Sebastien was minding his own business. Unfortunately, as he’d learned by his fourth life, that was exactly when everything tended to go wrong.
One moment he was baking in the sun, his tail twitching at odd moments, and the next there was a slight pop as he was sucked out of reality.
He yowled, but the cry dissipated into the ethers. Acid wind burned off his fur, and sulfurous fumes tickled his nose. Sebastien clawed at the nothingness as his flesh rippled and hardened – Lucifer’s nipples! He hated this part – and his bones turned rubbery before reforming themselves into new shapes.
And following a series of louder crackles, like a string of Chinese fireworks, he was once again breathing and blinking into the world.
He smelled incense of some jasminey-green-tea sort. His claws clicked against hard wood, and cool AC made his ears twitch. Sebastien blinked. The first thing he saw was the witch.
She had a flat face that would be pretty someday, if she ever stopped crying. Dark purple eyeliner smudged underneath large, half-moon eyes, and her fingernails, where they pressed to her lips, were painted to match. She was staring at him as though he’s appeared out of nowhere.
Which, of course, he had.
Stretching, Sebastien realized his claws had not vanished back into their sheaths, and he felt a pang. Not a dog. He hated when they summoned him as a dog. People expected doggies to play with their kids. It was always, always better to be a cat. Glancing down at his forepaws, Sebastien puffed out a trail of smoke through his teeth. Smoke? Through the haze he saw delicate black talons attached to equally black, scaly hands. With opposable thumbs.
This was good. Sebastien twisted his torso to peer down at the rest of him. He was a long snake with hind legs that matched his hands. The talons were sharp enough that tiny curls of wood had scraped off the floor beneath him. He twitched his lips and felt muscles moving the prehensile whiskers. A gray, forked tongue slid out and he ran the tips up over his wide new nostrils and carefully over fangs the size of the witch’s finger. Sebastien shivered with delight. Finally, a witch with imagination!
For too many years he had flitted from weak witch to ignorant witch to doddering-Christ-worshipping-boring-hag. He might miss old Meredith’s tuna casserole, or the way her granddaughter snuck him bits of pork loin while he purred in her lap – but to work with power again, to obey the call of a real sorceress… Sebastien raised himself up onto his hind legs and met his new mistress’s gaze, black eyes to black eyes.
She shrieked, scrambled to her feet. Her hand knocked over a shallow silver bowl, and the water scorched Sebastien’s scales. Steam rose, and he tasted the air. Tears. The witch’s tears had summoned him, not her blood.
Grabbing a mug, the witch raised it up like a weapon. Her pj pants hung on too-narrow hips and she had no breasts. Sebastien was appalled to realize she wasn’t more than pre-teen.
But swift behind the irritation came the knowledge that if this girl had called him so young, and so accidentally, then in a few short years, and with just the right instruction, she could be exactly what he needed – exactly what Farouche needed.
He cocked his head at her, taking in the pastel bedroom, the little-girl toys and shelf of fairy tales. His eyes came again to her, to the streaky mascara and remnants of lip-liner. Before she’d cried, she’d been trying to grow up. Perfect.
“Put that down, girl,” he said, in English that hissed like rain against hot coals.
Her hands shook, and she dropped the mug. It thunked onto the hard floor and rolled in a lopsided circle. “Are you a dragon?” she whispered, clutching the hem of her tee-shirt.
Sebastien smiled, or tried to, and more whorls of smoke slipped past his lips. “I am Sebastien, and I will teach you to be familiar with demons and devils, with all the elements of the earth and sky, the sea and fiery mountain. I will teach you to dance with magic and death, to rule the forces of flight and blood. Together we will achieve greatness, and whatever your heart desires.” It was a speech to impress witches, to feed into their dreams of him. But apparently his grandiose words meant little to the girl.
Sliding down the wall, past stenciled peonies, she leaned her shoulder against a lavender wardrobe. “I only wanted a friend.”
He clacked the tips of his teeth together. “I can do that, too.”