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The Dragon Lands, Chapter One: The Remnant Daughter

by Ryan Smith 6 months ago in Fantasy
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The Dragon Lands, Chapter One: The Remnant Daughter
Photo by Adam Bixby on Unsplash

The Empire’s End Series

BOOK I: The Dragon Lands

Chapter 1: The Remnant Daughter

There weren't always dragons in the Valley. Ember retold herself the stories as she clawed with small, bleeding hands, entombed in the earth underneath the valley. All she had ever known were stories. Lush, vibrant fields of flowers and food. Living free under a blue sky, the warmth of a bright sun without the eclipse of the Bloodline’s boot. Save the Bloodline. That’s what they were doing, Ember and the others like her, inch by bloody inch in the tunnels. They were creating new territory, far below the world that was once theirs, burrowing an empire of dirt.

There were no more fields or trees or rivers or hills or cabins or barns or soft places to take the sun on your face or cool your toes. All of that became nothing more than stories the day the dragons came, pouring Hell, molten violence, onto the earth from their jaws. Great, beating wings fanning the flames of Hell. Eggs, cracking open to spill Hell on spindly legs onto the earth, to feed.

Everything other than the dark, the dirt and the dreamless nights were stories to Ember. Tales she nodded and smiled at when she heard, but struggled to conjure in her mind’s eye. The weathered silver coin of the moon in the night sky. The brutish size of an elephant with its long trunk and longer memory. The silken feathers of a dove. The enchantment of a kiss.

“Happy Birthday,” Mum said, digging beside her.

Ember had forgotten. She was born underground, a seed. Her mark was different from the others, stretched and faded by young resilient skin. She was branded into imprisonment as a baby to serve the remainder of her parents’ sentence, which was, of course, life. The Remnant Daughter. No one had stories of her parents. Mum—who took on the name Ember gave her as a toddler— told her stories about anything and everything else, and laughed off others. The big story reached them, faint whispers that lost all shine by the time they reached them, hidden miles and miles from the Bloodlines’ subterranean palaces they had never seen and never would see. Stories of a land without dragons, high in the mountains where it was cold. A land where members of the Bloodline, reaching a certain age, travelled to. A free land. Stories of victory. Stories of sacrifice.

Mum slumped against the tunnel wall scarred by tools and fingernails. The sliver of rock she had been given at the beginning of the day had long broken into useless fragments, just like Ember’s.

“I have a surprise for you,” Mum said.

“No need,” Ember said, shaking her raw fingers.

“You only turn Thirteen once,” Mum said. She smiled with the effort of raising a heavy curtain by hand.

“You only turn every number once.”

“Not true,” Mum said. “When you’re Eleven, you turn One twice.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Ember said. “How old are you?”

Mum laughed, a dry chuckle. No matter her actual age, which she would never admit to, the years underground had been unkind to her. To all of them. Under the dim blue light of the Glowbugs, Mum looked like a ghost of a person, a worn memory of what a woman looked like. The Glowbugs, the only source of light in these new tunnels, were a miracle. That’s how they were described to Ember. Doc said they were bioluminescent. He kept trying to explain it to Ember in a way she would understand and it finally landed when he said they were able to glow because they had something inside them, something special, that other things did not. She thought the Glowbugs followed her, even responded to her, but she had never admitted this, not even to Mum, for fear of ridicule. It was ridiculous, after all. And yet, she could not shake the idea that they congregated around her more than anyone else, lit the way for her when she travelled, and formed constellations above her head at night.

The gong sounded, reverberating through the maze of tunnels, and everyone stood as best they could, filing out to be replaced by the tunnel reinforcement team. They walked with one arm out to the side, fingers tracing along the walls to find their way, which gave their feet confidence. There was no fear of falling. There was nowhere to go except through.

The Glowbugs gave Ember enough light to see a shape ahead on the tunnel floor. Agatha, the eldest in their group. Ember crouched beside her, telling the others to go around on the right. She heard the flapping of fabric as they all switched their guiding arms.

“Agatha,” Ember said. “Are you all right?”

A nod. Ember and Mum helped Agatha up, steadying her against the wall, a curtain of dirt falling down. Ember adjusted her clothes, covering the raised scar on the back of her neck. It was the brand, a circle, a trap. The Mark. They all bore The Mark. Ember was named by Mum, and vice versa. She had been given no name, no designation. To the Bloodline and their subservients, they were all just a faceless collective. A hive of sin. The Unforgiven.

