Catch Travis Online
Copyright © May, 2016 by Travis Simmons
The Chronicles of Dragon Aerie
Plague Born Book One:
Published by: Wyrding Ways Press
Cover Art by: Kip Ayers
Formatting by: Wyrding Ways Press
Editing by: Wyrding Ways Press
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or in any means—by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise—without prior written permission.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and events are either are the product of the authors imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual places, events, and people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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Standing in the darkness of the eerie night, Millie Bixby couldn’t have known the serpent eyed baby she’d midwifed moments ago was a sign that dragons had returned to the long desert.
She shivered at the ominous feel of the dark night. The purple swirl of stars that lit the Dar Desert were shrouded in a veil of thunderous clouds. But it felt to Millie as if the stars were hiding from something. She couldn’t deny the chill that crept up her spine and made her hair stand on end. If her mother were still alive, she would insist that tonight was a night to pray to the spirits above that demons didn’t leak out of the Dark Below.
She tamped the weed into her pipe and tried to ignore the night and the thoughts of her mother who was taken too young.
She told herself that the eerie feeling she had was nothing more than seeing the serpentine eyes of the baby in the house behind her. She tried to push thoughts of the baby away, but her wails could be heard echoing through the stone house behind her.
“It’s a monster. Get rid of it!” the mother had cried out the moment she’d seen the baby’s golden eyes, slit with long pupils.
With an extreme force of effort, and a curse brewing in her mind for the hateful mother, Millie turned her focus back to the pipe. Her black hands trembled in anger at the mother’s words. She shook her head. If luck had it, that golden-eyed baby might find itself in Millie’s shelter with the sick. At least there, Millie could keep a better eye on her and assure she grew up healthy, loved, and trained in some way to better the lives of those around her.
A guttural, screeching bellow tore through the air and scattered all thoughts from her mind. It was a sound that froze the chill in her spine and sped her mind to thoughts of running.
Deep inside her mind, some instinct told her there was only one beast that could make that noise.
The crowd around her fell still, conversations hung unfinished in the air. All eyes turning to the north toward the mountains. For a moment, it was as if time had stopped. The silence stretched on into eternity as if in a silent echo to the scream that had frozen everyone. Millie could hear the rush of her heart, and the ragged inhale of breath.
She could hear the wings, like giant drums of war beating down on the hamlet of Dulasan. The sound of the wings was enough to unfreeze her legs. The crowd broke into chaos. Somehow, they knew what was coming for them. Somehow—though they’d been gone long enough to be thought of as myth—the villagers knew as well as Millie that dragons were upon them once more.
Millie couldn’t be sure how high the dragons flew, only that great winged shadows sailed between the town and the dark clouds. A cold wind howled around homes making Millie shiver. In the distance, thunder rumbled followed by a streak of lightning that lanced from sky to ground. Fire bloomed from screaming dragon mouths and took the town by storm. The reed and mud-brick homes smoldered and cracked. Though their walls had been dried in the sun, there was little protection the homes offered from dragon fire.
People cried out in terror as they fled. The constant stream of people passing Millie and heading out of town increased and soon turned into a shoving, frantic mob. They pushed past Millie, jostling her and shoving until she was turned about and found herself running with the crowd.
She looked back to see her young assistant, Sasha, emerge from the home as if pushed by the screams of the baby. When Sasha looked up and saw the beasts, she shrieked and fled with the crowd.
Millie thought about going back for the baby, if not for the mother. But her terror was so great, so powerful, that it fueled her flight and wouldn’t let her mind consider what might happen to the child.
She thought only of survival. The same primal part of her mind that instinctively knew what the roar had been also knew there was only one way for her to escape—run and hide.
Millie flowed with the crowd, the edge of the town coming into sight. Moments later wings beat the air overhead and a swath of fire cut a blackened path before her. She couldn’t stop fast enough. The sand had been heated to glass and her feet broke through. She pulled up short, the glass stabbing into her leather shoes barely missing her feet. Before her towered flames that had once been people. They fell to the ground, smoldering heaps of charred flesh—dead almost as soon as the flames consumed them.
Millie stumbled away, falling to the sand just outside the path of black glass.
The heat of the town was unbelievable and seared her skin even as the cold breeze howled through the streets. At any moment she expected her dark gown to catch fire, but it didn’t. Sweat bloomed on her skin , sticking the cloth to her body.
A sound thundered behind Millie, and she turned in time to see a great, leathery shape land on a house. The dragon was larger than anything Millie had ever seen. Its head was shaped like an arrow with sharp teeth that hung over its lower jaw. The beast was covered in green scales that shimmered like gemstones in the light of the burning town. It sized her up with one golden eye slit with a black pupil. Millie was sure if she looked close enough she could see her petrified reflection in its eye.
Fear shook her body. Tears spilled down her face and she twisted her black hands in her brown gown. Her bladder went lax and despite all of her misgivings, she pissed herself. Urine ran down her leg and splattered on the cracked earth, running in rivulets away from her body. If she wasn’t afraid the dragon would eat her at any moment, she would have been ashamed.
:Dragon fear,: she heard a voice rumble in her head. It was a large voice that seemed to fill every crevice of her mind. She shivered with the power and the bass of the voice. She couldn’t tell whether it was male or female, but she knew that it came from the dragon. The dragon opened its mouth and a kind of huffing sound came from deep within its throat. It sounded as though the dragon were laughing. A miasma of green mist issued forth and Millie stumbled away from it, but the fog was faster. She was soon consumed by the cloud. It burned her throat, her eyes watered, and she gasped for air. Millie coughed, trying to draw fresh breath, but there was none to have.
She fell to her knees, and gasped for air. Every breath burned deeper parts of her body and drew out racking coughs. She retched into the sand, her dinner soaking into the ground. Her eyes felt too large for her head and throbbed with ever heave of her stomach as if they would burst any moment. Her head screamed in pain and then suddenly the cloud vanished. Millie collapsed to the ground, finally able to breathe once more.
:Go,: the dragon commanded, and Millie didn’t wait for the command to come again. She didn’t think about the baby with the golden eyes, and she didn’t think of the mother who obviously hated the little girl. She didn’t think of her assistant or why the dragon was letting her go…she just ran.
Millie followed the crowd leaving behind her life, her family, and her friends just to save herself. While the guilt tormented her it was nothing compared to the relief she felt at leaving the burning city and the dragons behind.
Whatever plague the dragon had imprisoned her with was working its way through her body. Her lungs burned and her skin flushed. Her muscles and bones hurt. It was an ache in her skin, in her hair. She knew sickness when she felt it. She’d spent too many years filling in for the healer in Dulasan.
Even if the dragon had made her ill, she was still relieved that it hadn’t killed her.
The relief didn’t last long. Millie hadn’t made it more than 300 yards out of town when a thundering concussion of air sounded above her. Just hours before she’d thought dragons were nothing but myth, but now she came to understand that whenever she heard that concussion of air, she would fear a dragon attack.
Millie darted to the left away from the line of people. She didn’t yell, she didn’t alert people of what was coming, and she didn’t look back to see the gout of fire that burst from the dragon’s mouth and took the line of people by surprise.
Their screams of pain died away nearly as fast as they’d started. The terror fueled Millie over a dune where she half slide, half rolled to the base. From the other side of the sandy hill the sounds of destruction from the town were lessened. It was very possible for her to imagine that it was all a dream, that this was a nightmare, that this wasn’t happening.
She let her head fall back as silent tears shook her shoulders. What was she becoming? How quickly she’d forsaken those people to save herself. That wasn’t like her at all…except it seemed to be now.
“This isn’t a dream, is it?” a small voice asked.
