When I was five years old, my entire body caught on fire.
That’s when I knew.
My dad had left a gas can sitting out in front of the garage. I was playing with my favourite action figures in the driveway. He accidentally bumped the can, causing it to fall over and spill all the way down to where I was sitting.
My mother walked out of the house to smoke a cigarette, complaining to my father about a noise she’d heard in the attic. At some point, she absentmindedly tossed the stub into the stream of gasoline.
It didn’t matter that it was just my pants that were soaking wet. It took only moments for my entire body to become a human firework.
Human. Sorry. Not human. Like I said, that was when I knew. No human could have had that happen to them and survive without a single burn. In fact, my body was spotless. I almost looked better than before and I smelled like bacon!
It hadn’t hurt either.
I remember sitting there, looking down at my clothes in awe. They were turning to cinders before my eyes. But the fire hadn’t felt hot; it actually felt cold. I could feel each individual flame lick at my body and had shivered from the sensation.
The only one even close to being harmed that day was my mother, who had fainted from the sight of her son standing up calmly while consumed by flames.
From that point on, I realized I could do a whole bunch of strange things that weren’t overtly tagged as human. I could smell, hear and see things from extreme distances that no one else could. I was much stronger and faster than everyone else my age, excelling in sports and anything physical. My appetite was larger than anyone else’s, though my mother said this happened to all teenage boys.
The last one is the coolest. I realized that I could control fire. Literally, I could make it do whatever I wished at a whim. I could even create it out of thin air, though only by focusing it to appear in the palms of my hands. With a wave, I could force it to vanish completely. Not just my fire, either. Any fire I came across, I could extinguish it.
Wish I’d known that when I was five.
For whatever reason, my powers made me unpopular at school. I knew I had to hide them from everyone and my parents would have killed me if I’d revealed them, but somehow everyone seemed to know I was hiding something all the time.
And they resented me for it.
That’s probably why Billy Mason challenged me to a fight.
“Hey, Merek,” he’d sneered, leaning over his desk during class. “You. Me. Three o’clock outside the school.”
I’d turned around in my own desk to face him, glaring. “Anytime, Mason.”
That ushered in oohs and ahhs from my classmates, eventually silenced when our teacher turned from the blackboard with an eyebrow raised.
Outside the school, a huge crowd had gathered to witness what they were all certain would be a classic Billy-Beat-Down; that’s what Mason called what he did to his victims and he’d had his fair share.
“All right, weirdo.” He’d cracked his knuckles and grinned toothily at me. “Try not to cry.”
We were completely surrounded at this point, with the giant group of bystanders shaping a moderate sized circle for Mason and I to duel in. His cronies had stood behind him, snickering and pointing.
It was when I was distracted by them that Mason threw his first punch.
Mason’s eyes had grown wide and he’d swallowed hard as he’d stared at his fist, which was trapped within my own. I had gripped it tightly, grinning coldly at him, knowing that I could break it if I truly wanted to.
That I could break him.
Instead, I chose to release him. And then let loose my own lightning fast blow to his jaw, tossing him backward through the air several feet until he landed in a crumpled heap at the base of his cronies.
“Freak! Freak!” Everyone had shouted and chaos commenced as my peers took off in all directions.
It’s things like that that lead me to take midnight walks, like the one I was on tonight. I strolled through town with my hands in the pockets of my leather jacket, gazing at the ground as I walked.
It’s good to go for walks. For me it’s a stress reliever. The silence is intoxicating.
I was lost in thought when a hand shot out of the darkness and latched onto my shoulder, pulling me forcefully into an ancient alley.
“Hey, what–” I began as a second freezing hand covered my mouth.
“Do not scream. Do not complain. Just listen,” an icy voice said.
The hand dropped.
I shook my head and wagged my tongue in the night air. “What was that for?”
“Merek Martin. It is a bother that I must inform you of what we’re about to do tonight. But, unfortunately,” the voice paused in an annoyed way, “I require aid.”
I squinted my eyes until the slender form of a young man about my age stepped out of the shadows. He had sickly pale skin and bright, chestnut eyes that gazed at me so viciously I thought he was going to try and kill me right there. His round head was topped with dark, wavy hair. He wore a long, pitch overcoat that nearly touched the ground and covered most of his body.
“I’m going to make this as fast as possible. I–”
“Rowan!” I exclaimed suddenly. “Rowan Nightingale! I know you. You’re in my class!”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered impatiently. “Look, Merek, I know your secret.”
I stared at him, taken aback. He ... What?
