Riley stoked the fire, tossing another log in to a stirring applause of embers. They swirled and swarmed in the flickering light. Around them, the flames swelled again.
"Looks like they'll be done in a few minutes." Near the edge of the fire ring, breakfast steamed in a potato-like fashion. Which was appropriate. It consisted of a handful of sweet potatoes wrapped in wet leaves. "I don't suppose you'll be wanting one, professor?"
"Not unless it's already on the inside of a delicious wild boar." Rasta looked briefly hopefully, letting his tongue hang out.
"Nope. Sorry. All out of boar."
"Blast. I'll have to pass on your offer."
Riley shrugged. "More for me, then." Reaching over, he grabbed a stick by his feet and prodded a potato. It hissed back at him. "By the way, professor, why are you up so late?"
"Good company? Instinct, maybe?" Rasta stared into the coals for a moment, then looked away. Wolf and monkey, sitting together by a fire. I feel like this has happened before. Sometime long ago. "Or it might be because I don't need as much sleep as humans do."
"That's pretty convenient."
"Not the word I would have chosen. It's alright in a city, where there's always someone awake, but out here all I have to talk to are you and Emil. Speaking of which, where did our erstwhile colleague get to?"
"Beats me. I'm not even sure what he does with his time, besides philosophize."
"He has a lady-friend."
"Ah." In the brief, intervening silence, one of the potatoes started to burn. Riley speared it deftly and heaved it out of the fire ring. It landed in the dirt, still smoking. "Mmm, breakfast."
"Are you going to let it cool down?"
"Why waste the time?" Riley waved a hand and a great puff of steam erupted from the potato. It rose quickly through the night air, mixing with the smoke of the campfire.
"You know, I could have sworn Jennifer told me about how you were conserving your energy. Keeping your magic only for the direst necessity."
"One of my students. A little shorter than you, blonde hair?"
Recognition flashed. "Oh, that Jennifer. Well, she's not exactly correct. I don't have a lot of magic power to throw around, so I wouldn't be much good in a fight. I just don't like being pestered for the little bit that I do have."
"That stands to reason. But weren't you hired to help guard this caravan?"
"Think of me as an early warning system. Always alert. Scanning the darkness for danger. Mmm, potato."
Rasta sneezed. There might have been a laugh buried in it. "I'm sure that with you on the job, we have nothing to fear."
It watched from the tree-line, its body on fire with need. With thirst.
Crackle. Flicker. Firedance. Glimmering bit of day blazing away in the darkness. Warm bodies around it. Two. Heat and blood and the gristle-snap of bone, all waiting to be tasted.
The thing shifted positions, worming its way a little closer. Staying close to the ground, away from where the shadows lapped at the firelight. It did not—could not—experience anything as concrete as doubt. But on the dim dizzy edge of its perception, it felt suspicion.
Only two awake to sit watch over a sleeping field of meat. Two supple molds of ligament and skin awash in the sweet smell of blood-ash-salt. The work of an unprepared instant, a moment of tender frenzy.
It rolled out thin, gliding around the ring of firelight. Stretching out over the patchwork pathway of the Route. Condensing quick and solid by the wagon ring. Slinking padfoot towards the tents, and the bounty within.
Jennifer did not think of herself as easy. She would defy anyone who called her that and give them a stinging, red souvenir on the side of their face for their troubles. What Jennifer was, was "variably difficult." She assessed the situation and played things accordingly.
Right now, the situation was about a quarter bottle of apple brandy and Dwight, who claimed that he wanted to get to know the other members of the expedition a little better. It wasn't a great line, but the apple brandy was spectacular, so they balanced each other out. Jennifer adjusted her difficulty setting to "moderate."
"So, what's it like being an anthropologist? Do you come out here often?" Dwight took a pull and set the brandy bottle down on the tarp floor between them. He was speaking softly, even though everyone else had already gone to sleep.
"I like to, but I haven't lately. Too much boring book work. Study this. Study that. Here's a giant box with the words 'sno cone' on it, what do you think it means?" She tried and failed to mimic Rasta's voice. It was really hard to do a proper impression of the professor. He didn't really have a tone of voice. He had a tone of mind.
"Sno cone?" Dwight tilted his head to the side.
"It's probably religious. That's Rasta's best guess, at least. Gimme," so saying, she snagged the bottle and sipped.
"I would have thought it was romantic to study the past. To submerge yourself in the way things were."
Jennifer laughed lightly. "Oh, don't I wish. It's mostly dusty. Makes me sneeze. What about you? Isn't being a bodyguard daring and exciting? Don't you slay highwaymen and save damsels for a living?" The brandy took the edge off the irony, turning it into an honest question.
