Despite the pounding at the back of his head, Fendrel opened his eyes with gritted teeth. He felt his feet dragging, and his arms tingled as if he lost circulation. Two armored humans were pulling him somewhere.
Groaning in pain, Fendrel tried to lift his head.
He heard voices on either side of him. “He’s awake.”
“It’s fine, we’re almost to the cell.”
Fendrel clenched his fists.
Where are they taking me? Did the others get away?
His captors stopped and a third pair of footsteps approached.
An armored guard with a foreign symbol on his back was unlocking a cage door.
“Looks like we won’t have to waste water waking this one up.” The guard with the keys laughed. He pulled the metal-barred door open and stepped aside.
Fendrel lurched away from the cell.
One of his guards almost lost his grip, but quickly regained it and shoved Fendrel into the cage. The door slammed shut and a click rang in Fendrel ears as the keys locked him in.
Fendrel bit his lip to keep from vocalizing his pain. Drops of blood traveled down his chin and splattered on the ground as he pushed himself up to his knees. He looked over his shoulder at the three guards, watching him.
“What did this one do?” A new guard came. He held a charcoal pen and paper in his hands.
“We found him on an ambush mission fraternizing with dragons.” One of the guards glared down at Fendrel. “We don’t think he’s from here.”
“Not from here?” The notetaker marked something down. “Level One.”
“We have orders for him to be placed in Level Four.” Another of the guards leaned against the cell door.
“This is odd.” The notetaker tsked. “It isn’t the prince’s birthday. Why would there be a Level Four Tournament today?”
“Because the dragons we captured are from Sharpdagger’s lands.”
One of the guards whistled in astonishment.
“What’s a Sharpdaggeran and a bunch of single-elemented dragons doing here?” The notetaker stared at Fendrel.
Level Four Tournament? Single-elemented? What are they talking about?
“Well, whatever the reason, I’m sure our glorious leader will get in contact with Sharpdagger’s king and get to the bottom of this.” The notetaker sighed. “Now, where are these new dragons?”
The guards walked down the long, broad hallway that made up the dungeon’s interior. They stopped by two empty cells. Barred cages lined both walls; all besides the two were full of dragons.
“We have three.” A guard pointed down the way they came. “A dusk dragon, vapor dragon, and a fire dragon, but the prince wants the vapor dragon for display.”
“As he should.” Another guard nodded. “Those are rare, and they have lovely vocal talents.”
Fendrel’s eyes widened. He moved to the front of his cell and gripped the bars.
They didn’t mention another human, or a water dragon, so Frederick and Mar probably got away. They must also be talking about Venom and Fog, but who’s the fire dragon? Is it one of the dragons who went missing?
He began to pace around his cell.
This must be Beast-Hunt…This is bad.
He groaned in frustration.
“This one’s a little antsy.” A voice came from Fendrel’s left. It was a tawny fire dragon curled up in one of the corners in its cell. He was looking at a dragon across from him on the other side of the walkway.
“He doesn’t seem afraid of us either. Strange.” The second dragon looked like it was from the spark faction, but it had a horn on its nose like that of an earth dragon’s.
Does the Newlands have hybrids? Is that what they meant by Sharpdagger having single-elemented dragons?
Fendrel looked closer at the fire dragon. Its wings were massive.
He must be half air dragon.
“That’s odd.” Fendrel couldn’t help but study them with his eyes.
The dragons stared at him in shock.
“Did it just speak?” The fire-air dragon inched away.
“We must be imagining things. We’ve been here for too long.”
“But I’m sure he just spoke draekonik.”
“You’re starting to lose it.”
Fendrel snapped his fingers to get their attention. “Where are we? What’s happening?”
The bickering ceased. Both dragons backed away as far as they could.
Realizing they wouldn’t respond, Fendrel sighed. “Never mind.”
He sat with his back against the stone wall.
How do we get out of here? Even if we do escape, I don’t know where here is. Frederick said Beast-Hunt was north, but this is a big continent.
A low growl came from down the hall.
Fendrel walked to his door and pressed his face against the bars, trying to see further.
Several guards pulled a large cart with a red fire dragon chained down.
This must be the third dragon the knights talked about.
The dragon looked at Fendrel with its piercing white irises.
Fendrel froze and swallowed. “Sear?”
He’s not a rogue anymore…but those eyes bring back too many memories.
Sear continued to stare at Fendrel as his cart rolled by.
The fire-air dragon beside Fendrel hid his mouth with his wing. “Pretend to be weak. They won’t restrain you as much if you’re weak.”
With curiosity, Sear peered at the hybrid but didn’t make a single noise.
One of the cart-pulling guards dropped his rope. He took a prod off his belt and a full-body shield off his back. He unmuzzled Sear and beat him on the snout with the prod.
Sear hissed and bared his teeth. Fire began to build at the back of his throat.
“Be weak!” The fire-air dragon neared his door.
