DAY 3: 

Max watched the red of the limo’s brake lights disappear through the rain, and chewed on her lower lip. Taking a deep breath, the girl turned to face her new home, and began the walk up the long, curving road leading to the mansion at the top of the hill. Throughout her walk, her only companion was the soft sound of rain pattering against leaves of the trees lining her path, winding like a snake along the cliff where a raging sea beat relentlessly against the rocks.

Some time later, a sound broke the silence, making her look up. The chirping cry came again, and she drifted to the edge of the cliff, peering over cautiously. Stranded on a ledge several yards down, was a creature like she had never seen before. Small and black, it looked like a large lizard, except the thin set of leathery wings that attached just behind its shoulder blades. It looked up at her and let out another mewling cry, buffeted by the wind and holding desperately to its little ledge of rock. Max looked around, then dropped her suitcase and tightened the straps of her backpack. Dropping to her knees, she rolled onto her belly and dangled the lower half of her body over the cliff’s edge, finding a toe hold and starting her careful descent. Through the slow climb down, the wind clutched at her, tearing her dark hair free of it’s ribbon and sending it whipping out in tendrils around her.

(It would be simpler to jump from the top.) a soft female voice whispered in her ear, and Max ignored the ghost floating at her shoulder, staring curiously.

“Not trying to kill myself.” Max grunted, reaching out for a handhold and pulling her body across, flailing in midair for a moment. With no other choice, she jacked her body sideways and jumped, squeezing her eyes shut until there was the abrupt halt of a rock ledge under her feet. When she cracked her eyes open, relief flooded her, turning her knees weak. Clinging to the cliff face with one hand, she held the other out to the small creature huddled a foot away. “Come on, come here boy.” she coaxed, and the creature cocked its head, snaking a long neck out to sniff her fingertips inquisitively. The ghost watched impassively from where she floated several feet away.

(Why sacrifice yourself for this creature? In my time they were hunted and killed.) she sniffed, making Morgan roll her eyes. The little thing finally scampered over, climbing up her arm and digging sharp claws into her skin in an effort to keep its balance. Max cried out in pain, and it cheeped, snaking into her backpack as a place to hide. Once she’d found her center again, Max started the long climb back up, with the ghost at her side the whole way, calling out things that were less than helpful.

Finally she reached the top, dusting herself off lightly and pulling her backpack around to peer inside. Her newest rescue was sound asleep, curled in a ball and snoring a little.

“Well, I guess you can come with me then.” she muttered. “Haven’t exactly seen anything else like you around here.” Setting the pack carefully down, she peeled her tee shirt off, draping it over one arm and twisting her head to survey the damage that had been done. Scratches in sets of three scored the back of her right arm, as well as that shoulder, snapping one strap of her camisole. That one hurt the most, so she folded up her shirt to form padding between her shoulder and the strap of her backpack. Then she picked up her suitcase again and continued on her journey.

By the time she finally arrived at the wrought iron gates surrounding the mansion, it was dusk, and her shoulder had bled through the shirt cushioning it. Max pushed at the gates, then peered through them to call “Hello?” There was a clunking sound somewhere nearby, and she jumped back as the gates slowly creaked open, allowing her to step through. Pale gravel crunched underfoot as she made her way up the driveway, coming face to face with a large, sprawling mansion. A soft chirp and some squirming announced the lizard in her pack had woken, and a second later she felt its head poke out to nuzzle her cheek, looking around as she came up the steps, reaching out to knock on the hardwood door sporting a snarling gargoyle’s head for a knocker. “Maybe no one is home.” she murmured, and the lizard trilled, ducking low as the door suddenly swept open.

Standing in front of her was a tall man in his forties, looking as stern as she had ever seen. Piercing blue eyes bore down on her, and there was no recognition on his face. Max swallowed hard, then gave him a hesitant smile.

“Are you Alec Stone? Do I even have the right address…?”

“Who are you.”

