Well wasn’t this special. Common sense advised me to tell him to shove that pen up his arse and sod off, but something in his eyes made me pause. He really, really wanted me to accept this gift, really wanted me to have this added protection. It wasn’t like I didn’t need protection right now, was it? Finally, I nodded. He smiled in satisfaction, while Jared gave me a look that said ‘Fair play to you’.

I led Wes over to the dining table and gestured for him to take a seat. He did, but stopped me when I went to sit beside him. “It would be better if you could stand due to our differences in size.”

Oh again with the ‘size’ remarks. “Whatever,” I grumbled.

“Are you happy for me to draw him on your arm? I’m quite certain that Jared will object to me sketching anything on your chest.”

Jared threw him a playfully dark scowl. “You got that right.”

I held out my arm, watching in fascination as he took the pen from the box on the table and began to draw. “You said ‘him’. Does that mean you’re drawing a male?”

“Yes,” confirmed Wes. “He will be physically identical to Toto, though much shorter. He will grow with time. Growth, for Strikers, is an extremely slow process.”

“So he’ll be a baby?”

“No, he’ll be what you might call an adolescent. But this will not make him any less lethal. Size makes no difference with this breed. In tattoo form, however, he will always remain the same length.”

Jared came to stand beside me, watching closely. “Does it hurt?” He ignored Wes’ impatient look.

I shook my head. Strangely, the pen left a tingling sensation as it moved on my skin. It wasn’t pleasant or unpleasant, simply a sensation. Although the ink was black, other colours appeared in the intricate drawing, and I realised that Wes was projecting them onto the image.

It was an hour later when Wes was finally finished. A very detailed four-inch long, piebald snake was then twined around my upper arm. The brown patches on his pure-white scales were small and spaced far apart.

“Before I bring him to life, you need to give him a name. He will not simply be your guard, but a pet; an individual in his own right with a personality all of his own.”

After a moment, I said, “I quite like Dexter.”

“Why ‘Dexter’?” asked Jared with a smile.

I shrugged. “I just like it. Or I could name him Slick, or Conan, or Boomer.”

Jared chuckled. “No, Dexter’s good.”

“Yes, I rather like it myself,” said Wes. “Now, Sam, stay as still as you can for me.”

Fighting the urge to tense, I held still and waited. Wes did nothing other than stare at the image. Then, suddenly, heat travelled up my arm. Seconds later, there was a live snake where the image had been. Only it was five times the length that it had been as a tattoo, making it one and a half foot long.

He had a good look around before his black eyes locked onto me. I would have expected that I’d be shuddering and backing away. Instead, I was smiling at him fondly – like a crazy person.

Wanting to be sure I didn’t startle him, I slowly raised my hand and lightly ran a finger over his coffin-shaped head. Amazingly, he leaned in to the touch, still staring at me. His gaze was intelligent, observant, and curious. I almost shit my pants in surprise when his colour abruptly changed to the same brilliant blue that Toto had earlier been. “So that means he likes me, right?” I asked Wes without moving my gaze from Dexter.

“Yes, it does.”

“He’s actually kind of cool.” Jared took a step toward me, and Dexter’s head shot around to face him. Just like that, his colouring went to jet black and his tail rattled slightly. I remembered Wes saying something about Toto being grey or black whenever he was wary. And obviously the rattling tail wasn’t a good thing.

“Whoa,” said Jared, freezing on the spot.

Wes held up a hand. “He’s just being cautious as he doesn’t yet know you, and he’s intent on protecting Sam. It’s instinctive for him.”

Jared looked slightly placated. “Why does it feel like he’s assessing me?”

Wes smiled. “He most likely is. Come closer, so he can get a better feel for you.”

I almost laughed at Jared’s ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’ look. “Oh behave. You face big, bad vampires all the time. He’s just a snake.”

“With venomous fangs. Did you forget that part? And he spits, too. I like being able to see, thanks.”

I rolled my eyes. “Come here, you big Nancy.”

Jared tried his best to seem cool and calm, even moving with a very casual, cocky strut. “What do you want me to do?”

“I need him to get used to you. I don’t want him thinking I need protecting from you, so just sit down on this chair near me. But slowly.” Once Jared had done as I asked, I took his hand in mine and waited. At a steady pace, Dexter slinked his way down my arm and up Jared’s. “Don’t tense.” To Jared’s credit, he didn’t.

Much like Toto had done to me, Dexter flicked out his tongue, ‘tasting’ Jared. It had to have been at least a full minute before he returned to my own arm, switching back to a brilliant blue shade. “You’ve passed muster, by the looks of it.”

“He didn’t change colour again until he was with you.”

“Yes, but he didn’t bite you.”

Jared jiggled his head. “Fair point.”

I looked at Wes. “What do I feed him?”

“He’s totally independent; perfectly capable of catching a rodent. Taking him into the rainforest regularly would be good for him so that he can feed himself. Do not feel guilty returning him to his tattoo form. He will be just as content in that form as he is in this.”

“How do I turn him back?” I didn’t particularly want to, but I’d have to soon enough.

“All you need to do in order to get him to change from one form to another is repeat the word ‘novo’. It’s Latin for ‘change’.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. Try it now, as practice.”

Feeling a teensy bit guilty, I nonetheless repeated, “Novo.” Instantly, Dexter seemed to melt into my arm and was back in his four-inch long tattoo form.

“Whoa!” exclaimed Jared – and not just because of how strange it had been to watch Dexter change. No, what was stranger was that the tattoo was moving.

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