Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sneak Preview - Legacy of Dragons:Emergence


June 20, 2012 – 1940 EDT – Signal Mountain, Tennessee.

Melissa ran a finger over the disguised lock on the copper clad box that was the only thing holding the beast of change at bay. Ivory claws dug into the copper at the two front corners as if the intricate dragon hammered into the cover was going to rip the ancient box open. Hammered scale work ran up the forelegs of the embossed dragon to its wing roots. Wings opened behind the relief, creating the illusion of darkness plunging into the night’s void behind the dragon. Mountains hammered on the front side of the box rose up from the valley on either side of a village situated at the cove of the valley in front of a small lake. The scene on the ground was peaceful, but Melissa couldn’t decide if the dragon and the contents he protected in the box portended doom.
 The intricately hammered neck of the dragon projected forward from the shoulders with sharp neck ridges jutting up from the metal cladding like a saw blade. The head crested the box’s cover at the edge where ivory horns thrust into the air and emerald eyes stared down onto the village. The master metalwork disguised the hinge in the neck behind its horns and the keyhole in the nostril so that the latch and lock were lost in the intricate artwork. Yet again, for an uncounted number of times, her finger passed over the lock. She eyed the key she was holding in her left hand and rubbed the matching metalwork between her fingers. She had been holding the key so long that it was warm to the touch, and she wondered tangentially if she could melt the key from worry.
 Her grandmother, who yet again drew her wandering attention back to the lock, the box, and her duty, seemed to be standing over her shoulder even now. Melissa glanced up to look out across the back lawn into the slowly dropping sun at the small headstone and mound of soil they had carefully placed that day. A full day’s sorrow settled back into her soul. That the service was exactly what Helena had asked for did little to soothe her.
 The mound of dirt was neither the beginning, nor the end of this very long day. The aged metal box that had come with the will, the deed to the estate, and the unimaginable responsibility for her 21 years, demanded her attention. It accused her of avoiding her promise to the overly nervous lawyer that had left it with her. Again, she fingered the key that he had squeezed into her hand as he had finished the reading.
 She whined to the empty room. “Why me? Why did she leave all of this to me?”
 The question was rhetorical. She knew there was no stability in her father. He would liquidate it all and pour the money into the same financial pit he had already invested their family fortune. But, that was still no reason to put all of this on her young shoulders. She couldn’t even pick a major, how could she run an estate and whatever else the box demanded?
 She pushed the accusing box away from her on the blotter and looked up at the sun that refused to set. Nothing would make this horrible day end. If everything remained the same, and this day was allowed to continue, it would be nothing less than catastrophic.
 The large grandfather clock in the foyer began to chime the hour. She listened to the deep tones, counting. When it reached eight and stopped, she sighed. The old house was empty without her grandmother, and yet she could still feel her in every corner of the library and emanating from every book surrounding her. It was comforting, and Melissa would have been happy to spend the rest of her life in the room among her grandmother’s legacy. 
 The door behind her swung open, chasing the peaceful moment away. Charles, her grandmother’s butler, slipped into the room with a silver tray and the Royal Albert tea set. To say that Charles slipped anywhere was to be polite. He tried, but he was too large, at six feet four, to be very stealthy. He was an excellent butler, trained by his father and his entire family to carry on the ancient tradition of caring for nobility, but in Melissa’s mind he did not fit the role. He sat the tea set down and poured the steaming liquid into a single cup. The delicate aroma of peaches surrounded her.
 “Charles, what is this, the longest day in history?” she grumbled playfully at him.
 “No, Miss, just the year.”
 She stared at him. The formality of his response stunned her a little. She could still see the little boy she had grown up with in the back garden and felt a little offended at his formal response. He looked back at her and motioned toward the tea.
 “I knew you had some work to complete, and I thought you might like some tea. The guests have all left.”
 Melissa leaned back and looked at Charles again, and it was if she was seeing him for the first time in years. Her last real memory of him was when she watched him carry his high school football team to the championship. She could not deny that she had a crush on him back then, but she had left for Spain the next week, and he had left for boot camp the next summer. Their lives had not really intersected again until that moment.
 She had been away, engrossed in school, when he unexpectedly came home from the war and took over for his father. She remembered being disappointed, in the passing way that high school girls are, because she always thought he was meant for more. She liked the image of Charles the warrior. As she looked at him in the passing moment between them, she still saw him that way.
 The war, or more likely the drama that had forced him back into the duties he had run from originally, had carved a permanent frown into a face she remembered as gentle. The change did not conflict with his duties; in fact, it made him exactly the kind of butler she wanted at her door. But, she did miss his smile. No matter how hard he tried to live up to his father, though, he could never hide the fact that he just didn’t fit serving tea among the antiques in the old manor. He looked like a puzzle piece forced into place because it should fit. With that last passing thought, she found herself smiling and allowed a quiet laugh to escape.
 “Did I make a joke, Miss?”
 “No, not intentionally.” She paused. “Do you remember the last time we just talked?”
 “Yes, Miss. It was the weekend you left for Spain.”
 She nodded. “It’s been a while hasn’t it?”
 “A lifetime, Miss.” His words verified how he saw the years he had spent serving her grandmother since coming back from Iraq.
 Her grandmother had refused to talk about it, but Melissa knew there was more under the surface of that story. Melissa had not thought about it in years. Apparently, Charles still did. 
 “I’ve missed those conversations. Would you consider joining me for a little tea? I could use the company.” 
 “I’m sorry, Miss, but I thought you had work to complete. It would not be appropriate anyway.” He smiled professionally and stepped back into his place.
 “Yes, of course.”
