“Promise you won’t tell?”
“Oh, that you have a dragon hiding in your closet? Who would I tell that to?”
“Quit fooling, Joash. You know who—the nuns.”
“Ah. The nuns, you say. You mean the nuns who are running this outfit? The nuns who would probably skin you alive if they found out you had a dragon in your closet? Those nuns?”
“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”
“Let me think about it…yes. I am.”
“Oh come on, Joash. He’s just a little guy—he won’t hurt anyone!”
“Really? Have you seen what dragons do? Have you thought about why we’re even in this lousy school? It’s to protect us from the dragons, you idiot! I don’t care if he’s little now, he won’t be little for long!”
“But this one’s harmless. He didn’t even try to bite me when I caught him at the creek.”
“You went to the creek?! My stars, Beken, do you know how many students disappear when they sneak off? I’m developing a headache living with you. Tomorrow morning I’m going to ask for a transfer.”
“You can’t request a room transfer. You’re my cousin, silly. And I’m the only family you’ve got.”
“Uuuarrrghh. Don’t remind me.”
“Beken seems to be doing much better these days, don’t you think, Mother?”
“Beken…do you mean young Master Beken Eberwirder?”
“Yes. I never could get him to even look up in class. And then yesterday, I caught him looking up when we were going over the War. Did you realize his eyes are green and blue? One green, one blue…?”
“My dear, one ought to be more concerned with a pupil’s mind than his eyes.”
“Well, yes…yes of course, Mother Superior. Of course…”
“I am glad Master Eberwirder is doing well. His parents were instrumental to our school, as you know.”
“Yes, I do know.”
“Do keep an eye on him. And try not to get distracted by his.”
“His…? Oh! Yes, of course. I will absolutely not get distracted by his eyes.”
… “You have a lot to learn yet, my dear.”
“Why, hello Joash.”
“Ahh! Oh, Sister Anne. Um. Hi.”
“Surprised to see me?”
“Err yes. I mean, no. I mean, the other sisters don’t usually wander down these halls very much.”
“But you;ve seen me here before, Joash. Why do you seem so nervous? Is your closet is clean?”
“What? The closet is clean, very clean, I assure you it is clean. I cleaned it myself!”
“Whoa! Calm down, I just meant clean as in no skeletons in the closet. It’s a figure of speech, Joash, I’m not here to do an actual room inspection. I just wanted to ask you…have you been arguing with Beken?”
“Me? Argue with Beken? Why would I do that?”
“Well, I don’t see him with you much anymore…Joash, are you sure you’re alright?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“Then why do you keep tapping your desk?”
“Oh, am I? Haha, I didn’t even notice.”
“Well, I haven’t seen Beken around very much lately—Wait. Hush. Do you hear that?”
“Hear…hear what, Sister Anne?”
“That…scratching noise. It sounds almost like it’s coming from your closet.”
“Can’t be! It’s probably Arno and Gen next door working on their carpentry project, or something.”
“Ah, of course. Well, keep an eye out for your cousin okay? I have to go, but tell Beken I said hi.”
“Yes, Sister Anne. You bet I will. Goodbye!…”
“So. How is it?”
“How is what?”
“You know…the project you’re working on.”
“What project? I’m not working on a project. Did Sister Anne assign us a project?”
“You numskull! I’m talking about your project in the closet.”
“Oh. That project. It’s going well. Ow! Hey—ow! Where are you taking me?”
Slam. “Listen, Bek. Sister Anne heard the dragon scratching in the closet this afternoon! I was tapping the desk like crazy to drown out the noise, but she still heard. You have to get rid of it. Now.”
“I’ll just tell Isstak to stop scratching.”
“Who?…Oh, the dragon. You named it after Isstak Gerda? I know we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but Isstak always talked funny…and he was rather mean, don’t you think? Even to his brother. Before they disappeared, I mean.”
“I didn’t name him after Isstak. He told me himself his name was Isstak.”