Millie jumped, barely stifling a scream. She turned to see the small dark form of Sasha crouched low against the dune. She was wrapped in a black gown that masked her against the darkness. Millie hadn’t considered how her gown might hide her, and she hoped that dragons didn’t have any special vision. It was said that some of the elven clans to the north were able to see in the dark, see auras or energy or something that was much more prominent at night. She prayed that dragons weren’t the same.
“No,” she said to the girl. She scurried up to Sasha and tried her best to blend in with the sand. With her brown gown and her dark skin, she hoped that the night-darkened slope of the dune hid her. “What’s that?” Millie slid closer to the girl. Her hand looked hard, parched like rock. Millie slid a finger over the skin. “Does it hurt?” she asked, pulling the girl’s hand closer to her. Not only did it look like stone, but the afflicted skin felt like rock as well.
“No,” she said. “One of those dragons breathed on me and told me to go. I haven’t felt right since.”
Millie looked at her own hand, seeing no rash there, she checked further. There was no indication that her skin was changing as the girl’s was. Finding no abnormalities, she calmed slightly.
“How are you feeling?” Millie asked, checking the temperature of Sasha’s forehead with the back of her hand.
Millie nodded. “Hide for now,” she said. “Let’s hope those beasts don’t stay all night.”
“What do you think they want?” her assistant asked.
“I don’t know…”
“It’s that child,” she said. “That monster baby with the golden eyes.”
It chilled Millie how much her words echoed the mother. “Get rid of it! Get rid of that monster!”
“You think so?” Millie held back her urge to pummel her assistant about the head and shoulders.
Sasha nodded. “I hope they get her too. Then they can go back to the Dark Below where they belong!”
“That’s a child,” Millie scolded the best she could while whispering. “You have no idea what she might grow up to be, but because of her eyes you condemn her to death?”
Sasha didn’t say anything. Her eyes trained on the dune before them, lit with fire from the burning town.
“What did I expect from a small town out in the middle of nowhere?” Millie mumbled.
Sasha chewed her tongue but, wisely, kept silent.
The screams were enough to put Millie’s teeth on edge. When they faded, she was glad for it, and hated herself for being happy that her little bit of suffering was over.
You’re a healer, she told herself. What kind of healer runs when people need her?
She rested her head in her hands, silent tears coursing down her face. And that little baby…did she have some kind of connection to all of this? She could hardly believe herself, wondering if Sasha was right. But it was strange the way the dragons had come the night she was born. The way her eyes were golden, like the dragon who’d plagued her. Could it be that the baby had a bigger connection to all of this?
Sasha coughed and sniffled.
Millie took some time to focus on how she felt. She didn’t want to tell Sasha that the same dragon—or one like it—had also breathed on her. If the girl was any indication of what might happen to Millie…
What is wrong with her hand? She wondered. It certainly wasn’t a rash. It felt scaly; harder than regular skin, like a scab.
The dragons stayed all night. Millie wasn’t sure how Sasha was able to sleep through the screams and the dragon cries that echoed across the dunes, but the girl did. On occasion, Millie had crawled to the top of the dune to see what was going on only to wish she hadn’t.
Above the town hovered a great white dragon. This one was larger than the others and its eyes were red. Its scales were the color of milk and when the light of the fire struck them just right, they shined like rainbows.
The dragon opened its mouth and let out a frozen breath. Millie gasped as the flaming town froze when the icy cold breath touched the buildings. Snow drifted from the dragon’s mouth covering the streets, the blood, and the destruction. For a moment, it seemed like the city might be made anew, rise from the pristine white that shrouded it in wintery breath.
Outside the town, the other dragons waited, watching the ice dragon work. When the town was finally covered in snow, the white dragon soared up into the sky with a flurry of wingbeats.
The flames didn’t stay frozen long. Soon the ice melted and fire crackled once more. The snow melted leaving behind no trace that it had ever been there. Millie wondered what the purpose of that was. It looked almost like the dragons were playing with one another. Several more times she witnessed the white dragon swoop down with its wintery storm only to fly away and the flames crackle to life once more.
Millie much preferred the snow covered town to the fire ridden one. At least in the cover of snow she wasn’t able to see what had become of her home. Dismembered bodies lay scattered over the town where they’d fallen while dragons ate midflight. Buildings burned much longer than seemed possible, and Millie wondered if that had to do with some special attribute in the dragon fire. She remembered how it felt much hotter than normal flames and how it had devoured buildings like no other fire would have.
Of course dragon fire is special, she thought. Why else would the legends refer to it as dragon fire?
She watched for as long as she could until, finally—her stomach churning and threatening to come out her throat—she slid back down the dune. She lay beside Sasha wondering what the strange ailment was that spread across Sasha’s hand. Through the night she’d watched the girl toss in nightmares. All the while Millie kept her eyes on the rash and by her judgment it had spread.
As the night sky lightened to the gray of pre-dawn, Millie noticed a blemish on her arm. She rubbed at it, hoping that it was nothing more than dirt, or blood she hadn’t washed off after the birth. It was neither of those things. The blemish was rough, like a scab, and Millie knew that whatever Sasha had breathed in from the venomous dragon, she’d breathed in as well.
Her hands shook and she leaned her head back against the sand. She wanted nothing more than to sleep as Sasha was, but that wasn’t possible—her mind raced nearly as fast as her heart. She had to get them to safety, but where was safety when dragons were back and could reduce a town to rubble in the span of a few hours?
Darubai, she thought. The imperial city. But that was days away by sleigh ride. By foot she’d heard it would take much longer and she couldn’t survive in the desert that long. She’d need provisions. She only hoped there was enough left in Dulasan when the dragons left to get her to safety.
She shivered as a human scream rose high into the air and stopped abruptly. The trumpeting screech of a dragon nearly deafened her as it soared over the dune where she and Sasha hid. Millie crouched down further, worried that the beast was hunting for her, but it kept flying. As far as she knew, it didn’t even look down. She watched the rising sun shimmer off the white scales in rainbow hues. Was the ice dragon the leader?
More dragons followed the first and soon the entire town was empty of serpents. Leathery wings blotted out the rising sun in a multitude of gemstone colors. Millie couldn’t help feeling that the dragons were as gorgeous as they were deadly. While they filled her with dread she’d never known before, they also filled her with awe.
Sasha cowered, her gown pulled tight around her. Millie didn’t have the heart to tell the girl that the sun was rising and the cloth wasn’t hiding her from anything. Of course, that was assuming that dragons could see as well in daylight as they could night.
Where are they going? She wondered, watching the last swishing tail cascaded over the dunes and the great wyrms disappear into the sunlight. Occasionally glimmers of green, red, or blue would shimmer back at her from the way the dragons had gone, but soon enough there was not a single trace of them.
Even though she’d seen them all leave, Millie still quivered with fear as she crawled to the top of the dune. She peaked over but all she saw in the town was smoking rubble. Sasha crawled up beside her and Millie glanced at the girl. She couldn’t keep her eyes from sliding down to the girl’s hand. There was no doubt in her mind that the affliction was spreading—it now encased her entire hand.
“Can we go home?” Sasha asked, her breathing labored.
“There’s no home to go back to,” Millie said. “Come on, we need to find another place to stay.”
“Where?” Sasha asked.
Millie shrugged. “Anywhere that will have us.” How she wished she could go back. How she wished that she could return home and find it standing, find her family well and alive. But Millie knew going back into town with those hopes would only make what she found there that much harder on her. She would rather just think of her family dying quickly in fire rather than to discover their dismembered bodies hanging from the wreckage, split in half by giant dragon teeth.
“Come on,” Millie said, tearing her eyes from the town. “We need water and what food we can find.”
Millie didn’t want to go though. All she wanted was to lie down and die. What had she done? Certainly she wasn’t to blame for the dragons returning, but she was definitely to blame for not getting more people to safety. Even if she hadn’t been able to save her family, she could have done more to save the baby. She could have at least warned the people she fled with that a dragon was coming behind them instead of letting them die.