 She could not ignore the disappointment his answer had caused, but it was part of being the mistress of this house. She sat back down in the chair and pulled the box toward her. This relationship was not going to work for her if her new position was going to keep them from being friends. There were certain barriers one maintained no matter how lonely, confused, and in need of a friend one felt. Dismissed, he turned and left her alone with her duty. She scowled at the box.
 Beyond the French doors, the sun refused to drop below the long green lawn that led down to the overlook, the valley that plunged away from the edge, and the new grave that surmounted it. She took the cup of tea Charles had poured for her and sipped the perfectly prepared enchanted peach white tea. The aroma and flavor stirred memories of her grandmother writing her novels at the desk. A few tears dripped from her cheeks as she stared into the setting sun. She sipped her tea.
 The chime of the clock at the bottom of the hour forced her from the warmth of the tea and back to her duties. Melissa set the cup down on the tray and placed both hands on the top of the box. There were conditions to her inheritance. In the box, she would find one of her grandmother’s journals with important instructions for her to follow. Like a test she had not studied for, Melissa braced for the contents of the box, inserting the key into the lock that held back what she had been avoiding. Why had she let the lawyer talk her into this? Why had she signed the man’s forms? She wished she had just told him no. None of this would be her problem if she had just told him she was not interested. Was it even possible to turn down an inheritance?
 She took a deep breath and pushed it back out before turning the key in the lock. A quiet, anticlimactic click filled the room as she lifted the lid.
 Inside, among a stack of things that had belonged to her grandmother, was the small crystal encrusted claw on a heavy gold chain her grandmother had always worn around her neck. It was a little macabre, but Melissa could not remember a time it was not with her, and, because of its constant presence, she smiled at the memories the amulet unearthed. The crimson crystals seemed to grow from the black three-talon claw and shimmered in the sunlight reminding Melissa of the day she and Helena had walked together along the overlook just before Melissa had started college. Her grandmother had scolded her for considering not continuing her education. Mixed with the pleasure of that memory was a little anger that she had taken that advice now. The years she had lost with her grandmother seemed too large a price for what she had learned.
 She picked up the amulet, clutching it in her left hand. A warm tingle ran up her arm, and the memory of her grandmother intensified. The stones throbbed in her palm. She blinked and looked at the talisman. Suppressed tears rushed down her cheeks, and it took her a moment to recover from the flood of emotions. When she had recovered a little, she set the amulet aside with trembling hands. If everything in the box had the same effect, she would never get through this. 
 Below the amulet was her grandmother’s favorite pen. At the bottom of the box, she found the cause of her current turmoil. A small, leather-bound journal with no indication of what it contained waited for her. It was new compared to other journals filed on the shelves around her. Her grandmother was never without one, and by the time each journal was filed onto the shelves, it was worn and ragged. This one was so new that the cover was still stiff, and the binding popped as she opened it and turned to the first page.
 Her grandmother’s neat script filled the page. Melissa started to cry, again, but she forced the tears back and read.


You have always been a blessing to me, and I’ve told you more than once how very special you are. Remember when I told you there was something inside of you that made you that way? I wanted to explain what I meant before I died. I have run out of time to tell you everything. I thought I could handle it a bit longer and it was important that I be with you, to help you with what is about to happen. This sickness came upon me before I could finish my research.
I had to be sure about it. You see, it involves our true legacy, and it is far more serious than I once believed. I think I’ve collected everything here, but I’m afraid it may be too late. Please read this as soon as possible. I’ve lost track of the time.
You have to read this and follow the instructions before sunset on the solstice this year. If you do not, the consequences to this world will be dire. It is imperative that you take my place and complete the ritual.
Do not talk to anyone about this. Do not let them near this journal. Trust Charles. More than anything, do not trust anyone in our family, especially the males.
You asked me about Charles a few years ago, and I owe you an explanation. I can never explain completely, but I brought him back from the war to save him. I know that I cost him his career, but his life is far more important than that.
If you succeed, and I do hope that you do; I expect you will understand this all better. Good luck and do not be distracted by anyone.


 The next pages explained her family history. She started to read the very dry descriptions and found herself nodding off. If she were going to read it all that night, she would need more tea, and she was not going to waste a perfect cup of tea on that.
 Melissa closed the journal, placed it back in the box and sat back in her chair. A long deep sigh exited her chest, and she closed her eyes. She was not sure she could take anything else today. She didn't have the energy to face it. In one day, she had gone from a simple college student to a landowner. Now her grandmother was leaving her secret instructions she had to deal with before the solstice. She certainly didn't feel up to this challenge.
 She opened her eyes and glared through new tears at the chest and the journal hidden in it. She closed and locked the box and pushed it away from her. She could not take any more. She opened the top drawer of the desk and started to put the box away but paused to flip through the calendar on the desk when the door behind her flew open.
 Nicklaus, her cousin, stepped through the doorway and into the library as if he owned the estate. A tremor of anger slipped across her face, but she quickly controlled it. Nicklaus had been roaming the estate with her for as long as she could remember. She was not in the mood to deal with him today and he seemed agitated. The aroma of cigars and bourbon hung around him like his attitude, and she knew he had been talking to her father.
 “Mel, what is this that I hear about your father? Why was he excluded from his mother’s will?”
 The big family secret was now out.
 “Nick, I’m not going over this with you right now. I have things to do and I’m tired. Thanks for coming to the funeral, but I have a great deal of things that remain to be done. Not everything was all wrapped up when she died.”
