Shhhnk. Shhhnk. Daggers whizzed past Theodore in the dark. Crack!
Theodore hissed as he dodged blade after blade, the last dagger biting deep into the surface of a solar panel right next to his hip. His long crimson hair looked like a waterfall of blood as it floated down his back when he straightened from his roll. Theodore held himself still, his ears open for any telltale noise. His leather despoiler coat twisted in the wind rushing across the rooftop of the Redhem police station where he was standing. At the rustle of wings behind him, Theodore slashed, the blade of his sword slicing through the body of a raven before it could sweep close. Snarling in frustration when he saw it wasn’t his target, his sword lashed out into the dark around him, just catching a shining golden lock of hair before the sorceress escaped.
While Theodore’s diamond blade sword appeared clear in the unnatural blackness of the spell the rooftop was enchanted in, the sorceress he was battling was actually invisible. Well, the pieces of her that were attached. Theodore sneered down at the fine strands of hair the skinner had left behind as he listened for her approach. The sorceress was wearing the coat of a chameleon shifter. Not the coat the shifter might have worn when it was alive—no, that would have been too sane. The sorceress was wearing the skin of a dead chameleon shifter, the poor human hunted down and killed for its scaled flesh. They had turned its skin into a coat, and used the shifter’s power to hide the treacherous skinners who killed paranormals for sport and profit.
Fssssh! Something hissed through the darkness.
“Fuck!” Theodore gasped and jerked his head to the side, just missing a dagger to his throat. He whirled, his coat whipping up around his legs. He heard a burst of wicked laughter before she was gone, swallowed up by the darkness. A bird screamed under Theodore’s blade, its scattered feathers the only proof that the sorceress had been there at all.
She was fast—unnaturally fast. Whatever spell the sorceress was using, Theodore couldn’t trace it while she was wearing the chameleon coat. He had only his ears, nose, and the sensation of the air shifting every time the sorceress appeared close.
He had hoped his night vision would be an advantage against the skinner, but it had only leveled the playing field, making them both invisible to the other instead of Theodore blind to the sorceress. But while the skinner had the advantage of years of hunting shifters, Theodore was a born hunter. The beast inside him only grew larger, darkness flickering through his vision as his dragon, Sever, laughed at the game of chase he would eventually win.
‘She fears death… It will be her undoing…’
Theodore ducked down as a blade flew out of the darkness, refusing to comment. He shot his hand up, his sword slicing through a raven, the sound of its feathers adjusting on the breeze alerting him to its presence. For each familiar he destroyed, it felt like two more were waiting to replace it, hiding their sorceress mistress.
He first thought it was an illusion, the way the sorceress’s familiars were taking on her form, then reverting to birds the moment his sword slashed true. Now, Theodore wondered. With strike after strike, she had pushed him back, found his flesh or damn near close with blades, talons, and magic, and then popped away before he could retaliate. It wasn’t an illusion; the sorceress was every bird until she wasn’t.
“What the—!” The ground beneath Theodore’s feet shifted and trembled. He snarled and quickly leaped, landing on a platform next to an array of solar panels. The roof where he had just been standing cracked, deep fissures appearing in the concrete moments before it crumbled, dissolving into a cloud of dust. Theodore strained his ears, but there were no signs of injury from below. He could only hope the personnel left in the police station had evacuated and hadn’t already been slaughtered by the skinners, or whoever else might be down there hunting for a dragon shifter.
Theodore gritted his teeth at his beast’s warning, feeling the air pressure change. What was first a medium sized raven swooping above him disappeared from view as it morphed into an invisible, full-sized woman. He slashed his free hand up, hissing in pain as his injured shoulder protested the move. It was worth it, Theodore’s talons finding flesh moments before black feathers sprayed out of his hand.
“Do you bleed bird’s blood too, sorceress!” Theodore roared and slashed behind him, anticipating the attack before the telltale shifts of air could even give it away. There was a gasp, but the crimson that splattered onto the solar panel next to him and the dead body of the raven that fell to the rooftop were not the sorceress he was chasing.
‘We will kill them all… Then there will be no confusion…’ the dragon rumbled in Theodore’s head with a determined grunt.
“Fine enough, beast, if the fucking fluttery things weren’t multiplying,” Theodore gritted out. The darkness was thick with the ravens, their eyes and talons glinting with a cold intelligence connected to the predatory mind controlling them. When he swung his sword again, two birds fell at once, their angry screams cut off as they dived toward his face. A blade hissed through the air, and Theodore leaped sideways, rolling onto the rooftop between the obstacle course of solar panels and uneven platforms.