“Please be serious, Beken. Dragons and humans can’t communicate. Anyway, listen, Sister Anne is onto us. You have to get rid of it. Please. I’m begging you on my knees! See? On my knees!”
“Sorry, Joash. I can’t. He’s going to help me find my parents.”
“Oh, Beken. I know you had a weird childhood with your absentee dragon-slayer parents, but they’re gone. And I know how you feel. Really. My family died during that siege, too. The dragons killed Mother, Father, Abby, and Myrta. Beken, I can’t bring them back. And neither can you.”
“I’m not going to bring them back. My parents are alive. Isstak told me so.”
“Wait…hold on. Isstak toldyou? The dragon? You’re talking to a dragon?!”
“Well, yes. That’s what I’ve been saying…Joash? Joash, are you okay? Nurse! Someone, help!”
“Joash, dear, are you awake?”
“Aah! Oh. Sister Anne…where am I? Am I in the infirmary? How did I get here?”
“You fainted and Beken called the paramedics—Joash? Are you feeling dizzy?”
“You scared me for a while, there. Your face turned so white. Perhaps I had better call the nurse—Joash? Joash! Good grief. He’s fainted again. With his eyes open? Wait, what’s wrong with his eyes…?”
“Oh! Mother Superior. You shocked me.”
“Perhaps that is because you are someplace you should not be.”
“You mean the library? But I’m a teacher—I should be looking up books for my next lesson…”
“Sister Anne. This is not the library. This is the basementof the library. You know this area is off limits.”
“I know, Mother, but my student has been sick, and I noticed something odd. Before the War, I was an apprentice apothecary. My mentor had a book of magic diseases, and I thought I read…”
“Magic is not appropriate at this school. Books about it are to stay here, undisturbed!”
“But I don’t understand why we have books on magic when we’re not allowed to read any…”
“Sister! Your belligerence is intolerable. How can you to teach when you cannot control your tongue? You are hereby demoted to acolyte, your teaching position indefinitely removed from you.”
Gasp. “Please, Mother, don’t you think that’s too harsh? I was just trying to help Joash. I…”
“Sister…no, Acolyte Anne. I do not want to hear another word. Please leave this area at once.”
-How issss heeee?Your humannn?
“Joash? Better, I think. When I went in, they’d given him a sedative.”
-Ha. Weaklinggg. He isss lucky I did not kill himmm…
“Wait a minute. You did something to him? Isstak, how could you? He’s my cousin!”
– I only injured your humann a little bittt. We ssstill need him alive, at least for nowww…
“What in the world are you talking about? Who is ‘we?’”
“Ssson of the DragonSslayers. You will ssseee when you fulfill your dessstiny. Comme, let usss go.”
“What destiny? What are you talking…Hey, wait! Stop! What are you doing to me?!”
“Joash? Are you sure you should be out of bed?”
“Sister Anne, I have something to tell you.”
“So serious. Well, I have something to tell you too. I’m not your teacher anymore. I’ve been demoted.”
“Oh. That explains the funny clothes. But Sister Anne, I still need to tell you something.”
“ ‘Oh, that explains the funny clothes?’ That’s it? And I’m not Sister Anne anymore. I’m just Anne.”
“Sister—I mean, Anne. Whatever. I don’t care if you’re a sister or not. Honestly, it’s just a title. I have important news. Please. I have to tell you right now.”
“Well sit, Joash. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“I’m sorry. I should have told you earlier: Beken was hiding a dragon in our closet. At first I didn’t think it would be a big deal…but then he told me he was communicating with it, and now he’s gone.
…Sister Anne, did you hear what I said?”
“I heard you…Joash, do you realize what you’re saying? It doesn’t matter that Beken’s parents were dragon slayers. All Dragon Speakers must be stoned. You know the law.”
“Please, Sister Anne. I know Beken. He wouldn’t hurt anyone! We’ve got to save him…please, Sister.”
“Joash, even if I wanted to help, I can’t. I know nothing of magic, and that’s the dragons’ main weapon.”
