“Don’t clench or it’ll hurt more.” Brian instructed him as the needle dug into his arm, as though that mere reassurance would relax his muscles. Hex gritted his teeth and screwed his eyes shut against the pain as it went on, and on, and on.
Then it was done, and the doctor tugged the needle out, “Excellent, well done boy. Not even a tear shed. How are you feeling?”
Hex flinched, looking away from the dark skinned doctor holding a vial of blood, and stared down his bed instead. “Not good, tired. My arm hurts. Do you have to take it? I thought it was meant to stay inside people?”
He saw the doctor shake his head out of the corner of his eye, “Because your blood’s special remember? We take the blood out and clever scientists study it and we can use that to help you and other people. Don’t you want that?”
“But you haven’t helped!” Hex protested and folded his scrawny arms, tugging the greenish iv drip that ran into his left hand, “I’m still sick and you haven’t helped ever! It hurts!”
“It takes time; you need to patient and not whine.” Brian said as he stowed the vial of blood into a suitcase and started fiddling with the iv. “Your disease is very complicated and dangerous, so the scientists need to be very careful.”
“But I want to play! I want to go outside and play, not sit around all day!” The boy moaned and glared at the tall doctor with dark narrow eyes.
“You can’t.” Brian said with a simple shrug, “You’re too weak and sick. Best way for you to get better is to bear it.” He moved towards the doorway of the white, sterile room, and then turned back, “I’ll bring you some more books tomorrow, alright? Maybe a game or something, to keep you entertained.”
Hex snorted and rolled over on the hospital bed, turning his back to the man. They all said that, they brought in dumb picture books and toys, expecting the boy to smile naively and play with those, as though that made up for being trapped in here. When he was little he had fallen for it and stacked blocks to smash down, but he was nine now and nothing had changed, it was enough to leave him bitter and frustrated.
After a moment he heard the door close and the wards lights flickered down to darkness. Not even a “Good night” like Gillian had used to say, she at least had been nice. Hex clenched his fists and pulled the covers up as he closed his eyes. His hand throbbed a bit from the iv drip, letting medicine slide into his bloodstream, and he clenched his fist around it irritably.
One yank would tug it out, get rid of the dumb drugs. He tightened his grip and bit his lip, hesitating. It would hurt though; they all said he’d get even sicker without the medicine. But it hurt anyway; maybe it would get rid of that ache? Maybe they would even notice, get him some better medicine, some pills instead. But….but it would hurt wouldn’t it? His grip loosened and he closed his eyes again, dropping off to sleep.
“Wake up kid!” A man shouted, and Hex jumped upright, staring around in the darkness. The door was open; a man with grey hair and a white shirt was there, breathing heavily. “C’mon boy, get up!”
“Who’re you?” He asked nervously, spotting a gun in the man’s hand.
“Name’s Tam, c’mon, get up! We’ve got to go right now, there are dangerous people about.” He walked into the room and pulled the covers aside, tugging the pyjama clad boy out of underneath them. He paused and glanced at the iv drip, then tore it from his hand and pulled Hex along.
“But, my medicine?” Hex protested, struggling to keep with his shorter legs. The corridor outside was almost empty, the hospital lights flickering.
“Argh, we’ll get you some stuff when we get somewhere safe, you can last awhile.” The man growled and upped his stride, pulling the boy even harder, “Come on, we have to go, it’ll be a lot worse if you’re still here.”
Hex winced and kept running, his bare feet slapping off the floor. He felt wrong without the iv drip, out of his room. He stayed there all the time with his medicine, and now he was out of it, no wire to stay nearby. It was scary, and he bit his lip as they dashed through the empty corridors, following on a couple of other people- patients in hospital gowns, trying to hold the frail paper down and keep their dignity, nurses hurrying in navy uniforms, scientists with white coasts flapping behind them. Everyone looked terrified or tired, and they stayed quiet, but there were a few words being bandied about- “terrorists,” “bomb,” “shooting staff,”.
