recidivism \rih-SID-uh-viz-uhm\, noun:

A tendency to lapse into a previous condition or pattern of behavior; especially, a falling back or relapse into prior criminal habits.



She could not imagine why she didn't feel the presence of someone else in her bedroom. But then, it was Kaligo, whom she was used to having in her house by now. Sometimes he woke her up at night with a plea for water--or, more frequently, when he had a nightmare. This was the first time he'd woken her by leaping up onto the bed and hooking his claws into her shoulders.

"Kaligo!" she gasped herself awake. This was no playful scratch; she could feel the blood running down and soaking the sheets. Kaligo's face was inches from hers, and she felt her blood run cold as she realized that she didn't recognize it. She knew it was Kaligo, though, as surely as she knew her name. "Kaligo!" she tried again. "Get ahold of yourself, Kaligo!"

If he recognized his name, he didn't show it. He growled, a throaty rattle, and dug his hands in deeper. "Dragon," he hissed, words bubbling. "You're a dragon."

I am not a dragon, she thought hopelessly, and somehow found it in her to grab Kaligo by the front of his shirt and heave him away. His claws came loose with a sick wet shredding sound, and she bit her lip so hard it bled.

Kaligo was on his feet again almost as soon as he hit the floor, blood dripping from his talons. Alexandra kneeled on the bed, her head swimming, and tried not to think of the warm wetness that was running down her arms and dripping on her nice clean sheets. Kaligo cocked his head, movements fluid as oil. He had a grin on him like a cat, and Alexandra thought weakly that it was, after all, a demon that she had picked up on the beach that day. But demons weren't in the habit of spontaneously attacking dragons, were they? But then she knew little enough about his past. Maybe he had something against dragons.

Then Kaligo lunged. Alexandra scrambled backwards, though her arms pulled and screamed with pain and didn't seem to want to obey all her commands, until she nearly fell off the bed. She twisted and jumped to the side, hearing a heavy thump as Kaligo crashed into the wall behind her, and then bolted for the door to the bedroom.

Weapon. She needed a weapon. Alexandra overturned the kitchen table and shoved it against the bedroom door, grabbed a knife from the drawer, and shot out of the house. A demon probably had the advantage in the open, but so did she--and besides, then they wouldn't ruin the house. A splintering crash from behind her announced that Kaligo had probably reduced the table to firewood.

It occurred to Alexandra, in a very distant way, that it was possible that she would die. Her weapon had hardly any reach compared to Kaligo's long claws, and she didn't know any magic that would have any effect against a demon. Or rather, she wasn't supposed to know any magic that would have an effect on demons, and she was going to stick to that as best as she could.

Well, she thought as she dodged a swipe, at least Stanos will find my body, and he'll see to it. Her next step put her directly into the path of Kaligo's next strike, which went into her side. But that brought Kaligo into range for her to stab him in the chest, making sure to miss his heart. Not that demons were supposed to be so easy to kill.

Kaligo howled and let her go. Alexandra immediately dropped to the ground, watching as the grass slowly blackened from her blood. It was getting hard to breathe. But that wasn't anything compared to how it felt when Kaligo grabbed her by the neck and heaved her to her feet. She felt his claws prick the sides of her neck and saw that he'd pulled the knife out of his chest. Maybe she should have gotten a bigger knife.

He was no longer smiling. "Dragon," he growled, "any last words?"

Air didn't seem to want to go in or out. But Alexandra forced herself to croak out his name. Then she saw his teeth again, bright as knives. So she said his name, his true name, in the language of the gods, and the grin vanished.

"How did you know that?" the demon demanded.

"I. . . am not. . . a dragon," she wheezed. She met the ground all at once, feeling like all her bones had been knocked out of place, and lay quite peacefully.

"Not a dragon." The words were repeated back at her dully, like hammer blows.

"No." She tried to take a deep breath, only to have it half-choked from her by the pain. "And you're not a demon, either."

"I'm not?"

Something fell to the ground, just past Alexandra's field of vision. She realized from the moonlight glinting off the blade that it was the knife. "You're not," she reassured him. "Come here, Kaligo."