Something stirred within her, and it was foreign to her. It was a pulse of power that swayed her on her feet—a feeling of dragon scales unfurling within her. Her stomach roiled visibly, and she cried out. What was it?
Something was inside her. Something lived within her.
“It was dragons, I’m telling you,” Cuthburt said, looking to his wife, Kethill. “Now what are we going to do with all of our water?”
Cuthburt was a broad man. Even though he was in his forties his body was firm from many hard years on their farm. His blue eyes were still as dazzling as she remembered, even if his dark hair had started to gray.
Kethill imagined the same could be said about her. She was a small woman with a gentle touch, but a harsh gaze. In her youth, she’d been a beauty, but age and farm life had taken their toll on her. Her red hair had faded to strawberry blond and her green eyes had lost some of their luster.
“Cuthburt!” Kethill said, slapping her husband’s shoulder. “Stop thinking about our money. Look at Dulasan!”
Parts of Dulasan were still on fire, though the town was little more than rubble. Kethill could barely see the streets any longer. If she hadn’t been to Dulasan many times to sell water with Cuthburt in the past, she wouldn’t be able to tell where sleighs had hardened paths in the sand and where the wells and repositories for their water were.
“No trade today,” Cuthburt said.
Kethill scowled at him, but she didn’t slap him again. The truth was, if they didn’t trade their water for something they would starve. While Cuthburt was thinking about how they would survive, Kethill was wondering what in the long desert would have caused this. She avoided looking at the fragments of people clinging to fractured beams and reeds as if they’d been dropped from a great height only to impale on fragments of homes and buildings. Some of the people were torn in half, their gore spread through the ruins as if the sky had rained body parts. Thankfully she wasn’t able to see a lot of their guts and blood as it had mostly been cooked away or dried into the wood from the intense heat.
Cuthburt pulled the reigns and their tellik, Cheffik slowed. He was a large beast with six legs perfect for traversing the sand of the long desert. He swiveled his round head to look at them, his green scales gleaming in the noon sun. He trilled as if asking a question, and his long tongue shot out to lick a bulbous eye.
The sleigh shifted and water sloshed when Cuthburt jumped from his seat. He winced a little from his bum knee and Kethill stifled the complaint that he wasn’t a young man any longer and he needed to take it easy on his knees…he wouldn’t listen anyway.
“Where are you going?” Kethill asked, a hand to her belly as if to settle unease churning within.
“I told you last night that I thought I’d seen fire and heard…something.” Cuthburt frowned at the destruction around them.
“Dragons…” Kethill sighed and stepped down from the wagon, tightening the scarf over her head. “You’re still on about that. They’re dead. They’ve been dead for hundreds of years…if they even existed.”
“And yet here we are, in the middle of Dulasan that’s been burned to the ground. What could have caused this, Ket?”
Kethill didn’t answer, mainly because she had no argument. If it hadn’t been dragons, what was it? Kethill didn’t want to consider what could have done this. Most of all, she didn’t want to consider dragons. That was an entirely different sack of wyrms.
She avoided looking at the blob of black goop on the ground at her feet and lifted her trousers out of the way so she didn’t pick up any unidentified yuck while she was scouting through the town.
“What are we looking for?”
“I’m looking for proof it was dragons,” Cuthburt said. “You can either help or you can scout for food. Anything dried like beans or meat—preferably not human meat.”
Kethill shuddered and groaned. She hoped this wasn’t going to be a trend. If the same thing happened to other towns…
“What do you think it was?” he asked.
Kethill shrugged and stepped over a fallen beam and into what used to be a house. The walls had crumbled and the reeds that helped support the walls were twisted and black like a snake that had dried in the scorching sun. She hated the idea of rummaging around in homes of people she’d once known. It unsettled her and made her feel like a thief. Even if they were dead, she hated stealing from them.
“I thought you said it was dragons,” Kethill answered. Toward the back of the house things had fared a bit better and she could see furniture, boxes, and even a couple wicker jugs that had largely escaped the fire. “Though I guess it could be any number of things really—an angry djinn, a rogue fire lizard—”
“That would have to be a rather large clutch of fire lizards to destroy a town.”
Kethill shrugged. “I don’t know. There are other possibilities.” Though none of her possibilities could have hung corpses from rafters as they were.
“Yea.” Cuthburt didn’t seem to believe her. He released the spigot that kept the water in the sleigh and it rushed across the parched ground like a raging waterfall. It was deafening in the dead silence of the town, and Kethill worried that the sound might call back whatever had done this. Several moments later the water had emptied out of the sleigh and Cuthburt tossed the spigot cap into the empty space. “Load up what you can find.”
“Are you still looking for evidence of dragons?” Kethill cleared debris from her path as she made her way to the loot.
“I’ve found it,” Cuthburt said.
“I thought you asked what it could be. Why ask if you knew?” Kethill wondered. Curiosity urged her back to the wagon, wondering what he’d unearthed. Stepping over the water was impossible, it was running all over the cracked earth seeking purchase in the land.
Cuthburt held up something as large as his hand. At first Kethill thought it was a sapphire with the way the sunlight refracted off the surface, casting blue hues around the sand.
“That can’t be…” she reached for the item tentatively. He dropped it in her hand. She expected a great weight from such a large object, but it was light enough that a stiff wind could have blown it from her hand.
“It’s a dragon scale,” he told her though she didn’t need confirmation.
“It’s warm,” she said. “And cold all at the same time.” Her eyes were transfixed on the scale. Within the scale glowed a kind of fire. It wasn’t a fire made of flames but instead a shimmer of rainbow light that she could feel burning her eyes. Though it hurt to look at she didn’t want to look away.
Cuthburt snatched the scale away from her and jammed it in his pocket. “You shouldn’t look at it so long.”
“Why?” she asked, staring at his pocket mournfully, hoping he’d pull the scale back out.
“The myths I heard said their scales could entrance a person, bend their will until they forgot all their cares and worries. People were said to starve if they stared too long into the scales. They forgot about thirst and hunger. They were known as scale wraiths and were obsessed with the scales.”
Kethill opened her mouth to speak, but Cuthburt held up his hand to silence her.
“Did you hear that?” he asked.
She turned, her heart in her throat, frantic that a dragon might be returning for the scale. Just when she was about to ask what he’d heard, the sound came again.
A baby crying.
Who could have survived this? Kethill asked herself.
Cuthburt was already struggling through the decimated streets. He didn’t bother moving debris out of his way, instead, he clambered over burned bodies and fallen beams made out of bound reeds. He vanished into a house, only to come out moments later to vanish into the house next door. He came back out, empty-handed and waited for a moment until he heard the soft cry once more.
When he came out of the next house, he was carrying a baby.
She was a small baby for the amount of noise she made. She was still naked as if she’d just been birthed. She must have been born when this happened, Kethill thought, remembering the scale in her husband’s pocket. Dragons.
The baby had caramel skin and dark hair. But it was her eyes that entranced Kethill—golden with oblong pupils, like a serpent’s eyes…or a dragon. The eyes captivated Kethill almost as surely as the scale had.
“We are keeping her,” Kethill said, taking the baby from her husband. Cuthburt didn’t argue. They’d wanted a child for so long but couldn’t conceive, for whatever reason. Not being able to have a child had been the source of Kethill’s sadness. It wasn’t until recently that she’d accepted life without children and moved on.
Cuthburt nodded and turned back to Dulasan. Kethill tore a swath of cloth from her sleeve and soaked up some of the water that remained in the wagon. She placed the tip of the cloth in the baby’s mouth so she could drink.
“Find us some librak milk if you can,” Kethill said.
Cuthburt foraged and Kethill continued to tend the baby. Eventually the child was content and Kethill sat in the front of the sleigh with her, rocking her and making cooing noises to help calm the child. Cuthburt returned with a small earthenware jug that contained librak milk.
