Talons & Teeth

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Prologue

The Yellow Duck’s Tavern was a rusty old thing. Threadbare blankets covered beer-stained sheets and musty pillows. The smell of piss and ale cloaked the room as heavy as perfume. One sad, half-curtained window looked out onto the city of Vijbalal, a village that was as dusty and sad as the rented room the Inner Circle had claimed for the night.

Romeo was standing guard at the window, his eyes roving the streets and low-roofed shacks as if armored Drachen men would storm out of them at any moment. Like the others, his face was lined. Grave. He was exhausted. Exhausted in his body, his mind. Exhausted in his soul.

He glanced back toward the tiny room, to where the others were crammed together.

Bruce, slick with dirt and sweat, was chugging a bottle of whiskey in the corner as if it were water. Two more empty bottles, scattered around his feet, glinted in the moonlight. Heavy, purple bags hung underneath his eyes, making him appear even more glum than usual.

Seth, crumpled in the corner of the room, his hands covering his face, hadn’t stopped crying since the Inner Circle had departed for Vijbalal. His clothes were tattered, his cheeks red and puffy. The Drachen boy, just barely out of childhood, had certainly not taken the turn of events well. Romeo’s heart went out to him, but there were no words of comfort that he, nor any of the others, could offer.

And curled on top of the only bed in the room was Elora and Bear. Their black, silky cloaks were a stark contrast to the yellowed bed sheets. The bed was so small they were nearly lying on top of one another. Elora, like Seth, had been silently crying for the better part of their journey. Bear, however . . .

Discreetly, Romeo let his eyes linger on Bear’s face. Bear. The chatterbox. The seductive, humorous Drachen woman Romeo had known for years upon years. Bear . . . Bear who never stopped talking. Bear, who always had something to say.

Romeo glanced away. Yeah, all of them were miserable and hurt and exhausted, but Bear . . . Bear was angry. It rolled off her in waves, sucking up the space around her until her fury was palpable. Until it soaked into the walls, the bed, the entire dirty tavern—until everything was drenched with her wrath.

The uncomfortable silence, stifling the space between the Drachen warriors, was only interrupted by the piercing wails of a baby.

Sighing, Romeo ran a hand over his face and turned back toward the window. How could he forget about the final member of their entourage?

The kid was tucked safely between Elora and Bear on the bed. Neither of them had been willing to stray far from her, for fear of her somehow getting snatched away by the Inner Circle’s unseen enemies, despite the Drachen warriors keeping an eye on her every move. On her every breath.

Elora immediately began cooing at the child, wrapping the blankets even tighter around her. “Shh, shh. It’s alright, you’re alright. Shh.”

The baby continued to wail, her every rising cry causing Bruce to flinch in irritation. Romeo wasn’t sure Bruce had ever been in the presence of a babe long enough to have to deal with its every demand and cry for help, as they had been forced to do in the past week and a half.

Romeo blinked. It had been a week and a half. That’s how long it had been since their entire world had fallen apart. That’s how long it had been since he had seen . . .

“Romeo.”

He jerked, his head swinging toward where Elora clutched the child close to her chest. Her puffy red eyes were focused on him, startling in their intensity. His heart might as well have shriveled up and died the moment she had begun quietly sobbing when they had left home, but there was nothing he could do for her. For Seth. He wasn’t even sure the kid was safe with them.

“I’m sorry, what’d you say?”

From beside Elora, Bear scoffed reproachfully, keeping her eyes trained on nowhere in particular. “Of course you weren’t listening,” she hissed. “What could we possibly be talking about? Nothing important, of course. So sorry to intrude on your vigil watch. Please, continue, oh great guardian of ours.”

The hybrid spat, the spittle landing on the floor in an ugly clump. Right near Romeo’s foot. He stared at it absentmindedly, and for a moment, he felt a flicker of something. Something red and hot and alive. For a moment, he thought about taking the bait. Rising up and meeting Bear’s anger head-on.