Dwight's chest puffed out. "Depends on how much the damsels pay me. You don't go courting danger in my trade."
"How about if one of the damsels has a pretty face?" Jennifer leaned in half way, then very deliberately lifted the brandy bottle and took a drink. She leaned back. Watched a pack of emotions dart across Dwight's face.
"I suppose I might give a discount. Depends on how pretty the face."
"Hypothetically speaking, what would mine get me?"
"A couple of free bandits, at least." He yawned and faked a stretch, flexing as much bicep as he could manage. It was painfully obvious, but he did have nice arms. "But I bet any guy would offer the same."
Jennifer thought about how to respond to that for a second. "You know, they actually haven't. You're just about the first man I've met who offered to fight crime for me."
Dwight smiled. He had nice teeth, too. "What have other men offered?"
"That's for me to know." Another sip of brandy. It was losing its flavor on her tongue. She decided to steer the conversation in a different direction. "So, where are you from, Dwight?"
"Allover. It's a small town, west of Nowhere and south of The Sticks. How about you?"
"Oh, I'm not from anywhere quite as clever. Saint Melissa's, up in the hills."
"I think I've heard of it. Did a job there a few months ago."
"Not in the slightest. They were losing sheep, the occasional chicken, so they called me in to keep a watch on the flock."
"Turns out one of the new girls, Tammy, was a therianthrope. Turned into this big, nasty weasel for one night every other week. Gave me this." He rolled up his shirt a little, exposing the white traceries of a scar on his belly, which was flat and muscled. "She's okay, and my bleeding eventually stopped. Now she spends most of her Wednesday nights indoors." He rolled his shirt back down, but not before Jennifer caught a flash of something.
"What was that?"
"What? The scar?"
"No, that." She pointed insistently at his side. "It looked like…"
"Oh," and Dwight blushed. Or at least, his features turned slightly red. It was almost invisible in the dark. "It's, uh, nothing really."
"Uh-huh." Confidence buoyed up by a fermented apple tide, Jennifer shifted herself over until she was sitting right next to him. Practically touching. "If it's nothing, you wouldn't mind if I looked, would you?"
"N-no, I guess not." Face still red, he tugged his shirt up again.
"What on earth are those?"
"Wing flaps," Dwight mumbled.
Shadow shapes twisting interplay. A canvas of motion on the walls. Moving pictures.
The thing slunk around the tent once, twice, and then gave it up as a lost cause. Both of its occupants were awake. Shapes shifted and intersected in the dark. Tiny fragments of conversation drifted through the air. Another tent, then.
Another flesh-white pillow of fabric, stretched sure over wooden poles. Off to the side of the circle. Flow and stretch and extend. Touch the far flap. Feel for vibrations within. One. Soft and rhythmic. The slow throat-pulse of breath released.
Bunch and coil. Self becomes an appendage. A writhing block of sinuous strands that unlaces the front flap. That flows inside. That builds itself warm into a body asleep.
Matthew rolled uncomfortably in his sleep. Something tugged at his mind, grabbing his thoughts. He pulled them away from it roughly and tried to bury himself deeper, underneath a layer of dreams. Still, the nagging, troubling something persisted. It chased him down the corridors of his subconscious, dodging around latent symbols and father figures until at last it had him cornered, his back pressed up against a floating cigar. There was nowhere else for him to run. The cigar was huge, stretching forever in both directions. He had no choice but to face the nagging truth that…
…his eyes flickered open, revealing the darkened ceiling of the tent. Matthew sighed. There was an awkward, strained feeling coming from his lower stomach area, which meant he was going to have to get up and go outside.
The tent was fairly small, barely wide enough for one man-lizard to sleep in, so he had to hunch when he pulled aside his bedroll and stood up. The ceiling hovered uncomfortably right behind his head as he unlaced the front flaps and stepped out into the cool of the night. The forest was just a little ways away. It wouldn't take very long to attend to his personal errand.
Heat coursing warm. Pure. Fullness.
It felt alive. No longer a withered wreck; a stretched thin pile of flesh. In its consciousness sang completion. It rolled out of the tent, satiated and sluggish, and slunk off slowly towards the forest.
Sound on a carpet of leaves. Steam in the air. Matthew let his shoulders slump. Alone in the dark, he felt perfectly at peace. He had never been one to feel at home in the noise of a crowd, and he suspected that his grandmother's blood had something to do with that. Dragons, like cats, were generally solitary creatures. Sometimes they cared for the affairs of the world in the same way that a kitten would care for a mouse. It was all scurry and excitement, and instinct drove them to interfere. But at the end of the day, all they wanted was a patch of sunlight to curl up in.