Tam didn’t say anything like that, he just kept moving, and only paused for a moment to pick up the scrawny kid and sling him over his shoulder, still holding his gun in one hand. A couple of times Hex heard enormous BANG noises and flinched, staring at the gun fearfully, but the shooters were somewhere else. In a little while he pushed open a fire exit and ran outside in the dark car park, over to a brown car.
“Here get in, stick a seatbelt on.” He instructed the child and shoved the child into a backseat while he got on the wheel and started up the car.
Hex nodded and clicked the belt over him, feeling hot and sweaty and excited in a weird way. “Where are we going? Tam? What was all that?”
The man stayed quiet and started driving out of the car park, past a mass of people climbing onto a bus and into dark city streets. The streetlights were off, the roads almost empty, and only here and there a window was flickering with light. Hex frowned and looked down, at the mark the drip had left. A bit of his skin was missing there, peeled off by the plasters, and there was a little red hole, but nothing much. All those years, and its mark was little bigger than a coin, it felt like it should have been more of a difference, but it wasn’t.
A cluster of police cars drove past, howling and flashing bright blue, and Tam slumped a little on the wheel, looking exhausted. He was fairly old Hex realized, over fifty or something, though the boy felt awake now. A bit queasy and hot, but less tired, and the occasional sounds of gunshots and explosions in the distance only woke him up even more.
The drive lasted a long time, the city rolled by, from tall shops, to factories and warehouses, then houses and gardens, and then there was nothing out the window, just fields and woods and hills, vast shapes in the night-time, broken up only by farms and cottages. Tam drove towards one of those eventually, up a lane with high hedges to a small dark cottage with a gravel pathway outside.
“Is this your house?” Hex asked as his stomach growled.
“Ssshh, no, it’s Brians.” The man said, and turned around, breathing hard. His eyes were hard and green, the sun still in his hand, “Listen, I need to go look in here, see if it’s safe, see if there’s any medicine. Stay out here for now until I come and get you, okay?”
“Why? What’s happening? I don’t understa-“
“Just shut up for now. I don’t know much myself; I’ll tell you once we’re safe, just stay quiet.” Tam growled and clambered out of the car, and into the night. Hex watched fearfully as he entered the cottage, and then curled up on the back seats, rubbing his arms. They were aching now, burning like with a fever, and his teeth felt wrong too. They felt loose almost, not wobbly, but not quite right either.
The shot came out of nowhere, loud and harsh as a lightning strike, and the boy bolted upright in terror. It had come from the house, where Tam must be, and suddenly he found himself climbing out of the car, ignoring the pain on his bare feet. It was too dark to see and he span and ran away, meeting the hedge around the house with fumbling fingers. He needed to get away, get away from whoever was in the house, they were bad. A tiny part of him wondered if Tam was alive, and he had shot someone, but no, that wasn’t it. He just knew he had to get away, to hide.
The hedges branches tore and scratched as he forced his way through, and then blundered onto the field, running in a panic. His stomach was churning and burning, begging for something to eat, and he fought to not turn back to the house. Then, suddenly a surge of agony coursed up his spine and he fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.
“Ouch, no, need medicine.” He groaned, and felt his back ache, suddenly stretching out under his skin. A pain stung near his rear, and a fleshy lump started to grow there, now a couple of inches long, and then six inches, and then a foot, pushing out beneath his clothes. His neck did something similar, stretching out from his shoulders as his spine clicked and creaked, new joints springing from the old ones. His legs snapped and suddenly shortened; forcing him to his belly, while his fingers turned short and stubby and the thumb split off to the back of a longer palm.
Hex groaned and yelped at the horrid pain, suddenly his entire head shifted, the skull turning almost to putty and stretching into a long muzzle while the teeth slid into sharp fang shapes. The tail at his back was growing even longer, and a couple of strange bumps started to swell from his shoulders, tearing out of his top without a care. A garbled attempt to talk failed and turned to a feral hiss as his tongues forked, and then suddenly his skin began to dry out, cracking in webs until it was tough red scales instead of soft pink flesh.
