Taming the Dragon

When Asher and José meet, sparks fly in more ways than one; Asher is a pyromaniac and José is a fire elf. Thrust into a strange world of fantasy creatures and oddballs, they must find their way back home or die in the civil war that rages around them. Yet, all Asher can think about is how to get that devilish hot Latino to do him.

Originally posted on Fictionpress.com. I’m in the process of rewriting this to have it available again soon.

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Chapter 1 – The New World

Both smoke detectors in Asher’s room went off as if announcing the god damn apocalypse. As they were going to alert his mom, they might as well have been. Quickly, Asher waved the burning post card to put the fire out and pocketed the half-burned thing. It had been stupid to light it, but whenever he got mail from his dad, his brain just stopped.

Asher stepped over the dozens of broken and empty lighters strewn across the floor and grabbed a chair from his desk. The smoke detectors were installed on the high ceiling, so he had to stand on top of the chair to shut them off. He hated doing that.

It wasn’t like he was scared of heights or anything, no, but it was stupid to stand on chairs. Chairs were meant for sitting. And what he felt as he unscrewed the lid of the first detector wasn’t vertigo. No way.

“Asher!” His mom’s voice rang through the apartment—and probably over into the next two apartments. By now, everybody had to know his name. “What the fuck are you doing?”

The door to his room flew open. Asher didn’t look at his mom. He had to focus on getting the second smoke detector to shut up before he tumbled off the chair and broke his neck.

“I put it out again,” he said. “Nothing happened.”

He turned the alarm off, and the room went quiet. Until his mother started up again. “What the hell makes you think you can start a fire in here? I’ve told you time and time again, if you have to act on your insane obsessions then take them out the house. Burn yourself for all I care! But do not play with fire in my apartment!”

Asher looked away from his mom as the world seemed to pulse. That was the only word he had for it. Adrenaline kicked up in Asher’s blood. It felt like the first shock of an earthquake but without the noise. Then nothing. Asher blinked. He must have imagined it.

Carefully, he stepped off the chair and turned to face his mother. Anger carved deep lines into her face, making her look ten years older than she was. “Screaming makes you ugly,” he said.

Her mouth stood wide open. Asher felt for the lighters in his pockets, readying himself for another round of her screaming. She went off again. Asher couldn’t listen. A pain stabbed through his head that had nothing to do with the volume of his mom’s voice. It felt like something was trying to tear his brain out of his scalp. “Fuck, what…” Asher clutched his head as the weird sensation brought him to his knees. He didn’t feel sick, but the pain didn’t pass. Something was pulling him out of his body, and he curled in on himself as if he could block it out that way.

“Oh, you really think I’m falling for that?” His mother’s voice seemed to reach him from behind a wall of glass.

“Shut up,” he groaned. He had to focus on keeping his shit together, but his grip slipped and his vision darkened.

***

He woke up somewhere that, at first glance, reminded him of the beach outside town. A warm breeze blew over his skin, carrying the salty smell of the sea with it as he sat up in the sand. His head didn’t hurt anymore. He felt fine, actually. Maybe a little confused. How the hell had he gotten to the beach? How was he going to get all that sand out of his hair? And why was the sky purple?

Seriously, the sky was a bright violet. Asher jumped to his feet. Had he been hit on the head too hard? Carefully, he stroked a hand through his hair. Sand stuck to his fingers, but he found no blood. Something funny on his arm caught his eyes. He raised it to get a better look.

What the actual fuck…

He scratched at the weird red patch on his skin. Had he fucking grown scales or something?

So yeah, maybe he put a lot of product on his skin, but damn, if he found out what caused this, he’d sue the hell out of that company.

He looked at his other arm.

Oh God no…

And then someone screamed.

Asher whirled around, following the high pitched sound. There was a woman, standing just a few feet behind him. Only it wasn’t really a woman. At least, no woman should have that many snakes on her head where other people had hair. If that was where fashion was going, Asher wanted no part of it. The woman seemed freaked out by the snakes too, staring at the slithering things wide-eyed. Asher took a step back toward the water.

Looking around, he found another member of the freak brigade to his right. Maybe Asher had stumbled into a video shoot for some pop band, but there were no cameras. The newcomer was a boy who looked to be around Asher’s age, maybe a little younger. Honestly, it was hard to judge when someone looked that ugly. The kid’s entire body seemed to be made from dirt and stones.

Maybe Asher was high on something. Only he didn’t take drugs. Maybe he was dreaming. Yeah, he was probably dreaming. He often dreamed of beaches anyway. But he had no idea why his brain was making up ugly people.

“Who the fuck are you?” he demanded, alternating between looking at Snake Woman and Stone Kid.

Stone Kid stopped inspecting his own body and faced him. “I’m… whoa, are those scales?” He came closer. “I’m Jonas. And I don’t, I mean I don’t normally look like this.”

“You’re not normally a freak?” Asher took another step back, searching his pockets for his lighters. Whatever that kid had could be contagious, you never knew. Even if this was all just one weird dream, there was no need to take the risk.