Matthew gazed off into the night, letting his pupils widen. They expanded into great, inky wells, practically eclipsing his irises. He scanned the treeline cursorily for predators.
While the New Walpole expedition had a few too many people in it for his comfort, most of them seemed a decent sort. Even if, like Steven or Riley, they were completely inexperienced at this sort of job. As he laced his trousers back up, Matthew promised himself to keep a weather eye open for any danger the two of them might miss.
Turning back towards the camp, Matthew took a step forward and felt his sandal encounter something soft. It squelched underneath him. Cursing softly, he tugged his foot out of the sandal and stepped back. It stopped a few inches off the ground, resting on something firm and gelatinous. The substance, whatever it was, began to seep over the webbing between his toes. He looked down.
A carpet of translucent jelly, like clotted sap, lay on the grass around him. It was veined through with thick ribbons of red and it was pulsating softly. Matthew stood stock-still.
Slowly, the outer edges of the substance retreated. It grew larger at the center, until he was up to his calves in it. Then it began to glide sinuously up his legs.
Matthew panicked. He kicked out as hard as he could, producing an awkward sucking noise and sending stress ripples through the thing. They rebounded back off its edges and smacked weakly against his legs. Something firm swallowed his knees.
Grabbing the top of his trousers, he shoved them down, hoping to contain the thing in the fabric. For a moment it almost worked. A great clump of the clinging stuff was forced back down his legs, but it left a faint sheen behind. In a matter of moments, that sheen swelled back to its original size and began to climb again. Meanwhile, the rest of the thing flowed over the top of his trousers and enveloped his hands.
Air sluiced into his lungs in a frantic flood, puffing up his chest. Deep within him, something primal cried out and he screamed in response. Instead of sound, an incandescent jet blasted out of his mouth.
"What the hell was that?" Riley scrabbled to his feet. Rasta was immediately beside him, balancing on his hind legs to peer over the top of the caravan where a giant plume of fire had sprouted.
Rasta chose not to curse. At least, not in any comprehensible language. Muscles in his throat vibrated together, grinding out a growl. He sank back onto all four paws and vanished into the night like a shot, streaking towards the source of the flames.
Riley was a little bit slower than the professor but he ran as hard as he could, stumbling over the uneven ground of the Route. Rounding the edge of the caravan, he skidded to a halt. In front of him, burning brightly in the dark, was the body of a man. Already, huge sickly patches of it were beginning to peel off. They landed in a hissing heap by its feet.
Wait a minute. Hissing?
The immolated man stumbled forward, leaving a large chunk of himself behind. He tried to shout something, but another blast of fire issued from his throat. He was alive.
Externally, Riley's face was frozen in horror. Internally, he clawed at his mind for a spell to extinguish the man. All he could think of was the potatoes he had eaten for dinner; of the way he had loosened them around the edges, allowing the heat to escape. Unbidden, Riley's hands moved and the burning man vanished in a shriek of steam.
Rasta yelped, leaping back from the scalding cloud, but Riley charged right in. He swung a palm sideways in a sharp chop, mentally shunting the steam upwards and out of the way. It cleared in an instant, leaving behind a motionless man and a circle of boiled grass. In the background, the mound of whatever-it-was still burned, lending a ghostly ambiance to the scene.
Crouching down, Riley studied the prone man. It was hard to make out in the half-light, but his skin looked mottled and warped. Reshaped by the heat and the pressure of escaping steam. He was almost undoubtedly dead.
Riley waved a hand through the air, two inches over the man's back. It confirmed most of his suspicions. The man was seared, dehydrated, and in shock. There was a tell-tale pulse of something in his chest, but that might just have been proteins denaturing in the heat.
Mumbling furiously, Riley held one of his own palms out to the professor, who had trotted closer. "Bite it."
"My palm." It was a flint-voice, sharp and brittle. Rasta decided that it would be best to comply. He gingerly nipped the man's hand. One molar went too deep and blood began to spill out. "Good. Now help me flip him over."
Together, wolf and man rolled the body onto his back. Riley grabbed his chin, tugged his mouth open, and pressed his bleeding palm to the opening. He resumed mumbling under his breath and after a second his cheeks tightened. His face seemed to shrivel back against his skull. All the while, the veins in his right arm throbbed and stood out like braided fire-hoses.
For a long while there was no change in the condition of the prone body. Then, finally, some of the most severe burns began to wither; collapsing inward on themselves. They darkened from peeling white to lobster red and tiny rows of scales emerged from the melted flesh. At last a pulse started up again and the man's chest rose.
Riley toppled over backwards, spraying blood from his palm. There were red stains on the man's face as well as on the grass. The last thing that he was conscious of for a long time was Rasta shouting something angrily. It smelled of warm cinnamon.