The black-suited woman stopped her tune. "Am I?" she said, not moving.
"Or ... what's her name ... Gillian Anderson. The actress." Riselmian squinted. "No. I can't think of an even vaguely rational reason for a Hollywood actress to be the first person I see in ages. Which means you must be X-Files agent Dana Scully. Which means, since she's a fictional character from a TV show, something else is going on here."
Scully's eyes twinkled. "You're a smart one, Emily."
Riselmian recoiled, hissing, and bared her fangs. "Don't call me that! Never call me that!"
Scully's voice went suddenly gentle: "I'm sorry. I didn't come here to upset you. I'll leave if I'm getting you upset."
Riselmian couldn't decide whether it was meant as an apology or a threat. The dragon considered, then turned her head and hocked a flaming ball of spittle onto the road. "Okay," she said with obvious frustration. "Call me what you must. You came here for me. Clearly you're in control."
"... Less than you'd like."
"Huh?" Riselmian asked, and her eyes narrowed as she parsed the statement. "Then what are you here for?"
"I'd save that look for the one who put you here," Scully admonished, still gentle.
"Don't worry, there's more where this came from," Riselmian muttered, staring. "Let's get right to the point, stranger. The only thing on my mind for weeks now has been getting out of this hell. If you can help me with that, then tell me. If you're some demon here to torment me, you'll find I'm not much in the mood for conversation."
"Fair enough, my dragon," Scully said. "Then let me make a few things clear up front. One: Whether I can help you escape this is a complex question. The short answer is yes. The long answer is no. The even longer answer is, it depends on many things, including you."
"Alright," Riselmian said, lowering her hindquarters to the ground. "I'm listening."
"Two," Scully said, ticking the points off on her fingers, "It is possible to navigate the wastes, even without my help. It's not easy nor safe, but be aware you have that option. You may, at any moment, end this conversation and attempt escape on your own, and if you do, I won't take any action against you. I tell you this because I want it to be crystal clear that I am not bartering with your freedom."
"... I appreciate that," Riselmian said, surprised.
"Three: This conversation is solely about mutual self-interest. I have no obligation to you and no need for you. However, I see that you could be very useful to me, and should my plan succeed, it would benefit us both. Four: The details of my deal are negotiable, but not the terms. My plan's timing is sensitive and its execution very delicate. I can accept nothing less than full obedience when I do issue an order."
"Already you're talking of plans and orders?" Riselmian said. "I don't even know who you are yet."
"Well," Scully said, "you don't seem to think I'm Dana Scully. Let's start here: Why would I look like this if I weren't?"
"Because ..." Riselmian paused and thought, lifting several gleaming metallic claws to stroke her muzzle. "Because she practically symbolizes for me the grounded one, the analytical one. Because this whole thing's been so bizarre and scary that she's about the only person I would reflexively trust an explanation from. Perhaps you looked inside my mind and knew that, the same way you knew my old name -- but even if you can, you don't have a way to control me or make me believe you, and you need me to accept what you have to say."
Scully chuckled. "You continue to justify my high expectations."
"So," Riselmian said, "who are you, really, and what is it you want to convince me of?"
"Would you still believe Dana Scully if she said she's really the newly crowned ruler of an otherworldly shadow kingdom, seeking soldiers for a struggle that could end up influencing the fate of Earth itself?"
Riselmian began laughing -- a throaty, reptilian purr that rocked her whole body. "Sure. For the sake of argument, why not? I changed into a dragon after one appeared in Kansas one night. Now I'm stuck in the middle of some abandoned houses in an endless desert. Why not shadow kings and Armageddon?"
"Would you still believe Dana Scully even if she told you where you are, and why you're here?"
"Lay it on me," Riselmian said, still grinning.
The redhead told her. The dragon stopped smiling.
Riselmian sank slowly to the ground. There was a lengthy silence as she digested the information.
"I wish I had it in my heart to disbelieve you," Riselmian said faintly. "But ... it would explain so much."
Scully said nothing.
"They're not even dead?"
"No," Scully said. "They're right behind you."
Riselmian glanced back, then leaped to her feet, hissing in an explosion of fear and fury. There were her parents, just feet from her hindquarters, staring at her blankly in equal surprise. The dragon whirled with the speed of lightning, spearing her mother with the lunge of a claw and lashing her long neck out to bite her father's head off. She spit out the head and ripped both bodies apart, like a dog attacking a newspaper, shrieking and tearing relentlessly with tooth and claw until half the street was spattered in red. She seemed to finally come back to her senses, gasping for breath.
"My dragon," Scully said gently, touching her hand to Riselmian's haunch, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. That was cruel, and I will swear any oath you wish that I'll never do it to you again. But there had to be no doubt. Now you understand what I said about the nature of your prison ... and why you can't go back."
Riselmian lowered her bloody muzzle, staring at the stained concrete. The ghost town went silent. Then she threw back her head and bellowed out a keening wail of such grief and power that the windows rattled. Scully dipped her head in acknowledgement. The dragon collapsed to the ground, choking back sobs and fighting for breath through her long, tightened neck.
Scully stood still as the sobbing gradually died away.
Finally, Riselmian stood, quiet, face resolute. "Shadow king," she said, "you said you had a plan. Will it hurt him?"
"I do," Scully said. "It will."
"Then let me help. Please. If I can't ever return to Earth, then the only thing left for me is to try to set this right."
"Of course," Scully said tenderly. "Thank you, my dragon. Follow me."
And Scully turned toward the wastelands and started walking. A smile -- not visible to the dragon behind her -- spread across her lips.