There was a rustle as Kaligo knelt beside her with a sob. "I'm sorry," he whimpered. "I'm so sorry." He tried to touch her, but jerked away at her indrawn hiss of pain. "I'm so sorry--"

"It's okay," she murmured, closing her eyes. She thought of the blood in her sheets, and the table reduced to matchsticks, and her knife lying not too far away in the grass. "It's okay."

---

Kaligo had learned early on that, generally, bleeding was not a good thing. There seemed to be a great deal of pain involved, and if left untreated, death would come in somewhere down the line. And Alexandra, now, was bleeding and did not seem able to do anything about it. A strange emotion gripped him by the throat and seized his chest. At first he thought he was being attacked, and the next few minutes were a roil of frenzied movement, Kaligo kicking and clawing at his invisible opponent.

"Kaligo?"

Alexandra's voice was so weak and thin that Kaligo ceased at once and rushed to her side. He found he didn't like the way her voice bubbled wetly, or the way she had to stop every few words to struggle for breath.

"Can you. . . get me inside?" Alexandra croaked.

Kaligo nodded, his hair flopping into his eyes. "But I might hurt you."

That gasping, choking sound might have been a laugh. "It's. . . okay."

He tried to hesitate as little as he could; time was all-important here, as if the sword that might fall any moment were tied to an hourglass. Alexandra grimaced as he hoisted her up, cradling her in his arms. She was light for a woman so tall, but then he often didn't know his own strength. Her blood streaked his nightclothes red. They vanished with a pop of displaced air and reappeared inside the cottage. Kaligo carefully threaded his way through the shattered remains of the kitchen table and deposited Alexandra gently on the bed. Even so, she hissed faintly.

"What do I do?" Kaligo whispered.

"Come here."

Carefully, in a movement that translated itself in Kaligo's senses to cold-hot edged by black-white, Alexandra raised one hand and laid it on Kaligo's arm. And then it was Kaligo's turn to gasp as he felt something tear free from himself and vanish. It was, in fact, exactly like the feeling he got when eating someone's magic or life force--but in reverse. Her hand fell back onto the bed while Kaligo's head was still spinning.

"I need a healer, Kaligo." Her words no longer sounded like wet drops of blood, and her lungs no longer trembled like a newborn foal's. "I'm not strong enough to heal myself."

Kaligo tightened his grip on the sheets. "But--"

"Go to the river." Alexandra closed her eyes. "Tell it that Areksangdra sent you. I would send you to the town healer, but. . ." Kaligo waited, but Alexandra didn't finish her sentence. He had almost begun to panic again when Alexandra opened her eyes slowly, as if with a great effort. "What are you still doing here? Go."

So he went with a small huff of wind. He knew the river well; he and Alexandra had spent many sunny afternoons there, fishing and swimming. It was swollen now with autumnal rains, and in the winter it would freeze over, and Alexandra said that they might be able to go ice skating (whatever that meant). He stood small and shivering on the bank.

"Hel--hello," he called. His voice echoed, lost and lonely. "I--my--Areksangdra sent me."

Silence, but for the river's eddy and splash. Kaligo stood with his hands clenched, staring first straight ahead, and then to the left and right and finally down into the water. He was about to call again when, with a rush and a roar, the water exploded upwards in a towering column of pale foam that resolved itself into a long, snakelike body. Kaligo scrambled backwards and fell, confronted with a pair of large blue eyes peering myopically at him down a long white muzzle.

"What's wrong?" the dragon demanded. His breath was warm and wet and smelled of fish and river water. "Where is Areksangdra?"

He knew, without knowing, that Areksangdra was Alexandra. "She--she sent me to you," Kaligo said, sure that this was the healer that Alexandra had meant him to fetch. Dim memories from his past surfaced. He remembered killing these the most, because they were the healers that brought dragons back from the brink of death. He swallowed them back (remember, you're not a demon). "She's badly hurt and needs a healer."

The dragon heaved himself on shore with a wet slap, one giant flipper missing Kaligo by inches. Water beaded on his fine white fur and hung from his antlers. "Where is she?" he demanded. "Why didn't you bring her to me?"

"I--she--I don't know! She just asked me to fetch you!"

The dragon shook his mane in irritation, flinging water everywhere and fairly soaking Kaligo. "Take me to her, then."

"I--you won't fit in the house."

