Then the bastard dropped the mask back down over his eye and I heard Ryodan say, It’s not enough, Dani. You’re not letting go. You have to let go of everything. Become the next thing. He didn’t say Let go of me, but I heard it and he was right. I was still resisting with a tiny part of me, not wanting to become something that would forever separate me from the people I loved.
I had to embrace the transition fully, accept that I was dying, so a new me could be born.
Love you, Stardust. Always. Across space and time. No ending. New beginnings.
Sorrow welled inside me. This was not what I’d planned. This was not the life I’d wanted for myself. I wiped angrily at tears icing my cold black cheeks.
New beginnings, I sent back along our bond, with a wordless expression of how I felt about him. How I’d always felt about him.
He inhaled sharply, and cursed, Fuck. Shit. Goddamn, woman. You show me that now!
It was now or never. Every second I wasted was potentially another sidhe-seer’s soul. I flung my head back and threw my hands up to the sky, calling down power from the heavens. I poised on the brink of becoming something else, something so alien I couldn’t even fathom it. But it was time and it was my destiny and the stars awaited. I AM HUNTER! I roared silently. I ACCEPT. I WANT THIS. I COMMIT.
My body raged with raw high voltage, I became high voltage, I quivered electric with unspeakable power, focused and hurled it all at Balor’s eye in one furious bolt.
The god’s head exploded in a shower of—
I would always open up the door, always looking up at higher floors
Millions, maybe trillions of them glittering on a vast, eternal black palette.
I was soaring at superluminal velocity, headed straight for a fantastical pink, gold, purple, and orange cluster of nebulae.
This time was different. In the past I’d always felt oddly disembodied.
I didn’t now. I flexed my hand and glanced down. I had a hoof of sorts with black talons. It was steaming like dry ice, leaving a trail of sparkling frost in my wake. I glanced back over my shoulder and simply stared for a long moment.
I had the body of an enormous black, leathery skinned and scaled, icy, majestic dragon.
Holy hell, I was a Hunter.
I glanced right and left to see my beautiful wings. Though I’d known it was going to happen, knowing wasn’t the same as seeing.
I was no longer human. And never would be again. This was my body now.
I focused on curving one of my wings. It not only obeyed, it nearly sent me into a tailspin. I snapped it rigid and pulled out of it moments before crashing into a small meteor sailing by.
Oh, God, I was in space.
I was a Hunter.
It was too much to process. I’d been too quickly ripped out of one reality and crammed into another.
My body was gone. My red hair, my arms, my legs, all of it. Just gone. Forever. I would never lace up sneakers on my feet again. Never slip into a sexy dress and high heels. Never gorge on Pop-Tarts, or access my brand of the slipstream. Never pet Shazam with a hand.
They say we deal with death in stages. I always thought I’d belly up a laugh and plunge into it fearlessly, but now I felt appallingly normal for the first time in my life, as I flashed instantly to denial. “I can’t be this. Send me back!” I protested. My words came out as a deep, resonant gonging, not words at all. Where were the Hunters? They’d come in the past. Why weren’t they here now?
Anger reared its fiery red head. “You can’t do this to me! I had a life!”
In case they were nearby, listening, I moved to the next stage: bargaining: “Please! I just need to see Ryodan one more time, and I need to tell Shazam what happened! I’m not ready!”
You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t.
The voice echoed inside my head and I turned to find a great black Hunter dropping into flight pattern beside me.
A huge Hunter! Twenty times my size. I was tiny in comparison.
It chuffed with laughter. You’ve just been born. What did you expect? It will be eons before you’re fully grown.
I blinked, suffering a mind-bending disconnect. Part of me was still human, back on Earth, torn from battle, desperate to know if I’d succeeded in killing Balor, desperate to see Ryodan and Shazam, to know which of my sisters I’d lost. Another part of me was simply stupefied, trying to process and accept that I was a Hunter now. I had a new body that, fortunately, seemed to understand instinctively how to fly itself.
