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Circe Treatment story universe
Author: Bryan

It was the first week of summer, and as young folk had been doing for generations Danny and Charles were running amuck after school 'officially' let out. Never mind that most high school students didn't go to a physical school in the traditional sense any more; it was a semi-official holiday, a recognized tradition. The Department of Education tutor servers were down for the yearly updates, and that was a good enough excuse. They had two weeks with absolutely nothing they had to do.

Of course, there wasn't much that Danny and Charles could do in that period that they couldn't already do at any other time; the only real difference was that there was much more time to do it in. They both lived in the English countryside, in a beautiful region of forest and meadow just east of Wales. It was very picturesque and peaceful, mostly due to the fact that it was a class three population-controlled area. It was an intentional throwback, with small farms each run by an independent family such as Danny's forming the bulk of the local structures. It was like a historical reserve, preserving a setting that had become uneconomical to maintain on a global scale.

Charles and Danny were best friends, despite their apparent social differences. While Danny's parents only got to live here because they were actual farmers, Charles' family was simply rich. His mother was a renowned architect who designed shallow-ocean habitats; she had literally designed small cities in the sea, both above and below the waves. For some reason, though, she loved the landlocked countryside enough to buy one of the highly expensive non-farm houses out here to live in and work from. Danny personally couldn't see the appeal of living underwater either, but who was he to judge people's chosen lifestyles?

Fortunately, Danny sometimes reflected, the government wasn't much interested in people's lifestyles either. The countryside might superficially look like it was from another era, but superficial appearances were virtually all that was regulated here. Under the painted wooden exterior of his family's house were all the appliances and technologies of the average middle- class dwelling. Danny was an avid history buff but he wouldn't want to actually live in any period of the past. He had the best of both worlds; beautiful green countryside, no big cities or skyways nearby, yet full net access that put the entire 21st century world in easy reach should he want it.

On the other hand the transit systems did leave something to be desired. Danny walked along the rough dirt road beside the woods, kicking pebbles as he went. He was on his way to meet with Charles for a full day of intense goofing off at their favorite private goofing-off center, and it would take him an hour to get there on foot.

Their cave wasn't much to look at, really; just a low hill in the woods with a wide but brush-covered hole at its base. But it was a limestone cave, quite sturdy actually, and the single rough room inside was open and relatively free of rubble. They used it as their hangout, and though it wasn't really a secret it was almost as good as if it had been. When Danny arrived Charles was already waiting outside the entrance for him. They pulled the brush that covered the hole aside and hopped in, Danny leading the way with the electric torch and habitually checking underfoot for badgers and such as he went. The cave was totally familiar, but there was always the possibility of a new interloper to be chased off.

Danny suddenly froze, Charles almost bumping into him. "Hey, what..." Charles began, but cut off almost immediately as he saw what had stopped Danny; the cave had changed, and to a much larger degree than the usual rain-washed accumulation of debris that sometimes occurred after a storm. The big boulder that had always rested at the back of the small cavern had shifted slightly.

They wordlessly crept over to examine it, and Danny whistled in amazement. The boulder was five feet across and must have weighted several tons, and what's more its base had been buried in the dirt and rubble that covered the cave's solid floor to a depth of several feet. Yet the dirt had been ploughed aside as the rock had shifted at least two feet away from the wall. "It's moved," Charles commented.

Danny pointed to the ridge of dirt it had pushed up. "Look at that. It doesn't look like it rolled, it looks like it slid. Maybe someone tried to pull it out?"

"Why would anyone want to?" Charles peered into the newly exposed gap between the rock and the wall. "Holy shit, maybe someone would. I think there's a tunnel back here!"

"No!" Danny said disbelievingly, and shone the torch into the gap. "You're right!" Clearly there was a tunnel, just barely visible. Or at least a large niche in the wall. Danny was suddenly very nervous as a half-dozen wild theories came to him.

Charles was obviously thinking along the same lines. "Perhaps... there was something hidden back there? Someone came to get it?"

"I don't know," Danny muttered, straining to look deeper into the hole. This was all so unexpected, yet strangely it was just like some of the wild stories they'd thought up during the many hours they'd hung out here. Hidden treasure, buried bodies, and worse. The difference was that they'd never had reason to believe that there was anything unusual about their hangout before. Starting to squeeze his body into the gap, Danny said "Let's find out."

"Hey, wait," Charles exclaimed, "just a sec!" Danny hesitated, but reluctantly. He had a thing about doing dumb, daring things; he preferred to get them over with quickly before he could fully analyze them and end up backing down to his cowardly better judgement. "We shouldn't jump into this unprepared," Charles continued reasonably. "What if the boulder shifts again while we're inside? What if there're animals in there?"

Danny pulled out and dusted himself off. "Okay," he said shakily. It would take a few minutes to work up the nerve to try going in again, but perhaps it was for the best. They wedged several stone shards between the boulder and wall and Danny went briefly went out of the cave and came back with several long sticks suitable for probing dark recesses. At the same time he checked for signs of the equipment that would have almost certainly been necessary to pull the boulder away from the wall; there were none. It was still a mystery.

This was pretty exciting, Danny thought.

Finally they had everything in place, and all that was left was the actual exploring. Danny hesitated at the gap, his initial impulse now overwhelmed by caution. Charles poked his stick as far into the hole behind the boulder as he could. "I can't find the back, it's big back there," he commented and then glanced over at Danny.

Danny swallowed nervously. "Hand me the torch," he said at last. "Let's see what's in there." Flashlight in hand, Danny once again forced himself into the two-foot gap. The hole in the wall only came up to his waist, and he leaned down to look into it. Danny whistled in awe.

"What? What is it?" Charles demanded urgently.

"It's a tunnel!" Danny exclaimed without straightening up, his voice echoing slightly. "About four feet across, it goes back at least ten feet!" He shifted and squeezed fully behind the boulder, and found himself crouched in the tunnel entrance. There was a pile of dirt and rocks behind the boulder that made it a little cramped in there, but the beam of the flashlight revealed that the tunnel widened immediately as it curved downward ahead. The walls were smooth and rounded, the floor covered by an even layer of silty soil.

"Danny, wait! Maybe we shouldn't go in there..."

Danny was having similar doubts, but he realized he could hardly back out now; the curiosity would kill him. "It's okay," he tried to reassure both Charles and himself. "There're two of us, if one of us gets in trouble the other can help. Like the buddy system real cavers use, and our parents know where we are in any case. Besides, if we don't then who will? It's our cave, we should check it out."

There was a moment's silence, and then a scuffling as Charles began squeezing in after Danny. "All right," he muttered, "but wait for me." Danny almost sighed in relief; he really hadn't wanted to go any deeper on his own.

Charles finally squatted next to Danny, and they peered down the tunnel while he caught his breath. "Look at the soot" Charles commented, and Danny followed his finger; the roof of the tunnel was covered in it, though it was scraped off in places as if by something almost a bit too large for the tunnel. "From torches, perhaps?"

Danny nodded. "Probably. Looks like we aren't the first in here, but look at the dust. This place must have been sealed for a long time." He crawled forward a bit, noting how he scuffled the dirt and dust with his feet. There were no footprints in them other than their own.

"Oh, good" Charles sighed, also noting that there were no other tracks. "That means we're alone in here. I wonder what moved the boulder, then?"

Danny didn't answer, as he peered down around the bend that had blocked his view. The flashlight didn't reveal much, but one thing was clear. "It gets way bigger over here," he called back. Charles cautiously crawled over to join him.

"Wow, it looks like it's even bigger than the cave, up ahead. Our cave back there, I mean. HELLO!" The only reply to Charles's shout was a faint echo, which further demonstrated the size of the cavern ahead. The two boys waited for another moment.

"Well, let's go see what's there," Danny said at last and again took the lead, Charles following close behind. Danny reached the end of the tunnel and stood up just outside it, stopping to check out the new cave before going further. "Holy shit!"

"Ow!" Charles had jumped slightly at Danny's exclamation, and banged his head on the low tunnel ceiling. "What is it?"

"You've gotta see this! It looks like dinosaur bones or something!"

Charles squeezed past Danny and stood up beside him at the tunnel's mouth. Then he emitted an oath of his own, staring in shock at the huge white ribs Danny's flashlight beam revealed, lying about twenty feet away. Danny adjusted the width of the beam, flooding the rest of the large room with light and revealing the skeleton in all its menace. The boys flinched back at the sight of the horned lizard-like skull, the taloned feet, and the... wings?

"That's no dinosaur I've ever seen," Charles whispered. It was clearly huge and reptilian, perhaps fifty feet long if the long neck and tail were stretched out straight; but there also appeared to be the bones of huge bat-like wings folded against that enormous rib cage in addition to a pair of large forelegs. Plus, it was clearly not fossilized; there even appeared to be leathery scraps of mummified flesh stretched over some of it.

"It's a dragon," Danny whispered back. "A goddamned dragon. In our cave."

"It's dead," Charles whispered back. Then he realized what a stupid thing that was to say; of course it was dead. It wasn't even supposed to have existed in the first place. Charles caught himself slowly crouching back into the tunnel he'd came from, away from the thing; he had to force himself not to back up all the way to the much more familiar cave above. Danny simply stood and stared.

"If unicorns really used to exist," Danny mused out loud, "then maybe dragons did too?"

Charles shook his head in disbelief. "Unicorns're just horses with horns, that's easy. But that... that..." He was at a loss for words. The return of magic had been precipitated years ago over in America with the recreation of a unicorn from old tissue samples; it had ended up turning a large section of a city into a forest and caused all manner of social disruption around it. But that was long ago and far away, and since then things had settled down even near the forest itself. The survivors had eventually rebuilt around it, bulldozing some parts and putting a fence around the rest. The government had declared it a research reserve, several cults had declared it holy ground, and the only noticeable effect any of this had on the rest of the non- scientific world was the triggering of a few latent werewolves that had survived in the human gene pool since the Old Magic Era ended.

In short, the return of magic had so far had very little impact on Charles' life. It certainly hadn't prepared him to throw all known taxonomy and evolutionary history to the winds like this. Unicorns and werewolves could easily fit into the fossil record; gigantic six-limbed dragons most certainly could not. "Why didn't anyone find bones before?" he wondered out loud.

"They must have been rare, obviously. The loss of magic must have killed 'em all. Maybe they disintegrate." Danny was just as stunned as Charles, but he was excited too; his mind was rapidly overcoming the shock and zooming through wild theories and speculations. "The boulder, maybe the new magic moved it. Or there was old magic trapped in here, sealed in, and..." Danny trailed off, examining the skeleton intently. Ignoring the fact that it was a mummified, disintegrated corpse it almost looked like it was sleeping, curled peacefully in the small (to it) and cosy confines of the cave. There was something almost serene about its repose. "It must have died in its sleep," Danny said quietly.

"Yeah, whatever." Charles noticed the feeling too, but his nervousness kept him distracted.

"He sealed himself in," Danny continued sombrely, "He knew he was dying and sealed himself in. Why?"

"Huh...? Danny? What are you doing?" Charles' nervousness upgraded to anxiousness as Danny stepped toward the dragon's body.

"I saw something," Danny said with renewed energy, his sudden strangely somber mood forgotten. "Look, it's curled around something. They look like..."

"Danny, come back!" Charles cried. "Don't go near that thing!"

"Oh, don't worry; it's quite dead. But look, it was curled around a nest or something! There were eggs, that's what he was protecting!" Danny peered excitedly over the knobby ridge of the dragon's tail, shining the flashlight over it; there was indeed a cluster of watermelon-sized bone-white objects that could only be eggs. They were obviously as old and dry as the dragon that guarded them, but they still seemed to have a strange aura of life about them.

Suddenly, the one nearest to Danny cracked with a sharp snap. Danny yelped and started backing away, excitement at the discovery replaced with fear. "Danny, what is it!?" Charles called desperately, on the verge of panic. Then with a dusty WHOOMP a huge serpentine wraith erupted from the nest to tower over them. Danny fell back and landed helplessly on his butt, the fumbled flashlight keeping a spotlight on the apparition; Charles was frozen in terror at the sight.

Then the ghostly serpent lunged at Danny, who flung his arms over his head and screamed. He vanished in a seething ball of grey vapor as it writhed around him; there was the faint sound of bone popping and cracking, and the flashlight was crushed under a huge weight. In the sudden darkness Danny screamed again, an almost inhuman sound of horror and pain. At that Charles snapped out of his paralysis and bolted back up the tunnel, scrambling frantically on his hands and feet as the dirt-choked passage narrowed. A raw-sounding roar exploded from some monstrous throat behind him with a blast of flames; Charles felt the heat on his back and saw the orange flare reflected off the back of the boulder that blocked the tunnel. He squeezed past it and ran out of the cave, stumbling and hurting from the scrapes and bruises he had suffered in his desperation. He made it several hundred yards before collapsing out of breath, his eyes blurred by the sudden sunlight and tears.

Danny lay sprawled on his back for several minutes, stunned. The cave was suddenly silent again, except for the thudding of his heart and his harsh, labored breathing. He had no idea what had happened, but at least the pain had stopped and he was too exhausted for fear any more. Some... thing, an evil spirit or something, had burst from the egg and attacked him. He remembered the buffeting, the pain; he had screamed and thrashed with all his might trying to fight back, but there had been nothing for him to hit. It had felt like he was being pulled apart, crushed and wrenched by his intangible attacker.

Then, just as he had put all his remaining fear and rage into a scream of defeat, squeezing it out like his final desperate blow, it had stopped. The apparition didn't seem to go away or even dissipate; it simply wasn't there any more, and Danny was left gasping on the floor in the dim orange light. Danny groaned and blinked his eyes as he tried to catch his breath. The light wasn't coming from the sun or the flashlight. Something was burning.

Struggling to control his twitching, tired muscles, Danny strained to raise his head. It was an incredible effort, especially considering that looking up should be easy when one is lying on one's back; it felt almost like his head was tied down with bungee cord or something. But he managed it, and let out a startled yell as he nearly bashed his face into the fire. A patch of the stone ceiling was covered in a burning substance; the smell reminded Danny a bit of kerosene, but it wasn't bothering him despite the amount of smoke starting to build up. He was more bothered by how low the ceiling seemed to be. Had there been a cave in?