“Not much,” Cuthburt said. “It should do for now. If I can’t find anymore here, we will have to milk Sally when we get home and keep most of our milk for the baby.”
“I’ve been thinking Wylan for a name,” Kethill said.
“Wylan Atwater,” Cuthburt said and smiled. He pushed the dark hair out of his eyes and back under his scarf. “Kind of rolls off the tongue.”
Kethill nodded and Cuthburt went back to work. When he was done, the wagon was loaded with supplies and a few more jugs of librak milk that would have to keep in their cellar along with their stores of water so it would stay cool. Kethill hadn’t paid any attention to the progress he made until he was done and they were riding home. All she could think of was the girl and how it felt right having her in her arms.
Whatever Sasha had, Millie was positive it wasn’t a rash.
Two days out of Dulasan her fever spiked, and Millie sought refuge in a small cave at the base of the Northern Mountains. The heat that rose off the girl’s body was intense and reminded Millie of the dragon fire the night Dulasan burned. Whenever she touched the girl’s forehead, she was reminded of the people she’d left to die at the whim of the dragons. Whenever she got close to her and could feel the incredible heat from her, Millie thought of all the children she’d helped birth, that she’d forsaken because she couldn’t stand to face the winged beasts.
Damn wyrms, she thought. She cursed herself as much as the dragons. If only she’d been stronger. If only she’d been resolute. If only she hadn’t run. If only…
Dragon fear, that’s what it was, she thought. If the voice that had intruded on her mind was to be trusted she’d had as little control over the fear as she’d had her bladder.
Millie tried not to think about her own affliction that had completely encased her arm in the days since leaving home. Her sickness was taking on the same symptoms Sasha had exhibited leading up to the fever that had chased her into unconsciousness.
Millie tried to block the thoughts of sickness and death from her mind, but Sasha was asleep and the only thing Millie had was time to think about how she had failed the people of Dulasan and what was happening to her and Sasha. Was this sickness some kind of retribution for leaving all of her friends behind? That didn’t seem right. The dragon had inflicted both of them.
Did it have to do with that little baby? She felt terrible for considering it, but it truly was bizarre that she’d been birthed with serpent eyes the night the wyrms returned.
Whatever it was, she couldn’t fail Sasha as she’d failed the people of Dulasan.
Millie reached into the small pool of water that had collected at the base of the rock face in the back of the cave. With the hem of her gown, she sopped up some water and dabbed it around Sasha’s face. It steamed off her skin the moment the cloth touched her. Millie could feel the heat radiate through the wet rag, and it burned her skin. Millie sat back on her heels in wonder. With a fever so high, how was she not dead yet? The girl moaned in her fever delirium. For the last several hours, she’d been moaning, and Millie couldn’t get any kind of response from her when she tried to stimulate the girl. Knowing there was no use in—
“Mother,” Sasha said. Her eyes flared open, locked on the ceiling. Millie looked up, but there was nothing there to be seen.
“Sasha?” Millie asked. The girl’s eyes were dry and red. There appeared to be no moisture at all to her eyes. The lids had stuck to her eyes, and when she opened them, the membrane that covered their surface tore. Millie shuddered and turned away from the harrowing sight.
Sasha didn’t respond to her. She continued to stare up at the ceiling and Millie wondered if she was seeing something there, or if her eyes were so dry that it was impossible for her to close them. The girl shuddered and her head fell backwards. Her body lurched and her hand came to her throat. Her eyes grew large, her mouth quivered. Her lips parted and her tongue poked out them as if she were trying to take breath, but none would come.
“Sasha!” Millie reached for the girl, but one touch of her skin seared Millie’s hand and the woman drew back from the girl, clutching her hand to her chest. Millie shivered and felt the heat rush up her arm and slither down her back until it settled just above her waist. The heat didn’t vanish, instead it seemed to sink in, like dragon claws tearing into her…or at least what she imagined dragon claws would feel like if they were to tear into her.
Millie’s own skin felt incredibly hot, as if the fever from Sasha had spread to her. Millie scurried away when flames leapt from Sasha. She cowered against the far wall, hoping the heat she felt within her wasn’t about to do the same thing. Though the girl burned, it seemed as if she didn’t notice. Whatever she was focused on was internal with no awareness of what happened around her.
The girl lurched again and the fire radiated farther out from her body. Her skin blistered, reddened, and took on the look of fire. Millie scrambled farther away, noticing for the first time that the dried, infected skin had taken more of Sasha’s body—it was now covering half her face. The pattern shifted, slithered further across her face and soon consumed her head entirely.
Millie was certain that it wasn’t a rash. If it was possible, Millie would have said her skin was turning to scales.
Sasha’s skin darkened like meat cooking over an open fire. Her flesh tightened and cracked. From the cracks, clear liquid flowed followed by blood and other fluids that Millie didn’t want to guess what they were.
The smell of burning flesh and sizzling hair was enough to make Millie sick, but she fought the urge to vomit.
And then Sasha collapsed, her body went lax, and the last dying breath rattling from her chest. Her body continued to burn from the fever until her little form quivered and crumbled like ash in a stiff wind.
Millie cried out and fled the cave. Her head felt like an aching cloud had settled on her shoulders. It throbbed, her eyes felt too large for her face, as if any moment they would burst free from their sockets. Millie wondered if she might have some relief if they did. Her nose made breathing impossible and she worried that maybe she’d breathed in some of the ash that exploded out from Sasha.
The sun was bright on the dunes and in the light Millie was able to imagine that none of this had happened, that she wasn’t standing far from home and family in the middle of nowhere, venturing to a place she’d never been, hoping that the imperial city of Durabai still stood. Hoping that dragons hadn’t already destroyed it too.
Millie turned back to the cave, part of her wondering if she’d really just seen what had happened, the other part of her thankful she was putting it behind her. She worried she wouldn’t make it to Durabai before she died.
She wasn’t sure how she’d make it there now that she’d run out of water. Water farms were scattered throughout the long desert, but there was no telling if she’d luck out and run across one before she died of thirst. She doubted the water within the cave was still any good, even if she’d wanted to go back for it and brave the sight of Sasha’s ruined body again.
Hours later Millie was dehydrated…or so she assumed. All she wanted was to lay down and forget everything that had happened to her. Lay down and let the long desert claim her and everything she’d seen and been through could fade to dust. Her hand itched insatiably, and when she looked down it was to see the infected skin had spread.
An hour later, Millie couldn’t go on. Her muscles ached and she felt as though she were burning up.
Three hours later Millie’s body was covered with infection, and she was certain this time that her skin was turning to scales. The fever was so intense that the sand in her immediate vicinity had started to blacken.
In her delirium, a strange vision of a baby surrounded by dragons came to her. The dragons weren’t trying to kill the baby, no it was much stranger than that. The dragons were bowing to the baby as if they worshipped her.
Or they bent to her power, the strange thought intruded on her burning mind. She couldn’t imagine anything much less a person being able to control the dragons. But the baby was strange—her hair was all the colors of the rainbow, and her eyes held an intelligence that Millie had only seen in the elderly close to death. Those eyes knew things no mortal could know.
When the vision subsided, Millie knew only darkness and heat. At the end of her trial by fire she changed as well, but she didn’t turn into a pile of dust as Sasha had…she transformed into something else entirely.
Eighteen Years Later
Another town destroyed by dragon fire…another hope that Wylan Atwater and Cuthburt would find some dried goods to get them through another few weeks. Towns were getting farther away from their home. This one was a week sleigh ride from their home and had been burned out for a while. Sand and ashes had reclaimed much of the town, and as she stared at the drifts she worried that would mean there was nothing left for them to salvage.
Ashes. There were so many ashes.
