There weren’t always dragons in the valley. In fact, there hadn't been any sightings of dragons for decades. Most claimed they were extinct. Or so Sloane Twelvetrees and her brother, Kaidan, had grown up to believe.
But rumours of their return had been spreading through the sleepy town of Wakefortt since the latest merchant caravan had arrived three days ago. The vendors excitedly whispering their tales, trading gossip and wares alike. Tales about hearing strange sounds, and seeing large clawed tracks along the road.
Dragons have returned to the Continent they claimed. There were signs of something big as close as Sorin’s Pass up in the valley, just a few miles north of the Wakefortt itself. The town’s residents had lapped up the gossip with nervous excitment, though most claimed they didn’t believe the rumors, or wouldn’t admit it in public at least.
But in spite of their scepticism that dragons had returned to the valley, the rumors had sparked some life back into the tedious monotony of the port town. Even the elders were a little more animated when sharing their war stories and childhood tales of when dragons were as common across the lands as the stray cats that seemed to plague every alley in the province.
But not so much as a single dragon scale had been found in the decades following the War of the Fallen over twenty years ago.
Not since the dragons and their Wind Wraith clan had saved the Continent from the dreaded Fallen, an ancient race of demon-fae, only to then be slaughtered in a brutal betrayal by the Fae lords after winning them the War. Jealous of the dragon’s power, the lords feared an uprising - that the dragons and their warriors may one day wish to rule the kingdoms themselves - so with the help of some of the Fallen who had defected during the war, had devised a plan to remove the potential threat... after the dragons and their warriors had outlived their usefulness, of course.
The beasts had raged against the cruel deception; scorching the skies, torching the earth, and boiling the seas in fury and despair as they fought for their lives against the treachery. But the weary warriors were weak from battle, their infamous hel-fire already spent against the Fallen, were now no match for the cunning Fae lords' attack.
Thus, years later, no trace of the once-great beasts remained. Not even so much as a single bloom of Dragon’s Tears remained; the tiny, iridescent flower that only grew in the soil surrounding a dragon's lair. The precious vines withering and dying as the few surviving, weaker dragons had been banished. Those daring to remain after the onslaught were hunted down by the royal mages and dissected, their body parts harvested, and traded on the black market for their magical properties, or sometimes just for the novelty of it all. Nothing says Wealth like the arrogance of strutting around with a dragon scale epaulette, or an intricately carved dragon-tooth sword hilt.
No, dragons had not inhabited the valley since well before Sloane was born.
But despite all this, despite the only references to dragons now only existing in legends and war stories of the elders down at the tavern; and despite Sloane’s oma grumbling daily about how she wished it was like the ‘good old days’ when the harvests were plentiful due to the soil enriched by the nitrogen that leached down from the dragons' keeps into the valley soil; When a little bit of magic gifted from the dragons in return for a few sheep, or sometimes even a good belly scratch, meant the housework would be done that much quicker. Or more importantly, secure safe passage on a long journey to the Capital, by way of a large, fire-breathing escort; Of better times before the once lush valley forest was turned into a wasteland of scorched earth and stone. Dry, dusty grooves now lining the mountainside where glistening springs had once flowed from the glacial summit.
But despite the fact that everyone knew dragons were long gone, despite all this… The gaping maw of the beast that Sloane found herself staring into right at this moment, was, in fact, that of a dragon.
So perhaps dragons had indeed not inhabited the valley in the recent years. But they sure as gods did now.
~ ~ ~
Holy gods! A dragon. A freaking drag-on.
Or dragons, rather. Multiple. If the sounds coming from within the giant cavern looming in front of her was anything to go off.
It took Sloane’s brain a moment to register that she should be terrified, but the shock of seeing the giant beast seemed to have short-circuited her brain.
Sloane cursed herself under her breath, giving herself a mental face-palm. Gods be damned. Why had she come this far into the valley? Dragons or no, there were other dangers that dwelled this far in the ruins that now scattered the valley floor. Creatures borne of nightmares. Creatures that Sloane had only heard about in reports from nervous soldiers and travelers' tales. Creatures whose threat meant no caravan risked traveling without armed escorts, even in the daylight. Let alone a twenty-year-old woman on her own. At night.
But Sloane hadn’t exactly been thinking straight when she had bolted from the house a few hours ago. She hadn’t noticed herself veering off the main road through the sting of the hot tears streaming down her face. Hadn’t felt the ground turn rocky underfoot; hadn’t felt much of anything besides the burn from the ten whip lashes now biting into her back; Her uncle’s latest punishment for practicing sword fighting with her cousins, and well, basically anything other than helping her grandmother, her oma, with the housework. Ten lashes. Five for herself, and the five she took for her grandmother, shocked that her uncle would dare beat the old woman. It was Sloane who had disobeyed her uncle, after all. But her uncle claimed that her grandmother allowed the behavior, thus deserving of punishment, and had simply grunted snidely, “She is tougher than she would have you believe.”
