Monster Chapter One

Here’s Monster Chapter One for your reading amusement. Zita gets to experience a bit of DC’s nightlife in this book, though it opens like any other respectable superhero book… with a dragon.

Anyway, enjoy! This is from the edited but not proofread copy.

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Monster Chapter One

It’s stupid to wake a dragon. It’s suicidal to wake one by repeatedly poking it with a pointy stick.

From the looks of the scene on the television, someone had not only found Dragon, a murderous metahuman from the Seventies, but they had also found a stick long and pointy enough to wake him. The town of Al Jawf now burned as a consequence.

Zita Garcia—extreme sports enthusiast, tax preparer, and secret vigilante—blinked sleep out of her eyes as she watched her best friend’s television. “I hope they missed hitting him with those tactical nukes all those years ago because it’ll be pretty hard to take down a creature that survived direct hits.” As she spoke, she yanked on the purple Spandex-like sportswear she had to wear when using her powers. The special fabric disappeared when she shapeshifted to an animal form but reappeared when she claimed a human one. Any other clothing shredded, and people took her even less seriously when she was naked, much to her annoyance. Plus, sometimes she got cold or needed to carry snacks.

Wyn cinched the belt on her silky, teal bathrobe, hazel eyes troubled. Despite the early hour, her hair still cascaded in perfect chestnut ringlets over her slim shoulders, and she appeared to have escaped a high-end pajama party photo shoot for a magazine. A minuscule cup of tea and an e-reader sat abandoned on a table nearby, next to a tidy pile of lavender fabric. Almost identical lilac-point Siamese cats sat on either side of her crimson sofa, like malevolent, glaring bookends. “They’re going to need our help there, regardless of what happened with the missiles in the Seventies. You didn’t get dressed before you came here? Or at least comb your hair?”

“You woke me from a sound sleep and said it was an emergency. I thought you were in trouble, so I grabbed my basic Arca gear and came. Snuck in and everything in case you were being held hostage and didn’t even stop to grab the new sweatshirt part of the costume. Was I supposed to hesitate?” In a concession to her friend, Zita paused to smooth down her short, black hair, every strand of which seemed to be going in a different direction, save for the side she’d been sleeping on, which was flattened by her pillow. Her night clothes, a well-worn sleeveless white undershirt and fuzzy rainbow leopard print pants, lay in a heap at her bare, brown feet.

Wyn sighed. “No, I suppose not. At least Andy’s not here to blush. Do you want your phone or shoes?”

Zita shook her head. “Phone wouldn’t work overseas anyway, and I have to go in flying, so might as well leave the shoes here… so they’re not wrecked when I shift. We’ll have to just use party line,” she replied, referencing the telepathic communication that Wyn could create between herself, Zita, and their friend Andy.

After sighing, Wyn inclined her head. Her eyes unfocused as she stared into the distance.

Warmth ran through Zita as Wyn connected to her mind. Thanks.

Distantly, Andy’s presence joined the connection, his thoughts groggy. Hi guys. Z, you couldn’t have Wyn wake me with a phone call? Do you seriously believe the government has tapped our phones?

Órale, you never know. I don’t think any of us want to chance it, though, and the disposable phones definitely won’t work in Libya. Zita focused on the town, preparing to teleport.

Where? I’m guessing it’s time to watch the news. Andy’s mental voice sharpened.

Wyn sent, You got it. Top story right now.

Based on the television coverage, Al Jawf had begun as an obscure Saharan Desert oasis. Now, it was an odd mix of sleepy desert agriculture, an oil refinery, and unbridled tourism. Its biggest claim to fame was a patch of nearby desert that had been turned to “Dragon Glass” following a dramatic multinational missile assault on Dragon in the Seventies.

I suppose they can consider that a failed mission since Dragon’s up and about and burning everything in sight. Zita studied the town, seeking the best entry point.

The center of the action seemed to be two large, modern hotels, currently in flames. The irregularly shaped swimming pools they shared, enclosed by a high wall, were black with soot and bits of debris. Surrounding the flaming buildings, wide dirt plazas with toppled cardboard boxes and other debris suggested a lively street market under happier circumstances. Currently, men raced around trying to subdue the blazes. A handful in military gear fired dispirited bursts of gunfire at the circling lizard.

