The scenic view was deserted in the middle of the week, and since Ruby had been suspended from Fire Creek Junior High two days ago, she’d hitch a ride to her favorite spot to gaze at the canyon, and to be alone. She looked down from her perch at the railing; the sun glittered off the river winding its way through the gorge below, causing it to shine like a snake covered in diamonds.
Snake woman. Lizard girl. Dragon lady. The girls’ snickers and cruel words echoed in her head. They had been laughing, of course, at the scales. Ruby tried very hard to hide the rough, reddish-brown upraised flaps of skin that covered the backs of her arms, legs, stomach and back. She wrapped herself up in long sleeves and pants, even in the hot summers. No doctor had ever been able to diagnose or cure the scales, and she could never hide them for long, especially in the girls’ locker room.
It had been Ava who started the teasing. She and her friends had circled around Ruby, calling her names. It started after Mark had talked to Ruby at lunch earlier that day, smiling shyly and asking her if she might want to go to a movie sometime. Everyone knew that Ava liked Mark.
“Do you think Mark will want to go out with a snake like you?” Ava had curled her lip in disgust.
“I told him no,” Ruby had replied, holding her books against her chest like feeble armor. Her heart had fluttered with excitement when Mark approached her. Despite the secret scales, her long red hair and green eyes made her the kind of girl that boys approached. She wished she was the kind of girl that could have said yes to Mark’s invitation. But Ava was right. He would have seen the scales, eventually, and recoiled in horror. It was better to have him long for her, than to have him be repulsed by her.
Ava had leaned in close. “You stay away from him, got it, bitch?”
Ruby would have told her she wouldn’t have to worry, but it was then she noticed the necklace that hung from Ava’s neck. A long silver chain held a large blue jewel. A sapphire? It was probably just a cheap bauble, but it didn’t matter. The fluorescent lights of the hallway danced in its faceted depths. She wanted it.
No. She had to have it.
Before she knew what she was doing, Ruby had reached out toward the necklace. Ava stepped back in revulsion. “Don’t touch me, snake!”
Ruby’s rage arose, not by Ava’s words, but by being prevented from taking the necklace. She didn’t really know what happened or how. Only images and sensations flashed through her memory: simmering anger, a deep breath, immense heat shimmering before her, screaming throughout the hallway. The sickening smell of scorched flesh hung in the air. Ava lay on the floor with her face and neck nearly burned beyond recognition. The blue jewel had indeed been plastic, as it had melted into her ruined skin.
A sliver of guilt pierced her consciousness; she hadn’t wanted to hurt Ava. But she regretted more that she hadn’t gotten the jewel from her. She liked shiny, pretty things. She couldn’t help it. It was a compulsion, as her foster parents had come to know with the multiple shoplifting charges. They had been ready to send her to teenage boot camp, but this latest incident had gone way beyond petty theft. The police had been at her house for a long time, asking a lot of questions. Ruby could tell them nothing about what actually happened. The investigation was ongoing, and in the meantime she had been suspended from school. So she came up here, to look out over the canyon, and wish that she could dive into the river below, as if into a pile of diamonds.
A car pulled up and screeched to a halt. Matt, her foster father, glowered over the wheel of his precious restored Camaro.
“Ruby, get your ass in the car now!”
She reluctantly obeyed, sliding into the leather seat next to him. “What’s going on?”
“There’s some one at the house that wants to talk to you.”
“The police again?”
“No, not the police.” He took a Marlboro out of the box that was rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve.
He lit the cigarette, and took a drag. “Come and see,” he said, and his words were wisps of smoke drifting in the hazy afternoon light.
His name was Uriah Jones, and he was with the Draco School for the Gifted. He extended his card to Ruby, and she took it from his hands warily as he stood smiling before her. She didn’t even glance at the card; she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was tall, with caramel-colored skin that was nearly golden, and eyes as blue as Ava’s jewel.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ruby,” he said in his deep, rumbly voice. “I’ve already spoken to your parents about possibly recruiting you to Draco School. Your grades have been exceptional everywhere you’ve attended, and I think you might fit in nicely with us.”
“But I’m in trouble,” Ruby began, glancing at her foster parents. Matt stood near the television with is bulky arms crossed; Nadine sat perched on the edge of the recliner, mashing out her cigarette into a red plastic ashtray on the end table.
“Now you listen to what this man has to say, Ruby,” she said, immediately reaching for another cigarette from its box on the table.
“I’ve reassured your parents that I can smooth things over with the authorities,” Uriah Jones said. He turned to Matt and Nadine. “May I speak to Ruby alone?”
“Of course, of course,” Nadine gestured with a wave of her lacquered fingernails. “Ruby, why don’t you show Mr. Jones your room?”
Ruby thought it strange to show a grown man her room, but only nodded and led him down the hallway. She sat on the folding chair near the card table that served as a desk, while he sat down on the edge of her austere bed. She waited for him to speak, but he only looked at her thoughtfully for several minutes. She fidgeted, looking around at the bare walls of the room.
“How old are you, Ruby?” he finally asked.
“And are you happy here?”
She shrugged. “I guess.”