 Melissa caught herself before she gave away the secret her grandmother had just entrusted to her. The look in Nicklaus’ eyes made her wonder if he already knew. The hairs all over her body seemed to stand up with his reaction, and she felt a little creepy.
 The door swung open again, and Charles stepped past Nicklaus to take a position between them. 
 “Miss, I’m sorry. The staff is not sure how you want visitors handled tonight. I’ll see Master Nicklaus back out. I’m sure he was not aware that you were busy. Master Nicklaus.” The imposing figure motioned gently with his hand toward the front of the house. Nicklaus did not move but looked at Melissa.
“Show him to the Parlor, Charles.” She visibly shrugged at the responsibility she knew was not leaving. “I need to see to this before I get back to what I was working on.”
 “Yes, Miss, but those items need to be dealt with.”
 “Know your place, Charles,” Nicklaus snapped. “She is aware of her duties.”
 “Of course, sir, I meant no disrespect. This way please.”
 Nicklaus turned to head toward the parlor at the front of the house with a pious air.
 “Yes, Miss?”
 “Make sure he stays in the parlor. I’m going to change.”
 “You know, I can send him away if you’re too busy.” His eyes crossed to the box on the desk.
 “No, I should see him, and I just can’t face this right now.” She pushed at the box again. “He was here for the funeral and was nice enough to leave then. He has heard the news and has been with my father since the meeting was over. He’s all excited. If I don’t see him tonight, he’ll be back first thing in the morning, anyway. Give me a few minutes to prepare for my betrothed, won’t you?”
 “Miss, I believe the journal is far more important than meeting with Master Nicklaus.”
 She felt the anger cross her face and controlled her reaction. There was no reason to be angry; he was just doing his job. “Perhaps, but it can’t be avoided.” His common frown deepened for an instant, but he bowed as his training required and exited the library.
 She unhooked the gold chain that held the amulet, slipped the key to the box onto it and put them both around her neck. She needed to get away from the stress she had inherited. She wanted this day to end more now than ever before. She needed a break already.
 Over the next fifteen minutes she took her time changing from the little-black-dress she had worn to the funeral just to irritate her mother. It had worked. She would hear about that in the morning, but there was always something. Melissa could not be around her mother without somehow disappointing her; why should today be any different?
 Melissa decided a pair of comfortable sweats would make the meeting easier. She wrapped a formal receiving robe around them just to avoid offending Nicklaus and checked her image in the full-length mirror. Her black hair fell along the back of the scarlet robe to her waist. Satisfied with her appearance, she started down the stairs as the clock announced the bottom quarter-hour. Behind her, the more horizontal rays of the sun were streaming in through the second floor windows of the library.
 Nicklaus’ raised voice assaulted her as she walked down the front stairs to the parlor.
 Charles was standing in front of the one exit from the parlor with his arms crossed across his chest. Nicklaus stood beyond the door, blocked by tradition and honor more than by Charles.
 “I have never been refused the right to use this house as if it were my own. The former owner afforded me the respect equal to my position.”
 He could consider the act an insult if he wanted, but Melissa didn’t really care. It was her house now. She would decide who could roam its halls, and it was better to keep Nicklaus off balance, but Charles did deserve a break. She walked up behind him.
 “What seems to be the problem, Charles?”
 “No problem, Miss.”
 “Very well, you may go now,” she said, walking past his bulk in the door and entering the parlor. “Okay Nick, What’s on your mind?”
 The young man’s attitude changed immediately. He stood a bit straighter and pushed back his shoulders. “Well, you’ve settled in very nicely, Mel.”
 “Please don’t call me that.”
 “I’m sorry, but I believe my relationship accords me some latitude. I am to be your husband, after all.”
 For a moment she gave him the smile he expected.
 “By that awful arrangement, yes you are.” She dropped her smile and replaced it with a face she had learned from her grandmother. “But I warn you, take no liberties. I’m doing all I can to void the Schwendemann-Kellmunz arrangement,” she answered very matter-of-factly and walked past him to stand in front of her chair.
 “Why fight it, cousin? It’s the way of our ancestors. We must keep the line pure. We’re royalty, and we’ll soon return to the old country and free it from those who took it from us.”
 “Please. I’ve heard that from my father since I was a child. After millions of dollars and years, He’s no closer to accomplishing it. What makes you think you will?”
 Nicklaus smiled. Something in his smile gave Melissa a chill.
 “I can feel it, Mel. It’s time, and if you think about it you do too.”
 Melissa rolled her eyes at both the fascination that Nick shared with her father and grandfather and the honorific he had inherited from them.
 “Two generations have fought that battle. Don’t you think it’s time to put it down?”
 “You dare mock me! I’m the next in line.” His voice rose with true royal indignation. The only thing missing from his reaction was the woman he wanted to add to punctuate it.
 “After my father, yes, but he’s still alive which keeps the royal line here for now. That’s the whole reason you and I are betrothed, cousin.”
 “True, but that’s no reason to give up on our ancestry.”
 “I’ve not given up on it. I remember it daily as my grandmother did.”
 Nicklaus recognized the dangerous ground he was on and took a moment before he continued.
 “No one questions her contribution, Mel. Her books put our little country back on the map. I’m not sure publishing historical romances about dragons and kings in our dark history was the only way to do that, but her contribution is appreciated. I’m talking about getting the land back; recovering our birthright; taking back what has been stripped from us for centuries. What do you intend to do to help with that?”
 Melisa felt a sudden surge of vertigo and stumbled into the wingback chair behind her.
 Had his eyes flashed or was that some artifact of the charged encounter?
 Recovering control by grabbing the armrest and slipping into the chair as smoothly as she could, Melissa hoped she had disguised her sudden weakness.