In the blink of an eye the dragon shrank and became a man. He was younger than Kaligo had imagined; from his voice, the dragon had sounded like a grumpy, cantankerous elder. Instead he was quite young, by draconian standards, with long pale hair that fell to his shoulders, pale, fine features, and delicate, long-fingered hands. He looked so slender and frail that Kaligo thought he might break from a stray drop of water.

"Now I will," the dragon snapped, breaking the image of ethereal fragility. "Take me there."

There was no more time for talk. Kaligo seized him by the upper arm and they went. He felt the dragon tense in his arms as the world shrank and reversed around them, but then they were in the cottage, shards of wood digging into their feet. The stranger didn't comment on the state of the kitchen and immediately vanished into the bedroom, where the smell of blood and death came thicker and stronger than before.

"Areksangdra! What--"

Alexandra's reply cut him off, though it was too quiet for even Kaligo to hear. The healer said something in answer, and then Kaligo slipped out into the fields.

She wouldn't die. Kaligo was very certain of that, now that the healer was here. He flopped down in the grass, with his knees drawn up to his chest and the dew creeping up his pants. No sound came from inside the house. After staring blankly at the black-stained grass for neverending minutes, he realized that the shining thing off to the side was the knife he'd dropped earlier, the one that Alexandra had stabbed him with. He felt the place where the wound had been; there was a hole in the shirt, but otherwise no mark.

When the stranger came outside to tell Kaligo that Alexandra wanted to talk to him, he was gone.

---

Hm. Well. The dragon looked to the left, then the right, then up, and then down. After coming to some sort of conclusion, he went back inside, shutting the door loudly behind him.

"He's gone," he announced as soon as he walked into the dark bedroom. "No, don't get up," he warned before Alexandra could even think of moving. "You know as well as I do that I can smell a demon from quite far off, and he's not anywhere near."

Alexandra looked much better. She wasn't so pale now, and the healer had changed her sheets, salvaging what was left of the old ones for bandages that now wrapped around her arms and waist. Her chest rose and fell in regular breaths. "Thank you for coming, Radel," she said at last.

"Don't speak of it. I owe you a favor, after all. Several, I dare say." He opened one of the bedroom windows, frowning at the cold air that began to tumble in. Well, fresh air was important for recovery; he'd be sure to close it before he left, so that Alexandra wouldn't catch a chill in the night. "Did the demon do that to you?"

Alexandra said nothing, which indicated a yes. She could never bring herself to lie, but maybe that was the curse of being a ruby dragon. None of them, as far as Radel knew, could ever lie. He turned to face her, and saw that she was carefully looking away.

"Do you know who he is?" Radel said, frowning. "He--"

"No," Alexandra cut him off. Now her eyes flashed at him, dully, like blood-soaked rubies. "I don't know. I don't really want to know, either. He's different now."

"Bullshit." Radel felt the line forming between his eyebrows that meant he was angry. He smoothed his face into something resembling civility. "He obviously can't have changed that much, if he hurt you that badly."

Alexandra did not meet his eyes.

"Hurt you that badly, Alexandra. You're not exactly the weakest among--"

"I'm not that person anymore," Alexandra said quietly. "I live a human life now."

"He told me that Areksangdra sent him."

"I thought that was the only way I could get you to come."

"I would have come," Radel said quietly. "Don't think so low of me as that. Why didn't you have him bring you to the river?"

"I wanted my bed."

That was understandable. Radel turned back to the window, leaning with his hands against the windowsill. "Do you want me to fetch him?"

"No. He'll come back."

"Suit yourself." She sounded far too sure of herself. Radel rather thought that the demon felt guilty for nearly killing his benefactor. Which, admittedly, was rather unusual for a demon--what had Alexandra been doing? No wonder he never saw her these days, if she was busily trying to reform a demon, an impossible task. But it was none of his business what Alexandra did or did not do with her strays. "Would you like me to stay with you, then, until he returns?"

"If you wish." Weariness had set in, fogging her voice and tugging at her eyelids.

"I will, then." Radel brought a chair from the kitchen and took up a position next to the bed. Alexandra's eyes were closed, and she seemed to be resting. But she wasn't asleep. "How did you find him?"

There was a long pause, as if Alexandra were gauging whether or not to reply. "At the seashore," she said at last. "He was lost."