But, just as soon as he had thought about it, his anger vanished into a pool of remorse and pity. The pool that had been swirling in the pit of Romeo’s stomach for a week and a half now. He knew somewhere, in the back of his mind, that Bear wanted to rile one of them up. She wanted one of them to be angry and vengeful. She wanted to fight and scream and brawl. Because, like the rest of them, she was helpless.

Romeo couldn’t remember a time when they’d felt helpless.

Then again, he also couldn’t remember a time when they had been without their Drachen Lord. Without someone telling them what to do, where to go. They were completely and utterly alone this time.

“We can’t stay here forever,” Elora finally muttered. Her fingers never stopped running up and down the baby’s back in slow, soothing strokes. She hesitated before saying, “I think we should take her across the Tikkien Ocean. To the Mountains of Egavas.”

It was Bruce who spat this time, a sneer uglying the edges of his mouth. From the corner of his vision, Romeo could see Seth finally lift up his head from his hands. The boy wiped his muddied sleeve across his nose, his voice cracking as he whispered, “What?”

Elora straightened on the bed so that she was sitting upright. Bear remained curled on her side, her fingers playing with the edge of the baby’s blankets. Elora met each of their eyes as she said, “Think about it. It’s the only other place, besides here, where the Drachen rule the land. She’ll be with kin of her own. We’ll be with kin of our own.”

Bruce’s eyes bore into Elora’s. Even though the heat from his stare must have been scorching hot, she did not once look back at him. Her eyes were on Romeo, half-pleading.

“Think about it,” she repeated.

Before Romeo could reply, Seth sprang to his feet, shaking his head viscously. “No! How could you even suggest that? You guys told me that the dragons at Mountains of Egavas were savages. Wild and cruel and . . . and bad. They’re nothing like us.” His eyes flicked to Bruce. “That’s where they—”

Bruce cut the boy off, holding up one large finger in a clear sign. Don’t.

“That’s beside the point,” Elora huffed, waving the young boy off. She handed the baby to Bear, half-sliding off the bed to face Bruce. The fiery glint of determination in her pale eyes seemed misplaced in the cramped, grimy room of the tavern. Her voice rose an octave as she said, “She needs to be with her own people. She’ll be safe there. The High Lord won’t be able to touch her if she’s—”

“Stop talking like that!” Seth barked, his tan face flushing crimson red as he breathed in and out a little too fast, his breaths coming in short, quick gasps. “Stop . . . talking like we’re going to leave. We can’t—we can’t leave. Our home is here, our family is . . .”

He gulped as if trying to swallow his rising panic. A breeze drifted through the open window, stirring the shaggy black hair on top of his head. At that moment, Romeo was once again reminded of the boy’s youth. Of how young the Drachen child really was. He had never known a life outside the mountain. The idea of leaving their homeland must’ve seemed terrifying to him.

Romeo grasped Seth’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “Calm yourself,” he murmured lowly. “We have yet to make any final decisions.”

From the bed, Bear rested the baby in the curve of her hip, adjusting so that her back leaned against the headboard. Her eyes were like liquid fire as she said, “No one wants to leave, Seth. But Elora is right: we can’t stay here forever, and going back home isn’t an option right now.”

Seth shoved Romeo off of him, staggering slightly when Romeo barely budged. He recovered, whipping on Bear to cry, “Of course it’s an option! It’s the only option. We can’t just leave Avel and—”

In an instant, Bear had traded the baby off to Elora and lunged off the bed to tower over Seth. If there had been liquid fire in her eyes before, there were no words to describe the volcano of emotion that had erupted in her vision now. “Don’t you dare say her name,” she rasped. “As much as it kills me, the kid is more important. We can’t think about them anymore. The kid is what’s important now.”

There was a bang-bang from the floor above their room, followed by the voice of an old man hollering, “Would you damn kids keep it quiet down there! Some of us are trying to—”

“Screw the kid!” Seth yelled, fresh tears springing to his eyes. “Screw her! She’s the reason we had to leave home in the first place. If it wasn’t for her, we’d still be with our horde!”

