The Heart of the Dragon
June 26, 2076 – 3rd Anniversary of the World’s Destruction
I’m exposed. Waiting for Jamie to arrive distracts me from my usual vigilance. The Royal Standard Army contingent is in sight one hundred yards away from my location—too close for my safety. I dive into my hidey-hole as fast as the cat I named myself after. Now, I wait and pray they don’t see me in the dark cleft of rubble.
Who were these soldiers before the end? They don’t have names; they are numbered troops of the RSA. Nobody goes by their real names anymore, even us in the unwanted Remnant. Besides, who wants to be known as boring Martha Jones when nothing else exists?
No, plain old Martha Jones died when the atomic bomb hit Indonesia, and the cloud of doom drifted over the United States. I didn’t celebrate my birthday with friends that ill-fated day. Lucky thirteen—not so lucky that year. Kat emerged from the ashes and destruction to make a life all my own, unburdened by the past still haunting me.
Nobody ever expected anything of me as a thirteen-year-old. Yet, to this day, I travel in the shadows, pilfer food whenever I find it, and sleep in the tightest places.
This habit still saves me. Through the tiny holes of the grate I hide behind, I glare at the enemy to our peace. These soldiers enforce the rule of leaders who don’t care about our well-being; they demand conformity to a lifestyle we don’t share. We are free and will remain free or die trying.
Dust rises at their passing, a cloud of despair that always accompanies the Army. The line of new RSA recruits goes on and on. Occasionally, the soldiers encourage the prisoners to keep moving by poking bayonets mercilessly into their unprotected flesh.
For now, I am powerless to stop this inhumane torture. But Jamie and I have plans for a revolution. With my stealth and Jamie’s ability to hack anything electronic, we only need a few more years to put everything in place to end this tyranny and restore our world.
“No!” I whisper, raspiness echoing in my enclosure. Then my mouth drops open, and my hammering heart is louder than the stamping feet across from me. I shake my head in a slow, back and forth sweep of denial. I can’t breathe.
I clamp a hand across my mouth, my fingers dig into my cheek, and I taste grit and salt from the palm of my hand. Through some miracle, I prevent myself from crying out. Chains bind Jamie’s hands and feet to the woman in front of him and the elderly man behind him.
I can’t close my eyes. This sight isn’t new, but this time hurts more than any other. Bile burns in the back of my throat. My whole world goes cold. All my dreams for a better future shatter. Who am I but a teenage girl? Now I am truly alone in this hell on Earth.
As if Jamie shares my pain, his head turns minutely, and his gaze spots me as easily as if I stand in plain sight. But, of course, he knows all my hiding spots. His eyebrow quirks, and he stumbles against the restraining chains. Luckily, a soldier isn’t next to him, or I would witness worse than their hateful remarks for disrupting the line.
The dust of their passing rises into the gloomy sky. Tears drip over my wrist and land on my ripped, faded shorts. When the rumbling vibrations of the rear guard tank no longer radiate through my body, I know it’s safe for me to exit my alcove. Habit requires I check both directions without exposing any more of my body than necessary to see the coast is clear.
The narrow slit between concrete slabs scratches against my bare flesh, and I stand with my hip resting on the crumbling edge of the opening, ready to dive back inside should my inspection prove wrong. Every part of my body is numb.
And just like that, I am more alone than ever.
Yet, something feels different. I shiver and hug my arms across my chest as my eyes flit in every direction to discern the difference. The shifting clouds in the dark sky don’t look the same.
I lift my hand over my brow and tip back my head. The miracle we pray for is happening, and Jamie isn’t here to enjoy it. For the first time in three years, a sliver of blue sky and the sun’s golden rays shine down on where Jamie stood.
I shouldn’t fall for such a trick, but something glints invitingly on the dirt track we call the Avenue. Dare I investigate? People die when they leave their safe zones to explore oddities.
But I should have died three years ago. Maybe today, my sixteenth birthday, I’d meet my end—the sparkling calls to me. My feet move without permission. The sun continues to shine on the partially hidden object.
I’m like a mouse eyeing the tempting morsel in a trap. I stand over the object, reluctant to pick it up, but feel the urging like an undeniable compulsion. In my dirty, desolate, dead world, it doesn’t make sense for me to own something as fancy and frivolous as a necklace—let alone one that catches the light and broadcasts it out for all to see.
I kneel, the dirt crunches loudly under my knees, and my close inspection reveals a heart-shaped pendant. The gemstone in the center radiates the sunshine rays as if it contains the sun inside of it—calling to me.
The air rushes out of my lungs. I know what this is.
Jamie said he found me a gift. He intentionally stumbled to drop and hide this right here. Because of me, he was in the RSA raid zone and captured with the other Remnants. If only his chains had electronic locks, then he could escape. Until he reaches Capitol Hill, I'll pray he finds a way to get free.