 What was he talking about? It had been generations since their almost-country had been swallowed into the redrawn maps of Europe. Swabia had fallen apart over centuries of dukes and counts who failed to bring it together to form a single unified nation. None of the powers, including the United Nations, had recognized their claims so far. He, along with every male of the royal line, was losing his mind. Her grandmother had told her about the plan that they passed from father to son, how much it had already cost all of the families and what she thought of it.
 “I’m too tired to argue with you Nick. I know you didn’t come here to talk about our history or wedding plans. What do you want?”
 She punctuated her query by flopping against the chair back and looking up at him. She hoped the act covered her dizziness, which was not going away. Now, there was a buzzing in her ears.
 He paused a moment before continuing, again smiling. He drew his hand over his face. For an instant, she thought she saw fatigue but she could not be sure.
 “I wanted to ask you some questions, about your grandmother. Before she died, did she talk to you about any deadlines?”
 “No, she was sick before she died. I hadn’t seen her for a while. I was away, at school, so were you. When I did see her last, she talked about parties and people she remembered and went on about a particular ball when she was a child.” The only deadline her grandmother had ever discussed with her had been in writing just before he had arrived, so to deny it was not a lie. Reminded of the deadline, she looked up at the calendar on the wall. It was too far away to make out.
 “Odd, was she working on another book? You of all people would know what she was working on.”
 “I’m not sure… Why? She was always writing something.”
 The dizziness was making it hard to think. Her skin itched with a prickling irritation, and the fine hairs on her arm were standing up. She resisted scratching.
 “She was asking a lot of questions about some very old texts my father kept in the library at home,” he pressed. “She borrowed them and I wanted to make sure they made it back to the library. With all that’s happened things can get lost, you know.”
 “I’ll make sure you get them back as soon as I can finish a quick inventory. I have no idea what all is here. I expect most of the family will want to pick through it. Anyway, questions about what?”
 “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
 Nick sat down in the chair in front of hers. A deeper flash of vertigo rushed over her as he sat down. She looked away as her mind filled with an image of an ancient castle. She could see it as if she was hovering over it. Along the battlements, dragons stood with their wings folded back looking down into the valley around the castle. It reminded her of the painting on the ceiling in the library. Fire ran down her arms, legs, and spine. An uncontrollable shiver ran through her body. When she looked up at Nick, he was grinning back at her. The clock in the hall sang the hour with nine clear rings. Somehow, each chime made him look happier.
 “Look, Nick, I’m really tired tonight. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”
 “She seemed pretty insistent. She said it was important. If I could just look at what she was working on I think I could help.”
 Each sentence was an attack to her focus. Melissa resisted shaking her head at his request.
 “I’m not even sure what she was working on yet. I need some time to review it. I’ll know more in a few days, but not tonight.”
 She stood from the chair and walked toward the door leading out of the parlor, fighting vertigo with every step.
 “I think it would be best if you left tonight. I need to get some rest. Today has really worn me down. Would you mind?”
 “I can’t leave now, Mel. I need to see the journal,” he snapped.
 A stronger wave of vertigo nearly dropped her to her knees. She could see that this wave affected Nicklaus as well. His eyes flashed red. This time his reaction was clear, and he did nothing to hide it. He bared his teeth at her and growled.
 Fear slammed into her already shaken mind, and she could not help the look of surprise that crossed her face. How could he know about the journal?
 “Charles, get in here! I need you!”
 Her skin prickled and fire ran down her limbs again; it was all she could do to remain standing. The amulet around her neck seemed to vibrate, and Nicklaus fell away from her as if an invisible hand pushed him. He braced against the hearth and grinned.
 Across the foyer behind her, a door leading to the dining room swung open and Charles rushed across the tiled floor. All hints of the gentle butler were gone as the fast-moving tackle rushed past her into the parlor.
 “Holy—what the hell’s going on?” Charles shouted as he crossed the last few steps to grab Nicklaus as he was stepping toward Melissa. He wrapped his arms around the smaller man and pulled him away from the door. “I’ve got this, miss. May I suggest you retire to the library or your room?”
 “Yes, of course.”
 Even in her addled state, she knew the journal had to be protected.
 “Make sure he is shown off the property and tell the gate no one is to be allowed in tonight. No exceptions.”
 “I can’t let you do this Melissa. Your grandmother is wrong. What she’s asking you to do will enslave us, again.”
 Nicklaus’ eyes pleaded with her. He was not resisting Charles who was holding him in place in front of the fireplace, but something in Nicklaus’ eyes scared her.
 “Don’t do what she’s asked you to do. We have to be allowed to reclaim the power we’ve lost.”
 His face changed again. She saw it coming and opened her mouth to warn Charles, but never got the words out. He must have expected something because he turned his hip as Nicklaus drove his elbows into Charles’ side. The power in his strike was unnatural and more than Melissa had ever seen in the small man. His eyes suddenly glowed brighter.
 Distracted by the attack and Nicklaus’ unexplained strength, Charles lost his grip and stumbled back against the hearth. Nicklaus pushed off and rushed at her. Vertigo enshrouded her and Melissa’s feet twined together as she turned away from him. She stumbled into the doorframe, trying to escape. Against the wall, she gained some control and pushed off and around the doorframe into the foyer. The safety of the library was only a few feet down the hallway, but she could feel him behind her. She swore his hands were hovering above her shoulders. She risked a look back as she turned toward the back of the house.
 Nicklaus, tripped up by Charles, slammed into the wall and doorframe, splintering the wood and spraying the hallway with chunks of plaster. The force of the strike spun him around into the front door barely missing her as she ran out of his reach. The impact with the wall should have stopped him, but he was pushing against the front door to come after her.