Stone Kid glared at him. “No. Are you?”

“Dude. I have a few scales. You’re made out of freaking stone.” At least the red on Asher’s arms was kind of pretty. Even if the color didn’t go well with his blue eyes.

Snake Woman interrupted his thoughts. “Hello?!” she said, throwing her arms up. “Lady with snake hairs here. I clearly win the freak prize.”

“Yeah, that is pretty fucked up,” Asher admitted. His fingers closed around the lighters in his pocket, and a sense of calm filled him. At least he still had those.

“I’m Maya,” the woman said, coming closer. She seemed to have cooled down a bit since the snakes weren’t attacking her. Her skin tone was dark, and the reptiles might have suited her if they hadn’t been so disgustingly real.

“I’m Asher,” Asher offered, although he made no effort to remember either Stone Kid’s or Snake Woman’s names. Why would he? He didn’t plan on sticking around with them. He only wanted to know where he was, what had happened, and where he would find fire wood. Now that he thought of it, where had the town gone? Riverside should have been visible from here. But all he saw were sand dunes with a couple of large rocks mixed in. A forest stretched out to the far right, and he couldn’t remember that ever being there before.

“Where the fuck did Riverside go?”

“Riverside’s a whole world away.” A new voice spoke, and Asher turned around to the stranger who’d approached them from behind. He must have come from the seaside. His long black-red hair was still wet and drops of water ran down in thin lines over the tanned skin of his neck. Drenched pants clung to his hips in a way that made Asher forget, just for a moment, everything else. Now this was dream material.

“I thought I heard someone scream,” the stranger said. Asher let his gaze trail back up to the stranger’s face. His ears were pointy and his eyes were hidden behind a blindfold.

“That was me,” Snake Woman said. “I was a little shocked to find snakes on my head. Very sorry for breaking out the alarm.”

“Snakes? Well, that does sound a bit scary.” The stranger tilted his head to the left. A small ball of fire was floating in the air next to him. Asher had to squint his eyes to see a small person with wings contained inside. She looked like a tiny fairy he had seen in a picture book once.

“What did you mean about Riverside being a world away?” Stone Kid said. “I was just there. Where are we? Who are you? What happened to my skin? What happened to her hair? How—”

“Calm down,” the blindfolded stranger said. “I still don’t know that much about this world myself.”

The little fairy fluttered over their group and Asher’s eyes stuck to her. What was that?

“This world?” Snake Woman asked.

“Well, yes, I believe this country is called Altasia.”

Only half-focused on the conversation, Asher looked around for something to poke the fairy with but couldn’t find any sticks in the sand. There was some driftwood, though. Driftwood burned pretty.

“You expect me to believe…” Snake Woman’s voice trailed off, and Asher looked up to see what had stunned her. Flames shot out of the stranger’s hand up into the sky.

“What the fuck kind of freak are you?” Asher asked, staring.

The stranger frowned at his tone, but Asher didn’t care. That there warranted cursing.

“José Rodriguez, honorary fire elf,” Blindfold-Guy said eventually. A little flame appeared above the flat of his palm, like magic. “Nice to meet you,” he added. “And you are?”

“Asher, full-time pyromaniac,” Asher said, staring at the fire. He didn’t listen as Stone Kid and Snake Woman introduced themselves again. His attention was on the fire elf. “What’s that there?” he asked, pointing to the little fairy. Without waiting for a reply, he picked up a small piece of driftwood and held it to the burning creature.

“What do you—” José said as the wood came in contact with the fairy and caught on blue and lavender fire. Asher threw it away before it could burn his hand. “Oh, you shouldn’t annoy her.”

Too late. The little fairy fluttered up and down and embers sparked off her, making Asher take a step back.

“Congratulations, you pissed her off,” José said.

“That’s what I do.” Asher ducked away as the little creature rained tiny flames down over his head. What a bitch! He clasped his hands over his hair. “You stupid little—”

“Stop it, both of you!” José said. The fairy flew back to his side, glaring down at Asher like a stuck-up diva. “Listen,” he said to all of them, “the lavalight here,” he pointed to the ball of flame, “has been helping me out for the last couple days and she says she knows someone who can help us. I figure we should all stick together and—”

“Why doesn’t she tell us herself?” Asher interrupted him.

José paused while the others shot Asher annoyed looks.

“You’re kinda rude,” the walking talking stone statue said. Asher proved his rudeness by making a hand gesture at him.

“She says she’s not talking to you,” José said then.

“Bitch.”

“Anyway,” José went on, ignoring him, “I figure if we stick together we have a better chance at getting out of here and back home. We can combine our powers and—”

“Powers?” This time it wasn’t Asher who interrupted, but the one who’d called him rude for doing so earlier.

“Yeah, like what I do with the fire. You all can do something, too. You’re not just human anymore, that’s why your appearances changed. I don’t know how it works, but that’s what happens.”

Asher checked himself over again. He was still wearing the same pair of jeans as before, and no shirt. Luckily he couldn’t find any more scales aside from those patches on his arms. He opened his belt to pull his pants down and check his legs. Nothing there. Maybe he should check inside his boxers, too.