“Yes. I know you have enhanced strength and speed, as well as senses. I even know you can control fire and crave meat about every fifteen minutes.” Rowan glared at me disdainfully.
I hadn’t told anyone about the meat thing. “How–”
“Simple. To begin with, I saw you knockout that poor fool Billy the other day. You’re lucky you only gave him a concussion. Also, I can smell you a mile away.” He wrinkled his nose.
“You can smell me?” I just blinked. “Look, I think you’re mistaken. I’m not–”
“You are,” Rowan interrupted again. “I know because I’m a vampire.” He tilted his head slightly and opened his mouth in a snarl, revealing two overly long extra teeth that I’d never seen before. They looked sharp as daggers.
“A vampire?” I looked at him for a moment, a brow raised and then smiled. “You can’t be serious.”
“Then how come you don’t sparkle?”
“Very funny.” His dark brows furrowed. “And I know that you, my boy, are a dragon.”
A dragon? I just stared at him dumbfounded. I always thought I was just a kid with special powers, not any sort of mythical creature! How could this be? I’d never noticed scales in awkward places and the fire didn’t even come out of my mouth!
“Hold on, if I’m a dragon, then why aren’t I gigantic and able to fly around and stuff?” I said.
“You’re in human form. You’ve been this way for a long time, by the smell of it. Perhaps your entire life.” Rowan frowned and glanced towards the end of the alleyway. “Now, enough questions. We’ve got a job to do and not very long to do it. And I want to make sure we do it right.”
A million questions exploded throughout my mind as I stared at the boy, and I could feel my fingers start to tingle with anticipation.
This guy knew that I was a dragon when I didn’t even know! What else did he know? And he was a vampire! What sort of special powers did he have? Did he really drink blood? Could he turn into a bat? Was he sure he didn’t actually sparkle?
Rowan’s chestnut eyes rested back on my own green ones with a look of reproach. “All right, pay attention. You know our new substitute teacher? The one that just arrived a few days ago because Miss Simmons is sick?”
“She’s not human. She’s a demon, more specifically.”
A demon? I stared at him, my mouth hanging open.
Rowan hardly seemed to notice. “Demons are minions and nothing more. Her purpose in our little classroom must be to kill one of us. We’re the only two with scents strong enough that would attract other beings.” He seemed to look thoughtful for a moment.
“Wait,” I said while he paused, “we’re the only two with scents strong enough? Are you saying–”
“That girl you like. Alice, I believe it is.” Rowan turned his attention back on me, now with a slight smirk creeping across his face. “She’s an elf. That’s why you like her so much.”
“An elf?” I said stupidly.
“Elves give off an aura that makes those around them fond of them, or even love them if they so wish to take things to extremes.”
It was true. I did like Alice. But I’d never once noticed anything odd about her.
“Does she have pointy ears?” I demanded to know.
“Then how haven’t I noticed?”
Rowan rolled his eyes and looked back towards the alley entrance, where moonlight filtered down between heavy clouds. “Long hair.”
I opened my mouth to say something but decided to close it quickly. Rowan obviously knew more about this stuff than I did. I had a strong urge to take everything he said as nonsense, but something within me pulled and tugged, telling me that this was the solid, undeniable truth.
“Okay,” I said finally, “so what about this demon teacher? Why’s she after us?”
But Rowan hadn’t looked away from the alley entrance. “We’re sitting ducks here,” he muttered. “If she finds us now, we’re dead. Or at least, you would be.” He shot a distasteful glance in my direction and then started towards the disappearing moonlight.
“Hey! Wait up!” I tore after him, swinging in front of him just as he exited the alley. Moonlight fell upon his pale face, making him look eerily sick. But his chestnut eyes burned.
I folded my arms, glaring right back at him. This had to stop. There was no way I was going to go on this entire time just listening to a vampire tell me what to do. Why should I help him? Our sub hadn’t tried to kill us yet. Maybe he was wrong. Perhaps she wasn’t a demon at all? Perhaps he wasn’t even a vampire? Maybe he was just mentally ill and had happened to somehow see me use one of my powers. Even his teeth could be fake!
“Look buddy, there’s no way in–”
I was cut off as the wind was knocked out of me. Looking down, my mouth gaping like a fish out of water, I saw my feet leave the ground.
By the time I’d regained my breath, I was already high up in the air with Rowan now a mere speck beneath me. I couldn’t look straight up, but I could see steely claws gripping my arms tightly on both sides.
Whatever had hold of me soared through the air at a breakneck pace, causing me to feel like I was on one of those massive roller coasters; only this wasn’t over in a few seconds. We angled towards the top of a nearby building and I felt my body thrust in that direction as the thing flew.