“Where did my other body go?” I boomed.
The Hunter snorted a tendril of fire. Silly question. Part of you.
“I need to know if I killed—”
Balor is dead.
“How do you know?”
I’ve been watching you.
I turned my (dragon!) head and peered into its fiery orange gaze. “Why?”
Protecting you. We nest our eggs.
“I’m not an egg,” I said indignantly.
You were. Now you’re Hunter.
“You mean because I stabbed one? Is that the deal—if someone kills a Hunter, they have to become one?”
Have to? Hardly. Hunter is a privilege. We don’t birth children. We choose them. Our chosen must then choose to become one of us or not. You could have walked away at any point. You chose not to.
I blinked, pondering that, unable to argue. I have a fatal flaw: more weapons to protect my world seduces me. I’d hungered for the gargantuan power of a Hunter. I’d been enticed by the possibility of such astronomical adventures. In a deep, wordless place inside I’d been insatiably curious about what was happening to me. It’s always been one of my downfalls, leading me from one extreme situation to the next.
During the past two years when I’d been so alone, I’d have plunged headlong into the transition.
But my family was back. I was in love. I had a life and a world and a Hel-Cat that needed me.
Each time you turned black, you didn’t reject it. You found it curious, intriguing. When you began to transform, you welcomed it, always staring up at the stars. That’s what I felt in you the day you stabbed me. You’re made of stardust, destined for the skies. You belong here, with us.
I gaped at the giant Hunter that seemed somehow feminine to me. “You’re the one I stabbed?”
She turned her head and smiled, thin black lips peeling back from saber teeth and bobbed her great leathery black head. I am Y’rill. I have been waiting to see if you would become one of us for many years. Keeping you alive when I could. If a dragon could look abashed, Y’rill did then. I broke many rules for you, Dani O’Malley.
“I thought I killed you.”
Can’t. We die only if we choose to become the next thing.
“What?” I demanded suspiciously, wanting to know just what was in store for me next.
It is within us to one day become planets. Your Earth was once a Hunter. You, Dani O’Malley, are one of our chosen. It is a great honor.
But my people! I peered down through space, seeing only unfamiliar moons and worlds. No sign of Earth. I had no idea where I was, no real concept of up or down. It was disorienting in the extreme.
It will soon feel natural. And they are still your people if you wish, Y’rill said.
“You mean I can return and live among them as a Hunter,” I clarified. I fully intended to.
You may also live among them as a human. Half the time.
I have no idea what I did then because I didn’t have the hang of my new form, but I gave an explosive whole-body jerk and suddenly I was rocketing through space in a dizzying tailspin, head over tail—Holy leaping lizards, I had a tail! A long black leathery one!
Stop fighting it, Y’rill said, chuffing softly. You can’t muscle things up here. Easy, smooth movements, small one.
I tried, I really did. Focused on merely the tips of my wings, but I was tumbling so fast and out of control that every move I tried to make generated intense friction and I couldn’t—
Dragon teeth plucked me out of freefall by the nape of my neck. Like a kitten or something, I thought crossly. Good grief, did I really have to be a child all over again?
You will learn, Y’rill said, chuckling. Enjoy it. Unlike your human childhood, this one will be grand, with endless universes to explore and no cages. Ever.
“Half the time?” I shouted the moment I had my bearings again. “I get to be human half of my life, like Persephone? I get my body back?”
I do not know of her but yes. However, if you fail to spend half your time as a Hunter, you will lose the privilege of being one. Most of us choose to remain Hunter. Few ever return.
Loved ones pass. Planets die. This is home. Everything is here. We are nightwindflyhighfree. There is no place more majestic, no greater freedom to be found than among the stars. You hunger for freedom. I tasted your mind when you stabbed me. You were already one of us, sky-high dreams, no limits. You despise limits. We have none.
I wasn’t hearing much past that I could be human again.