Danny let his head drop back to the floor again with an audible clunk, and then took a moment to regather his strength for a larger effort. Panting and groaning deeply, he struggled to roll over onto his stomach in the confines of the strangely shrunken cave. It was harder than he expected, and he trapped his arm painfully under his body in the process. He pushed himself up slightly with his hands, and pulled it out from under him.

Danny froze, confused. His right arm had been stuck under him, and he had used both his left and right arms to lift himself off of it... He looked back at himself, neck making an impossibly long curve. In the fading light of the fire he saw large leathery membranes folded awkwardly at his sides, a long snakelike thing with a deathgrip on his butt, and a dark scaled pattern on his skin.

Danny's talons scraped loudly on the rock as he clutched at the floor and began to hyperventilate again.

Charles also took several minutes to catch his breath and calm down before he could think straight. He was battered and bruised from his mad dash out of the cave and through the woods; but it was a small price to pay for getting away from whatever was back there. He remembered Danny's scream and the sound of cracking bone and shuddered; then he sobbed. It had got Danny, and he had run away. He still wanted to run, as fast and as far as he could get away from the cave.

"Got to get help," he muttered to himself. "Got to... get an ambulance, Danny's hurt..." Charles clenched his eyes in anguish, fighting unwelcome thoughts; Danny's not dead, he's not! He forced himself to get up, to keep running and go for help. Only... Charles frantically checked his pockets. Then he remembered; he'd left his pocket computer in the cave's outer chamber before they'd explored behind the boulder. Charles screamed a curse; it would take him more than half an hour to get to another communication device by foot, but the computer had a cellular link and could call for help immediately.

Plus, he'd left Danny behind. He'd run and Danny had been caught by whatever force was back there, hurt, maybe... Charles screamed again, this time an inarticulate cry of anger and shame. It seemed to help calm his fear, and so he kept screaming. He was psyching himself up to go back. I have to. I have to help Danny.

Danny had used a somewhat quieter method to calm himself; he'd hyperventilated until he'd nearly passed out. The smoky air didn't help either; it must have been getting a bit low on oxygen by now, even if the smoke didn't seem to affect him much.

I'm a dragon, Danny thought deliriously as he recovered. He strained his eyes in the dark, long neck bent back to look at his body but afraid to try moving anything else; he felt too strange and unfamiliar to risk it. I must be hallucinating. Some sort of gas, maybe, from the corpse. Or the broken egg. He glanced at those too, and could make out the skeleton even in the darkness; it hadn't been disturbed by his thrashing, and its sight was oddly reassuring. Maybe not. But what's happened to me, then? He carefully stretched out an arm and flexed it; it was only roughly human-shaped, more akin to a raptor's claw than anything else.

Actually, it resembled the dead dragon's foreleg more than anything else. Danny began comparing what he could see of himself to what the dead dragon must have once looked like, and noted that the only major difference between him and it was size; The dead dragon was more than twice his new length. It was still an awe-inspiring sight, despite being barely visible in the faint sunlight filtering this deep into the cave. But it didn't feel threatening.

A faint scuffling suddenly intruded on his thoughts, breaking his concentration. He strained to hear it, and realized it was coming from the tunnel. He swung his head over to the tunnel's entrance, flinching as he nearly bashed it against the wall. He wasn't used to having such a long neck. He looked down the tunnel, the end lit faintly with twilight filtering into the outer cave and around the boulder's edges. The sound was coming from the outer cave; someone was walking very slowly and quietly out there. But Danny could hear it clearly, along with muffled, terrified breathing.

"Charles?" Danny muttered. Or rather intended to mutter; it came out in a deep, rumbling voice and he fumbled the pronunciation horribly with his new jaws and tongue.

In the cave above Charles heard the noise and froze, heartrate doubling yet again. "Danny?" he whispered loudly after a moment. "Danny, is that you? are you all right?" It hadn't sounded like him, or even like human speech for that matter, but perhaps with the echoes...

"Charles!" this time the voice was clearer, booming up from behind the boulder. Charles jumped back, edging towards the exit. "Charles, it's me! Help!"

"Danny, uh..." Charles had absolutely no idea what to do. Either Danny had found some really weird acoustics, or that wasn't Danny's voice. "What's wrong? What happened?"

"Oh, man! You're not going to believe it, I don't believe it. I'm a dragon!"

"Yeah, right. Stop playing around!" Charles's fear was tinged with anger at the thought that Danny might be playing some trick; he was far too scared for it to be funny. "Come on, what really happened?"

"Please, *urf*, I need help!" Danny struggled to squeeze his enlarged body into the tunnel, but even crawling with his smooth belly on the ground and his huge wings pulled close against his body the fit was too tight. The bony ridge on his spine scraped uncomfortably on the stone ceiling, and he was having enough trouble coordinating his movements already without his limbs scrunched like this. There was no way he could escape without help.

"Danny?" Charles called again, fear quickly rising in his voice at the sound.

Fortunately, Danny's neck was just long enough for his head to reach the back of the boulder even though his body was too wide to get through. He paused to catch his breath, inhaling deeply. He hadn't realized how smoky the dragon's lair had become until he smelled the fresh air from outside. "Charles," he panted, "please, I don't fit. I can't get out."

"I'm not coming over there," Charles warned warily.

"Come on, Charles!" Danny called out desperately. "I'm stuck!" Then he spent a moment calming down and slowing his harsh breathing; he had suddenly realized how horrible he must sound. "Please," he said quietly. "Just come and take a look."

There was a long silence, and then Danny heard faint footsteps as Charles approached cautiously. Danny held still, looking up through the gap between boulder and cave wall; just enough light filtered into the outer cave for him to see the silhouette of Charles' head as he peered over it. Then Charles turned on a pen light, and Danny winced as the sudden brightness caught him unprepared.

Charles reacted somewhat more strongly to the sight of Danny's draconic face; he immediately jumped back out of sight with a loud gasp. "Shit! What's... what are you?"

"It's me, really it is. I don't know what happened." Danny managed to inject a degree of pleading into his rumbling voice; now that the numbness and disbelief were starting to wear off, he was getting pretty scared himself. Charles had been horrified by the sight of his face, so this was obviously no hallucination. "Please, I don't know what happened. I don't know what's happened to me!"

"Okay, okay! Just stay calm!" Danny shut up as Charles inched back to the boulder; this time, he didn't jump back. Danny looked up at him, his eyes eventually getting used to the pen light enough to make out Charles' expression. It was a confused mixture of fear, horror, and fascination, all of which made Danny extremely uncomfortable.

"See?" Danny asked quietly. "It's me."

Charles flinched but remained where he was. "...woah. Is that a... mask? Or something?"

"Believe me, I've checked."

"Uh... I'd better call someone..."

"No!" Charles jumped back out of sight at Danny's sudden exclamation. "Sorry, sorry! I didn't mean to... Charles? are you still there?"

"Yeah. Don't do that!"

"Sorry. I'm a little on edge."

"You're a little on edge! Look, tell me what happened in there! What was that thing that exploded out of the skeleton, and what did it do to you? How do I know you're really Danny? Excuse me for being paranoid!"

"I don't know. It was from an egg, it sort of attacked me. It hurt. Next thing I know, it's gone and I've got scales and claws. To say nothing of the wings, tail... Charles, it's gotta be magic. The Circe treatment doesn't work like this!"

"Look, I'm gonna... I'm gonna call your parents. I can't handle this, I've gotta get help." Charles backed up to the cave entrance, dusting off the portable computer he had retrieved from the floor.

"Wait, uh... don't tell them... the dragon bit. They'll never believe it, or they'll call the police or something. I don't want to go to some lab, please!"

Charles hesitated for a moment, thinking hard. Danny, if the thing in there was Danny, sounded genuinely fearful. And he certainly seemed trapped, if he wasn't he would have come out of there by now. On the other hand... he just couldn't handle this by himself. "I'll just tell them you're trapped, okay? I'll get your dad to come alone."

"Okay." Danny forced himself to settle down to wait, attempting to bite his lip but failing.

Charles called Danny's father, and after a moment he answered. "Hello?"

"Uh, Mr. Manning? This is Charles. There's a little problem at the cave with Danny..."

After convincing Danny's father to come down to the cave with some digging tools without getting too specific, Charles and Danny nervously waited for him to arrive. Charles would ordinarily have been concerned about getting in trouble for their impulsive spelunking expedition, but it's hard to worry about something like that when there's a dragon scant feet away that may be his best friend, or on the other hand may have killed him and be trying to take his place. It was only the fear apparent in the dragon's voice that kept Charles there, against his better judgement. If Charles hadn't heard so many stories over the years about things like the Circe treatment, he wouldn't have even considered the possibility that it was actually Danny in there; it was just too weird.

But as the long wait passed and Danny kept up a quietly desperate dialogue with him, Charles became increasingly convinced it really was Danny. Not only did he know everything Danny should know, but his very style of thought was familiar and distinctively Danny. For instance, Danny was rambling on about his theories of how apparently real dragons now fit into history and legend. He would flesh each one out into an incredibly detailed story, realize that there was absolutely no evidence to support it, and then immediately abandon it to start work on the next one.

In truth, Danny was focusing on the past because the future suddenly felt so threatening; it was rapidly dawning on him that the United Nations Department of Biodiversity would be very interested in getting ahold of him, not to mention the local national security agency. Werewolves only had to register themselves and report for regular examination; what restrictions would a full-blown dragon have? Danny suspected he had just become a fugitive of some sort, and that his initial reflexive fear of police may have been justified. He couldn't think of anyone to turn to for a solution, and couldn't think of any solutions himself.

After about twenty minutes the sound of an approaching tractor filtered down into the cave. Though Danny was deeper underground than Charles, he heard it first and shifted nervously in the tight confines of the tunnel. What, exactly, would he tell his father? Charles, on the other hand, felt relieved; the situation would soon be out of his hands. He rushed out to meet Danny's fatehr.

"Is Danny still alright?" He immediately demanded.

"Yeah, there's no change. He's in here. I think. Listen, uh, Mr. Manning, I didn't tell you everything. Something very weird happened. Uh... Danny's a dragon."

"...what?" Danny's father frowned at Charles, and Charles swallowed hard. "I didn't do it, it was the thing in the cave!" He protested, then realized how silly he was sounding. "Uh, never mind, you'll believe it when you see it. Just trust me, Danny needs help to get out." Danny's father shook his head and followed Charles into the cave.

Danny heard them enter the cave and pulled his head slightly back into the shadows, heart pounding from the tension. He still hadn't thought of what he should say to his father, and he almost wished that he hadn't come to dig him out. His father approached the boulder and looked into the crevice behind it, not seeing the dragon's head hidden in the darkness. "Danny, are you back there? Danny?"

Swallowing hard, Danny shifted his face forward into the light. His father's eyes widened and he flinched back at the sight of him, a terrible but expected and braced-for blow to Danny's mental state. "Dad," he choked, "It's me, please don't go. I need help."

Momentarily caught by something in the dragon's voice, Danny's father didn't go. He looked deeply and searchingly into his son's damp yellow snake-like eyes, and then at last said "All right then, Danny; this'd better be good."

The words came, in an emotional rush.

It took Danny a lot longer to convince his father of his identity than it had taken him to convince Charles; Danny supposed it was understandable, since among other factors he hadn't been asking Charles to actually help free him. But at last he convinced his father at least enough to help him get out. That probably wouldn't be the end of it, he knew, but Danny was getting desperate to leave this tomb and figured he'd be able to think more clearly about it in the light and fresh air. He'd also be able to finally get a clear look at himself, something that he didn't know whether to dread or not. To tell the truth, now that he had worked out a lot of the fear and such, he was starting to get very curious indeed about his new body.

His father had thrown some digging tools into the tractor before coming here, and now he and Charles broke them out to start clearing the thick layer of dirt and rocks the centuries had washed onto the floor of the outer cave. It was several feet deep around the base of the boulder, helping to anchor it in place, and would have to be dug away before his father could try pulling the boulder away from the tunnel with a cable tied to the tractor's hitch.

Danny began to work on his end of the blockage, too. He tore dirt and gravel from the tunnel floor with his bare hands and pushed it back into the lair behind him with his feet, his tough claws and skin allowing him to dig better than if he had been using tools. He discovered that the opening in the actual solid rock was wide enough to fit him, once the rubble in it was removed; the layer of packed dirt and gravel in it wasn't nearly as deep as the one outside, but it was enough to make the difference. It still wasn't nearly wide enough to have passed the dead dragon behind him even after being cleaned, but right now Danny didn't care. He was just interested in getting out and the mystery could wait.

Suddenly there was the sound of stone grinding on stone and a curse from his father outside. The boulder blocking him in had shifted slightly, apparently without assistance. "What happened?" Danny asked, coughing slightly on the dust that filled the smoky air as a result of his digging.

"I... I don't know, the rock just slid," his father replied. "It shouldn't have, the floor isn't sloped. If it's unstable I'd better stop digging around its base and try hitching the cable right away."

"No, I think I understand," Danny told him. "The rock was meant to slide open when the magic returned, but all that dirt must have blocked it. If you keep clearing a path, it might move all by itself!"

"Are you sure?"

"No, but it feels right."

His father shrugged and went back to work, clearing the path a little further. This time he was prepared when the boulder slid a few more inches away from the wall, moving until it ran into the dirt again. "Looks like you're right, it sure slid on its own that time," he muttered.

After ten more minutes of digging and jumping out of the way the boulder stopped moving farther, leaving plenty of room for Danny to squeeze past it into the outer cave. Yet he hung back. "Danny, you gonna come out now?" his father called into the shadowy tunnel, straining to see the shape within.

"Uh... okay," Danny replied hesitantly. "But please don't... don't panic or anything..." Slowly, the tunnel still a tight fit, Danny crawled forward.

"Holy..." he heard his father whisper as his body appeared and his long neck reared his head over the boulder. Danny stopped with his shoulders at the tunnel entrance, almost as stunned; he was lying on his belly, yet his face was easily level with his father's. His father seemed so small!

"Dad..." he whispered, slightly choked with emotion. He hadn't really realized how big he was until now.

"That... that remains to be confirmed," his father said faintly, not quite believing what he was seeing. "Are you coming all the way out?"