"You should have left him." Radel stopped, waiting for a protest that never came. "He's little more than a killing machine."

"Don't say that." The bite was absent from her voice. "I told you, he's different now. He's changing, a little--"

"You're not doing him any favors, Areksangdra! He's a demon, it's in his nature." Radel let out a slow breath and passed a hand over his face.

"And who's to say we cannot change our natures, Radel?" There was an edge to her voice now. Alexandra had opened her eyes and was giving him a peculiar glare reminiscent of the center of the world that Radel had never seen. "Blessed Mother knows I've tried, and--"

"And you're still a dragon." Radel watched her flinch involuntarily. "You're not doing either of you a favor. You're feeding him lies, convincing him that things are all right when they're not, all to build yourself up. And you've gotten burned for your pains."

"Is that so wrong?" Alexandra's voice was strained. "He--he's happy, Radel--"

"I dare say he was happy when he killed dragons by the dozens during the Wars," Radel said quietly. "Although," he admitted, "I think you are much happier where you are now."

Alexandra was quiet. "You're cruel, Radel."

"I'm honest," he replied, getting up. "I need water, Areksangdra--where can I find some?"

"There's a rainbarrel outside," was the distant reply.

Radel nodded curtly and made his way outside, treading carefully in the kitchen, where the shattered remains of the table remained scattered on the floor. Something would have to be done about that.

He found the rain barrel with little trouble and dipped his hands into it to drink. He'd hardly taken two sips when he smelled the rank twisted-magic scent of demon and turned around, eyes narrowed. The black-shadow demon was standing there, the one Alexandra had called Kaligo. He was pale and shaken, like he'd seen the Blind One's country. A knife was clutched in his left hand.

"Ah. So you did come back after all." Kaligo shook his head as a small child would, in a fervent, exaggerated motion. "No? She's forgiven you, you know. She's been forgiving you every second, and she'll forgive you in the future." Kaligo bit his lip and stared at the ground. "Go inside and see her for yourself."

"No," Kaligo said, voice broken and thready. "I can't."

"Why not?"

"I--I can't. I--"

"She needs you, Kaligo," Radel said, very patiently. "She'll be weak a while longer, and I can't stay. So you'll have to see to her."

"But--"

"If you won't, then go down to the village and tell them she's sick. I'm sure they'll send someone over daily to tend to her needs."

Kaligo stared at him beseechingly, clutching the knife as if it were a talisman. Great Mother, Radel thought, he's like a great child. He's completely helpless. Alexandra was right; he was changed. She was remaking him from the inside, extracting whatever it was that had made him such a deadly weapon in the wars--and, by extension, taking away his very function. Did he have a purpose in life now?

"At least return her knife," Radel said. "That isn't yours, is it? It looks like a kitchen knife."

The demon's grip tightened on the handle. "I--I wanted to ask you to give it back to her."

"You can't honestly expect me to believe that." Radel shifted his weight, lowering his head. "If that was the case, you would have dropped the knife and left."

Kaligo threw the knife at Radel's feet. But he didn't leave.

"You want to see her," Radel stated. "Go see her."

Kaligo nodded and went inside.

---

Kaligo's feet crackled on the wood-strewn floor of the kitchen, changing to silent pads as he entered the bedroom. Alexandra was a pale wraith even against the sheets, her red hair fanned out on the pillow like a gaping wound.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"You don't have anything to be sorry for," Alexandra replied. "It was my fault."

Kaligo's eyes were wide. "No--"

"Radel was saying," Alexandra said, and Kaligo fell silent obediently, "that I haven't been kind to you."

"No!" Kaligo cried. "No," he repeated, quieter. "I--you've--I didn't know what kindness was until I met you."

"But maybe that's the problem." The words tumbled out like wind-pushed pebbles. "Maybe--maybe you were someone who wasn't meant to--"

"Don't say that!" Kaligo sprang from the chair to kneel by the side of the bed, both hands clasped around Alexandra's. "You were the one who told me that people can change themselves. And you helped--I know what's right and wrong now, what it's like to feel, it's all because of you--Alexandra?" Alexandra was crying, her shoulders shaking. "Alexandra?"

"It's okay, Kaligo." Her smile, through her tears, was brittle and desperate. "It's all right."



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