The game would have been less annoying if his energy wasn’t so low. More so if he didn’t have a teenage shifter to keep alive. Theodore reached for a fresh vial, popping the top and downing the contents. A dark, cold numbness replaced the hot throb in his shoulder, and he sighed in relief.
His eyes searched the ground, but his blood wasn’t spilling freely just yet. He could feel the wound was deep, muscle and tissue damaged from the hatchet to his shoulder, but as long as the gloo kept the blood in his body, he had more important things to worry about. Like the way the sorceress had focused on his damaged side, hitting blow after blow around his wounded shoulder in the hopes of wearing him down. And frustrating as it was, it was working.
‘We need blood… sex… I hunger…’
“We need energy, you horny imbecile, not your insatiable hungers.” Ignoring his dragon’s disgruntled huff, Theodore slunk low to the rooftop, following along the length of the solar panels, hoping to keep at a level where the ravens would not be able to easily reach and surprise him. Theodore’s sharp, violet eyes searched through the unnatural darkness he had summoned. His beast could see in the dark, something he was certain the skinners could not even with all their stolen shifter magic.
There were two in total, at least, two of the paranormal butchers who were willing to show themselves up on the roof. Likely because of the third Theodore had already killed. From the little he had heard the two skinners talk, the dead one was their brother and he was now on their kill list. Of course, if they knew what he really was, they wouldn’t just want to kill him. They’d butcher him like that chameleon shifter and wear his scales as a coat.
‘The pattern is wrong…’ Theodore’s inner dragon rumbled when a half dozen ravens swooped in and golden hair flashed under Theodore’s blade, sliced free of the woman who slipped away just as quickly. Ravens collapsed dead on the rooftop, their blood staining the concrete while Theodore seethed, his senses straining.
“What pattern?” Theodore demanded, snarling down at the broken bodies of the birds. No matter how hard he stared at their twisted limbs and scattered feathers, he couldn’t find what the beast was talking about.
‘Not the birds, but the sorceress… She’s not attacking to kill…’
Theodore’s eyes widened minutely, and he nodded once as it clicked. The sorceress wasn’t trying to kill him, not seriously, anyways. Theodore had assumed it was fear. The sorceress had correctly noticed that physical touch could give him power over her, his allure capable of breaking through her protective wards on contact. She had kept her distance, using blades and birds to try to overwhelm him. Now Theodore could see what his dragon did in her movements. She was attacking to distract, not to kill. Whatever the sorceress’s game was, right now she was buying time.
It was as if the moment he realized it, the sorceress readily gave it away. The magical signature of the male skinner trapped in Theodore’s snare suddenly snuffed out, erased from reality in an instant.
‘Chameleon…’ the beast warned, a low growl bubbling through its chest.
“Of course, the coat!” Theodore bared his teeth, the white planes now the sharpest of daggers. The sorceress was protecting the one in the snare. Theodore knew because the moment she took off her coat to hide her kin away, her own magical signature revealed, a glowing, easy target to his beast senses after she had thrown so much of her magic around.
“The sentimental fool,” Theodore muttered, readying his sword in the direction he sensed the sorceress. He would not hesitate, would not fail. He could not allow a legacy of skinners to hunt shifters down like they were nothing more than animals—!
His dragon snarled the same moment the wind shifted. Theodore whirled when the magical signature he was focused on blipped from the roof and appeared blocks away, somewhere among the suburban streets of Redhem. “Impossible! No one can build a portal that quickly!” There were anti-teleportation wards all over the station, including the roof. If she was flyckering, there was no signs, no shifts in the air to suggest it. The ether was completely intact as well—none of it made sense!
How the fuck was she moving so quickly?
‘It doesn’t matter… She’s after the hatchling…’ Sever rumbled darkly, his presence growing greater until he was a seething heat in Theodore’s core. ‘We must go after her before she kills him…’
Theodore scowled, partly from the grimness of the situation, partly from the term his dragon insisted on using for Wylie. “The kid’s eighteen. Hardly a fucking hatchling, even if he is ignorant as fuck.”