 She couldn’t stop the scream that escaped as he continued to chase after her. Watching over her shoulder, Melissa ran faster through the library door toward the back of the house. There was no way the two way door would hold up against his strength, but she had to secure the journal and figure out what was going on. Just as the door was closing behind her, she caught a glimpse of Charles slamming into Nicklaus in a classic football tackle and driving him across the foyer out of view.
 The noise of their scuffle drove her past the desk where she grabbed the box and turned toward the French doors. Charles’ cry of pain alarmed her and drove her to the doors. She hoped Charles could stop him, but knew in her heart that this was not the end of her flight.
 The deadbolt stopped her, and she fumbled with it. Her fingers knotted, and she cried out in frustration before the lock yielded. Throwing open the doors, she raced out of the house and into the twilight of the back lawn. At the foot of the stairs, a crash of glass caused her to look back again as Nicklaus tore through the back doors. Distracted, she tripped on a root and sprawled across the rough ground.
 As she fell, she released the locked box and brought her hands up to protect herself. Without looking, she sensed Nicklaus on top of her. She rolled over looking into his crazed eyes.
 As he fell upon her, his chest felt jagged against her soft flesh. He was stronger than she ever remembered. His hands were reaching for her neck, and panic shot through her as she realized he intended to kill her. She closed her eyes.
 Helpless in his grasp, she knew she could not surrender. Instinctively, she reached for the talisman at her neck. His rough hands closed around her throat. She opened her eyes to look into menacing, glowing orbs. Fire ran through her hand, and the stones in the pendant flashed.
 Nicklaus stopped. Surprise filled his eyes as an invisible force slammed into his chest and threw him off of her and across the yard.
 He crashed into the stone wall of the mansion and then dropped onto the steps with a loud thump, like a rag doll cast aside by an angry child. He stayed where he landed.
 Fire raced up her arms, and a spike of pain exploded in her head. Her vision blurred with the pain and she clenched her eyes shut. A vision of a massive black dragon flashed into her mind as the pain blossomed in her skull. When her mind cleared, she could suddenly hear the katydids in the woods around her and the crunch of glass under Charles’ feet.
 Melissa opened her eyes, sat up, and stared at Nicklaus where he lay as Charles limped onto the porch. His left arm hung at his side, and blood streamed down his face from a bad gash on his head.
 “Get to the overlook,” he ordered, “I’m right behind you. Don’t wait for me. Run. Stay on the path, it’s safer.”
 Calm control emanated from him. He looked at the limp form on the steps and shook his head.
 “This is about that box?” He pointed at it and looked at her.
 She stood up and looked toward the overlook nodding her head.
 “Go on, then. I’ll be right behind you.”
 Melissa hesitated.
 He looked up at her as he grabbed Nicklaus under the arm and hoisted him onto his shoulder. He pointed at the overlook and turned his back on her.
 She collected the box and ran down the path to the overlook. When she was on the stone floor of the overlook, she turned back. Charles was on his way down the path. She looked at him with the question she wanted to ask on her face.
 “Yes, he’s still alive. I locked him in the pool shed. It won’t hold him, but it will slow him down. He won’t know where we are in a minute anyway.”
 Charles looked her over professionally as he reached the stone circle at the edge of the yard. She suddenly felt like a little girl who had fallen in the back yard. Charles reminded her of his father, and she took some comfort from that strength.
 “Step back a bit.”
 With his right hand, he turned a stone near the center, exposing a handle. He pulled on the handle and a door, disguised in the cobblestone, opened, revealing stairs leading into the blackness and toward the house. He stepped down a step and leaned the door against his left shoulder with a grimace. With his only usable hand, he fumbled with a flashlight in his right coat pocket.
 “Here, let me,” Melissa said as she pulled the Maglite from his pocket and turned it on. “You don’t have to be the hero all the time.”
 “I didn’t stop Nicklaus with a piece of jewelry. I’m not sure why he’s that strong or how you did that, but I knew things were getting weird when your grandmother sent me out here last week.”
 “What’s out here?” Melissa asked as she led the way down the stairs. Charles closed the disguised door behind him and engaged a locking wheel on the center of it.
 “You don’t know? You’ll have to see it, then. There’s a large cave down here. It’s safer than the house, and it has something to do with that journal.”
 He pointed at the box, and she looked at him as if he was going to explain something to her.
 He shook his head. “No, I knew she was writing it before she died, and she left it in that box for you. She told me it was important. I just hope you have all you need down here because Nicklaus will have access to the house now. I can’t keep him out, and I don’t think we can go back up for anything until you figure this out.”
 “I have what he wants.” She lifted the box up. “I’m not sure what else I’ll need. I’m not even sure what you’re talking about.”
 “You didn’t read it?”
 She frowned and kept walking. She didn’t need his disappointment on top of her own. They followed the stairs until they leveled out in a room as large as the entire north wing of the house. They had been descending for a few minutes, but Melissa was not sure how far under the house they were or even how deep. Most of the cavern was rough and natural. The floor was level and covered with chests of different sizes.
 “What’s all of this?” Melissa asked, amazed that such a secret had been kept from her. She had been all over the house and property since she had been a baby. She was a little upset she didn’t know about it.
 “The foundation of your estate, literally. Your grandmother told me these were the crown jewels of your country.”
 “Who else knows about this?”
 “Me and you, as far as I know. I was supposed to show you this when you asked. She expected you would be busy tonight.”
 “What do you mean?”