Danny bobbed his head slightly, and his father retreated outside as Danny squeezed past the boulder and into the outer cave. It was a somewhat cramped fit, the lair below was much larger than his old hangout. But just as he turned to the exit, eager to get all the way outside, he hesitated and glanced back at the tunnel behind him. Now that it was open, he realized, the dragon's corpse was unprotected from scavengers and the elements. That didn't seem right, and so he spoke a quick guttural phrase.

"lojmIt yISoQmoH."

With a deep rumble the boulder slid back into place, blocking the entrance. Danny did a double-take and stared at it. How the hell did I do that? he wondered. He tried to think for a moment where he had learned that phrase, but it had just seemed like the right thing to say; the equivalent of saying "close the door" to a house or car. One didn't think about such things, one simply did them. Could he open it again? he wondered.

"Danny, are you coming?" Charles called hesitantly from outside, and Danny dropped the matter for now; he had enough to think about already, and he really wanted to get outside. He squeezed through the outer cave's exit, which was just as tight as the tunnel behind him but much shorter, and crawled into the full sunlight.

Danny remained crouched on all fours for a moment as he blinked rapidly and deeply breathed the fresh air, waiting for his eyes to adapt and the headache caused by the stale air in the lair to pass. Then, moving slowly and deliberately, he sat up on his haunches and began to stretch his limbs. After spending so long cramped up in the tunnel the freedom to move felt wonderful and exhilarating, yet a little bit scary too; everything was unfamiliar and strange. Especially his wings!

Danny stretched his wings out, spreading the leathery membranes between their batlike 'fingers'. My wingspan must be at least forty feet! he guessed in awe. He gave them a couple of light test-flaps and felt mighty muscles in his chest operate, but didn't feel much lift being generated. Danny had intellectually realized that it was ridiculous for something as large as a dragon to be able to just flap and fly, or even to be able to fly at all, so he wasn't exactly disappointed; but he also knew that the wings must be for something. For now it felt good enough just move his cramped and disused muscles, however, so he put such considerations out of his mind.

He partially refolded his wings and pulled his tail out of the cave entrance where it still lay, not by simply dragging it behind him but by actually bending it with its own muscles. Then, dropping naturally back to all fours since trying to walk on his hind legs alone felt strange, he prowled a few steps forward and turned to face his father and Charles. They were almost cowering behind the tractor, and Danny was surprised to see that they were so afraid of him. He suddenly realized what he must have looked like rearing up and flapping his wings like he had, and how he must look while crouched on all fours with tail slowly lashing and wings half-spread like he was now. So he forced himself to settle back into a more composed sitting posture. "Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean to look so threatening," He mumbled apologetically. He was glad he hadn't done anything stupid while caught up in the momentary elation of being free, it would have probably blown what little trust he had managed to gain through talking with them while trapped.

This awareness helped dispelled the remaining elation, and the seriousness of the situation returned to his mind. "So," he said as he curved his long neck around to get a view of his body, "How... What do I look like?" What Danny could see was already weird enough, but he didn't have a mirror and he knew that his view from the inside was probably distorted. They were still understandably nervous, however, and they chose to keep their observations silent for now. Danny walked slowly over to the tractor, careful not to make any remotely threatening movements, and tried peering in the rear-view mirror instead.

It was fortunate the mirror was so small and Danny couldn't get a clear view at first, or he would have made a very sudden movement indeed. A lizard-like face looked back at him, slitted yellow irises filling his eyes and green scales covering his blunt toothy snout. Yet there were somewhat non-reptilian features, too; he still had earlobes, for example, though they were erect and pointed like a cat's. He had horns too, but though they weren't as large proportionately as those of the dead dragon in the cave there were still real honest-to-god horns on his head. And that was one of the most minor of the changes, too.

"All right," Danny said at last. "So I'm out. Uh... what next?"

"Well, I guess we'll have to think about that one. Charles, uh, Perhaps you'd better head home now..."

"Okay." Charles walked reluctantly around Danny's side, keeping his distance and his gaze focused on him, heading in the direction of the cave entrance he'd just come out of. "Just a sec, though, I left my computer in there," he said and ducked back inside. A second later he popped back out and exclaimed "the boulder's back against the wall!"

"Danny, did you do that?" His father asked.

"Uh, yeah. I think. I don't know, I just told it to close and it did!" Danny shifted uncomfortably and averted his eyes from his father's glare; he's suspicious of me, he realized. Maybe he thinks my body is hidden in there? On the one hand it hurt for his own father to think he might be an imposter who killed the real Danny, but on the other hand it was a quite understandable and reasonable concern given the circumstances. "Just a sec," Danny said, "I can prove it!" He stuck his head in the cave entrance and spoke a command:

"lojmIt yIpoSmoH!"

And the boulder ground back along the path in the dirt that had been cleared earlier, leaving the tunnel exposed again. Danny blinked in surprise; he hadn't thought before he had acted. I guess I can open it again, after all. He pulled his head back out, looking at the others with a draconic expression of bafflement. "I don't know how I did that," He explained feebly. "I must have learned it somewhere, but I don't remember."

"O...kay..." his father said incredulously. "Charles... you go over to the tractor and wait out here. I'm just going to take a quick look in there. You keep an eye on Danny." Danny realized that he was making sure that he couldn't trap them both in the cave at once, a good precaution. He decided to do his best to go along with it. "I'll stand over there," Danny said, gesturing with his head towards a tree located about a dozen yards away from the cave.

Danny's father nodded and went in, turning on the new flashlight he had brought with him. Danny sat down by the tree to wait.

Danny's father walked in carefully, examining the groove in the dirt that the boulder rested in and shaking his head slightly in puzzlement. There was nothing to indicate how the sliding boulder was moved. He pressed onward, slowly inching down the exposed tunnel and shining the flashlight into every nook and cranny as he went. He had actually explored the outer cave before, to ensure that Danny's 'secret' hangout was safe, but this opening was definitely new to him. Then he reached the chamber beyond, and stopped in awe at the sight of the huge dragon corpse before him. It was more majestic in death than the Danny-dragon outside was in life.

Tearing his attention away from it for a moment, he shone the light around the rest of the room searching for any clues as to what had happened. There was an acrid smell like kerosene and the air was full of thin smoke; it was enough to make him blink rapidly and feel lightheaded. But something sparkled in the churned-up dirt, catching his eye; it was the thoroughly flattened remains of Danny's flashlight. And scattered around it were the shredded remains of Danny's clothing. He hurried forward, heart pounding in dread, and knelt to examine the scraps.

There wasn't a trace of blood, on the clothing or anywhere in the dirt. Danny's father sighed with relief; if the clothing had been destroyed in any sort of attack on Danny, there would be blood everywhere. On the other hand, if he had turned into the dragon as he claimed, it made a certain amount of sense that there would be torn clothing without blood. He had already talked with the dragon long enough to be nearly convinced it really was Danny, and now he had physical evidence too. "Holy shit," he muttered under his breath. "My son's a dragon." How could it have happened?

He looked up at the dragon's corpse again. Danny and Charles had both said that something had burst from it and engulfed Danny; it must have something to do with this. He stood back up, slipping the piece of cloth he had been holding into his pocket. "What are you hiding, eh?" he mumbled under his breath and took an extremely cautious step forward, tensed to run at the slightest sign of trouble.

Back on the surface, Danny and Charles watched each other in silence from their respective posts; conversation would have felt extremely awkward under those circumstances, and neither was willing to be the one to try striking one up. Instead, Danny passed the time by trying to figure out more of what had happened to him.

Specifically, he was now worried that he had been possessed somehow; how else did he know the words to move the boulder? But he didn't feel possessed by ancient dragon spirits, or anything else for that matter. He didn't notice any changes in himself (other than the obvious physical ones), and both his father and Charles had been almost convinced that he was who he thought he was by talking with him, despite what he looked like. He didn't even seem to be missing any memory, or have memories that he didn't remember remembering before. Argh! Circular argument! he chastised himself. How could he tell from memory if his memories were altered? But still, I don't remember learning those commands for moving the boulder. So how did I know them? It was frustrating, and also rather frightening.

Danny shook his head, putting the unanswered question away for now and turning to other things. He wondered what his father was doing, and hoped he wouldn't disturb the dragon's corpse much; it seemed wrong somehow, like disturbing a tomb. Then a nagging thought suddenly burst on him and he sat bolt upright. "Shit! The eggs!" he shouted, startling Charles so badly that he fell off the tractor. Danny ignored him, lunging to the cave's entrance and sticking his head inside. "Dad, No! Get away from the eggs, quick!"

Danny's booming shout shattered the somber silence inside the cave, causing Danny's father to freeze in mid-step while at the same time jumping out of his skin. A second later the words registered and his eyes widened in fear; with a loud curse he turned and bolted for the exit. The irony of the fact that he was running away from a long-dead dragon and towards a live one didn't even occur to him, though he did nearly skid to a halt when he reached the outer cave and saw Danny's head sticking in and his body partly blocking the way out. Danny quickly pulled back and out of the way, however, so he only hesitated a little and made it to the tractor before stopping to catch his breath.

There was a tense pause as everyone waited, watching the entrance. Nothing followed.

Danny laughed sharply in relief, his father sat heavily on the tractor's step, and Charles rubbed his skinned knees ruefully. "What happened?" Charles asked in a frightened yet annoyed tone. "Yes... please... enlighten..." his father gasped between breaths.

"Sorry," Danny apologised, a little light-headed himself. "I realized... at least, I thought that it might happen again. To you."

"You mean... change into a dragon?"

"Yeah. It was one of the eggs, I think; when I got close to them, one exploded and the whatever-it-was that attacked me came out. Maybe it was the light or heat or something. But there were eggs left over, and then you went down there with them..." Danny trailed off.

His father nodded. "Makes sense, I guess. Danny, this is... I don't know, this is too much. I've got to think before we do anything... there's got to be someone we can call, someone who can figure out what's going on and get you cured. But we've got to be careful..."

"So... you believe I'm really Danny?" Danny asked hesitantly.

His father pulled the strip of cloth from Danny's clothing out of his pocket. "I found this, exploded at the seams. No blood. As if the wearer suddenly grew."

Danny sagged slightly with relief. Not only did his father believe it was him, but now there was evidence he was who he thought he was. He had started to wonder a little bit, himself. "Good, that's... good. I'm glad."

There was another uncomfortable pause.

"So what do we do now, then?" Danny asked at last.

"I guess we'd better head home," his father said uncertainly. "Uh, we'd better close up that tunnel again. Danny, could you...?" Danny nodded and stuck his head back into the cave; "lojmIt yISoQmoH," he commanded, and the boulder slid shut. He was getting the hang of this, he realized, whatever it was. Then Charles and Danny's father climbed aboard the tractor and slowly drove back down the dirt road, Danny following on all fours close behind them.

By the time they reached Danny's farmyard, Danny was wishing that his father had brought a trailer large enough for him to ride back in. Though he hadn't gone much faster than a brisk walk, it was still a fairly long trip home and he was panting mightily at the end just to keep cool. He learned the hard way that dragons don't sweat, and their large volume to surface area ratio made heat disposal even harder, so when they arrived he went straight to the garden hose for a drink. Even at full blast it didn't match his swallowing capacity, but it was better than nothing. It was several minutes before he turned it off, sighing in satisfaction and looking around to see where his father and Charles had gone to.

His father had gone inside the house, but Charles was still standing beside the parked tractor and watching him carefully from a distance. He also noticed Frisco, one of the farm's braver dogs, standing behind Charles with his tail tucked and his hackles raised. Danny grinned at the sight of him. Then his grin vanished as his exposed teeth cause Charles to flinch. "Sorry," he mumbled, feeling pretty bad about how everyone feared him all of a sudden.

"S'okay, I'm just a little on-edge... Danny, is that really you? What's it like?" Charles asked, still not quite believing the situation. Or rather, not quite wanting to believe the situation. He'd done a lot of thinking on the ride back, and couldn't find any real reason to doubt Danny's story. He'd even been there when he was transformed, after all, though he hadn't really seen much. But that didn't stop him from hoping this was all some sort of misunderstanding.

"Yeah. What can I say?" Danny sat back on his haunches, fluffing his wings slightly; he was still too hot, and the breeze on their membranes felt good. "This is really weird. I just can't put how it feels into words properly. I think you'd have to experience it to know what it's really like."

"No, thanks! I prefer... what are you going to do now?"

Danny's head drooped dejectedly. "I don't know. I guess... I don't know. No one's ever had this happen to them before." Before the conversation could continue further the back door opened and Danny's father came out, followed closely by his mother. "Oh! Mom!" was all Danny could say as she stared incredulously at him from the porch.

"...I guess it's real," she mumbled under her breath, just loud enough for Danny's ears to pick up. "Ohhh boy."

"Charles, I think you'd better head home now," Danny's father called out. "Um... if you could maybe not mention this to anyone... for a while..."

Charles glanced uncertainly at Danny, and Danny nodded slightly. "I... I'll call you, okay?" Danny said. "Make sure you do," Charles responded, and reluctantly gathered his things to take with him. "See you later?"

"Anytime," Danny replied, following their habitual farewell. Charles nodded uncertainly and headed for the road, looking over his shoulder frequently until he was out of sight. Danny sighed and turned back to his parents.

"I always worried about Danny and him hanging out in that cave," his mother complained to his father. "Now... now just look at what's happened! Exactly what has happened, anyways?" Danny almost laughed in relief; his mother was taking the sudden appearance of a dragon claiming to be her son exactly as he had hoped she would. Very little seemed to phase her.

It still took a little while for Danny to convince her that it was him, however. Even with his father backing his story he wouldn't have expected anything else; scepticism was quite reasonable under the circumstances. It was getting a little tiring trying to prove who he was to everybody, though; he hoped his parents would be enough to vouch for him from now on.

She took his transformation quite well, and after Danny assured her that he really was feeling okay she proceeded to chew him out for his recklessness in exploring the cave and for fooling around with giant skeletons of mythological creatures that he knew nothing about. By the time she was done Danny felt almost human-sized again, cringing in embarrassment, but he was nearly bursting inside with elation that she was treating him relatively normally. He also felt like he was going to burst into tears too, but he valiantly struggled to keep his confused emotions in check. The last thing he wanted was to lose what little composure he had left.

