Now, We Burn

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7 | Ember

7
| Ember |

The sound of dragon roars cut through the air as Ember dashed through the woods, branches whipping her face and smoky air catching in her lungs.

From behind her, she heard cries from the gang’s headquarters, as well as the clashing of metal and the flapping of leathery wings.

The thrill of fear and freedom coursed through her veins like wildfire.

Glancing up through the trees for dragons, Ember ran on. She had to get away -- far away from those harking gang crussers and their messed up plans for her and Eliza. If the dragons hadn’t come, they would still be in the hands of those killers.

Ember’s heart faltered. She skidded to a stop, falling hard to her knees, cold realization making her throat tight.

Eliza. She had completely forgotten about her sister. She had left her -- ran away without a second thought.

Shame overtook Ember as she sprang to her feet, only to fall back to her knees. What kind of sister left the only person she loved in the world? Only a filthy coward. She was no better than the gang; but she could still find her.

Ember raced back the way she had came, all the sounds she had tried to outrun coming back as she ran toward the gang, their darkly clothed figures and the blue-yellow dragonfire coming into sight. Ember left the cover of the trees, coughing in the thick smoke. Hot embers blew past her face as she started across the ruin that was the gang’s fort, dread washing over her heart.

Destruction was everywhere. Gang members ran through the smoke, war cries bubbling from their throats and weapons in their hands. There were quite a few dragons hovering in the sky, and they swooped down, some snatching people off the ground, others spewing flame into the air and across the fiery landscape. Rubble and dead bodies littered the ground.

Ember swore, then without hesitation, plunged into the smoke-filled battle scene.

Someone ran past her, running through the flames and smoke.

“Eliza!” Ember cried, turning toward the figure, but it disappeared.

A loud roar deafened Ember and she ducked just as the yellow, scaly belly of a dragon came into view, flying directly over her.

“Harking hell,” she gasped, staring as the dragon disappeared into the haze. Ember ran deeper into the smoke. “Eliza!” she yelled, her voice drowned out by another roar followed by the crackling of flame. Ember turned to see fire engulfing the remains of the tent behind her, the flames reaching out to her with angry tongues.

Ember ran, her heart thudding like there was no tomorrow. If she didn’t find Eliza, she wouldn’t want to live to see tomorrow.

“Eliza!” Ember called, coughing up the smoke that had pervaded her lungs.

“Eliza!”

From afar a figure stumbled out of the smoke billowing from what had been the main headquarters, their face blackened by soot and fire chasing in their footsteps.

“Eliza!” Ember cried, racing to the figure, ducking as another dragon swooped overhead. The figure turned. Instantly the slight smidgen of relief that had been creeping over her vanished, replaced with rage as she saw that the figure was none other than the grinning devil himself: Hugo.

For a moment across the destruction, their eyes met, before a smile curled over Hugo’s lips and he started running straight toward her.

“Crussing dragon steep,” Ember said through gritted teeth, every bone in her body ached to charge at Hugo, to grab his throat and choke the life out of him. But she couldn’t, she had to find Eliza, if she wasn’t dead yet.

Ember turned on her heel, racing straight into a wall of smoke, panic setting deep into her bones.

Tears formed in her eyes from the sting of the smoke as Ember raced across the charred earth, glancing back to see if Hugo was following her.

Another roar pierced the night, just as fire erupted in front of her, searing her exposed skin. Ember cried out, leaping back, fire racing up the sleeve of her jacket.

Shrieking in pain, Ember ripped her jacket off, cold air immediately biting her skin.

The fire drew nearer, ready to swallow her whole.

Ember leapt to her feet, turning to run, but then something grabbed her. Sharp, knifelike things sunk into her back and began to move up her spine as the smoke grew thicker.

Ember screamed; she could feel the blood dripping down her back.

She heard the dragon’s high-pitched screech.

Fear blazing through her veins, Ember twisted, her eyes meeting the scaly underside of a dragon.

Ember tried to swear, she tried to scream and shake in fear, but she couldn’t. She was frozen to her spot. The beast had her in its claws, and everyone knew that if a dragon took you, there was no coming back.

Suddenly Ember was reminded of a song -- a song that mothers had sung for years to warn their children of the dragons.

Like a dream, the lyrics came back to Ember, the words sending a shiver up her spine.

“’Come to me’ the dragon sings.
’I’ll give you pretty jewels and things.
Sure I bite, and my fire is spite.
But I’ll wrap you in my pretty wings.
For I am a dragon.
Let me hate.
Let me rage.
Let me change your boring fate.
If I pick you up.
I’ll never put you down down, down,
Never put you down, down down, down.’
‘My flame is hotter than hell.’ The dragon grins.
’It might sear away your human sins.
Sure, I kill, and I always will.
But know that a dragon always wins
For I am a dragon,
let me fly,
let me roar,
let me make you cry.
If I pick you up,
I’ll never put you down.
Never put you down,
never, never put you down.’

The song played itself over and over in her head. one line swirling in her mind more than the rest.

If I pick you up, I’ll never put you down.”

She was never going to ecape. She would never find Eliza, never get revenge for her father, never truly be free. And it was because of the dragons.

The dragon flew free from the smoke and haze, carrying her over leafless trees, the wasteland a dull grey against the dark horizon.

