She skidded to a stop in front of the cavern entrance, her harsh breathing rattling in the back of her throat. Casting a quick glance back over her shoulder, she saw only the dark forms of trees, and heard only her own breath. No heat traces. No sounds of bodies crashing through underbrush. No gunfire.
She paused to take quick inventory. Miraculously, she was uninjured. She still had most of her gear: armored longcoat, utilitarian jumpsuit, heavy leather boots, AK-97, katana, Dikoted knife, medkit, backpack. Somehow she'd managed to get this far without having to drop anything, even though she had been running for her life. Her coat and jumpsuit were scratched and dirty, ripped at by overhanging branches and her numerous falls as she'd rushed headlong through the forest.
Apparently they had not seen her, though she found that difficult to believe. The vision of the fireball as the Stallion was hit by a SAM just as it was lifting off still remained at the forefront of her mind—the explosion that had destroyed her team, her friends, her livelihood. She had heard their screams over the commlink; those screams, cut off suddenly as the team had died and their links had been flash-fried, echoed in her mind despite her best efforts to silence them.
They must have thought she was on the chopper. That was the only explanation for why some heavily armed and armored squadron wasn't currently on her trail. They must have thought she was with them when they died.
I should have been with them, she thought bitterly, then quickly drove the thought away. No time for that now. They were dead, but she was still alive. They wouldn't have wanted her to give up. She was a survivor; she always had been. Today, she would survive so she could get back and raise another team to come out here and blow the hell out of this complex.
But first, she'd have to survive.
The cavern in front of her had a tall but narrow opening, about four meters high but only about half that distance wide. It was set into a high cliff face and surrounded by trees. She debated for a moment whether to go in: after all, anything could be in there. They could be lying in wait for her. Or there could be some kind of animals—she wondered what type of animals were indigenous to this area.
When it came right down to it, though, she didn't have much choice. She needed a place to rest, at least until tomorrow morning. If she could make it though the night, she might be able to sneak onto the personnel transport helicopter as it returned to the mainland after depositing its load of technicians and salarymen. This cavern looked like it fit the bill nicely. Since she didn't think they had any magicians out here, she decided that she might even have a chance of surviving the night. She wouldn't get much sleep, but she'd been through worse.
With one last glance over her shoulder to make sure that no one was watching, she slipped through the opening of the cavern.
Switching her cybereyes to low-light vision, she noted that the cavern mouth opened into a passageway, the ceiling of which gradually sloped downward until it was only about three meters high at its end. Beyond that, it appeared to grow wider, as if there was a much larger chamber there.
Moving silently, her back to one of the walls of the passageway, she crept down toward the chamber. The passage went on for about five meters before the point where it widened. At the end of it, she stopped again, listening.
It was very dark inside. Even with her low-light vision, she couldn't see much. But it wasn't what she saw that made her stop and stiffen, flattening herself even closer to the wall. It was what she heard.
Breathing. Harsh, labored breathing. Breathing that sounded very much like her own, except that it hitched occasionally and changed rhythm, as if the breather was having a hard time keeping it going.
Loud breathing. The sound of something very large indeed.
She did not move. She was afraid to. Whatever was in there was big. Really big. Was it some kind of animal? She didn't think anything as big as this had to be lived here, but she had to admit she didn't know. Did it identify prey by sight? By smell? By movement? Would it even consider her to be prey?
She wouldn't be able to make an informed decision, she realized, until she got a look at it. Turning around and running out of the cavern might get her killed, especially if the creature had noticed her. Even if it hadn't, she couldn't stay out there. The patrols would find her for sure. Maybe, whatever this creature was, she could stun it or, if necessary, kill it before it could attack her. She didn't like it, but when it came down to a battle between her and an animal, she was determined that she would come out on top.
Very slowly, trying to make no sound, she slid her backpack down off her shoulders and set it on the ground next to her. Then, just as carefully, she slid down the AK-97 on its strap and held it at ready in her hands. Its weight felt comforting, as did the assurance that it was loaded with APDS rounds that could punch through just about anything. She'd put her skill and those rounds up against just about any critter short of a juggernaut.
Feeling a bit more confident now, she inched her way down to the end of the passageway, stopping at the end. The harsh breathing had not changed tone, although it did have a decided wheezing quantity that she hadn't noticed before. Whatever was in there certainly didn't sound well.
With one last hope that it wasn't a trap, she poked her head and her gun barrel around the corner, sweeping her gaze over the chamber.
