you'd been eaten?" Then I thought a moment. "Hold on... then why did you say that you were?" My curiosity was still getting the better of me.

"It forced you to act in your own defense. If I hadn't given you that tea, and if you hadn't bumped into that thorn, then you might not be what you truly are now. And you do remember what happened now, don't you?"

And I did. I remembered throwing myself off the top of the Tower, afraid she might eat me. But I didn't remember hitting the ground! But what I did recall was... "Oh. My. God," I said, putting my right hand to my forehead. Flying over the ground on dragon wings of my own.

I wanted to deny it, so I did. "Goodbye, I'm going back to my room now. This has been an interesting dream, but I'm afraid I need to be getting back to my body now. Thank you." I turned to leave.

She sat on her haunches, and crossed her foreclaws across her chest. "Think this is a dream, do you? Well, my son. The only way off the top of this Tower is the way I'm going to show you, though in reality you've been doing it for quite some time. I think now that you need to experience it now that you are fully awake." I was about to take a step, but she grabbed me around the shoulders for a moment. I felt a shock, then I started to feel dizzy, and fell forward onto the floor.

I was supporting myself on my hands and knees, the spot on my right arm itched horribly for a moment, then I saw it. The arm was now covered in blue scales.

It spread to my other arm from there, my hands began to grow in size, my fingernails becoming claws as I watched. My clothes became tight and painful until they just disappeared, revealing that the rest of my skin had followed my arms, except my chest and belly, which was a yellowish orange. My neck started to stretch, there was a tingle on my back and I felt a creaking of bones. It was a strange warm feeling all over, almost like I was stretching myself after waking up in the morning. The end of my spine creaked and groaned, and I suddenly felt a tail. Then it reached my head.

There was a sound of cracking cartilage, and with my altered hands I felt my ears change into the pointed fin-like projections that I was now remembering from my nightmare. My face leapt out in front of me, and I felt my forehead flatten. My nose grew into a pointed snout, my teeth into sharp blades, and my tongue forked. My vision swam for a moment, and I was left holding my draconian head in shock and disbelief. "Oh God.."

"I'm sorry, Orin. But as much as you want to deny it, this is what you are. You must learn how to use your powers, or nightmares like the one you had last night might very well come true."

I slowly removed my hands from my head, and with a bit of surprise I found I could put them on the stones in front of me without any discomfort. I was on all fours! Then the impact of one of her earlier words caught up with me. "What do you mean you 'had to know?'" I was torn between examining myself and asking questions. My curiosity was divided between what had happened to my body, and what my mother's motivations were. The second one was winning out, simply because I was still unwilling to accept the blue-scaled hands I saw in front of me.

"Partially it was the Dragonbane tea that you willingly drank. For we dragons, it's one of the most effective liquid fuels to stoke our inner furnaces, which give us dragonfire to begin with. Other foods, like that sausage, have similar effects. But not as strongly as the Dragonbane. But if you think about it a moment you'll realize that I've taught you this already."

She was right, I found. Most nights for the past two weeks I'd gotten out of bed, half asleep, and came up here. Where then my mother had taught me many things, though some of those still seemed blocked for some reason. "Why have you hidden these things from me?"

"Because if I had not they would have interfered with your daily life. Even though you lost sleep, nothing much else has invaded."

I flexed my clawed fingers once or twice and realized that this body, rather than feeling unnatural, felt quite the opposite. I also realized that if I'd decided not to come to the Tower that night I might have lived my entire life not knowing what I really was, nor would it have come up. Without that first sip of Dragonbane tea, my draconian side would never had appeared. I voiced this theory to my mother.

"Of course you're right, and there is where I'm sorry. I did not know that you were truly my son, truly of the Blood. The tea acted as a catalyst for bringing you 'out of your shell' as it were. I'm sorry."

"You... you took away my right to choose, you know that?" I said in a shaking voice, wondering how I could even talk with this mouth. "Now I'm stuck like this forever!" Shapeshifters were among the most rare of all the magical beasts in the Realm. Weredragons... I'd never heard of them before.

She drooped her head in apology. "I'm so, so sorry. Words cannot express how sorry I am. But you have to be taught. There is no question of that."

I thought a moment. I looked back at my wings. My sky blue wings. I took a deep breath and smelled the outdoors. It was then that I first felt the call of the sky, but it only made me feel confused. Then I stopped short of letting the breath out through my mouth, realizing just what might happen. Then a lesson came to me... a week ago my mother had shown me how to use my flame, at least a little. I let the breath out slowly and carefully through my nose. "You're learning." She said.

"But not of my own choice. I guess I can't really be too mad at you. This feels too right for some reason. But can you at least give me a chance to think about this? I am getting married, you know." I hadn't even met my future wife yet. How she would feel about bedding with a dragon was a foregone conclusion.

"You know I'd forgotten? You told me about it last week.." She sighed. "You are new to your powers, and I have enough of my own that there is a possibility that I might be able to lock yours away. So I have not taken away your choice completely. I think I've been a little hard on you these past couple weeks. So I'll do this. I'll let you sleep soundly for the next week, until your wedding. Think about it hard. But there is one thing that I want to show you. It will be a big factor in your choice, I know." She started to move towards the ledge. "Come on, my son! This is one of the joys of what we are!"

I awkwardly followed, unused to walking on all fours, or the wings. I almost stepped on one, in fact. It was then I noticed a couple other things about myself. My neck was incredibly flexible, along my back was a series of bony ridges, not unlike my mother's. Sticking out of the points of my elbows were long, thin white spikes that looked quite sharp, there were others at the ends of the long "finger" bones that supported my wing membranes. I stopped a moment, and carefully felt the back of my head. As I expected, the horns were there, long and sharp. Oh God... this can't be me. But it is.

As much as I wanted to deny it, the horns were there, the teeth were there, and the tail was there. I knocked over one of the potted plants with my tail. "Sorry," I said, dejected. Then I remembered all those sharp things sticking out of me, and I stopped short.

"What's wrong, Orin?"

"I swear I'm going to skewer myself with these elbow spikes.." I said, scarcely believing what I was actually saying.

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about. We heal fast. But follow me onto the ledge, here."

I reluctantly moved forward, conscious of every difference. Everything seemed much smaller, the Tower, the trees below, and the house itself. "Um... mother. Out of curiosity, just how big am I?"

"About thirty five feet from snout to tail. Average size for our particular type. Legend has it that Night Dragons can reach up to a hundred feet! Can you imagine being that large?"

I somehow managed to put a bit of sarcasm into my expression. "Mother, I couldn't imagine being ten feet tall, much less as big as I am now." We were both sitting on the ledge now, and I made the mistake of looking down. WAY down (my eyes seemed very good, I noticed). I must have gaped for a moment, but what I felt was not precisely fear, but a nervousness and anticipation. My body wanted to fly, but my mind was another matter.

"Now is the time, Orin." she said. "This is why I don't want you to make a hasty decision. As a human, there is no way you could ever do this. It is one of the reasons why humans are so jealous of us. But there are many, many disadvantages. Come, enough talk." With that she spread her wings and leapt off the ledge.

It was only a moment or so later when I realized that she wanted me to follow her. I looked down at the hard ground, then at my fragile-looking wings. I even moved one up a down a bit just to see if they did indeed respond to my thoughts. The cool air felt amazing over the membrane, a totally new sensation. "Come on, Orin!" My mother said from about a hundred feet above me. "Spread your wings and fly!"

"Um... just a minute!" A leap of faith. This whole thing seemed much too real to be any kind of dream. I looked at myself once more. My blue scales, my orange/yellow belly, my wings, my tail, the long claws on my fingers and toes. I felt the horns on my head, the ridges on my back, my "ears" and the fur in front of them. My snout, outside with a hand, inside with my forked tongue. And above all, the fire in my belly. A leap of faith, and a memory of flying I was fairly sure was there, but could not recall. She just wanted me to do this without false confidence. I closed my eyes in silent prayer, bunched myself up, spread my wings, and leapt...

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My mother and I alighted on the Library roof, somehow unseen in our approach. I got a bit of gas and belched. This time though I was able to keep it to just a little puff of smoke. "Excuse me," I said.

My mother stifled a burp, too. A bit of smoke trailed up from her nostrils. "It's okay, Orin. Elk always gives me gas, too. Just not the kind of gas we generally use." I have no idea how she did it, but she even seemed to be smiling with her draconian mouth.

The past four hours had shown me that the choice my mother was giving me was really not a choice at all. I'd gone from total fear of flying to behaving as a small child, with the whole sky as my playground. The only that that was only vaguely disturbing was that I'd felt no compunctions about taking a whole, fully-grown elk and eating it, crunching bones and all. "You really enjoyed yourself, didn't you?" My mother said, continuing to grin.

"That is the understatement of the century. How did I ever live without this?" I was feeling slightly giddy, and it must have shown through a little.

"I know just how you feel." But then her face became grim, and she immediately started to shrink, eventually returning to human form, somehow wearing the cloak she seemed to prefer. "But, my son, do not make this decision in haste. The ability to become a dragon at will is not all bright skies and light winds. It is also a responsibility and at times quite, quite trying." Her expression was pained for a moment.

I bent my neck down to look at her in the eyes, and nodded a couple of times in mock agreement. In reality, I'd already made my choice (I remembered making it that first night she'd called me, in fact). What could be better than this? Flying. Freedom. Though for some reason she seemed to want me to really think about it all over again. "I understand, and I'll consider it. As long as I get a good night's sleep for a while, and a supply of that tea, and I'll be just fine. But I have just one question."


"How do I change back?"

A few minutes later I was staring at my all too human hands again as the blue faded into the normal color of human skin. "Not so hard, is it?" I said.

"Not at all. But you'll notice where the Dragonbane thorn pricked you is still somewhat blue and scaly." My mother said.

I felt it a bit, and found that she was right. "Why is that?" I said, curious.

"This is one of the prices we pay for being partially human. For normal dragons, the leaves have the same effect, and the thorns none at all. But it's different for we weredragons. I found out the hard way." She removed her cloak for a moment, then spread her wings, and moved her tail a few times.

"You mean that's as human as you can become? I though you kept those things because you liked them." I said.

She smirked sadly (if that's possible). "No, I'm afraid not. We are different in that the thorns, if eaten or otherwise in either form, will give us enormous, temporary magic powers. But when we return to human form some part of us will stick in some way. These wings and tail are a result of a choice that I made. Because of this, I can no longer move about freely in human society, nor can I hide it with my own magic, which is why I wear the cloak. You are lucky. Because you had never changed before all you got was a patch of blue skin. There is no telling what might happen if you had to use a thorn yourself. I suggest you don't find out."

Her words gave me pause for thought, a drawback that I had not considered. Luckily there wasn't a situation that I could think of that would push me into such an act. "I'll think about it, is there anything else?" I said.

"Just a couple more things. You are new to your abilities, and until I have your choice they won't be blocked. You are free to experiment with anything you please, just keep it quiet, and stay away from certain foods. You don't get dragonfire per se in human form, but you'll get heartburn something awful."

"Yes, I've already figured that out." I said, rubbing my stomach. "And what's the other thing?"

"In order to make things a bit easier on you I will be gone for the next few days. You are welcome to the Tower, just be careful about the plants. I want to see how the world has changed in twenty years. I also want to look for someone..."


"The one who locked me to that Tower. I know he's around... I can feel it. Have a good nights rest this next week, Orin. I'll be back for the wedding. If there is going to be one. There are a lot of nobles who are open minded, but not that open minded. May the One guide your steps. And I'll see you later." With that she changed again and leapt into the sky.

I waved goodbye. She was my mother, and she had shown me a world I'd never known existed. And I loved her for it. I was sure she was exaggerating the problems. They couldn't be all that bad, not after those loops I'd done.

I went down the ladder, and of course no one had even missed me. I grabbed Dragons and Their Kin off the shelf, and went looking for my sometime species. Common Two-horned Dragon The book said. Length: Male: 30-40 feet; Female: 25-32 feet. So mom was at the bottom, and I was in the middle. Colors: blue, green, red, white, black, yellow, gold. Some with orange/yellow belly scales, and inside "ears." Dwellings: prefers ruins of towers, keeps, gatehouses. Disposition: Variable, but not known for their approachability. Noted allies and protectors of those deemed honorable and worthy. Also noted for their sense of honor and duty. 'Warning! Never break your word to this species! Such is punishable by DEATH by their laws!'''

Well, that was interesting. The book went on to describe observed mating behavior (information obtained at great risk to the observer), and a detailed description of the actual egg. Which made me curious, in an embarrassed sort of way. I went to go find Nanny.