“But can’t you, I don’t know, look it up or something?”
“Where? All magic books were burnt …Except for a few. Come, Joash. I think I know where to go.”
“Oohh…my head. Where am I?”
“With your loving parents, dear, where you belong.”
“Mother? Father…? You really are alive…”
“What’s wrong with you, boy? You look as pale as Joash Ardalan did before he fainted this morning.”
“Hush. Be patient with him, Reben. Our son is still in shock.”
“Wait. Father…when…how did you know Joash fainted?”
–Heeheehee. There arrre a lot of thingsss you don’t knowww, sson of the Dragonnnn Sslayersss…
“That’s enough, Isstak. You are dismissed.”
“Mother, Father…what’s going on? Why are you alive? How do you know Isstak’s name? How can you talk to him? Aren’t you supposed to kill dragons? You’re supposed to be dragon slayers!”
“So many questions. Unless I recall incorrectly, didn’t you hide Isstak in your closet for the last couple weeks? And didn’t you defend him every time the Ardalan boy tried to dispose of him?”
“Reben, enough. You’ll scare him. Let me do the talking.”
“What nature? What are you talking about?”
“Beken, dear, there’s no need to panic. What we’re about to tell you goes against everything you’ve ever been taught. But it’s true. Listen, dear: the dragons are not our enemies. They are our friends.”
…“What?? But—but you’re dragon slayers…!”
“So much for not scaring him. Here, let me try: Look, son. It’s like this: Dragons are magnificent creatures with a great deal of power. And they’ve been sadly misunderstood. Your mother and I started out as dragon slayers, but when we realized who they really were, and who we really were…”
–… theyyy ssstopped killinggg dragonsss anddd joinedddd them insstteadd…
“Isstak. Still haven’t left yet, have you?”
–Didn’t want to misss the fun and gamessss…
“But dragons are evil. They kill people. They’re inhuman!”
“No, Beken, they are so much more than human. In fact, it’s time for you to know the whole truth.”
“What truth? Wait… I don’t think I want to know. Don’t—Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!”
“Oh. My. Stars. I cannot believe this. It’s horrible. It’s…I can’t believe it. It can’t be true!”
“What? What is it?”
“Here, Sister Anne. Look for yourself. Page 157. Bottom left.”
“What in the…? ‘Dragon Speakers: humans with the rare ability to communicate with dragons. Recent evidence suggests that Dragon Speakers evolved when humans first discovered how to transform into the beings we now call “dragons.” Their offspring became Dragon Speakers, characterized by…oh no…”
“Oh no is right. This changes everything. Those dragons we’ve been fighting all these years…they used to be us!I cannot believe this has been in the basement all this time. They never let you down here?”
“Never. Mother Superior demoted me because I was down here.”
“What other secrets are they hiding from us? Has your Mother Superior been reading these herself?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“I have a bad feeling about this.”
“Wh-who are you? What are you?”
–We’re your parents, Beken. Can’t you recognize us, even in this form?
“You’re—you’re dragons! But…how can you…this is impossible!”
–Not so, son. We’ve always been dragons inside. You, too, have the potential.
–Yes. I’m surprised no one at your school has noticed it yet.
–Two different eye colors, dear. The telltale mark of dragons and Dragon Speakers…I know this is rather overwhelming, dear, but once you fulfill your destiny and Transform…
“Wait. I’m going to become a dragon? One day, I’ll wake up and find I’ve spontaneously transformed?”
–Well…It’s not that simple.
–Progress always requires sacrifice. But if you do it now, while you’re young, it’ll only take one.
“I don’t understand.”
–Onnnee sssacrificeee, you idiottt…jussst like it took meee only one sssacrificeee: Isstor.
“Didn’t Isstor disappear last month? …Oh, stars. You’re that Isstak. The one Joash was talking about.”
–Took you longgg enough to fffigureee itt outtt…
-Thank you Isstak. I’m sure you’ve been very helpful.