What she saw made her gasp.
There was a creature in there, all right, and a large one. It lay near the far side of the great chamber, pressed up against the far wall, its tail wrapped around it and its head drooped over its forelegs. Though it didn't appear to notice her at the moment, she still couldn't suppress the gasp.
It wasn't every day that you found yourself sharing a cavern with a dragon.
She hefted her AK-97 and pointed it at the creature. She didn't want to shoot it, but she wasn't sure she had a choice. Everything she had ever heard about dragons told her that they were treacherous creatures who could not be trusted, and who would trick you into giving up your advantage so they could kill you.
She stiffened, her grip tightening on the assault rifle. The voice was faint and ragged, and appeared to be speaking inside her head. She glared at the dragon, but it had not moved. "Who said that?" she demanded.
"Do not be afraid..." Again, the gentle voice spoke in her mind.
"Show yourself!" she called. The barrel of the AK-97 did not waver from the dragon's head.
"Please...help me." As she watched, the dragon opened its eyes. She could only see the one closest to her: it was large and had a faintly luminescent glow. The pupil was fixed on her.
Now I've done it, she thought, fear flowing through her body and turning her blood to ice. It's noticed me. "Is that you, dragon? Are you talking to me?"
The great eye closed again as the dragon shifted position. Its breathing was growing more labored. "Please..." it said again. "Help me..."
Her eyes widened and she blew air through clenched teeth. "I'm out of here," she said. "You're not fooling anybody." Turning, she prepared to head back down the passageway. Better to take her chances with the guards—at least with them, she knew what she was getting.
"Don't go," the voice in her head pleaded. "Do not let me die here, alone..."
She stopped. The voice was so gentle, so...fearful. That was an adjective she never thought she'd be applying to a dragon, that was for sure. Her back still to the chamber, she took a deep breath. "What's wrong with you?"
"Please...come back. I will not harm you. I give you my word."
That was a laugher. A dragon's word? What was the old street proverb about never dealing with one? That was because they couldn't be trusted as far as you could throw them. All they cared about were their own agendas.
"Please..." The mind-voice was fading now.
She started to move again. Stopped again. She knew was dead if she went back out there. They'd find her before she could find another place to hide. What did she have to lose by staying? If it was faking that raspy breathing and the pleas of injury, it was doing a damn good job of it. Sure, that was possible. Maybe even probable. But if it wasn't—
—could she just go away and let it die?
Sighing with exasperation, she wheeled back around and stalked into the chamber. Damn this conscience anyway! Consciences were nothing but liabilities to shadowrunners. "All right," she said brusquely. "I'm here. I'm back. If you tell me what to do, I'll help. But if you try to attack me, I'm going to shoot you. Got that?"
"I won't attack you," the mind-voice said. "I gave my word."
"Well, good," she said, her tone clearly indicating that she didn't believe it. Fishing in her backpack, she came up with a small battery-operated lantern, which she set in the middle of the cavern floor and flipped on. Soft light flooded the chamber.
For the second time, she gasped as she got a good look at the dragon.
It looked as if it had once been a creature of immense beauty, golden-scaled and sinuous, with a long, powerful body and large leathery wings folded down over its back. Now, though, it was clear that it was right: it was dying. She stared, wide-eyed, at the bloody holes where high-velocity rounds had torn chunks from its flanks; the blood ran down and pooled beneath the creature in great red puddles. Its flesh had been ripped in many places, causing more bloody and wicked-looking wounds. The dragon's great head rested strengthlessly on its forelegs, while its tail, also bleeding in several places, wrapped tightly around its hindquarters. "My God..." she whispered. "What happened to you? Who did this?"
The dragon's eyes opened again, swiveling around to settle on her. The expression in their violet depths held pain and fear and wisdom. "It is not important," the creature said in her mind. "Please...just remain here with me. It will not be long."
She glared at him. "Hey! Wait a minute!" she protested, surprised at the strength in her voice. "I'm not going to stay here and watch you die! You think I want to spend the night in a cave with a dead dragon? If I stay, I'm going to help you. You're going to make it!" She stalked over and glared right into its closest eye, trying not to pay attention to the rows of sharp-looking teeth. "You got that, dragon?"
A flicker of amusement rippled through the voice. "Yes, ma'am."
That surprised the hell out of her. A dragon with a sense of humor? Would wonders never cease? "Okay," she said, satisfied. "Now that we've got that out of the way, what can I do?" After her outburst, she very much feared that she was not going to be able to follow up on her promise. The dragon was so gravely wounded—there was no way that her little human-sized medkit was going to be the least bit effective on a creature this size.