I found her, as always, sitting in her rocking chair knitting. She was getting along in years, but she still watches over the children of those who live and work at the castle. There were only three kids in the Playroom at the moment, one of them an elfchild. Nanny has never cared about how a child looks, or what the parents were. Which, I supposed, why I turned out as well as I did. "Hello, Orin." She said in her soft voice. "You're looking especially well today. Enjoy your flight?"

"What? You saw us up there?" I said, shocked.

"Your mother's 'invisibility' spell isn't perfect, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who saw you two. You looked like you were having a wonderful time. But is there something you wanted? It's almost nap time for these little ones."

I clasped my hands behind my back, almost blushing. "Nanny, is there any chance that you... uh... saved it?"

"Saved what?"

"You know... it. The thing that I... Please, you know what I mean. You saved everything from my childhood, so it stands to reason that you'd... um. This is embarrassing enough." But my curiosity was eating me alive!

"I'm sorry, I don't quite know..."

"Please! You know what I'm talking about; I just hardly bear to even think about it! I'm having hard enough time as it is with all this!"

She looked at me quizzically for a moment, and epiphany crossed her face. "Oh! Yes! Yes, I did save it. It's been twenty years, but it's not something one throws away. I'll be right back if you'll watch the little ones." I nodded, and she carefully stood up, and went to THE closet. "I'll be in here a while, if I don't come out in a half hour send in a search party." She smirked, I laughed, and she took a lantern and went inside.

My face must have been bright red, considering what I was hoping she would find. I did not even want to think about it myself. The elfchild walked up to me, smiling. She didn't say anything, but she did walk around me once or twice, squinting. The next thing I knew she was pushing the bandage I still had on my right arm from around the "wound" that I still had. "Stop that, please." I said. But she continued to fool with it.

Just as I was going to turn around to get her to stop, she giggled, and there was an odd popping sound. Then my arm hurt for a moment. "Ouch! What did you..." I gasped. My arm was now a human-sized version of my dragonform's. The elf girl giggled again, and ran off as fast as her little legs could carry her. I was about to go after her, but Nanny reappeared a moment before I could, carrying a rather large box. I was holding my altered arm by the wrist and flexing my suddenly clawed fingers.

"You'll have to excuse Tilda, she has not learned that her powers are NOT a toy!" Nanny said, more directing that last bit at the child, who giggled from her hiding place. Nanny sighed. "Well, this is it. Should I open it?" I nodded slowly, rubbing my blue arm, which Nanny didn't seem to notice.

I was a bit distracted, and I had to be careful that I did not stab myself in the side. But then she opened the box, and I saw it.

It seemed to be in about two dozen pieces, most of which were pretty small, with one or two larger pieces. The shell was a faded sky blue on the outside (I was sure it would match my dragonform's color if it were new), dull white on the inner. With a shaking hand, I reached in with my left and took a piece out. "So this is it? My... um... egg?" It was incredibly hard just to say the word "egg."

"Yes. Your mother and father were so in love with each other. Your father has never been racist. Having a weredragon as a lover was his dream come true. He treated her like an equal. But they were afraid they could never have children. So your mother allowed him to have children by another, which is where your brothers come from. And why you look nothing like them. They know nothing of your true origin, by the way."

"I'll say..." I said, looking at my altered arm. "When did I, um, come along?"

"Six months after Marcum was born your mother announced she was with child. But she surprised us all only a week later by laying you, while she was in dragonform of course, right in the nursery. You got the best spots in front of the fire in a bed of sand for about ten months. Then the day came..." Her looked became distant, remembering.

Something was bothering me. "Out of curiosity, how did I... did I. You know." I blushed again. "I mean, chicks have a beak and an egg tooth. I doubt this human nose would have done me any good."

She smirked. "You hatched just after the incident where your mother 'disappeared.' No one could even approach the Tower or communicate with her. But you hatched out a dragon cub, Orin. Complete with snout, wings, ridges, and tail. Though less than a minute after you broke shell you became fully human. We were lucky one of the others in the castle here had had a child a few days before so you could be nursed. You know the rest from there, and I'm sorry I had to keep this secret. But I did not think you needed to know about it until the time was right."

I could see her point. Telling a five year old that he was really a dragon would not have been a good thing... Especially with my imagination. "What about father? Why didn't he tell me anything?"

"I don't know. I have theories, and most involve the Incident in question. Unfortunately I was gone at the time, and by the time I returned from my trip whatever happened had wrung itself out, and your father became the shallow fool he is now. Tilda! Stop that, it's sharp!" At her abrupt words, I looked back. The elf girl was carefully feeling the tip of my elbow spike. I carefully took it away from her hand.

The cute pointed-eared girl looked at me for a moment, looking as sorry as she could. She rubbed me a bit on my altered arm and said "blue's my favorite color." As if that would make it all better.

"Thank you, you're forgiven. Now go take your nap like a good little girl." She smiled, picked up her favorite stuffed toy (to my surprise, a blue dragon!) and lay down on a mattress next to the other kids.

"Can you change that arm back?" Nanny asked.

I concentrated on it, but found I couldn't. It would only ache a bit. "Nope. I hope it's only temporary..."

"Oh, it is. Tilda's spells only last a couple hours at most. She's only seven, after all."

I looked a the egg shards again, and carefully picked up one of the smaller, but more perfect bits. I had an idea. I had a bit of silver in my own savings, and there was a jeweler in town that would seal any small object in clearset and make a necklace out of it. But it would be dark in a couple hours, so if I wanted to do it today I was going to have to do it now. I was going to have to hide this arm anyway. And I was always a bit impatient once I got an idea in my head. "Nanny, is there a large-sleeved cloak around here anywhere?"

Ten minutes later I was in the stable, carrying my right arm like I'd hurt it. No one could see it as it wasn't even in the sleeve. I'd had a hell of a time just trying to keep from puncturing the cloak's thick material with that spike. And then I'd stepped into the stable. The horses went nuts.

The stablemaster stared at me a moment. Only Star (named for a perfect four-point star on his muzzle) still seemed unafraid. He was almost waiting expectantly, in fact. "Orin, you go outside and I'll bring Star out to you. I think they're a bit spooked from that pair of dragons I saw aloft today. Funny, but they've been acting kinda weird around you for a while now. What happened to your arm?" He said.

"Oh, nothing much. It's a bit chilly and I want to warm it up a little. I'll wait outside." A few minutes later he brought Star out, tacked and saddled up, too. "Thanks," I said. He gave me a funny look and went back in to calm the horses.

Star was an interesting animal. Overall chestnut in color, except for that star on his forehead. Considering that I finally knew what I was, I was very surprised that he did not just run away (and that I wasn't thinking of him as dinner). I stood in front of him and looked him in the eye. "There's something really funny about you. I can't put my finger on it, but you're a very strange horse."

Of course he just stood there, looking completely bored with his life, as horses always seem to for some reason. He then looked towards Nighthaven, the town that we were about to gallop off to, and nickered in anticipation. "What? You want to run, boy?" He seemed to nod at that. And when I went to mount him... he sniffed me once along my hidden arm. And I swear he winked. "You are one odd horse. But a lot of things are 'odd' right now, so I'm probably just deluding myself. Come on, boy. Let's see how fast we can get to town and back. Somehow I doubt you can run as fast as a flying dragon, but we can try, can't we?"

Star seemed to whinny positively at the challenge.

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We ended up getting back into the castle just as dinner ended. Lucky thing it was late spring, and this far north the days are very long. I was at last able to change my arm back just as I came into sight of the castle. But having to hide it all the time while in town had not been the most enjoyable things in the world. Especially since the place was still abuzz with talk about dragons. Specifically, one white one and one blue one that had been seen flying around earlier.

I should never have buzzed that farmhouse. Oh well.

Star looked almost amused, if that's possible for a horse. For a moment in town I was almost forced to reveal my arm, (concealed weapons and all) but one of the shopkeepers had vouched for me, and that kept my little secret from getting out. But what Star seemed so amused about was that wherever I went horses spooked, and sometimes threw their riders.

The incident in question happened when I'd walked out of the jeweler's shop with my new purchase in hand. (Clearset is amazing stuff, it's like amber, but even more transparent. Dirt cheap, too.) I was holding it by the brass chain, examining the detail on the surface of the approximately inch-square (though not square shaped by any means) eggshell shard, admiring the color, when a man in expensive looking clothes galloped by. The horse must have smelled something he didn't like, because as soon as he passed by me the animal bucked off the ugly man (who made me feel just a bit uneasy by the look he gave me) right into a big mud puddle. I'd mouthed 'sorry' and went to unhitch Star from the post. I'd then come directly back here.

Not willing to find out if the other horses in the Stable still felt like I was about to eat them, I dismounted Star and lead him right to the entrance. Just before the stablemaster took him in I swear Star was laughing at me. "What are you looking at?" I said to him. He only nickered more in apparent mirth.

The sun was finally dipping below the horizon, setting the sky afire with reds and oranges that would never quite appear again. High clouds went from yellow, to orange, to red, and on into the soft purple hues as the sun continued it's path through the Vault of Heaven.

I arrived in the Great Room just as dinner was ending. But I really wasn't all that hungry anyway (I'd had a big lunch). "There's some leftovers in the kitchen, dear." Nanny told me. "Your father has gone to prepare for your fiancee's arrival tomorrow."

My mouth dropped open. "That's tomorrow?!"

"Yes, dear. Haven't you been paying attention to the days? But I think we might have problems, considering. Her father is Duke Rendic, after all. And you know him."

I was taken aback even more. Duke Rendic was her father? That man was the source off most of my father's obsession with "Bigger and Better!" He seemed to have bottomless coffers, which stuck in my father's crop no end. Whatever Rendic did, my father always had to outdo. The only thing we'd not managed to acquire was a House Mage. If you think stained glass windows are expensive, one that covered the whole Chapel wall couldn't pay for a fair one for a month.

Now, I did not know all that much about what my father was like twenty years ago, all I did know was that Rendic was not even around at that time. My father had been a betting man at that time, I think. But always in moderation. I really wondered what happened to change him. I also had a sneaking suspicion that my mother was somehow involved.

Something serious, something that had changed my father and locked away my mother, had happened all those years ago. And I was very curious as to what it was exactly. But I had no inkling of how to start such an investigation.

I went right for my room, only stopping to show Nanny my bit of jewelry ("your mother will love it!") and grab that book on dragons from the Library. Mostly to take my mind off of what was going to happen tomorrow, and all the theories of what had happened all those years ago. I was no Sleuth, after all.

Bah! This is silly! There is nothing fishy going on, I'm just going to have to try to break this to my father slowly. I thought. But the wedding was in less than a week. I had to do something soon. A little sick of gloomy thoughts, I opened the book back to my page.

It was an amazing pic of a blue dragon fairly close to myself breathing flame. This type of dragon is known for it's amazing versatility of firebreath use. The book said. Unlike other species, this one can adjust its flame from a thin, intense stream, to a wide spread that can cover almost a dozen square yards. Fireballs have also been observed, though this cannot be confirmed. Wow. I read on, Magic Abilities: Unknown, and unknowable. As with most dragons, this one keeps its secrets regarding these things. This author was able to ask one of these amazing creatures why, and she replied, "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to eat you." I believed her.

I'd imagine he did.

I read about some of the other species (Night, Six-horn, Sharptooth, Icefire, etc..) and eventually started to get tired. So I went to bed.

Sleeping proved impossible unfortunately. The day had been just too thrilling to fall asleep. But I was remembering a few things from the past couple weeks that my mother had been teaching me. One of which was flame practice. Remembering what the book said, I decided to forget about sleeping and put on my clothes to head for the Tower.

I did not even need a candle I knew the way so well, and the hallways are too extensive for any kind of sentry patrol. So I encountered no one. Besides, mother had forgotten to give me a supply of tea and I needed some. Especially for what I had planned for the night...

To my surprise I did not even have to look; right in my mother's sleeping space was a table, and upon it a small box with a note affixed to it. I picked up the note. "Orin, my son," it began. "Here is the tea I promised you. This is potent stuff, use it sparingly and it will last you a long time. Also, do not drink more than two cups at a time in human form. Otherwise you'll get heartburn until you change forms and use some of it. If you want to practice flaming, just concentrate and you'll remember where I've been teaching you. Good luck, my son. You are ever in my thoughts, and in my heart. Zephyr, your mother."

So, her name was "Zephyr." Fitting, considering the stunt flying she'd done earlier in the day. Then I noticed a footnote. "Oh, one more thing. If you need hot water, you'll have to heat it yourself." I know I could feel the smirk behind those words.

"Thanks mom," I said quietly. "For more than you know." In the same room was a firepit, above which hung a good-sized kettle; and on one wall was what looked like a pipe and spigot leading from what had to be a cistern on the roof. The piping was copper, I noticed. But there wasn't any wood, only some kind of curved stone deflector on the opposite side of the kettle from me. Then I thought of what she wanted me to do. Very sneaky, mother. I thought.

