The body is propped up on the usual slab, having been cut from collarbone to groin, which is also routine, though the novelty lies in the fact that Will’s three favorite colleagues are all jostling each other in their eagerness to get the best vantage point on the body, poking interestedly at the tight-knit network of bone encasing the heart.
As a consequence of striking the dying blow, a few skeletal shards have embedded themselves into the still-glistening cardiac tissue, and there is a faint gouge that opens to a deep-pink slash further down the abdomen, though the Sunday crew had apparently ruled it out as the cause of death. Free histamine levels showed that the abdominal cut was made while the victim was still alive.
Will, sadly an old hand at looking at the internal organs of another one of his kind, notices the cadaver’s insides are the same scaly-green as most newly-matured drakes.
“Ribs extend further down into the abdominal region than in humans, bone density is off the charts, too!” Price smiles.
“No liver,” Zeller frowns, attempting to use a spreader to fully access the abdominal cavity and heart, though he’s having a time of it, needing Beverly’s help to get leverage on the portion they’ve managed to saw through as both of them strain against the strength of the drake’s skeleton.
“Report said there was ‘what appeared to be a dragon’s talon’ harvested from the heart.”
“The weekend team drilled some samples from the talon and ran them through spectroscopy to check—they were kind of weirded out that they couldn’t identify the murder weapon by sight. Results came back as obsidian-but-not?”
“Volcanic mineral,” Beverly clarifies, to Price’s hum of, “Well, you don’t get that much around here.”
“Come on, dude. Game of Thrones ?” Zeller asks.
Price makes a face. “Um, no…Never watched it.”
“Obsidian is a close chemical match, but there’s a hard mineral coating over a dragon’s talon that makes it more resistant than the usual substance to wear and fracture,” Will clarifies.
“Like diamond-top-coat nail polish for giant, fire-breathing reptiles?” Price asks, completely deadpan, and both Bev and Zeller choke down their instinctive snorts.
“Ancient peoples worshiped the first dragons as fire gods,” Will says with a grimace at the joke, hoping to steer them back on track. “And it’s not exactly a stretch.”
“So, what, you’re saying a dragon killed this guy?” Zeller says. “I thought both dragon and drake talons were made of that volcanic glass stuff.”
Will sighs. “Didn’t they teach you the difference in school?”
Three pairs of quizzical human eyes stare back at him. Beverly shrugs.
Taking a deep breath, Will starts out on the abbreviated version of things. Well, as abbreviated as a millennium of history can be.
“Okay. As you know, I’m a drake. We can shift into our more recognizably draconian forms—snout, talons, horns, tail, the whole nine—at will, just like dragons. But we’re softer. More vulnerable. Best guess says our talons are made of something more like human keratin than ‘diamond-coated’ obsidian, so there’s little-to-zero chance the talon the weekend team plucked out of his heart belonged to another drake.”
“Wait, I’m remembering a little bit of the Education Concerning Magical Creatures spiel from middle school,” Zeller cuts in. “They’re physically more vulnerable, but drakes have a genetic advantage over dragons. They can mate with other drakes and humans, too. Kind of like a Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon hybrid, right?”
“Right,” Will says. “There was a disease bottleneck that wiped out most dragons a few thousand years ago. The only ones that survived were purebloods who couldn’t hybridize, which is why dragons are so rare today.”
“Yeah, we meet a lot of people in this line of work, but Hannibal’s the only dragon I know,” Bev says. “And it explains why the FBI isn’t exactly awash in dragon applicants, even though it’s my personal opinion they’d be pretty kickass at the job. I mean, breathing fire and razor-sharp talons? Wouldn’t want to be on the other end of it if a dragon was breaking down my door.”
“Speaking of Hannibal, where is he?” Will asks, irritation starting to gather at the back of his skull. “I understand that Jack can’t teleport himself back from his Hawaiian anniversary vacation to deal with a dragon-related murder, but Hannibal’s supposed to be the designated consultant on things like this.”
Price coughs. “Um, you’re the other expert, but we didn’t want to assume he was just trying to give us the brush-off. He said that he was in rut, whatever that means, and that he would be, quote, ‘bad company’.”
Will’s brow furrows. Hannibal must have a mate that none of them know about. The only thing that can send a pureblood dragon into rut is another receptive dragon nearby.
“Fire and brimstone type of bad company, or like male hormonal cycle type of bad company?” Zeller asks, and Will scoffs, “Let’s just say he probably would’ve taken one look at the bodies you’ve got in the freezer and thought you were running a popsicle stand.”
“So, the whole thing about eating human flesh isn’t just a myth,” Bev shivers.
“Sorry to burst your bubble,” Will says wryly. “Uh, I don’t have much to give you, other than the observation that your victim presents in humanoid form as male, but someone clearly cut an egg sack out of his abdomen, so he was pregnant pre-mortem.”
Gesturing to the small wounds in the striated muscle of the lower abdominal wall, he points out where some sharp instrument was used to saw through and detach an incubation membrane.
“Wait, what,” Price sputters.
“Drakes and dragons can have something similar to uterus in the human sense of the organ. A thin, durable placental-like membrane is used to incubate eggs while they gestate inside of the body.
“Although it may seem odd to humans, dragons and drakes don’t have a fixed primary sex until they mate, though their secondary sexual characteristics may have the appearance of human males or females.