Her mind full of plans as she analyzed the bigger shapeshifter’s televised flight, Zita tied on a half-mask of the same special material as her clothes, the latest update to her vigilante costume along with a hooded sweatshirt. Of course, her haste meant she’d left the sweatshirt at home. You two figure out logistics. I’ll go on ahead and try to lead Dragon away from the city. Join me as soon as you can, Andy. I know you’re off in some weird place.

Not a chance, Wyn sent. You’re already at my house, so just take me with you.

Curiosity and concern sharpened Andy’s questions. Why are you at Wyn’s? Is everything okay? I’m in Detroit. The city’s not that strange given everything since we got our powers.

Wyn’s mental voice held the suppressed laughter that she hid behind her hand in the real world. Zita canceled her cable subscription to save money. Since she couldn’t get the live newscasts without floundering around on the Internet, she came here. You just missed her usual speed strip and dress routine.

Andy’s glee carried over their connection. See? Detroit’s great. I didn’t have to watch the Live, Nude Zita Revue again.

You guys got issues, Zita grumbled. Andy at least I sort of understand. He probably blushes when he changes his own clothes and never looks down in the shower. Wyn, though, you’re not afraid of a mirror, and you got the same equipment I do, so you’ve got no excuse. She straightened her mask so it didn’t obscure her field of vision.

Wyn ignored Zita’s digression, instead choosing to argue her case to go with Zita, rather than Andy. “As I was saying, I can talk to Andy telepathically from anywhere, and once he’s outside, he can be in Libya in a minute or two. Dragon just set both major hotels in the town on fire. They need me healing and you drawing Dragon away before he decides to incinerate that oil refinery the reporter just mentioned. If you take me with you, Andy doesn’t have to stop.”

“No can do, even if you were ready, which you’re not. You don’t even have shoes on, just those high-heeled slippers with the feathers shedding everywhere,” Zita said. She picked a spot high above the television reporter’s head on the horizon, where black striations of stone were just visible. To avoid surprising Andy with her actions, she sent the rest of her words over the party line. I need to fly in as a bird so they don’t catch me teleporting on camera, and I can’t carry you like that. Not to mention, I have to come in some distance away. If I stick with you to protect you from Dragon, who knows how many more people he’ll fry before we make it to town? Also

Wyn’s eyes narrowed. She pinched the furrow between her perfect brows as if she could tell what was coming. “What?”

After shifting to a peregrine falcon, Zita teleported. Spreading her wings wide, she dove toward the town in the distance, using the gathering speed of the dive and the harsh, dry winds buffeting her to pick up as much speed as possible. I’m already there.

Wyn sounded like she was trying not to curse. By the Goddess, Zita, you couldn’t wait one more minute? Be careful. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.

Teleported without you again? Andy asked.

Wyn gave a mental snarl. Yes.

Hey, I had good, logical reasons for doing so. Zita tamped down the thought that it would’ve taken Wyn much more than a minute to get dressed and hoped that didn’t leak into the telepathic communication. Aided by the fact that the dragon circled one spot, she pulled every trick she could to get there faster. Once she fought her way through the nasty black smoke that coated her throat and made it sting, she could see the city and her opponent better.

Other than the desperate swirl of activity near the fires, the streets were silent and empty, save for a goat bleating madly as it raced down a long road, trailing a broken rope. A pair of thin minarets rose near the elegant and untouched domes of some small mosques. Modern stores and converted homes with hand-written signs ringed the plaza periphery. Tiny, cement walls outlined individual houses that had likely seen World War II troops garrisoned in them while the curving flourishes on larger buildings announced government offices and the occasional business. Palm trees and other hardy plants exchanged shade with buildings. A few roads were dark with pavement, but the majority were unpaved and blended with the ground, outlined mostly by the old cars lining them. A small television crew was set up and filming from the edges of the plaza.

Dragon swooped down and devoured the frantic goat in a single crunch. The dragon was as beautiful as a sandstorm; from a safe distance and in comfort, one could perhaps enjoy the sheer destructive aesthetics. Here, though, as he soared above the town and breathed fire upon the half-constructed frame of what looked like a factory, he was an odd and terrifying composite of animals. The head was that of a crocodile with an elongated jaw and sharp conical teeth extruding from it. Linked by a snaky neck, the head perched atop a lizard body with bat-like wings and four clawed feet. Red and bronze rippled down his body, shading to ebony stripes and spots on the rows of scutes that armored his back and along the tail. The finer scales of his stomach shaded lighter, a cloudy wash of variegated reds. The wings mimicked the same coloration, with the delicate arcing bones traced in the blackest shades, and the bottom edges fringed in reddish bronze. When he passed between her and the sun, a tracery of veins embossed the finer skin of his wings. Despite that, his flight lacked grace or any real dexterity; Zita suspected his large turning radius was the only reason the entire city was not in flames. As she watched, Dragon paused in flight to inhale, then exhaled flames again.