At last Danny's mother ran out of steam, and they were left once again with the question of what to do next.

"Xavier," his mother began, "we've got to get Danny to a hospital. They can probably do something, I mean if they can turn a grown man into a horse then surely they can do something for Danny. Or are scientists so obsessed with turning people into animals these days that they never thought to come up with something that does the reverse?"

"Look, Phyllis, I don't think it's as simple as that," Danny's father replied. "I saw a TV show about the Circe treatment the other day, they need to base the design of a treatment on both the starting and finishing forms. I doubt they'd have dragon DNA on file, frankly. And this has something to do with magic too, that screws things up even more. Just look at the trouble they had curing some of those people the unicorn zapped..."

"I know that! Are you saying we shouldn't go to the doctors just because they might have trouble curing Danny?"

Danny's father sighed and rubbed his eyes. "No, it's not that... Look, I know it's not like the government is really all that repressive any more, but considering how they treat werewolves I think we'd better be very careful about revealing Danny's condition. They came just this close to declaring them wards of the state, you know, the BCLU just barely got them off in that class-action suit a few years back. And they still have restrictions. If we go to a doctor right away, they'd probably have to report him. I think what we need first is our lawyer."

That took both Danny and his mother by surprise "Mr. Hutz? You want to call Lenny?" she asked incredulously.

Danny's father shrugged. "He's our lawyer, and at least we know him fairly well. I think he's the best place to start. But... Danny, I need to know exactly how you feel. Are you feeling bad in any way? Is your mind totally clear?"

"I feel okay," Danny replied soberly. "I'm a little tired and hungry, but... I guess I feel fine, for a dragon anyway. Please, if you think they might do something to me, don't call the hospital. I don't want..." Danny trailed off.

"And your mind?" Danny's father pressed. "You're fully in control of yourself, you haven't been feeling any... instincts, or anything?"

Danny shook his head. "No, just those words back at the cave. That felt more like, I don't know, knowledge not instincts. I just knew them, I didn't have to say them unless I wanted to." Actually, Danny was still very worried about the source of those words. But he was also worried about being locked in a lab for the rest of his life, so he kept his deeper fears to himself.

His father shrugged. "And so you see, I think Danny's most immediate concern right now is discovery. Of course if something worse comes up we should go for help," he clarified, "but as long as Danny's feeling fine I doubt he's in immediate medical or psychological danger..." Danny's mother stood quietly for a minute, looking at Danny with intense concentration. Danny tried to return the gaze confidently, and for the most part he succeeded.

"Okay," she said at last. "I guess we wouldn't want this to get out yet. Danny, I want you to promise you'll tell us the instant anything feels... wrong, I guess. Okay?"

"I promise, mom." Danny replied. He could tell she had some difficulty with a twenty foot long dragon calling her 'mom', but she took it well. Danny was a little uncomfortable with it too, to tell the truth.

After that, there wasn't much more to do except go inside to make the necessary arrangements.

Going inside turned out to be a very delicate operation for Danny, considering that he was almost too wide to fit through the door and probably weighed more than a ton. When he had first gingerly crossed the threshold, his mother walking ahead to remove anything breakable from his path, the house computer spoke up and advised that it wasn't a good idea to bring an elephant into the house. Danny had almost laughed at that, not only at the fact that the house computer believed that he was an elephant but that someone had actually thought to program that possibility into its knowledge base. It turned out that the house's structural safety margins could just barely tolerate him, so they had simply told the computer to treat the 'elephant' as a guest. Danny walked gingerly into the living room and curled up on the floor to wait while his parents debated in the kitchen over exactly what they would tell Mr. Hutz when they called him.

It was a tight fit, even with the furniture moved out of the way, and now that he was in familiar surroundings Danny's large size became even more apparent to him. The ceiling felt way too low; he had to be careful how he raised his head or he would bang his horns into it. The tip of his tail still lay in the hallway, and trying to pull it in further would probably just smash something in the process. He had tracked lots of dirt in onto the carpet, and when he unthinkingly curled his toes his talons tore holes in it; under any other circumstances his parents would be having a fit over that already. And he was lying there totally naked, to boot.

In short, he felt totally out of place in his own home. I probably can't even go upstairs to my room without breaking the stairs, he thought glumly, and forget about sleeping in my bed again. Or doing anything else designed for humans, either. That covered just about everything that had been a part of his familiar world.

Danny felt tears trying to work their way into his eyes again.

Fortunately, his parents entered the room at that moment and he managed to force them back with nary a sniffle. "We're going to try calling Mr. Hutz now," his mother told him, "and see if we can get him to come down here. How do you feel about him seeing you?"

"I guess I don't mind," Danny mumbled. He actually did mind, a little, but he figured he didn't have much choice.

"Well, good, I doubt he'd believe this on our word alone. Xavier, shall we...?"

They phoned Mr. Hutz. He was somewhat busy, but after seeing video of Danny (encrypted, of course) he promised to drop everything and get down there right away.

Lenny Hutz's aircar came down on the farm's driveway with a faint whine, the advanced antinoise systems sufficient to permit low-altitude flight in this class three population-controlled area. Lenny got out, and Danny's father came out to meet him.

"All right Xavier, what's all this about?" Lenny immediately demanded as they headed toward the house. "What have you got here?"

"Listen, Lenny, I think you'd better come in and see him for yourself. Danny's... well, it's basically like I told you over the phone. Danny's been turned into a dragon."

Lenny shook his head, but he could tell that Danny's father was quite serious. And he did seem to have something that looked like a dragon, at least over the phone... "I still think I'd better have a look at it first. You understand this is a little hard to accept without evidence, of course."

"Of course. Danny's in the living room, right this way."

Danny's father led him inside, and Lenny followed him to the living room. He hesitated when he saw the tip of Danny's tail lying in the hallway, and stopped dead when he got a good look at what it was attached to. Danny lay inside, stretched across most of the room's length, looking back at him with a shy expression on his draconian face. "...Uh, hello," he rumbled, his mother patting his neck supportively.

"Hello," Lenny replied, somewhat dazed and staying well away from him. "Well, it looks like a real dragon all right... Um, is this some kind of joke? Where did it come from?"

"I keep telling you, this is Danny. He found some sort of leftover magic in a cave and it transformed him. Just like latent werewolves, I guess."

"Werewolves aren't my field, I'm more into farm stuff..." Lenny said faintly. "Uh... can I touch it?"

"Danny?" Danny's father asked.

"Uh, okay," Danny replied. "I won't move."

Lenny inched forward to Danny's tail and, still keeping a careful watch on the rest of the dragon, reached down to feel it. It was firm and living under his fingers, scaly skin stretched over solid muscle and bone. "It's warm!" Lenny exclaimed with surprise.

"Yes, I am." Danny snapped, somewhat more strongly than he'd intended; he was already sick of being called 'it'.

Lenny jumped so hard he almost fell down, and hastily apologised. "Sorry, uh, Danny. It's just a little hard to believe that you're human, or whatever," he floundered. "Perhaps if someone could explain exactly what happened, and what you want me to do about it...?"

Between the two of them, Danny's parents filled him in on much of the story. However, as they had agreed, they left out the existence of more unbroken eggs. There was no sense in revealing too many tempting secrets before finding out more about where they stood.

"Okay," Lenny said at last, "I think I've got sort of an idea what's going on. At least from a legal perspective. Shall we sit down somewhere to discuss it?" He glanced at Danny, still uncomfortable in his presence. Danny's parents got the hint and led him to the kitchen. Danny sighed, resting his head on the coffee table and settling back to listen to them discuss his future. Just like adults, leaving the room to talk...

"It's a good thing you came to me first," Danny could clearly hear Mr. Hutz tell his parents in the next room. "Everyone wants magic technology, but basic research in thaumatology is just in its infancy. The UN and the British government have both passed some pretty stiff laws on the confiscation and ownership of anything magical leftover from the Old Magic Era. I heard they almost extended that to cover werewolf genomes, in fact, so they'd probably make a grab for Danny himself. And say goodbye to trying to sell that skeleton for anything near its fair value. Simply not reporting it to the defence department may be illegal too, I think, I have to do some research..." Danny's stomach sank at Lenny's speculation; he had become a fugitive. I'm not supposed to have stuff like this happen to me, I'm only 13!

"Does that mean you have to turn him in?" His mother demanded dangerously.

"Uh, no! Not at all!" Lenny replied hastily. "Attorney-client privileges are very strongly protected, I can't be prosecuted for keeping a client's secrets. I'm safer than you are, actually. Though you can sue for breach of trust in the event that I reveal secrets proven to pertain to a specific case, once I'm on retainer for said case, provided such secrets..." Lenny cut off his increasingly detailed ramble. "Uh, sorry. Yes, I can keep a secret."

Unfortunately for Danny, despite Lenny's attempt to keep the discussion in lay terms it quickly veered off into the incomprehensible complexities of his exact purpose and payment. Danny's attention drifted away from the conversation in the next room and he found himself wondering what was on TV. Speaking as softly as he could in order to avoid disturbing anyone, he spoke a command. "jIH yI- uh, I mean, television on." Danny clenched his teeth; he'd almost used another one of those phrases that he didn't know how he knew. When the hell did I become bilingual, he wondered furiously, and just what language is it anyways?

He wished it had been legalese, at least then he'd be able to understand what Mr. Hutz and his parents were talking about in the next room.

After a while Mr. Hutz had gone back to his office to do some serious reading; he needed to learn an entire new branch of laws and precedents in order to give Danny's family a more accurate description of their options, and he also wanted to start looking up organizations and individual specialists that might be able to help them for future reference. If Danny was discovered they would probably be needed quickly to keep the situation under control.

However, the best thing for Danny right now was to remain hidden on the farm, known only to those few that were already involved. Lenny warned his parents very strongly against contacting anyone else by themselves, and assured them that he would be extremely careful in approaching anyone for help. He promised he would involve them in all future decisions.

And that, apparently, was that. Danny and his family were left with nothing to do but hide and wait, with no clue as to how long or what would happen afterward.

It was already well into the afternoon and although Danny had missed lunch he didn't feel particularly hungry yet. He tried to pass the time by watching TV; a new episode of Dr. Who that he had been looking forward to had just become available, and it allowed him to try to forget about his situation for a while. But eventually he had to face it.

It wasn't easy on Danny, or his parents either; how does one go about consoling a crying dragon? It didn't help that his parents were still quite nervous around him, and Danny could sense their unconscious reluctance to get too near him. But after a while Danny simply cried himself out, emotionally drained and physically exhausted by his ordeal.

Eventually, he fell asleep.

He woke with a start the next morning from unsettled dreams to find that he had been a restless sleeper. The couch was badly ripped, the carpet had been pulled up, and the walls were deeply gouged. It took a moment to register on Danny that he must have done all that, and he realized that he was probably going to be in big trouble. He made a half-hearted attempt to push the carpet back into place, and then sighed in resignation. At least I didn't wreck the entertainment system, he thought. Then he yawned, and gingerly stretched as best he could without causing further damage to the house. He felt much better now that he was physically and emotionally rested for the first time since he'd transformed.

Danny heard movement upstairs, and then someone coming cautiously down the stairs. "Danny?" His father called as he came to the door. "Uh... oh. You're awake. Are you okay?" He looked exhausted, as if he hadn't slept well last night. He probably hadn't. Danny averted his eyes guiltily.

"I'm sorry," he apologised. "I... I wrecked the room."

His father nodded, yawning. "We heard. But are you feeling all right?" He betrayed a mixture of nervousness and concern; fortunately, Danny detected little anger over the state of the living room. He felt relieved.

"Yeah, much better now. I'm hungry, though."

Danny's father rubbed his face wearily, and Danny suddenly realized what he must be pondering. He hadn't thought until now about exactly what - and how much - a twenty-foot dragon probably ate. Fortunately it seemed to have already occurred to his father some time ago. "We've got most of that side of beef still in the freezer, does that sound about right for now?" Danny nodded, mouth watering. "Okay, I'll get to work on breakfast then."

Switching on the television, Danny called up a menu of shows to chose from. None seemed particularly interesting, in light of what had happened to him; real life was far stranger at the moment than any fictional setting could be. Instead, he decided to do a little looking into the subjects of dragons and magic. He was hindered somewhat by needing to use voice commands exclusively; though the tips of his talons were fine enough to operate the keyboard, they were also sharp enough and hard enough to gouge the plastic and scrape off the letters. It seemed like he couldn't touch anything inside the house now without damaging it in some way.

There was far more solid information available on magic than on dragons; dragons were just myths, after all, while magic was now real and quantifiable. Danny ignored the physics, it was incomprehensible and all but the most basic knowledge was classified, but a documentary discussing the transformation of the Unicorn's victims caught his attention. Could something similar to that have happened to him? How could it, when the Unicorn was safely contained on the opposite hemisphere? On the other hand spontaneous transformations like lycanthropy were genetic, the result of genes that had lain dormant in the population since magic had gone away thousands of years ago. Danny strongly doubted that he had somehow had latent dragon genes in him. Besides, what about the eggs...?

Danny put such useless speculations out of his mind, he wasn't qualified to even attempt to answer these questions. Besides, his father had begun cooking meat on the barbecue, and the aroma was making his stomach rumble and his saliva flow. Danny realized that if he wasn't careful he'd start drooling on the already badly-abused carpet. He decided to go outside, since he was getting too restless for the small confines of the living room anyways.

As the dragon carefully crawled out the back door, Danny's father looked up from the barbecue in momentary surprise. "I've just started to cook it," he called out, referring to the large slab of meat lying on the grill. It would have been large enough to feed a dozen humans, but to Danny it seemed a bit on the small side. He hoped there was more than just that.

"It smells great," He said eagerly. "I'm starving."

"Uh, perhaps you'd better not come out in the open like this during the day," his father told him worriedly. "There isn't exactly much traffic out here, but still..."

Danny snorted and glanced at the sky; no traffic would be a better description. But there were still skyways at very high altitude, and service vehicles sometimes came in low through the area, so his father was probably right; he should keep out of sight for now. He looked back at the house, noting how he had scraped splinters from the edges of the door despite his care. He was just too big to spend all day inside. "Could I use the garage?" He asked.

