There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. At least, not according to my great-great-grandmother, who’s been alive long enough to witness what we call The Incineration.
Among our people, only Mimi is old enough to actually remember those halcyon days of wildflower breezes wafting through verdant meadows, golden fields of wheat undulating in the wind, icy brooks burbling over river-smoothed rocks. She claims she used to be a hit at town events before the dragons came seventy-five years ago. Now, because she has first-hand knowledge of pre-Incineration days, she’s a bona fide celebrity. Her stories sound like legend. She doesn’t tell them often, as I’ve heard them all dozens of times and townsfolk can no longer gather en masse. It’s too dangerous.
As soon as the dragons invaded, they began to incinerate families in their homes. Young or old, it didn’t matter. Nothing but ash remains in what we now call Dragon Gorge.
Most residents were killed in the first month. Others took a chance that neighboring villages, though hostile to our people, would offer sanctuary. Survivors of the Incineration never heard from those who fled, so we assume the worst… if we think about them at all.
Fewer than fifty dared to stay, taking refuge in the caves high on the cliffs. It didn’t take long to learn dragons possess a keen sense of hearing. Because voices reverberate off the mountain walls and echo through the canyon, we no longer congregate in large numbers and are forced to speak in whispers. To this day, our population grows slowly, as crying babies pose a deadly threat. We hide them in the deepest caves, yet many don’t last a month. Often, their family members also fall victim to the slaughter.
Even with all our precautions, sometimes the dragons hear us.
Then they seek us out.
I was born in a cave, like my parents before me. And their parents before them.
Though we’re all descendants of the villagers of Lushcombe, that place no longer exists. We’re now the people of Cursed Bluffs—cursed because we live in fear for our lives.
# # #
When I open my eyes, I’m forced to blink repeatedly until my vision comes into focus. Our home is deep inside a crevasse in the rock face, past a curve in the wall. No dragon’s neck is long enough to reach us, especially around a corner. Mimi always keeps a small fire burning. The tiny glow fights off the gloom of endless blackness, and the bit of warmth combats the ubiquitous chill and constant cross breeze.
Lately, I’ve relished the cold air. Sweat drips down my temple. My back is damp. Mimi must have covered me as I slept, and I’m sickeningly hot. I fling off the furs and look down the path toward the middle of the mountain. That’s where the cool air is coming from, and I long to follow the crisp breeze.
I’ve lived here all my life, yet Mimi’s never allowed me to explore the depths of our home. I used to argue that we could build a barrier with stones to block the frigid air—a suggestion I’m now thrilled she refused—but she won’t hear of it. She insists the path is treacherous and reaches a dead end, but the wind belies her claims.
My best guess is she found something when exploring, and that’s why she won’t build a wall or allow me to go down there. If it’s too important to be hidden behind a barricade, I should know what it is. And if it’s not safe for me in the tunnel, it’s got to be dangerous for her. She’s grown weaker, almost feeble, in the years since her hundredth birthday, and I worry about her. Especially when she wanders off without me. She’s spry for a centenarian, but that doesn’t mean she’s fit for mountain climbing or spelunking.
Despite my concerns, she always returns to our living quarters before I’m compelled to follow her. Forget about me setting off on my own. The woman has a sixth sense about those things, always sticking to my side until my adventurous spirit wanes.
After I rub the sleep from my eyes, I see her standing over me. She’s done that so often these last few months, I’ve come to expect it and don’t jolt in surprise. “Good morning, Mimi.”
“Happy birthday, Celeste.” She bends down to kiss my cheek, then hands me a muffin. “Rowan berry. Your favorite.”
The fruit is my favorite, but only because it’s our only option. The berries are too bitter to eat until after a few good frosts, and even then they need to be cooked and strained. I know she went to a lot of trouble for me, but I refuse to smile. Anxiety sours my stomach as I consider all the implications of this treat. “Where’d you get the flour? I thought we were out.”
She doesn’t answer me.
My heart drops. “Mimi, you can’t go down to Dragon Gorge. Especially not…”
“Not since I’m so old?”
She’s 104 and shouldn’t be walking anywhere, let alone toward a dragon’s den for wild wheat then back up a steep cliff face. Not to mention fruit-picking from tall trees out in the open. But there’s no way I’m saying any of that to her face. I love and respect her too much.
Now I’m irritated because I can’t say what I really mean, and I snap at her. “I was going to say, ‘Especially not for me.’”
“Shh.” Mimi winces at my rising tone, then glances over her shoulder to look for shadows. After a pregnant moment, during which I feel guilty for endangering us, it’s safe to continue our conversation. She speaks in a voice so soft, I have to strain to hear her. “We needed supplies. And I didn’t go into the hollow. I heard the miller got a load of grain earlier this week and had some flour ready.”
