Photo Credit: Midjourney Images
Hello my friend! This week I wanted to share a new short story I’ve had in the works. This work is currently entered into the Coverfly Screencraft short story competition. So far, things are looking good for it to continue on into the quarter finals, which will be announced in January.
In the meantime, enjoy this story and leave a comment below of what you thought of it.
Now, for the story…
“Are you sure you heard them right?”
Aury crept behind her cousin’s silent form as they ghosted down the frozen streets. Curfew had fallen two hours ago and if soldiers caught the pair of them out at this time of night, it would mean more than a stint in the stocks.
Darius stopped so abruptly she ran into him, nearly knocking them both out into the exposed street. “If I wasn’t, do you really think I’d have dragged you out of bed and into the snow like this? They’re coming in the morning and I’m not about to let them take either of us.”
Aury wrung her hands as Darius peered around the corner. Ahead, the ramshackle wooden dragon quarter abruptly morphed into the smooth, polished stone of the human district. There had to be another explanation. The trials that afternoon were to determine which of their skills had the greatest potential to improve the wealth of Hadrian, their “Sanctuary.”
“But wouldn’t it be better to stay here, where the Watchers can’t get us?”
The flashes of battle from the fateful migration that landed them inside these walls passed before her vision. Various colored flames flared to life in the sky as her elders fought against the deformed, draconian figures. She’d been young, but the images seared into her memory that night would last until the day she died.
“You didn’t hear Merideth. I’d rather take my chances with the winged demons than with what she has planned. At least out there we’ll have a chance.”
“I thought they only drafted one person from each household,” she continued as they flitted through the shadows. “They took Lila a year ago. They shouldn’t need us.”
The snow crunched beneath her feet as they sped in front of the butcher’s shop. She’d spent days drooling over the display items in those windows. The smell of raw flesh tingled in her nose. Meat was a delicacy here, meaning very little ended up in the belly of someone like her.
Frost bit Aury’s cheeks as they crept down the street. Why did they have to leave tonight?
The look in Darius’s eyes as he woke her up only a short time ago was enough of a reminder. Her cousin was scared, and that drove her own fear deeper.
The governor took only the eldest dragon child in each family to help supply the city guard in their mandatory draft. They were told this was for their protection. That it kept the monstrous beasts, who had taken up their roost on The Eastern Fringe, from massacring them.
They paused in an alleyway to catch their breath. She blew on her frozen fingers to warm them up. Thinking of the Watchers made her shiver with more than cold. Those monsters preferred the dark, and Winter Solstice was the darkest night of them all.
Darius pressed his hands around hers and breathed on them as well. The added warmth pushed the encroaching chill and her shadowy thoughts away.
“After the trials, I snuck into the garrison because I didn’t want to be surprised by our results tomorrow. I followed Merideth and the other officials into their council room. You exceeded every test they put you through. They were raving about it.” Darius’s face fell. “I warned you not to show off your abilities.”
Aury shivered. “I didn’t think I had. I even held back most of my power, like you suggested.”
His hands went rigid. “If that was you holding back, I’m afraid of what they’d make you do if they saw your true potential.”
The governor of Hadrian chose the eldest child from each dragon family because magic was most potent in the firstborn. It lessened with each subsequent child, but in Aury’s case, being the youngest, it had intensified. Her family had done everything they could to hide it, but apparently something must have leaked through.
Aury looked around before swallowing hard. “Come on. We need to keep moving.” She took one of Darius’s hands and they continued through the deserted streets.
When they arrived at an unfamiliar intersection, Darius squatted and pulled a dagger from his belt. He drew a circle, then placed his blade in the center and blew. A small flaming arrow pointed down a side street. “Left.”
Aury had never been this far out of the dragon’s quarter of the city. Things were cleaner and better kept on this side of Hadrian. All the while, they forced her family to live in a drafty hut with barely enough room for the five of them to move around. The “best” the people could do for the poor, stranded dragons.