“Asher!” He looked up at Snake Woman’s voice.

“What?”

“Put your pants back on.”

Asher rolled his eyes at her. Women…

José went on talking: “The lavalight tells me you’re an earth elemental, Jonas. And Maya, you’re a medusa. Asher’s a… dragon.”

“I’m not a dragon.” Asher looked up as he fiddled with his belt. “Do I look like an overgrown reptile to you?”

“Honestly, I have no idea what you look like. You sound like an idiot with attitude problems.”

“Yeah, maybe you should take off that blindfold and take a look around yourself.”

“I still wouldn’t see a thing.”

Asher quieted, churning the answer over in his head.

“So you are blind,” Snake Woman said into the silence. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, me too,” Stone Kid added.

“Wow,” Asher said finally, “sucks to be you, huh?” Just thinking of all the beautiful things he couldn’t see almost made Asher feel sorry for him. Almost. With their useless eyes, blind people ruined all the effort he put into his looks.

“I think I’m just fine the way I am, thank you.” Blind Guy’s voice was almost a hiss.

Asher shrugged. “If I was you I’d want to be someone else.” Well, apart from the fire abilities. Those were cool.

“I don’t think so,” José said.

“You do look like an overgrown reptile, by the way,” Snake Woman said.

“Fuck you,” Asher said. At least his hair wasn’t as messed up as hers. “How do we get home?”

“We start by walking,” Blind Guy said, then paused for a second. “That direction,” he added, pointing his arm right.

“The little bitch tell you that?”

“The lavalight told me, yes,” José said with forced patience. There was something amusing about his politeness. Asher was itching to find out whether he could make him freak before this dream was over.

His thoughts were interrupted when trampling noises thundered from the other side of the beach. A group of freaks was running up to them along the coast. At the front Asher saw a woman with green hair and skin, and beside her, a guy with blue scales all over his rather scrawny body, almost floating over the ground. It looked as if they were running away from the people behind them, the woman pulling on the man’s arm.

“To the forest!” she shouted.

The other freaks were catching up to them, though. Small lizard-like creatures with disgustingly green skin on small horses. Only one of the horses didn’t have a rider. That was because it was half man itself. It was really only horse from the waist down.

Asher had time to think that he didn’t want to know what that guy’s parents looked like, or how they’d done it, before José cursed beside him.

Blind Guy could curse. Wow.

“Everyone back!” he said as if he’d somehow become their boss over the last few minutes. “Get to the forest.”

Asher couldn’t rip his eyes off the horse guy, though. He’d almost caught up to the strange couple, who’d almost caught up with them. The guy and the girl ran past Asher now, and damn, they were fast. Unnaturally so.

A wall of fire shot out of the ground and erected itself between the couple and their pursuers.

“What’s going on?” Stone Kid asked.

No one replied. The half horse man stopped just in front of the flames, and turned to spot them. Someone was pissed.

Asher glanced from the fire, to the horse guy to José, who had a concentrated look on his face. “I told you to run!” he bellowed as more flames appeared in front of the other horses.

The sounds of half a dozen horses nickering in panic rang in Asher’s ears. Some horses threw off their riders. Still rooted to the spot, Asher watched as one tumbled to the ground not too far away. Its large pupil-less eyes glowed red.

“Asher!” an impatient voice called his name. He turned to see the others already running. He sprinted to catch up as they headed for the woods. This would have been a good time to wake up. Why the fuck wasn’t he waking up?

“Criminals!” The half horse guy’s voice boomed through the air. His hooves thundered on the ground behind them.

Asher ran into the shadow of the first trees behind his companions. He wasn’t going to make it, the freak was too close and he was way faster. Four legs against two was really unfair. Asher risked a glance back. Branches grew and moved themselves into the gaps he’d just run through, forming a solid wall as far as he could see.

Asher’s eyes widened as he watched. The horse guy growled outside the woods. A voice in the wind whispered, “Thank you.”

 

Chapter 2 – Get Your Freak On

“The forest can’t protect us forever,” the green woman said. “But it’ll be a while before the Centaur and his minions find their way in.” She’d introduced herself and her scaly companion, but Asher had already forgotten their names.

“We’ll be out before then,” José said.

Asher supported that idea. He kept watching the branches of the trees sway in the wind. They seemed like ordinary plants now, but he knew what he’d seen earlier. The memory sent a shiver down his spine. Trees were not supposed to be alive. He’d burned a good number of trees, and he shuddered to think they’d been sentient.

“What the hell is this place?” he asked.

No one paid attention.

“Why were they chasing you?” Snake Woman directed her question at the weird couple. “Who are those people?”

The man and the woman exchanged glances. “I thought it would be obvious,” the woman said. They reached out to each other and held hands between themselves. As if that was supposed to tell them anything.

“I don’t get it,” Asher said.

“We’re a couple,” the man said. His voice was unusually high for a guy. He would have rocked any karaoke night in town. If they were in a town instead of this creepy forest.