My guilt deepens, a knife twisting in my heart. “What’d you trade for it?”
“Never you mind. It’s your birthday. You deserve something special.” She scowls at me. “You’ve been in such a foul mood lately. Is something bothering you?”
“No,” I bark.
She studies me.
“No,” I say more evenly. It isn’t a lie. Nothing is wrong. I’ve just grown restless. Today, I’m officially an adult, but I’ve never gone anywhere or done anything noteworthy. Maybe I’m just itching to stretch my wings.
“Hmm. Very well. Eat. Then we have important matters to discuss.” Her frail frame shivers, and her teeth chatter.
I fling off my covers, scramble to the corner, then peek around the edge. The season’s first snowflakes flutter past the cave mouth. In the pearlescent light pouring into the fissure we call home, my frustrated sigh comes out in a puff of white vapor. The temperature has been dropping the last few days, but this morning is bitterly cold. After inhaling a crisp, refreshing breath, I storm back to my pallet and yank a deer pelt from the pile of covers to drape over her shoulders. “You traded your cape.”
“I didn’t need such an extravagance.”
“Do you know how valuable and rare bear fur is these days?” Frustration and rage have my blood nearly boiling.
“Given I was responsible for the death of the poor creature my cape came from, I do.”
“That was years ago. Bears are practically extinct now!”
“Stop raising your voice!” Mimi looks toward the cave entrance again. When we’re certain we’re safe, she faces me. “The dragons have scared all the animals away from here, but that doesn’t mean they’re endangered everywhere.”
“Might as well be,” I mutter.
“Soon, none of this will matter.” Her voice sounds tired. She eases herself onto her pallet, her joints popping with the effort.
“Don’t talk like that.” I drop down beside her.
“I don’t mean me, though I’m not too vain or foolish to admit I’m in the twilight of my life.”
“Mimi…” Tears prick my eyes, and I struggle to swallow past the lump in my throat. She’s at least thirty years older than anyone in our settlement but is in better shape than all the other elders. Still, I have to admit she’s been slowing down lately. I sling my arm around her shoulders and despair at how small and bony they are. “You’re freezing.”
“I’m fine.” She holds her hands toward the fire.
I get up and fuss with the hides she uses for covers until I’ve draped another around her.
Mimi sighs and inches toward the flame. “Celeste, eat your breakfast. I have something important to tell you.”
“Let me get more wood first.”
“Would you just sit?”
Her sharp tone brings me up short. After meeting her gaze for a long moment, I take my place beside her, scooting close so she can share my body heat.
“I didn’t make you a birthday treat so you could let it grow cold and stale.”
My stomach’s upset. My throat feels like I can’t get air through it, let alone food. An urge to fling the thing across the room burns through me, but I know how rude and wasteful that would be. As I don’t have the heart to disobey her, I stop arguing and take a bite. The berries are tart, but they’ve clearly matured, the flavor mellowed by the recent frosts. The muffin really is delicious. I’m not worthy of her efforts. Swallowing past the pre-cry lump almost makes my tears fall. Instead, I manage to smile and whisper, “I didn’t deserve this. I’ve been awful lately.”
“Would you like to talk about what’s upsetting you?”
“It’s nothing.” How can I tell her I have a burning desire to leave? Instead, I hold up the tiny cake. “Thank you. It’s scrumptious.”
“Back in my day, I used to win all the baking contests at the town fairs and festivals.”
“You haven’t lost your touch.”
“Hmph.” She shrugs her shoulders and tugs the furs tighter around her. “Finish your breakfast.”
My gaze darts toward the slab of rock near the fire that we usually use as a table. There are no more muffins or any other food. “What about you?”
“I already ate.”
We both know she’s lying, but I dutifully nibble at my treat. With any luck, after enough time passes, I can convince her I’m full so she’ll eat the rest.
Mimi stares into the flames, seemingly lost in thought. After a moment, she closes her eyes.
We sit in silence for so long, I’m certain she’s fallen asleep. I shift my weight, preparing to stand so I can help her lie down, but that subtle movement alerts her to my intentions.
“I’m fine, Celeste. But I do have something to tell you.”
“Another story from before The Incineration?”
“In a way.” She inhales deeply.
I’m inspired to do the same and am surprised to note a floral scent in the woodsmoke. The last load of tinder I’d brought back to the cave was pine. This smells like applewood. And maybe something else. Something herbal? Regardless, it isn’t safe for her to gather kindling, and the realization that she’s been doing so sets my blood on fire. “Mimi—”
“Hush now, and listen.” She sighs. “I should have told you sooner, but I kept telling myself there was time. Eighteen years flew by, and now you’re unprepared.”