Another long silence ensued. Then he said, “Do you know what you are?”
She tore her eyes away from his luminous blue ones, and thought, I’m a thief, and I hurt people and I don’t even care, I’m the smartest person in my school, and I don’t care, all I care about is pretty shiny things, and I have ugly scales like a reptile.
Her eyes filled with tears. “I’m a monster,” she whispered.
She thought he’d either agree, or try to sooth her. What he said was, “We’ve been called monsters for a very long time.”
She looked up. “We?”
Without a word, he rolled up the cuff of his dress shirt. Scales crawled up his arm, just like hers. They shone faintly in the light of her room, golden brown ovals moving with and against each other as he flexed his arm to show her. She met his jewel-like eyes with awe, and knew she was with a kindred spirit.
“What are we?”
He rolled his sleeve back down as he answered. “There aren’t many of us left. We’ve evolved over time to take on the human form, but it’s not our true form. We can be dangerous if pushed, as that girl at your school found out to her misfortune. But mostly, we like things that shine and glitter, and collect them. We’re not complete without our hoard. I can smell yours now, right in this room.”
Ruby’s scales rippled in alarm. She kept her hoard of treasures in a box in the corner of her closet, covered with old blankets and clothes. It held all the pretty, shiny things she had either found or stolen over the years: new coins or keys, jewelry, baubles, polished stones, geodes, cheap trinkets, even some Christmas tinsel. No one knew about her hoard, and a sudden panic surged through her. She was ready to do what she did to Ava to protect it.
Amusement gleamed in the man’s eyes. “I’m not here to steal your hoard, Ruby. Where I’m proposing to take you, there are treasures beyond imagining.”
She relaxed a little, but her scales still prickled with alertness. “What if the police arrest me? Can I still go to your school?” She wanted to go. Not so much for the education (though even the slightest intellectual challenge would be nice), but to be among her own kind.
Uriah laughed his deep laugh. “There is no school, foolish girl. And you have more to worry about than the police. The article in your local paper about the burned girl likely didn’t just alert me to your presence here. It also surely alerted a Hunter.”
“What’s a Hunter?”
“Exactly what such a word implies. Humans have hunted down and slain our kind for millennia.”
He sighed, and looked out the window of her room, as if an answer existed somewhere beyond the glass. “Because we are different. To prove their own bravery to themselves. Because we are no dumb animal, and challenge them. In the end, I think they like to collect their own pretty things. To them, we are the treasure.”
“What do I do?” For the first time, fear invaded her mind.
“You come with me, of course.”
She hesitated. “Can I take my hoard?”
Uriah Jones’ deep laughter surely filtered down to the living room, alerting Ruby’s parents that their troublesome foster child would soon be off of their hands.
Ruby packed some clothes and some personal items into her backpack. She emptied her box of treasure into a plastic shopping bag, and shoved it down into the bottom of the pack. The farewell with her foster parents was brief; Nadine gave her a quick hug, and Matt advised her to listen to Mr. Jones and to do what he says.
“We’ll miss you,” Nadine said, attempting a sad smile, but Ruby knew the only thing she’d miss was her monthly stipend.
They wound their way through the dusty hills, Ruby pestering Uriah with questions. Where were they going? How many of their kind were there? What kind of treasure did they have? What had happened when she burned Ava? What had he meant by their “true form”?
He answered her questions patiently: There’s a place not far from here where they’ll be safe. They were an endangered species; they tended to be solitary creatures, but since there were so few of them, they often banded together and protected each other. Their hoard consisted of the treasures of the ages, like nothing she’d ever seen before: piles of gold and silver, mountains of jewels. The burning of her schoolmate had been an accident, but she will learn to control her fire, especially after she makes her first transformation.
“Into your true form,” he said. He opened his mouth to continue, but stopped and slowed the car. A black Mustang blocked the middle of the road. Uriah braked the same time a woman stepped out of the Mustang, holding some thing in her hands. Tall, muscular, with short dark hair, she was dressed all in black: tank top, leggings, knee-high leather boots. Over all she wore a cloak that glinted in the late afternoon sun. Ruby stared at the cloak, mesmerized.
“Hunter!” Uriah cried as she raised a crossbow, notched a bolt and aimed straight at them. “Get down, Ruby!” He pushed her down behind the dashboard and ducked as the windshield shattered with the impact of the bolt. Ruby lifted her head, and shook pieces of glass out of her hair. The woman took a few steps toward them and calmly notched another bolt, her face a mask of determination.
“Stay down,” Uriah told her. Still hunched behind the dashboard, he opened the driver side door and eased out to crouch behind it. The Hunter let loose her bolt, and it splintered the door’s window. In the moment she lowered her crossbow to retrieve another bolt, Uriah stood and quickly took a deep breath, so deep his chest puffed out with it. The Hunter, seeing this, dropped to her knees on the pavement and swirled the cloak around her, just as Uriah blew out a massive jet of flame from his mouth. The fire seemed to go on forever, and completely engulfed the Hunter. When at last it sputtered out, Uriah fell back into the car, panting.