One hot tear slipped down Ember’s cheek.

“Just eat me already!” she yelled, raising her arms in frustration.

Another angry tear slid down the tip of her nose.

“Harking coward!” she cried.

“Eat me! Eat me! Let me see my mom, my dad. Then go eat Eliza too, so that she can join us!”

A sob rose in Ember’s chest, but she fought it down, trying to twist out of the dragon’s grasp, pain shooting through her back as the dragon’s claws sank deeper into her.

Ember let out a gasp of pain.

This was it. She was going to die. If she was to be honest, she was surprised she had lasted this long. Most kids died before the were in their teens.

“I can’t die,” Ember said to herself, wiping away the tears that had frozen to her cheek. She had only now felt the cold wind whipping her hair and clothes, cutting into her face like a razor.

“I can’t.”

No sooner had the words left her mouth that the dragon swooped down, heading straight for the edge of the wastelands.

Ember let out a bloodcurdling scream, sure that the dragon was going to drop her down on the sharp rocks below, cracking her head open so that it could eat her brain.

But as soon as she was sure the end was near the dragon flew upward again, wings flapping vigorously. Relief washed over Ember, then she felt herself falling.

With a sickening crunch Ember landed on the ground, sliding across the rough, weeded area to slam headfirst into a stone foundation.

“Da’arskit,” Ember swore, her ears ringing and her vision going fuzzy.

Ember shook her head and pulled herself to her feet. She had to go. She had to run, before the dragon could catch her again.

But she was too late.

With a gust of wind that sent Ember tumbling back, the dragon landed, its golden eyes fixed on her.

Ember stared. She had never been so close to a dragon before, never close enough to see the coils of smoke curling from the dragon’s bared teeth, the flecks of gold laced through the dragon’s scales, or the beating of a strong pulse under its skin.

Ember had stopped breathing. Even in her fear, even with sheer terror freezing her in place she could see that this creature was utterly magnificent.

The dragon was the height of a man, ruby red scales covering every inch of its skin. Spikes erupted from its back and thick muscles rippled as it moved, its whole body tense. Scarred, leathery wings blocked out the bright moon, and its eyes lit like gold lanterns, obsidian pupils closing in on the gold like a shadow over sunlight.

Ember caught her breath as the dragon took a step forward. Its huge black talons dug into the earth.

The dragon’s eyes never left hers for a moment.

Ember couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. A battle cry burst from her throat as Ember leapt over the edge of the foundation wall, not caring that her chances were one to zero.

As soon as Ember’s feet hit the ground she took off running, fear blinding her as she raced over the rough rubble-strewn landscape of the wastelands like the devil himself was chasing after her.

Breath burning her lungs, Ember glanced behind her, turning just in time to see the dragon leap over the wall like a wild cat, golden eyes still fixated on her.

“Hark off!” Ember screamed, her legs moving even faster, sweat drenching her ragged shirt.

This was all a game. Ember could feel it. The dragon was letting her go so that he could pounce on her again. Like a cat with a mouse.

The dragon roared, and Ember felt something hot at her back, the smell of burning hair filling her nose. With a cry, Ember ducked down, her foot slipping on the dry drt. Then she was rolling.

Down she fell, tumbling down a slope, branches and weeds scraping her limbs.

With a thud she came to a stop, and the wind was knocked right out of her lungs.

Gasping for breath, Ember crawled to her knees, looking up. At the top of the steep hill sat the dragon; a fiery glow coated its chest, like rivulets of molten lava.

“Just eat me already, you crussing droolpool!” Ember gasped, staggering to her feet. “Kill me! I don’t want to play your crussing game!”

The dragon remained still, its long, spike-lined tail twitching back and forth.

“Fine then,” Ember sighed. She took off, heart thudding in her chest. She wouldn’t look back, she wouldn’t give it the satisfaction of seeing her fear.

Heart in her throat Ember ran, leaping over mounds of dirt, overgrown grass, and oily puddles. The adrenaline in her veins made her forget the aching of her lungs and limbs.

Ember sped through the terrain of the wastelands, determined not to stop. In the distance, the remains of a red truck came into view, a dented yellow orb with a crude smiley face stuck on the end of its antenna.

Ember’s chest tightened. She knew that truck, it wasn’t far from their hideout.

Eliza could be there, Ember thought, a mixture of terror and relief spilling over her. She had to look, but not now, not with the dragon on her heels. She had to get away.

With a new burst of energy, Ember raced to the truck, leaping onto the hood. She was about to jump off when there was the sound of the crunching of old metal and Ember felt her foot fall. Arms flailing, she fell forward, falling off the car and hitting the ground hands first.

Teeth grit in pain, Ember got up, peering over the hood for the dragon but as she scanned the landscape Ember saw nothing. No flash of red scales, no puff of smoke or flame. Ember stared at the landscape, eyes narrowed for what seemed like ages, until her knees ached and the cold air clung to her sweaty skin like slime, but still there was no trace of the dragon. Breathing hard, Ember stood, sure that the dragon would leap out of hiding and attack. But nothing happened. The dragon was gone.

“Harking dragon,” Ember grumbled, glancing at the sky before turning on her heel, every inch of her body bruised and aching. She ran, heading for their old hideout. She had to find Eliza.

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