Vlad drove me to a spot just off 360 where he owned some land. A creek that flowed into Lake Austin had cut a steep valley along one edge of a beautiful shady green field, leaving a long drop-off. It was the sort of place that rock climbers loved.
“You say you are physically past your first century now, perhaps even by a few decades?” Vlad asked.
“That weird device Domina Death used on me stole as much as 60 years from regular humans before they died. It stole so much time from me that it blew a gasket. So, I’d guess my body is somewhere between 120 and 160 years old now.”
“Then you need to learn how to fly.”
I barked a surprised laugh. “Vlad, I can barely walk.”
“Dealing with your changed center of balance is something you will master only with practice. Just keep moving, and it will get easier over time. I will teach you some of the defensive arts of my childhood. That will make you both better prepared to defend yourself, and help you work through the awkwardness of your sudden … growth spurt.” He showed me wooden practice swords he had stashed in a duffel bag.
“Um, Vlad, I know you’re trying to help, but I don’t run into many sword-wielding bad guys in this century.”
Vlad frowned. “Only one. And he remains the most likely person on this continent to take your head, my love.”
“White Knight saved my life a few weeks ago,” I pointed out.
“When that Georgian learns that you are a dragon, he will undoubtedly regret that action.”
“I already regret saving HIS life, the jerk.”
“Your change will make hiding what you are more difficult, and the Georgian will soon become a deadly threat. I intend to make certain that you can defend yourself when that happens. Or, at least, fly away.”
He took me to the edge of the cliff and the shallow creek looked really small down there.
“Flying has many hazards and pitfalls that my father taught me to avoid,” Vlad told me. “Young dragons without that instruction often do not survive.”
“I’m pretty durable with all these scales.” Although I wasn’t sure it would be enough to keep me from dying at the bottom of this cliff.
“Scales will not protect you when a thunderhead sucks you up at incredible speeds to a height where the air is too thin to breathe and ice forms on your wings so that you fall like a stone. Never, under any circumstances fly near the edge of a storm system.”
I swallowed. “Good safety tip. I’ll remember that.” I had spent much of my childhood imagining how much fun it might be to fly in a thunderstorm. That would have been an ugly lesson without Vlad’s knowledge. “So, what else do I need to know, Yoda?”
“Well, young padawan. Fly without wings, you cannot, hmm.” Vlad did a pretty passable impression.
That surprised a laugh out of me. “You’re always so Mister Old World. I didn’t expect you to catch a sci fi movie reference.”
Vlad shrugged. “I prefer the original trilogy, despite the inferior effects. And you, my love, are stalling. Unfurl your wings.”
I stripped off the gloves and started unbuttoning my shirt, very conscious of Vlad’s eyes on me. He didn’t smile, but that dimple in his cheek gave away that he was tempted to. My cheeks got really hot.
I coughed and turned my back to him. I’m not sure what made me more nervous, being all alone with Vlad, half naked on a beautiful starry night, or the cliff he expected me to jump off of.
I set my shirt aside, back still to Vlad, and spread my wings.
Vlad gasped behind me.
Without thinking, I turned around, “What?”
My wing hit Vlad and knocked him off the cliff.
His eyes got really big and he yelped as he went over.
I dove for him, trying to grab his hand, but overbalanced, and in a sort of horrifying slow motion that was nonetheless too fast for me to a damn thing about, I fell off the cliff.
Vlad’s wings extended shredding his nice button down business shirt into rags and his body shifted in the same moment, larger, stronger, and scalier. His expensive Italian shoes didn’t survive the transformation, but he swooped out of my field of vision and I knew he would be fine.
I spread my wings and shifted my weight like I normally would to glide, but it didn’t work right. I overbalanced forward and tumbled in the air. I did about the only thing left to do. I screamed bloody murder as the rocks of the creek bed raced up to meet me.
Powerful clawed black feet grabbed my shoulders and pulled my body up to parallel within a few feet of smashing into unyielding ground. My wings caught the air finally and I lifted my head and angled the back of my wings down, converting the speed of my fall into horizontal speed along the ground, and finally into a bit of lift. I got high enough to skim the top of the trees that lined the mouth of the creek, rather than crashing into them. And the next thing I knew I was gliding over open water. The lake reflected back the light of the moon like a million tiny mirrors. The air rushing under my wings felt like the embrace of an old friend.
Vlad’s grip on my shoulders loosened and finally vanished as I learned how to keep my new body stable in the air.
“Flap,” Vlad shouted. “It’s like swimming. Grab big bites of the air and push them down.”
I gave it a shot, flapping wings that felt like they were weighted with boulders on the ends. And to my utter surprise, it worked. I gained perhaps ten feet of altitude. I did it again and again, and each time I shot upward a bit more. My arms felt like lead, but I didn’t stop. It was unbelievably exhausting, but it was also glorious.
Tears blurred the sparkles on the lake into long rayed stars.
I wasn’t just gliding. I was flying.
When I simply could not flap my wings another time, I spread them wide and glided, panting and sobbing.
Vlad soared next to me, wingtips almost touching mine.
“I did it. I’m doing it. I’m flying!”
Vlad’s bright white teeth and long fangs flashed against his black scaly face as he laughed, sharing one of the most joyous moments of my life with me. He didn’t just share it. He made it possible.
I looked at the magnificent black dragon flying beside me and my heart swelled until it felt like my chest might burst. I realized I’d lied to Vlad when I told him I didn’t love him.
I wobbled in the air as that realization hit me. I lost altitude. I tried to correct, but my wing muscles trembled with exhaustion. I tilted in the air and fell like a stone.
I didn’t scream this time. I wasn’t afraid. I knew, even as I plummeted into the water, that my dark protector would keep me safe.
The black water closed over my head and I sank. I tried to swim a little, I kicked against the water, but my huge wings hampered me. I pulled them in and folded them tight against my body, making me more streamlined, and kicked harder.
I stopped sinking, but was just too tired to get back to the sparkling surface above me.
The surface shattered as a black missile pierced it, and flew, that’s the only word I have for it, through the water to me. Vlad moved through the water with the grace of a manta ray I’d seen on the Discovery channel.
I wrapped my arms around his neck and clung to him as he brought us back to the surface.
He held my shaking body close as I gasped for air, and helped me back to shore.
Vlad drove me home, clearly deciding I’d learned enough for one night. I’m not sure we said a single word on the way back, but I held his hand, and tears ran down my face most of the way home.
My world is different now. Changed in a single night.
And I have no idea what I’m going to do about it.