Ten minutes later, after bringing the water to a rolling boil I was finally able to catch my breath. The deflector (of course) deflected the weak flame that I could manage even without stoking fuel (elk just doesn't work for some reason) away from the more flammable parts beyond. The tea smelled great as it steeped in the mug after I'd changed back. Two cups, and I was left feeling decidedly (and literally, I imagined) warm inside. Even in human form. "Okay, mom. Let's see what this stuff can do." I said aloud.

There was only one way off the top of this place. The wooden box was not all that large (less than a cubic foot) or heavy (ten pounds or so) but I carried it over to the ledge in human form all the same, and I sat down on it for a moment.

The stars were especially bright tonight. I traced the lines of a few of the familiar constellations: The Hound (which chased the Stag), the Griffin, the Warrior and others. I was eventually drawn to the one that for a reason I could not place until this morning I'd always loved the most. The Fire-breather. At this time of the night just becoming visible in the East. Out of its mouth seemed to come a flame composed of red and orange, with white and blue stars composing most of the Dragon at its other end.

I looked at it, smiling. Then, standing up, I moved back from the ledge. I took a deep breath, and pushed outward mentally. A few minutes later I flapped my wings a couple times experimentally, scanning myself to make sure everything was as it should be, and warming up my flight muscles. I worked out a few tight spots in my tail, and yawned once. Then I looked up at the Fire-breather once more. "Mind if I join you?" I said to the silent stars. They twinkled invitingly. I dragon-grinned, gripped the box in my foreclaws, and leapt off the ledge.

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The sun was coming up, and I was exhausted. Brilliant idea, Orin, I told myself as I skimmed just a hundred feet above the Plain. You get so preoccupied with flaming rocks you don't even notice the sun coming up, and only then you remember the wife-to-be is arriving midmorning! Father will think I've run off!

When someone doesn't show up for breakfast, Father Levy will send someone to see if that person is sick. I just hoped he'd send Nanny instead of one of the servants. Nanny would know what was going on, whereas someone ¬else...

I gripped the wooden tea box tighter in my clawed hands, I'd dropped it once already. Lucky thing it seemed magically protected, or it would have been smashed to bits.

I eventually approached the Library roof, using the little invisibility spell I'd remembered. It was not invisibility per se, but unless someone was specifically looking for something exactly my size they'd not notice. Even then they'd not exactly see me, only that something was there. But when I caught sight of the library roof I got a surprise. My father was standing there, waiting.

As soon as I saw him standing there I pulled up into the sky, flapping to gain altitude. Then I heard his voice yelling, "You might as well come down, Orin! I know it's you!" I then pulled off a maneuver my mother called a "hammerhead" and dropped back down towards the roof.

Reluctantly I landed right next to my father, who was looking at me with an expression I'd never seen before. Not surprising, considering the circumstances. My "ears" were a bit flexible, and I drooped them a bit. "Um, yes father?" I said tersely.

He smiled. "You make a handsome dragon, son." He said, surprising me once again. "But don't change back just yet. Your mother said that you are not to until I say it's okay. But, tell me, do I seem different to you at all?"

Come to think of it, he did. It wasn't anything tangible, really, but his whole bearing was changed. He seemed more at ease, and I couldn't sense any of the rank competitiveness that he always seemed to have. I was still in shock that he thought of me as handsome, but I replied, "Thanks. I guess blue's my color," then proceeded to tell him what I sensed was different.

"I guess she was right, then..." my father said sadly.

"Right about what?" I was fairly uncomfortable standing (on all fours) in front of my father like this, but he said that mother said not to change back for some reason, so for once I decided not to experiment. I sat up on my hind legs and looked at the small figure (boy, how strange to have my father smaller than I was) in front of me.

"Your mother came to me just an hour ago, Orin. She said she suspended the spell I am under. You heard me right, I'm still under a spell. And have been for the last twenty years."

"What kind of spell?" Something clicked into place. "Is it about what happened before I'd... hatched?" I was still having problems accepting the fact that I'd come from an egg.

"Yes, exactly. You hit the nail on the head, my winged son." He smirked. This was definitely not quite the father I knew. But he was still my father, and this was the man he truly was. "Twenty years ago I made a mistake," he began. "I got into a cardgame with the new arrival downriver, the good Duke Rendic. He seemed a jolly sort, and I hoped we'd become friends. But he had a tendency to brag too much. And he bragged about anything and everything.

"I'm sure Nanny has told you what kind of man she says I used to be. Sure, I'd gamble a little. But I never overdid it. You might remember that we used to have a whole lot of money around, at least we still did while you were little." My father looked at me. "But this was the mistake I'd made, Orin. I won a game against the Duke."

I cocked my head in a draconish expression of puzzlement. "Why was that bad? It's not like you'd won his whole fortune from him or anything." Then he let out a short bark of laughter, a sound I'd never heard my father make before.

"But you see? That's exactly what I did! I knew when to stop, but he didn't! I'd never bite the hook, so to speak. The stakes did get admittedly high, but then he suddenly seemed to go berserk and he bet everything he had on a single hand. According to the rules of the game, I did not have to do anything similar with stakes that high. I did give him a chance to retract his bet, but he refused. I won the whole game on a bluff!

"That's right, you heard me. A bluff. Your mother was alongside me, and if you've read that dragon guide book you know how she would feel when the good Duke reneged on the whole thing. She was quite livid, and I had to talk her out of vaporizing the man right there (she's a bit big in dragonform for the Study anyway). I probably should have let her.

"You see, his House Mage appeared out of nowhere and the next thing I knew I was cheerfully seeing him off, wishing him a good night's rest."

"But I don't understand, father. What happened? One moment you're asking him to pay up like an honorable man, the next you're letting him go. The mage must have done something to the both of you." I said, trying to keep my eyes level with his.

"Of course you're right. One, he blasted both Zeph and I with something to knock us out. Two, I gather, since he was unable to work any of his mind altering magic on Zeph, he transported her quite some distance away. She did not appear again for a couple months after the incident, which took place about six months after she laid you. And lastly, he did a makeover on my personality. Fixated me on one thing. Tell me, son. You've been keeping the books since you were fifteen. What have you noticed?"

I thought a moment, briefly rubbing the bridge of my snout with the palm of my right hand. "Well, it's been a steady downward spiral. This home is on the cutting edge of technology, and you've bought so many frivolous and useless things over the years that the coffers are nearly dry... or are dry, now." Then I realized something. "Father, why didn't the mage simply command you to turn over everything to Rendic?"

"The man's crazy, son. He's not content to simply tell me to hand everything over, oh no. He really doesn’t need the money anyway. You see, now that I've spent everything and taken a loan from him he can now simply take my home and lands when I default, as I'm going to have to as soon as your wedding is over. For when I went out into the fields this morning I discovered that probably eighty percent of all our crops have failed. We are bankrupt." He looked sadly downward.

Something confused me, though. "What happened when mother got back? And how does this wedding fit in?" I said, briefly shaking my head to dislodge a sparrow that had decided to land on one of my horns. I must have been really still.

"Well, with your mother gone the mage was free to use the Tower. It used to be a real mage's place, you know. Your dragon grandfather made his home there for about three hundred years. That Tower must be a couple thousand years old!

"But I digress. Sorry, I tend to do that. When your mother returned from wherever the mage had sent her to, she briefly looked in on me. The only thing I can say is when I saw her I only thought of her as a possession. Which before in no way would I have thought that way. She immediately went for the Tower, where she must have encountered the mage. She must have lost. Then the mage (looking not a little bit fried, I might add) appeared in front of me again and spelled everyone in the house not to go near that Tower. What he did not count on was me sending you and Nanny away to my cousin Lord Orik for a month beforehand. You were still in your shell at the time, but she kept you warm.

"The wedding. I really don't quite know how that fits in, but the idea I have is rather disturbing. His daughter had just been born a month before his first visit. He doted on her, gave her everything he hoped she wanted. And then he saw that I had a 'pet dragon' which is how he thought of Zeph (I should say that he thought that Zeph and her dragonform were different beings, and your mother was able to create an illusion of her human self to fool the good Duke. Wonderful creature, she is). He must have gone mad with envy. He must have something special planned for your mother."

"Hold on, father. You mean he's been biding his time for twenty years just to get his hands on mother?"

"I think so. I have no idea what, but it scares me of what that mage is capable of."

"Um, yes." I said. "Father, then why is Rendic needing me to marry his daughter? And why have you kept from me what exactly I was for all these years?" I put a bit of force into that last one.

"Well, to you first question I think he just wants a legitimate-seeming way to claim the place. I won't tell you how I think he'll do it, it frightens me enough. But your second question, frankly, I don't know. I wish I could tell you, but I haven't a clue." He thought a moment, rubbing his brown beard. "Wait a second. I didn't know! The mage didn't know about you, so I took you as another son by the surrogate! Whatever he did made me forget Zeph had laid an egg because he thought Zeph and the dragon were two different people! Though when your mother appeared just an hour ago I finally remembered that you're her son! So naturally you'd be a weredragon like she is... But I'm afraid I have to cut this short, Orin. We both have to get ready for our 'friend's' arrival."

He was right. The time was close. "Do I change back now?"

"No! Not yet! Wait until I get out of sight of you, once I get down the ladder, then change back and come down yourself. But I'm afraid I won't remember that this conversation ever took place. One of the safeguards your mother put in. But don't offended about what I might say to you. Believe me, I don't actually mean a word." Before I could stop him, with an agility of someone half his age, he jumped down the ladder.

I never knew my father was that athletic. But his little speech had given me a lot to think about. So, because of the spell he was under he didn't know I was a weredragon. That presented some... problems. But nothing I couldn't handle. (I was still quite shocked about it myself.) But then I realized that standing here thinking about it wasn't going to fix things.

I closed my eyes and remembered the reverse-shift lesson my mother taught me, and felt the strange tingle of all my hair growing back, my snout pulling in, then my tail and wings doing the same. It felt vaguely uncomfortable and made me slightly dizzy, I reopened my eyes when I felt my clothes reappear (convenient, that). My right arm was the last to return to (almost) normal, except for that one spot.

The wooden box of tea was sitting right were I'd put it down, but then I heard my father yell, "Orin! You up there boy?! Get down here right now! Your fiancee going to be here in a couple hours!" I wish he'd never bought that mage-clock. The guy guaranteed it wouldn't lose a second in a billion years. Damn. My father seemed back to the same man I'd always remembered, too. Double damn.

"Just a moment father!" The tone of voice was familiar, and when I came down the ladder, carefully carrying my tea box so was the angry face. "I'm sorry, father. You know how I like the library roof."

"You like it too much, boy. You're getting married, and I'm afraid the roof is off limits to you from now on. My house, my rules."

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, father. Whatever."

"What's that box you're carrying?"

"Just some tea, father. I found it in stores and it smelled good, so I took the whole box."

He sniffed a little. "Tea? Son, that smells terrible! No wonder no one else likes it! What kind is it?"

"I don't know, father. All I know is that it makes me feel very warm inside."

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My father wasn't the only one that thought the stuff smelled like it'd come out of a cesspool, I had some time before my fiancee arrived, so I used it to get a pot of water from the kitchen to brew a couple cups. "You can never tell when you might need your flame," My mother had said during a lesson I as just remembering. "A dragon without flame is no dragon at all." She'd finished.

Then I'd gone back to my room to put on my clothes. I'd just taken off my clothes when Nanny came bursting in. "Nanny! I'm not a little boy any more!" I almost yelled, covering myself with a sheet.

"I know you're not, but your father sent me here to make sure you take a bath and put on the right clothes. When we're done we're to go to the Chapel to meet you know who. Today they're putting in the final bit of stained glass, too. And your father wants to impress the Duke."

"I'd imagine he does. Hmm... as long as you're here I guess you can help me choose. I don't have a clue what to wear. Just could you step out until I get my underthings on?" She did, thank the One. But to string things out just a bit I prepared some of my tea to steep.

There was a nice fire going in my fireplace (newly installed as of last week), and there was a hook for small kettles and such. I put in a few measured spoonfuls of tea into the kettle and put it over the fire to steep. When the water had boiled long enough I took the kettle off the hook and ladled the tea through a filter into my mug.

Tea doesn't normally smell like much, but to me it smelled especially sweet. I guessed for some reason the tea smelled appetizing, and to normal humans terrible. There was enough in there for about six cups, but I'd just reheat it later when I wanted more. "Okay Nanny! I'm decent!"

She walked in and immediately wrinkled her nose. "What is that stink? The tea? What are you drinking, Orin?"

She was very good at keeping secrets, to I told her. "It's Dragonbane tea, Nanny."

Her eyes suddenly went very wide, and she tired to pull the pot away. I was about to pour a cup. "Dragonbane? Orin are you trying to kill yourself? I didn't think you were that desperate to get out of the wedding! That's supposed to be a deadly poison to your kind!"