The room stilled. All of the Inner Circle’s eyes drew toward Bear as if knowing what was coming. They waited silently, expecting the Drachen woman to explode into a fit of passion, ringing the boy's ears out until he was apologizing from sun up until sundown.

But all Bear did was take a step back. Then two. Then a couple more so that the back of her legs hit the bed. She sunk like a ship, her cloak falling in an almost perfect circle around her. Burying her head into her hands, she croaked, “Oh, Seth. What would Wendy think if she had heard you say that?”

And then, the Inner Circle watched maybe the most heartbreaking scene of all: one of the strongest dragons they’d ever known began to cry.

Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. “It would’ve broken her heart, hearing you talk like that. Talk like that about that baby.”

For a moment, not one of them moved. They were all transfixed by the scene before them. Even Bruce’s face softened, his tough exterior melting away for an instant as he saw his kin break down into tears.

Like a child, Seth’s guilt was immediate and powerful. He crossed the short distance between him and Bear, and sunk to his knees before her. The salty tears were streaming down both their faces now. “Oh Bear,” he whispered. “Bear, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it, not really. I just . . . I miss Avel. I miss Wendy. I wish so desperately that we were home. Bear, I swear I didn’t mean anything by it. Not truly.”

Bear allowed Seth to place his head on her knee, and the rest of them pretended not to notice as the two dragons silently wiped the wetness from their cheeks. Bear spoke after a moment, her voice slightly strained as she said, “I know. I know, Seth. More than anyone.”

They were all quiet again. Even the baby had stopped fussing. The only sound was the whisper of the curtains against the floorboards from the warm, summer winds of the village. Some minutes passed. If it hadn’t been for the moon overlooking ahead, Romeo wouldn’t have noticed if five minutes or five hours had passed in that calm, maybe even peaceful silence.

Bear, not the baby, was the one to break it this time. “We could take her to the Fae Lands. The ones to the south of the Mountains of Egavas.”

Romeo couldn’t help raising his eyebrow. “I thought you said you would never go back there?”

She shrugged, looking away. “Things change.”

The babe started to cry once more, her ringing sobs so loud and penetrating that even Elora cringed at the sound of it. She clutched the child close to her chest, and slowly began to walk back to the bed, rocking ever so slightly so that the kid just as slowly began to fall back asleep. Over the fading cries, Elora murmured, “We can talk about this more tomorrow. For now, we should all try to get some sleep.”

So the Inner Circle did just that. Elora, Bear, and the baby took the bed, while the rest of the men made blankets out of cloaks and pillows out of their elbows. They fell asleep.

But Elora was wrong. They wouldn’t be able to talk about it tomorrow.

As the Inner Circle slept, their unseen enemies silently entered the Yellow Duck Tavern. A host of dragons and warlocks, armored to the teeth and sniffing the air for blood, crept up the stairs toward the Inner Circle’s rented room.

None of them stirred. They only woke when the door was kicked open, and a horde of demon-eyed men swept into the room, yielding a war cry. By the time Bruce vaulted from the floor, drawing his heavy broad sword, by the time Seth and Romeo had downed a man or two, by the time Elora cried out as a dragon stabbed her in the chest, and by the time Bear had taken the kid to the farthest corner of the room, it was too late.

They put up a good fight, but one by one, they all fell. Only Bear, her heart clenching painfully as the last of her family was taken from her, outlasted the demon-eyed warriors. As the rest of the Inner Circle was chained and bound, screaming their lungs out, Bear crouched in the window, hesitating a moment.

She wanted to stay. To fight. She knew they had already lost, but she couldn’t leave them. The Inner Circle was all she had left. Was all she cared about.

Then, she glanced down at the babe and remembered what she had told Seth not more than a few hours ago. The kid is what’s important now.

So she gave one last, pain-ridden look at her family, and misted away.

Gone.


Hope you enjoyed ;)

~Elaine

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