Mickey Reichert: The lost Dragons of Barakhai

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Mickey Reichert The lost Dragons of Barakhai
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    The lost Dragons of Barakhai
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Mickey Zucker Reichert

The lost Dragons of Barakhai

Chapter 1

WILD barking awakened Benton Collins, and he sprang from his bed without thinking. The top sheet and blanket entangled his legs, sending him sprawling, heart pounding, on the floor. Whining frantically, Korfius thrust a wet nose into his face.

Collins pushed the dog away. He lived in graduate student housing, which normally did not allow pets; however, Korfius was considered a hero, for bringing the help that saved Collins' life. The Algary College staff and his neighbors politely looked the other way, treating Korfius like a seeing eye dog and not throwing him up as an example whenever their own better-concealed cats, fish, and birds got evicted.

"Quiet, Korfius," Collins demanded, sitting on the bed and extricating himself from the awkward, encumbering twist of coverings. He groped for his glasses on the standard issue dresser, clamped a hand over one wire temple piece, and put them in place cm his nose one-handed. "You'll wear out your welcome barking at… " Collins glanced at the digital clock at his workstation. " 3:16 A.M.!" He ran a hand through sleep-tousled, dark brown hair and groaned. "What the hell are you doing up at 3:16 AM?"

Korfius nuzzled Collins, then ran toward the window, planted his forepaws on the sill, and bounced back. In his excitement, he leaped on Collins' bed, over him, and back to the window again. Collins watched the gangly legs sail past, the ears flying, the tongue lolling, the short coat an uneven patchwork of brown and white. Though fourteen years old, the half-grown hound aged in human, not dog, years and had the exuberance of a six-month-old puppy. Collins had acquired Korfius in Barakhai, a world he had entered accidentally by chasing a white rat through the hallways of Daubert Laboratories. There, he had discovered people who spent half or more of their lives as various animals. The few who had come to his world remained in animal form throughout their visits, and Korfius had chosen to stay because he liked Collins and preferred being a full-time dog.

Over the last year and a half, Collins had grown as fond of Korfius as the dog had of him, though he still found their association a bit uneasy. He used leashes and collars only when absolutely necessary and shared his own food because it seemed vulgar to feed a child Puppy Chow. Dressed only in his sleeping boxers and glasses, Collins headed toward the window. A cool summer breeze chilled his torso.

Something thumped onto Collins' shoulder. He staggered backward with a savage gasp, smacking the object with the back of one hand. It felt warm and solid, furry against his skin, and it tumbled to the bed. A shiver coiled through Collins, and he whirled to look. A white rat braced itself on the disheveled pile of sheet and blanket, whiskers twitching madly.

Collins stifled a scream, then logic took over. It can't be. Can it?

Korfius bounded onto the bed, sending the rat flying. It scrambled onto Collins' pillow.

"Hey!" Collins said.

The rat cocked its head. "Hey, yourself. What kind of greeting is slapping me across the room?"

It IS Zylas. Glad to see his old friend again, Collins replied in kind, "The normal reaction to being attacked by a rat. What would you do if something jumped on your shoulder?"

Zylas twisted his head to look over the snowy fur on the back of his neck. "Anything small enough to alight on my shoulder would have to be an insect, so I guess I'd… I'd eat it."

Still grossed out by one of the Barakhains' main sources of protein, Collins made a noise of revulsion. "You'd eat it, huh?" He pinned the rat with a searching stare. "So you got off easy." He avoided the image of dining on raw, unskinned rat meat, not wishing to arouse a more painful memory. When he had first arrived in Barakhai, he had roasted and eaten a rabbit. Only when the villagers attempted to hang him for murder and cannibalism did he discover the dual nature of its citizenry. Every human an animal, and every animal a human. Collins did not forget the exception to the rule. Except fish, which they eat freely and don't consider animal.

"Good point." Zylas paused to give Korfius a warning nip on the jowl that sent the dog into barking retreat. One hind foot slipped over the edge, and the dog flopped to the floor. "Quiet, Korfius. I'm glad to see you, too, hut we can say 'hello' without the ear-shattering racket."

The dog cocked his head, tail waving, chin resting on the bed. Usually, the animals of Barakhai could not communicate much better than the ones in Collins' own world, but a crystal that Zylas always carried allowed him to speak even with other creatures.

Crystal. Where is the crystal? A million questions came to Collins' mind at once. Before he had left Barakhai, nearly dead from a beating and a fall, he had captured another crystal, one that enhanced magic, from Barakhai's king and delivered it to one of Zylas' renegades. With the help of the last dragon, the only beings who could use magic, the renegades had planned to remove the curse that forced them to cycle through an animal form each day. Collins wondered about the friends he had made in that strange Otherworld called Barakhai. Did the crystal ever reach Prinivere, that ancient, feeble dragon who was also a distant ancestor of Zylas'? Did it enhance the little bit of magic she could still manage? Clearly, she had not actually lifted the curse, or Zylas would have come to Collins in man form. Unlike Korfius, he preferred being human.

Before Collins could frame the first question, a trumpeting whinny froze him in place. He forced himself to turn toward the window, where a familiar fuzzy head peered in at them. A black forelock lay tousled over a wide, golden nose, and black ears formed excited, pricked-forward triangles. The mare tipped her head to regard them all through one shockingly blue eye.

Startled at finding a horse in the quadrangle, Collins gasped. "What the hell did you bring her for?" Despite his accusatory question, Collins found himself smiling at Falima. For reasons he could not explain, he had thought of her often in the year since he had last seen her. It had taken her a long time to forgive his crimes of ignorance; but, once she had, he found her a brave and loyal ally. He stroked the silky nose and scratched behind her ears. She rested her chin on the sill, sighing heavily.

"Bring her?" Zylas paced a circle on Collins' pillow. "Do you think I could stop her?"

Collins could not answer. He knew the one-way portal allowed anyone to pass from his world to theirs, but only animals could move in the opposite direction. He had no idea whether they had to be in beast shape when they approached the portal or whether the simple act of passing through it made the change for them. In Barakhai, they had essentially no control over the switch. It happened at the same time each and every day: Zylas at the equivalent of noon and midnight, Falima at 6:00. Presumably, Zylas could have chosen a time when he held rat form and Falima human to sneak through the portal; but that would prove difficult. While a human, Falima would have the mental and physical wherewithal to prevent Zylas' leaving without her. While a horse, she only needed to follow him. And, despite a few brief visits to Collins' world in the past, Zylas might not realize the problems inherent in bringing a full-grown horse into an urban setting. Where he came from, all horses served as guards and lived in the most civilized areas.

Unconsciously, Collins adopted the high-pitched, singsong speech pattern most adults use when speaking to babies and animals. "Can you talk in animal form now, too?"

Zylas answered for Falima. "Not yet. Overlap's not good enough."

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