-Nno nneeed to bee angryy …ssomeonne had to tell himm ssoooner or laterr…or didd you plannn to liee about the humann sssacrificcce?
“Did he just say human sacrifice?!”
–It’s not like that, son.
–Yessss, it isss. It issss exaccctttlyy like thatt. I haddd to sssaccrificeee Isstor to become whattt I ammm.”
“You killed your brother to become a dragon??”
–Yesss. To Transformmm, you mussst sacrificcee ssssomeoneeee clossseee too youuu…
“Wait a minute. If you killed your brother, then Mother, Father, who…”
–Who do youuu thinkkk?
“You still want to find Beken? Joash, you do realize if that book is right, that makes Beken a…”
“I don’t care what Beken is, he’s my cousin, and I’m going to protect him. Besides, if he’s a Dragon Speaker, then his parents…? Oh no. Dragon slayers can’t be dragons! That just doesn’t make sense.”
“Joash…My head is telling me that we really ought to be telling all of this to Mother Superior…”
“Sister Anne! You wouldn’t—they’d kill him!”
“No, of course not.” Sigh. “Okay. What do we do now?…Joash? What are you looking at—?”
“Master Ardalan. Anne. I suggest that the two of you come with me at once.”
“You can’t be serious. You murdered your sister…?!”
–Anndd her husssbannd, annnd twooo of theirrr three childrennnn…
-ENOUGH, ISSTAK! Leave us. Now.
–There was no one closer to us, dear. It had to be done.
“I can’t believe this. You, the Dragon Slayers—all this time, you were lying about everything!”
-At least we spared Joash, didn’t we?
-Reben! Perhaps you shouldn’t mention that…
“Why not? That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it? Sure, you killed your sister’s family…but spared the youngest, so of course you deserve a pat on the back, an award, a freaking party…!”
-Beken! We did them a favor, do you understand? I spared my sister’s family the pain of war.
“Yeah? Well if you think the dragons are so magnificent, why didn’t you spare them the pain of war?”
–Beken, dear. Humans have always been too petty, too…small-minded to be at peace with one another. Only the dragons, with their superior intelligence and abilities, can ever create a perfect society…
“…by murdering all the humans?”
-By transforming all the humans into dragons.
“Half the humans, you mean. The other half would have to die, wouldn’t they? As sacrifices. And what about me? Who do you want me to sacrifice? You’ve killed my family, except for Joash…Oh stars…”
–Ah…they have come for you. We will be nearby. Better that they do not see us like this just yet.
“Who? What? Wait, where are you going?”
“Becken! Thank goodness you’re alright!”
“Joash, Sister Anne? Mother Superior! Oh no. Get out! Go quickly, before they make me hurt you!”
“Why’re you here, Cousin? I thought you’d run off with the dragon, and instead you’re in the dungeon.”
“Well…yeah. Didn’t you know where you were?”
“No…but that doesn’t matter. Joash, they want me to kill you. Get out of here, please! Please!”
“For goodness’ sake. What in the world are you talking about?”
“You should not have wandered off school grounds, Master Ardalan. You have heard the stories about students who vanished when they left the compound.”
“Mother Superior? I don’t understand. We haven’t left the compound. We’re underneath it.”
“Hellllo, Teacherrr Annnne, arrre youuu gladdd to ssseee meee?”
“Isstak! Is that you?…We thought you died months ago!”
“Obvioussly nottt…anddd neitherr haveee twoo otherss whoo arrre verrry eagerrr to sssee their nephew.”
“Oh my stars…! Aunt Stana! Uncle Reben! You’re…alive? Have you been here all this time? I can’t believe Beken was right—I thought…are my parents are here too? Or my sisters? Abby! Myrta!”
“I’m sorry, Joash.”
“Why…why are you looking at me like that, Aunt Stana? What…Oww! What’s going on?”
“Stop it, Mother! Let him go! I am not going to kill Joash!”
“What’s going on? Aunt Stana! What are you doing to me?”