“What’s that to do with anything?” Stone Kid was leaning against a tree. His body weighed so much the tree bent backwards a little.

“We’re not judging you,” José said, before the couple could react to Stone Kid’s question. “And we really should be on our way. We wouldn’t want to hold you up.”

Asher glanced at the fire elf suspiciously. What wasn’t he judging them for? Having disgustingly heterosexual sex?

Come to think of it, which way did José swing, anyway?

Asher couldn’t ask his question before the man spoke again in his karaoke voice. “So should we. We have long ways to travel. I hope helping us has not put you into peril. Be watchful.”

“We will,” José said and then he walked off. And right into a tree. It was the second time Asher heard him curse. The lavalight fluttered around him, but he waved her off. Asher had to give him credit for dusting himself off and going on as if nothing had happened.

“You have a leaf stuck to your hair,” Asher said, walking behind him.

“It’s decoration,” the fire elf said, not bothering to pick it out.

“Huh,” Asher said. “That’s kinda gay.”

Stone Kid and Snake Woman caught up to them then. “Leave him alone,” Snake Woman said.

“It’s fine,” José dismissed her. “I can deal with him.”

“What was that couple all about?” Stone Kid asked. “What’s so bad about them being a couple?”

José rubbed his head. “They’re not of the same…” he seemed to search for the right word. “They’re not of the same race. That’s an issue here. Being gay or whatever is a-okay, so long as you stick to your own people. Guess every world has its own weird set of rules regarding sex.”

“So they were going to be punished for loving each other?” Snake Woman asked.

“Yes, actually…” José slowed a little. “It’s a capital offense. Especially if they had children.”

“Wow, that’s stupid,” Stone Kid said.

“I agree,” José said. “But we can’t do anything about it. This isn’t even our world. Still, I just… I had to help them. I’m sorry, I probably brought us into a stupid situation.”

“How do you mean?” Asher asked. This was exactly why he kept his nose in his own business.

“They might take us for criminals, too. Did you notice those lizard thingies? They’re a kind of police force.”

“But I didn’t even have sex with anyone.” If he was going to be punished for fucking someone, he should at least have done that. Otherwise it would be like being killed over a meal you never got to eat. And he’d sure enjoy eating a particular member of their group.

“I’m so sorry,” José said, although he didn’t sound it. “I can’t change it now. If you don’t want to get killed, walk faster. Actually, no.” He stopped. “Don’t walk. You can fly.”

“What now?” Asher stopped, too, and so did Stone Kid and Snake Woman. All eyes were on him. Well, all seeing eyes anyway. Even the lavalight appeared to be looking at him.

“You’re a dragon, remember?”

“I have a couple scales, that’s all.” Asher glanced at the weird red patches on his skin. “Doesn’t make me a dragon.”

“You would have to shift.” The way Blind Guy said it, you’d think it was common knowledge.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The sun was starting to set and an owl hooted in the distance. Asher shuddered at the thought of spending the night in the forest and not having a shower, or even a mirror, in the morning.

José shook his head at himself. He seemed amused by something. “I’ve definitely been here for too long,” he muttered.

“Anyway,” Asher said. “I have no wings, and I’m not flying.” He stomped past José, trying to make his words final. “I don’t know how to shift or whatever, and I’m not trying, because I’m not a freak.” He went deeper into the forest. He thought he heard streaming water in the distance. If there was a stream, he could wash up. “Where are we even going?”

“There’s a port town called Long Harbour I’ve been trying to reach,” Blind Guy said. “Their ships go to the other side of the continent. The lavalight says she knows someone in that area who knows a little about our world.”

“How far is that?” Snake Woman asked.

“A couple days by foot.”

“Days?” Stone Kid’s eyes widened. “Wow. Where do we get food around here?”

“I have a bit of food with me.” Blind Guy pointed to a brown leather bag that he’d slung across his right shoulder. “Not enough to last for long but I hope we’ll find some village soon.”

Looking at the bag, Asher wondered what else was in it. “You got any cigarettes?” he asked, feeling around for the lighters in his own pockets.

“No.”

“Sucks. You know where to get some?”

“No.”

“Does the little bitch know?”

With his blindfold on, Blind Guy couldn’t shoot Asher an annoyed look, but as Asher watched his face, lines creased on his forehead. Asher could get a rise out of him, he knew he could. It was just a matter of time.

“Smoking is bad for you anyways,” Stone Kid cut in, earning himself a death glare from Asher, “my mom always says-”

“You always do what your mom says?” Asher said, rolling his eyes at the kid. “Grow up.”

The snake woman snorted at him from the side. “Look who’s talking.”

Asher turned around to her. What the hell was that supposed to mean? “I’m almost twenty.”

“Congratulations, now you only need to act it.”

He narrowed his eyes at her snakes, who stared back at him defiantly. One against five was not fair. The snake in the middle of her head stuck its tongue out at him. Maybe it hissed at him, too, but the sound was inaudible over the roar of the river, which was growing continually louder.

“Do you hear that?” Stone Kid sprinted ahead and vanished into the thicket. “Come on, guys,” he shouted. “It’s a waterfall! This is amazing!”

