17 | Ember
November 14, 2104
Ember wiped her running nose as she bent over the red-faced man. “Hold it out,” she said, gesturing to the man’s bleeding arm.
The man hesitated, holding his wounded arm tight to his burly chest, suspicion clear in his paint-rimmed eyes.
“For hark’s sake!” Ember growled, “I can’t help you if you won’t let me! Die of infection, for all I care!”
The man’s eyes widened, darting back and forth like Ember was about to strike him. He held out his arm.
Grumbling about harking gang idiots with no common sense, Ember hastily cleaned the man’s wound, slapping on a poultice and bandages.
When Ember was finished the man mumbled his thanks and hurried out of the infirmary like the devil was at his tail.
“Ungrateful coward,” Ember snorted, starting to pick up the medical supplies.
She was on infirmary duty. This was bad enough in itself, but when all the patients were skeptical gang scum ready to either fight you or run away screaming like a little girl, it made things about ten times worse.
“Of course Thane had to make this so hard,” Ember muttered to herself, throwing the bandages and what was left of the poultice back into her dad’s medical bag. “How I harking hate that guy.”
Ember’s mind traveled to what Eliza had told her last night. A dragon haven, an actual place where dragons lived in harmony. It sounded like a dream to Ember. Who would have thought it would bring her so much happiness. Ember wondered if the red dragon that had followed her went there. She didn’t know what it was, but ever since she had seen that fiery beast in the woods, she had felt a connection. The very thought of the dragon should have terrified her. But all she felt was the nagging pull of curiosity. If Eliza’s dragon, Echo, wasn’t out to kill everyone, maybe the red dragon wasn’t either.
A warm hand slid around Ember’s waist and she turned, ready to smack the living daylights out of whoever had dared to put their hands on her, but as she turned she found her gaze met with Hugo’s.
“Oh, it’s you,” Ember said, unable to shake her initial annoyance.
“What do you mean, ‘Oh, it’s you’?”Hugo grinned, his other hand going to her waist, pulling her closer to him. “Aren’t you happy to see me?”
Ember’s lips began to curl into a smile before she could stop herself. “Shut up,” she said, turning away. Hugo’s touch was warm at her hip. “I’m working.”
“Awww, come on,” Hugo groaned, wrapping his arms around her from behind, running one finger over her belly, making Ember’s skin tingle and her insides hot. “I have something to give you.”
“Oh yeah?” Ember asked, trying to ignore the fluttering in her stomach and strong presence of Hugo’s arms around her. He grasped her hand, his long and pale fingers contrasting against her scarred, dark caramel ones.
“Come on, you won’t regret it.”
Heart fluttering in her chest, Ember let Hugo pull her out of the infirmary and into a hallway leading out into another part of the mall. The cement walls were marked with harsh streaks of graffiti.
Hugo stopped, turning to Ember with his wicked smile that stretched from ear to ear.
Ember looked at him expectantly, her eyes unable to stop looking at his sharp jawline, the dark twinkle in his eye and the mischievous curl of his lip.
“Well?” she asked, her mouth growing dry as Hugo suddenly drew closer.
Hugo’s grin widened, his hands going around her waist again, sending shivers up Ember’s spine.
Ember raised her eyebrow, her hand going to Hugo’s solid chest, the tattoo of a triangular symbol under her fingertip.
“You said you harking had something for me.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Hugo chuckled. “I just wanted to give you this,” his hand crept around the back of her neck, pulling her closer, his touch leaving trails of fire on her skin before he met his lips with hers.
Ember closed her eyes, losing herself as heat flooded through her, the fluttering feeling inside her stomach moving her as she wrapped her arms around Hugo’s neck, pulling him closer. Their kiss deepened, Hugo’s tongue sliding into her mouth, making Ember tremble, her eyes flickering shut.
Ember felt Hugo’s hands begin to move up and down her waist, his hands playing with the hem of her shirt.
His lips trailed down to her neck, nearly making her gasp before he brought them back to hers.
“Ember!” The voice jolted Ember back to reality, her lips breaking from Hugo’s, chest heaving.
Ember turned to see Eliza standing in the hallway, her mouth open and her eyes wide. She felt her cheeks go red.
“Hark off, Eliza,” she said, drawing back from Hugo. “Can’t you leave me alone for five seconds?”
Eliza’s fists were clenched as she stormed over.
“Get your hands off my sister,” she hissed, staring daggers at Hugo.
“Actually, I believe her hands were on me.” Hugo smirked.
Eliza looked like she had been punched square in the jaw. “Get away from him, Ember,” she commanded, her breath turning the air white. “He-he’s not good for you, he’ll only hurt you.”
Anger flared up inside Ember.
“Who are you to harking tell me what to do!” Ember yelled, her own hands curling into fists.
“I’m telling you for your own safety!” Eliza shot back, her lips trembling.
“My own safety,” Ember scoffed. “Everything you tell me to do, it’s harking rubbish. If I always listened to you we’d probably be dead. What are you trying to do, strip away the last things that make me happy?”
Eliza winced. “He doesn’t care about you!” she cried. “He’s a monster, a harking monster, Ember. He doesn’t love anyone, especially not you.”
Ember rose, Eliza’s words hurting her heart. She grabbed Hugo’s arm.
“Let’s go,” she said, her blood roaring in her ears. “I’m done with this crussing dragon scarf.”
“Ember, wait--” Eliza started, but Ember was already out of hallway.
“What’s her problem?” Hugo asked as they walked through the infirmary into the next part of the mall, the air warm from the cooking fires and the sweaty men practicing with weapons.
“I don’t harking know,” Ember said. “Don’t listen to what she said. She’s always been like this, she thinks she’s my mother or something. As if I’ll let her control my whole harking life.”