Wylan grew up in a time of dragons. She’d not known the life before the dragon plague came—the plague that had infected people and turned them to ash. Some lived through the experience, but more often humans became like this…so much ash among the sand. The long desert was becoming the lonely desert. Wylan had been told of a time not long ago when towns and cities thrived among the dunes, but no longer.
Not since the dragons returned.
She looked to her hands. Just a week ago her own skin had been covered in…something. Her entire body had been covered, to be exact. A rough, scaly kind of skin. Cuthburt thought she was turning into a dragon, that their nickname for her, Little Dragon, might take on an entirely different meaning. Kethill and Cuthburt told her—when she woke from her fever—that she’d been completely covered in scales at one point. Her fever had been so intense they’d worried that she wouldn’t last the night, but she’d pulled through.
Soon after Kethill had fallen ill, and they wouldn’t have left her at home alone if their food stores hadn’t been dangerously low. Kethill insisted that she’d been through worse, and that it was nothing more than the chills. She’d sent them away, but Wylan knew it was more…she knew Kethill had caught what she had.
This trip couldn’t be short enough.
Wylan’s golden eyes scanned the horizon. Dragons. She’d never seen a dragon up close, and the thought of meeting one thrilled her. She’d seen them winging through the dusk, but the Atwater farm was a secluded place and didn’t see much wildlife outside the animals they kept. In years past, Cuthburt had started collecting various lizards that could be used for food and kept them penned up, but that was the only life she saw outside of her adopted parents.
But she still wondered about dragons. Her parents told her how dangerous they were; how deadly they could be. Wylan couldn’t help imagining that some of the dragons couldn’t all be bad. Dragons were so lovely on their own. At times she could see them dancing through the clouds with one another. Their trilling song echoing across the empty dunes, nearly lulling her into a trance. Their movements were so fluid, so graceful that she almost wished she could dance with them.
But whenever she thought dragons might not all be bad, she saw another town like this and the image of what they’d done was burned into her mind.
Still, it was something to think about. Maybe one day she’d live to see dragons and humans work together. She doubted that, but it was a great dream. It was probably for the best she’d never seen a dragon up close, not if this was the kind of destruction they left behind.
Kethill was good at teaching Wylan all there was to fear about dragons. She knew the most common type, in stories, breathed fire, but there were others that could exhale poison, some that could cause storms, and others that could bring the cold of winter as was never felt in the Dar Desert. Their scales were like gemstones, light as feathers and harder than diamond. Kethill kept a blue scale mounted on the wall behind their dining room table and Wylan felt herself drawn to the scale whenever she passed by it. Sometimes, when she looked at the scale, she felt heat sweep over her body, heard screaming, and felt a sense of panic. She couldn’t be sure if the sensations were real or if it was her mind playing tricks on her. She knew it was a scale from the night she’d been abandoned, but the sensations felt too real to be just flights of fancy.
“Load up whatever you find,” Cuthburt said, drawing Wylan back to the present. Cuthburt was no longer the strong, healthy man whom she’d grown up knowing. Years hadn’t been kind to him. His skin was dark and leathery, his once thick hair nearly gone, his body thin and wraith-like. Kethill wasn’t much better, though her thick hair refused to fall out.
“Gotcha.” Wylan headed off in the opposite direction from Cuthburt, her foraging bag slung over her shoulder. Many times they’d gone home empty-handed, but this time Wylan wouldn’t let that happen. Kethill was sick and she needed more than what they had at home. Maybe she could find her mother something nice in the rubble like a gem, or a necklace.
There wasn’t much left of the buildings. Most of them had been burned down to rubble that had blown away in the wind. Still, Wylan felt strange trudging through the destruction when she could tell what she was walking through was a house. The foundations were gone, but some of the houses still had semblance of rooms—a table tipped on its side, remnants of a straw bed where it hadn’t been burned away, a dresser. Most of the houses, however, had been reduced to ash in the heat of the dragon’s fire.
Wylan didn’t like thinking about what she was searching through. It wasn’t just ash and sand…these had been lives—people. She let her mind drift to stories she’d read and reports she’d studied. Part of her day was made up of Kethill teaching her to read and making her study ancient legends about dragons and how the world had been when dragons ruled. They had ruled. In times before the dragons returned to the lowlands, it was easy for people to think those old reports were nothing more than legends. Now they knew they weren’t legends, they were so much more.
Dragons were willful. Dragons were intelligent even if they acted like mindless lizards that needed to be put down like any pest. But she’d seen them dance, heard them sing with an intelligence that rivaled humans. Their songs and dances recalled to Wylan stories of ancient heroes. Where these dragons singing and dancing in a kind of communication to one another?
She shook her head. The evidence of their pestilence was all around Wylan. Large claw marks on the wall beside her. She placed her hand to the deep furrows in the wall that still stood. Each rivet was easily as wide as her hand. She’d never seen a dragon up close, but she could only imagine the strength they must have possessed in a simple strike. It would have been enough to tear her in two.
She turned to leave when the toe of her boot caught something in the sand. She crouched down and brushed the sand away. A length of braided leather came into sight. She pulled it from the sand to gaze at the necklace. Slipped around the leather thong was a green gem in the shape of a dragon claw. It was long and could easily have been the claw of a young dragon, but Wylan knew their claws were black. This was a replica. It was perfect for Kethill. She loved the beauty of dragons even if she knew they were ruthless murderers.
Wylan slipped the necklace into her pocket and stood. She tried not to think about who the necklace had belonged to. Had she pulled it from the ashes of the woman who’d once worn it? She shivered and moved on to another house. There was blessed little left of any of the homes and even less loot. Still she wondered as she worked. What would life be without dragons? At one time Cuthburt and Kethill had carved out a nice life for themselves. They lived by a natural spring in the Dar Desert. There was a scattering of inedible plants around their home, and they were able to plant minimal food. The water was their source of income, trading to other towns for whatever they needed to survive.
One day I will see a world without dragons, she thought. Even as she thought it, however, Wylan knew that was impossible. She’d never see a land without dragons. But she could fight them. She knew it was possible because the old reports told her so. She could fight them and keep people safe. The imperial city had to have something like that, some sort of guard that kept the city safe. Maybe some kind of magic to drive the wyrms back, even if wizards had gone extinct just years after the dragons vanished. If only she could get Cuthburt and Kethill to agree, she could go and cast her lot in with those warriors that drove the dragons back. Maybe she could even convince them to go with her. Life wasn’t getting any easier, and if this town was any indication, they were running out of supplies they could scavenge.
Wylan had also been told to bring back any books she found. But those seemed even scarcer than food. By the time she made her way back to the wagon to meet her father, she’d found two. Books seemed a bigger boon this time than food was.
Cuthburt was waiting for her, sitting on the wagon, their tellik beast basking in the last, dying rays of the sun. Cheffik had seen many more years than Wylan had. She patted his rounded head as she passed, sure to massage the scales between his eyes. He trilled, nuzzling her hand. It always made her laugh.
She tossed her bag into the back of the sleigh.
“Very little food today,” Cuthuburt said.
“Will it be enough?” Wylan stepped into the sleigh and sat down. Cuthburt snapped the reigns and steered Cheffik back the way they’d come.
“Hard to say.” He sighed. “We will make-do.”
“Towns are getting farther and farther away,” Wylan said. She knew it was hard to convince Cuthburt of anything that he didn’t want to be convinced of. She had to make her arguments to him before any kind of suggestion. And she had to make it seem less like she was arguing and more like she was planting seeds, making small talk.
“And they’re getting older, the long desert is reclaiming…everything.”
“What are you getting at?” Cuthburt asked.
Damn, didn’t work.
“I assume this is going somewhere?” Cuthburt looked to his daughter.
Wylan sighed. “It’s hard out here, and you aren’t getting any younger—”
“I’m just saying that we could benefit from something more stable. Darubai, for instance.”
“Hear me out,” Wylan argued.