"What? No. It 'puts wood on my fire' so to speak. It's what gives me dragonfire. I've had it before, you know. It's potent stuff."

She continued to give me that wide-eyed look, as if not quite believing me. So before she could stop me I poured a cup and took a sip. "OrinNO!" she yelled. But of course, nothing happened. "You're not dying?"

"Not that I can feel. It's actually quite sweet, and like I said stokes my furnace. Why were you acting like that?" I was quite puzzled, and she still looked quite wide-eyed.

"Just a moment..." She went out my door, and came back a few moments later with the dragon guidebook. She flipped it open to a certain page, then shoved the book right in front of me. "Here, read." She said.

With that tone of voice, I was so used to obeying her I read. The book said, Dragonbane: A semi-common herb reputed to be an effective dragon repellent, and in some circles a deadly poison to them.

"What? Nanny, this can't be right. I feel fine."

"Read on and I think all will be clearer for you." So I did.

The properties of this plant are quite extraordinary, if one can stand the smell of it's sap and dried leaves. For those who can stand it, the leaves dried in a tea have been observed to have aphrodisiac properties. In less lawful circles, the thorns are said to have even more... interesting effects, and is sometimes used as a drug in high concentrations of fifty thorns in an essence. This author, upon viewing the extremely temporary effects of this drug highly recommends not trying it. Instant insanity (and often death) is the most common result. It should be noted that during the observation I briefly glimpsed what could have been scales on the arms of the user. I did not get close enough to confirm this however. Nor did I want to.

As a repellent the value of the concoction (simply, the same tea, cold, splashed on the offending dragon) is quite debatable. Though I've never seen it used myself (as of the writing of this book) the only thing I can say is the user seems to be killed just as often as with the repellent as without. (usually, I gather, it just enrages the dragon and the person gets flame broiled anyway just before the dragon flies away in disgust.) Even through this doubt, it remains a fairly common item in apothecary shops and the tea itself a popular dragon repellent among the commoners who fear the creatures.

Talk about confusing! I scratched my head for a moment. "Nanny, either this guy is totally uninformed or he's an idiot." A flash, an image in my memory. I felt a little dizzy for a moment.

"Orin, are you okay? That tea you drank isn't doing what the book says it can, is it?"

"No, no..." Another flash, and I suddenly heard the voice of my mother, very faint as if from very far away.

The book is wrong my son. As it's supposed to be. The one who wrote it was actually an ally of my father. They were the best of friends, in fact. But the book is wrong because he made it wrong. He knew exactly what 'bane actually does for us, and did his best to make it easier for us to get supplies of it. And it's been very successful, I might add. But it's your job to keep the small 'lie' alive. For the sake of dragons everywhere. And she was abruptly gone.

"Orin? Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes ma'am. I'm fine. Mother just spoke to me a little, that's all. She has a loud mind-voice." Then, since Nanny was trustworthy, I gave her a run down of some of what Dragonbane does for us.

She sniffed the tea left in the pot. "I just don't see how you can drink this, though. It stinks."

"I guess what smells terrible to you smells like honey to me. Now, what do you want me to wear? I'm clueless."

She laid out my clothes and I took them, along with my soap and things, into the bathing room. If it's one thing I loved about all these modern conveniences father had installed it's the heated water. I soaked for about a half hour, enjoying the water. The first bath I'd taken since my little revelation. And when I got out, I felt like a totally new man.

I got into my clothes and headed for the Chapel.

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The good Duke certainly took his sweet time arriving! We waited, and we waited. "Father, it's been hours. Can we at least have lunch or something?" I said.

He thought a moment, gazing up at the space near the outer ring of the stained glass window that showed where the final piece would be placed. It was a beautiful day outside, clear and pleasant. Just the a perfect day to be out flying... but I quashed those thoughts as fast as I could. Now wasn't the time to daydream.

"We will wait until nightfall for the Duke and you know who. But I think a snack would be much appreciated. Nanny? If you would please." With that, she and two servants went for the door. I went to follow. "No you don't, Orin. You'll stay here until nightfall. I don't want to have to go find you. Besides, you and I need to talk." Uh oh... "Sit with me in the pews, here."

My father had actually chosen the best spot in the room. The light streaming through the stained glass window in its mostly finished state was a beautiful sight! A pattern of greens, blues, reds, yellows. Two hundred thousand Turins (the local currency) it cost us, so it better be good! My father was sitting in the light from the stag at the center. The way the light fell upon his face made it look like his face and the stag's were mixed together in an interesting way. If the Duke arrived soon he was in for a big surprise. And from the look on my father's face he knew what kind of effect it would have on the man. "Sit down," he repeated. I did, sitting right next to him.

"Why did you lie to Nanny and tell her you hadn't met your future wife?" He said.

"Father... I'm sorry. I know Nanny's memory is going. Well... I panicked. I really don't want to go through with this, father. The one time I met her she seemed a little thin in the mind area. Though I truly didn't know the Duke was her father. So why are you making me do this?"

His face went blank, which must have been an effect of the spell. "I don't know, really. It just seems the right thing for me to do. I just hope the Duke arrives soon. The light coming through that window is incredible! He'll have to admit I've got the best window in the area! It's certainly the biggest." There was no trace of the man I'd met on the library roof. I sighed.

But he never came. I sat in the hard pew for hours until nightfall, when the light faded ever so slowly into darkness. I spent a lot of time getting to know that window that day. And I couldn't help but wonder just how it was built. Not how the stained glass itself was inserted, I knew that. But the ring of stone that forms the outer edge. The original castle that this "house" was built around had this rose window, but only recently (the past century or so) did the Chapel exist or did it have glass in it. Legend has it that the perfect circle was as old as the Tower. Which considering the ¬size of the thing (almost seventy five feet wide!) just might be the truth. The lead tracery of the window panels had been anchored to the outer edge. The bottom of the curve was maybe ten feet off the floor.

With the fall of night I was finally able to go back to my room for a cup of tea. I'd at least managed to sleep a little during the day, so my night plans wouldn't be ruined...

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As soon as it was late enough I headed for the Tower. My one safe haven throughout the whole house. For some reason I'd developed a real liking for that place. Even though climbing the stairs was a bit of a torture.

I walked confidently through the corridors. But as I reached the one that was just around the corner from the Tower, I felt something odd. Someone's been here, I thought. I could feel it! My eyes felt odd for a moment, and I closed my eyelids and rubbed them. When I opened them again I saw something strange. Everything glowed.

A sudden memory. One of the lessons my mother had given me over the past fortnight. Vision. The ability to see the auras of magic energy that surround all things. But in order to do that... I felt my head. My brow ridges felt more pronounced, and dry and scaly. The scales seemed to go back to about my ears, which were ever so slightly dragon-like. So the price for using this ability was that I wouldn't look human while I used it. Damn.

And then I saw it, faintly glowing footprints along the dusty corridor floor. They didn't leave footprints in the dust itself, however. Which is why I didn't notice them without my "Vision." It was the way they were glowing that disturbed me. It was a sickly green that made me faintly queasy. And I really didn't know what to make of it. I invoked the simple "invisibility" spell that mother had taught me, and moved on quietly.

Of course the footsteps went right to the Tower, where it seemed to pause for a moment where I remembered the "barrier" had been when this had all began. As quietly as I could, I walked up the stairs. The glow from the footprints got brighter and brighter as I ascended. Then I broke into the light of the upper rooms.

The feeling of someone inside was quite strong. As was the feeling that that person was both angry and happy. I decided the best thing would be to hide in one of the planters. So I chose a close one and focused on my invisibility spell.

It seemed just a shadow moving around. My Dragon Vision was still in effect, and I focused on it harder. I felt my face change a bit more. My jaws projected a little, I lost my hair, gained short horns, my teeth felt sharp, and my tongue slightly forked. My head didn't change in size at all. But the result was amazing.

Inside the moving shadow was a man.

A man in a flowing black robe. Your stereotypical mage. He also had a deep cowl that we was wearing over his face. I couldn't see it at the moment. But there was what could only be called a "taint" in his aura. One hundred percent evil. There is no other feeling. But what he was doing mystified me.

He was walking around, looking at all the plants. Most of them were large bushes or trees, or the occasional flowered plant. But they all had one thing in common. They all had heart-shaped leaves, and thorns of some kind.

They were all variations on Dragonbane.

I immediately looked at the plants that surrounded me. And sighed quietly that I hadn't stuck myself. Especially since I was only just noticing the prickling of the thorns upon my skin. If I'd moved any more I would have stuck myself. And then there was no telling what would happen (would I keep my wings like mother?).

My invisibility spell seemed to be working just fine. He took a close look at a plant with rather long, nasty looking thorns, took a sniff. Broke one off. And nibbled it.

His aura immediately took on a tiny draconian tint to it. By the One! He's insane! But that also confirmed that the thorns would have the same effect on humans, though it would probably take a thousand thorns to cause any real transformation. Which made me wonder...

Why was he up here in the first place? And just who was he anyway?

I got my answer a moment later, and I had to keep myself from pulling back into the bushes too quickly, lest I poke myself. I'd seen man's face. And it scared me out of my wits! He was horribly burned, his face disfigured. He clearly had no hair (though I did see a few wisps when he briefly pulled back his hood). And only then did I notice the smell. Dragonfire soot. And it smelled like mother's. It clung to him like a miasma.

So, this is Rendic's House Mage. Ugly in more ways then one... I thought. Then an odd thought occurred to me. Mother must have got him good for him to smell freshly fried after twenty years! Hah! Which made me wonder just how she'd lost in the first place. And what exactly had been done with her. These twisted Dragonbane plants certainly had something to do with it.

Done with the long-thorned plant, he walked over to one that seemed to have tiny thorns, no bigger than a grain of rice, all over it. The plant was basically all stem and thorn, with tiny leaves. "Oooh! Perfect! Nice little plant you've bred for me, Zephyr. Just what I'm looking for." His voice was a cross between a wheeze and a demon. And I could smell his sooty breath even from here. I had to stifle a sneeze, but that was enough to make him perk up a moment. Then a clatter from somewhere made him go back to his examination.

Mother breeding Dragonbane for this guy? No way! I thought. But his next words made me immediately nervous.

"Well, that's one thing solved. Now for the other. How did she get out? I can tell it's fairly recent... Hmmm... I do sense another dragon about." He started looking around, and I peered through a bush with my own Vision. Careful not to singe the plants with my hot breath.

Another dragon?? I quickly made myself as human as I could. I saw the shadow move closer, and closer... But the last minute I heard a voice.

'DATHAN!! Get back here now! My daughter wants you to do more tricks for her. Oh, and tomorrow looks like it's going to be clear again. Please arrange so is isn't so my "friend" might feel properly about his new... acquisition.' The voice seemed to come from what I'd seen as a amulet of some sort around his neck.

"Damn!" I heard him say aloud. "I'll have to investigate this later! Heh. But that fool Duke thinks he's the one in control. If he only knew... no matter. I've bided twenty years, true revenge can wait a few more days. Damn weredragon!" Then, in a more calm voice. "I am coming, my liege! I am ever in your service." He said it with a particular disgust, and added under his breath, "I'm coming you great cow!" Then the shadow just... disappeared.

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I was left alone in the Tower not a little bit... well. Curious. And confused. Very confused. What could have happened that compelled my mother to work for that creep? My only real source for answers was gone at the moment, though. But the only way I knew to find any other information was in the Library... and of course that was it.

There's only one way off this Tower (well, two if you count the way that mage had left). I went to the ledge, and concentrated on my other form. I felt my body expand and change, and I saw my hands gain their claws, my skin turn blue and scaled, and I felt my wings and tail take shape. I flapped them experimentally, and just to make sure all was functional, blasted a patch of wall with a wide-angle flame burst. Satisfied, I jumped off the ledge into the night (Feeling lucky that my particular dragon type had good night vision!).

I didn't actually fly anywhere. Just down to the Library roof, then back into human form, and right down that ladder. Right next to it inside the Library was an area that held most of the record books about my father's finances. Which I figured would be a good place to start. Records twenty years old... I grabbed a couple of those books off the shelf. It was pretty late, but there were enough lanterns in the Library for me to see by. But just as I was about to go back up the ladder with my info (I planned on exploring the Tower for other records) I heard my father say, "No roof for you, Orin! If you want to read take those to your room!"

What was he doing up at this late hour? I rolled my eyes. "Yes sir." And I went back to my room. Damn! I was sure there was stuff in that Tower that I could use! I remembered mother using some books I'd never seen. Oh well... nothing I could do about it. So I went back to my room.

Once there, I settled into some heavy reading. I probably should have been sleeping, but the fact that I now knew I was a weredragon hadn't really worn off yet (I doubted it ever would, really). Anyway, I went through the old records. Before me a man named Grimore had been our bookkeeper. He died when I was fifteen, but by that time I was able to take care of things myself.