"No problem," his father replied. "I'll go get the tractors out." While he was doing that, Danny walked over to the barbecue pit and licked his chops. After a moment, he decided what the hell? It's all going to be for me anyway, and delicately sliced off a small strip of meat with a claw. He popped it in his mouth and savored the taste before he swallowed it. After a moment, he cut and ate another piece. Then he picked up the rest and tore off chunks with his teeth until it was all gone. With a somewhat satisfied feeling, Danny licked his claws clean.

"Danny?" His father called to him from the garage, sounding nervous. Danny whipped his head around to face him, and then tried to look sheepish.

"Sorry, Dad. It just smelled so good, and I was so hungry... is there more?"

Danny's father hesitated, and then nodded. "That was the most that would fit on the grill, there's about twice that much still in the pantry. I was just about to move the tractors, do you want me to get it now?"

"Yes, please!" Danny replied exuberantly. He waited while his father went inside, and returned a minute later bearing what was left of the paper-wrapped side of beef. He reluctantly gave it to Danny, who quickly unwrapped it and prepared to dig in.

"Are you sure you don't want that cooked?" He asked.

Danny froze, and could have sworn he felt himself blushing through his scales. "Uh... I didn't think about that..." But even as he thought about it now, Danny found that he was still salivating at the smell of the uncooked meat. "Do you think it's okay to eat like this?" He asked uncertainly.

"You're the dragon," his father said with a mixture of faint amusement and deep concern. "You tell me."

Danny thought for a moment longer, and then flicked his long tongue briefly over the meat's surface. He didn't notice his father's slight queasy look, and he decided that his appetite was too big to worry about it. "I think so," he said. "It tastes fine, and I guess taste should tell me what I can handle." His father nodded, and then quickly headed back to the garage while Danny wolfed down his meal.

When he was done Danny sighed in contentment; it felt good to have a reasonably full stomach again. He realized with momentary alarm that he'd actually crunched up and swallowed the bones as well as the meat, but passed that off after a moment's thought. They hadn't felt troublesome as they went down his throat.

Danny's father drove the tractor and combine out of the garage, leaving more than enough room for Danny to stretch out inside; the building was prefab, and had been larger than they needed to begin with. "We'll need to get tarps over the tractor and combine later," his father mused. "You'll help me with that. You're certainly tall enough." Danny nodded happily, glad to have something to look forward to doing today even if it was a bit of work.

But there was something else he wanted to do, too. "Uh, Dad? Can I call Charles?"

"Hm. I guess so. I'll go get a phone... heck, I'll go get your computer terminal and bring it out here. Might as well make it comfortable, so you don't have to keep going in and out of the house."

"Thanks, Dad." Danny suspected it was partly due to the damage he had been doing to the interior, but he didn't mind; he had been feeling rather guilty over it himself, and staying out here for a while wouldn't be so bad.

When his father came back out with his computer terminal and plugged it in for him, the first thing he did was dial up Charles' name.

Charles woke to the sound of a phone ringing, and blearily rubbed sleep from his eyes before answering it. "Okay, okay! Computer, pick it up," he ordered. The blinking image of a telephone disappeared from the screen on his desk, to be replaced with a still picture of Danny. The human version. "Charles, this is Danny," an unusually deep and rumbly voice spoke as Charles suddenly remembered what had happened yesterday, and what had given him the insomnia that was the cause of his grogginess right now.

"Dan... Danny? Are you still a dragon?" he asked, yawning despite himself.

"Ohhhh yeah. Still a dragon."

"Wow." Charles couldn't think of much more to add to that, the situation was just too unusual and he was still half asleep.

"Uh... you want to come over?" Danny asked at last.

"Of course!" Charles responded enthusiastically, trying to dispel just enough of the fatigue clouding his judgement so that he would be able to put his pants on right side up but not so much that he would reconsider his quick acceptance. "Do you want me to come right now?"

"Sure, I just had breakfast..."

"Great!" Charles disentangled himself from the sheets and struggled out of bed. "I guess I'll be there in about twenty minutes, make that half an hour."

"Okay. I'll be in the back, by the garage."

"See you!" Charles hit the disconnect button, then told the computer "Schedule: I'll be going over to Danny's in a minute, flag it for mom if she asks." The terminal twittered compliance, and Charles set about digging up some clothing and putting it on.

Danny regarded the blank screen for several minutes, lost in thought. He wasn't sure he had really wanted Charles to come so quickly, but he was committed now. Besides, if he hadn't wanted to see him at least a little bit, he wouldn't have called him up like that in the first place.

After a little while longer, Danny was brought out of his contemplative state by a small movement that caught his eye. Glancing up, he saw that Frisco was cautiously peering around the edge of the open garage door at him. Brave dog, Danny thought as he tried to avoid sudden moves or anything else that might spook him. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Frisco nervously looked him over and then whined. Danny suppressed a grin; he was probably trying to figure out if it was a smart idea to bark at this particular intruder or not. Moving slowly and fluidly, Danny lowered his head to the floor and tried to appear as inert and nonthreatening as possible.

After several minutes of lying completely motionless, Frisco eventually worked up the nerve to actually come into the garage itself. Danny followed him with his eyes but hardly even breathed as he circled him warily. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Frisco virtually crawled forward to sniff at the tip of Danny's curled tail. Despite the fact that he hadn't even had it yesterday, it was very hard to keep from twitching it now.

With another small whine, Frisco finished his daring foray and dashed back out of the garage. Danny lifted his chin off the ground and sighed, a sound like an enormous bellows deflating. One small step, he thought to himself. He enjoyed playing with Frisco sometimes, and he hoped he'd be able to win the dog's trust again in this rather fearsome form.

That led Danny to think about some of the other things he was cut off from right now. Charles was his best but not his only friend; there was also Andrew and Bill and Mark. And Lori. Danny refused to admit that she was his girlfriend, and she wasn't really, but they were still pretty close. Mr. Hutz had warned Danny's family not to let anyone else know what had happened to him, and had outlined some of the consequences should a dragon be discovered; Danny was suitably frightened by them to follow his advice for now. But he didn't like to think about the possibility of being cut off like this for weeks or months...

Not months, he reasoned. I'll be missed by then, and someone will come looking for me. Something will have to have happened by then. He hoped it wouldn't be a defence department laboratory...

Suddenly Danny heard tires on gravel, and recognized the sound as Charles' approaching scooter. Surging excitedly to all fours, Danny nearly put his horns through the corrugated aluminum roof. He was anxious to talk with a friend rather than a parent, there were certain things he felt uncomfortable talking with them about. But then Danny restrained himself before he bounded out of the garage and set off seismographs in Brazil, and forced himself to walk to the door and stick his head outside to check things out first.

Charles was just coming around the corner of the road, quite a distance away. Danny was amazed that he'd heard him at this range, and even more amazed that he could make out his momentary expression of... shock? surprise?... when he saw Danny's draconic head come into view. But Charles only wavered momentarily, then set his resolve and continued on into the farmyard. He stopped about twenty feet from the garage door and looked up at Danny with awe. "Danny," Charles said.

"Charles," Danny rumbled back.

There was a pause.

"You have no idea how hard it was getting to sleep last night!" Charles began gushing excitedly. "I mean, wow! Can you imagine?"

Danny grinned and invited him into his lair.

It didn't take Charles as long as it had taken Frisco to work up the courage to touch him, and to Danny's relief he didn't run off again afterward. In fact, after about an hour or so of their usual idle banter, Charles had become so comfortable with him that he even tried climbing up on Danny's back for a while. Danny could hardly feel his weight and Charles was careful with his footing, so he didn't object.

Most of their conversation was pretty inane, which was normal for them quite alright with Danny. But as time wore on the topics began drifting to the serious side, and he started to get seriously interested.

"So, do you think you can fly?" Charles asked.

Danny raised his right wing and partially spread it within the confines of the garage, looking at it somewhat dubiously. "I don't know," he said. "These wings are pretty big, and I think they're pretty strong, but I must weigh at least a couple tons. I don't know if it's aerodynamically possible in real life."

"Have you tried?"

Danny snorted. "I've just barely figured out how to move them without waving my arms around too. And I don't have a lot of room in here to do more than that, either."

Charles nodded, understanding the need to keep out of sight. "Maybe you could try it out tonight, after dark."

"Maybe," Danny echoed reluctantly. He was quite apprehensive of the idea, actually; flying in a car with airbags and chutes was one thing, but flying outside of one was something else entirely. "If dragons really used to exist too, I wonder why no one's ever found skeletons before?" He asked, changing the subject.

"Maybe it was because of the magic going away," Charles mused. "Perhaps dragon bones disintegrate without magic."

Danny looked down at his forepaw/hands and flexed them nervously. "I hope not."

Charles grimaced in embarrassment. "Sorry. Present company excepted, of course."


As the two lapsed into momentary silence, Danny glanced idly around the garage. He had shut the main door shortly after Charles had arrived, his father had been watching them through it from the house and it had made him uncomfortable, but the man- sized door was still half open and Frisco was once again watching him cautiously from around the edge. Danny tried not to let the dog realize he'd been spotted. "Frisco's back at the door," he told Charles out of the side of his muzzle, as softly as he could make his voice go.

"Do you want me to send him away?"

"No, I've been trying to get him to trust me. See if you can call him in."

Charles glanced at Frisco, just as furtively as Danny had, and called out gently. "Here, Frisco. Nothing to be worried about, he's a nice dragon. Come here, boy."

Suddenly realizing everyone's attention was focused on him, Frisco shrank and whined nervously. Danny laid his head on the ground again, bringing his eyes level with the dog's, while Charles continued trying to coax him farther in. Frisco didn't seem to be buying it, and eventually Charles gave up with a sigh. "I guess he just doesn't understand it's you in there," he concluded.

Danny sighed too, though he muffled it to at least keep from scaring Frisco away again. "Silly dog. Who else would I be?" Then he addressed Frisco directly; "juplI' jIratlhqu', Frisco. HIghoSvIpQo'."

Charles and Frisco both jumped at the guttural sound. "Huh? What did you say?"

"I said I'm still your friend, don't be afraid of me." Danny glanced at Charles, puzzled by his reaction. "What?"

"You said something like joopli jirawhhch... thch..." Charles fumbled over the sound, which had been unlike anything in the english alphabet.

"...ratlhqu'?" Danny supplied hesitantly.

Charles nodded. "Yeah, ratthcue. Whatever. Jeeze, you sound scary like that. What does it mean?"

Danny furrowed his scaly brow, a little concerned and a lot confused. "It means... to remain, emphatically. I said I was definitely still his friend. Do you know what language it is?"

"I was just going to ask you that!"

Danny shook his head. "I've never even heard it before, except... the command to open and close the cave, it was in this language too."

"I wonder if it's Draconic?"

"Maybe... but how did I learn it? And so quickly?"

Charles shrugged. "The same way you got turned into one, I guess. Magic."

"Magic." Danny said it like a curseword. "I wish they'd never found that damn unicorn tissue. I wouldn't even be in this mess." Charles frowned sympathetically, and the two lapsed into silence for a while. Danny didn't want to reveal how scared he really was. If he had been given another language without even consciously noticing it, what else might have been added to his mind unawares...? Frisco poked his head back into the garage. Perhaps you should be afraid of me after all, he thought to himself. I think I am.

Danny and Charles hung out in the garage together until late in the afternoon. They quickly drifted away from the topic Danny's new language fluency, which was somewhat uncomfortable for him to discuss. They eventually dug up a number of movies from the entertainment archives, and while they watched they debated the various fictional dragons they portrayed. Danny's mother even brought out some snacks for them in true motherly fashion, though only Charles was small enough to gain significant benefit from them. Danny popped a few brownies into his mouth purely for the taste.

Finally, Charles' mother called him back for supper. He reluctantly left for home, preferring to stay a little longer but not wanting to make her suspicious of anything by objecting. Danny promised to call him over again soon, though secretly he was a little relieved Charles was going. He had had a great time, and was extremely glad that Charles had visited, but he was ready for a bit of quiet time.

After he had left, Danny stretched out in the garage and allowed himself to slip into a restful state of half-sleep. He was tired of thinking for now. Frisco once again came into the garage and continued carefully investigating the gigantic creature that had invaded his domain. Danny grinned slightly without opening his eyes or making any other overt reaction. Over the course of the day Frisco had become downright brave in approaching him while Charles was around, and he didn't want to have to start winning his trust all over again. It would probably be a while before he was ready to play fetch with him or sleep at the foot of his bed again, though.

Correction, Danny thought; he can sleep by my bed as much as he wants. I certainly won't be using it any time soon. Then his eyes flew open alertly at the sound of approaching footsteps outside, and in response to his alarm Frisco decided to again take his leave of the garage.

It was just his father. "Danny? Are you alright?" he asked as he poked his head inside the door.

Danny sighed, relaxing. "I guess. I'm still a dragon, but I feel okay."

"You're not hungry, are you?" His father sounded almost suspicious when he asked that.

"No, I'm fine." Danny frowned slightly. The only thing he'd eaten since this morning had been the brownies, and that hardly counted, but it wasn't his lack of appetite that disturbed him; why had his father asked the question that way?

But his father just grunted and went on, and Danny scolded himself for being too sensitive. He's probably just worried about the state of the larder. "Mr. Hutz called," he continued. "He said he'd done a review of the laws and precedents that might become involved in this."

That got Danny's full attention. "Great! Uh, is it good news?"

"Mixed. May I come in?" Danny inclined his head invitingly, and his father walked into the garage. He sat tiredly on the stool Charles had been using earlier. "It seems his initial concerns were justified, you could actually be confiscated if you're discovered. But he also says the werewolf thing resulted in lots of ambiguity; he thinks it might be possible to get you off. But it depends on a lot of stuff we just don't know, and even then we'd need help to fight it. I don't know if the BCLU would be interested in helping a single individual, the werewolf thing was a class-action suit..."

Danny's father trailed off, and Danny was a little frightened by how depressed he sounded. "Dad, I... I don't know how to help..."

His father smiled and shook his head. "I don't think there's anything you can do about this, it's is our job to solve this particular problem. I want you to be okay and not worry about it; I'm sure you've got enough difficulty just dealing with... with this." he gestured at Danny's body. "I know what you must be going through... hell, I have no idea what you're going through. I don't know if I can know, I wish I did. But whatever happens, I don't want you to be worried about our legal problems. All I want you to do is to be safe and well..."