In their quarters, they huddled around Ember, a hearth of humanity to warm her. They took turns giving her gifts, the only ones they had to offer. Stories. Funny stories. Wondrous stories. Stories she had heard dozens of times before, but didn’t mind hearing again.

“What do you want to hear?” Doc asked.

“I want to hear about the dragons,” Ember said.

The Glowbugs writhed, a billowing cape of light on the wall. Silence.

“Let’s tell some happy stories,” Mum said. “Did I ever tell you about rollercoasters?”

“Yes,” Ember said. “You were on a track, and you went up and down and around and back to where you started. You had a weird idea of fun. I want to hear about the dragons. I want to know. You never talk about it. I ask. Well, today is my birthday. I’m thirteen, and I want to hear a story about the dragons. Where did they come from? What powers do they have? You tell me stories about how great we were, so how were they able to chase us underground so easily?”

“Ember,” Mum said.

“I’ll tell you,” a voice from the back of the cavern said.

All eyes turned to Patches. He was old and wiry and said little. He bent to the earth under the gravity of grief. Mum told Ember to leave him be.

“It was a sunny day. You wouldn’t understand. It didn’t just warm the air. It warmed your insides. Anything felt possible. The noise was like thunder. Again, you wouldn’t understand. Maybe that’s a good thing, little one. Started far off, and then got closer. Then, the shadows. Like fast clouds. Everybody started looking up then. That’s when the running started. The screaming.”

“That’s enough, Patches.” Mum said. It was too late, Ember was magnetized to him, to his eyes, burning for the first time she had ever seen.

“They were huge. Three of them. It was like a nightmare, like a painting. It just wasn’t real. Then they opened their jaws, and swooped down low. Scales like metal. The air made this noise, like it was fleeing around them, scared. Fire billowed out of them, set everything ablaze. Then, it was quiet, except the crackling of flames. The lucky ones, people able to hide, thought it was over. The sky was clear. So, they came out. I told them not to. My wife. My daughter. I said to keep hiding. The dragons came back, another pass. How does something so big move so fast?” Teardrops burst in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. “The air was on fire. I couldn’t breathe. I don’t know how long it was. I waited even longer before I came out. I hid. I hid and let it all happen.”

“There was nothing you could have done,” Doc said.

“Yes, there is,” Patches said. “I could’ve died with them.”

The Glowbugs faded, the shadows in the cavern broadening. It was quiet except for the bubbling breath of Patches as he fought off the cries. Ember wished she hadn’t asked. Some stories are buried for a reason.

“I’ve got one,” Dimples said, a broad, fake smile plastered on her face. “Halloween! Trick or treat. Dressing up as something to get candy. It was—”

“I think we’ve had enough stories for today,” said Mum, and her word was heavier than any others, the weight of respect, so that was that. She pulled out a piece of fabric and handed it to Ember. “Open it,” she said.

Ember unwrapped the fabric. Nestled inside was a small, round piece of metal etched with precise markings. “What is it?” she said.

“It’s a coin,” Mum said.

Ember ran her fingers over it. It was cool, and light.

“It was worth a dollar.”

“But it’s so small,” Ember said.

“Everything has worth,” Mum said.

“Some more than others,” a voice said. Three men in black cloaks entered the cavern. The Glowbugs seemed to part as the men drew close, Ember thought. All The Unforgiven scrambled to their feet, or did their best to do so on crippled limbs. The one amongst the cloaked men with the air of authority, chin held aloft with the weightlessness of entitlement, spread his arms. The Master of The Right Hand.

“The Right Hand is here, on behalf of The Bloodline,” he said.

“Save The Bloodline,” the two members of The Right Hand, a chorus, said.

“Save The Bloodline,” The Unforgiven parroted.

Ember thought The Master of The Right Hand was handsome, as handsome as a son of a bitch can be, Mum said. His skin was not like Ember’s, and she knew, long before her thirteenth birthday, that was why he was standing there, clean and sharp, and she was stooped, caked with dirt, grime, and the sweat from the labour of her family’s sins. Worst of all, her sin. Being born who she was. She had never seen a member of The Bloodline, and didn’t know anyone who had, but she could imagine how perfect they were. Skin as smooth as polished stone.

“It is time,” The Master of The Right Hand said. “The time for passage is once again upon us.”

Mum slipped in front of Ember, pushing her down. “Stay hidden,” she whispered through clenched teeth.

“Certain members of The Bloodline have reached the age of freedom.” The Master folded his hands together beneath his cloak. “This, of course, requires teamwork with The Unforgiven. The great mercy and leniency of The Bloodline at work.”