My father had been the richest man in this part of the Realm, until the Duke moved into the area. The house full of people and servants. Even then, my father seemed fixated on getting more and more ¬things. And the coffers declined ever so slowly... But then I remembered something, and flipped back to one of the more precipitous drops, the mage-clock, about ten years ago. And recalled what had happened...

The Duke had made a visit, and mentioned the thing offhand. One of the few times I'd seen him face to face. For some reason Nanny always tried to find a reason to get the two of us out of the house if she got wind of a visit before it happened (he had a reputation for showing up by surprise, and how Nanny knew about the visits ahead of time was beyond me... or maybe not). Which actually seemed to be very often. As I result I'd only met the man a total of five times in twenty years, and his daughter only once, though at the time I didn't know that the airheaded girl was his daughter. Why is a long story...

But immediately following the visit my father just had to buy the mage-clock! It was like something had taken over his mind! For a full month he was obsessive over it, until the day it'd arrived. Then he'd sat in front of it for weeks on end. Until the Duke's next visit. When the man would announce that he got something bigger and better. Then my father would go nuts again.

This happened many times over the years. Often, just before one of Duke's many visits (just before Nanny and I would go somewhere) I'd noticed my father acting a little different than I knew him. He was more kind and outgoing than he normally was. But when we returned that look would always be gone. Replaced once more by his obsession. Then I remembered something that made it all make sense.

The first thing I'd always noticed when Nanny and I returned from wherever we had gone was the smell of soot throughout the house. Not the clean-smelling soot that comes from a firepit (which was what we had in those days instead of fireplaces), but an acrid smell that clings to everything. A smell that in my mind was undoubtedly that of the mage. And it was particularly strong around my father. I slammed the book shut, angry. I took a deep breath, felt my clothes go briefly tighter, the chair smaller. Only by the skin of my teeth did I manage to keep myself from changing completely. I did feel my clothing disappear.

I wonder what roasted mage tastes like... I thought idly. Mother had wanted to find out, it seemed. The way I felt at that moment I wanted to know myself.

Orin! I heard a mind-voice say. Quietly.

Mother? Where are you?

I'm at the flame practice area. Can you get over here? We need to talk... No kidding.

I might be a while. Father's placed a sentry at my door, I'd heard the man just a few minutes ago. Father had never even told me he was going to do that!

Is that all? Just think a moment, and you'll remember a little trick I taught you not too long ago. I have every confidence in you, my son. I'll see you in a few minutes. And she was gone.

Just what was she talking about? And then I remembered. I'd used the trick once or twice over the past fortnight. My room had a panel to get up onto the roof, too. But the ceiling was rather tall and the opening rather small. But there was a technique I could use that would fix that. But it would take a bit of doing.

I closed my eyes and concentrated. I felt myself expand into dragonform. I used my snout to nose open the roof hatch, then I reached up with my hand, (I had to jump a little) and as soon as I grabbed the edge immediately shrank again. When I was done I pulled myself onto the roof, and closed the door.

Once up there finally, I used my invisibility spell, changed forms, and sprang into the air.

The flame practice area mother had set up was about ten miles off, where a large outcropping of rocks stuck out of the Plain. She thoughtfully was flaming dimly, and to my sharp eyes I easily saw her beacon. I landed expertly next to her. Her first words were, "Have you been thinking about it?"

I decided to come clean. "Mother, what is there to think about? I am what I am. I cannot deny it. But I've got a few questions myself I want to ask. I've been doing a bit of digging, and..."

"I know. I've been talking with Nanny. Can I see your pendant?" The both of us went back to human form. And I handed it to her. "Hmm... I never would have thought of this. What is it sealed in?"

"Clearset. You didn't have it twenty years ago?"

"Well, it was new and expensive back then," She seemed to look at the bit of shell inside with a particular intensity. "That's interesting... Hmm..."


"Oh, nothing. But about your choice. It's a big responsibility to be both dragon and human. But if you feel you're up to the challenge..."

"Oh, I am. But if I may. Just what happened twenty years ago? Between you and the mage, I mean?"

"Yes... I guess I owe you that much." She cleared her throat, and began. "Your father has told you most of it. My part was really rather minor. You see, I was never actually married to your father. We couldn't find a priest who would perform the ceremony, because in such matters the clergyman must be told in private just who and what the prospective married couple actually are. 'Interspecies' bondings aren't all that rare, but humans seem to have an aversion to them in general. Besides, marriage isn't always necessary.

"To make a long story short, the Duke decided not to pay up. That is a nono. At least to us. It was a matter of honor that he do so, so I of course had to take matters into my own claws. What I didn't consider was the power of the mage, you see. I have some magic ability in human form, but it wasn't nearly enough. He knocked me out, but I kept him from messing with my mind. As a result, he got angry and I found myself on the other side of the planet."

"No wonder it took you so long to get back!"

"Yes, it was a very long flight, I can tell you. But when I finally returned I found your father under that spell. It was fairly weak at the time, and I started to work on breaking it. But there was one minor problem.

"By the strength of the spell upon your father, even though it was new, I was able to determine that I was out of my league. Way out. So I did something that I thought I'd never do." She spread her vestigial wings.

"You ate a 'Bane thorn."

"Yes. And it worked better than I could have imagined! My flame was magically enhanced! It imparted knowledge that made me an equal to him! But it wasn't quite enough. We fought each other to a standstill. So we played chess."

"Chess? Mother, isn't that a bit... strange?"

"Not really, my son. We'd exhausted our bodies, but not our minds. For the most part. But he agreed to it all too quickly, though I didn't catch it at the time. So we played chess for a few days, and then I made a mistake. Well, I'd actually made it a few days earlier by eating the thorn. But you get the idea."

"It wore off, right? But what about him?. When I saw him he looked char broiled!"

"That was a bit of luck. With my 'invisibility' enhanced I was able to surprise him during our physical battle. But he was able to snap up a shield before I could finish the job. He mostly healed himself up, too. Though one of the effects of my magic flame was he couldn't use his magic to do more than stop the pain and bleeding. Serves him right, too. But you're right, it wore off. It was then he found out what I am. And then it happened." She sighed.


"I lost. I lost the game, and had to do as he asked me to. Which was two things: a task, and a question. I was hoping that he would give me a task first, but he asked the question. What Dragonbane actually does for us. Of course once he knew (and knew that in fact, enough concentrated 'bane will cause a transformation) he had to have me cultivate the stuff so he could use it. So he set me the task of breeding 'bane plants. Which I did."

I had a sinking feeling. "How much 'bane does it take exactly, mother?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. From what I understand it won't be permanent. But in the brief time that that... creature is a dragon he could cause untold destruction!

"I was listening in on your mind while you and he were in the Tower. What he said releases me from my task! I've done what he wanted, so I'm free to give him his proper punishment! And this time I'm not going to need a 'bane thorn to do it! That's why I've been gone, I had to go to the Enclave..."


"I'll explain later. But not now, I'm afraid. We need to clear up this wedding business anyway." A cold wind suddenly whipped around the both of us, so we changed back to dragonform so as not to feel it. "It looks like he is starting to whip up a storm. This might be a good time for you to return to the house. If you don't then this storm will keep you away."

I sighed. "Mother, you are a huge mystery at times. I don't know what you expect me to do, but I'll think of something. Right now I just want to go home and sleep for once."

"Do me one favor," she said.

"What?" I was poised to jump off the ledge.

"One, stay out of trouble. That mage is dangerous. And two, just in case, keep your fire stoked. You never know when you may need it. Good night, my son."

"Good night," I replied, and jumped into the rolling thunder that was just becoming audible over the horizon.

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The whipping wind and the massive turbulence made it seem a miracle that I even made it back into my room when I did! I was sopping wet when I dropped through the ceiling hatch and did my little shapeshifting trick. The storm was rattling the roof and the small windowpanes. But I was so tired that after I dried off I fell right into bed. By the Clock it was just after midnight. My last thought was, funny, I though it'd been longer... before fatigue overtook me.

By some miracle the Rose Window survived. The glassmakers had just put up the anti-weathering spells the previous day, in preparation for the insertion of the last pane. And on top of that I felt awake and rested for once. Thank the One for a good night's sleep! Nothing could spoil my mood right now! I thought gleefully.

I heard Nanny's voice behind me, "your fiancee is due to arrive in an hour." She said. She also had a tray full of food for me.

Except that... I sighed. I put my hand to my forehead. "Why me?" I said.

"What was that?" Nanny said.

"Nothing. Help me get into my clothes, will you?"

She did, and I took bites of food while getting dressed, but as we were doing so something odd happened. From underneath the door came the distinct smell of dragonfire soot. I wrinkled my nose at it. "You smell it too?" Nanny whispered. I nodded. She finished helping me get into my best tunic, then for some reason went over and got my tea box.

"Nanny. What?" She shoved it into my hands.

"Your mother told me that whatever happens to day you are to keep this with you. She said there is something in there that you might need. Now, let's go off to the Chapel. We don't have much time left."

I was a little surprised, but I took a moment while I was mixing up my tea (I decided on four cups) to dig in the tea box a moment. And at the very bottom I found it.

A single Dragonbane thorn.

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I didn't stick myself. But as I stood with my father in the front of the Chapel, he had an expression as dark as the sky was at the moment. Apparently the storm had had the wanted effect. Dark overcast covered the sky, making the Window seem rather dark and featureless.

We heard the sentries announce the coming carriage (many had never seen a carriage so ornate) and my heart was in my throat. And then he entered.

When the mage had called the Duke a "great cow" he was probably playing on the man's family crest. The minotaur. A beast of great size and physical strength, to be sure. Rumor has it that the Duke himself might have a bit of minotaur somewhere in his bloodline. If he did he definitely inherited the traits for ¬size but certainly not strength.

The man must have weighed nearly four hundred pounds, all fat. The one thing my father doesn’t care that he doesn't have the title of: Fattest in the Realm. My father broke the ice, "Ah! My good friend Rendic! Good to see you again," he lied.

"Likewise, my friend. This is the Window you've been boasting about I trust? Not very impressive. I just had my entire Chapel wall redone in stained glass." The man had an incongruously high voice. Rather silly-sounding, in fact. My father's face went dark again for a moment, then lit up again as a some realization seemed to hit him.

"Ah! But you have yet to see it finished!" My father turned to the glassmakers, who had been poised to put the last panel in place. "You may do your magic, my good craftsmen."

Whatever magic my father mentioned seemed to have worked, much to the surprise of everyone, including my father and myself.

The moment the pane was placed, the clouds broke in just the right place for the whole Window to be lit up in an incredible display that put everyone in awe, including the Duke. But my father kept his composure.

At that moment the look on the Duke's face turned from smug victory to complete defeat. There was nothing else like it! The light streamed in and dazzled us. But it didn't last. Only ten seconds later all was dark again. But the point had been made.

In my head I heard a chuckle. I've been wanting to do that for twenty years! Gods that felt good! My mother said. She continued quickly. Stay close to your tea box, my son. It might come in handy.

"Well now," my father suddenly said. "How about that?"

"Yes indeed," the Duke drawled. "How 'bout that? But shall we get on to business? My daughter is just outside."

I glanced over at my tea box, it was over in the corner. I had a feeling that whatever was going to happen, would happen soon. My father gestured to open the Chapel door, and then I saw her.

She was as pretty as I remembered her. But there was a problem with that. The look on her face was one of such complete vapidity that I was embarrassed to even look at it! Then I sniffed once, and looked behind her.

The smell of soot was incredible, but no one else except apparently Nanny and I could smell it, because behind the blank-faced girl was the mage. Though he looked nothing like the man that I'd seen the night before (I figured he must be using some sort of illusion spell). His face had a false kindness on it that was so easy to see through I was sure he knew it wasn't fooling anybody.

At the sight of that evil man I forgot for a moment my predicament. I mean, I was getting married for crying out loud! But there was no way it could ever work... A foregone conclusion, in fact. But at least I knew the mage was here! I could at least keep watch on him. I swore to myself that if I ever had the opportunity in dragonform I'd give him a hotfoot he'd never forget! And then the eggshell pendant on my chest gave a little tingle, and I grabbed it out of reflex.

Don't be fooled, Orin. My mother said. That's not him.

What? What do you mean? Won't he hear you? I thought back.

Nope. That's why I looked at your pendant so hard. It has some very peculiar properties that I can't even begin to understand what it's doing. All I know is that some impurities in the Clearset reacted with your shell fragment somehow. But again, that's not him...

Then what...

It's an illusion, a very good one. But still an illusion. The real mage is heading for the Tower, I think. I'm nearly there myself. And when I reach the Tower I will confront him, for the last time.