I need to pick a different shape to get his attention before he goes after those houses. Guys, tuning you out to avoid being eaten. Dragon flies like a cow, but I’ve got to get him going fast enough that he doesn’t have time to breathe fire on me, so I need to concentrate. With a deep breath, she shifted to a pterosaur, a crested azhdarchid she’d seen once before in a magical land, and colored herself in vibrant shades of green, blue, and yellow to stand out against the paler sky and orange-tinged sands.

As Zita stretched her wings, she acknowledged the difference in sizes. I’m the size of a giraffe with forty-foot wings, and he’s the size of a professional basketball court. He’s the only other person I’ve ever seen or heard of that’s on par with Andy as a bird.

Zita buzzed Dragon’s head, diving and swooping by so close she could feel heat radiating up from the big form beneath her. To her surprise, as she closed in on the giant reptile, her sense of scent and instincts informed of a basic error in the history books. Dragon was female, not male. Not that she remembered much about the bigger shapeshifter from her history lessons, outside of the eponymous form and the terrible swath of destruction that devastated two cities, multiple towns, and countless military units in North Africa and the Middle East. Doesn’t matter. She needs to leave these people alone.

The great head jerked up, and beady reptilian eyes focused on Zita. Dragon roared a long string of syllables, her loud voice echoing like the low, rumbling exhale of a belching crocodile magnified a hundred times.

Pain slashed through Zita’s mind, and her flight stalled for a moment. Blind with agony, Zita flapped her wings to rise higher and soared eastward, away from the town, praying she wouldn’t hit anything.

Wyn and Andy both exclaimed as her torment slipped through the link to them.

With a flap of her wings, the dragon rose higher, head tilted, and her attention focused on Zita’s struggling form. The building lay forgotten beneath her. “I said, this territory is mine, little interloper. Do you dare to challenge me when you cannot even fly right?” Her language seemed oddly stilted.

While the additional words brought another wash of pain, it was already receding as Zita wrestled the remaining dregs of it under control. She evened out her flight and headed toward the desert. I really am the only shapeshifter who can’t talk in animal form. Dragon’s claimed this area as her own, she sent weakly to her friends.

Wyn’s concern poured over the link. What was that?

Quick headache. It’s over now. Zita spiraled lazily to keep the larger reptile’s attention and to give herself a moment to reorient. I’ll go north, maybe northeast and then loop around to avoid that mosque or village or whatever. West and south are more homes and the oasis. Those green, irrigated circles are probably farms. Maybe I can get her to the other side of the mountains.

Dragon followed close behind, lower to the ground, flames flickering around her mouth. “Speak!”

Oye, she’ll regret telling me to talk, Zita thought. As soon as I get out of the city, I’ll switch to a bird that can speak and keep moving away.

We’re on our way, but Zita, we are only tabling the discussion until later about your denial of the fact that you get a headache and then know a new language whenever you hear people speaking in an unknown tongue, Wyn sent.

I give on the languages thing, already. Don’t nag. Quentin and I tried to go to an international food festival in Adams Morgan. It was a painful education and hiding it from my brother was difficult. The outskirts of the city passed under Zita, and she glanced behind to check on her pursuer.

Oh, Zita… Wyn sent, sympathy welling over the connection.

If she could have shrugged, Zita would have. Instead, she glanced behind herself. I’m a grown-ass woman and can admit when I’m wrong. Happy?

Wyn sent, Not quite the adjective I would choose, but fine.

“You cannot hope to stand against my power, so tell me why I should not eat you now?” the dragon said. She abruptly tilted sideways in a clumsy maneuver to avoid the minaret of a mosque.

Her throat shook, and her beak tapped rapidly as Zita tried and failed to contain a snicker.

Apparently incensed at the sound, Dragon lifted her head and dove at Zita.