She raised her eyes to the sky and got rewarded with wet snowflakes in her face. What would happen to her parents and brother when they discovered she and Darius had gone? They’d be devastated. Or at least they would be if they could rise above the stupor left by the magic suppressant drugs they’d received that morning.
The herbs used during the extraction process allowed the humans to funnel the dragon’s power into gemstones. These stones illuminated the city and added an extra layer of protection from the Watchers, but it left her family in a daze until the following day.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, Darius pressed her into the shadows. Soldiers carrying torches rounded the corner, on the lookout for any foolish enough to be out after curfew.
Fools like us.
When the patrol had marched down the next street, Aury leaned into her cousin. “What did Merideth say about you? You haven’t explained why they want you as well.”
Her breath steamed out in curls. She wished it were smoke from the fire within her. Then she might feel warm for once. Her human form didn’t tolerate the heat of a dragon’s belly. Though it was something she desperately wanted right now, as feeling fled the tips of her fingers.
Snowflakes clung to Darius’s eyelashes as he stared down at her. He was the eldest, and only child of his parents, but both had perished in the battle with the Watchers. Since then, her family had adopted him into their own as her second older brother. A bond that became real after he’d used his magic to link them tighter than any sibling.
As the leaders of the migration, Gerwin and Jendalee had sacrificed themselves to allow the rest of their kinsfolk to flee. The green and blue flames flashing against the ash colored skin of the Watchers still gave Aury nightmares.
“They’ve discovered who I really am. I’m to be drafted without delay.”
Aury’s legs locked as she clutched her chest, fingertips digging through her thin coat. “How did they find out?”
“It appears one of the other dragons in the trials today let it slip that I wasn’t your brother.”
“I bet it was Fabian. He’s always been jealous of you.” A longing to set fire to every white brick of this city burned in the back of her throat, but that wouldn’t help anyone at this point. It especially wouldn’t help them get out of Hadrian.
“It doesn’t matter who said it. We’ll be long gone by the time they knock on your parents’ door. Now come on and step on your toes. Your boots are slapping the ground like cymbals.”
The streets were silent as the large coin-sized snowflakes fell. The white fluff was soaking through Aury’s coat, making her shiver. They passed manicured shops and inns whose interiors were dim. Crossing another street, they came upon the stocks where more than one dragon had died on a frosty night. The smooth dark wood stood as a warning of what would happen if they didn’t leave.
Prison. Slavery. Cold. Death.
Aury pulled her damp coat tighter around herself as the specters of the dragons’ spirits drifted among the snow.
They met no other soldiers as they made their way to the outer walls. Her frozen fingers twitched as the thirty-foot granite wall came into view. They wouldn’t be stuck in this prison of a city if her kinsfolk had continued to strategize on how to cross the Fringe, but after the first year, all talk ceased. No one cared about getting back to Tellidus, the Guardians, nor her grandfather, Irizar, the Patriarch of the dragons. More often than not, the dragons were too far gone in the addictive herbs Hadrian fed them to suppress their minds and steal their powers.
Ever since coming to this white bastille, the dragons had given up the fire in their bellies for the net of safety. All except for her and Darius. They’d slip the drugs they were supposed to eat up their sleeves before giving up their magic into the gemstones used to light the city. The gems that supposedly protected them from the darkness spread by the Watchers to the rest of the land. At least those were the lies the governor fed them. Things easily swallowed when one couldn’t think straight.
Aury’s stomach clenched when they reached the outer wall.
“Remember, keep one hip to the bricks, and use your legs, not your arms, when you climb,” her cousin whispered.
“I know. You don’t need to remind me,” she snapped.
They’d climbed hundreds of times while growing up. She was just as good at it as he was. However, as she neared the top of the wall, Aury’s fingers slipped on the wet bricks as she reached for her next handhold, causing her boots to slip as well. Falling from this height would mean broken bones, and possibly death.