 “She spent her last days writing in that journal. She told me she had little time and had to finish it. I was supposed to bring you here when you asked me to if she died before the solstice and she was unable to finish the preparations.”
 “What do you know about all of this?” She held the box up in front of her.
 “Not much. I know she felt it was important that whatever she was preparing happen before sunset tonight. She was always asking me how much time she had left. I had to mark the solstice on my calendar and tell her how many days she had left every morning.”
 “Today’s the solstice?” Melissa gulped.
 She felt cold all over.
 She could feel the color draining from her face.
 Her stomach turned nearly over.
 “What time is it?”
 Charles lifted his left wrist and looked at his watch. “9:17.”
 Melissa bent down to put the box on the floor and settled beside it. Using the flashlight to locate the lock, she clutched at her chest to make sure she still had the pendant and the key. When she felt the comforting weight, she exhaled; but she could not escape the fear that she had failed her grandmother.
 “Hold this,” she ordered without thinking and handed him the flashlight.
 Looking down at the box in front of her, she used the key on the chain to unlock it. Inside was everything she had left there before going to meet Nicklaus. She lifted out the journal and flipped to the first page. Her grandmother’s writing appeared readable, as if she was sitting in the library.
 “Help me, please. Do you have any idea what she wants me to do?”
 “No. She never told me.”
 Melissa looked back at the journal and the first page she had not read. It was describing the history of her family going back over a thousand years. Melissa didn’t have time to read it, so she skimmed the pages until she reached a section that seemed to be instructions. Those she slowly read and then set the book down in her lap.
 “She wants me to cast a spell.”
 “What? What do you mean?” His face showed the conflict of a man who lived in a concrete world.
 “She wants me to cast an ancient spell. If I can’t cast it before sunset I won’t stop what she’s calling the emergence and then it’ll be harder to correct...” She couldn’t finish. She couldn’t believe what the pages had told her.
 “What are you going on about?”
 “I’m not sure. What time is it?”
 “I’ll never make it. I can’t get it right in that little time.” A vision of a giant black scaly body passed before her in her mind. Its head turned to look at her. Nicklaus was with her for a moment and was urging her to stop.
 “Okay, what is this emergence, and why do you have to stop it?”
 “I’m not sure. I can’t take time to read it all, but if she thought it was important, I’m not going to question it.”
 “What do you need?”
 “Time, everything else is here.” With that realization and the pressure in her mind from Nicklaus, she stood up.
 “Shine the light around.”
 The beam of light exposed the floor in three-foot-wide slices, and she followed it until the outline on the floor matched the diagram in the journal.
 “Stop,” she shouted while comparing the mosaic on the ground with the drawing in the journal.
 Convinced they matched, Melissa stepped into the central circle of what would be a giant pentagram mosaic in the floor of the cavern.
 Vertigo, like she had felt facing Nicklaus in the parlor, rushed over her. Dropping to one knee and looking up at Charles, she swore she could feel wings protruding from her back. A different but familiar voice in her mind screamed, and she had a sudden sense she was about to do the wrong thing. An image of dragons surrounding the pentagram with their wings raised filled her mind. Nicklaus, in the form of a dragon, walked the outer edge looking in at her in the middle where she stood. Her hands trembled.
 “I’m not sure I can do this.”
 “She believed in you, so do I,” Charles urged from nearby. “You can do this.”
 Reassured, she opened the journal. She closed her eyes to clear the visions that continued and exhaled slowly. With effort, she forced Nicklaus’ urgent arguments away and resisted the pressure from her own mind to stop. When she finally calmed herself, she began reading the words written out for her in the journal aloud. As the first sentence was completed, the text before her began glowing like a bad karaoke song. As the words passed her lips, they vanished on the page in a flash, turning to ash.
 The pentagram on the floor began to glow.
 Charles stepped to the outer edge and watched. The flashlight he was holding was no longer needed.
 She read each line until she had finished the first page. Ash fell from the journal as she turned to the next page. She wanted to speed up, but the glow set a specific cadence and would not allow her to change it.
 At the end of the second of three pages, she waited for the glow to go on, but it had not moved on from the last word. The glow of the pentagram vanished, and she stood in darkness waiting for what was next. A bell rang through the room, and she knew in her gut that she had failed. There was no need to go on.
 “What was that?” Charles shined the flashlight around the cavern looking for the source of the bell. When he couldn’t find it, he turned to look at her.
 “I didn’t make it in time. It’s sunset.”
 “Go on, finish it then.”
 “I can’t.” The weight of her failure made her feel tired. She wanted to lay down and sleep.
 Suddenly, Melissa’s mind blurred with a whirlpool of images. Memories rushed through her head. Vertigo and excruciating pain overwhelmed her, and she fell to the floor. The individual tiles of the pentagram swam before her eyes. Images of her father, mother, and other relatives in a foreign place filled her mind. She saw Nicklaus changing from a dragon into the man she knew, only older by a few years. Melissa heard the voice in her head.
 A feeling of relief filled Melissa’s mind with the thought. It was as if something was suddenly resolved. A shiver ran down her spine.
 “Charles, I don’t know what’s happening.”
 Melissa pushed away from the tiles and tried to stand but could not overcome the vertigo that held her there. She could feel minds, imprisoned for ages, celebrating their freedom.
There is no reason to resist. We are one, the stranger in her mind said to her.
 Flashes of realization ripped through her mind. The spell was gone now.
 They would emerge.
 The dragons were coming.
 They were already returning all around her.
 “I’m not a dragon!”
 “This is not me!”
 “I can’t allow it.”
 “I’ll not be consumed,” she cried into the stones beneath her hands.