Well, at least I made it a couple minutes before she attacked. I think I’m getting more diplomatic… or not talking helped. Zita whipped to the side, switching to a hyacinth macaw. The much larger dragon needed far more space to turn so Zita could get out of the way, but the rush of dust and wind stirred up by the other shifter’s passage sent her small form hurtling farther away than she’d intended. And stung.

Ow. “You have to catch me first, lardbutt,” Zita squawked in the same language, fluttering toward the vast empty reaches of desert.

As Dragon circled back around, she paused, inhaled, and spat fire at Zita.

“Just keeping it real, girlfriend! You ever think about an exercise program?” Once again, Zita evaded the attack, though not without a near-singe, and the wind sent her tumbling downward. Rather than fight it, she let herself tumble until she was close to the ground, then changed to a cheetah and ran full out.

The rhythmic thwack of wingtips on the ground and the heavy breathing behind her let Zita track her enemy with ease. She concentrated on speeding over the barren desert surface—packed dirt littered with pebbles, all in the same dusty orange-brown, broken up by the occasional stubborn plant. Spotting a distant rock spearing up out of the landscape, she angled toward it, even as a tremble in her muscles warned her that this form could not sustain an all-out run much longer. After forcing herself to run a half minute more, she turned aside at the last possible second from the rock, shooting to the side. Her lungs burned as her body protested the exertion.

Behind her, Dragon screeched, and stone snapped.

Laughing inside, Zita launched herself into the air, changing to a peregrine again and climbing higher. The pressure in her chest eased. If I can just get high enough, this shape can sustain speed much easier.

Flapping clumsily, the bigger shapeshifter brought her bulky body higher in the air and leveled out. Her snaky neck turned as she scanned the ground and then the air.

The rocky spire lay shattered behind her.

Some of Zita’s good humor dropped away as she soared farther west, deeper into the desert. Below her, the earth softened, switching to the undulating waves of sand dunes. Carajo. So much for that. She’s not even a little hurt, and she pulverized that rock. Andy better get here soon because that was one of my best tricks.

Below her, the sun touched the ground, turning it into a shimmering, gleaming sea of tiny reflective crystals. Must be where the bombers hit her with the missiles back then, the famous Dragon Glass region. Pretty, and I didn’t even have to pay for a tour.

Dragon’s shadow blotted out the direct sunlight, hiding the sparkle below.

Fire breathing, super tough, super strong, mythical creature able to destroy large buildings in a couple minutes versus a bunny-hunting bird that can be eaten by a fox if careless? Time to change up these rules. Zita looped up, rising higher and higher, and then dove at her pursuer.

Dragon’s jaw fell open, then she smirked. She slowed to a more leisurely pace.

Chido. Her speed building, Zita angled her body as if attempting to strike Dragon’s back.

Dragon laughed derisively, smoke curling from her nostrils.

Right before she would have collided with a large scute on the dragon’s back and died, Zita teleported the last few feet to stand on Dragon’s back instead. Switching to her disguise form—that of the woman known as Arca—she scurried up the broad, armored neck to the head. She slowed until she stood between the two massive reptilian eyes. To distract the beast, she wrapped an arm around a protruding spike that overhung one of the thick brow ridges.

Dragon first shook her head like a muddy dog who had just come inside and then tried clawing at the spot, but her legs were too short to reach. Her claws scratched her own snout though, and that only seemed to anger her more.

As she smothered her amusement that the bigger shifter’s eyes crossed trying to watch her, Zita had a fleeting thought she should try to be diplomatic, but her mouth opened first. “Pendeja, please. I don’t have to be the biggest badass here, just the one with the best plan. And I do, but it has nothing to do with your so-called territory, though, because I don’t waste my time on that kind of shit. I’m here to give you a chance to chill and go back to not bothering the world like you were doing before.”

Dragon hissed. “I slept, you vulgar creature. Now I am hungry, and the paltry meal of the fools who woke me is insufficient. They angered me—they stole the herders who should’ve been tending my food. I don’t see my herds anywhere, and the girls are so poorly trained they can’t even tell me where they are. I go to see, and there are no animals, only outsiders. They bring my flames upon themselves.”

Wyn, Dragon said someone was bothering her herders? What’s with that? Tapping on the eyebrow spike, Zita tsked. “Hey now, no need for name calling. You know, if you land and take human shape, I’m sure we could find you some breakfast if you didn’t burn down all the restaurants. You like pancakes? Bacon? Everyone likes bacon except… maybe not bacon. How about cheeseburgers?”