The dragon's eyes were closing again, slowly. "Can't—"
"Hey!" Without thinking (if she'd been thinking, she never would have done it), she smacked the creature hard on the nose with the flat of her hand. "Don't you start fading on me! I've lost too many people today. You are not going to die. I won't let you."
The dragon's head jerked a bit, and its eyes flew open. They showed surprise. "You hit me."
"Got you back to your senses, didn't it? Remember our deal? I help you out, and you don't die. Okay?"
"Yes..." the mind-voice said wearily.
"Okay," she said. "Now look—you have to help me. What do I do? I'm afraid I slept through Dragon First Aid 101 in shadowrunner school."
"Right. That's me. Shadowrunner. I thought you dragons were quicker on the uptake. You know—I thought you guys knew everything."
"Attacked...complex." The dragon brought its head around slightly so it could regard her with both eyes at the same time.
"Yeah. That was us. I'm the only one who survived. I don't think it's sunk in yet."
"I'm...sorry," it said, and sounded like it meant it.
"Yeah, so am I," she said bitterly. She really didn't want to discuss the worst day of her life with an overgrown lizard. "But that isn't going to do us any good. I need to figure out what to do about these wounds."
"Drugs..." The dragon's glance flicked back toward the rear of its body. "Capsule. Sub...dermal. Must...remove."
She stared at it. "What?"
"Wounds...can heal. Too weak now." The mind-voice was drifting again. She was afraid that she would lose the creature despite her best efforts. "Remove...capsule."
She took a deep breath. What was it talking about? Capsule? Subdermal? Drugs? This dragon was starting to lose it. Still, though, she slowly moved down the creature's body, staring closely at its golden hide, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
"Other...side," the voice said in her head. "I will...move."
She stepped back quickly as the dragon levered its body up and moved over a couple of meters, then sank back down. The amount of blood pooled under it was frightening; its belly was soaked with it. She tried not to think about how much pain the creature must be causing itself by moving. When it had settled itself back down, she hurried around behind it and focused her attention on its other, equally wounded, flank. She forced herself not to think about the fact that her fragile human body was now sandwiched between a multi-ton creature and a hard stone wall.
She saw what she was looking for almost immediately. High up on the dragon's right flank, beneath the scales, was a bulge approximately a third of a meter long and a quarter meter wide. "What is that thing?"
"Drugs. Poison. Time...release."
"What am I supposed to do with it?"
"Remove it," the soft voice said.
"How?" She regarded it carefully, and couldn't see anyplace where it could be slid out or removed.
She glared at him. "You're dying, and you want me to cut you open?"
"It's...the only way. The...poison is killing me. Once...it is gone...I can heal."
Briefly, she closed her eyes. This whole situation was unreal. First the run blows up in their faces and she loses her entire team to one explosion. Then she tries to hide in a cave and finds a wounded dragon. And now she discovers that there's some sicko out there who's implanting subdermal poison capsules in dragons. What next? Elvis beaming in with a line of space aliens doing the can-can? She sighed. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. Please..Soon. Or I will not...be able to keep my promise to you."
She looked up at the dragon, or at least of what she could see of it. "Okay," she said reluctantly. "I'll try it. But you'll have to help me. I'm going to have to climb up on your back to do this, so don't throw me into any walls, okay? This is going to hurt."
"I...promise," it said. Its head, on the long, graceful neck, came around to watch what she was doing. After a pause, it said, "May I...know your name?"
Her eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"It is...civilized...is it not?"
"You first," she said, after a pause.
"You may call me...Gabriel."
She considered that. "I can call you Gabriel. But that's not your name."
"It will do...for now."
"Okay," she said. "Gabriel. And you can call me Kestrel."
"Also...not your name."
"Hey, you dragons are quicker than I thought," she said jokingly. "But like you said, it'll do for now." She looked up at his (now that she knew his name, she thought of him as him, as opposed to it) flank again—it was almost three meters at its highest point. "Okay, I'm going up there now. I hope you're not ticklish."
He did not reply to that, so she put her gun down, gathered herself, and leaped up onto the dragon's rear leg. From there, she scrambled up on his back, her hands slipping in the copious amounts of blood. His scales were smooth and small, tightly overlapped. Sitting down and feeling very strange to be sitting on a dragon, she drew her Dikoted knife from her belt. "I'm not kidding," she said. "This is gonna hurt. Are you ready?"