 She felt a rush of strength and power pour over her body. It felt good. She was euphoric in the sudden flow of energy.
Release me!
 “No! Why should I?”
Focus on me and return to yourself. Why are you making this so hard?
 Melissa struggled against the power surging through her body demanding to be released.
 There’s nothing wrong with being a dragon. Why should we be suppressed? Why were we? How long has it been?
 Melissa felt a blast of pain in answer to the question. The power inside her fought back, and it felt so good to be strong.
 Charles had stepped over to help her where she writhed on the floor, but he backed away as a guttural growl escaped her throat.
 In her mind, images of her past formed and flashed by. Some brought joy with them. Others were cauldrons of sorrow. Her mind was a whirlwind of childhood thoughts. Her mother the dragon; the castle where she had lived; humans she had fought beside… Melissa fought the images by reaching out to recent memories of her relatively short life. It was insane to believe she was a dragon. She would not surrender. This demon would not take over her mind and body. She would not be lost to it.
 She looked up from the ground to Charles and reached out a hand to him. He hesitated a moment. She could see fear in the eyes of a man who had witnessed war, but he recovered and stepped in to take it.
We will not be held back!
 Power surged through her body.
We will be free.
 She felt it fighting within her.
You will understand if you relax.
 It suddenly tried to sooth her with a mellow crooning voice in her mind.
 Melissa gripped Charles’ hand and he winced as she squeezed.
 “NO!” she screamed.
 With Charles’ help, she stood up and forced herself to breathe. She looked around the cave and realized she could see everything. The light they had used to find their way into the cavern glowed in Charles’ injured hand but did nothing to aid her. She could read the text on the floor and see every crack in the distant wall.
You resist for no reason. I’m not taking you over. We are one. We are the same. We are Meliastrid.
 In her mind, a red-scaled dragon stood on a frozen courtyard. It spun in the flakes falling from the grey sky, and Melissa could feel the childish joy of the moment. She loved the snow. She loved the castle. Melissa found herself spinning in the cavern as the dragon had in her memory. She could feel the event as if she had lived it.
You did. I did. We did.
 As the joy enveloped her mind, Melissa relaxed a little. The crack in her defense was small, but it was enough. The power inside her surged, and coppery wings sprung from her back. Instead of pain, she shivered in a euphoric spasm. With the chill of the spasms, scales rippled over her skin and covered her body. Her clothes ripped and fell away from her as her armored form grew beyond their capacity.
 Charles fell away from her and raised a hand to defend himself as if she might hurt him.
 “Charles, I’m okay. Don’t be afraid,” she said with a little trill in her voice.
 The feeling of emerging into this form was so overwhelming she could no longer resist it. Her own fear was suddenly lost in the uncontrollable spasms of growth and emergence. She was still afraid of what was happening, but the quiet cooing in her mind assured her it was safe.
 She didn’t want to believe it. She struggled again to remember. She fought to see if she was being deceived. As payment for her effort, pain ripped through her head and interrupted the transformation. She clamped her hands over her pointed ears, but it did nothing to stop the pain. She nearly dropped to the floor again when another surge of power fought against the pain.  
 With the pain suppressed and all of her resistance quelled, a long tail extended from her back and raised her into the air as her legs grew beneath her. The power turned into strength as her chest expanded and she grew to her full height. Stronger and stronger spasms wracked her. Large, triangular scales covered her chest as the tail consumed her. Her neck grew from the root of her chest, and wings carried her head away from her much larger body. Melissa could feel the crown of horns and spines grow from the back of her head. Fleshy, scaled whiskers extended from her chin. Thin wing flaps grew from below her ears.
 Her nose expanded into a long snout. Her black hair vanished into bronze and black scales that covered her neck down to her wings. She could not suppress the grin on her newly emerged face.
 A huge bronze and copper colored dragon replaced the short frail form of Melissa on the tiles where she had lain moments before resisting the transition. In her mind, the others that she had felt before were celebrating their freedom. However, the joy was quickly overwhelmed by a closer mind, a mind filled with rage.
 “This is the emergence that she wanted to stop.” Melissa spread her wings behind her and thrilled at the feeling of power that rushed through her.
That was a silly idea, I fear.
 The thoughts and memories of the emerged dragon filled her mind, and she struggled not to disappear in the swirling memories and pain that still wracked the mind. It was not clear which thoughts she could trust.
 “Emergence? That’s exactly what Helena wanted you to stop! What are you doing?” Charles asked.
 She could see the terror in his eyes, and Melissa was not sure what kept him in the cavern. The door was not blocked. He could leave if he wanted. The little girl inside wanted him to run and take her with him, but she couldn’t go.
 “You should not be here, Charles.” Melissa could hear her own voice in the dragon’s mouth. Charles stared at her and stayed where he was.
 “I’m not leaving Melissa. Whoever you are, I’m here to help her.”
Brave for a human. The voice in her mind seemed unimpressed and somewhat agitated by his presence. He should not have seen this. We should kill him.
 Melissa reacted physically to the threat to Charles by turning the dragon’s head away from him to look elsewhere. As she focused on a large opening on the other side of the cavern, the nearby rage turned into familiar agitation. Nicklaus was awake. He had emerged, and he was searching for her. His rage returned, and she could sense his desire to kill someone. He wanted to kill Charles. A final surge of Nicklaus’ satisfaction filled her mind as he sensed his prey.
 She turned back to look at Charles where he now stood. He had marshaled his fear and faced her. Flashes in her mind mingled his face with another’s who was decked in a full suit of armor and sitting astride a charger. She grinned at him and realized in those images that there was no doubting his faithfulness.