“Stana, Reben, that’s your nephew Joash!…They’ve gone crazy. Mother Superior, do something!”
“Sister Anne. Please calm yourself. There is nothing we can do.”
“You have to stop them! They’ve got Joash trussed like a turkey…Oh my stars—what are you??”
–Sister Anne, is it? How unfortunate that you chose to barge in on our son’s Transformation ceremony. You understand, this means that you may never leave this place alive.
“Beken, what is going on?”
“They want me to kill you, Joash. Sacrifice you so that I can be a dragon like them. But I won’t do it!”
Gasp. “What?! Mother Superior, can’t you stop them?”
–Anne, your Mother Superior is on our side.
“No she’s not! Mother, they’re lying, aren’t they…? Oh no… Joash. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Don’t worry, Sister Anne. It’s okay. It’s all going to be okay.”
–Nephew. Don’t make me laugh. You are under our power now. And we are dragons!
“Yes, Uncle. I know that, now. You betrayed us, didn’t you? You pretended to be dragon slayers…and instead, you killed my parents, leaving me alive so that Beken could kill me one day.”
“I am not going to kill you, Joash!”
“You have to, Beken.”
“Joash? What are you talking about?”
“Dragons have a brief life span. They must help new ones Transform or once they all die, the secret of the magic will die too. How many are left, Uncle? Twenty? Ten? The two of you plus Isstak?”
-Clever boy. How did you discover all that?
“There is a very interesting book in the basement below our library that I was able to read today. I know all about you…but there’s something you don’t’ know about me. Beken…what color are my eyes?”
“Brown and hazel. Why?”
-Heterochormia. Reben, why didn’t we know this??
-Calm down, Stana. It doesn’t matter if he has the Gift. He can’t use it without a sacrifice.
“I don’t understand. What’s happening, Joash? What are they saying?”
“Don’t worry, Sister Anne. Let’s just say…There is more than one dragon in the family!
-But… that’s impossible. You can’t transform without a sacrifice! …Aaahhh!! Reben…help! Isstak…!
“Oh my stars. Beken, don’t look!”
–That was for my parents. And this is for my sisters. And this *grunt* is for me!
-Mercy…mercy…! Nephew…have mercy…
-Did you have mercy on my family when you killed them in cold blood?! …
-Nnnooo…nnnoooo, sparrreee meee…mercyyy!
-And did you have mercy on your own brother when you sacrificed him??? CRRRRACK!
–And you, Mother Superior…!
“Now, Master Ardalan…Joash…you don’t understand! I had to help, for the school’s sake…Aaaahhh!”
“J-Joash? Is that you?”
–Don’t worry Sister Anne. It’s me. I mean, it was me. It is me, now.”
“Killing your parents…”
“No. Those monsters weren’t my parents. You were right, Joash. My real parents died a long time ago.”
“You forgive me, then? Thank you, Beken…Sister Anne?”
“Joash? What’s going on? Why is your voice so weak?”
“Sister Anne…burn the books…don’t let anyone else find out…how to transform…”
“Okay, okay, I’ll burn the books. But what’s wrong with you? Joash!”
“It’s okay, Sister Anne…”
“He’s bleeding badly. Beken, help me find the source, we must stop it…Eek! Joash, your wrist…!”
“It was the only way…”
“It’s okay. It’s not that bad of a cut, Joash. We’ll fix you right up.”
“Don’t laugh at your cousin, you wicked child. How did this happen?”
“Gashed it…rough stone wall…when they weren’t looking…had to…book said.”
“You hurt yourself? What book? The one from the library basement?”
“Yes…to become a dragon…had to sacrifice someone close …who closer than myself…?
“No, Joash. We won’t let you die. Beken, do you have a handkerchief to cut off the blood flow?”
“Sister Anne…too late…it’s okay…*cough* Beken…?”
“I’m here, Joash. Why did you do it? Why?” Sobs.
“Because, silly…I’m your cousin…
… …and you’re the only family I’ve got.”