Ember’s chest felt tight. She didn’t want to listen to what Eliza said. She didn’t need Eliza to approve of Hugo, but some part of her still wanted Eliza to like Hugo, to trust him.
Ember racked her brain, trying to think of a way to make Eliza see that she was wrong about Hugo, that she wasn’t some lovesick girl with her head in the clouds.
“Hugo,” Ember started slowly, coming to a stop in the doorway of another part of the mall, an idea entering her mind. “Have you ever heard of a dragon haven?”
“A dragon haven,” Ember repeated. “Like a place where dragons live together in safety.”
“Dragons living together?” Hugo scoffed. “They’d harking rip each other apart. They’re monsters.”
“They’re not monsters!” Ember countered, scowling at Hugo. “I know they’re not.”
He raised an eyebrow. Ember took a deep breath.
“Last night,” she began. “Eliza told me that she went to a haven for dragons, and there were hundreds of them there. They didn’t hurt her, they didn’t even chase her.” Ember paused, thinking. “I don’t think dragons are our enemies. I think we’ve made them our enemies.”
“You really believe that?” Hugo asked, eyebrows raised as he walked through the doorway. “She’s just harking around with you.”
“She isn’t!” Ember burst out, her voice rising to a yell. “Why the hark would she lie about something like that?”
“Because she’s crazy.”
Ember stared at Hugo, dumbfounded. “I don’t believe it,” she stated. “You don’t believe me?”
Hugo ambled over to her, reaching out a hand as he gripped Ember’s chin. “Sorry, darlin’. I don’t believe something if there’s no proof.”
Ember slapped his hand away, her throat tight with emotions she could not put into words. Face hot, she turned on her heel and ran out of the mall, heading for the quiet woods in the distance.
The woods were eerily quiet as Ember tore through the trees, ignoring the cold air burning in her lungs and the branches catching at her arms and legs.
The stormy twilight sky tinged the bare trees grey, and the bright light messed with Ember’s eyes. Cold pricking at her skin Ember ran on, only one thought on her mind: the dragon.
Ember needed to find it; to see its red scales, muscles rippling under its armored skin and the fire burning at its throat. Eliza had earned Echo’s trust, and if she could do that Ember could befriend this dragon. She would do it even if she almost died trying. She had to prove to them that she could do something, that she wasn’t lying, that she was capable. She had to prove it to Hugo, to Eliza, and most of all, to herself.
Gasping on the icy air, Ember came to a stop, doubling over as she tried to regain her breath.
She had to find the beast, but how? The dragon could be anywhere in the woods, and right now these woods felt like they stretched to the edge of the earth.
Ember breathed in deeply, catching the always-present scent of smoke. Her throat felt raw from running in the cold.
There was only one thing she could think of to catch the dragon’s attention.
She would have to call for him.
As she took a breath to shout Ember felt her determination falter. She had always been taught not to shout, to stay quiet, to blend into the background like she didn’t exist. Now, she was going to shout for a creature she had been taught to fear for her entire life.
Ember chuckled to herself. How ironic.
Without warning something swooped over the treeline, and Ember’s eyes turned up to see a mass of scarlet fly over the trees.
Panic rose in Ember’s chest.
“Dragon!” she shouted, starting to run after the beast, “Wait!”
But the dragon was waiting for no one. Further and further into the distance it flew as Ember ran faster than she ever had just to keep the scarlet dragon in sight. Flashes of brown, orange, and white flew past her vision as she streaked through dense woods and damp leaves.
“Over here ya harking scarf!” Ember shouted, leaping over a fallen tree.
The dragon vanished.
Ember slowed, coming to a stop near the ridge of a cliff, the sharp rocks looking down on a stream curving through the bare trees.
“Harking dragon,” Ember gasped, scanning the sky.
Just as Ember moved to turn around, she noticed a spec high up in the fading blue sky. She squinted at it, noticing too late that the dragon was plunging straight down toward her. Ember dove to the side, tucking her body and rolling behind a tree.
The dragon landed with a gust of wind so strong it nearly knocked Ember over.
From her hiding spot Ember could see the dragon, its powerful body so much bigger in the safety of the trees. Her gaze was unable to break from its long fangs, and the glow of fire inside its chest. For a moment she hesitated, sure that the dragon would attack her as soon as she stepped out from behind the tree.
Ember took a deep breath, very aware of the dragon’s own. She could do this. She stepped out from behind the tree, the dragon’s eyes instantly turning to meet hers.
For a moment she and the dragon stood there, frozen. Ember reached out her hand.
The dragon’s eyes narrowed, looking at her as if to say, ’Why should I bother with you, puny human?’
Ember swallowed. “Don’t be afraid,” she whispered, afraid to raise her voice above a whisper. “I just want to--I need to know you.”
As if he had been waiting for her words, the dragon lowered its scaled head, moving slowly forward until his head was below Ember’s hand. Ember took a deep breath, then in one motion she touched her hand upon the dragon’s scaly snout.
The scales were warm. Ember hadn’t expected that. It was like a heat from inside was warming the dragon, sending its warmth out through its scales and into Ember’s hand.
Ember looked again into the creature’s eyes.
“You’re not dangerous,” Ember whispered, not trusting her own voice. “You’re like me.”
The dragon’s gaze had engulfed her, seeming to tell her more than she could ever have guessed.
“You’re angry,” Ember said, licking her lips. “So harking angry.”
In a dreamlike state Ember reached out another hand, cupping the dragon’s chin in her hands, the heat warming her cold hands.
“You-you’re just like me,” Ember said, stroking the dragon’s red scales. “Filled with fire, filled with . . . rage.”
The dragon blinked, as if telling her that she couldn’t be more right.
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