“Max- um, Maxine. Carrie’s daughter? Carrie your sister?” He cocked a dark eyebrow, then stepped aside and motioned her in. The door shut behind her with a sense of finality, and Max fought the urge to wince. “I’m sorry if I barged in on you, mom said she’d called.”

“She did. I just did not assume she would be so bold.” Stone replied. “You’re bleeding. What happened?”

“Well there was this little…lizard…thing, over a cliff. I climbed down to get him and he kinda freaked out and when he climbed into my backpack he-” Stone held up a hand to halt her explanation, and stepped in close, peering into her pack, where the small creature chirped at him.

“Do you know what this is?”

“Um…no?”

“It’s a dragon, *silva draco* if I’m correct. The preserve will most likely be looking for it.” With that her uncle straightened, and steered her back out the door. “Besides that I suppose you will need medical attention. We’ll go into town.”

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Max arrived in Boulder Creek around noon, and headed straight for the Dragon Preserve. In salute to the warmth of the day, she wore only a pair of short denim shorts and a flowing top with butterflies printed on it, baring her newly scarred shoulder, though it was too nice a day for her to feel self conscious about it. Waving a greeting at Holly, Max headed straight for the Silva room, stepping in and closing the door behind her. Immediately Drake came to meet her, trilling happily and hovering as she pulled on one of the heavy leather sleeves hanging by the door. As soon as she held her arm up he landed, inching up to her shoulder and nuzzling her cheek.

“I missed you too.” she laughed softly, kissing his scaled nose. He blew a puff of smoke at her, then whipped his head around as the door at the far end of the room opened, letting a high stack of crates supported by jean clad legs in. Orin kicked the door shut behind him, and maneuvered around awkwardly thanks to the wiggling dragons enclosed in the crates. Seeing the stack about to fall, Max quickly rushed to help, offering extra support from her side. Orin let out a sigh of relief, poking his head around.

“Oh thank you- Max! Hey! Max, hi…Max.” he stammered, turning beet red as his glasses slipped another inch. She helped him set the crates down, and smiled as he shoved his glasses up his nose with one finger. Due to the humidity of the room, he had stripped down to his undershirt, the tank top showing off his slim frame and arms, one enclosed with a bulky leather brace much like hers. Sweat caused his already unruly black hair to stick out at several different angles. “What are you doing here?”

“Just thought I would stop by and see Drake. I hope that’s okay?” she glanced at him as she straightened, and he nodded vigorously.

“It’s always good to see you! I mean, for Drake’s sake of course he really misses you.” he mumbled, going redder, if that was possible.

“Of course.” she agreed with a smile as Drake landed on her sleeved arm, chirping and trilling. “So, do you need any help?”

“If you want to, you can let those guys go while I start getting everyone fed.” Max nodded, and crouched down in the grass to start unlatching the crates Orin had been carrying. The dragons were all quite pleased to be out, and swooped around her, chattering and chasing each other, making her laugh. Drake took off to join them, and for a minute she sat still and watched them swoop in and out of the trees planted in their habitat, a huge room with a glass roof. In following a pretty blue female’s flight path, her gaze landed on Orin- catching him staring at her. He blushed and looked away quickly, but she still smiled at him, straightening up to stack the crates and carry them to the small concrete pad by the back door.

“So what did you have them out for?” she asked casually as she picked up a sack of feed and headed out into the room, molding the special mash of seeds, fruit, and protein meal around the tree trunks like Orin was doing.

“A couple of them got sick.” he replied. “It was weird, I’ve never seen the symptoms they were exhibiting before.” Shaking his head, Orin sighed. “Anyway, they got better after a couple of days, so I think it might have just been something they ate.”

“That’s good.” Max nodded, and they finished up their chore in relative silence. She watched as the little dragons crawled expertly over the trees, nibbling at the thick layer of food coated there. It was supposed to simulate their natural feeding habits, but to Max it just looked cute. When she turned and found Orin standing nervously behind her, she smiled.

“So…that was my last chore for the day, and I have some extra time now. Um, if- if you wanted to, I have a lunch break and, um, do you maybe want to grab something to eat?”