“This should be good,” he muttered, waving her on.
“What if dragons return?” Wylan said. “I mean, we are the only place for miles that has any livestock, or anything living for that matter.”
“Exactly. What makes you think that they would return for a tiny farm and old, grizzly meat like me?”
“But is that a chance you want to take?” Wylan looked at her father.
“A place as large as Durabai? The plague runs rampant.”
“It’s been how many years now?” Wylan asked. “Do you still think the plague is an issue?”
He didn’t say anything and it was hard for Wylan to be certain if Cuthburt was still listening to her at all or if he was considering her argument. Whatever the case, he didn’t speak the next couple hours while they rode.
That night at camp was the first he’d spoken all day.
“You know, it’s not like those legends you read,” Cuthburt told her.
Wylan stirred from her jerky. “What isn’t?”
“Fighting dragons. I don’t know of any town that’s survived a dragon attack. I haven’t heard of any people that have survived either.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Wylan argued. “The reports mother has me read talk about slaying dragons, feasting on their meat for weeks and months later. There were hunters, and there was food.”
“You will likely die,” Cuthburt said.
“Die in a city, surrounded by people, food, help? Or die out here, hungry and alone. I think there’s more safety in numbers.”
“And you’re sure about fighting dragons?” he asked.
She looked back toward the ruined town. Though she couldn’t see it now, she could still remember the destroyed lives she’d picked through to further their suffering just a little longer. “Yes. But more importantly is making sure mom and you have a better life. Easier access to food you don’t have to fight for.”
“That’s assuming the imperial city still stands and hasn’t turned into some ragtag group of cutthroats.”
“Always looking on the bright side of things,” Wylan jeered.
“All right,” Cuthburt said, gnawing on his ration of dried meat.
Wylan looked at him across the small fire made of reeds. Cheffik dozed beside her, his snores huffing out in little trills. “All right?”
“I will talk to Kethill. You’re right, we could benefit from the protection. Anything has to be easier than what we are doing now.”
Wylan nearly flew across the fire and hugged Cuthburt tight. He yipped in surprise and then laughed, hugging her back.
“Get some sleep now, it’s going to be a long ride home.”
But it was nearly impossible for her to sleep. All she could think about was the guard the city must have, and how she’d enter. She had no training with any formal weapons. Would they accept her? They had to be desperate for people. She could learn to use a sword. She was a fast learner and she would dedicate herself to it like nothing she’d done before.
It took them several days to get home. There had been little to find along the way, so unloading was quick. Wylan unharnessed Cheffik and took the mount around to the back of the small home where he burrowed down into the sand of his pen for a long sleep. Wylan watched the lizard with a smile on her face. In the distance, she heard the cry of a dragon and she turned to watch the shadow of the beast rise high in the air silhouetted by the Northern Mountains.
One day, she promised herself. One day soon she would be in a place where she could fight them and help to make the long desert safe for humans once more.
“Wylan,” Cuthburt called from the front of the house. She turned from her pondering of the dragon and trudged through the sand. It felt good to be home. She loved the adventure of being out among the dunes and seeing all the sights she only got to see in the pages of a book, but nothing could beat the familiarity of home.
She wondered what she would feel in a couple months when she left home and ventured to Darubai. What would her home there be like? She was sure she’d be sad to leave their home, but all she could feel now was an exhilarating excitement in her stomach.
Cuthburt stood at the top of the stairs the door propped open.
“Your mother’s worse, burning up. She’s laying down and asked if you could get the beans ready for dinner while I butcher a librak.”
“Is she okay?” Wylan asked.
Cuthburt didn’t answer. His eyes were haunted, and he didn’t look directly at her. Worry gripped her stomach.
“She will be.” He held the door open for Wylan and she jogged up the stairs and into the house. The sun was setting and the house was dark. Wylan could just make out the shadowy lump of Kethill on the couch at the back of the house. She didn’t like seeing her mother sick, so she went about her routine of washing up after the long ride and dressed in an airy rose-colored gown to help her cool down.
Wylan busied herself with lighting lamps around the small kitchen, placing them on the table with a kettle and their jar of beans. The jar was despairingly light. They hadn’t found any more beans.
She tried not to look at the lump on the couch. Seeing her parents sick only reminded her of how much they’d aged in the last few years. There was nothing Wylan could do for Kethill except make dinner and maybe help her mother overcome the fever.
And hope that Kethill wasn’t sick with the same thing she’d had.
But all she could think about was how Kethill told her she had barely made it out of the fever. Wylan was young…Kethill wasn’t. The sickness would be worse on her mother. If she was young and barely made it, how could Kethill fight it off? She tried to remember that Kethill had survived nearly sixty years in the desert. This fever was nothing compared to what she’d faced in all her years.
She pulled her attention away from thoughts of her mother and to the jug of beans before her. Wylan only measured out a small portion of its contents but it was still a quarter of what was left. She sifted through them to pick out any stones, humming as she worked.
Wylan’s mind was elsewhere, on places and times that she hadn’t been part of outside the pages of a book. She tried to imagine the night the dragons came back. Her parents hadn’t hidden anything from her of that night, but they didn’t know much of the attack on Dulasan save what they’d heard coming from the small town. They told her she could go back there any time she wanted, but Wylan didn’t want to. All she got from thoughts of the place was a sense of being unwanted and unloved. No, her life was here, whatever had been in Dulasan could remain buried in the past.
A shadow fell across the table, and Wylan looked up, wondering if a storm was blowing in. Funny, there hadn’t been a trace of clouds in the sky. The sun was low on the western horizon and she couldn’t see anything that would have caused the shadow. She bent low and looked out the window, but she still didn’t see anything that might have caused the shadow.
Kethill moaned from the couch and Wylan glanced at her mother. Was it just her imagination, or was Kethill’s skin darker? She fought the urge to go look.
The house shuddered and sand sifted down around her from the rafters. She frowned as the beans grew dirty.
Kethill cried out again. Wylan forgot the beans and went to her mother’s side. There was a great heat coming from her skin and Wylan hesitated to touch her. As she reached down to her mother, Kethill gave a great moan and the couch began to smolder. Moments later it burst into flames with a roaring chorus of snaps and pops.
“DAD!” Wylan screamed. She grabbed her mother’s shoulders and pain seared her hands. She stumbled back, staring down at her reddened skin. Her mother’s flesh felt like fire. The flames rose higher and Wylan threw personal safety to the wind and dashed in toward her mother.
A cry rose up from outside moments before the house shuddered again. Kethill let out a great screech and her body burst into flames. Her gown shriveled and where Wylan gripped her shoulders, her hands began to catch fire.
Wylan stumbled away from her mother, staring at her hands. They didn’t hurt…they didn’t burn. But there was something happening to them.
Her flesh was peeling away.
She crashed into the table and the jug of beans shattered on the floor, its contents skittering everywhere. She didn’t care, her mother was going up in flames. This couldn’t be happening. Had this happened to Wylan? They hadn’t mentioned fire.
Cuthburt yelled from outside again, something incoherent, but the fear that filled his voice drove Wylan to the front door. She slumped in the doorway, staring at her hands. Her fingernails were lengthening, turning black. Her skin looked like scales—red and thick like armor. She flexed her hands, feeling the way the scales slipped together. A chill ran up her spine.
The shadow passed over the house once more, and Wylan fumbled down the stairs, her eyes drifting up from her hands. A grating bellow sounded, nearly deafening Wylan. She clasped her hands to her ears, but the sound had already been heard. She shivered, her knees buckled and she slumped to the sand. A great wind whipped her black hair around her face.
Then she saw the dragon clearly. It looked like it was made of sapphires—it’s body glowed in the setting sun. It was the most beautiful thing Wylan had ever seen, and her body called to it. With every fiber of her being, Wylan wished to reach out to the beast. Her hands pulled away from her ears, and she reached up toward the dragon.