To Ruby’s amazement, the Hunter threw back the cloak and stood, unharmed. She bent to pick up the crossbow and continue her attack. In that moment Uriah threw the car into drive and sped toward her, then lurched around the parked Mustang. As Ruby looked back, the Hunter jumped into it to pursue them.
They careened through the curving roads as hot wind blasted them through the broken windshield.
“How did she live through that?” Ruby asked, as Uriah feverishly drove them higher into the hills.
“Dragon scales,” he replied, his eyes darting to the rear view mirror. “They turn their kills into cloaks, to protect themselves from the fire. Lucky for us, their honor code demands that they use the ancient weapons. Cross bows are clumsy and slow.”
“Why didn’t you use the fire on her again?”
He shook his head. “It takes time to rekindle in this form.”
There was little traffic on the road, but after turning a sharp corner at speed, they nearly ran into a white pickup truck coming in the opposite direction. The driver honked his horn and yelled out the window, but that was only the beginning of his trouble. As the pickup took the corner, the Mustang roared right toward him, and they both veered away from each other into the sides of the road. The Mustang sideswiped a sign post, and then spun around into a gully to face the other way; black smoke curled out from beneath the hood. Ruby couldn’t see what happened to the pickup as it swerved around the corner.
Uriah pressed the gas pedal to the floor of the car, and soon they approached Ruby’s favorite scenic view at the top of the hill. She though he’d drive right past it, but he turned into the parking lot and squealed to a halt.
“We only have a few minutes,” he said. Ruby followed him out of the car, and he pulled her toward the railing. The sun was setting in the distance; the bottom of its orb just touched the tops of the hills that formed the canyon. The walls of the gorge blazed red, and the river ran black below, dappled by the sun as if lit by stars. On the ledge, their shadows slanted long behind them.
Uriah faced her and held her eyes with his. His skin glowed golden in the sun. “Do you trust me, Ruby?”
“Yes.” Ever since they’d encountered the Mustang in the road, she’d been terrified, but trusted Uriah to protect her. Now, as he asked her this at the lip of the canyon, a new terror gripped her, though she couldn’t understand it completely.
“Be what you are meant to be,” he said. He climbed onto the railing, and swung his long legs around to the other side. He smiled at her, and then dove over the edge, his arms out in front of him as if he were a swimmer diving into a pool.
“No!” Ruby looked frantically over the edge. His small form dropped towards the bottom, but the rive was a good hundred feet to the left, and he would only smash against the rocks below.
She turned as a vehicle approached. The white pickup truck crested the hill and rattled into the parking lot, but its original driver was not at the wheel. It was the Hunter.
The pickup barely stopped before she opened the door, her crossbow already in hand. Ruby quickly climbed up on the railing. As she swung her legs around and perched there, a sudden wind gusted up from below, blowing her hair into her face. A huge shadow blurred up and past her, and when she pushed her hair from her eyes, a golden dragon with black wings rose up into the air before her. Its huge blue eyes swiveled to look at her.
Its scales gleamed in the sun. She sat paralyzed with its beauty, until Uriah’s voice spoke in side her head: Hurry. She looked back at the Hunter, who had also paused to take in the majestic form of the dragon, but had recovered herself and was notching a bolt to the crossbow. She raised it and aimed it at Ruby.
Ruby had no time. She dove off the edge, slicing through the air as the rocky bottom rushed up at her. She nearly screamed, but Uriah’s voice spoke again: Believe. Another voice clawed its way up through her fear and said, Dragon lady. But it wasn’t Ava’s voice, taunting her. It was her own, strong and clear.
She spread her arms wide out of instinct, and as she did so, the skin on her shoulder blades pricked and then painfully burst open as wings unfurled behind her, ripping her clothes. Her neck and limbs elongated, and claws erupted from the ends of her digits. her face stretched into a snout, and sharp teeth clicked inside her mouth. A long, sinuous tail sprouted behind her. Her scales tingled and rippled as they spread across her enlarged body. They shone bright red, like new blood. A growing heat flared inside her; she was a furnace burning with fire.
She pumped her black wings and floated upward toward the golden dragon, who circled above her, waiting. The Hunter was now at the railing, aiming her crossbow at Uriah. The bolt flew at him, but fell harmlessly off the armor of his scales. Ruby instinctively knew that there was a vulnerable spot, just where the neck met the body. The Hunter had missed it, but anger filled her nevertheless. She inhaled air into the furnace like a bellows, fanning the embers into flames.
She breathed out, releasing the inferno behind her. The Hunter, distracted by her attack on Uriah, wasn’t quick enough. Her eyes widened as she reached for the cloak, but the fire engulfed her, and this time, when the flames died, all that was left was smoking ash. It blew away in the wind, leaving the dragon cloak behind. Uriah flapped to the railing and plucked the cloak from the ground with precise claws, and then flew off over the gorge.
Come, he thought in her head, there are caverns below. She followed as he flew down toward the river. Ruby exulted as she dove through the diamond-like surface, forgetting about her tiny hoard back in the car. Where she was going, deeper and deeper through the water, into the earth below, the shiniest, prettiest things waited.