The second guard grabbed his own prod and stabbed the hybrid’s snout, causing it to whine and shrink back.
Sear swallowed and coughed up a few puffs of smoke.
“This one can’t even breathe fire.” The first guard laughed.
“Nevertheless, the prince wants him in the arena today. I’ll tell the guys above to drop down a weaker door.” One of the previous guards walked further down and turned a corner up a flight of stairs.
Sear’s cart was rolled into an empty cell and locked behind him. While he worked to wriggle out of his chains, a metal barred door slid down from the ceiling and blocked off the stone wall at the back of the cell.
Why put a door where stone already traps you in?
A second cart, this one carrying Venom, rolled into the other cell.
“I haven’t seen a dusk dragon in a lo-o-ong time.” One guard backed up a few steps.
Another guard nodded. “I thought they went extinct.”
Venom thrashed in his confinements. He snapped his jaws at a guard who unmuzzled him. He kicked his chains away, but his cage door shut and locked before he could turn around.
Fendrel peered at the muzzles. They were attached to the other restraints by a thin yet sturdy string.
I see. Once the muzzle is removed, the string loosens and allows the dragon to free itself without the guard getting hurt in the process.
“The match is about to start. Let’s find good seats before they’re all taken.” The guards and the notetaker left upstairs.
Barred doors slammed down on the stone wall end of all the cages.
“Fendrel!” Venom sat on his haunches to see over the rows of dragons separating him from Fendrel. “You’re bleeding. What happened to you?”
Fendrel wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I’m sorry, I did that by accident.”
Venom sighed. “You understand the knights, yes? What is happening?”
“As far as I know, Frederick and Mar are safe. They have Fog somewhere else, and we’re going to be put in some kind of tournament for the Beast-Hunt prince. I think it’s about to start.” Fendrel shrugged. “And the dragons here refuse to tal—”
He was cut off by a muffled roar growing from somewhere above.
“What is that?” Fendrel looked up.
The stone wall on Fendrel’s side of the dungeon sank slowly. It disappeared into the ground.
Beyond what the stone wall previously blocked was a vast, circular arena with marble flooring. All along the arena’s walls were cages of dragons.
I’m the only human here.
He looked further up. At the top of the highest row of cages were human-packed stands. Directly in the center was a shaded, open area housing a couple thrones and guards saluting nearby. In one of the thrones was an older man in ornate, bright robes. A platform held up by chains in front of the thrones was lowering to the marble arena, with a man in light-weight armor and an assortment of weapons accompanying him.
High above, a net of chains made up the arena’s ceiling.
The armored man walked forward once the platform landed, arms raised to the crowd’s praise. He bowed.
An unease settled in Fendrel.
All the dragons, save for Venom and Sear, had pressed themselves as far away from the arena as they could, either hissing, growling, or weeping.
Wherever the man’s gaze fell, the dragons in that arena seemed to shrink back even more.
I haven’t seen dragons react this way to anyone other than Sadon. Who is this man?
The man removed his helmet to reveal a young face. For some reason, his voice carried throughout the whole area. “Welcome! I bet you’re wondering why we are holding a Level Four Tournament today of all days.”
The crowd cheered.
“Even though today is not a holiday, it is still a very special day. For we have surprise, unwanted visitors from Sharpdagger. Single-elemented dragons have traveled here, and we caught three of them for you all to enjoy.” The man made his way to the center of the arena.
He was interrupted by the crowd. With a wave of his hand, they quieted. “You’re getting ahead of me. Only two of these dragons will be fighting today. The third I have used to replace my earth-fire pet, who will also be fighting today. And along with these dragons, we have a human from Sharpdagger! Don’t worry though, he’s a criminal, a dragon fraternizer. He seemed pretty buddy-buddy with them when we found them, but let’s see how he holds up when he beasts he cares about try to kill him.”
The man motioned for guards—Fendrel just noticed them standing on the edges of the arena—to go to Fendrel’s cell.
One guard waited for the door to slide up before reaching in and pulling Fendrel out into the open. The bars fell back down behind him.
Muffled whispers passed overhead in the stands.
Fendrel looked back at the fire-air dragon for an explanation.
“The only human who fights in Level Four is the prince.” The hybrid nodded at the armored man.
“Are you all ready?” The prince raised his voice.
Another bloodthirsty cheer.
The prince put his helmet back on and approached Fendrel, who took a few steps back.
“This is your one chance to prove yourself worthy and be relieved of your crimes. If you live, you’ll go free.” The prince took a body-length shield off his back and a short sword from a sheath on his belt, handing them to Fendrel.
“I don’t fight well with heavier tools.” Fendrel grabbed the handouts.
I guess it’s better than nothing.
The prince scoffed. “It’s impossible to win a fight against a dragon with nothing on your person. You will fight with this generous gift or be defenseless.” He turned and pointed at Venom and a writhing earth dragon.
The earth hybrid dragon spewed a stream of fire.
“Oh, great.” Fendrel pressed his back against the metal bars.