"Ready," came the faint voice. "Be...careful. The poison is...deadly. Don't touch."
Kestrel took a deep breath, steeling herself. She gripped her knife tightly, poising it in position as she examined the scaled skin above the capsule. Then, before she lost her nerve, she slashed quickly downward, making a longitudinal scalpel-cut down the length of the bulge. Immediately, bright blood welled up around the cut and ran down the dragon's flank.
There was a slight shudder from below and a sharp intake of breath. Kestrel held on tight until the dragon settled down again. "Sorry," she said.
"Please...continue." There was pain in the voice, but it was controlled.
She nodded, directing her attention back down at the wound she had opened up. Resting just beneath the skin, now visible and slicked with blood, was a dark-colored capsule. Again moving quickly, she slid the knife under it and pried it up, using the knife's leverage to flip it up and over. It landed on the cavern floor with a squishy little thud as she felt the dragon stiffen beneath her again. "There," she said triumphantly. "Got it." Her expression clouded. "But now you're bleeding worse. What else can I do?"
"Just...stay here. I will gain strength now...soon I can risk a healing spell."
Kestrel took another look at the wicked wound she had caused. "Are you sure?"
"Yes. You have been...most helpful."
"I hope so," she said almost to herself. Sliding back down the dragon's flank and retrieving her assault rifle, she slung it over her shoulder and came back around to the other side of the creature, where she didn't feel quite so boxed in. Her hands and clothes were covered with his blood.
He was watching her. "Come," he said. "Sit with me. Tell me of why you are here." Already, his mind-voice was growing stronger.
Slowly she came forward until she was near his head. She was still not convinced completely that she could trust him, especially now that he seemed to be gaining some strength, but she reminded herself that her choices had not changed. If she went out there, they would find her. "You first," she said. "How did a dragon end up this trashed? I thought dragons were trashers, not trashees. It's pretty clear that somebody's been shooting at you, but where did that capsule come from?"
"I was a captive," the dragon said. "Your team's arrival on the island gave me the chance I had not hoped to receive."
She looked at him funny. "What do you mean?"
"Most of those guarding the place where I was held were called off to deal with the attack, allowing me to overpower those remaining, even in my weakened state."
"Wait a minute," she protested. "They had guys guarding a dragon and they just left two or three guys watching him? That's not too bright in my book."
"They did not know what they were guarding. My captor did not share that information with them."
"Then who was your captor?" Kestrel asked, looking around nervously. Anybody capable of taking out a dragon was not somebody she wanted to tangle with when they came looking for their escapee. "And what was he doing at the time?"
"An old nemesis," the dragon said. "His identity is not important. He is not here. But I must leave here soon, before he returns."
She regarded him critically. "I don't think you're going anywhere for awhile," she said.
"No. But I cannot remain long."
"Why don't you tell me about that capsule?" she said, trying to change the subject. "What was in that thing? And why was it there?"
The dragon snaked his head around to look at it on the cave floor. "My captor used it to...control me. To keep me weakened. If you had not come, the poison would have killed me in less than an hour. When I was being held, he was able to control the effects, but if I were to escape, then..." the mind-voice trailed off, its meaning obvious.
"What a bastard," Kestrel said.
"That concept does not exist in my society."
Kestrel glared at him. "Is that more dragon humor? If so, I think your jokes need some work." She shivered involuntarily. Night was coming, and it was getting cold, especially with the blood soaking her clothing.
Apparently the dragon noticed. "Please," he said. "Sit down. Lean against me—I will warm you."
"Uh—no. That's okay," she said, shaking her head. "I'll be fine. Really"
"You are not fine," he said simply. "You are shivering. Please. You have nothing to fear. You have saved my life. Do you think that I would harm you now?"
She thought about that a moment. Somehow, mentioning that dragons were known for being treacherous and sneaky didn't seem like the right approach to take at that particular point in time. "We-elll..."
"Please." The mind-voice was soothing, calm, gentle.
Kestrel sighed. It was cold, and she didn't have any sleeping gear with her. The job was supposed to be in and out in no more than a couple of hours. "Where?"
"Sit down against my side."
She paused for a moment, wondering what kind of idiotic thing she was about to do, and then slowly settled herself down against the dragon's side, leaning back into the supple hide. "You are warm," she said in surprise. "I thought dragons would be cold-blooded. You know, like lizards."