This has got to be the worst winter solstice yet, she thought, clenching her teeth as she dangled by one hand high above the cobblestone streets. She hated snow and cold and everything that went along with it. But to have the light disappear earlier than any other day of the year was what she despised most.
With Darius’s help, she pulled herself onto the ledge. The click of boots drew near, and her cousin cursed. They tucked into an overhang just below the parapet. The guard’s brisk steps echoed away in the distance. Aury risked peeking over the wall.
Darius drifted over the walkway and down the other side like a desert shade, beckoning her to follow. The rough gray stone scraped her hands as she vaulted over them, leaving traces of her steaming dragon blood on the bricks as she descended. She gritted her teeth to stave off the pain. A few scrapes were easily worth the price of freedom.
At the bottom of the wall, Aury looked out into the vast expanse of trees and bit her lip. All they had to do was sneak into the forest, transform, get over the peaks of the Eastern Fringe, get past the Watchers, get the Guardians to help, and set everyone free.
Darius chuckled darkly as he caught her thoughts.
She looked back at the city walls as the image of her parents and brother still sitting in the chairs around their table flashed in her mind. They’d likely be punished when Merideth discovered she and Darius had gone. Tears threatened to fall but she blinked them back. They’d find their grandfather and the Guardians and return to free her captive kin.
We have to.
The pair slunk alongside the bricks until they reached the edge of the forest. Snow lay in thin piles at the base of the trees. The sound of heavy booted feet rebounded from the top of the wall against the bare branches. Urgent voices shouted to one another and figures converged on the spot they’d crossed over.
“It must have been my blood on the bricks,” Aury cried.
“It can’t be helped now,” Darius said, dragging her deeper into the woods.
They sprinted through the dark forest. Thorny bushes snagged her face and hair as they rushed by. She tripped once, but her cousin kept her going.
“As soon as we reach a clearing, we need to transform. They won’t be able to catch us if we’re airborne,” he said, chest heaving.
Aury ached at the thought. Too long had she been denied her true form. And to fly… Then those pathetic excuses of humans would flee before me as I ate every last one of them.
Darius grinned, revealing pointed teeth as he caught the tenor of her thoughts through their shared mental bond. Can you imagine the terror we’d instill?
“I’d start by eating Merideth and getting back Lila,” she communicated.
The moon was rising in the east, casting deep shadows among the trees. A clearing opened ahead. This was their chance. Darius let go of her hand.
Aury touched the place inside that connected her to her dragon form. Golden scales rippled down her body, and massive, leathery wings sprouted from her shoulder blades. An acid green dragon rose next to her. Within moments, both wore their true forms. She groaned with delight as magic coursed through her like a river bursting through a dam.
She spread her wings and jumped into the air. Her flight muscles struggled to regain their memory, but she was soon rising into the night. Darius followed suit, literally humming with glee as he gained altitude.
Once airborne, they angled toward the peaks of the Fringe. If she pointed herself a little to the north, they’d fly right over the Earth Guardian, Tellen Ramforth’s stronghold. Her grandfather should be there and once he heard about their situation, he’d lead an assault that could free the others. Mother, Father, and her brother Slater would know freedom once again.
Alarm bells rang out from Hadrian, jarring the starry night into alertness. Behind them, inky shadows blotted out the sky.
Those aren’t the Watchers. Apprehension colored Darius’s thoughts. Those are dragons.
A stone dropped in Aury’s belly. He was right. The air swirled around her, bringing with it a scent she thought would never cross her nose again. She paused and almost circled back.
“KEEP FLYING AURY,” Darius said aloud. His fear was turning into panic.
Various colored flames lit the forest as their pursuers sought them. But Aury didn’t understand. No one transformed, and no one breathed fire. Ever. So why were these dragons doing just that?
“DARIUS, I SMELL—”
“GO. WE CAN’T TURN BACK NOW!” He pushed his magic at her to speed her flight.