Dragon did a barrel roll, presumably to shake Zita off.

As they turned upside down, Zita smiled, pleased that they’d left Al Jawf and the rocky mountains behind. Instead, they now circled over sand dunes that glinted peach and orange and gold in the morning sunlight.

History says Dragon asked for a large herd of goats and cattle, tended by virgins for his harem… Wyn sent. I’ll be dropped off at Al Jawf since I’m more help healing than fighting. Let me know if you find anyone needing help out there.

Since Dragon’s female, a harem’s likely out. She must’ve seen someone out in the desert. Hope those poor people survived. After another loose barrel roll from the reptilian shifter, Zita couldn’t stop herself from making the request. “Can you do that again but faster? It’d be more fun, and I’m working hard not to fall asleep here. It’s late my time, you know.”

Dragon roared, and flames shot from her mouth, but the length of her neck and her long snout conspired to keep her from hitting Zita with the flames. “I am not a beast of burden! I am the Dragon, and I shall destroy you and burn your insignificant form to ash!”

Wiping her forehead with an exaggerated motion, Zita said, “Whew, and here I worried you would try to eat me. That’d be a problem for me because I don’t lean that direction. I’m all about the dudes, you know? It’s not you, it’s me.” She grinned and laughed.

Dragon rolled again.

Zita hung on and chuckled. “Again, again! People would pay good money for this, especially if you let them film it.”

Her unwilling mount snarled and did a loop-de-loop.

This time, Zita turned to watch the bigger shapeshifter’s muscles move under the thick skin. She’s got to be flying magically because she lacks the wing muscle definition she’d need to keep her culo up in the air, or maybe even that nose. Most of the flapping is to adjust her altitude and that sort of thing. If she weren’t so flabby, I might have to work harder, but I can fly rings around her… if I choose fast flyers and concentrate. “Hey, is clothing the reason you avoid being human? Listen, this new stuff is coming on the market so you can stay clothed when changing forms. I’ve got some on now and can totally hook you up if you need, but you have to stop wrecking the town first. It’s good stuff, especially in a desert. The moisture wicking works great, and the boob support is actually both effective and comfortable.”

Dragon seemed affronted. “You cannot make me dress like a whore! I am always modestly dressed when I choose to walk upon two legs.”

Zita lifted her hands placatingly. “Oye, I was just offering to be nice. No need to bite my head off… seriously, no need. I haven’t brushed my teeth yet today, and my breath stinks. How about you calm down, switch down into your person shape, and we talk this out, woman to woman?”

With a growl, Dragon pawed at herself again. She opened a small gash in the side of her snout, well away from Zita.

“Not much of a conversationalist? That’s okay with me. We can just hang out and fly if you promise to try a few faster barrel rolls. Oh, and to stop snorting fire.” From the direction of the town, thunder grumbled. Zita permitted herself a smile. Glad to hear you guys are close.

Not surprisingly, Dragon whipped her head from side to side in another futile attempt to dislodge Zita. Smoke curled up from broad lizard nostrils as she labored to climb higher.

Zita’s next comment slipped out. “If smoke comes from your nose, is the fire burning snot then? That’s super gross and unhygienic.”

Dragon shrieked and dove toward a vast sand dune.

Leaning forward, Zita wrapped her arms around a spike. “Hey, no need to get suicidal. I’m just keeping it real, here. If that’s the problem, I know an awesome witch who could whip you up magic allergy medicine.”

The ground raced up at an enormous speed.

Caramba, she’s not playing. She’s really going to do it. Zita hurled herself from the dragon’s head, changing in midair to a peregrine and coming up out of the dive as if she’d been the one to initiate it, instinctively using the speed to get away from Dragon and as high up as possible.

Dragon hit the ground with a massive boom, and sand exploded upward.

The spray hit Zita, scourging her body with tiny particles. She cried out and thrashed her wings to keep rising. Her eyes focused below. Is she dead?

As if in answer to her silent question, Dragon’s huge body struggled out of the dune, shedding gleaming waterfalls of sand. She roared.

Not dead, just the world champion of sand belly-flops, I guess. Zita stretched her wings, checked the position of the sun, and tried to figure out her next move.

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