That sounded rather ominous. I should have protested, I should've said something to make her stop was she was about to do, because it was a sure bet that whatever happened would kill her. But my only thought back was, Is there anything I can do to help?

I felt her smile mentally. There is one, and you know what it is, I thought of the thorn. But I'm not going to ask you to do it. The cost might just be too high for you. No matter what, the evil man won't survive this day. I have pledged it. But I won't force you to use it. You must make the choice yourself.

I guess so. But I won't let him kill you! Not when I have the ability to do something about it! I won't stand by and watch! The death of Goth was still heavy on my mind.

I never thought I could. But watch and listen. You will know when you are needed. But doing so will involve a sacrifice. But I'd better sign off now, I'm coming up on the Tower.

Good luck! I thought, and then she was gone.

That conversation, I found, had taken less then two seconds in the real world. Because for some reason the airheaded girl (what was her name, anyway? I don't think I ever bothered to ask) hadn't noticed me yet. But as I looked at the illusory mage more closely, I felt a chill. "Are you okay, Orin?" Nanny asked.

"Just a little dizzy. I do admit that she is very pretty, though." Pretty, in the sense that a doll is pretty. She had so much make-up on I doubted she could get within thirty feet of a warm fire without her face melting. I laughed inwardly at that image. God, I've got to get out of this! But there's only one way... And what that way was, was fairly obvious. I'm going to have to show everyone I'm a weredragon. Oh well... For some reason the prospect didn't seem like a very big sacrifice, considering.

Now the only question that remained was just when to reveal it... Not in here, certainly. I'd probably smash father's window! And I wasn't about to do that (until he was free of the spell, at least.) Then I had the feeling I was being stared at. I looked at the girl.

She looked like such the spoiled child! My father and the Duke had been talking, I guess they expected the two of us to stand here and get to know each other (yeah, sure). We did just stare at each other for a few minutes. And since no one was looking at us (it's considered impolite) I considered doing a bit of Dragon Vision... But decided against it. The poor girl would probably faint! But her next action surprised me, as I know it did everybody.

She suddenly went up to her father, tugged at his sleeve like a little girl, and whispered into his fat ear, "Daddy, that's not the one I wanted."

What was she talking about? Her father replied. "Are you sure, my sweet?" And she nodded emphatically.

I found out later that the Duke and my father had been talking about how my marriage to her would pay for the loan he'd taken out. So the Duke's next statement understandably shocked him, and made me feel downright numb for a moment. "Well, my friend. The wedding's off I'm afraid."

My father's face went completely shocked. "What? What do you mean? Did I offend you? Did my son?"

"No, my daughter just says that your son isn't the one she wanted." He seemed to be talking like I was a toy to be bought and sold. "Nothing personal, you know how kids are."

"But you can't just..." My father began.

"Yes I can. You see, I own this house now, and all your lands. And this window, too. So you see, I couldn't care less that I gave my word..." I didn't pay much attention after that.

What? Is there something wrong with me? I thought. It was almost a complete turn around. All the anxiety I'd felt from trying to find away out of this predicament was replaced by total indignation! Then I noticed something. All through this whole thing the illusory mage had stood still like a statue.

Then the Duke said, "I'm so sorry, old boy. But no matter what you say to me, this land and everything inside it is now mine. Now to make sure you don't interfere, my mage here is going to lock you and your family inside this Chapel while my servants clean the place out." He turned to his mage. Da-THAN! Concoct a spell that will last sufficiently long enough for us to do what we need to." The illusion just looked on blankly. "Dathan? Are you listening to me?"

I suddenly heard my mother's voice in my head again. It's coming, my son. It's very close. I'm inside the tower now. I can smell him... I see him now. Heh, I really made his outside match his inside, didn't I? He's got a hold a vial of some sort. I can see a stripped 'bane micro-thorn plant on the floor next to him. But he seems to be waiting for some sort of signal...

Signal? All through my mother's running commentary the Duke had been getting closer the image of the mage. He then reached out to the mage's arm, and said, "DATHAN! Are you listening to me?!"

The realization hit me before I could do much besides take the Duke's arm out of the illusion, and I had to leap across three sets of pews to do it (I was amazed I didn't break my neck doing it). My yell, "NODON'T!" seemed to surprise him more than what he'd just experienced! Because he gave me a shocked look that quickly turned to anger.

"Boy! Let go of me right now!" Then the illusion turned to the whole room and simply said: "You're all fools." And exploded in a thousand shining pieces.

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The room was a bit chaotic for a moment after that. We were all blinded by the flash, but I seemed to recover much quicker than everyone else. Then I heard my mother's mind-voice, He's going to drink it! I have to stop him! I... That was the last of her mind voice that I heard, because the thunderous roar that permeated the air from the direction of the Tower drowned out all else.

By the One... Mother's doomed. I've got to help! The spots rapidly cleared from my eyes while everyone else was either still out cold, or wandering around blindly. One of the latter was my father. "Father! Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, I'm fine. What was that roar?!"

"I wish I knew," I lied. I checked my other family, and the girl, and then went straight for the large double doors... and bounced off some sort of barrier. I was momentarily stunned. But then I crashed against it with a lot more force, getting the same effect, only with more force. On my last try I was thrown right into the Duke.

"That idiot!" He yelled. "He was supposed to do that after I left! Who does he think he is??"

I checked Nanny, "Are you okay?" I asked, the noises I was hearing outside put momentarily into the background.

"I'm fine, Orin. Your mother is fighting him out there. You have to find a way out to help her! She can't do it alone!"

"I know. But we're sealed in!"

Not quite, Came my mother's harried mind-voice.

Mother! You're still alive!

Barely. I can't talk for long, all I can say is he's HUGE. And to look closely around the room. Very closely. And if you come, be prepared to fight to the last. I need you, Orin. But I cannot ask you to risk your life. It is your choice. And she was gone. I heard another roar. It was chaos outside.

"What did she say?" Nanny asked, still covering her eyes.

"That I should look closely at the room. Like I should see... of course! My Vision!" And with everyone still blinded except me, that would work out just perfect! I did the first level Vision, felt the small changes in my head, and the room glowed.

Or rather, the walls did. All around the periphery of the room was a faintly green-glowing nimbus, which seemed to be centered in the walls and windows. But I couldn't see real weaknesses! Unless... I went to a higher Vision level, and felt my head distort and change even further. I stared at the walls as hard as I could.

It must have been a few minutes, I'd finally gotten to the Rose Window in my search for weak points, and right in the middle I saw it. It seemed that his barrier spell had less power over stained glass, or maybe it was the anti-weathering spells that were interfering with the mage's. But right around the stag in the center, above the alter, was a "thinness." But there was only one way to get out of this place... and I didn't have a choice. "Orin?" I heard my father's voice behind me. I turned around without changing myself back any.

My father rubbed his eyes and blinked, "That can't be you, can it?"

"Maybe." I decided there was no other choice. None at all. I looked over at my tea box. "I'm sorry, father. But you don't remember, though you might again soon. So don't be startled about what I'm about to do, or what I'm about to fully become. The situation demands it." I walked over to my tea box.

In dragonform I had a fair amount of magic ability, but it would be silly of me to even consider going up against him unaided, even with mother's apparently enhanced powers. I'd be useless to her if I just went up there to die! So there was only one choice. I dug in my box for the thorn.

"What are you doing?" Nanny asked, concern plain her voice.

"The only thing I can do. I'm not going to stand by and do nothing while mother fights a monster. Not when I can do something about it this time! Clear everyone from in front of the Window. I'm about to take up a whole lot of space." Her eyes went wide, she blinked, and apparently understood. She then started shooing people away from the Window, and towards the doors.

My brothers were completely confused, but they did do as they were told. Everyone, including my father, is so used to obeying Nanny sometimes its surprising. And I was very glad that no one argued. My father gasped once. My head was still in part dragon form. "By the One! You can't be my son!" He must have regained a bit of his eyesight.

I must have gotten a little fed up at that moment, because I turned to him and said, "Father, bite me. I'm still very much your son. I'll explain later." Then I plucked the thorn out of the box.

I stood about twenty feet in front of the alter, in the center aisle near the third row of pews, gazing up at the wonderful piece of work that was still dark. I'm sorry, father. I really have no choice. At that ironic moment, the sun broke through again. This time to stay. I took in its beauty one last time, and looked at the thorn between my thumb and finger. I hesitated a moment... Then a whooshing sound and relatively small dragon-shaped shadow, followed by a HUGE whoosh and ROAR, with attendant shadow large enough to black out the sun for a moment, passed over the window.

I took a deep breath. "I'm coming mother!" I yelled audibly as well as mentally at the passing shadow. Then without fanfare I pushed the thorn into my mouth.

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I didn't feel anything at first. Everyone was just staring, clearly unsure if they were seeing what they were seeing (those who'd regained their eyesight, that is). I mean, at the moment I had a fairly draconish head on a human body. But that was about to change...

The thorn went down hard, burning the whole way. My stomach started to burn, maybe literally. I belched smoke. But the intense heat soon flowed throughout the whole of my body, which started to throb. But it was a pleasant throb. And I felt myself begin to grow.

The thorn must've interfered with my talent to keep my clothes on me. Because they felt tight, then ripped off loudly. The room was so silent one could hear a only the rustling of cloth as everyone shuffled around to give me room. There were no screams except what was coming from outside.

There was a pushing sensation at the base of my spine, and I felt my tail extend down and back. My legs muscled up, feet gaining claws. My skin turned blue and scaled, my wings sprouted from my shoulders. My neck lengthened, and several bony spines appeared along my back. I grew to my normal thirty-five feet... and then went beyond it.

The Chapel was a relatively large room, so when I reached my final length of maybe fifty feet I still wasn't taking up a whole lot of space. But the changes in myself weren't only in my size. My scales weren't merely sky blue, they seemed to glow iridescently. And I could see everything. I looked back at my father.

There was a... taint. That's the only word for it. He was tainted by the mage. But not nearly as much as Rendic or his daughter. I began to formulate a theory on what had really happened over the years. My father was still staring, then he surprised me by saying, "Wait... you can't be Zeph's son, can you?"

I almost sighed in relief. So the mage's hold wasn't too strong after all! Not if he was starting to remember! "That I am, father. But I'm sorry. I've got to go help mother. She's out there, fighting him. But there's only one way out..." I looked at the window, then back at him. My father turned his back, not wanting to see it.

I took a moment to look at my brothers. "Bookworm, am I?" I said. "Can a bookworm to this?" I turned towards the Window once more, knocking over a few pews in the process.

As I bunched myself up, I felt very odd. Giddy, almost. It felt very strange (relative to all the other strangeness, that is). I felt almost like I couldn't take anything seriously. I felt like I was dreaming! And nothing bad could happen in a dream. Right?

Although I'm sure it only took a second or two, I felt as if I was moving in slow motion. Even though the Window was huge, there was no way I could fit through it with wings fully spread. Besides, the flying glass might've hurt my wing membranes.

Using the knowledge imparted to me by the thorn, I surrounded myself with a sort of magical arrowhead. Made to puncture right through the weak spot in the barrier at the center of the Window. I also used my mind to help push my body into the air. That took a lot of effort, but it worked.

The barrier distorted as I contacted it, tried to throw me back. It was cold and unyielding, but not for long. The barrier shattered just as the Rose Window did.

I felt a twinge of guilt as the Window broke into thousands of shining fragments, each still beautiful in its own way. As soon as I was clear of the flying fragments I opened my wings for that first downstroke, feeling much more power in my flight muscles, and I pumped them to gain altitude.

It didn't take me long to locate my mother and the HUGE dragon that had been the human mage. But they were so far away! I sped towards them as fast as I could, and screamed towards her, I'm on the way mother! On the wing, too!

Glad to have you my son! Even though you might regret it later. But there's no time for that now. Use your Thorn-knowledge to gain altitude and get into the sun's glare!

I knew what she was planning. The overcast was almost gone, now. With only a few puffy clouds left peppering the sky around me. I pumped my winds even more, going just high enough, and focusing on my invisibility spell (it was true invisibility this time! The sun gave a bit of redundancy.)

Somehow mother'd pulled off some maneuver that was leading them right towards me. As they got closer, I saw the man-mage-dragon I more detail.

The back of his head was a tangle of horns, with a short pug snout. Ugly as hell. He was a sooty black in color, and his belly seemed to be a dull red. His eyes glowed the same color, and seemed oversizes compared to the rest of his head.. I heard him yell even from where I was, "I'm going to KILL you Zephyr! You'll pay for what you did to me!"

"What?" My mother replied. "Just because I made your outside match your inside? I thought scar tissue becomes you!"