The Glowbugs seemed to hum, electrified by the terror in the air. There was a story of the great mercy and leniency of The Bloodline. The first time Ember heard it she didn’t understand it. There once was a great gazelle, a sleek, gorgeous animal with bright eyes. It wanted to cross the valley to drink and bathe in the crystalline waters of the oasis. But the valley was home to a pride of lions who preyed upon animals like gazelles. The gazelle pondered under the shade of an acacia tree, growing more and more thirsty but dry of ideas. And then it saw its friend, an antelope. Antelopes were similar to gazelles, but were bigger and slower, with fewer beautiful markings like a gazelle. The gazelle called the antelope over and said, I have a proposition for you. Are you thirsty? The gazelle asked. Yes, very, the antelope said. But the lions, the gazelle said. The antelope nodded. But the lions.

We can both make it to the oasis to drink, together, the gazelle said. You go one way, and I go another. The lions will be frozen, they won’t know who to choose for their meal. They will argue over which one of us to run down. And by the time they choose, we will be long gone, with all the water in the world to drink. Sound like a good plan? The antelope thought so.

Ready to make the dash, the gazelle said, We go on three. One…two…three. But the gazelle did not go on three. It watched the antelope run down into the valley. The grass stirred. And parted. The pride smelled prey. The gazelle, muscles trembling, waited until the lions were turned away, bearing down on the antelope. Then it ran. It ran through the tall grass straight for the oasis, not stopping to look back, not even when it heard the antelope’s cries of panic turn to agony. Not even when it heard the lions fight over the fresh corpse—or maybe it wasn’t a corpse yet—the blood, hot and metallic in their ravenous mouths. The gazelle didn’t stop running until its hooves were in the edge of the water, and it drank deeply, until it forgot what thirst was. Then, it bathed. The run was hard, after all.

“We require five of you,” The Master said, and only then did he make any sort of acknowledgement with his eyes that he was addressing people in front of him. “Five of you will accompany us to the Fanged Gate. To freedom.” Stories only have power if those who hear them believe them, Ember knew that much. Believing in something made it real. So, who had believed in dragons? Her haunches ached. She bit her lip to distract herself with fresh pain.

“You,” The Master said, nodding with his chin to Doc. “You.” Agatha. “You.” Patches. “You.” Red. “And you.”

Ember’s breath caught in her throat. He was looking at Mum, who nodded.

“No,” The Master said. “Her. The one you are hiding.”

All eyes turned to Ember. The Glowbugs flared.

“No,” Mum said. “Not her. She’s so young.”

The Master seemed to not hear her. “I grow impatient,” he said.

The Unforgiven called to duty shambled behind the members of the Right Hand.

“Please,” Mum said. “Take me instead of her.”

Ember saw her shake with anger, the heat of it making the Master’s nostrils flare. Kneeling, penitent to the wave of emotion, Mum clasped her hands in front of her.

“Please, take me,” she said, her voice a rumour.

“Very well,” The Master said. “You, then.”

“Thank you,” Mum said.

“And her. You both come.”

The members of The Right Hand behind the Master finally moved, Ember thinking they weren’t statues after all, and then they were on her, lifting her off the ground. The others went without a fight, single file, the comet tail of Mum’s cursing in their wake.

The walk was long. A tunnel Ember had never been in, built by the shovels and rocks and fingers of those before her. The Glowbugs waned as the tunnel grew steeper. Ember had never gone up. She had gone down, and on and on and on, but never up.

“No matter what happens,” Mum said to her at her side, “no matter what you see, you stay with me. You realize this isn’t what they say it is, don’t you?”

“Silence,” The Master of the Right Hand said, somewhere ahead of them in the gloom.

Mum leaned in close, whispering in her ear, the two of them locked in step.“You must realize it.”

“Yes. There is no freedom.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Mum said. “Don’t ever believe that. I’m saying it’s not what they say it is.”

Ember was many things. Tired. Hungry. Afraid was not one of them. If you were in something with no beginning, middle or end, just an empty wheel, any finality that presented itself was welcome

“I know the stories,” Ember said. “You’ve told me yourself. A land, free of dragons, where we don’t have to toil. But that’s it. They’re just silly stories you tell children to make them feel like something else is possible. But I’m not a child anymore.”

Mum clutched Ember’s arm, hard enough to ratchet Ember’s breath.

“What’s the thing I always say to you?” Mum said.

“Don’t give me that face,” Ember said.

“Now’s no time to joke. What do I say? I want to hear you say it.”