Catching up to him, the first thing Asher noticed wasn’t the waterfall, but the cliff it thundered down. Stone Kid stood so close to it that Asher involuntarily pictured him tumbling over the edge, and a feeling of nausea tugged at Asher’s stomach. He closed his eyes for a moment. No way was he getting near that thing.

“There’s a bridge here,” Snake Woman said. Asher’s eyes snapped open at the words, only to narrow as they found the mentioned bridge. It consisted of just two large dead trees lying across the gap side by side. No fucking way.

“I’m not crossing that,” he said out loud.

“What,” Stone Kid said, grinning at him. He jumped up on one of the trees and put his hands on his hips. In Asher’s imagination, he was already lying at the bottom of the cliff, guts spilling everywhere. “You scared?”

“Fuck you,” Asher said. There was nothing wrong with not wanting to end your life as a smashed open corpse.

“Maybe it’s time to spread your wings.” Stone Kid took a few steps, walking backwards over the makeshift bridge, and Asher almost willed him to stumble.

“You see any fucking wings on me?” Asher threw his hands up. What was wrong with these people? “I’m staying.” He planted his feet firmly on the ground, arms crossed in front of his chest. There was no reason to go with these people. He would find another way home, one that didn’t involve cliffs and bridges.

“C’mon, we don’t have time to dawdle.” Snake Woman reached out to him. Not wanting to be touched, Asher slapped her hand away. Something stung his wrist in midair. Pain spread up his arm faster than a wildfire.

“You bit me!” Asher jumped back. “You fucking bit me!” The same snake that had shown him its tongue before hissed at him. Its eyes twinkled even as Snake Woman herself shot him a horrified look.

“Don’t panic!” she said, waving her arms. Asher’s vision blurred, black dots crept in from the sides.

“Shit!” he muttered. Unable to stop himself, he fell over backwards and braced himself for a harsh meet-up with the ground. It never came. Instead, he fell against someone’s chest. It was a man’s chest. Blind Guy’s. Stronger than he looks, Asher thought before unconsciousness claimed him.

***

A dark sky greeted him when he woke up again. It was still warm, though. He blinked and a flickering light caught his eyes. He was lying close to a campfire. Wait. Campfire? Where the hell was he? He sat up as memories rushed back to him. He was dreaming. No. If this was a dream, he would have woken up by now.

“Morning,” someone said.

Asher glanced to his side and found Blind Guy sitting a few feet away from him. As he looked farther he spotted the other two freaks asleep behind him. Around them, tall earthen walls blocked them from the outside world as if the ground itself had risen up to protect them.

“What happened?” Asher said, instead of returning the greeting.

“We crossed the bridge without any of us dying and set up camp here for the night. I made a fire and Jonas built those walls. We switched for guard duty.”

“How did he… No, forget it.” Asher could imagine the answer: Magic. He almost snorted at the thought. Magic was not something he’d ever believed or even been remotely interested in, but this world seemed to run on it.

“Where are we?” he asked instead. “This whole freakish place, I mean. How the fuck did I end up here?”

“This place is called Altasia,” José said. “And I don’t know, sorry. I was just taking a walk one day and the next moment, I’m here.”

“How long have you been here?”

“About a week, maybe a little longer. It’s hard to tell.”

“And you haven’t found a way back, yet.”

“No.” Blind Guy pressed his lips together as if Asher was blaming him for failing to do so. Asher wasn’t interested in playing the guilt-game, though.

“This is too fucking weird,” he said, looking up at the sky. The sun was beginning to rise in the distance, spilling purple light over the horizon.

“You hungry?”

Asher glanced back at Blind Guy. “What can you offer?”

“There’s still a bit of dried meat left…” Blind Guy said. Asher watched him rummage through his bag. His hair fell over his face and the soft light cast shadows on him that made him look like someone out of a painting. Everything looked nicer illuminated by flames, but Blind Guy seemed designed for viewing in that light. As if the fire didn’t only burn next to him, but inside of him too. For an instance, Asher was insanely jealous—and slightly turned on. Then Blind Guy frowned, spoke, and the moment passed. “You’re gonna take it now?”

Take what? Oh, the food. Asher hadn’t noticed the outstretched hand. He grabbed the strips of meat from Blind Guy and bit into one. Salty. “Tastes like shit.”

As he chewed, he kept looking at the fire and the other man. The rising sun made Asher wonder how long he’d been out for. About to ask, his mouth stuck half-opened when Blind Guy reached directly into the fire to take a flame out of it as if it was a regular object. He threw it back and forth between his hands, like a juggler playing with a ball.

“Howdoyoudothat,” Asher said, words leaving him in one rush as his brain caught up with him.

“Excuse me?” The flame vanished. Asher felt his jaw drop.

“Don’t do that!”

Blind Guy raised his eyebrows at him.

“Don’t make it disappear!”