Danny nodded, and then with unspoken understanding lowered his head to his father's level. His father hugged him tightly, being careful when putting his arms around Danny's neck to avoid the crest of spines that ran down it. Danny tried to gently return the hug, but settled for just holding still in order to avoid knocking him over; his father felt so light and small... but he was still his father, and despite their relative physical proportions Danny was still comforted by his support.

At last they broke off the hug and Danny settled back, beaming confidently. His father stepped back to look up at him. "I want you to tell your mother and I anything you need to," he instructed. "Anything we can find out about this situation could help us in court... and more importantly, I don't want you holding anything back. We're here for you..."

Danny quietly cut him off before his emotions overwhelmed him. "I know, Dad. Please don't worry about me, I can handle this. Really. I need you to help me with the stuff I can't, like that law stuff. I'm fine."

Danny's father nodded, quickly wiping an eye. "All right, then. We have a deal, we'll work together on this one?"

Danny held out a forepaw. "Deal." His father gripped one of his talons and solemnly shook it, then let go and examined a finger.

"Sharp," he commented, sounding playfully approving. Danny grinned, able to see that he hadn't really cut him. "Do you want to come inside tonight?"

Danny shook his head. "Nah, I'm fine out here. The floor's not bad, and my skin's pretty tough..."

"Do you want a blanket or tarp or anything? No? Well, okay. I guess this is good night, then. You're sure you'll be all right out here?"

Danny assured him again, and finally his father went back into the house. He watched him go, and after another minute his mother came out onto the porch to shout a good-night as well. Then Danny pulled his head back into the garage and slid the main door shut for the night. Or at least for now.

Danny set his computer to wake him in a few hours, then curled up to see if he could catch a little sleep. The suppressed nervousness and excitement over what he planned to do made it hard, but he also knew he would need to be well-rested for it. And he didn't want to worry his parents by staying up too late, either.

It was past midnight when the alarm began quietly beeping, bringing Danny instantly to full alertness. The sun had set and the twilight long faded, but the night still seemed so brightly lit that at first Danny thought there must be a full moon out. But after long and puzzled examination of the cloudless sky Danny realized that it was actually starlight he was seeing by. He shook his head in amazement. Dragon night vision was incredible.

Moving as softly as his bulk and his excitement permitted, Danny exited the garage and headed for the west field. It was lying fallow this year to regenerate the soil without resorting to the more efficient but historically-incorrect synthetic additives that modern farms used; there was plenty of open space out there and nothing for him to accidentally damage. He followed the edge of the forest in case he needed to get under cover quickly, but the only sounds he could hear were those of crickets and of the soil compacting under his feet.

Danny was feeling nervous, but he was also quite exhilarated. The silence and solitude, the cool night air on his naked scales, and the still-new feel of his body all contributed to the emotion, of course, but mainly it was the sense of anticipation. He had decided that if he was going to be stuck in this body and be hunted for it, he might as well try to experience everything that this body could do. Tonight he was going to attempt to fly.

He hadn't told his parents, of course; they would undoubtedly have disapproved of experimenting. Danny could certainly see their point of view, in fact a part of him shared it and was busy scolding the rest of him for this foolishness. But he was already tired of lying in the garage 24 hours a day without even the room to spread his wings fully, and he had a thing about doing dumb, daring things; he preferred to get them over with quickly before he could fully analyze them and end up backing down to his cowardly better judgement. I won't do anything stupid he told himself, attempting to compromise with himself. I just want to stretch a bit, and try a few short hops. I won't even go beyond the west field. Having reassured himself somewhat, Danny decided he was far enough away from the house for sufficient privacy.

He opened his wings with a sound like leather sails unfurling, and flapped them experimentally in an attempt to gauge how much lift they could produce. He frowned slightly at their apparent ineffectiveness; he was pretty sure he was cupping the wings properly on the downstroke... putting more effort into it, he pumped his wings harder. There was significant lift being produced, he could feel the ground attempting to drop away with every stroke and he had to struggle to keep his balance steady, but it wasn't enough to get him all the way into the air. He was just kicking up a lot of dust.

Eventually Danny quit flapping, pectorals aching and breathing heavily from the exertion. He felt an odd mixture of puzzlement, disappointment, and relief; he wasn't going to get airborne this way. Perhaps he needed to jump off a cliff... Danny shook his head. He wasn't going to be doing something as stupid as that any time soon, and there were no good cliffs nearby in any case. He snorted in amusement at the image of himself attempting to climb a tree for takeoff instead.

Still, he was now more sure than ever that he could get airborne somehow; it just felt so right. Perhaps I need a running start, he thought. I was thinking of going for a run anyways. Looking around and deciding on the best direction to go, Danny flexed his arms and legs and then started off across the field in an easy quadrupedal trot. Even though his hind legs were still much larger than his arms, it was a reasonably graceful gait; he quickly accelerated to a faster pace. He had already discovered that while he could comfortably sit upright and use his arms when he was at rest, trying to walk on his hind legs alone was a slow and clumsy process; this unexpected speed on all fours now helped make up for that deficiency.

Bounding along at a fair pace, certainly faster than he could have run as a human, Danny spread his wings slightly and began gently pumping them as the wind blew over their surfaces. I should face into the wind, he realized suddenly, and adjusted his course accordingly; there wasn't much of a breeze tonight, but every little bit of air speed could help. Flapping harder, Danny began having problems coordinating all six limbs at once. It was like patting one's head and rubbing one's stomach at the same time; he nearly tripped several times before getting into the rhythm. He felt the lift, much stronger this time, but it still wasn't enough.

Suddenly and unexpectedly he reached the far edge of the field, unused to being able to cross it so quickly; he emitted a startled yelp as he almost stumbled straight into the ditch that ran along its edge. He was going too fast and had far too much inertia to stop in time, so instead he reflexively extended his current bound to leap right over it.

He didn't come down again on the other side.

Wings held fully extended, paralysed with fear and shock, Danny sailed low but steady over the dirt road beyond the ditch and into the field beyond. It was planted with tall stands of wheat; Danny yanked his hands and feet in close to his body as they brushed through the green stalks below him. His brain was jammed, he couldn't take this development in quickly enough to plan ahead. Then the wheat began swiping along his belly scales, and he realized his already-low altitude was dropping rapidly; it broke his paralysis and he tried flapping to gain a little height.

He dropped like a rock the moment he lifted his wings, belly slamming solidly onto the ground and sliding for a few yards over the dirt. Winded and gasping, he lay in the crushed wheat for several minutes before he could even think straight. "I was... up there... for a moment..." he mumbled between breaths, blearily lifting his long neck over the wheat to get his bearings. He had wound up about a hundred feet from the road, a total flight of perhaps 120 feet. It seemed shorter, Danny mused in a daze, though that could have been because I was scared out of my mind at the time... Groaning, Danny struggled to his feet and trudged slowly back to the road. He glanced behind him at the tracks he had left in the crops; he was definitely going to get in trouble for this tomorrow.

But that seemed rather unimportant right now; he had been flying. "I have got to try that again!"

Despite his excitement, Danny managed to keep himself from immediately charging back across the field again; he still needed time to recover from his hard landing, and he also wanted to analyze his performance. He hoped to do better the second time around, if only to save his battered ribs from more abuse. He decided to try his next flight over the pond for added safety in case he took another tumble, and as he walked over to it he muttered to himself about aerodynamics. Dragons must be mainly gliders, he realized. Makes sense, they're really big. Though I still don't really think I should have been able to get off the ground at all...

Danny arrived at the pond, a large but relatively shallow depression in the stream that ran through the farm, and tried to take stock more carefully this time before rushing into things. He hadn't suffered anything worse than bruises so far, and his pectorals weren't feeling too tired yet, but his arms were aching from the run and he was still panting. He flexed his massive hind legs, wondering if he really needed the long running start or whether he could jump straight into the air instead.

What the hell, the worst that could happen this time is I make a big splash, he told himself. Suppressing his panting for now he carefully extended his wings and crouched down, digging his massive toes into the soft soil for a firm grip. Taking a deep breath, Danny lunged forward with all his might...

...and his wings caught the air, holding him up as he sailed out over the water. He was once again paralysed, this time more from wonder than from fear; he was really flying! Well, gliding at least. Tucking his arms and legs up against his body, Danny suddenly realized he still hadn't thought about how to land when he reached the other side of the pond. If he reached the other side of the pond. At that moment the tip of his outstretched tail dipped low enough to skim the water's surface; he suddenly realized he might end up in the drink after all. Once again he reflexively pumped his wings, fighting for altitude.

This time he got it, barely. Raising his wings caused his body to dip, but he wasn't as low as he had been over the wheat field; he didn't hit the water before having a chance to swing his wings back down. His altitude surged, and he passed over the far shore of the pond at a height of over ten feet. He felt like yelling in triumph, but kept his muzzle clamped shut; in his current state it would probably come out as a roar loud enough to wake the neighbors. His heart was pounding hard from the incredible feeling of flight.

Then, a few moments later, it was pounding even harder from fright. Danny saw that he was rapidly approaching the edge of the forest that lay beyond the pond; he was well below the tops of the trees, and would fly straight into them if he didn't change his course. But he'd only just figured out how to get into the air, he didn't know how to turn yet. Danny pumped his wings for all they were worth, struggling to climb high enough to get over the treetops before he ploughed into them.

He just barely made it, clipping a birch with a wing tip and reflexively kicking downward against a passing treetop. Then he was over the top of the forest and still gaining altitude, a bunch of leaves clutched tightly in one foot but otherwise unscathed. This time he allowed himself a tremendous gasp of relief. I made it! YES! Relaxing slightly after the scare he'd just gone through, he glided for a while and exulted in his success. You know, being a dragon might not be all that bad after all... Danny resisted the urge to try anything fancy, though; this was still his first real flight, and he wanted to get back on the ground and take stock before taking any more big risks.

Danny realized that he was still heading deeper into the forest, and even if he found a clearing it would be suicidally dangerous trying to land there; he could picture his wings being smashed and torn by the trees far too vividly to risk it. He'd never broken a bone before, but he was sure that would hurt terribly.

Gaining a little more altitude to give him time to recover in case something went wrong, Danny ever so carefully banked into a gentle turn. It went so smoothly that he almost laughed at himself for his caution; he was rapidly gaining confidence in his new abilities. He had a moment of confusion when he had finished turning around and realized that he'd lost his bearings on the farm, but he quickly figured out that the radius of the turn had left him off at an angle from his original starting point. He continued his turn a little farther, and spotted the familiar buildings despite the low light conditions and the unfamiliar vantage point. Danny found himself grinning from ear to ear. This is easy!

Then, as he approached, he remembered his sore ribs. That had only been from a fall of about ten feet. He would have to think of a better way to land this time, and his occasional rounds of flight simulator games on the computer had left him woefully unprepared for it; he glanced sideways at one of his huge batlike wings, wondering what the draconic equivalents of flaps or vectored thrust engines were. He was suddenly frightened again as the edge of the forest passed under him, he was moving too fast to give him time to think this through and he didn't realize he had the option of aborting this approach and circling around for another pass. Acting reflexively, he corrected his course to pass back over the pond and then pulled up sharply as he skimmed over it.

As neatly as parking a bike, Danny stalled and dropped straight into the pond with his hind legs out to break his fall. The splash was still tremendous, however, and the pond was deep enough in the center for Danny to end up almost completely submerged. He stumbled on landing, dunking his head underwater before he could even yelp from the cold.

But Danny immediately surged back through the surface again, and the cold hardly seemed important after what he had just done. He slapped the water with a wing and barely stifled a whoop of joy. "Oh, man! Dunqu'pu'!" He gasped under his breath as he waded to shore, leaving large a wake in the muddy water behind him. The waves from his rough landing had flooded the banks, and as Danny surveyed the pond he felt a little embarrassed by how much he'd managed to churn it up. Then he chuckled and shook some of the water from his wings. It was a good thing he didn't have anything to wear, he reflected, it would have been totally soaked now if he had.

"Danny!" Danny gave a very surprised and guilty start at the sound of his mother's shout, whipping his head around to look back toward its source.

His parents had rushed out onto the porch, and were peering worriedly in his general direction. "Is that you, Danny?" his father called.

"Uh, Yeah," Danny called back, hanging his head and slinking back toward the house and the yard lights where they could see him. "Sorry, I... was in the pond."

"What are you doing out there, skinny-dipping at this hour! Are you okay?"

"Uh huh, I was just fooling around. I... wanted to see how it all felt, like this. I was all cooped up in the garage..." Danny was worried that if they knew he'd actually been flying they'd go ballistic; As long as they had just been awakened by the splash, though, he hoped they wouldn't find out.

As he reached the house and they saw his hangdog expression, his parent's own expressions softened slightly. "Why don't you go back inside, Xavier; I can handle this one," his mother said sternly. His father nodded and went reluctantly in, and then his mother turned to face Danny.

"I can explain, mom," Danny began. "I just wanted to get out and stretch my legs; I wasn't going to go far. It's really dark, I didn't think anyone would see."

His mother sighed. "Danny, I know this is a very difficult; I guess it's natural to want to explore this thing that's happened to you." She laughed wearily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "God, I didn't expect to ever be making the 'your body is going through some changes' speech with you like this! But it's not really the same, you could be hurt or locked up and I wouldn't know what to do to help you. Can't you please sit tight just for a few more days, for my sake? I wouldn't know what to do..."

Danny felt really terrible; he had tried to at least enjoy the novelty of his dragon body, without considering that for his parents there was absolutely nothing good about his situation at all. "I'm sorry, mom. I guess I could've done better." He dejectedly dug a furrow in the packed earth with his toe, then realized the gesture might not seem as inoffensive as it normally would when done by a twenty-foot dragon.