“Never say never.”

Mum let go. The darkness in the tunnel receded. Ember could see the others ahead of her, the hooded Right Hands, and The Unforgiven, marching in step unconsciously.

“I want you to remember those words. Make them your mantra, your light in the darkness. Whenever you hear ‘Save the Bloodline,’ or you have to say it, say those words in your head. Make them yours. Never say never. Promise me.”

The time for joking was far below them. “I promise.”

They continued on the endless march, the engine of their breaths the only sound. A pinprick of light began to swallow more and more of the tunnel with each step, until it became undeniable, even in the life of darkness Ember knew.

“What is that?” Ember said.

“Daylight,” Mum said.

The Fanged Gate was the mouth to Hell, the rock either chiseled purposefully or corrupted by evil into its form, resembling the jaws of a gargantuan beast. Ember had to shield her eyes from the light.

“You are here, at the Fanged Gate,” The Master said, “which serves to lead you to freedom, and prepare you for the dangers ahead.”

Ember wondered how many times he had made this speech, this beautiful lie. Everyone lied, she knew. That’s what some stories were. Warm, little lies. Sometimes the lies were big enough to cast their own shadow, but mostly they were little things that added up, death by a thousand cuts. The worst lies, the ones that warped and coloured things so they looked like something else, Ember knew, people saved for themselves. The Master’s words were part of the lie, the beginning of a magic trick. The rest of the trick relied on the person believing it, even if they knew they shouldn’t, because the last moments of life spent in the comfort of a lie were better than being consumed by naked terror.

“Even though you have committed sins, either through crimes or by virtue of your standing and cannot be allowed to pollute the Bloodline, you select few have been chosen to have an opportunity. Your path will be perilous, but should you prove yourself to be worthy, you will live out the rest of your days breathing fresh, clean air and staring up at the stars as you fall asleep, giving thanks to The Bloodline.”

“Save The Bloodline,” The Right Hands said.

“Save The Bloodline,” The Unforgiven said. Never say never.

Mum tore a strip from her clothes and wrapped the coarse fabric around Ember’s nose and mouth. “It won’t be easy to breathe,” she said. The Unforgiven shuffled out of the Fanged Gate, swallowed up in the crimson light of the day. Mum took Ember’s hand.

A deep, rolling sound grew closer and closer until it vibrated in her chest. A sound like she had never experienced. Underground, sounds were compressed under the weight of the earth. Scratching, digging, clawing. Whispers. Cries. She heard stories of thunderstorms, forks of lightning piercing the sky, rain pouring down on grateful crops. As she stepped through the Fanged Gate onto the surface of the earth for the first time in her life, she remembered what Patches said. It wasn’t thunder. It was the beating of wings.

Fantasy

About the author

Ryan Smith

Aspiring author, filmmaker at www.spirocreative.ca

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

  2. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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Comments (13)

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  • Brian DeLeonard4 months ago

    You’ve definitely got me scared for these characters. Good job!

  • Caroline Jane6 months ago

    Excellent work. The last line really got me!

  • Babs Iverson6 months ago

    Imaginative and brilliant story. Loving it💕

  • Anthony Stauffer6 months ago

    Stunning piece of work! It has a distinct 'Hunger Games' vibe, mixed flawlessly with a modernized 'Game of Thrones' vibe. Dark and sinister... Very well done!

  • Karen Angelucci6 months ago

    Ember's right of passage combined with the fantasy of the dragon lands is intriguing...I'm generally not a fantasy reader but you've captured my attention and keen to read the next chapter.

  • Kyle Maddox6 months ago

    Excellent character and theme development. Looking forward to the next chapter!

  • Ward Norcutt6 months ago

    Rich and vivid images and gripping narrative. Ryan Smith is an intelligent writer!

  • Katie J Jayne6 months ago

    Wow. 😍 Powerful and excellently done. Reminds me of the City of Ember, an MG book about a whole community living underground. No dragons, though. I will be on the lookout for chapter 2! 😁

  • Lucy Smith6 months ago

    Enjoyed reading this. Characters are real and convincing - I felt real empathy towards them. Can't wait to read more! Roger

  • Lucy Smith6 months ago

    Excellent read. Great characters and a well developed plot. Looking forward to reading much more.

  • Gerald Holmes6 months ago

    Great read. Very well put together,

  • Vanessa Anne Allen6 months ago

    That was intense!! Loved it!

  • Adera Angelucci6 months ago

    I’m not a fantasy reader but I’m hooked! Chapter 2 please!!!

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