‘His dragon has barely emerged…’ Sever muttered back defiantly. ‘We must run if he is going to survive… Now…’
“No, I have a better idea,” Theodore drawled, and a deadly smile flickered across his lips. He sheathed his sword in a practiced move, and raised arms up at his sides, ignoring the stiffness in his shoulder. “The sorceress has given us all we need. She revealed her weakness: her heart.”
Theodore turned toward the collapsed part of the roof, knowing that on the other side of the hole was where his trinity snare had been sprung. The skinner who had stumbled into the trap might be under a chameleon coat now, but invisibility did not make him immortal.
“I don’t need to see you to kill you, skinner!” Theodore shouted as he raised his magic. The dragon’s power thrummed through him and shook the air until everything around him shuddered and began to bend down toward the ground. Metal screeched in protest as the angled solar panel array twisted and bent, glass shattering and shards flying in every direction as it crashed down. The edges of the broken roof cracked, fresh pieces of concrete slamming down into the police station below with a force far greater than gravity. There was a thudding sound, smack after smack of bricks clattering down to the concrete as they were wrenched loose from the structure that made up the rooftop door and stairwell to the lower floors of the station.
Theodore gritted his teeth, his fisted hands shaking from the strain of his spell. His energy was low, stolen by the blade that had sliced deep into his shoulder, but the threat was clear. His intended result was reached, and the skinner hidden by the chameleon coat cried out as he was smashed down to the rooftop.
“Is it worth it, legacy? Is this how you Briargraves operate?” Theodore taunted, his voice full of poison and accusation. “Do you leave your family behind to die while you go off to murder children?” He took sure steps around the hole in the roof, his senses focused on the whimpering voice coming from the other side of the stairwell. “What will it be, Briargrave: a life for a life? Does that seem a fair price to you? Did you lose kin when you slaughtered the chameleon whose flesh you’re hiding in now?”
Theodore’s steps were sure, deliberate, the polish of his blood red shoes still gleaming for all the fighting he had done. He concentrated his magic on his shadowy goal and was rewarded with a fresh scream of pain. “You’re chasing a dragon, after all. The price should be higher. Maybe all three of you should die just for the privilege of stealing one dragon’s life…”
“You’re… you’re insane.”
Theodore sneered and slashed his hand down. The stairwell shuddered where bricks threatened to topple from the force of his magic striking down only feet away. The skinner screamed, the panicked noise breaking off in a low whine.
‘We’re running out of time…’
Theodore pursed his lips. He was counting the seconds in his head, adding up each moment the sorceress had free rein to attack Wylie. Michael was there and would do his best, but Theodore had seen the skinner’s tricks, her speed, her deadly accuracy even when she couldn’t see her target. She would not be easily defeated.
‘He’s not breaking…’
“He will,” Theodore spat, glaring into the empty darkness where the invisible skinner was gasping heavily as he tried to breathe around the weight crushing down his lungs. The sorceress had protected this one because he was weak, one who needed protecting. Theodore knew his real leverage was here; he just had to find a way to use it.
Hands and shoes scraped desperately at the rooftop, the skinner trying to break free of the spell from only a few feet from where Theodore was standing. Theodore drew his sword, the distinct sound of the blade pulled from its sheath slicing the quiet of the dark rooftop. Even the skinner’s gasps grew hushed as he tried to hide his every noise from Theodore’s ears.
“Is your life worth the trophy of a dragon, skinner?” Theodore demanded. Fighting off a wave of dizziness, Theodore crested his power up again and used it to crash his magic down on the part of the roof the skinner was trapped. The concrete creaked from the great pressure, and Theodore’s eyes narrowed when he heard the telltale sound of a rib snapping.
“Wait!” The skinner shouted hoarsely. “Fuck, wait!”
“No.” Theodore’s eyes gleamed with cold rage, and he pointed his sword toward the cracking of bones, moving it as he sought flesh. “You have nothing I want. I will kill you as you are. No one will be able to find your body. No one will bury you. No one will morn you. It will be a fitting death, skinner, you bleeding out in the skin of the shifter your family murdered.”
“Evelyn… Ev, he’s killing me…” a voice whispered, nearly suffocated under the weight of Theodore’s magic. “Ev…”
“She doesn’t care about you, skinner,” Theodore snarled and raised his blade. “The only thing you monsters care about are yourselves.” Pinpointing on the frightened exhale, Theodore swung his sword down.
“Ev—Evelyn!” the skinner screamed out, his voice reverberating with magic.