Blind Guy laughed. “Oh right,” he said. “Pyro.” He shook his head and stood up, stretching. His shirt went up to reveal a bit of tanned skin and Asher wondered what the rest of him looked like unclothed—and whether it was up for the taking. Well, only one way to find out.

“Are you into guys?”

Blind Guy froze. He looked like he didn’t know how to respond. Had the question not been simple enough? “I’m not into assholes,” he said eventually.

Asher tilted his head. “Not into actual assholes or people assholes?”

“Feel free to make your own interpretation,” Blind Guy said. “You’re out either way.” He turned to walk and left the walls that surrounded them through a small opening to their right.

Asher rolled his eyes at him as he stood up and followed. In bed, what did it matter whether he was nice or not?

“How did you find that opening so easily?” he asked Blind Guy. The man was moving a little too smoothly for someone who really couldn’t see.

“Heat signatures,” Blind Guy said.

“For real? But you still run into trees.”

“This is new to me, okay?”

Before Asher could open his mouth again, something small and bright soared through the air over their heads and stopped to float beside Blind Guy. The little bitch was back, wherever she had gone before. And it looked like she was still not speaking to Asher. Someone else with an aversion to assholes. Great.

“She says we should get going soon,” José related, “the lizards found a way into the forest.”

“Where exactly are we going again?”

“Home, I hope. Eventually. But it looks like we’ll have to get to the other side of the continent. She says there’s someone there who’ll help us.”

“And you think that’ll work.”

“Do you have a better idea?”

Asher kept quiet, not having anything to say. For a moment all that could be heard was the crackling of the fire.

“You should try flying.”

“I still don’t have any fucking wings.” Never mind that flying was about the last thing he wanted to do, second only to falling.

“I told you, you have to transform.”

“And I still have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

Blind Guy took a deep impatient breath. Beckoning Asher to follow, he walked out onto a clearing. “Come here and close your eyes,” he said.

Frowning, Asher did as he was told, even when it made him feel ridiculous.

“Breathe in. Hold your breath.”

Asher inhaled and stopped and glared at Blind Guy. What was this supposed to accomplish?

“Feel that?”

Feel what? He was about to ask when he did feel something. It was subtle, but with every beat of his heart, small ripples of an undefinable energy ran under his skin, through his body.

“What is that?”

“Magic.”

“For real?”

“Try it.”

“How—” Asher started, but stopped himself. The simple act of thinking was enough to cause a reaction in his magic level. The energy he’d felt before hadn’t been powerful, but as he tried to draw on it, the feeling overwhelmed him. He’d only touched the tip of the iceberg. Eager to discover all of it, he delved deeper into the stream of power until it enveloped his body in a warm glow. He lost his sense of being in the sensation. A rush of energy flooded his consciousness like a primal force, threatened to sweep him away. A roar sounded through his ears. It wasn’t until he closed his mouth that he realized it had been him.

He blinked as the world came back into focus. The ground seemed a good bit farther away than it had been. ”Whoa,” was all he could think to say. He wasn’t himself anymore; he’d become a beast. Claws had replaced his hands, red scales covered his reptile-like body and—he did have wings. Spreading them was not a problem. He could move them like any other part of his body. He even had the feeling that he knew how to fly, but the ground was far enough away already. No reason to overdo it.

“Alright, I can transform,” he said. His voice sounded strangely deeper than he was used to. “But you can forget about flying.”

“Scared?”

“Just not fucking insane.”

Blind Guy sighed. “Well,” he said, “at least you make a good alarm clock.”

Now what was that supposed to mean? Asher wondered about it until he looked past Blind Guy to see the other two freaks come wandering up to them.

“Is that Asher?” Stone Kid said, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.

Asher turned away from them and faced the trees to their left. It was time to try something. For a short while as a child when he’d believed in this sort of shit, he’d thought dragons were awesome—for one reason only. He drew a deep breath into his lungs. His heart stopped beating in his chest as he blew a storm of fire out of his mouth. The feeling was pure exhilaration.

Flames shot toward the trees, burning through the air, closed in on their goal—and with a puff, they vanished. Asher roared. Stomping his claws on the ground, he whirled around. “What the fuck!?” he said, staring at Blind Guy.

“Sorry,” Blind Guy said, “no senseless acts of arson while I’m around.”

“Go to hell.”

“Those aren’t simply trees, remember?”

The memory of the moving branches flashed through Asher’s mind. Okay, maybe it wasn’t so bad that he’d been stopped. He closed his eyes and made himself shift back. The dragon form was drawing on his energy, and there was no sense in being an overgrown reptile when he couldn’t set stuff on fire. The transformation made him feel light headed for a moment. Patting himself down he realized that his pants were back. Turned out magic could be pretty handy.

“Can you fly?”

Asher looked up to see Snake Woman frown at him. “What’s with you people and your obsession with flying?”

“Hello?” she retorted. “Has it slipped your tiny mind that there’s evil magic creatures chasing us?”

“That’s not my fault.”

“No.” She put her hands on her hips. “But it will be when they get us because you refused to spread your wings.”

Asher stared at her open-mouthed. “Fine then,” he said eventually. “It’s my fault. Whatever. You know what? I don’t even care.”