Then she caught sight of something on the back of each dragon. A snarl escaped her throat as she realized the truth. Humans were riding the dragons like dumb beasts. How far our mighty nation has fallen.
“AURY PLEASE. WE’LL JOIN THEM IF WE DON’T KEEP MOVING.”
She tore her gaze away as a cramp formed in her left wing. It had been too long since she’d last flown. She wouldn’t make it.
A quick plan formed in her mind as she shielded her thoughts from Darius. He couldn’t know what she was about to do, or he wouldn’t let her do this. That scent meant as much to her as he did. It might be her only chance.
Not to mention her cousin was the faster flier. He’d make it across the Fringe, especially if she bought him some time.
With a grunt of effort, she pushed golden magic into a protective ring around him, rendering him invisible.
What are you doing? he communicated, alarmed
Get to grandfather. Tell him what’s happening here and convince the Guardians to help, she said.
Aury, don’t do this, Darius begged. I was supposed to be the one saving you. Not the other way around.
She gave him a sharp-toothed smile. Save yourself first. Then once you have help, you can save me.
What if there’s nothing left of you when I return?
His despair was as acute as a knife piercing her heart, but she was determined. She’d save her cousin from the fate that awaited her once those other dragons caught up.
I promise I’ll stay alive for you.
“COME BACK!” a red-skinned dragon bellowed as he drew near.
Heat licked her tail as an arrow pierced her right wing. White lights flashed in her vision as a rushing sound filled her ears.
“AURY NO!” Darius struggled against his golden bonds.
“GO!” she cried. One of them needed to make it. She sent another wave of magic toward her beloved cousin, wrapping him in a protective cocoon. “SAVE US ALL.”
An artificial wind propelled Darius toward the peaks. Next, she spat out large amounts of flames to keep her pursuers’ attention on her. They couldn’t spot him.
Aury pushed some of her magic to heal the hole in her right wing, but she’d used more than she had the strength for to get Darius away. Panic took over when a second arrow struck her left side, followed by a collision with a much larger dragon, sending her in a downward spiral.
The ground raced to meet her. Lodgepole pines snapped in half as she crashed among the trees, leaving a long skid mark in the snow. She lay gasping and clutching her wings close as lazy flakes drifted around her.
Ahead, shapes moved in the gloom. More dragons. She hoped against everything that her barrier protecting Darius held.
Aury transformed into her human skin and staggered to her feet. She ran in a crooked line between the towering trees as sizzling blood dripped down her back. The snow swallowed her legs as she ran. Her whole body shook as dread and cold consumed her.
“Dragons don’t leave the Sanctuary, Auryon,” a woman called.
Aury whirled, nearly losing her balance. Merideth, Hadrian’s governor, was dismounting from a shimmering blue dragon. She walked with the grace of a prowling cat.
“I knew I should have taken you after the trials instead of waiting until the ceremony tomorrow. Both you and Darius radiate magic like nothing I’ve ever seen. But considering your lineage, I’m not surprised.”
“Shouldn’t this be what you wanted? Us leaving?” Aury asked, gritting her teeth against the pain in her arms. Warmth seeped down to her fingers from where the quarrels had pierced her wings. “I thought you’d be sick of harboring us by now.”
“That’s the last thing we want. For once in the history of this world, the dragons are in their rightful place. Not to mention, the gemstones you all touch when we take your powers bring in a hefty sum each week from the surrounding kingdoms. Who wouldn’t want to keep their golden geese from flying away?”
“What do you mean?” Aury asked. Whiteness was creeping in on the edges of her vision. “I thought our powers protected the walls of your city.”
“Oh, they do, but we have such a surplus that we had to do something with them. If we didn’t, you all might have gotten suspicious when hoards of gems spilled out into the city streets. Your power takes months to fade and you regenerate it so quickly.”
“You’re using us?” Aury spat, swaying a little. “You were supposed to help us.”
She should have believed Darius from the start. He’d told her for weeks that something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave without her family. Until tonight.