If I leave the necklace here, then his sacrifice is for nothing. I can’t do that to him.
A light brush with my knuckles removes the dry soil covering the top portion of the pendant to expose a curious double chain. I don’t remember lifting it. But, the weighty locket rests in the palm of my hand; the sun still shines on the brilliant red stone in the center.
The chain cascades over the edge of my hand to dangle and swing freely since the ground no longer holds it captive. Then, with my thumbnail, I release the side latch, and the locket flies open—energy pulses from inside, which sounds foolish even in my mind.
The clouds regain their dominion, and the stone falls into shadow, breaking the captivating trance. Awareness washes over me, and I blink several times. Finally, I scamper to the edge of the Avenue and squat with my back resting on the concrete rubble to make myself the smallest possible target. Breathless and clutching the locket in both fists tight to my chest, I know I escaped the trap with the treasure.
I close my eyes to imagine Jamie’s face radiant with happiness as he hands me this necklace. Then, he would spin me around and clasp the chain behind me while I hold the pendant in place over my heart. My stomach clenches and my heart erratically beats as realization washes over me that I might never see him again.
I can’t think like this. I have to move ahead. Sure, Jamie isn’t here. But I can put it on myself in honor of his sacrifice.
Unaccustomed to working the tiny clasp, I fumble twice before the chain is secure. I look down, admiring the stone and feeling the warmth of it radiating onto my skin.
The ear-piercing screech that precedes disaster sounds like it’s closer than I’ve ever heard. Nobody can explain what causes it, but we know to hide when it’s near. I stand to run. My gaze shoots in the direction of the scream. I know I won’t see anything.
Boy, am I wrong!
I freeze. I can’t move. Everything in my head tells me to dive into the cleft of cement, but I literally can’t move.
My gaze is held captive by the magnificent dragon diving straight for me. Another howl pierces the air, only ending when the dragon’s wings fold into its sides and its feet thud onto the ground. A cloud of dust rises and blows straight for me as if in slow motion. I can’t even turn my head or lower the goggles strapped to my forehead to avoid the onslaught of debris. But nothing hits me, not even the breeze.
The dragon leans down; its muscular chest ripples with power, its muzzle stops inches in front of my face. It exhales, and its warm breath washes over me, ruffling my clothes and warming my fear-chilled flesh. What I thought was a gray-colored dragon is silver, tarnished by a thin layer of dust.
“It has begun.” The gentle but commanding voice held little emotion.
“What?” I ask, too astonished to comprehend the impossibility of a dragon’s voice inside my head.
Another waft of air escapes his nostrils, and he tips his snout toward my chest. “You wear the heart of the dragon. I felt you activate the power inside. I’m at your service.”
“Dragons aren’t real.” I turn my head to check my familiar surroundings. Indeed, I must be dead, and this is whatever my afterlife holds.
Draco settles on the ground, lowering his head until his jaw rests on his front paws. “Let me explain,” he says.
Without waiting for another heartbeat, he fills my mind with revelation. The fallout from the atomic bomb started a chain reaction. The radioactive atmosphere finally created the perfect environment for the evolution of the Komodo dragons to reach the final growth stage of the once-mythical dragons.
My legs buckle, and I sit hard and inelegantly on the ground. “So, you’re a radioactive dragon? Am I going to die now?”
Draco huffs, and dust rises in front of his face. “Without the pendant, you would have surely died by my power alone. Now you have a choice. The dragons can harness the five elements, but we need a strong leader if we have any hope of using them to restore the Earth.”
How could Draco possibly take one look at me and think I’m the one to fulfill this incredible role? Laughter erupts from my mouth. After a few seconds, I cough to regain my composure. “I think you’ve got the wrong girl.”
“Hardly. You are alive. None who have worn that necklace have survived. You are the one. But you must decide if you want to sacrifice everything you own to accept.”
Another blurt of laughter erupts from my lips. I fling out my arms to gesture all around me. “In case you haven’t noticed, I have nothing to sacrifice.” Emboldened, I stand and take the few steps forward until I reach Draco. Placing my hand on Draco’s warm, soft muzzle, I say, “I accept your challenge.”
Light blinds me, and I fly backward through the air as if shot from a cannon. I hit the ground, expecting pain. Nothing. Did I land on a cloud?
Incredulous, I look down at my body and discover my tattered clothes have disappeared, replaced with durable dragon hide. These better be clothes and not my new skin. A quick tug at the edge of my glove assures me that this is truly my new armor.
I stand, and the armor flows around me like a second skin, perfect in every dimension and glowing red like the gemstone in the pendant. I face the dragon. I can’t remember when I last felt so hopeful and powerful. “What’s next?”
“Now, we fly home to strategize.”
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