“Of course you don’t,” Snake Woman muttered.

“Let’s just get going,” Blind Guy cut in before Asher could say any more. “Standing around and arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

 

Chapter 3 – Off the Cliff

They never made it out of the forest before setting up camp for that night. Asher studied his nails as Snake Woman and Stone Kid tried their luck fishing at a small lake.

“C’mon, we’ll make ourselves useful,” Blind Guy said. It took Asher a second to realize Blind Guy was talking to him. He glanced up.

“If you just want to kill time I can think of something to do.” At least, since José was blind, Asher didn’t even have to work at a suggestive smile.

“We’ll collect firewood.” Blind Guy acted as if Asher never said anything.

Asher leaned back against a tree, inspecting a crack in his clear nail polish. “You’re not the boss of me.”

“If I were I’d fire you.”

“You can fire me anytime.”

José was quiet for a moment. “If you help, I’ll let you light the campfire,” he said then.

Asher looked up at that. Now they were talking. Asher hadn’t been able to ignite anything all day, what with Blind Guy and his trees-are-our-friends attitude. Combined with the nicotine withdrawal, it was making him antsy.

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.” The faster they got the wood, the sooner he’d get his fire. He stalked off into the trees and a colorful bird fluttered away overhead. He heard José fall into step behind him.

“Why isn’t the little bitch helping?”

“She’s scouting the area.”

Hah! Blind Guy forgot to frown at Asher’s language. Asher snipped a bug off a fallen branch on the ground and picked it up. “You’re blind, how will you help?”

“Don’t you worry about that.” Blind Guy still had that stupid leaf stuck to his hair, must have put it back intentionally at some point.

“I swear if you don’t take out that leaf…”

“What then?” José had the gall to grin, but he reached into his hair and took the leaf between his fingers.

“Huh, I didn’t think you’d do it.” Asher turned away from him and walked on. There had to be more firewood to be found. He stopped when Blind Guy closed up to him. Whirling around, Asher caught Blind Guy trying to stick that leaf into Asher’s hair. “What the fuck, man!” he slapped José’s hand away. “Do not touch me and do not mess with my hair.”

“Do not touch me?” José raised his eyebrows at him. “You were suggesting I sleep with you just minutes ago.”

“That’s different.”

“How?” Blind Guy actually looked a little dumbfounded.

“Why?” Asher asked back. “Are you interested in what it’s like to fuck me?”

“I don’t think you have anything to offer I haven’t had before.”

So Blind Guy was gay after all.

José sidestepped Asher and went deeper into the forest. Asher hurried to keep pace. “Do you top or bottom? I bet you top. I bet you’re bossy. I don’t mind that. I’m game for mostly anything.”

José stopped walking and Asher passed him by; he’d spotted another fallen branch.

“Anything? Why are you even telling me that? I already told you I—”

“Cuddling is off the table,” Asher said, glancing back at the fire elf as he picked up the firewood.

“Why does that not surprise me…?” José shook his head and something like a look of pity crossed his features. It was hard to tell with the blindfold over his eyes, but Asher would recognize that sentiment anywhere.

Asher’s jaw set. That was it. He would get that guy to come off his high horse and do him. Not now though, now he had a fire to light. He picked up another piece of wood, then thrust all of it into Blind Guy’s arms. “Make yourself useful.”

Just that moment the little bitch fluttered up to José’s side. She flew so fast the air gleamed where she cut through it.

“What’s up with her?”

José didn’t reply right away, listening to whatever the little bitch had to say. His brows furrowed and he dropped the firewood. “Quick!” he said to Asher. “We have to get back to the others.”

“What—” Asher stopped when a rumbling noise drowned out his voice. Birds screeched and fled their nests. Twigs, no, whole branches snapped in the distance.

“We have to run. Give me your arm.”

“What you can’t run by yourself?”

“Takes too much focus. Now c’mon.”

Asher groaned, stretching his arm out to Blind Guy. The earth vibrated beneath Asher’s feet as they ran back to the lake and he half expected some sort of dinosaur to come stomping through the trees any minute.

A howling sounded through the woods that that made Asher bite his teeth together. Shit, what was that? He skidded to a halt as they reached the lake and the monster came into view. A giant moose stood between them and the others, glowing in fluorescent shades of green. The light was so intense that Asher could not make out any actual features except for the enormous antlers on his forehead. Lethal. That’s what they looked like. Asher’s breath caught in his throat. His heart pounded so loud in his chest, it had to give them away.

An angry howl ripped from the creature’s snout, and it stomped its hooves on the ground. It aimed at Stone Kid, who seemed just as frozen as Asher felt.

“Jonas!” Snake Woman shouted as Stone Kid finally ducked away from the attack and rolled under the monster’s belly. He threw his hands up in the air. Earth rose up at his command, then drilled into the monsters skin. The beast seemed utterly unimpressed.

