The torch’s firelight illuminated the room as I remained on the floor, fading in and out of consciousness. Even in my sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking about the key. I imagined holding it, running my fingers across the metal cylinder that made its neck, and unlocking the door that kept me from my freedom. When I awoke in the morning, I was surprised to find that it was within my grasp.
I sat up, awake and alert as I stared at the key in my hand. At that moment, I was holding my chance at freedom. I whirled around and seized my ankle, jamming the key into the shackle that was clasped around it. My hand trembled as I turned the key and the clasp released my leg. I stared at it in silence as it clattered against the floor.
After a moment of amazement, I stood and bolted for the door. I unlocked it and pushed it open with some of my remaining strength. I stepped over the old guard’s body and rushed for the exit.
I was finally free.
I stepped outside of the prison for the first time and found myself unable to see the sun through the smoke that was rising from the burning village around me. Most of the buildings were still on fire when I emerged, but I could tell by the charred rubble that it was not nearly as intense as it had been before. It was actually starting to die out. I was unsure of what to do until I heard something move behind me. I turned around to see the culprit, an enormous dragon with golden scales, lying atop the prison’s roof, staring down at me.
For a moment, we just stared at each other. I wasn’t sure why, but I couldn’t move. It was almost as if I was trapped by its eyes, which shined like emeralds. It was the first to move, standing up tall and stretching out its wings. When it did that, it blocked out what little part of the sun that was visible and all I could see was its silhouette. It let out a low growl and flapped its wings, taking to the air. I watched in amazement as it flew away, leaving me there alone. I didn’t move until it had completely disappeared from my sight.
It . . . saved me?
After the thought passed through my head, I turned around again and began to walk toward the village’s gates, barefoot. I was nearly there when I saw something glisten from the corner of my eye. Curious, I headed toward the sparkling object, finding shards of glass on the ground near one of the buildings that had been torched. I picked a piece up, careful not to cut myself on its sharp edges. That was when I saw my reflection for the first time.
I had long, caramel-colored hair, which was completely matted. My eyes were also a grayish blue, a detail I had never seen before. I pushed my hair back to find that my ears were pointed, like my captor’s. I ran my fingers over the sharp edges of them, taking in my reflection.
I’m not a monster?
All this time, I had assumed that I looked different from them. I looked away from the shard of glass, glaring at the prison. Maybe I was a monster. If I was a monster, I was one who had been set free.
I headed for the village’s gates again, making a promise to myself.
I’m never coming back here again.
The memory faded away as I walked to the center of the village, now significantly older than I was the last time I was there. Reality began to set in and I felt my stomach churn. Vixia was saying something, but I couldn’t hear her; it was almost as if there was cotton in my ears. I think she was walking up behind me when I first retched.
“Ketsuna!” Her voice became clear as soon as she grabbed onto my shoulders. I flinched away from her touch, taking a few steps forward, and fell to my knees. My face and sinuses burned as tears welled up in my eyes. My whole body trembled in a way that it had never done before when I screamed.
“Ketsuna, what’s wrong?” Vixia stood behind me, her hands hovering close to my body. I could almost feel the hesitation hanging around her as she considered whether she should try to comfort me or not. I looked up from the ground to see Puff standing in front of me. The way that his mouth was warped told me that he was scared, but as soon as our eyes met, all I felt was an intense burst of anger.
“Why did you bring us here?” I screamed. He cowered at my voice and in that moment I felt a jolt through my body. More tears rolled down my face and I gasped for air, my vision blurring as I stared down at the ground. I kept crying, my anger leaving just as quickly as it came.
“I’m sorry, Puff,” I whimpered, pressing my forehead against the ground. “We have to get out of here.”
“Okay, where should we go?” Vixia replied with a voice that was much calmer than I expected. I lifted my head and looked back at her. Puff was now creeping closer to me, obviously still frightened. I tried to take a deep breath and control myself as best as I could. When I spoke again, my voice was almost as shaky as my body.
“I don’t know. We still don’t know what’s going on back at home. I mean, Sparrow’s been working with the queen, right? How the hell did he get a dragon then?” Vixia shrugged and rubbed my back a little. This time, I let her.
“We can figure that out later, but now we need to get you somewhere safe. Come on.” She helped me get back to my feet, but I still leaned on her because my legs were unstable.
“Okay, let’s find somewhere to stay.” Vixia nodded in agreement and we headed back toward the village’s gates, Puff following along behind us.
We wandered around like that for a bit, since nothing other than the village appeared to be familiar to me. We followed the winding path until it reached a dead end at a cliff, but from the view up there Vixia was able to spot a village hidden by the dense trees.
“Over there!” She pointed out into the forest below and my eyes followed, finding twinkling lights hidden in the forest’s canopy.
“Good eye. Puff, do you think you could get us a bit closer?” The dragon, who had shrunk down and rode along in my pocket since we left the village, trilled and nodded. I felt my eyes burn as I watched him climb out and land on the ground, already starting to grow in size. Vixia put a hand on my shoulder, rubbing it gently in an attempt to comfort me. I put my hand on hers and she squeezed me three times. I smiled a little.
“Thank you,” I whispered. She rubbed my shoulder again before withdrawing her arm.
“It’s what I’m here for.” We both turned back to Puff, who was now back to the right size to carry us both. We climbed on his back and he took off by flapping his wings and dashing off the edge of the cliff. His wings caught the wind and billowed a little and we glided through the air, heading down toward the shining lights.