“Unprepared for what?”
“I was selfish. I wanted you to enjoy your childhood. And I wanted to enjoy my time with you while you were an innocent, carefree girl. Well, as innocent and carefree as anyone can be in these circumstances.”
“What haven’t you told me?” I set aside the muffin, appetite long gone.
“Please, forgive me.” She clutches my hand.
“Forgive you for what?”
A sudden gust of wind whips through our home as an ear-splitting bellow bounces off the walls. A rumble of falling rocks shakes the cave.
Mimi springs to her feet with the urgency and agility of a teenager. Before I manage to stand, she’s at the corner and screams, “Run!”
A blast of fire consumes her, her agonizing shriek drowned out by the roar of the blaze.
“NO!” I lunge toward her, but the dragon’s burst of flame is impossibly long-lasting. The heat is so intense, I know it’s pointless before I get near.
I snatch an applewood branch that’s burning on one end. It will suffice as a torch as long as it doesn’t burn out—or burn up—then I dash into the bowels of our cave. The passageway twists and turns, and soon there’s no ambient light from our quarters. No stone-on-stone grating as rocks tumble around the attacking dragon.
No shrieks from my grandmother.
Nothing but silence. And darkness, save for the glow put forth from the feeble flame I carry.
The tunnel is wider and safer than expected, almost as though someone has carved the way just for me, but I can’t appreciate the convenience. I can only replay the image of dragon fire enveloping my grandmother.
I stop to catch my breath, my lungs stinging as I gasp through violent sobs. Tears roll down my cheeks, and my stomach clenches. I heave until I've expelled the few bites of breakfast I'd managed, and I keep retching until not even a drop of acidic bile remains in my belly.
It’s my fault for yelling. She’d warned me at least three times that morning, but my mood has been so foul lately. I was always a hot-tempered kid, but since summer’s end I’ve been hot, period. Nearly feverish with impatience and anger. These intense emotional swings are so unlike me. I might be quick to snap, but I’m also quick to laugh. Well, I used to be. Lately, either my impossibly short fuse has been lit, or I’m exploding.
Mimi didn’t deserve my attitude. Or her fate.
Now, I have to add guilt to my emotions. She is—was—my only living relative, and I just got her killed.
Worse still, I cost her the chance to unburden herself of her secret. What was it she’d wanted to tell me? What was I unprepared for?
What will become of me now?
# # #
I walk for what seems like hours, guilt and anger taking turns churning in my gut. Guilt because I got Mimi killed, anger because she kept secrets from me. Currently, the most annoying of which being she’d been down this tunnel before despite forbidding me to check it out. And not just a few feet, but far along. The path has been riddled with signs—a torn wrap she’d claimed to have forgotten at the hot springs, a basket she’d woven from dried vines still filled with the once-ripe and now-moldy fruit she’d stuffed in it long ago. Even if I couldn’t be sure those items were hers—which I am—I recognize markings she made on the walls. I don’t know what she was keeping track of, but she’s the only person I’d ever seen make marks like those.
I continue onward, fear eking its way into my emotional rotation. What if this path winds back to where I started? Doubtful. I’ve been walking downhill almost the entire time. But what if it’s a dead end like Mimi had claimed? I might die down here.
Still, I have no choice, so I keep going. There’s nothing behind me but death and destruction. I suspect the cave mouth collapsed when the dragon left. If that’s the case and I also can’t get to freedom by moving forward, I’m in serious trouble.
I’m so absorbed with my morose thoughts that it takes me a long while to realize my hand is getting hotter. A glance at my torch shows the wood has burned away almost to my fingers. The heat isn’t bothering me, yet I fear injury from the flame and drop the branch.
How can I continue if I can’t see? I might step off a ledge and plummet to my death in a deep ravine. And who knows what deadly creatures had been kept at bay by my fire? They could attack in the darkness.
All valid concerns, but obsessing over my fears has made me ignore my surroundings. I survey the cavern and realize there’s a glow up ahead. That means light.
I’m nearing an opening. Freedom is steps away.
Why did Mimi keep this from me?
I dash forward, darting around a corner. The brightness stings my eyes, and I squint against the assault. When my vision adjusts, I find a cave mouth similar to the one I left hours ago. Despite my burning urge to burst from the tunnel, I step with caution. There’s no telling what’s out there.
Ten feet from the exit, I peer past the stone doorway to what lies beyond.
Land. Snow-covered ground, to be precise.
I’ve reached the Valley—Dragon Gorge, formerly known as Lushcombe. The original home of my people.
