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by Robyn Clifford about a month ago in Fantasy · updated 29 days ago
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Maybe today would be the day April found them, but she prayed they hadn't turned already.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.

April didn’t like the official nickname they branded those Burning.

Shrugging into her dark overalls, stepping into her leather boots and tucking a radio at one hip, she listened carefully to the world outside the cabin. June had been careless, and had rushed into the forest without conducting due diligence. September had never even tried, scared from the stories, and her sister’s accident. November still bore the dark scars from where her scales had started forming, but April had always listened. She knew that the sun would be setting just to the West of their battered abode, illuminating the Valley with shards of deep amethyst light, and that now would be the safest time for her to descend.

The dragons didn’t like the darkness much.

Forcing herself to breathe as quietly as possible, and tucking herself into the corners of her mind, April closed her eyes and willed her slightly pointed ears to listen, listen, if only for a moment more, if only for a little further.

There was a small sound, possibly four hundred yards from the cabin, that could have been a dragon. She hadn’t heard a cry so close in nearly a year, and this both startled and excited her. The dragon’s call was the jarring scrape of a heavy chain falling back into a well, a probing cry, a question, and it gently whispered against her ear as if promising the tempting possibility that perhaps this one was smaller, a female, one of them.

“Moby, you’re in charge while I’m gone.” April said to the mouse in the corner.

The mouse, of course, did not reply.

Today’s Moby was grey, but last week’s had been brown. They only lasted a few days from the radiation anyway, so she let them roam around the kitchen whenever they pleased, and she even found herself leaving crackers out on occasion. She named them after the Sperm Whale in October’s favourite book, and she sat in delicious irony at their tiny size against their namesake. It was a pleasant surprise to see that today’s Moby had only one head, and she thought for a moment that that was one less mouth to feed.

Perhaps she was going crazy after all.

“Terrifically riveting conversation, as always” April said quietly, longing for the rabble that had once filled the cabin’s walls.

Before, there’d been music, and laughter, and lots of cheating at chess, but that was before the button had been pressed, and the Burning had emerged. What she would have given for one final family stew night.

“But I guess Mobes, it’ll just have to do. Now, house rules. No running with scissors, no double dipping in the hummus, and the TV is for Friday nights only.” She looked into the lounge at the cracked screen that had never worked, a homage to their life Before, and she found herself smiling.

“Fine, you’ve twisted my arm. We’ll pretend it’s Friday.”

To be honest, she had no idea what the day was, nor did it matter. Time was split in two now and April missed the linearity they once had, when there was more to life than the Before and the After. She wondered how many years into the After they were now. January had once tried to keep a chart, but that’d gone missing long ago, around the time she and the rest of her sisters had, one by one.

April tried not to let the hope bubble up in her throat that maybe, just maybe, today would be the day she found them, while a darker voice prayed that when she did, they wouldn’t have turned already.

There! Again, was the sound of a long chain scraping in the base of a dragon’s throat, and April knew it was time.

“Adios” she saluted the indifferent mouse, and stepped outside, shrugging into her jacket and securing her yew recurve and quiver across her back.

Squinting into the light splintering over the horizon, she pulled the old door carefully shut behind her and flicked her tracker-goggles down so that her eyes could adjust to the coming darkness. She crouched in the long grass and waited with bated breath for any movement, checking the screens for signs of them . The sun was murmuring a gentle farewell as the final tendrils of tangerine snaked their way beyond the horizon, and April shivered as a cool breeze worked its way through the silent Valley, prickling goosebumps up the back of her neck.

“Please don’t be November. Please be November,” she whispered as the dragon cried once more, the sound echoing slightly off the dolomite cliffs, her conflicting desires sitting on her tongue and in her heart.

She tapped the screen of the band on her wrist, marking the location of the sound, and broke into a sudden sprint heading towards the tree-line of the Lost Forest near the base of the Valley. A herd of she-deer prickled their ears and raised their heads sharply as they recognised the predatorial swishing of the long grass behind them. Fearing a jackal or a puma, the herd fled before they could realise that it was only April, a scraggly lowland elf; ex-vegetarian and usually trustworthy. The ivy firs of their manes bristled bloodied pathways down their glowing backs, spiralling into matted tails that moved like metronomes as they fled, their three eyes casting pinpricks of light into the incoming darkness.

That had been a positive about the button being pressed, the animals had become way cooler. They glimmered in the darkness, luminescent with radiation, and while their meat tasted saltier, the extra heads and limbs the newborn now bore provided extra nourishment for her efforts. One arrow, three dinners, and tiny chartreuse torchlights outside her window.

However it was the Burning of the dragons that lit the night sky with crimson fire, their forms exploding randomly into starlight, sitting somewhere between the fusion of an atomic bomb and a supernova. There had been moments, more regularly now, in the dead of night that April was startled awake from the blinding light of a dragon detonating in the forest. It flooded her with utter terror, that perhaps, just perhaps, the explosion had been November.

She tried not to, but her mind flicked back.

A memory of dark scales growing around an ankle, then both, then as high as a knee.

