The world around us grew cold and dark as Puff flew through the night sky. We were gliding over a large, sprawling forest when Vixia finally started to regain consciousness. She shifted a little and looked up at me, the back of her head resting against my chest. She shivered in the cold and I tugged at her cloak to try to cover her more.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I should be,” she answered, sitting up a little.
“What happened back there?”
“He caught us off guard. I didn’t realize that he was on the dragon at first. I didn’t even get a chance to cast a spell.”
“Did he tell you how he got it? That dragon wasn’t anything like Puff.” Vixia shook her head and pressed her palm to her forehead. Her brows furrowed and she let out a sigh.
“No, but I can tell you that he’s gone off the deep end. He was trying so hard to get to me that his attacks ended up hitting his teammates too.”
“So, when I got up—”
“They were already dead,” Vixia stated, finishing my sentence. I slumped a little and stared down at the forest below us while petting Puff a little. I was trying to make sense of everything when I noticed something about our surroundings.
Why does all of this look familiar?
We finally landed not that long after Vixia woke up. Puff chose a small clearing in the forest surrounding a mountain pass. I guessed that we were somewhere near the edge of Zaledrid’s border, but something didn’t feel right. Once we were sure that Vixia was able to stand, Puff began to lead us toward the mountain pass. Vixia stretched as we walked and winced from the pain of her injuries.
“Where does it hurt?” I asked, catching up to her.
“My ribs are a bit tender, but I am fine.”
“All right, let me know if you need help, okay?” She nodded and continued to follow Puff. I wandered along behind her, looking at our surroundings.
Have I been here before? I couldn’t shake this thought as we found our way to a dirt path, which winded up a tall hill. Puff continued making his way up there while we followed.
When we came up to the summit of the hill, I saw the place that I had feared the most. At the end of the trail was a large metal gate. One of the doors was barely hanging on, the other had collapsed on the ground, and the whole thing was rusted and falling apart. Beyond it lay the ruins of a village. Rubble had been left on the ground, untouched, and only the remains of buildings were left behind. Nature had taken the area back over, cloaking everything with grass, moss, or ivy. Hidden beneath the plant life were the remains of the former villagers, everything but their bones worn away by time. Standing tall toward the back of the village was what I recognized as a prison, the only building that could still be considered somewhat a building.
I suddenly realized why everything looked familiar when my eyes found the prison and before I could react, my mind was recounting the days that I had spent there.
During those days, I often found myself lost in daydreams. The dim cell around me would fade away as I dreamed of my nonexistent freedom, imagining what it would feel like to lie on the grass in the sunlight instead of the cold, hard floor. Sometimes, I could almost hear the sound of the ocean’s waves crashing against the shore, although I had never seen a beach or been to one before. A child’s mind is a wondrous thing; once you explain a concept like the ocean to them, their imaginations run wild. I was dreaming of the warm sand between my toes and the roaring waves when two guards entered my cell.
The creak of the opening of the barred, metal door snapped me back to reality and I painfully rolled over onto my back. The chain that cuffed my ankle to the wall rattled as I moved and groaned, the ceiling whirling in my vision. My eyes followed the firelight while it danced across the walls of the windowless room and eventually my sights found their way to the doorway. There were two men standing there and one of them was holding a torch, which he hung by the door so they could see. One of them slammed the cell door shut. The older of the two, who had white hair and a wrinkled face, stayed by the door. The second stepped closer and stopped once he was beside me, glaring down at me. His hair was dark and so were his eyes. His expression hardened when I let out a cough.
“You’re a waste of space,” he growled.
“What did I do?” I whimpered back. Instead of answering, the guard slammed his foot into my stomach. I curled up in a ball after the connection was made, the chains rattling again as my body ached. I gasped from the pain and tried to draw in a breath as I heard the older man yell out.
“Are you stupid? Don’t touch it!” I coughed and groaned, unable to throw up even though I wanted to. I writhed in pain as the guard knelt down beside me. He grabbed onto my chin, pulling my face up to look at him.
“Let go, that hurts!” He gripped my face harder.
“You’re going to die in here,” he hissed. “You should have never been created.” He finally let go and my head dropped back down to the floor. I sobbed quietly to myself as they left, locking the iron door behind them.
It wasn’t long before the older guard returned, alone this time. He appeared at my cell door, carrying the same torch as before while I glared at him from my position on the floor. He began to unlock the door again as I rolled over, standing on my knees. His eyes narrowed when he heard my chains rattle and he closed the door behind him. He hung the torch up and I could see the firelight and disgust burning within his eyes.
“So, you’re still alive.” I didn’t say anything back at first, just stared. I was about to ask the same question that I had asked before when a blood-curdling cry that I had never heard before ripped through the cell. The ground trembled as I gripped the dirty shirt that I was wearing.
Why does my chest hurt like this?
“Dragon!” a sentry screamed, interrupting my thoughts. His shrill voice was immediately followed by the sound of crumpling metal and cries of agony. I looked up at the older guard as he stared at the cell’s door in horror, listening helplessly as the snapping of bones echoed from down the hall. He turned his attention back to me.
“You called it to aid you, didn’t you?” he snapped.
“You should have never existed!” the man shrieked, rushing for the door. He flung it open and slammed it behind him once he reached the other side.
“Wait!” I pleaded, but he wouldn’t listen. He retrieved a key from his pocket and locked the door.
“I’ll make sure that you perish!” He held up the golden key, relishing it as though it were a trophy. I scrambled toward him, fumbling over words to say, but was stopped when I felt metal tug at my skin. I looked back at my cuffed ankle, then at the guard. My eyes met his the instant that a jet of flames rushed down the hallway, engulfing him.
The key clattered against the floor as he let out a short, deafening scream. I watched as his charred body hit the ground, still burning. After he fell, the fire ceased. The building around me trembled for a moment and the dragon let out a scream from above the prison. I gazed at the key, stretching my arm out toward it.
Just a little . . . further. I reached out as far as I could, my shoulder burning as I pushed myself to the limits. My heart sank as I found that the key was just outside of my reach.
I rested my cheek against the floor, my arm still outstretched as the world around me faded to black.