We came closer and closer to the roof and I felt my heart leap into my throat as the thing slowed down a little, but not enough. It soared a few feet above the cement top and my eyes widened as I understood only too late.
The claws released me at once, and I scrunched up my body and covered my face the instant before smashing into the cement roof. As soon as I landed, my braced form popped open like a bag of potato chips and I rolled side over side for what seemed like forever until I came to a stop in a heap.
A loud BOOM could be heard as I lay still, eyes shut, trying to quell the spinning of the world. I felt the pain now. It was shooting up my side where I had initially landed and my right arm was entirely numb.
All I could think was that it would have been really nice to have had dragon wings in that situation.
“Merrrrrrek Marrrrrrrrtin,” a feminine voice hissed.
I recognized that voice. Only it hadn’t been that harsh in class. There was no way ...
I opened my eyes. The first thing I noticed was that it was beginning to rain. Thick droplets fell from above and splashed onto my forehead as I sat up groggily, the first crack of thunder sounding overhead.
I realized almost right away that we were on top of a building I knew. We were perched on the Franklin Center, one of the tallest buildings in Chicago. Glancing to the right, I could just make out the Chicago River through the sheets of rain that were now pounding the city.
A terrible screech broke my train of thought and I clapped both hands to my ears, wincing as I directed my attention towards the source of the noise.
My mouth fell open and the hairs on the back of my neck stood pin-straight. Goosebumps rippled along my arms and I began to shake, although not from the icy rain. My heart was the only thing still moving and it pounded against my chest so hard I thought I would burst.
Another crack of thunder and a brilliant flash of lightning outlined the deformed body of the monster that was my substitute teacher. It stood on two fowl-like feet, shiny claws gripping the cement roof as though worried it might be wrenched off and two massive, leathery wings were folded at its sides. A tattered indigo dress covered most of its body and thick, boisterous red hair flowed freely in the wind. Two human arms hung limply at its sides.
Its face was not unlike that of a hawk, with a long, crooked nose and a pointed complexion. The thing’s mouth was wide open in a snarl, tiny razor teeth visible in neat rows. Saliva dripped from its lower lip.
The eyes were the worst part; they were slitted and pure black, focused intently on me. Its lips peeled back in a wolf-like grin.
I was soaked now from head to toe, but I hardly noticed. All I could do was stare in awe at the demon, my brain constantly shouting at me, Run, run, RUN!
But I couldn’t run. There was nowhere to go. The roof was extremely plain, with nothing on it at all except a few long, steel antennas and a tiny structure at the far end with a door leading inside the building.
I had to get there. It was the only way out. The only problem was that my sub was perched on top of my escape route.
I gradually got to my feet, feeling my toes squish in my wet socks. I kept my eyes on the demon, who hadn’t moved its gaze from my own. It smiled wider as I took a quick glance at the door and then looked back.
I carefully began to edge my way closer to the structure. I swallowed as I got closer to the sub with every step, never taking my eyes off of it.
“Merrrrrrrek Marrrrrrrtin,” it repeated, its shrill voice permeating the air with a chill that even the weather couldn’t provide.
I didn’t respond. I just kept moving.
“I am herrrrrrre to kill you, Merrrrrrrrek. I know what you arrrrrrrre,” its voice was overflowing with pleasure. “My masterrrrr thought all of yourrrrrr kind was dead. So did we all.” Its head twitched slightly as it watched me, just like a bird’s.
I remembered what Rowan had said about demons being nothing more than minions. My teeth chattered as I took step after cautious step. I thought it best to keep it distracted. “I think you’re mistaken. I don’t know your master or anything you’re talking about. I’m just a teenager that goes to Lincoln High.” I was surprised at how confident my voice sounded.
The demon chuckled and grinned grotesquely, leaning its head forward in a disturbing fashion. Its tongue flitted in and out of its mouth as it spoke. “Wrrrrrrong, child. So wrrrrrong.” It shook its head violently. “My masterrrrr knows all. You cannot fool him. Or me. A norrrrrrmal child would have died when I drrrrropped you. Especially when the prrrrrrize is so rrrrrrarrrrre. Even I can smell it.”
I was only several feet away from the door now. And several feet from the demon. I could smell it from where I stood, the stench of rotting flesh made stronger by the sopping rain. Now close up, I could see that its dress was flecked with stains of blood.
I wanted so badly to cover my nose.