"You have much to learn, small one," he said, and she was surprised to hear affection in his tone.
She was even more startled to hear her own voice speaking. "Okay, then: how about if you teach me?" Her eyes widened. Did she really just say that? Come on, Kestrel, she chided herself. You're getting crazy here. Must be the shock of everything that's happened today. You just asked a dragon to do something for you. You have got to be off your rocker.
She did not, however, retract the question.
There was interest in the dragon's mind-voice. "Is that what you truly wish?"
She started to answer, but then she paused. She realized that she had nothing to go back to. Her team was dead. Her best friends were gone, and would not be coming back. The surviving guards at this place were on her tail. She wasn't sure she even wanted to go back to shadowrunning. But here was an opportunity you didn't get every day. There was something about the dragon's voice that spoke to something deep inside her. Maybe it was the fact that he seemed to have access to her mind. Maybe it was that she seemed to have at least limited access to his, when he was communicating with her. There was no sign of guile or deceit in him—she sensed only kindness and affection and the pain of betrayal. "You—you'd do that?"
"You have saved my life," he said softly. "Were it not for your coming, I would be no more. You shall have whatever gratitude I can give you."
Kestrel paused again. She looked up at him, at his kind, faintly luminous violet eyes, so deep and ageless. "You don't owe me anything," she said, shaking her head. "I wouldn't have let you die. I couldn't have. I told you—I've had enough death for one day."
For a long moment, the dragon was silent. At last, he said, "If you will not accept my gratitude, then, perhaps you would consider a trade."
"A trade?" The suspicion was back, but only a little. The longer she spent with this wounded dragon, the more she felt comfortable trusting him. His massive sides rose and fell gently with his breathing, which was growing stronger and less ragged with each passing minute.
"I am young," he said. "I have not been long awake in your world, and as yet know little of its ways. Perhaps in exchange for my teaching, you could teach me about this modern world. I can see already that things are very different from the way they were when I went to sleep."
Kestrel didn't answer right away. She closed her eyes as the enormity of her situation finally began to catch up with her. In the space of less than a day, her entire life had turned around. Nothing was the same anymore. She couldn't use what she knew as a gauge, because what she knew was gone. And now, here was this dragon who owed her a blood-debt. She didn't want a dragon to owe her a blood-debt! All she wanted to do was get the hell out of here, get back to the mainland, and go somewhere to get very, very drunk until the whole thing looked like a bad dream.
"Can you get us off the island?" she heard herself ask.
"Once I have at least partially healed my injuries, yes."
"Without anybody shooting at us?"
"My magic is well capable of concealing our escape from everyone currently on this island," he said, with just the faintest touch of draconic arrogance.
"What about the guy who caught you in the first place?"
"He is not here."
"But what if he comes back? Could he find us? Could he catch you again, especially since you're hurt now?"
"Possible, but not so easily as before. Still, we must make haste if we want to avoid him. He will return soon."
"How long before you can go?" she asked.
"Soon. I am gathering my strength as we speak." He shifted position, very gradually so as not to jostle her. "You were going to tell me about why you are here."
She sighed, sinking back against his warm side. "We were hired to break into the complex on the other side of the island and steal a prototype weapon component."
"Why?" The dragon's mind-voice held genuine curiosity.
"Because that's what shadowrunners do," she said. "It's what we get paid to do."
"You are paid to be thieves? Interesting..." There was no judgment in his tone, only more curiosity.
"Sometimes. Sometimes we get paid to guard people, or prevent things from being stolen, or find people that are missing. Shadowrunners get hired to do all kinds of things that nobody else can or wants to do."
"Hmmm..." the dragon said noncommittally. "I can see that I, too, have a great deal to learn. Why did your endeavor end badly?"
Kestrel sighed, picturing the faces of the team again, and the fireball as the `copter went up. "We got set up. They were waiting for us. It happens sometimes."
"And your friends—?"
"They were trying to get out in our helicopter. We got separated, so I didn't make it to the rendezvous point in time. I told them to go without me. They waited, but finally they couldn't wait anymore. Those bastards shot them down with a rocket launcher." She closed her eyes, angrily swiping her hands across them. Damn it, she was not going to cry. This was not the time or the place. Besides, crying was for wimps.
Softly: "You are crying."
"Yeah, well, wouldn't you, if people who were like your family got killed right in front of you?" She spoke louder and more harshly than she had intended to. Quietly, after a pause, she said, "I'm sorry."