Stone Kid cursed and ran back to Snake Woman’s side. A wall of flames erected itself between the pair and the monster. The giant freak of nature howled and turned around to Asher and José. Another wall joined the first, caging it in. A look of concentration was etched deeply into José’s features. Using this much fire had to be draining his magic quickly.

“Run!” he shouted over the noise to the others. “We’ll meet up in Long Harbour.”

“Be careful,” Snake Woman shouted back.

A green light flashed through the air, expanding from the monster’s glow. When it vanished, Blind Guy’s flames were gone, too. Well, Blind Guy wasn’t the only one who could produce flames. Asher called on his own powers. Nothing happened. The stream of energy was there, inside of him, but he couldn’t tap into it. Something blocked him.

José cursed beside him. “I can’t use my magic anymore.”

“Why the hell not?” Asher’s eyes fixed on the monster as it closed in on snake woman. Her living hair hissed viciously at the glowing giant.

“Someone do something!” she shouted, scrambling away from the monster’s snout. It hit her with his hoof and she shrieked as she went sprawling backward to the ground.

“Maya!” Stone Kid rushed toward her.

“You can’t transform, can you?” José asked.

“No,” Asher said. Just then a scream rang through his ears and his eyes darted back to the scene. “Oh, that’s bad…” The ugly thing had attacked Stone Kid with his antlers and left a bloody gash in his chest. Asher hadn’t thought anything could pierce through that stone skin of his. Snake Woman grabbed the kid and dragged him out of reach of the monster’s follow up attack.

“Dios, it’s gonna kill them…” José said. He might be right, too. And then they would be next if they just kept standing there. Asher was going to tell him as much, when Blind Guy did something unexpected. He took a recorder out of his leather bag and blew into it. Asher clamped his hands over his ears at the shrill sound. It got the monster’s attention, too. The beast turned around to rear its ugly head at them.

“What the hell—”

“You like music, monster?” José shouted and threw the recorder at the moose as though he wanted to piss it off.

“Oh, no, you’re not gonna—” play decoy, Asher wanted to say, but stopped himself when the monster roared at them.

“Shit!” Asher shouted. “Don’t just stand there!” he grabbed Blind Guy’s arm and ran. The ground shook as the beast set into motion behind them. “Fuck, we can’t outrun this thing!”

“We can try!”

Adrenaline rushed through Asher’s system. Pushed him on. Faster, faster. He pulled on José’s arm, dragging him along. “Run faster!” The ugly thing chopped down trees behind them.

The forest cleared in front of them and opened up to a large gap in the ground ahead of them. Asher’s eyes grew wide. They were headed straight for a cliff. Shock made him stop and stumble, falling down face-first into the grass just inches from the abyss.

“What—” José started asking.

“Cliff!” Asher vaguely realized that he’d taken José to the ground along with him. “Too many fucking cliffs.”

Blind Guy edged towards the abyss and appeared to be looking down. Nausea overtook Asher just watching him.

“Okay, I know you’re scared of heights, but—”

“But what?” Asher snapped, voice bordering on hysteric. There was a freaking monster stomping closer every second. He didn’t dare look around to see just how close.

“There’s a river down there. We’ll jump.”

“No fucking way,” Asher said. His words were drowned out by a deafening roar as the monster caught up with them. “What do you want?” Asher shouted, facing it. He yelped when José pulled him to his feet from behind.

“C’mon now, you can jump or you can be lunch.” He sounded urgent. The situation was urgent. Yet, Asher couldn’t move, feeling more like throwing up. The monster raised its glowing paw, opened its ugly snout, and—what it did next, Asher didn’t see. Blind Guy had turned him around.

“Sorry.” Blind Guy pushed. Asher’s mouth opened in a silent scream as he went over the cliff. Damnit! This was exactly why it was best not to let people touch you. He was too pretty to die!

A thousand thoughts like this raced through his head as the water came closer, but he could not get hold of a single one. He wanted to close his eyes, but couldn’t. He could only stare and stare and — splash! Cool water engulfed him, shocked his brain into awareness.

He opened his eyes. He had to get to the surface. Glimpsing daylight, he swam toward it. When he broke through he drew forest air into his lungs in large gulps. Snorting water out of his nose, he looked up. The edge of the cliff didn’t seem that far away. That can’t be right. He stroked some wet hair out of his face and took hold of a branch that stuck out over the river. Hanging on to it, he made his way to the waterside.

Blind Guy was lying on the ground a few feet off, even more drenched than the first time Asher had seen him. Asher flopped down next to him and took a minute just to breathe and calm himself down, staring up at the cliff.

“Do that again and I’ll kill you,” he said after a moment.

José shook his head. “You’re welcome.”

Asher scoffed. Silence settled between them. Asher closed his eyes, but he wasn’t going to sleep. He started feeling the impacts of the fall in aching body parts and his mind still reeled.

“I think I smelled one of those lizards,” Blind Guy said after a few minutes. Asher glanced over at him. What was he? A dog?

“Do you think the others will be okay?” Blind Guy asked.

“Dunno.”

“How are we gonna get back up there?”

“The only place I want to go is home,” Asher said. And he’d never thought he’d say that. Ever.

 

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