“Sure, let me say good bye to Drake and I’ll meet you out front.” she agreed, and they parted ways briefly, only for Max to meet him outside the building a minute later. He’d obviously toweled off from the humidity of the Silva Room, and donned a plaid shirt, left unbuttoned over his tank top. Orin was tugging at his hair when Max walked out, but he stopped and gave her an apologetic look as she drew level with him.

“There’s just no taming it, I guess.” he sighed, making her giggle.

“That’s okay.” she said with a shrug. “I kinda like it messy. It’s…you.”

They walked further into town, making small talk all the way, and by the time they had found the diner and sat down, Orin was more relaxed than Max had ever seen him. A waitress came by to take their order, and then there was a lapse of silence in which Orin kept sneaking glances up at Max. “Will you quit looking surprised?” she chuckled, and he smiled.

“Sorry. I am, girls like you don’t usually go for guys like me.” he replied, shoving his glasses up his nose. “Happened in high school all the time, they’d say yes, and then stand me up.” He shrugged as their food arrived, and changed the subject. “So anyway, what are you doing in a place like this? Nobody ever moves INTO Boulder Creek.”

“Oh my mother decided I was being rebellious since I decided not to go to college, so she shipped me off to live with Uncle Alec.” Max rolled her eyes, and Orin cocked his head. Seeing the question coming, she answered for him, since his mouth was full. “I did pretty well in school, but halfway through my senior year it was like, what am I doing this for? Where is this going to get me in life- a good college, onto a steady job, where I’ll spend my life behind a desk. I just figured I didn’t want to do that, so I told her I was taking a year or two off. She freaked out, and, well, here I am.”

“Wow. So that makes you, what, eighteen?”

“I’m twenty.” she laughed. “Got held back a year when I was in first grade. I had a…hearing problem, so when teachers told me an assignment I literally couldn’t hear them.” She held back on mentioning the fact that her school had been haunted, and so full of ghosts that the whispers were deafening. No, Orin didn’t have to find out about the crazy until later. “Why, how old are you?”

“Twenty-five.” he replied. “I started my internship early because I graduated early- my parents home schooled me.” They talked a little about family after that, and Max breathed a sigh of relief that they had moved away from any dangerous topics.

When she got home, Alec was in his office, talking on the phone with a scowl on his face. Max intended on bouncing past with just a simple hello to let him know she was home, but he caught her eye and waved her in. A second later he hung the phone up, and turned his chair to contemplate her.

“That was your mother.” he said, and a sinking feeling started in the pit of her stomach. “She says that she’s through being upset with you over your college choices, and she would like you to come home to start touring campuses.” Frustration welled up, and Max drew a hissing breath, scowling as she looked away. Alec, always perceptive, noted that, but went on. “I informed her that I would speak with you on the matter, seeing as you are an adult, and can make adult decisions.”

“I don’t- I don’t get what is so hard to understand about me not wanting to go to school.” she said, running an agitated hand through her dark hair. “I need some time to put my head on straight before rushing off into things I don’t understand. Isn’t that what most parents want their children to do?”

“I would assume so.” Alec inclined his head in agreement. “What is it about college that you find objectionable, if I may ask?”

“Nothing.” she muttered. “I just, I don’t want to spend my life in an office. It’s been really tough the last couple of years and for once…when I’m here, I can really breathe. I’m sorry, that’s probably not making much sense.”

“It makes perfect sense.” Her uncle’s words made her look up in surprise, and he gave her a very rare smile. “That’s why I moved here. It is…peaceful.” A sigh filtered through him, and he said “I suppose your presence here through the summer would not be completely intolerable. You are nothing like your mother, very quiet.” A smile spread across Max’s face, and before she could think she flung her arms around him in a hug. He stiffened at first, then relaxed a little and patted her back before she pulled away, turning a little pink.

“Sorry. Um, I’ll go call mom and tell her I’m going to stay here for a little bit. I’ll say sorry in advance, there’s probably gonna be some shouting.”

“Understandable.” He nodded, and she left the room.

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