“No, I’ll find them before that” April whispered again, stopping for a moment to check her location. She often spoke to herself, trying to keep sane on the days she didn’t see anyone. Once, she may have replied sassily that it was “the only way to have an intelligent conversation around here”, but since her sisters went missing, she found herself in days of silence, using every inch of her elven ears in the daytime to try to hear where they’d gone, and the nights and her elven sight to track them.

The red dot flickered on the screen of her wrist and she upped her pace. She wasn’t far now, the dragon would be just beyond the clearing, and as though in response its close cries rattled through her bones.

Her goggles buzzed in confirmation of her position, and she slowed to a jog, stopping to breathe behind a granite boulder, pressing her back into the monolith and willed herself calm. The dragon’s huge form was pacing on the other side of the river, only thirty paces from the boulder, and she could feel its gravity as she fell into its orbit. A dark chaos emitted from its blackened body, while internal, cursed light lit it from within.

April turned her head slightly, peeking out from behind the boulder, hoping and not hoping that she’d recognise the changed form.

It wasn’t November, and April felt a cool wave of relief that she hadn’t found a turned version of her little sister, coupled with a dark emptiness in the knowledge that she’d spend another day in the cabin without her. Without any of them.

“Psst!” April’s head whipped round. But there was nothing, no form she could make out through the emerald screen of her night view.

“Psst!” The sound came again, and this time she lifted her head to see that there was a figure squatting in the trees above her.

Adrenaline flooded through every inch of April’s small form, and she moved quickly to knock an arrow into her bow, and held it aloft, aiming at the stranger.

The figure raised both hands and shook their head violently. They pointed towards the dragon and then to the ground. April hesitated, but nodded once, not lowering her arrow, nor firing it.

The stranger crouched in the low lying limb of a tree, and waited for the dragon to turn towards a clearing before falling onto the monolith and scrambling quietly down the stone until they stood inches away from April.

“You’re not from around here.”April whispered, and the figure put one finger on her lips to silence her. April gawked at the intimacy, and pushed the stranger’s finger off roughly, frowning but lowering her weapon.

The silent figure pulled her hood down, revealing a circlet of aquamarine jewels, held in a platinum band snaking across her forehead. The stones glittered in contrast against the stranger’s wine red hair and pitch black clothing.

“You’re a mage?”

The stranger nodded, “I’m collecting scales. I’m not a threat, I promise, none of us realised that the dragons had travelled as far as the Valley”. Her voice was soft, like a morning breeze or the foam on a gently crashing wave and April hadn’t heard an accent like hers before.

The elf shrugged, “they weren’t always here. It used to just be a problem in the North, but the radiation spread all the same.”

The mage’s mouth turned sour and she nodded grimly, “do you know anyone who’s turned?”

“I’m hoping I don’t. I’m looking for them. You?”

There was another deep roar from the dragon in the clearing, and the mage winced. “My parents both turned. Our village was near the epicentre.” She swallowed audibly, “they exploded a while ago.”

April’s stomach turned over as though she may vomit.

“I’m so sorry.”

The mage shook her head politely, and smiled with a closed mouth, but the darkness behind her eyes shone a wordless pain.

“I hate that term anyway- ‘dragons’” the mage continued, “they’re not bloody dragons, they’re sick.”

“Agreed.” April remarked, “They start a nuclear winter, and the radiation does something that causes our families to-” April hesitated, aware of the mage’s vibrant eyes on hers, and she chose her words carefully, “-combust spontaneously, and suddenly we’re using euphemisms of mythology.”

The mage giggled humourlessly at the horror of it. “There’s never been dragons, Mother help us what’s next, bloody ogres?”

The elf laughed for the first time in a while, “what’s your name?”

“Iv. Not like the plant. Like the two in your head and the letter.”

“That’s… unusual.”

She chuckled quietly, “our parents named us in a number sequence, I’m the fourth.”

“Oh, ours did months!” April responded a little more animatedly than the tense situation allowed, “I’m the fourth too!”

“Weird.” The mage smiled gently, a suppressed grin forming at the corner of her mouth. Iv turned to look at the dragon, and when she turned back to April, she realised that the humour from her eyes was gone again.

“What do you call them?” April asked the mage, “Instead of dragons? We used to call them the Burning.”

“We call them the Afflicted. But I like yours.” Iv replied. “You don’t know this one do you?”

April shook her head. “No. Why?”

“I need scales. We are trying to figure out if there’s a way to stop them turning, or to slow it down. I’m working with a team in the mountains, and apparently they’re changing quickest in this area. We don’t know why.”

The elf though for a moment, before she crouched to the ground and lifted up her left pant leg, exposing the dark scales beneath.

“You can take these.” April said, and Iv went pale with shock. “I haven’t turned in years.


About the author

Robyn Clifford

I'm a mother, a scientist and a writer, trying my hand at balancing the three.

A big believer in the power of fairytales, a strong cup of coffee, and Eurovision.

Currently writing my first novel.

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  • Izzy A.about a month ago

    Cool misdirect from fantasy to sci-fi, (although some details confused me. E.g. Elves/mages are not mythical but dragons are? Why is a mage wandering around a post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland with a bejeweled platinum tiara?)

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