But Sloane's injuries were now forgotten. Adrenalin pumping through her body, numbing her pain. Sloane cursed again. The dragon’s eyes narrowed slightly.
Wait, did it understand her?
Gods. What should she do? Run? Sloane doubted she would barely make it half a step before being incinerated.
What had her oma repeated all those times in her stories. Some kind of greeting? A handshake? Probably not that. Sloane looked at the massive curved talons donning each clawed foot. Talons as long as she was tall. No, probably not a handshake, then.
The dragon raised its giant head, amber eyes sparking like embers, assessing Sloane with a cruel curiosity. Or was it caution she glimpsed in those glowing depths? Sloane frowned slightly. Something felt… off. And surely she should definitely be dead by now.
Sloane shook off the odd feeling that had crept over her and thought hard, sorting through the old woman's tales that had filled her childhood, trying to remember what her oma had told her about dragons.
Trembling slightly, Sloane willed her body to move - to step back slowly and carefully, bowing low as she did so, hoping her memory held true.
The dragon tilted its head slightly, regarding her warily, like a predator assessing a new, unknown prey. It then glanced back as two more of the giant beasts emerged from within the cavern, but halted suddenly behind the first dragon when they spotted Sloane.
All three dragons now peered at her with surprising cautiousness, which Sloane found comical given what they were and what she was. She swallowed the nervous giggle to rising up her throat. She doubted laughing in a dragon’s face was a good idea.
The dragons’ nostrils flared, taking in her scent. They startled, stepping back in surprise. Alarm and confusion flashed like lightning across the amber orbs of their eyes, replaced quickly by curiosity and...recognition?
The first dragon, and the biggest of the three, leaned forward, bringing its long, tooth-filled snout so close to Sloane she could feel its hot, moist breath warming her skin. It inhaled deeply, drawing in her scent like it was smelling a gods-damn bouquet of roses.
Sloane, now thoroughly confused, dipped her head slightly and self-consciously sniffed her shirt. Blood, tears, sweat, and dust mingled together. She cringed, and gave the dragon a nervous, apologetic smile.
Still in shock of not being eaten alive on the spot, she blurted, “What, not to your taste? Prefer blonde’s?” Sloane gasped and clamped her hand over her mouth in astonishment. Appalled at her outburst. Gods, she must be in shock if she was now spitting out sarcasm in the face of Death incarnate.
The dragon, without moving back even an inch, huffed a breath that almost knocked Sloane backwards, then broke into a slow, wolfish grin. “Oh, my dear,” it rumbled, “You have no idea.”
Sloane fell backwards in surprise from hearing the deep, gravelly voice that had rumbled from the dragon. But before she could collect her wits, the three dragons launched into the night sky. Their wings beating gusts of dry, dusty wind, scattering debris as they flew across the valley. Their giant bodies blotting out the stars as they skimmed over the ruins.
Sloane cursed loudly and shook her head in awe. What had just happened, exactly? Had she just stumbled across dragons in the valley? And survived? Dragons that were all but thought to be extinct? Dragons that were not the mindless beasts from her childhood stories. No, these dragons had an ancient intelligence gleaming in their fiery gaze. And then there was the matter of it speaking to her. As far as the legends had portrayed, only the dragons’ own warrior clan, the Wind Wraiths, could speak the mysterious language of the dragon. Any communication with dragons was conducted with their clan members.
Had the stories been wrong? Had history gotten mixed up somewhere, and perhaps they had always been able to speak other languages. They did possess magical powers after all. Sloane’s head pounded with so many questions.
The fight with her uncle now long forgotten, Sloane picked herself up and started running back towards the town. The opposite direction to where the dragons had flown.
Should she tell someone? Would they believe her? The travelers had said there were recent signs of dragons but noone had actually believed them. Dragons were extinct as far as anyone born in the last 20 years was concerned, and seemed content to leave it that way.
Sloane raced on, she had to speak to Oma at least. She would know what to do. There were as many rumours about Oma as there were about dragons. Though Sloane had never known exactly what the rumours refered to, but she was sure her grandma would know what to do now.
Surprisingly, Sloane found she wasn’t alarmed in the way she felt she should be. Not scared to death at least. Despite the history of violence agaist the dragons, they had not threatened her just now.
That got her mind racing again. Why hadn’t they attacked her? Perhaps they had come in peace?
Sloane didn’t know how long she ran for; her mind distracted by the events of the night, until she realised could just see the glow of the town lights coming into view. Her heart still racing, she forced herself to slow down to a jog as she recognised the familiar road leading back to the town's main gates. She didn’t want to be a sweaty mess and raise suspicion when she got home. Her instincts warned her not to tell her uncle about her discovery. He had, after all, been a supporter of the dragon-purge during the war.
Sloane breathed deeply, feeling more of herself again as she relived her encounter over again in her mind. She was not far from the main gates when three large silhouettes suddenly over shadowed the growing glow of the town.
As Sloane looked on, she swore the largest shadow turned back towards her and gave an almost playful flick of its tale… Right before it unleashed an unholy blast of helfire over the sleeping town.
And then the screaming began.