Fortunately, his mother seemed to get the right impression. "All right, then. We'll discuss this more in the morning. Why don't you get some sleep? I'm sure we could all use a little rest..." She did look tired; Danny felt genuinely bad about waking everyone up at this hour with his water landing. He nodded and they said goodnight again, and then she watched Danny as he headed back to the garage to curl back up again. She had a somewhat haunted expression in her eyes. "My little Danny," she sighed wryly, "how you've grown up so quickly..." Then she turned and went back in. She knew she wasn't likely to get much sleep even without a dragon splashing around in the pond outside, but at least she could lie down in a soft bed and try to get a little rest.

Danny, for his part, curled up on the garage's floor with his wings draped over his sides to dry. Like his mother, he was tired and comfortable; unlike her, he soon fell asleep.

Despite his late-night adventures, Danny woke bright and early the next morning to the sound of his father coming outside to do some of the farmyard chores. Yawning mightily, then forcing his mouth shut so that he wouldn't scare anyone, he blearily stuck his head out the door of the garage to say good morning.

His father yelped in surprise at Danny's sudden appearance, but immediately recovered and rubbed his eyes. He looked even more bleary than Danny felt. "Oh. Good morning, Danny," he greeted him. "Sorry, I wasn't really awake yet..."

"Sorry I kept you up," Danny apologized.

His father just nodded and waved it off. "Don't worry, I don't think I could have slept well anyways. Your mother wouldn't stop tossing... uh, well. How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay," Danny replied, stifling another yawn. "A little hungry I guess, but not too bad. I've got to go to the bathroom, though." Danny suddenly realized that toilets were another thing he was much too large for now, and began to get embarrassed trying to think of a way around that. "Where should I go?" He asked.

His father actually grinned. "Well, we are supposed to be preserving the old ways out here," he said. "Why don't you use the woods?" Danny tried to smack himself on the forehead, but couldn't reach his face and nearly fell over in the attempt. He quickly regaining his balance and nodded in agreement, trying to look nonchalant as if he had meant to do that. His father chuckled and continued on his way, adding over his shoulder; "don't wander off too far, now; you might need to get back under cover quickly if anyone happens to fly by."

"Okay, dad." Pulling his head back inside, Danny opened the main garage doors and walked out into the yard. After last night's dim illumination the sun seemed overwhelming; it took a moment for his slitted pupils to adapt. Still squinting slightly, Danny trotted off toward the edge of the forest.

It was much nicer under the trees, and not just because of the shade; the dew made everything smell incredibly fresh, and Danny was sure his huge nostrils were more sensitive than they had been when he was human. He leisurely searched for a secluded bush to do his business behind, taking time to enjoy the sensations. He still felt the residual exhilaration of his flight last night, and being a dragon looked really good to him right now. He found a suitably dense bush, probably a bit farther away from the house than his father would have approved of him going. He carefully manoeuvred his tail out of the way and squatted down to relieve himself.

A moment after he was done, Danny's ears perked up in alarm; he could hear the muted whine of an approaching aircar, too deep and powerful to be Mr. Hutz's. It was coming in low and fast, headed directly for the farm. He immediately realized he wouldn't make it back to the garage before it arrived. Hunching down in the bushes and hiding as best as he could, Danny pensively waited for the aircar to pass.

Xavier hurried out of the barn to meet the visitors, and for an instant his entire life flashed before his eyes. It was a police aircar, and as it touched down and disgorged a pair of officers he saw that the garage door was wide open. Then he remembered that Danny wasn't in the garage right now, and nearly collapsed in relief. "Uh... uh... what can I do for you?" He stammered unsteadily. His fatigue certainly wasn't helping him handle this situation, either.

"Mr. Manning?" One of the officers asked. Xavier nodded. "We're from the district bureau of air traffic control. We were wondering if we could ask you a few questions."

Xavier nodded quickly, wondering why no one ever told the police that they couldn't ask questions. It would probably catch them entirely by surprise. "I was just starting morning chores, but why don't we go inside the house and sit down?"

The two officers glanced at each other. "Actually, sir, we were hoping to have a look around your property. If that's okay with you."

Xavier nodded again, now even more nervous. "Sure. Sure. What's this all about?"

"Did you see or hear anything flying low over this farm last night?" she asked.

Xavier frowned, but before he could answer his wife came to the door. "Xavier? What's going on out here?"

"Nothing, dear; just some people from air traffic control." Then, still speaking loud enough for Phyllis to hear, he answered the officer's question. "No, I didn't hear anything out of the ordinary last night. But it was a long day yesterday and we were quite soundly asleep. Why, did the radars pick up something that wasn't supposed to be there?"

As the officer replied in the affirmative, Xavier saw a range of emotions wash subtly over Phyllis' face. He felt them himself, frankly. First confusion, then comprehension, then a combination of anger and worry. Danny. "Could we have a look in the garage, sir?" The officer asked.

Nodding yet again, Xavier followed one of the officers as she walked over to the garage. The other stayed behind to ask Phyllis a few questions too, and Xavier hoped their stories would match closely enough not to arouse any suspicions. "Why are all your large vehicles outside?" The officer asked him as she peered suspiciously at the marks Danny had left on the dirt floor. Xavier sighed, already working on the simplest lie he could think of. At least they wouldn't believe the real explanation even if we told them, he thought to himself. The most we might end up with from this is some sort of misdemeanor. I just hope Danny can stay out of sight long enough...

After the police car landed, Danny had remained crouched in the underbrush for several tense minutes as he strained to hear what was going on. Even with his enhanced senses he couldn't quite make out what was being said, but the details weren't important. The only thing he had needed to know was that they were looking for him, and that he had to somehow stay hidden.

The trouble was that he was over twenty feet long, and even with the green dappling of scales on his back he knew that he would be visible from the air to a determined searcher. He decided that he had to get under better cover than the canopy of trees could provide, and of course all of the farm's outbuildings were right out. They were all out in the open so that he couldn't get to them unseen, and they would doubtless be the first places to be searched. There was only one place he could think of that the police wouldn't know about; the cave where all this had started.

Moving slowly and cautiously, Danny crept out of hiding and slunk deeper into the woods. He kept his eyes on the farm for as long as possible; unless the police switched their glasses to infrared, which was unlikely in the daytime, he figured that he would be able to see them well before they could see him. It was still a heart-pounding experience, however. A dragon his size wasn't very good at sneaking anywhere.

At last he made his way deeply enough into the forest that he lost sight of the farm buildings and he began to pick up his pace; now all he had to worry about was being spotted from above, and he guessed that he would also be able to hear an approaching aircar before it got close enough to spot him. At least, he hoped he would. Danny broke into a jog when he reached a clear path through the trees, and by the time he reached the cave's entrance he was running full-tilt. He virtually dove into the opening, then turned around in the tight space of the first cavern to cautiously stuck his head back out of the tunnel. There were no police hovering outside; he had apparently managed to get away unnoticed. He sighed heavily in relief, calmed his harsh breathing, and pulled his head back inside.

Now that the immediate danger was behind him, Danny looked around the interior of the cave. It was just as he'd left it, with the boulder back against the wall and blocking the tunnel to the dragon's lair. But he shook his head in amazement; despite the lack of overt changes, this cave would never seem the same to him again. It used to be so big... Danny let out a snort of laughter. It wasn't just his new bulk that had caused it to shrink; now he knew that it was just an entryway, an antechamber to someplace far more interesting.

"lojmIt yIpoSmoH," Danny commanded, and the boulder slid away from the wall. The worlds literally meant 'open the door,' he now knew, the draconic equivalent of 'open sesame'. Grinning nervously, Danny crawled into the exposed tunnel. He would feel much more securely hidden down there, with a solid granite door that he could close behind himself if necessary. A kid couldn't have wished for a better fort than this.

Back at the farm, Xavier gave his own sigh of relief as the police car lifted off and headed away. It had been nerve- wracking, but fortunately with Danny gone there had been absolutely nothing incriminating on the property for the police to find. Not to mention the fact that the police had only been looking for an aircar with no transponders, which wasn't a terribly bad offence even in a class three population-controlled area. Especially in a class three area, since the traffic would be too thin for flying one to be a serious danger.

Still, he was quite upset. "I suspect Danny was doing more than just splashing around in the pond last night," he mused out loud to his wife.

She nodded. "I guess we should just be glad he didn't try breathing fire on anything," she added. "I think we should call Lenny; we've probably been officially noted as suspicious characters now. We should check what our privacy rights are in this situation."

Xavier nodded. "You're right. I hope we're not bugged. I wonder if there's going to be aerial surveillance?"

Phyllis sighed. "I hope wherever Danny's found to hide is deep enough under cover."

"Deep enough..." Xavier mused, thinking aloud. He glanced at Phyllis, who nodded emphatically. Then she put a finger to her lips.

"I'm sure he'll be fine. We shouldn't rush off after him until we know the coast is clear."

"I wish he'd taken his computer," Xavier said wistfully. Not only could we contact him through it, he thought, but I wouldn't have had to make up that story about why it was lying in the garage. Then he smiled as an idea hit him. "I wonder if Charles wouldn't mind going over to visit Danny? He knows where he is too, and even if our whereabouts are being watched..."

Phyllis grinned and reached for the phone.

The dragon skeleton was exactly as he had last seen it, too. Danny peered at it suspiciously through the darkness for a long time before he was willing to step out of the tunnel and into the main chamber of the lair. There was magic here, after all, and he had run afoul of it once already. The shreds of cloth and the crushed flashlight reminded him quite clearly of that. But the dragon was still very dead, and it seemed almost peaceful curled in its final repose. Protecting its eggs.

Danny grimaced. Those were the source of his problem, not the skeleton. Squinting and straining his eyes in the dim light, he tried to examine them more closely without getting closer to them himself. All he could really make out was that one was split wide open, the one that had contained whatever had transformed him. It was hard to see more than that. He moved his head nearer, and thought he could make out tiny bones nestled in the ancient shell...

Suddenly there was a slight movement, and Danny reflexively yanked his head back. Then he realized it hadn't been the eggs that moved this time, it had been the skeletal tail curled protectively around them. "Oh my god..." Danny whimpered, cowering in fear as a faintly glowing transparent image of a full-grown dragon faded into existence around the skeleton. It slowly raised its head, leaving the motionless bones behind on the ground, and looked blearily around the room. Then its eyes focused on Danny.

"nuq qaSpu'?" The apparition asked in a faint voice. 'What happened?'

"Uh, I don't, I don't know," Danny stammered.

"nuq?" The dragon ghost asked, puzzled.

Through his fear Danny suddenly realized that ghost might not know english. Still edging back into the tunnel, he answered again in draconic. "Uh, I don't know. What are you?"

Although he clearly understood this time, the question just seemed to puzzle him more. "I am Iteq, guardian of this vault," he replied. "How long has this place been sealed?" Then the ghost glanced downward, and caught sight of the skull still lying on the floor under his insubstantial head. He jerked back in surprise, causing Danny to jump slightly himself. "Oh no!" he exclaimed, examining a transparent forepaw and then looking back at the rest of his body. "I'm dead!"

"Y-yes," Danny confirmed shakily. "I'm sorry, I found..."

But Iteq wasn't listening. He surged to his feet, turning to see the cluster of eggs still nestled by his skeleton. "My children! Are you... oh no! You too! No!" Devastated, he gently reached down and passed his insubstantial talons through the broken eggshell. The fragile shards didn't even stir. "No, no, no... the spell was supposed to be strong enough! ghay'cha'!"

Danny cringed at the expletive even though he didn't know its literal translation; The ghost's tone of voice alone was enough to convey the meaning. However, despite the fact that he was now in the presence of a seemingly enraged ghost dragon almost twice his size, Danny held his ground and didn't flee. There was such a strong note of horror and desperation in that voice that, although he was certainly afraid of the ghost, he almost felt sorry for him as well. He waited quietly in the mouth of the tunnel, hoping Iteq would calm down again.

After perhaps a minute of mourning his lost eggs, Iteq quietly sighed and refocused his attention back on Danny. "So it was all for nought," he said, sounding somewhat defeated. "All our effort, our sacrifices..." He sighed again. Then he seemed to cheer up slightly. "At least it looks like we didn't die out after all. I suppose I should be glad for that. Actually, I should be ecstatic. Tell me, young one, who are you? What has happened since the great purge, how did you survive the plague?"

Danny swallowed nervously. "Uh... honored sir, I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Dragonkind," Iteq prompted impatiently. "How did our race survive? How many of us are alive, how much territory have we reclaimed?"

"As far as I know, I'm the only one alive in the whole world."

There was a moment of stunned silence as Iteq tried to fully understand what Danny was saying. He glanced down at the eggs, then suspiciously asked "Do you remember your parents?"

"Well, yes," Danny answered. "But they're not dragons."

Iteq's face fell. "Okay, now I'm confused." he snaked his transparent head closer to Danny, examining him intently; Danny shied slightly but still held his ground. "You look vaguely familiar... as if, perhaps, you were of Qel blood. But-" he glanced again at the eggs "-the eggs are unbroken, except for one that clearly did not live to see its hatching. How could... Never mind. What is your name, young one?"

"Danny Manning."

"Danny... Manning." Iteq pronounced it with a heavy draconic accent. "I have never heard of your family, and yet there were so few left... Tell me, Danny. What do you know of this vault? How did you come to be here?"

"I didn't know about this part of the cave," Danny replied carefully, "I just hung out in the outer chamber. A big boulder blocked the tunnel down here. Then two days ago it just slid open." Iteq nodded at this, as if it was as he had expected. Emboldened, Danny continued. "A friend and I came down here to explore. We found the... uh, your... skeleton. When I went to take a closer look at it... uh, you... Well, whatever. I got too close, and then this thing burst out and attacked me. It turned me into a dragon."

Iteq frowned. "Then... you weren't a dragon before you entered the vault!?"

Danny shook his head. "No, sir. I was human."

Iteq hissed in surprise. "Something is not right," he spoke fiercely to himself. "Even on top of all this, something strange is going on. Danny!" Danny jumped nervously. "Are you telling me the truth? Do not lie to an elder wyrm, even a dead one!"

"It's true! I swear!"

"If you are really nothing but a human, how can I trust your word?" Then, before Danny could reply, Iteq waved him off. "Bah! Never mind, the logical fallacy inherent in that question is obvious. I'm not fully awake yet. Very well, so I'll accept your story. Let me see now, what could have..." Iteq trailed off, lost for a moment in thought. Then, gingerly, he reached out a ghostly claw to touch his eggs again. This time he gently tried passing his paw through one of the unbroken eggs. A look of joy lit his face. "It is alive!" He said with awe. "I can feel it. Dry, as cold as the rock... but in some strange way still almost alive."