A wistful longing bubbles up inside me. How I wish Mimi could see this, too.
On second thought, I realize she has. And she always managed to return to me, so how dangerous could it be? That buoys my resolve. I stumble forward, into the light, blinking at the sun’s reflection on the frosty crystalline blanket sprawling as far as I can see.
Behind me, the ground shakes. I wheel around to find a sleek, blue dragon blocking my way back into the cave. He must have been flying, or perhaps perched on the crags above me. Now, he surveys me carefully, tendrils of smoke wafting from his nostrils to evaporate above his head.
My heart hammers so my sternum aches. My mouth dries, my fists clench. I want to run, but terror anchors my feet. Rooted, I steel myself for his blazing breath to incinerate me and pray for a swift end.
But no fire comes. No slash of claws. No swipe of his tail.
No attack of any kind.
Craning my neck, I look up at him. He peers back, his chartreuse stare intense. Mystery and power emanate from him. He practically vibrates with it.
Or it’s me, quaking with fear.
“Celeste VonWyvern.” His sibilant voice sends shivers up my spine. “I am Azuldrith of the Balgrisdag. Long have I been waiting for you.”
“You can speak?”
He rolls his eyes. “Clearly. Do you always state the obvious? I find that to be an irritating quality among your kind.”
“Humans. Especially Drakkarra.”
A sigh rumbles past his lips, hot and steamy, basting me in a vaporous heat. “A mystical being conjured by the gods. Part dragon, part magus. Noble. Powerful. Often tedious. Always deadly.”
“See? Tedious. Why must you restate everything you hear? It’s a dreadful waste of time. Time we do not have.”
“I’m… I’m a halfling?”
He shoots a blast of fire into the sky, then bends his formidable body low to stare into my eyes. “Such disrespect. It is an honor to have dragon blood. Do not be so insolent.” Azuldrith’s hiss lingers long after he stops speaking.
But the questions roll through my mind so fast, I can’t stop one from trying to tumble out. “Conjured by—”
“No. I wasn’t 'conjured.' I was born. My parents are—were—Emmaline and Fortiscue VonWyvern.”
“You remember them?”
“Well, no. They died when I was a baby.”
“Aunts? Uncles? Cousins? Grandparents? Any extended family at all?”
“Mimi, my great-great-grandmother.”
“But no one else?”
I’m getting a sick feeling in my stomach. I give a feeble shake of my head.
“Any neighbors ever tell you stories of your parents?”
“No. We can’t socialize. The dragons…”
He raises his eyebrows.
I remember all the times Mimi left the cave without me only to return with news about some of the villagers or with supplies from different tradesfolk. She’d kept in touch with the rest of the town while keeping me isolated. “I don’t know anything about my family.”
“Because you don’t have one. Not in the human sense.”
“How can that be? People don’t just—”
“You are not human.” Smoke bellowed from his maw. “You are Drakkarra, made and sent by the gods.”
“Enough with the questions!”
With a nod, he rises to his full height. “Apology accepted.”
My pulse slows a tick, and my feet unglue. I shuffle backward.
“Now, Drakkarra, we have work to do.”
He glares at me.
“Again, I’m sorry, but this is all new to me.”
“Has your ancestor not prepared you at all?”
“No.” Tears well, and I blink them away. “I think she was about to, but we were attacked… Wait. Why would a dragon want to hurt me if I’m part dragon? Was Mimi part dragon? Did—”
“The dragon who attacked is not of the Balgrisdag. It, like all dragons in the Valley, is Qazen. They are enemies and must be dispatched before all is lost. I fear we may already be too late.”
“You truly know nothing of your destiny.” Azuldrith shakes his head, sunlight reflecting off his sapphire scales in kaleidoscopic sparkles. “I’ll answer all your questions in due time. But first, we must go.”
“Go where? What do you want from me?”
“I want you to save us.”
I note with relief he has stopped taking exception to my barrage of questions, so I risk asking another. “Save who?”
“All of us. Your kin. And mine.”
I shake my head. “We’re enemies.”
“No. The Qazen are your enemy, not the Balgrisdag. There is much you do not understand. Come with me, Drakkarra, and I will prove it to you.”
I begin to inch away from him.
Azuldrith closes the gap with one stride forward.
The ground under my feet shakes, and I look up to meet his gaze. “What exactly do you need me to do?”
A smile spreads across its reptilian face. “I need you to be my champion.”
About the author
Staci's love for writing is only surpassed by her love for family and friends, and that relationship-centric focus is featured in her work, regardless of the genre she's currently immersed in. https://stacitroilo.com
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
Original narrative & well developed characters