If I wasn’t already convinced that we were in Draladen, the sight of the village would have confirmed it. Buildings stood in harmony with the trees and plants around them, some even positioned between two enormous trunks and shaded by the leaves. There were streetlights there like there were in Zaledrid, but this small village’s roads were less defined, made of only dirt and stone. My eyes scanned the area for guards, but I found none. I was about to look somewhere else when I saw movement. There were people down there, but they weren’t like the ones in Zaledrid either. My gaze focused on a specific couple, who were walking down one of the streets and laughing together. They had pointed ears, just like me. I stared in awe as we swooped in closer. Puff began to wind downward toward the ground in large circles when I finally turned my attention to Vixia. She seemed just as dazzled as I did.
“Ketsuna, they look just like—”
“I know,” I replied, sounding a bit more excited than I had expected to. Puff touched down on the ground, right outside the village’s gates. I call them gates, but there were no doors barring entry or guards standing watch. Vixia and I exchanged glances and then I looked back toward the village. Puff shrunk back down and climbed onto my shoulder with a happy chirp. He then nudged the side of my neck with the top of his head, brushing his rough scales against my skin. I reached over my shoulder and petted him with two of my fingers, but I felt the anxiety welling up inside of me. Vixia walked up and took my hand, squeezing it. I smiled at her and we walked toward the village together.
Once we crossed through the gate, we found that it was even more beautiful from the ground than it was from the air. Large toadstools grew everywhere, poking out of the ground and the trunks of the tall trees. There were several shops and homes and I realized that all of the signs were written in a script that I had never seen before. My eyes were wandering around my surroundings when they made their way back to Vixia, resting on the shining badge on her chest. I looked down at mine and felt a rush of panic.
“Vixia, take that off.”
“Huh?” Before she could do anything, I took the pin off of her shirt and tucked it away in my pocket. I quickly did the same with mine while my wife tilted her head at me. “Why?”
“If anyone asks, we are not affiliated with the IronScale Hunters.”
“Oh, right. Got it.” Vixia began looking around again, this time squinting when her eyes found the letters on the signs. “You wouldn’t happen to know how to read that, would you?” I shook my head just as Vixia looked over and saw a couple walking by. “Oh, I know! Let’s ask them.”
“Vixia, wait!” It was too late, she was already heading toward them. I followed as briskly as I could without knocking Puff off of my shoulder and just barely caught the beginning of the conversation.
“Excuse me, do you know where an inn is?” One of the Draladenians that she spoke to tilted their head. They looked toward the other person with them.
“What did she say?” Now it was Vixia’s turn to be confused. That was when I stepped in.
“I’m sorry, where is the inn?” I asked, speaking in the same language as them. Vixia’s head snapped over to me, then back at the others. They smiled in what seemed to be relief and pointed further down the road. I bowed my head slightly to thank them and they continued on their way, one of them mentioning to the other that Vixia was cute. I smiled a little at that, but I was still confused.
How the hell did I know that?
“You speak their language too?” Vixia wondered aloud. I shrugged.
“I don’t remember much. I forgot that it was even a thing.”
“Okay then. Lead the way.” I did as Vixia commanded and we continued down the road, eventually finding a tall building with a red roof. We stopped in front of it just in time to see some adventurers come out, set up with all of their gear.
“I think this is the place.”
“Let’s go in then.” Vixia and I walked up the front steps together and I held the door open for her before I went inside.
When Vixia and I entered the inn, I quickly realized that it was unlike any building that I had ever been in before. The inn seemed to stand right in front of a large tree, but I noticed that its enormous trunk ran from the floor to the ceiling behind the front desk. Two ladies, both with pointed ears, stood there and chatted between the two of them. Almost everything in the room was crafted from wood and a set of stairs winded up the backside of the trunk, leading to where I assumed the rooms were. Vixia and I were completely awestruck by the time that the receptionists noticed us.
“Can I help you?” They spoke in Draladen’s language. I stepped closer to them, Vixia hanging back behind me shyly.
“Can we . . . room?” I asked back, using what bit of the language that I remembered. One of the ladies nodded and smiled, but I noticed the other’s eyes focused on my shoulder. That was when I realized that Puff was still perched there.
Crap! I was about to grab Vixia’s hand and run out the door, but then I heard Puff trill as the lady let out a squeal of delight.
“How cute!” she cooed, clasping her hands together underneath her chin as she bent over the counter. Puff seemed to beam back at her, clearly enjoying the attention. She then grabbed what appeared to be a sliver of jerky from a jar on the counter and reached out to give it to Puff. He scarfed it down and licked his lips while the second lady turned around and grabbed a key. She set it down on the counter and I reached into my pockets. That was when I realized that Vixia and I were missing something.
“Um . . .” I felt my face begin to turn red as I tried to formulate the sentence. “Money, don’t have . . . only from Zaledrid.” Both of the ladies’ ears perked up when I said this. Vixia did too when she heard me mention the kingdom. Both of the women looked at each other, sad looks on their faces.
“You are from Zaledrid?” I nodded hesitantly.
“You can stay for free,” the other lady determined. “Your travels must have been hard. The queen there is vile and she’s horrible to dragons.” I didn’t recognize the last sentence that she said until long after this conversation, but I got the jist of her meaning from the way that her nose wrinkled in disgust. “The dragon hunters are horrid,” she added. That was one of the parts that I understood.
I quietly thanked them for their hospitality and took the key. Vixia followed along behind me as I walked up the stairs, right after the women gave me directions to our room. When they were out of earshot, Vixia grabbed my bicep.
“What just happened?” “I think they think we fled Zaledrid. I’m not sure what’s going on, but this place is way different from home.” Puff chirped in agreement, licking his lips again. Once we made it to the right floor, we wandered over to the door to our room as I got a sinking feeling in my chest.