“It’s not verrrrry likely that we have missed any morrrrrrre of you,” it continued. “So tonight we finish it. Tonight ends the line of drrrrrrrrrrrrrrragons.”
With that, the demon leapt from its perch, spreading its wings and diving towards me. In that same moment, I lunged for the door.
Tearing my eyes from the demon, I sprinted the last few feet and felt my hand close around the metal handle. I tried desperately to yank it open, but the thing wouldn’t budge. Fear gripped my heart and I was about to pull again, as hard as I could, when a strong arm wrapped around my neck and wrenched me forcefully from the door.
“Trrrrrying to escape, hmmm?” the demon chittered from behind me, releasing its hold on my neck and pushing me not-so-playfully to the ground.
I gasped for breath and spluttered, the water having formed an inch deep puddle across the entire roof. I tried to push myself up but I shouldn’t have bothered, as the demon reached down with a slimy hand and pulled me to my feet in an impressive display of strength. It whirled me around and caught me by the neck again (I have no idea how it didn’t break), this time its hand lifting me off of the cement so that we could see eye to eye.
“A prrrrrretty prrrrize, you arrrrre. Still fairrrrrly young, I see.”
Foul breath heated my beaded face. I couldn’t respond.
“Shame that you must die. Therrrrre could be use for a drrrrrragon. But my masterrrrr has bid it and so it shall be.” The demon’s narrowed eyes continuously flicked up and down my body in an almost voyeuristic manner, its tongue trying in vain to collect the saliva dripping to the roof below.
I couldn’t breathe. My hands clutched at the demon’s slippery one as I tried to break free; I thrashed my legs in the open air but the creature’s body was out of reach. Lightheadedness began to seize me and I tried to focus on its horrid stench just to remain awake.
Was it going to eat me after it killed me? Probably. What master would have use for a dead body, even a dragon’s? Never in a million years would I have thought this was how I was going to die: on a rooftop at midnight, choked and devoured by my substitute teacher.
I glanced at my hands. I needed fire. I had to burn this thing before I blacked out.
I concentrated hard as I struggled to breathe, glaring at my hands in a mad attempt to light them aflame with my gaze. I could feel a small rush start in my chest and a tiny bit of relief filled me. It shot through my upper body and tore across my arms as my hands began to sputter and steam with tiny bits of flame.
But the triumph was short lived as the little fire I had created sputtered more and more until it finally winked out of existence.
The rain! I couldn’t keep the flames alive in the downpour, even without the added affect of being choked to death.
The demon let out a bloodcurdling howl of laughter that rang in my ears; I felt my goosebumps stiffen. That breath alone was going to knock me out soon.
The demon’s laughter changed pitch almost as soon as it began and it took me only a second to realize that it was now screaming. The sound was much worse than the first and I was sure that my poor earlobes were going to explode.
My sub dropped me to the ground and I landed with a solid thud, my body laying in at least three inches of swirling water. I rolled to my side and coughed horrendously, trying to suck in as much air as my lungs would let me. Water dripped off of my nose and I could see not only my sickening reflection in the mirky water, but also that of the demon.
And ... someone else.
I whirled around to see Rowan standing several feet away, facing the demon. His hands were extended, palms up, and for some reason it appeared as though he had claws instead of fingers. His dark hair was plastered to his head from the rain and beneath dripping strands his chestnut eyes were wild. He had his lips pulled back on his narrow face, revealing his two razor sharp teeth that looked much longer than when I had seen them before. He was grinning in some sort of twisted excitement.
That was the first time I’d seen Rowan smile. And how I wished I’d never see it again.
The demon was clutching at its side and snarling at him, slitted eyes promising death. It slowly straightened and let loose a screech. I wondered if anyone could hear us on the streets below.
“Vampirrrrrrrrre,” the thing spat.
“Demon,” Rowan sneered.
The monster didn’t hesitate, lunging forward and reaching out, its wings bursting to life in the moist air. Its tongue seemed to grow even longer as it descended upon Rowan.
“Look out!” I called lamely from my spot on the ground. I didn’t know what else to do. How else was I supposed to help Rowan? I could barely move; I was frozen to the core from water and pain. My throat itched and my side still throbbed, but at least feeling was creeping back into my arm.
Rowan didn’t need my help, however, and became a blur of motion as soon as the demon got within five feet of him. He ducked its outstretched arms and slid underneath of its body, launching himself straight up and into the gut of the creature.
It shrieked in surprise and flailed its arms, the wings now still from shock.
Rowan hung on to its waist as they began to fall back to the earth. Then he let loose a blood curdling roar and drew back his fist, clawed fingers glinting in a flash of lightning.