A final spasm of agony came as the lumps on his back split open and unfurled, forming vast wings , and a series of spikes burst from his spine in a row and his nails slid out into long white talons, then everything was quiet again and Hex was left, panting hard in the dark field.
A dragon, he realized slowly, swinging his head around to look at his body, he was a dragon. Not a big one like in his books in the hospital, but a little one, only about the size of a dog. Hex hesitated for a moment and then to rise on all four feet, only to whip his tail accidentally and topple over again with a screech. No, of course this was weird; he wasn’t a dragon was he? People didn’t just turn into dragons, they were made up, all the adults and doctors and scientists said so. So…he lashed his tail and fell over further, maybe it was a dream? He had had strange dreams before, impossible dreams, running around and playing tag with other kids, this wasn’t much stranger.
It felt like a dream too, all the aches and pains and sickness and weakness were gone, he felt… healthy… and hungry, and hot. Hex puzzled for a moment more and then focussed, finding the muscles running up his scaly red tail until he eased it around his side and then bit at it. A spike of pain came, accompanied by the bitter hot taste of blood, and the dragon squeaked and licked at the wound urgently. It felt like real pain, and the real taste of blood, and real hunger. But it couldn’t be real, dragons weren’t real.
Hex growled and flared his wings, feeling them pump up and down on another set of shoulders at the base of his neck, stirring up a small breath of wind that flattened the grass. His body was different, but a little bit of him liked it- he felt strong, not sick, not sick for first time. He clambered to his paws again, more carefully, feeling grass tickle against his scales, and then took a careful step forward with one paw, then the other, then the next, and so on. It was awkward, one at a time, but nice and gentle, it didn’t hurt to be barefoot like this.
He jumped a little at the thought and swept his eyes over his body again just to check, his clothes had been torn off by the change, but he didn’t feel much the worse for it, dragons didn’t wear clothes after all. It felt natural, and he resumed walking in a small circle, taking a forepaw and a back paw off at the same time now on a basic rhythm.
“What’s that noise?” A man’s voice called suddenly from beyond the hedge, and Hex froze with fear. He had forgotten someone had met Tam in the house, but the voice wasn’t his, that was for sure.
“Reckon he had someone with him? That back door’s open, maybe the scum had a wife or a girl.” Another voice said loudly, “’Ere, anyone out there? Fancy some supper?”
Hex was hungry, and he stopped thinking for a moment to shout “Yes,” only for the word to come out of his shout as a feral snarl.
“See, what was that?” The loud voice said.
“A fox, I dunno. Let’s get back inside, might be some more heretics come.” The first man instructed, and Hex stayed frozen in the field as he heard some footsteps on the gravel, and the creak of a door. Then he started crawling through the field again, away from the house, desperate to get somewhere else, away from those men. Who were they, they were in Brian’s house but they weren’t him, and it sounded like they’d kill more people.
The dragon increased his pace, finding himself running on all fours quickly, his wings half outstretched for balance. At least he felt stronger, if he had still been human he doubted he could have ran so far or fast, he would have been too sore and tired. Now, now he was just hungry which was a problem, he’d never had much experience with where the hospital got its food, though he’d read books about farms. They’d said the cows and horses and sheep ate grass and straw or fruit. He bit into some grass curiously as he passed, and then gagged and spat it out with a growl. Dragons probably didn’t eat the same stuff as sheep.
He scurried through another row of hedges easily and almost ran head first into a treetrunk. There were lots of them here, a small forest, and he panted for a second, then fell over, exhausted. This didn’t look like someone’s home at least, maybe Hex could get a little break here and figure out what to eat. Yes, that’d be nice, he thought, and dropped off almost instantly.