Her hands were no longer hands. They were longer, they were…claws!
She was distantly aware of the house going up in flames, the mud of the walls crumbling away to show the table and one chair…the chair that Kethill sat in every night for dinner and then for games after.
The dragon circled overhead, and Wylan knew the moment its golden eyes trained on her because she felt it ripple through her body.
:Plague bearer,: a voice rumbled through her mind. The sapphire dragon looped back around, its leathery wings opening like great sails of a ship. They were like leather, soft and combed. She could only imagine the way those wings would feel under her hand. She reached out for the dragon as it settled on the ground before her. Great billows of sand stirred around her, slicing into her skin, but her scaly red hand didn’t feel any of it.
The dragon stared into her eyes, and she felt a kinship there.
:The first wyvern,: it said.
Wyvern? Wylan wondered. She’d read of them, but why was he calling her the first wyvern? It didn’t make sense. Wyvern were lesser dragons and largely thought to be impure. Smaller than regular dragons and with lesser powers.
The dragon cried out, its roar filled with pain, its head rearing back and his wings opened wide, framed by the sun. It whipped around and Wylan could see a spear sticking out from under its scales, close to the base of the tail. The dragon struck at something and then took to the sky in a great buffeting of wings.
Half a body fell to the ground, blood gushing from the stump of legs. There was no doubt in her mind that it was Cuthburt the dragon had killed.
Wylan cried out, tears burning on her cheeks before they could fall to the sand. She reached for her father, but pain seized her, contorting her muscles. Agony froze the sob on her lips, and she wasn’t in control of herself. Her muscles bucked, constricted, and seared with liquid fire.
The wind whistled around her—the smell of fire and charred mud thick on the air mingled with the metallic scent of her father’s blood. Tears streamed down her face, rising as steam off her feverish skin. Her face reddened, saliva sluiced from her mouth.
And then she was floating. Her mouth opened in a silent cry of pain, her hands clenched at her side—talons that might cleave the pain from her body at any moment. The wind howled around her and pain split her back wide open. She felt bones slip and slide together. Several ribs popped and reformed. The pain was more than anything she’d ever endured before. Passing out would have been a blessing, but it wasn’t meant for her.
As her dress ripped down the back great leathery wings snapped open from her spine and she screamed, giving voice to the pain that burned through her body. The wings grew along her arms, slicing through the fabric of her pink gown until the dress lay in tattered rags beneath her. She glanced down at the garment, but she didn’t see it…all she could see were red, scaly feet that dangled above the ground.
She cried out again, but this time it wasn’t her voice that drifted on the air. A guttural roar rose from her lips. Wylan was no more. In her place hovered a red wyrm the likeness of a dragon, but not really a dragon. It was something different…something smaller and not as powerful. The blue dragon roared in the distance, and Wylan knew true fear. This wasn’t the fear of a human to a dragon, but the fear of an inferior creature to a superior beast.
Wylan opened her wings wide but a swift wind threw her to the side. She spiraled over the dunes, crashing to the sand. Great plumes of dust rose into the air around her. She pushed to a stand, her front legs—what used to be her arms—were now part of her wings, and she flexed arms more powerful than any kind of strength she’d felt before.
The wind tore around her, and she tried to take flight once more. Her eyes were trained on the dragon and the path it was following…the monster that had killed her family. She opened her wings and let the wind take her. Flying came to her like second nature. She let the wind carry her for a while before she sliced up through the gathering night, her wings carrying her higher and to other currents of air. She felt the currents play along her scales as she slithered higher and higher.
Her thoughts were only for the blue dragon, and the anger that burned inside her was stronger than her beasts fear of the great wyrm.
Wylan knew one thing—the blue dragon was going to die.
Millie looked to the cornflower sky. Dark clouds skirted the edge of the once great imperial city of Darubai. A storm was brewing. Electricity hummed through her body and it stirred her bushy black hair, tantalizing the wyvern soul inside. Her sage gown rustled around her bare feet. There was power in the storm. There was fate in the winds.
Millie shivered and closed her dark eyes. As she’d done many times before, she sought out the vision, the one so many wyvern youths were having these days. She remembered when the fever took her and the fire burned away her human side, leaving behind a half-breed. She’d become something other than human, alone in the desert with no help or aid. She’d thought she was cursed. In part, she’d been right—at least she thought until she made it to the imperial city of Darubai.
She became a wyvern. It was the day she’d met the wyvern soul within her—Josephine. The vision of the rainbow lady had come to her then, but not since, even when she sought it out. But what did she expect? She wasn’t a yellow wyvern who could see the future and call on visions.
Now, eighteen years later the whelps of wyvern parents were having the same visions almost nightly.
She suspected that’s why the wing commander of the blue unit had sent Josef Decker for her. Millie followed his leather-clad back through the streets of Darubai. In times before the dragons returned, the imperial city had been a thriving place. People streamed over the hard-packed roads conversing with one another, or buying wares along the streets.
That all changed when the dragon plague came. Millie had arrived in the city only days after the plague had started. Entire blocks of crying, terrified people had been quarantined. The quarantine hardly stopped the invasive disease from spreading. It worked fast, and the results were devastating. Considering her past as a midwife and the green wyvern soul she harbored, Millie had been given to the healers to help where she could. She’d already been through the illness and survived. But watching mothers and fathers, children and grandparents succumb to the dragon fever had nearly broken Millie.
It reminded her of home in Dulasan. She’d seen Sasha, a young girl from Dulasan, go through the fever and watched her turn to ash when she didn’t survive.
Many of the inhabitants of Darubai didn’t make it. They’d turned to ash and mingled in the air with the wind just as Sasha had. For weeks the streets were filled with crying and screaming, moaning and vomiting. It seemed months went by where the air was choked with so many ashes and Millie had tried not to think that the ashes were people. People she could have easily breathed in if it wasn’t for the scarf that covered the lower half of her face. The amount of people going through the fever raised the temperature within the stone walls of the imperial city to near scalding temperatures. Millie had to scale the face of the Northern Mountains just to get away from the heat and to cool her skin. It was there she could take a deep breath, there in the mountains where the moans and cries didn’t plague her and she could stare at the sky, imagining a different world before the dragons came and reduced human life to this—a struggle to survive.
She often asked herself why she bothered. What was the point in going through life if it was this? Would it be wiser to seek out the dragons and let them kill her? It would certainly put an end to her suffering. But Josephine wouldn’t allow her to. The wyvern soul had a mission just as much as Millie had a vow—heal the sick and help rear the young.
Some survived the plague and came out the other side of the fever as wyverns. Some had survived the plague and came out the other side no different than how they’d entered.
Most died. Others were broken mentally and sometimes physically.
Darubai was a ghost town now. The city was sprawling, but it was filled more with memories of people, ghosts of its past greatness than it was with humans.
Josef stopped and Millie nearly ran into his broad back. He shot a smile over his shoulder, the kind that split his face nearly in half and was so full of youthful impishness that it was infectious. But Millie was too racked with nerves to smile today. “We’re here,” he said, as if she needed the confirmation.
The entirety of the wyvern army was housed on the outskirts of the city, nearest the western wall. It wasn’t a long walk from the nursery where she worked, secluded in the mountain face. Headquarters was a small, two-story building. Soldiers weren’t housed here, they took up residence in any number of the abandoned houses and apartments that made up Darubai. Headquarters functioned as a base for the commanders. As with most of the buildings in Darubai, it was made of colorless brick. The door was open to the breezy day, allowing view of a dingy hall that stretched to the back of the house.
“Ready?” Josef asked. His blond hair shone in the sunlight and his blue eyes sparkled with mischief.