"Do not apologize. And the answer to your question is that yes, in my way, I would. Dragons do not weep, but we do grieve when those we care for are slain."
She didn't know whether it was the dragon's soothing, understanding voice, the stress finally catching up with her, or the visions of her teammates' faces, but suddenly she couldn't take it any longer. "I can't believe they're gone..." she whispered, and began to sob. "It's just so damned unfair!" She buried her face in his side, not even trying to hold back anymore.
The dragon remained still and silent, a comforting presence from whom she could take whatever strength she needed.
She sobbed for several minutes before she began to slowly get herself under control. Gradually, her sobs quieted to hitching gasps, and then, even more gradually, subsided. "I'm—sorry," she said again, gathering her composure. "I—I loved them."
"Perhaps it would help to tell me of them," he said. "Then they could live in my memory as in yours."
She looked up at him, eyes wide and face tear-streaked. For awhile she did not speak, but then, as if disconnected from her body, she heard herself telling the dragon about the team. She started with their functions in the group, their strengths as shadowrunners, their sense of honor; as she went on, though, she found herself telling him more personal things: her tentative and bittersweet fling with Raptor; the way gruff Indy had comforted her when she had accidentally shot an innocent on a busy street; Cabal's penchant for bad puns; Geist's love of classical opera, which none of the rest of the group could stand. By the time she wound down, she was surprised to find that she no longer had the desire to weep.
"Thank you," the dragon said.
"No," she said. "Thank you. You knew that was what I needed, didn't you?"
"It is a beginning," he said. He moved, just a bit. "I think I can risk an attempt to heal some of my injuries now, and then we can leave this place if you wish."
She stood up. "If I wish? I'd like nothing better than to get off this godforsaken rock." Taking a couple of steps back, she regarded him. "Do I need to do anything?"
"No. This should not take long." The dragon turned his attention inward, closing his eyes. As Kestrel watched, his entire body stiffened, then relaxed as a golden glow bathed him. The glow persisted for a few moments, then slowly faded. Beneath it, she noticed that several of the more grievous looking wounds had closed up and disappeared. Some still remained, and the dragon's hide was still bloody and gore-strewn, but at least some of the wounds were not bleeding anymore. When he opened his eyes, he raised his head from his forelegs. The movement looked much more strong and graceful than it had before.
"Are you better?" she asked tentatively.
"Much," he said. His voice, too, sounded stronger. "Will you leave here with me?"
Now that he looked reasonably healthy and had asked the question right out, she realized that she hadn't thought this through either. All she had been thinking about was that she wanted off the island. "Where will we go?"
"I must go somewhere to rest and regain the remainder of my strength. After that, I will see to it that you reach wherever it is you want to go. Or," he added, "if you decide to accept my offer of a trade, then you can remain with me."
She stared at him. "You mean it."
"Wouldn't that be—" she shrugged, with a tiny mocking smile, "—you know, a little fairy-tale? The girl and her dragon? The dragon and his girl? I think we'd get a bit noticed, don't you?"
"There are ways around that," he said. "I can take other forms."
That intrigued her. "Other forms? Like what?"
The amusement was back in his tone. "Human, for instance."
She cocked her head sideways, looking him up and down. "You're kidding."
"Can you show me?"
"Not now," he said ruefully. "The magic works such that if I were to change form in this state, I would take, proportionately, the same injuries I have now. I am much better able to cope with them in this form than I would be in human form."
Mulling that over, she came around in front of him. "But you could look like a human? Or an elf, or an ork, or—"
"Or a t'skrang, or an obsidiman, or—"
"Huh?" she broke in, confused as he seemingly took a left turn into unknown territory. "What are you talking about?"
He paused. "Forgive me."
"This is one of the things you might teach me, isn't it?" she asked.
"Possibly," he said. "But yes, I can take all of those forms, and more."
Kestrel glanced over her shoulder toward the opening of the passageway. "I guess we should go, then, before somebody finds us in here."
"Are you sure?" The dragon's violet gaze settled solemnly on her.
She looked up at him, meeting his eyes. She thought about her life. She thought about the team, and all the things they had done together. She even thought about her childhood, what seemed like more than a lifetime ago. "Yeah," she said at last. "I'm sure."
As soon as the words were out, a feeling of calm dropped over her, like a warm blanket over a sleepy child. She felt safe. She felt good. She felt...right. She knew at that moment that she had made the most important decision of her life. From now on, things would be very different for her.