“Most of the remaining dragon-authored literature says that biology and coincidence decide what reproductive course an individual will take. The pheromone interaction between two potential mates determines who donates sperm and egg, and best guess says that it’s completely random, which means that a drake or even a dragon that appears male at first glance might be able to carry children. Same with those who have a female-like appearance; they may be able to father offspring.”
“So, is this guy—person, person —a dragon or a drake?” Price asks.
“Drakes with a high percentage of human genes tend to remain in humanoid form, even after death. Coupled with the fact his internal scale pattern marks him as a young adult, I’d say drake. My advice to you is look for a significant other. Could be human with a taste for black market dragon paraphernalia, could be drake, but some legends about draconian creatures are true, at least.
“Drakes like to collect pretty things, and the killer might’ve gotten jealous enough to murder this one because they thought he was going to just move onto the next shiny object he could get his talons in.”
“That’s really sad,” Price sighs. “If you’re right, that’s the fourth ‘jealous asshole’ this week.”
Will nods silently in agreement and strips off his gloves into the waste bucket, Beverly trailing behind him and shooting her own balled gloves into the trash.
“Hey, if you wanna go check on Hannibal, tell him that we hope he gets better. Or that his rut goes okay. Or—Is that something dragons say? ‘Hope your rut goes well’.”
If he’s really in rut, he’ll probably send an e-mail when he’s cogent enough to type that our session is canceled this week.
I have no reason to go to see him; it’s better for everyone if I don’t randomly show up and challenge the claim to his mate.
“Sure,” Will says instead, a pinched smile on his face that fades as soon as he makes it to the exit.
Buster is frantically yapping and pawing at the front door, and Will shoots up in bed at the loud thump he hears outside.
“Oh God, don’t be what I think it is,” he mutters to himself, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Glancing over at the clock—two am, why—he debates on whether to grab the shotgun off the wall and decides in the negative. If this is what he thinks it is, the gun wouldn’t make much of an impact.
Yanking open the door with a long-suffering sigh, he groans in annoyance at the unexpected visitor.
Damn, it’s a curse to be right all the time.
“Get out of here,” he hisses, Hannibal’s red, reptilian eyes blinking lazily as smoke pours from his nostrils, his giant, black-scaled body looming over the entire front drive. Baring his teeth, he pushes Will’s car out of his way with a leathery knuckle, giving himself more room to sit down.
Spreading his wings to their full span and blocking out most of the sky while he does so, Hannibal snorts out a ball of flame that singes the tips of Will’s hair as he scowls back, unimpressed.
“Git!” he whispers again, gesturing for Hannibal to take flight again, to a chorus of barking dogs from the house. “I’m not having another dragon or dragoness following your scent down here and cooking me alive for talking to you.”
“Dragoness,” Hannibal scoffs, long red tongue licking his chops. “No. You.”
“‘No, me’ what,” Will says. As a chronic insomniac who gets little to no sleep every night, he’s too tired to argue with his only close friend in dragon form at two in the morning.
“No dragoness. You,” Hannibal grins, and reaches out a huge, clawed foot to snatch Will up like one of those virgin sacrifices in the old lore.
“Hey, asshole, I told you to go,” Will hisses, standing his ground and feeling his own skin and bones shift as he rearranges himself into his drake form, pupils narrowing to slits and talons sprouting from his nailbeds. As soon as his wings unfurl, he launches himself off the porch and due east, wondering how long he’ll be able to keep this up if Hannibal insists on chasing him.
He’s smaller and more agile than a big, lumbering dragon, but Hannibal is apparently determined to catch him, sluicing through the air effortlessly despite his size, and Will is stopped short for a moment at the sudden pain in his belly, a slick warmth spreading down from his sternum to the tips of his feet.
Pheromones. Random. Carry offspring.
The warmth intensifying, he feels himself jolt, mid-air, at the slow drip of liquid from between his thighs.
Mouth dry, he remembers the words he’d said in the basement not twenty-four hours ago at Quantico. The details are now jumbled in his mind, but he knows the gist of what’s happening to him, even if he doesn’t know why.
Hannibal is a pureblood, he tries to think, over the blinding whistle of wind in his ears. He’s a dragon, I’m a drake, I can’t—.
Not seeming to care if their species are technically incompatible to fertile mating attempts, Will’s body lurches in the air, his wings becoming heavy, body plummeting to the ground as Hannibal’s frustrated roar fills the sky and he dives down after in pursuit.
Expecting to hit the ground at a speed and angle that would be able to shatter even his solid bones, Will finds himself landing with an earth-shaking noise and a deep impact into the soil—in the forest, they’re in the middle of nowhere, okay, okay—a superficial ache in each of his limbs and running along his spine, though it’s practically nothing compared to the lasting damage he’d expected from a fall from such a height.
The remaining warmth in his belly is something else to be examined…well, never, if he can help it.
Eyelids with their nictitating membranes fluttering open, he finds himself on his back, long, spiked tail trailing below him as always, though his talons and scales have an unusually glossy sheen in the bright moonlight. He’s grown bigger, too, he realizes, stumbling a bit on his now-longer limbs, towering over the young trees that now reach only to his shoulders.
Obsidian claws. Diamond-coated scales. Big .
He wasn’t a drake anymore.
He was a dragon.
Succumbing—just for a moment, he tells himself—to panic, Will lets out a little squeak, followed by a tiny puff of flame that disappears almost as quickly as it’s formed.