“Can you feel the poison taking effect? We tipped those quarrels with a substance that causes a person to lose control over their arms and legs if scratched. It works slowly so we can bring back alive those who try to escape.”
Merideth smirked. Her teeth were almost as pointed as a dragon’s.
“You beasts may be among the earliest creatures to have walked this earth, but humans are the ones who dominated it. Not dragons, and certainly not Guardians. Both of you are blights upon our perfect world.”
Her knees threatened to buckle. “Dragons aren’t meant to live in cages.”
“Then why was it so easy for us to put you in those cages?” Merideth asked. “My ‘Watchers’ kept you from crossing the mountains and motivated you to ask for our help. I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted.”
Figures moved in the dark. They were trying to surround her. Aury turned to run, but toppled sideways, her arms trembling. A familiar voice called to her, followed by the scent that had caused her to send Darius away.
Her heart clenched as a tall girl walked forward and stood next to Merideth. A leather choker rested on her neck and silver bracers were on her forearms. Dragon-made cuffs that could only be removed by those who placed them.
Lila. Revulsion flooded inside her. “What did they do to you?”
“They helped me unlock my potential,” Lila said, as though lost in a dream. “You were supposed to join us tomorrow. You and Darius. But now he’ll die at the hand of the Watchers, just as his parents did. And they will punish you for trying to leave.”
“Lila, you can’t do this,” she pleaded.
“I have to Aury. The people of Hadrian are keeping us safe.” Her sister’s eyes glazed over. “We need to get back to the Sanctuary before the darkness finds us.”
“There is no darkness!” shouted Aury. Fear and pain were making her mind fuzzy. “There are only scheming humans trying to keep us from flying away and leaving them to their weak, worthless selves.”
She raised both her hands and sent up a fiery ring around herself.
“Release the Fire, Auryon,” Merideth said. The woman’s cool demeanor cracked. “We don’t want you to injure yourself more.”
She was becoming light-headed. Using this much magic after abstaining for so long was draining her energy too fast.
The flames around her fizzled out as Aury’s strength failed. Merideth’s soldiers rushed to take her.
The governor stepped forward and clapped a pair of silver bracelets around Aury’s wrists. She sagged as they completely cut off her magic. “Dragons don’t leave the Sanctuary,” Merideth said again.
Then agony racked her middle, causing her to writhe in the snow. The pressure built until Aury screamed. A flash of gold and green left glittering dust all around her. She doubled over, blood dripping from her nose. Worse than the pain, though, was the empty silence that filled her mind.
The cuffs had severed her connection to Darius. She stared in numb disbelief at her red tinged hands. Only the two of them could break this bond, and that was something they swore to never do. Yet these cuffs had done just that.
“Interesting,” Merideth said, inspecting her. “You have more magic hiding in you than what slipped out at The Trials. You may prove even more promising than your sister.”
Merideth then placed a leather choker around her neck. The woman’s fingers were ice against her skin. “Welcome to the Horde.”
Aury’s breath wheezed through her broken center. For the love of the Flame, please let Darius make it.
Soldiers hauled her limp body over to a large black dragon with red eyes that glowed like coals in the ashes. The man on its back placed her in front of him and looped a silver chain around her cuffs, tying it to his saddle.
“I’d hate for you to fall off,” he said, though his expression implied he would rather eat his foot than have his arms around her.
The black dragon beneath her whimpered. The man behind Aury took a whip from his belt and snapped her kin on the snout. “Quit that or I’ll take your eye.” The dragon gave a brief cry of pain before going quiet, though a slight tremor vibrated the saddle.
A short distance away, her sister Lila transformed into a copper dragon, unfurling her wings. Merideth swung into her seat on the shimmering blue dragon she’d arrived on. “Let’s get this one back to the garrison. It’s time she started putting her power to better use.”