"Like you are?" Danny ventured, surprising himself with his boldness.

Iteq looked surprised too, but from insight instead. "You're right! The spells were not strong enough to keep us alive, but they must have been strong enough to preserve our essences... except for the broken egg, its essence is gone. And if what you say is true, I have an idea where it went..." Danny's eyes widened and he clutched his chest. Iteq nodded. "I think you have my child's soul," he confirmed.

"Waitaminute," Danny protested. "Now, just wait a moment here. Are you saying I'm possessed?"

Iteq nodded. "In a manner of speaking, yes. I think so."

"Oh great, I'm in big trouble now... how do I get it out? I don't want to be possessed! I don't even want to be a dragon!"

"Calm down, Danny!" Iteq barked. "Since you're really a human, you obviously don't understand the situation. Don't go nuts on me, that won't help anyone."

Iteq had a point, Danny realized, and he tried to rein in his fear and think carefully. "Okay, so I don't understand the situation. Neither do you, if you've been locked up down here sleeping - dead, in fact - since before magic went away. You said yourself things haven't been going as you expected."

Iteq harrumphed. "I must admit a certain ignorance," he yielded grumpily. "I don't know exactly how my children and I ended up in this state, what this state really is, or how one of my children got into your body like that. But I'm sure I can figure things out. Assuming you've got enough awareness of what's been happening out there to give me something useful to work with, of course."

"I'm 13 years old," Danny retorted indignantly, "and I've got straight A's in history course. Well, B pluses..."

Iteq actually chuckled. "I'm closer to five hundred, and I've lived history. Those human... never mind. We'll trade information, then; you tell me what you know of your history - you said magic went away? - and I'll fill in some of the holes in that knowledge. We can figure out what happened together, okay?"

Danny couldn't help but feel patronized by his tone, but admitted that it sounded like the best option. Wracking his brains and thankful he was an avid history buff, he began carefully recounting everything he knew about the old times. Iteq listened passively, his transparent expression inscrutable. It was worse than giving a realtime oral presentation, at least when preparing for those he had access to the same references his evaluator did...

Once he was finished his overview of the past 3000 years of human history, concluding with the recent reintroduction of magic, Iteq silently brooded for a while. Danny waited nervously for a response. At last, he spoke.

"So, the vermin won after all. Swarming like maggots on the corpse of the world..."


Iteq sighed. "I apologize, Danny. But look at it from a dragon's perspective. We have a long, proud heritage; a rich culture, a worthy society. But those petaQ barbarians still swarmed through Europe, driving us out. They were weak, stupid vermin... but there far more of them than there were of us, and they bred like sheep. They took over our land and our herds. Sure, a dragon could lay waste to their camps as they encroached on his territory, but the human tide just kept on coming. Insidious. Eventually a dragon's luck would turn against him, and an arrow or spear would strike home. The humans were getting dangerous, even moreso than the accursed griffons." Iteq shook his ghostly head. "The eventual outcome seemed inevitable. We were driven to the fringes of Europe, this island was our last true dominion and even it was infested with human tribes. We slaughtered them by the tens of thousands, and they simply wouldn't leave our territories.

But, fortunately, we were not alone in our troubles." Iteq's bitter tone took a slight turn toward hopefulness. "While the humans spreading through Europe like a plague were infernally mundane, to the south there were tribes of humanity that were becoming increasingly learned the arts of magic. How they had ever figured out how to cast spells was beyond us, with their brief lifespans they should have never been able to discover even the basics; it takes centuries to master the art from scratch. But somehow they did. And they were rapidly building a civilization, a civilization with power to rival the gods.

The gods, much like us, did not see the threat until it was already almost too late. Frankly, they have always struck me as a hedonistic, lazy bunch; too smug in their superiority to pay attention to anything outside of themselves. While we fought humans with tooth, claw, and breath, they were content to continue their petty squabbles and their little games with human worshippers while their dominance of magic gradually came to an end. If it wasn't for the fact that we had a common foe, I would have said good riddance to the lot of them.

There was one god, however, who in the end realized what was happening and tried to convince his brethren to band together and help knock the humans back down again. Precious few did, but there were enough. They devised a secret centuries-long plan that would cumulate in the construction of a devastating spell, a spell that would wipe the human civilization from the continent and devastate their population throughout the world. When we heard of their plan, we were of course very pleased. But it seemed like it would come too late; our numbers were in decline, the tribes of humans on this very island were beginning to band together with impunity and to organize assaults on our lairs. A few centuries' delay could very well mean the extinction of our race. The warrior gods refused to hurry on our account, so a plan was devised to ensure our survival until the plan was put into effect."

Iteq gestured grandly at the interior of the cavern. "This vault was to be the safeguard of our race," he said wistfully. "The greatest mages planned it and for the first time we all banded together in a great endeavor; half of the parents on the island, determined by lots and impartial analysis of their lineages, sacrificed their eggs to this project. Some refused to give their eggs up, and in another shameful first for our people the combined will of the majority was enforced on those individuals. Our survival was at stake.

I was chosen to sleep with the children. I wasn't related to any of them, and so would show no favoritism. If I survived the hibernation spell, I was to protect them as they matured and teach them all that the basic knowledge implanted by the mages did not." Iteq hung his head. "I had hoped, upon waking, that I would find our sacrifices unnecessary. When I saw you I thought that perhaps they had been; that perhaps those who were left behind might have held out long enough to see the tide turned. My own death, even the death of the unborn children, would have been acceptable given that. But something has gone horribly wrong. Magic destroyed, humanity ascendant..." Iteq lapsed into silence.

Danny hesitated before speaking up; Iteq was an excellent story-teller and the draconic language unexpectedly rich, he had been quite moved. "I'm not sure what to say," he began quietly. "I'm human; I don't think we're all that bad any more. We protect biodiversity now."

Iteq grinned weakly. "Dragons were once the shepherds of the land; we should not require protection. What would happen, Danny, if we were to somehow return to the skies? What would humans do, how high can their arrows now reach?"

"The moon," Danny answered unhappily. He was in hiding from the rest of humanity right now, after all; Iteq had a point.

Iteq nodded. "Higher than even the gods could throw their lightening, it seems. He was right about humanity, though it didn't save him in the end..." Then he frowned. "Wait. How is that possible without magic? You said it only returned recently, far too soon for humans to have relearned it after millennia of ignorance."

"Rockets. Technology. Sort of a non-magical magic, exploiting other laws of physics." Danny explained.

Iteq shook his head. "And I thought longbows were a dirty trick," he sighed. "Danny, this new world is beyond my ken. I do not know how I will be able to help you survive in it. I'm sorry."

"You want to help me?" Danny was somewhat surprised, considering all that Iteq had just said about what he thought of humans.

Iteq seemed surprised by Danny's surprise. "Have you looked in the water lately? You are a dragon. You have the soul of one of my adopted children, whom I am sworn to protect."

"I do not!" Danny retorted. "I'm still me in here, aren't I? And me is human." He winced slightly at the atrocious grammar, but he still meant it.

"You are also a dragon!" Iteq insisted. "Yes, you've retained your former memories, perhaps even your human soul in some way. My children were yet unborn, so of course you don't have memories of being a dragon. But in there..." Iteq intangibly tapped Danny's chest "...your heart is now draconic. Your human heritage is unfortunate, but I am flexible enough to accept it. It may even be invaluable in helping us to survive."

"I'd rather be fully human again," Danny muttered. "I don't suppose you know a way to do that?"

Iteq shook his head. "I was not one of the great mages; they remained to help hold off extinction, only intending to go into hiding when death was inevitable. Unfortunately, if they were successful and held off extinction until the magic failed..." He emitted a small chuckle. "That would certainly be ironic, wouldn't it? If they held out until the gods attempted their plan and failed, destroying magic in the process, they would be unable to cast the spells necessary to survive. Their success may have doomed them. But all this is mere speculation. I wish I knew what happened after I went to sleep..." He sighed.

Danny sighed too; he would have hoped that a ghost such as Iteq would have been able to finally solve the mystery of magic's disappearance. At least I know a little more than I used to, he reflected. He was just about to ask another question about life before the fall of magic, when Iteq abruptly cocked his head and motioned for silence. A moment later Danny heard it too, filtering in through the narrow tunnel to the surface; the faint whine of an approaching motor.

"Close the door," Iteq commanded quietly. After a moment's pause, he repeated it more forcefully; "close the door! Danny, the vault isn't responding."

Danny immediately caught on, and tried the command himself. "Close the door!" This time there was the grinding of stone on stone as the boulder slid back into place over the tunnel mouth. Though the entombment was more thorough than he had ever experienced, Danny let out a sigh of relief; he was safe.

"It seems the vault's spells don't obey the dead," Iteq observed ruefully. Danny glanced back in his direction and almost jumped; although it was too dark for him to see his own muzzle in front of his face, Iteq's form was clearly visible against the inky blackness. The ghost seemed to glow, yet cast no light.

"Illuminate," Iteq commanded. After a short wait with no apparent reaction, Danny tried the same command himself. A dim orange light faded into existence, lighting the cave's interior evenly with no apparent source. It actually gave the cave a 'homey' feel.

"I guess not," Danny confirmed. Then the two waited in silence, straining their ears for any hints of what might be happening outside.

Charles bounced in the scooter's seat as he drove down the rutted path through the trees, the roughness of the ground helping convince him to keep his speed reduced to reasonable levels. Danny's father had indicated that the police had already left their farm when he had called him a little over half an hour ago, so there was no immediate time pressure, but he still felt a need to hurry. Danny was hiding out there, completely cut off and alone, and at last Charles was able to do something to help.

As he approached the entrance to their cave, he pulled his scooter to a stop and dismounted while still under cover of the trees. His scooter was colored bright red, and he knew that from the air it would stand out like a flag if he parked it at the edge of the clearing where he normally did. Charles congratulated himself on thinking ahead like that, though it later occurred to him that he could have simply brought the scooter into the cave with him instead. Oh, well.

Approaching on foot, Charles examined the dragon tracks in the soil. Most were probably left over from right after Danny had been transformed, but he recognized a set of new tracks heading into the cave that he suspected hadn't been present the last time he'd been here. They were deeper and spaced farther apart, the talons having dug into the sod as if their owner had been in a big hurry. Charles grinned; Danny had come back here, all right. He reached the cave entrance and stopped outside, standing at the edge of the opening. He may have known intellectually that Danny was actually his best friend, and would never hurt him, but there was still a dragon in there after all... "Danny?" He called cautiously. "It's Charles! Your dad called me, the cops aren't with me... Are you in there?"


After the wait stretch on, Charles nervously cleared his throat and tried again. "If you can hear me, I'm coming in. Don't bite my head off, okay?" Sighing, he muttered under his breath about how Danny was supposed to be the adventurous one as he carefully climbed down into the cave.

Danny and Iteq didn't hear Charles' words through the thick layers of granite surrounding them; the best they could manage was the occasional sensing of his feet on the floor.

"Does the vault have any... uh, magic eyes out there?" Danny whispered, the draconic language not having an obvious equivalent to "surveillance cameras".

"You could try the command 'open peephole' but it probably won't work," Iteq replied softly. "The spell was a weak one, to avoid detection, and it was outside the vault when the magic failed..."

Danny shrugged and tried it, without success as Iteq had predicted. "What other tricks were built into this lair?" He asked.

"Oh, quite a few. Probably most of them don't work any more, though, and none of the defences; this place was designed to be a hiding place, not a fortress."

The two lapsed into silence again for several long minutes. Finally, over Danny's tense breathing, they heard the faint sound of stone hitting stone on the boulder blocking the entrance. Tap... Tap... TapTapTap. Danny froze, holding his breath. "What...?" Iteq began, but Danny motioned for silence and he complied. TapTap... TapTap... Tap... Tap...

"StarQuake," Danny muttered, a grin rapidly spreading over his face. "It's the locked-door cheat code for 'StarQuake'. That's Charles out there!"

"Your human friend?" Iteq asked dubiously. "How can you tell? What's 'StarQuake?"

"A VR combat game... oh, never mind that. The cops wouldn't know that code. Mom and Dad probably wouldn't know it either. It's got to be Charles. We should let him in."

"No! Look, even if it is who you think it is, we can't trust a human."


"Oh, right; we've gone over that. Sorry. But what if the others coerced him? At least consider that. The rest of the tribe could be waiting out there with him, a bonfire all set up to smoke us out if we unseal the door. Or rather, smoke you out. I guess I don't need fresh air myself any more."

Danny shook his head. "Charles wouldn't go along with that. Besides, the police would just blast us out if they knew we were in here. I think we should let him in."

Iteq emitted a hollow, ghostly sigh. "I don't suppose I could stop you. I hope you know what you're talking about, child; this vault represents the last hope of our entire race. If the humans find it and attack before we're are ready to defend ourselves..."

Danny nodded. "I know. I don't want to be a dragon, but I don't want you to be wiped out, either. Maybe you can work out something with the government when you're ready, a reserve like the unicorn has in the states... oh, I don't know! This is the sort of thing Mr. Hutz is supposed to work out, he's the lawyer. But I think they can be reasonable."

"I hope you know what you're talking about," Iteq repeated under his breath. "Very well. Open the door, talk to your human friend. But if you're wrong, flame first and ask questions later, okay?"

Danny swallowed nervously, turned, and crawled up the tunnel to the boulder. Iteq just didn't understand how to deal with the police. Danny didn't really have much experience either, but at least he'd seen enough news to know a direct attack would be a disaster; if he was wrong, he resolved to surrender and hope for the best. "Open the door," he commanded quietly, and the boulder slid open. "Charles? Is anyone with you?"

"Danny! No, I came straight here. Your folks called me, asked me to tell you that the police are gone." There was a nervous quaver in his voice, but Danny decided it was reasonable to expect from someone who's just entered a dragon's lair like Charles had. He stuck his head out into the outer cave, responding to Charles' startled flinch with a grin that was part amusement, part relief. There was nobody else with him.

"Don't worry, it's just me. And you'll never guess who I was talking to down there..."