Venom’s and the hybrid’s cage doors slid upward. Venom crept out.
The hybrid used her clawed wings to pull herself out. She rushed toward the prince, hissing.
Without hesitation, the prince pulled another sword from his belt.
A quick slash across her face with the sword caused the hybrid to recoil. She lunged for the prince’s leg but was blocked by the blade again.
The prince flourished his sword, cutting a few scales from his opponent. As she backed away, the prince whirled and struck Venom unprovoked.
Venom roared in surprise and reared up with his wings spread.
Fendrel braced his shoulder against the inside of his shield and rammed into the prince.
While he was down, Venom batted the prince’s sword away.
The crowd gasped.
“What are you doing?” The prince sprang to his feet. “I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself!”
Fendrel shook his head. He flinched when the hybrid lunged with her jaws open wide.
Venom raked her snout, causing her blood to trickle on the floor.
“No, you’re fighting me, beast.” The prince caught the handle of an axe being tossed to him by a guard. He swung it down on Venom’s tail, severing the last few feet of it off at an odd angle.
The sickening crunch and Fendrel’s own scream echoed in his ears as the prince pulled his blood-stained weapon out of Venom, a piece of bone stuck on it.
Venom roared in agony. He tried to fly away, but his crippled tail threw him off balance and he crashed to the hard floor. Blood pooled on the marble and Venom slipped on it while trying to stand.
Pocketing the broken bone, the prince stalked toward Venom.
Fendrel tried to stop him, but the hybrid blocked his path, coiling up like a rattlesnake. As his jaws came down, Fendrel shoved his shield up against her head.
With a hiss, she ripped the shield out of Fendrel’s grip.
The shield skittered out of reach.
Fendrel gripped the hilt of his short sword, his knuckles turning white. He feigned an attack at the hybrid’s eye to buy some time. “Don’t make me hurt you.”
She hissed and rammed her head against his chest, knocking him several feet away on his back.
Pain spiked through his head and black dots clouded his vision. He tried to sit up, but the hybrid pushed him down.
He heard a crack in his chest.
The hybrid hovered over him and opened her mouth again.
A screeching roar grabbed both of their attention.
Sear let loose a blazing blue jet of flame on the bars separating him from the arena. The metal melted. The red dragon leapt through the gaping hole and charged at the hybrid.
Fendrel slowly crawled backwards while Sear tackled the serpentine earth-fire dragon.
Venom, who now held a mangled paw against his chest, was trying to dodge the prince’s attacks. His movements were sluggish, and his breathing was labored. Blood continued to drip from his tail, paw, and a multitude of new cuts.
Staggering to his feet, Fendrel realized it was hard to breathe. But still, Venom was worse than he was.
Sear now had the hybrid pinned, digging his claws deep into her. He pulled her up, then slammed her back on the floor. Just as he was about to bite her throat, an arrow shot through the hybrid’s eye.
Fendrel looked over to see the prince now brandishing a bow with an arrow notched and aimed at Fendrel. “You had your chance to prove yourself to be worthy of redemption.”
Venom struggled to his feet but crumpled as he took a single step. He whimpered, laying in a pool of his own blood.
The prince released the arrow.
Why can’t I move? Why can’t I shut my eyes?
Sear leapt in front of Fendrel. The arrow embedded in his chest, shattering scales and spurting blood. He sucked in a gasping breath. A second arrow sent him to the ground with his wings sprawling out beside him.
Fendrel dropped to his knees beside the fire dragon’s head. It was even harder to breathe now.
With a grimace, Sear turned his head to Fendrel. “Am I redeemed yet?”
“Wh-what?” Fendrel took gasping breaths.
“I told you in Fresh Grove that I would…do what I could to make it up to you.” Sear rested his head. “Have I done enough?”
“I—” Fendrel’s hands shook.
What do I say? You killed my mother. You hunted me for years. But then you defended me from Fragrance, smiled when I defeated him, and saved me here.
“You terrify me…” Fendrel placed a hand on the dragon’s head. “But thank you for what you’ve done for me.”
Sear closed his eyes and let out a final, wheezing breath.
Fendrel swallowed. “You’ve done enough…” His eyes burned.
“Fendrel.” Venom limped over and rested beside him.
The prince waved at some of the guards on standby. They rushed to form a circle around Fendrel, Sear’s body, and Venom.
“Halt!” The man on the throne above the arena stood. He pointed at Fendrel. “Daichi, bring him to me. I will be waiting in the throne room.”
After a bow, the prince signaled the guards again and headed for the platform.
Venom growled at the nearing guards.
Fendrel placed a hand on Venom’s snout. “I think they just want to talk.”
Venom snorted but stopped growling. “If I find out that they hurt you, I will tear this entire kingdom down with my own claws.”
You and I both know you can’t even stand right now.
“I’m sure you will.” Fendrel gave a sad smile. He stood and followed Prince Daichi, to the platform.