My eyes widened at about the same time his did; we both knew what he was going to do.
I heard the sub howl agitatedly for half a second until the noise morphed into the most awful scream I’d ever heard as Rowan plunged his fist directly into the thing’s chest before rapidly tearing it back out.
The two plunged to the cement, looking like Holmes and Moriarty. Rowan just managed to shift positions so that when they’d hit the roof, he’d land on top.
Another crash of thunder ripped across the sky at the same time the two landed in a crippled heap. Neither was moving.
I swallowed and shakily got to my feet again, making my way over to where they lay. I almost got sick when I reached them, looking at the demon.
Its face was trapped in a tortured picture of agony, its fists curled into tight little balls. Its tongue hung out of its mouth and fresh saliva was still oozing down its lips. Blood seeped out of its chest and mixed with the rain water, sloshing around the body like Moses’ red sea. The light had left its merciless eyes.
Rowan was laying on top of its body, still shaken up from the fall, or so I thought. He had both of his arms hidden in front of him and his back was facing me. His soaked overcoat drooped around him.
“Rowan?” I managed to whisper. “You okay?”
He stirred and for a second I thought he was crying. Then I realized that he was ... laughing?
He turned to face me, his eyes still wide, but more controlled now as he smiled that disturbing smile of his. “I got it.”
“Yeah, I can see that–”
“No, I mean I really got it. This demon won’t be bothering us again.”
He removed himself from the creature and turned to face me, his entire front thick with blood. He raised his crimson fist, the one he had shoved into the sub’s heart, and opened it.
The resistance to not throw up took a lot more effort this time. I gagged silently and wrinkled my nose, deciding to instead breathe out of my mouth. It didn’t help that much.
“That’s its heart,” I croaked.
“Yes indeed.” Rowan looked down at the pulsating object and chuckled a few times.
His laugh wasn’t pleasing to say the least.
“Why? Was that really ... necessary?” I said.
“Completely.” He looked at me now, the smile vanishing and his former expression returning to his face; the viciousness that had been in his eyes receding. “The only way to make sure demons cannot be resurrected is by removing their hearts. Then they dissolve. Into the ground. Look.” He gestured.
I did. The demon was starting to vanish, just like he said. Its body was starting to bubble and pop as it melted into the water. Soon it would be nothing but a pool of blood and a horrible memory.
“That was crazy,” I said, turning my gaze back on Rowan.
“What’s crazy is that you couldn’t even defend yourself. I had to do everything. You’re lucky I caught it by surprise. I suppose in that way you helped, though it clearly wasn’t intentional.” He frowned. “When I saved you from being choked to death, I bit the monster in its side and released a poison that slowed it down and weakened its entire body.”
“Wait,” I said, “you can release poison from those things?” I pointed at his fangs, which had once again reduced in size so that they were hidden within his mouth.
He raised an eyebrow. “Yes. But apparently you cannot summon fire due to a bit of rain.”
“I tried! It wasn’t easy, I could barely breathe! Why don’t you try it, huh?” I was getting annoyed.
Rowan raised a hand to bring me to silence. “Evidently you don’t understand nearly enough about yourself yet. But since I’ve made the grave mistake of bringing this world, our world, to light, then I suppose I’ll have to aid you in that process.”
I blinked. He was going to tell me things? Finally, I was going to get some answers! I couldn’t wait to begin! I had so many questions to ask. And not just about me, but about him.
But Rowan turned and began briskly towards the door he had entered through. I followed after him hastily and caught up, our steps in sync.
“So, what now? How many other demons are there? Where’s this thing’s master? Have there ever been lots of other dragons? Are there other vampires? Do you have a family? What are your powers exactly? I didn’t know vampires could poison,” I spurted out everything in a slew of words.
Rowan didn’t look at me and instead opened the door, ushering me inside. “You’re a lot like the others were, I can already ascertain that much. Rash, foolhardy, curious and strong. But if you’re not careful, you’ll burn everything in your path. That’s why, though I highly dislike the idea, you need me by your side for now.” He finally set those powerful chestnut eyes on me again. “You need someone to stoke you, yet keep you under wraps until you learn. Just like fire.”
I felt my fists tighten, not in defiance, but in a strange new determination. “Then I guess it makes sense that it’s you. ‘Cause nothing tempts the heat of fire like extreme cold. Ice.”
Rowan’s eyes narrowed for a moment and then he turned away again, but this time I swore that he wasn’t just looking away; he was doing it to a hide a smile that threatened to trespass onto his face.