The mage's response was another roar of anger. That was my cue. Without a thought as to how I was doing it, I let loose a barrage of intense blue fireballs as such a rate even mother seemed surprised for a moment. They made direct hits, but didn't seem to be doing any real damage! But they distracted him long enough for my mother to do her own disappearing act and leave the mage wondering what was happening. He roared again as we flew off to the practice area to regroup.

I landed, and mother appeared in front of me. She didn't look too good, there were streaks of soot along her white sides, and bloody slashes here and there, and I commented on that. "If I'd hadn't had one of my own shields up I'd be a cinder right now. You've grown," she said, looking me over.

"I have, haven't I?" I said confidently. I felt better than I ever had!

"'Bane's effects are more than physical, my son. Watch that you don't get overconfident. It won't take him long to find us..." she looked out towards the house and its environs.

The town of Nighthaven was burning. Great billows of smoke climbed into the sky darkening it once more. Only a smattering of puffball clouds were left. "How big is he? I'm still a poor judge of size like this."

"Almost a hundred fifty feet long. He's a Night Dragon. They're usually nocturnal, but I think he doesn't care."

"No kidding. If we don't stop him soon, mother, then he'll kill everyone in the region! I think the 'bane thorns have driven him quite insane. As if he wasn't already! But I want a piece of him!"

"So do I. But don't let your emotions get the better of you. I think I'm going to have a lot of use for that temporary knowledge of yours. So this is what we're going to do..."

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I didn't like the plan very much, that much was sure. It involved certain... risks that took the fun right out of my mood. "Are you sure you want to do this, mother?"

"No. But it's the only way." The plan was fairly simple. Mother would act as bait leading him to me, while I used my enhanced powers to hide my presence. And when he got between us we'd use our combined magic-enhanced flame to cut through his shield like the proverbial hot knife.

Of course, we'd be naive to believe that he didn't know I was here, but we couldn't be sure. So it was a risk we had to take. The idea was for me to be on the ground, and then mother would bring him by at a very low altitude. Then I'd get him with what can only be called "The Big One," a bit of power-knowledge that I'd found implanted somewhere in my head. It'd make whatever he could do look like a candle in comparison! But I could only do it once. So this shot would have to count...

I waited at the spot. And waited, and waited... But she didn't come. Something's wrong, I thought. Very wrong.

As if in response to my feeling, I heard, just in audible range, the scream of a dragon. Punctuated by an mental one that momentarily deafened me. I was in the air before it was half finished, going as fast as I could go. I flew in the direction of the scream, and a moment or two later I saw her. Laying motionless on the grassy Plain, surrounded by an incredibly large pool of blood. She looked... she looked... I saw her chest rise and fall. She wasn't dead!

But her wings were crumpled and broken, the membranes slashed by huge claws. I landed and held onto her beautiful white head. "Mother! Mother, can you hear me?? What happened?"

Her breathing was shallow and rough. "He caught me by surprise. I'm..." breathe "I'm barely holding myself together. He knows about you, Orin. And now, now..." breathe "Now he's off to kill your father and the rest of our family. He wants to do that first before finishing me off. I've called for reinforcements, I'd hoped I'd not have to call in any other dragons, but I think what he did to me warrants it. I'm going to need a Dragon Healer as it is... Now GO. The other dragons won't be here for a while yet. You need to keep him busy until they do get here! I'll keep alive..." She looked at me and grinned. "I have a lot to live for, now. GO!"

I leapt into the sky and headed for the house. I didn't see him anywhere, but I wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. There was more screaming as I landed on the Chapel roof, I decided that now was the time to reveal myself to him. So I waited. Just below me was what was left of the Window. I waited there long enough for a few that were curious enough to let it overcome their fear come out. Of course, since I knew what was coming, I immediately boomed, "Everyone! Get back inside and stay there!" Most did, except my father and brothers. "I thought I told you to get inside!"

"Well," my father began. "We will, in a minute. But I think I should tell you, I've been... remembering things. And so have your brothers. I can't really describe it. But it's like a great weight has been lifted from our minds! I'm just remembering that little talk I had with you! I've been telling your brothers the whole story!"

"Well good. That simplifies things. Now get inside! This is my fight!"

They started to move, and I heard Brennan say, under his breath, "I can't believe my little brother is a dragon. I can't I be a dragon?"

For some reason his words filled my sense of pride to overflowing, which probably made my next action seem a little over the top. I posed on the roof dramatically, and yelled into the sky, "face me! Coward! Come and meet your DOOM!!"

It appeared as though he'd discovered his invisibility ability. Because he appeared maybe a five hundred feet above me. Circling. "So you're the other dragon I sensed." He boomed matter-of-factly. "Not very impressive, are you?"

I grinned inwardly, and shot a narrow stream of flame that was easily strong enough to be accurate to a thousand feet. He had a shield up, but the firestream was intense enough to bore through the shield he had around him and carve a blackened strip lengthwise down his belly. He screamed in pain. "Gotcha," I said, grinning.

"I'll kill you for that!" He yelled.

"So what else is new?" I said didactically. But he was going the wrong direction, so I took the opportunity to slap a shield on the Chapel where most people were, and I sprang into the air. "You'll have to catch me first!" The chase began.

I was maybe fifty feet long enhanced like this, but he was three times that size. His wings covered close to a half acre! He had the speed, but I had the maneuverability. And my mind was clearer than his. Which gave me a better advantage than mere strength.

The sky was smoky, up to a certain level. Below that smoke it was very dark and gloomy. I rose above into the sun around five thousand feet above the Plain, and tried to use my invisibility spell. But it didn't work. I must have exhausted that ability! I thought. This is bad...

To punctuate my thought, the dragon-man suddenly rose into the clear air behind me, roaring. Before I shut my wings and dove into the smoke again, to keep him off balance, I noticed that he seemed blinded by the light! I reversed direction in my dive. I'm going to have to do "The Big One," I thought. If those reinforcements don't get here soon I'll have no other choice! But there remained the right spot to find to do it... And there was only one place appropriate enough. I sped towards the rocks of the flame practice area, otherwise known as the "Rockpile."

He was behind me the whole way, but my magically enhanced speed kept me once skip ahead. The next bit required some fancy flying... something mother said I had knack for. "Okay, scales-for-brains! Let's play follow-the-leader!" The rocks closed in. I pumped my wings, my muscles beginning to burn with fatigue.

Calling the flame practice area a "rock pile" is like calling the Tower an anthill. The peak was maybe fifteen hundred feet above the Plain, the whole formation maybe a few square miles of ledges and canyons and overhangs. Perfect. Just before I entered, though, I felt some jolting on the shield I had around me. Glancing back, I saw he was fireballs like I could! Damn! Just what else can this guy do?

As I entered one of the first canyons, I found out. He started shrinking to about my size, and started going even faster than he already had been. But he was a rather clumsy flier, something I was counting on.

The walls closed in around us, and there were dozens of twists and turns. Making it quite a challenge. I shrunk a bit to give myself a bit more maneuvering space. He followed, yelling something I could only barely make out, "When I'm done with you I'll go and take care of your mother! I should have known she had a child! She had too much hope over those years I locked her to that Tower!" Then he laughed maniacally.

That tears it! Fireballs flashed by me, narrowly missing my wings and bouncing off my shield, which was growing thin. The canyon had many twists and turns, most of his balls resulted in large explosions in the sides of the canyon, and he had to dodge the rockfalls. But there was one place close by that I'd been fooling with. The Narrows. The only way to get through it was to either pull up and avoid it, or go right through it on one's side in a quarter-roll. At least, that's what I thought was the way through. I hadn't tried it yet. Well, there's a first time for everything. A stinging on my shoulders told me my shield was failing.

It appeared a bit faster than I expected, it was around a very tight corner so he never knew it was coming. But I was prepared... the wind rushed by my ears, and I blocked out all else but what I was about to do. The world slowed down... It came... I tilted... and I made it! "Yahoo!!" That was the understatement of the century! "I want to do that again!"

The Narrows itself are two cliff faces a thousand feet high, and beyond is a very open area. He had to pull almost straight up and over, giving me enough time to get some space between us. And enough time to set up for the Big One. I settled on the Pinnacle, the highest peak in the Rockpile.

I started taking deep breaths, feeling the force starting to build inside of me. I saw him finally rise above the side of the cliff, he then saw me, and expanded back to his former huge size. I took my deepest breath, and waited... he got within range, his rage clearly overcoming his sense of caution. More fireballs blasted out of his muzzle, all missing me by a mile he was so angry. Which is about what I expected.

My chest started to glow visibly. But something... a mental pressure... made me hold back. Then I heard a voice, and unfamiliar, but friendly, voice. No need, brother dragon. As the humans say, the cavalry has arrived! About six other dragons of varying kinds suddenly appears out of nowhere, shooting flame. We just need you do to one thing. Blind him! The male voice said.

Blind him? What? I responded.

He's a nocturnal type! Any bright light will blind him! That's why he brought up all the smoke! You know how to do it! And you're the only one in a position to do it!

Okay, okay! Don't rush me! I hadn't progressed too far in my charging up, so I redirected the energy from the Big One into a kind of Big Flash. A sort of fireball that would explode on contact.

He was a bit distracted by the others, and the surprisingly dim (as yet) and compact fireball leapt from between my jaws with incredible speed. Cover your eyes! I yelled mentally, and did the same.

The flash that followed I could even see through my eyelids. It must've been brighter than the sun! Now! Get up here with us and we'll finish it! the voice said, I noticed it seemed to be coming from a red dragon the same kind that I normally was. I took off.

He was flailing about the sky, as blind as a bat. How he kept in the air without falling was a mystery. The seven of us weaved around him, peppering him with firestreams, blasts, fireballs, and whatever else we could do. His shield began to falter! It flickered and went out! At that cue, we all surrounded him and blasted him with the hottest flame we could manage. The result was surprising.

Well, mom did say the effects would be temporary. I guess he didn't listen to her. Too bad for him. Out of the cloud of smoke and stench of burning flesh, a charred human body fell. Down, down, down, into the rocky crags of the deepest canyon in the Rockpile. Never to be seen again.

"Good riddance!" I said, the incredible rush of battle slowly ebbing from my veins. I looked at the other dragons. Then I remembered... "MOTHER!!"

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I found her surrounded by two other dragons, dragons who looked rather strange. They had no wings to speak of, and were long and snake-like. And a bright gold or silver in color. Eastern Dragons! I thought, recognizing them from the guidebook. The most rarely sighted in this part of the world! What could have brought them here?

I landed right next to them, they had all sorts of strange instruments. "Mother! Are you all right?"

"She cannot hear you," said one in halting words. "She was... hurt... very badly. We need to move her very soon to a better place to work on her."

"Will she ever fly again?" She was alive, that much was certain. That made the situation a bit more bearable.

"We do not know. He did a lot of damage to her wings."

The other dragons landed behind me, one who was a Two-horn like I was, only red, put his clawed hand on my shoulder in comfort, then he said, "The job isn't finished yet, youngling. There is still a taint upon those at the house, not to mention the whole house itself and the Tower."

I sighed. Mother wouldn't want me to leave a job unfinished. Besides, I didn't know just how much longer my own 'bane thorn would last. "What do you need me to do?"

It shocked me at first, but as I rolled around what he said I must do in my head I debated what the best way to do it was. I landed just in front of the shattered Rose Window (feeling a stab of guilt at that once more) fatigue starting to overtake me. But once this last thing was finished, I could rest. My stomach was so empty I felt like I could eat a cow! Come to think of it I probably would...

"It's safe to come out now!" I boomed. Nobody came. "Come on, father. I'm not going to eat you!"

He came out, slowly, a moment later. "Don't tell me you've forgotten again." I said, concerned.

"No. I'm just having trouble convincing your brothers. They're scared that you're going to flame them where they stand." Considering what the other dragon told me I had to do, that fear was probably justified. "We're coming out," he finished. I turned on my Vision.

The taint was there, but not quite as strong. My entire family, less my mother of course, was standing in front of me. Looking at me in awe and fear. The latter expression made me feel somewhat awkward. "Come on, everyone. I'm still Orin!" I said as confidently as I could. "But I'm going to have to apologize for what I'm about to do. Don't worry, it'll be quite painless." As fast as I could I inhaled, then blasted my family with fire.

Don't get me wrong. This wasn't physical fire of any kind. The effects were on a whole other Plane. Or so my thorn-induced knowledge was telling me. I was burning away the taint of the mage, bringing out the kind of people my father and brothers really were. I saw the green taint burn away, a little slow for comfort. And my family was too shocked to even move, fortunately. When I saw that it was all gone, I stopped to catch my breath.

"I'm not dead?!" My father said shockedly.

"No. How do you feel?"

"Um... I. Excuse me, my son. That little thing you did caught us all off guard." I'll say. Brennan had fainted. "But my mind is clearer than it's ever been in twenty years! Do you think that thing you did will work on Rendic and his daughter?"

