Zakassis woke in the mould feeling as if he was perfectly balanced between hunger and satiation. It was too early to be awake; it felt like a neutral kind of hawk season. His skin was loose along his joints and his snout, but not yet along his belly. He pulled himself up and began to climb, orienting himself toward the light and pulling up the open tower that was now beside the dead stalk that had been a geranium before the last hard freeze.
Clumps of fur and grey dust clung to his feet as he came to the upper platform and looked out at the sky. There was a huge fall of it visible, obscured by something too fine to be distinguished. Zak couldn’t feel the movement of anything but a steady gentleness along his back and tail. If that was the sky, it moved somehow without touching this place.
Throle had refused to sleep in the shallow bowls of mould around which she and Zakassis hunted in the warm season. She had risked the sharp grass and the cats to dig herself deep beneath the bushes. She had worried about death but as Zakassis tasted this still air, he realized that she should have worried about who filled pots of dirt. Both Zakassis and Throle had tasted the dragon bait earlier; neither wanted to fall victim to another’s transformation.
They had smelled the smoke for days before they parted to hibernate. Zakassis had made her promise that she would return with coals if…if the worst happened. The worst would be death, he reminded himself. It would not be so bad to swallow fire.
He could taste smoke in this air. Thin, sweet smoke.
Zakassis slid one pupil toward his tail and saw a spark of light, then another, and another. They were some distance away but he was thinking of Throle, thinking of how they could chase hawks together if they were willing to swallow a story’s worth of fire and fable.
As he looked away from the sky and tasted the air again, noises began behind him. Not barking, probably not cats, either. Zak stilled as the noise grew louder. He was close to the edge of the platform, behind a transparent wall. Hidden by height and close to the edge. He tightened the muscles of his knees and elbows, drawing his lids mostly closed to protect his eyes.
Something thunked on top of the platform and the entire structure wobbled. The noise drifted away into silence. He opened one eye. Just beyond the glass wall was another glass structure, this one containing a single flame. Zakassis waited. No lizards crawled from the flames, no red throats belled an ascension. The flame was unguarded.
He had promised Throle spring. Promised her that the mould was safe, safer than the expanse beyond the sharp grass, beneath the bushes. Sleeping in it had brought him across this threshold, brought him to an open flame. He waited until the light dimmed and the fire grew brighter. He could feel the heat. His body pulsed, his skin tight.
He ran to the glass and up the side, leaping down and swallowing the flame, just as the stories said.
It should have been a painful death.
Instead, Zakassis uncurled from his meal, pulling wings from his body instead of forelegs. His jaws were now balanced on teeth, his jaws aching from the new angle, his tongue pierced and sore from the sharpness and the heat he had swallowed earlier. There was nothing left for Throle, but Zak could see the other flames now. His brain was sharper and he relaxed into the soft wax. Hawk season would come soon.