The dragons bore their riders into the air. Frosted trees sped below her and far too quickly, the city of Hadrian spread out below. The dragons circled down into a massive stone courtyard Aury had never seen before. Once the black dragon touched down, two soldiers yanked her from the saddle and dragged her through an iron gate and into the dark recesses of the garrison.
Inside, they fastened her wrists to chains dangling from the ceiling. Blood still dripped down her back, making her shivers worse. A single torch in the corner showed the other dragons, now in their human form, walking through the door, every eye glazed over. However, the last person to enter made the air flee from Aury’s lungs. How had she not realized?
The shimmering blue dragon Merideth had ridden was Darius’s mother. Jendalee stared at Aury for a moment as though trying to place her, but gave up as a guard shoved her forward.
If she had survived, there was no telling what other deceptions these humans had been flaunting.
Darius, if you can still hear my thoughts, please hurry. We need you.
Darius crashed into the icy snow on the Tellidus side of the ridge of the Eastern Fringe. Sunlight rose at his back as steam wafted around him from the blood spilling down his back. The last of the watchers had vanished with the sun’s arrival, and it hadn’t been a moment too soon.
He’d killed several of the ash colored demons before crossing the border, but only because they couldn’t see him. Despite that, they’d been able to track him with relative ease. Their teeth and claws had left gashes that oozed and frothed.
If he didn’t get off this mountain, he’d freeze to death and Aury’s sacrifice would be in vain. Large, dragon-sized tears fell to the ground. Several tense minutes after she sent him away, a pain more severe than any he’d ever experienced ripped through his body. It was as though his cousin had clawed out half his heart as their connection broke.
Why, Aury? Why did you turn back?
He had to get to the Guardians and his grandfather. And he needed to do it fast. The longer he was away, there was no telling what that governor might do to his kin. He especially needed his betrothed, the Guardian of Fire, Fiora Moratis. An engagement he’d only told Aury about. Now it was a secret she’d take to her grave.
Stop it! If he thought like that, he really would lose her.
He turned his thoughts to his betrothed. He’d hoped to marry Fiora when he returned from the migration that year. They’d planned to live along the southern coast of Ballitus, where warm weather was almost as predictable as the sun cycles. A life stolen from him by the Watchers as indefinitely as his parents.
Merideth, the Watchers, the taskmasters of Hadrian, all had caused him more pain than he could ever forgive. Fury rose inside him, tangling with his grief. If anyone could help him take revenge on the humans of the Sanctuary, it would be Fiora. That is, if she hadn’t given up on him.
He forced out a message with the smoke residue still issuing from his mouth. Several minutes, or several hours later, it was hard to tell as Darius faded in and out of consciousness, a familiar scent pricked his senses. He blinked open his frosted eyelashes.
“My love, is that you?” Fiora asked. She sounded scared or disbelieving.
“Yes,” he rasped.
A tender hand touched his scaly face, and he shrank into his human form with a hiss and a groan.
“What happened to you? You turn up after ten years, looking as though you just escaped with the embers of your life.” She cradled him in her arms, pressing her forehead to his.
“They captured Aury.” He couldn’t stop the tears from falling. “They’ve captured her. I’ve lost my cousin.”
Fiora stroked his battered face. “Who did?”
“Hadrian. The flaming, murderous people who live in that blasted city. They’ve captured Aury after she forced me to leave her behind.”
“Oh, Darius.” She kissed his brow. “I’m so sorry. I know what she meant to you.”
He cried harder as Fiora wrapped her arms firmly around him. Then they were spiraling into smoke, aiming north.
“Wait! We need to speak with Irizar and Tellen. The rest of the dragons are still trapped in that wretched city.” He tried to squirm out of her arms.
The Fire Guardian clasped her hands tighter around his middle as a frown appeared on her face. “Irizar can no longer help you. Tellen stole that old dragon’s magic to use for his own ends. We can’t trust them.”
Darius froze. His last hope of saving his family was dead. He shook his head before closing his eyes and stifling a sob. “Then all is truly lost.”