Millie nodded. She couldn’t understand why the man was excited—she was so nervous her stomach hurt. She’d never been called to an audience with any branch of the military. This was a first for her, and she couldn’t imagine what required her presence. She followed Josef into the building. A hall stretched out before them, dimly lit and cool with a nice cross-breeze that hinted at rain and storms. To either side of the hall doors opened up into random offices. Josef led her down the hall and up the stairs in the back. The second floor was much the same as the first. At the top of the stairs Josef gestured for her to enter an office. The room wasn’t meant to fit three people and the furniture.
Behind a stone desk sat a small, dark-haired man. She knew Garret from sight, even if she’d never been formally introduced to the blue wyvern. He rose and extended a hand. His leather armor fit like a second skin giving her a hint of muscle beneath. He was a dark man with dark eyes. Though he exuded an air of intimidation, his smile put all her fears to rest.
Millie took his firm grip and bowed her head slightly. “Wing Leader Garret, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Millie Bixby…” Garret studied her dark face. “It’s a pleasure to meet you as well. Please, have a seat.”
She sat, but Josef remained standing.
“You must wonder why I called you here today,” he said.
“The thought had crossed my mind.” She smoothed the folds of her gown as though she hadn’t been worried in the least and this was nothing out of the ordinary.
“How long have you worked with the whelps?” he asked.
“Almost sixteen years,” she answered. Am I supposed to address him as sir?
“What do you think of these visions they’ve been having?” he wondered.
Millie pondered the question. She gazed out one of the windows, toward the mountains where her children rested after lunch. “They’re strange,” she said. “I remember having a similar vision when I first changed.”
“As do I,” Garret said.
“But it was only once,” she turned her attention to Garret. “They are happening with much more frequency, and they’re reoccurring. I don’t think any wyvern has had that happen before.”
“Have you had a vision of the rainbow lady since?” he wondered.
She shook her head.
“Neither have I,” he told her. “Even though, I still feel where she is.”
“Me too,” Millie said. “To the south-east.”
Garret nodded. He folded his hands atop the desk. “And do you still feel her as strongly as you had before?”
“It’s different now,” she said. “Her presence has grown stronger in my mind. I feel like she’s calling to me, though that’s absurd, isn’t it?”
Garret gave her a look that said he didn’t think it was nearly as absurd as she hoped he had.
“You’ve felt it too?” she asked.
“What about you, Decker?” Garret turned his attention to Josef.
“Her presence has grown in my mind since my first vision,” he agreed.
“What does this mean?” Millie wondered, glancing between the men.
“I think she’s been born,” Garret said simply.
The revelation struck Millie like a fist. She made her way to the window and surveyed the streets. The broken buildings stood like the teeth of some great maw that was about to latch shut on all of them. She crossed her arms over her chest to stave off the chill of premonition she felt.
“What do you feel?” Garret asked.
“I’m no prophet,” Millie said. “I’m a green, not a yellow.”
“As a wyvern who’s connected to the rainbow lady, what do you feel?” he urged.
“I feel the truth of your words,” she said. “Almost like they were my own.”
Garret nodded. “That’s why I’ve called you here today. I would like you and Josef to find her and bring her to Darubai.”
“You would like us to go get her?” Millie asked. “Why us? Specifically, why me? We have new whelps. I can’t just leave them.”
“This comes down from the clutch commander,” Garret said. “I’m sure there’s good reason for it.”
The clutch commander knows of me? Millie wondered. She’d never met the woman, but she knew of the top ranking head of the dragon guard.
“How often do they need your help anyway?” Josef asked Millie. “You have other greens working with you in the hospital and the nursery. You must have another you trust to take the reins.”
Millie sighed. She was a civilian and had nothing to do with the military, but they were all overstretched. The emperor and the empress still ruled the common-folk while the military acted as constables and city security. She didn’t like the idea of saying no. She was called upon to help, and the military wasn’t one to send people off on needless missions.
She’d be a baby, Millie thought. She remembered so many years another baby that she’d left to the whims of the long desert. The little golden-eyed baby that hadn’t been loved by her mother, who had gained so little love from Millie’s assistant. She couldn’t say no to another baby. Maybe this is a test by the good spirits, she thought. Maybe this is how I make amends.
“As to why you,” Garret continued, “you’re the best we have at tending to younglings. We have no idea what kind of situation the babe could be in. We are going to need our best to tend to her.”
Millie nodded. “Of course. You’re right. I can hand over the nursery for a few days while we collect the baby.” When she thought about the baby, she remembered the vision she’d had when she changed and she could almost feel a connection to the child. She knew in her very soul—even in her wyvern soul—that Garret was right. The baby had been born. There was no telling in what conditions she’d been born into. Lavender eyes filled her mind when she thought of the baby. Josephine trilled in delight when the eyes came. There was a sense of a mind, intelligent and cunning beyond the years of a baby. Millie found herself smiling despite the fact that she was going far from the city she’d lived in for the last eighteen years. Only the dragon guard went beyond the city looking for other humans who might have survived the dragon plague and the attacks. Her stomach swirled with nerves that she couldn’t calm. She knew little about weapons, having been trained little with a sword…all she had was the poison—and healing—of the green wyvern.
“So you agree?” Garret asked. “You do know we can’t make you go.”
“I know.” Millie turned from the window. “But I also know that baby may need my help.”
“Perfect,” Garret said.
“When do we leave?” Josef asked.
“As soon as you’re both ready.”
It took Millie the better part of an hour to get things organized at the nursery and walk Caroline through what she’d need to do while she was gone. Stepping out of the hospital and onto the stone path cut into the mountain face, Millie felt that she was forgetting something. She hadn’t been out of the city since she arrived, and part of her was apprehensive about what she would find. Another part of her worried that something would happen to the whelps while she was gone. She wasn’t sure if she would ever forgive herself if it did.
She looked over Darubai from her where she stood. The hospital wasn’t that far up the mountain face, but it did afford her a view of the tops of the buildings. From her vantage it wasn’t hard to imagine nothing had happened to the city. The tops of the buildings looked whole from where she stood.
She could make out scouts here and there in some of the domed tops of buildings—sentries keeping watch for another dragon attack. It had been weeks since dragons tried to take the city and had been fought back. They had barely made it through the assault. Even still they’d lost a good number of soldiers in the fight and a few wyverns had been carried away…for whatever reason. Millie imagined the dragons had feasted on them well that night.
Her gaze wandered over the handful of wyverns drifting through currents of air high above the city, watching for hostile wyrms. She saw Josef approach. He was small as far as wyverns went, and blue which meant he had control of water and they wouldn’t go thirsty on their voyage. She wondered if that’s why he’d been selected. It was strange that Josef, a common soldier among wyverns, had been selected to go with her. She hadn’t questioned it though; she didn’t know what qualifications he might have or what other reasons the clutch commander had for choosing him. In his back talons, he carried a travel pack and a sword.
Millie called to the wyvern soul within her. She felt the wyrm answer her call. Invisible wings enveloped her as a shiver of power ran up her spine. The wyvern came forth and like shedding a pair of clothes, Millie transformed from human to wyvern. She stretched her arms wide and felt the play of air over her green scales.
Gripping her travel pack and sword in her back talons, she pushed off from the rock cut. A few powerful wing strokes later, she had joined Josef and they headed south-east.
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Catch Travis Online
This is the tale of how dragons returned to the lowlands of the Dar Desert, and of the plague they spread in their wake. Most people died in the fever of the dragon plague, those that didn't came out changed. Forever to be of two spirits, one human and one dragon. They are the wyverns, an impure breed of human shifter who can take on the scales and powers of a dragon. Ever since Wylan Atwater was born, she was different. She can't deny her obsession with dragons, or the dragon eyes that most people notice when they first look at her. She dreams of adventure and traveling to the imperial city of Darubai to become a soldier in the dragon guard and protect the lands from dragon fire. But when her adventure comes, it's more than she would ever bargain for.