Our mate will not see it that way. Are you prepared to deny him his retribution? This human has wronged him.
 “This human has defended us. We were taking a stand, and he helped us.”
But was it the right stand we were taking? Now that we are free, do you agree with what Heliantra wanted?
 Melissa struggled with the massive memories that she had suddenly come to possess and tried to find an answer that she could rely on. Pain filled her mind as she tried to fight her way through memories and with a shake of her dragon head she surrendered and made a decision.
 “In the absence of proof that she had reason for her directions tonight, I will still listen to my grandmother before I trust to Nicklaus.”
Then you will face that decision soon. He will find you. Be prepared for it.
 Melissa looked down at the small form of Charles in front of her. She slowly dropped her chest and forelegs toward him and tried to make soothing sounds to keep him from being threatened. It came out wrong, and she could see him tense in preparation for whatever she was doing. Unable to stop the reaction she carefully placed her foreclaw on his shoulder and stopped him before he could run. He looked down at it and up at her.
 In her other claw, she handed the journal to him.
 “My mate comes. He comes to kill you and perhaps me for defending you. I need your help. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but the world we both knew has changed. Dragons have emerged. We will have to face it, and I need your help.”
 Charles wrestled with his fear and looked into her eyes. He studied them for a moment and then knelt on one knee, dropping his eyes to the floor.
 “I swear, my lady. I have done the wishes of your kin and will continue to serve you.”
 A surge of excitement and pleasure filled her mind as Nicklaus found the cave entrance. They were out of time. She turned to face the direction in which he would appear as a blast of air rushed into the hall in front of his black shiny body. Nicklaus folded his wings back and landed in the middle of the floor to join the pair in the center of the hall. Melissa pushed Charles behind her and shifted her body between them. Their chests nearly touched when Nicklaus had stopped.
 “Why,” Nicklaus roared into the chamber, “do you protect this human?” His head leapt at the small form hiding behind her, and his teeth clashed in loud snaps. Fire flared in Nicklaus’ otherwise dark eyes.
 “Because, he has served me well. He was doing what he was charged to do. His courage saves him. You have no right to him.” Her knee slammed into his eye and sent his head away from Charles.
 “They have enslaved us.” His foreclaw defended his injured eye as he withdrew his head from the sudden danger and looked at her, shocked by her physical attack. Only partially derailed by the assault, he continued his thought after a pause. “We will avenge this disrespect. You understand now, don’t you?” He looked up at her, confused. His left eye blinked to recover.
 Thoughts from her rebellious mind rushed forward to defend what Nicklaus was saying. Melissa could feel her resolve failing as her mate tried to convince her that humans deserved to be punished, starting with Charles. She paused as Nicklaus fought with his injured pride to think. There had to be some reason Helena wanted her to cast the spell that would have stopped this. Through the pain, she struggled for an answer that was just out of reach when the image sprang forward in a blast of excruciating realization. Like she had felt the joy of the dragon spinning in the snowy castle courtyard, she again could sense the fear and dread as her young mind chanted similar words into the crisp air of that same castle. Nicklaus paced beyond a magical boundary and a circle of dragons that protected her as she cast the spell. The pain of the memory exploded into her mind, eradicating the image in shards of agony. It was enough to stop the argument from her mind and strengthen her resolve.
 Melissa extended her tail to point at Nicklaus’ injured eye. She raised her wings above her head to balance herself for his attack and reached out with her foreclaws to protect her space from her one-time mate.
 “We are free now. This is a different time, though, and we must be careful. You are wrong, my love, as you have been for generations before and since. I know how angry you are, but you must be cautious and not be overcome by emotions not supported by facts. Do not surrender to your rage, or it will be your end.”
 “Never again,” he roared into the cavern. “Across the world we have all emerged, and we will never again be subjugated to them. The humans will pay for their insolence, and I will not be stopped by you and your love for them.” Nicklaus raised his head level with hers, keeping his eyes on her. The flickers of hatred in his eyes warned her he was ready to fight. She puffed up her chest and thrust her wings forward, pointing the claws on each joint out to show him the fight he would be in if he chose to attack. She wanted to look like the porcupine she would be. He would pay dearly in this fight.
 Her show of force worked, and Nicklaus turned his back on her to leap across the cave. As he retreated, he continued to threaten her.
 “You will see you were wrong. Others will agree with me. Your father will stand beside me and end your love affair with humans. They have stood against us, and I will see that they pay for their arrogance.”
 Without looking back, he exited the cave, leaving only the aroma of his anger.
 Melissa sighed the tension out of her body and relaxed her wings. Part of their history was becoming clearer in her mind accompanied by the pain that drained her strength. She believed her grandmother’s decision had reason.
No! Do not return us to the prison of that weak form.
 “It is the form I am comfortable with.”
It is a prison.
 “Then you shall be imprisoned.”
We, you mean.
 Melissa shrugged her mighty shoulders and refused to fight with the voice. She was in control of her body. She returned her thoughts to the problem of what to do about the ancient spell she had failed to cast. There had been a reason for it before. If her memory was correct, she had actually cast it before. What could the reason be? Fire rushed through her head at the attempt to recapture that memory, and she shook her head to clear it from the pain.
 Suddenly triumphant against both her own confused mind and Nicklaus’ anger, but otherwise a failure, exhaustion overwhelmed her. She took her last ounce of strength and focused on her human form. Melissa collapsed from her dragon form into her completely exhausted and naked human body. She felt Charles’ strong, comforting, human arms catch her as the shroud closed over her eyes, and peaceful darkness swallowed her mind.

- See what happens next - 

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