I thought a moment. "We can try." The man was brought out, reluctantly. His daughter predictably fainted when she saw me. "I hope you're not afraid of fire," I said, then repeated my trick with my father not even flinching this time. The taint took a lot longer to clear than the one on my family. Probably because the mage had had a lot more time to work on them. But eventually the taint was burned away. His face went blank, and a look of complete astonishment appeared on his fat face. He was led away by my father, speechless.

His daughter on the other hand, surprised me with what she did. She opened her eyes, looked at me, and said, "Oooh! A dragon! I've always wanted a dragon! Maybe Daddy will buy you from what's-his-name! I'll go ask..." and she got up to find her father. Well, not much difference there. But at least she didn't faint.

That started a trend. Once my brothers regained their courage, with the help of Nanny (I let her hug me around the muzzle) they brought the servants, which I then bathed in the same magical fire. Cleaning them off, too. "You are to close your eyes and stand firm!" my father would say before I did each group. "That is not the dragon that burned Nighthaven. That is Orin! And you all know him. He won't hurt you, not by any means. Even though he looks like he could bite the heads off of cows."

Gee dad, thanks, I thought sarcastically. Then I'd go through the whole thing again. But there weren't too many groups. Which was a good thing, since I was running out of fuel. I could feel it.

The last brought out to me was Father Levy, and to my surprise I saw not one bit of taint on him. Nanny was talking with him. "Don't bother, Nanny. He's clean." I said.

"He is? Well, imagine that..." Nanny said.

"I could have told you that, my son. And I really should say you make quite a handsome dragon. And I would have performed the ceremony even if I had known what you were. I really must say that there was always something strange about your soul. Glad to see it wasn't anything evil. Now, what's for dinner tonight, Nanny? I'm famished." With that, he strode off to the Great Room.

I kept myself from gaping somehow, but not by much. "Well, I guess my job is finished..." I said.

"Not quite," said a familiar voice behind me, the red dragon landed. "You still have to burn the taint from the house. But I sense you're nearly empty on fuel. Do you happen to have any 'bane tea around? I could use some myself."

I sighed. "Sorry, I forgot. It's been a long day." One of the servants went to start up a large kettle.

"I know. Your mother is being brought here, by the way. They managed to cram her back into that hew-man form that she can do. Why she uses it so often I can't even begin to guess."

I didn't have the heart to tell him I was a weredragon, because apparently mother hadn't told him in so many words. He probably thought it was just some odd magical ability. It seemed he thought that this was how I normally looked, considering the relative ease Nanny was looking at me with. "Nice place, though. I've not been in the area in a few centuries, glad to see it's being put into good claws."


"Your are going to take over from your mother, aren't you? You don't have to, you know. But it's considered proper for a descendent to take over when a parent can no longer do the job."

For some reason that offended me. "Look," I began, putting as much vehemence as I could into my expression. "My mother is going to recover! She's going to fly again! And I'm not going to let you say anything different! Hear me?"

He grimaced (or what I interpreted as a grimace) and quickly said, "Don't get me wrong... She'll heal up. Though how she called in those Eastern types I'll never know."

"You've never seen them before?"

"No. They're not part of the local Enclave. Or any Enclave on this continent, I think. She said she'd gone east some years back. She probably met them there. Speak of the devil, there they are. Hell if I know how they fly without wings..." The dragon spoke with a cordial tone that made him very friendly. I looked up.

They were indeed traveling through the sky in their sinuous way without wings. I gaped in astonishment. Below one that was a bright silver was a sling of some sort, and in it I saw mother in her human form. They were flying towards the Tower, so I sprang into the air and landed there myself, with the other dragon following me. "How is she?"

"She is fine," a smooth female voice said from the silver one with a cat-like face. "But not 'out of the woods' as you say, yet. We must keep her here for the time being. She should wake up soon. We will call you when that happens." That seemed a dismissal. Besides, I wanted to have the job finished by the time she woke up, so I glided back down to the Courtyard, where a large kettle of tea had been brought. Two, actually. One for my red friend. "Drink up! Youngling. This is good stuff!" He said, guzzling a bit himself.

It tasted wonderful but as I drank it I felt what could only be called a flicker in my enhanced powers. I'll have to do this quick... I thought. If felt the tea work up a fire inside me, then I leapt back into the air, and took a deep breath.

Using my Vision, I saw that the taint began about a hundred feet away from the last part of the house. It clung to the ground like some sort of green moss. I leveled off about a hundred feet off the ground, and blasted as hard as I could. Making a swath about a hundred feet wide. It was going to take some time, I noticed.

Even though the death of the mage had shaken the spell somewhat, it still took two passes over the entire house to clear it enough. People ran in terror at the intangible flame that would reach from roof to basement, regardless of walls, closed windows, or doors. I must have driven several people mad in the process. But there was no alternative. If any of the taint was left, then there was a chance of it infecting my family once more. At least that's what Red (my name for him, it fits) told me.

As I finished my final pass, my powers started to flicker more and more often. What's more, I felt that my body would want to return to human form once my powers left completely. So I landed in the Courtyard as fast as I could, starting to feel dizzy and nauseated. "Good job youngling!" Red said. "You got it all! Are you okay?"

I felt myself suddenly start to shrink. So fast that I got way too dizzy, and I passed out...

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Voices. I heard voices in my dreams. "There will be consequences," my mother was saying in my dream. Her dream-figure spread her vestigial wings in human form. "But not all the consequences will be as tangible as this. We are weredragons. Both human, and dragon. Not welcomed in either society. And stigmatized once discovered, like all werecreatures."

"Mother," my dream self said. "You don't have to apologize. I knew what I was getting into when I ate the thorn. I'm just glad you're alive." Her dream figure became bloody and pale.

"Yes, I'm alive. But only barely. Which is why I'm going to be leaving you."

"Leaving? What do you mean?"

"You will find out when you awaken. I'm just sorry that I can't take you with me..."

The dream ended in a swirl of colors, and the feeling of a wet towel across my forehead. I reached up with my right arm to stop it, only to find it was securely bound to the bed. "Nanny?" I said in a weak voice.

"You're awake. Good."

"How long have I been out?"

"Three days. Whatever you did to yourself exhausted your body completely. I'm just glad you're still alive to say my name."

"Why is my arm tied to the bed?" Something felt different about it. But I couldn't quite put my finger on it... but that was it. I felt no hair on that arm, claws on the ends of my fingers, and an elbow spike. "Consequences..." I said aloud. "I can't be fully human anymore." I expected it, but somehow actually facing the prospect was different. I cried myself back to sleep.

I was up and around the next day. I recovered fairly quickly, and I was anxious to see my mother. As I waited for Nanny to bring me news of her, I looked at my right arm. I'd been right. What Tilda had accidentally done to me not a few days ago was now reality. My right arm was now a smaller version of my dragonform's. I'm going to have to find ways to hide this. Not to mention the fact that my right hand was my writing hand. So even keeping the books would be nearly impossible. "Mother implied that this might alter my life forever. I guess she wasn't lying." Nanny walked in, "So, when can I go up and see her?" But she was hesitant. "What?"

"She's... she's... uh..."

"She's what?" I had a bad feeling...

"She's gone, Orin."

"GONE??" Before she could say another word, I sprang out of bed in my night clothes and ran for the Tower. Up the stairs I went, to a very quiet space. Quiet, but for one red dragon in my mother's sleeping room. "Where is she?!" I yelled.

He seemed startled, and not a bit uncomfortable at my presence. In that moment I knew what my mother meant when she said "stigma" in my dream. Red was clearly uncomfortable in my presence. "She's, uh, gone Orin. Those strange Eastern dragons took her last night. Hell if I know where, East I suppose, but take a look at this note that she left me. I can't read it, but I think it's for me. Nanny, I think her name is, read it to me already. But part of this note is for you." I took the relatively large sheet from his claws.

My son, the note began. I'm sorry to leave so abruptly like this, but there are several reasons for it. Not the least of which is that the my Eastern friends have certain healing techniques that we lack. So with luck I'll be flying again soon. But this means that I'd leave the house unprotected. I can't allow that. So Shaq here is going to do so in my stead. He's a very honorable dragon, as I'm sure you've discovered. He and I have been friends for decades. But there's one thing he never knew about me. He didn't know I was a weredragon. He has a few strong opinions on that matter, I'm afraid. And frankly he doesn't think you can do the job of protecting the place. I'm sorry. Yeah, sure. I mean geez! I'm nearly twenty years old!

I read onward. I did get him to be your teacher in our ways, however. While you're in dragonform you are to obey him implicitly. He is the final judge in such things. Then there seemed to be almost a sigh in the letter. I'm also sure you've found out that your arm is stuck. Nanny told me. I have to admit I'm jealous, a bit. That will be rather easy to hide. And I wish you luck.

And lastly, your father thinks you a hero! Enjoy that while it lasts. Good luck, my son. My love is ever with you and your father. Zephyr.

Shaq was giving me a distasteful look. "I'm only doing this out of honor for your mother, no matter what both your species happens to be! I just wanted you to know that. And I'm not a easy teacher. And you do need to be taught. That much is certain. Even a halfling like your mother knows what it means to be Dragon. So you should too, even though you're not as much Dragon as your mother is. So if you don't mind, I'm going to settle in here." Then he turned his back on me, his tail making a dismissive gesture.

I only glided down to the courtyard, but even that nearly exhausted me. Nanny and father were waiting in my room with a plate of hot food. "A hero's meal, my son. You deserve it! Zeph would be proud of you! I am!"

I could already tell it was going to be too much. Between the hateful looks of Shaq and the over-flattering compliments from my father (though I did enjoy sitting at the head table) I was thoroughly confused by three days after the fight.

Among other things, it seemed that the Duke had had a change of heart. The fat man was a very different person without the mage's taint. Honorable to a tee, he and my father worked out an agreement to share his riches between them, in effect melding their lands together. Nighthaven would be rebuilt. And the Window would be redone, too. Better than the last time, as well. I heard the craftsmen boasting about it. "It'll be dragon-proof!" They were saying.

Yeah. Sure.

It seemed one of the side effects of my cleansing fire was the return of Marcum's memory. He clearly remembered seeing me fall off the Tower, and change into a dragon. Why he never said anything before his encounter with the Raiders I'll never know.

The servants had varying reactions to me. Father insisted that I not hide my permanently altered arm any. He thought it a kind of badge of honor, even. And then there were the learning sessions with Shaq...

He yelled at me, cursed at me! Tore apart my self-esteem at the seams! He hated me, and I got no respect from him. It seemed he considered my mother a natural dragon, and me the weredragon. I came away from the sessions near to tears. But I could never show my emotions, or he would cuff me without cutting me with his claws. He'd step on my tail. It was completely intolerable. And I said as much to my father. "Don't worry about it. I had to go through much the same thing when I was in the Guard. Builds character."

Yeah. Right.

Shaq apparently respected my father quite a lot, which was funny, considering. Once I heard them talking while I was sitting on the Library roof doing a bit of bookkeeping (I'd worked out a way to use my claws almost like pens). "So, he fell into the canyon, but you never found a body?" My father said.

"No, and we searched everywhere. Now there was a small river in that ravine. So that might explain it." Shaq had replied.

The thought that they'd never found a body made me feel very uneasy. And I went back to my tomes.

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I woke up the two days later feeling very odd. It was very early, nobody except sentries were up as yet. The mage-clock alarm hadn't gone off yet, either.

I carefully got out of bed and got dressed. I'd been getting stir crazy of late, but even through that I didn't leave the house (It took me two hours to talk father out of the notion of giving me a parade). As an afterthought I grabbed a large cloak from my closet, shoved a few more things into a couple of saddlebags (some money, a few necessities, my full teabox). I then carefully wrapped my arm and hand in such a way that I could still have some use of it, yet reveal nothing. Then headed for the Stable.

The horses inside didn't freak out for once. Odd, I thought. I grabbled Star's saddle, and walked over to his stall. He seemed almost to be waiting there for me. As if expecting me to show up. His eternally-bored expression changed for a moment to anticipation, even eagerness. "You want to go somewhere, boy?" I asked quietly. He nodded, as if understanding me.

I felt just a little guilty about taking my father's only stallion (over half of our horses had been scared off by the mage). But as it was he'd given him to me officially yesterday anyway. So the guilt was lessened. I saddled him up, made sure the covering on my altered arm was secure, and rode out of the Stable for perhaps the last time.

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A fork in the road. Which way should I take? I thought. A moment of indecision. Of deep thought. There was a tingle on my chest, and I grabbed my eggshell pendant. But that was no help. I'd discovered that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't speak to my mother. The only impression I got from it was "East." The direction I was already facing. Neither path seemed any more likely than the other. So I shrugged, and let Star decide.

East we were going, Star and I. Where the road would take us, what adventures it would give us, would happen all in good time.