Chapter 1: Another Dead Dragon
The August night is cool and dry in Oklahoma City, and the streets are quiet. I sit perched on the side of the two-story public library, my close friend Sofia next to me. Her dark, curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail. The scent of blood is strong from beneath us, but we hold our position, keeping our eyes sharp and our minds alert.
“He was only a child,” Sofia says. Her voice is coarse, as though she has unshed tears stored to the breaking point.
She’s angry, and so am I.
The dead body is draped across the narrow street. Blue scales are scattered along the sidewalk, and the dragon’s wings lie limp against a broken streetlamp and two vehicles. The creature’s throat is torn out, and blood runs like a river into the storm drains in the ground.
“Based on his size, he was between 10 and 14 years of age,” I say. The dragon is shorter than the building we perch on.
“He was a fire-wielder, too,” Fatema shouts from below us. She and Christina are down on the street, crouched near the dragon’s head.
A normal human would not have heard the whispers exchanged between Sofia and me, but none of us here are humans.
Even in the dark, I see Christina twist her pink lips to scowl at us. “You two are watching our backs, right? The last thing we need is a hoard of demons to sneak up on us like they had this poor boy.”
“Of course!” Sofia snaps back. She stands and adjusts her black coat.
I survey our surroundings and nod. “The demons are long gone by now. The body has been like this for almost an hour.”
“Then come down here. We need to talk,” Fatema says. Her thin eyebrows are pinched together in a frown.
Damn. If we need to talk, then shit is about to hit the fan.
Sofia leaps from the building, and I follow suit. We land agilely on our feet, the ground feeling firm against my sturdy combat boots.
I button up my thin, corduroy jacket as we approach Fatema and Christina, kicking up blood with my shoes while walking across the street. Fatema closes the distance between us and places her hand on my shoulder. Her dark skin glows under the moonlight.
Her grip on my shoulder is meant to be comforting, but I also understand what it meant.
“We need to move again,” Fatema says, confirming my suspicions.
I shrug away her grip.
“Why?” I demand, not ready to move again. “The kid was a fire-wielder; the ice dragons have no interest in his death!”
“Don’t be stupid!” Christina scolds, catching me by the arm and digging her nails into my skin. “All dragon eyes will be on this city the moment word of his body goes out.”
I grit my teeth, cringing at the sharp pain that shoots up my arm.
“Get your claws out of my arm,” I spit out.
Christina grins, baring her ultra-white teeth. Her nails extend into sharp talons, drawing blood underneath my jacket.
I growl in response, pulling back my other fist to land a blow. My gums ache as my fangs break through. Sofia catches my arm, and Fatema yanks Christina back by the hair.
“Knock it off, Chris!” Sofia yells. “You too, Nessa!”
Christina grunts an angry noise but says nothing more. She fixes up her shoulder-length blond hair and shoots Fatema an annoyed glare. I loosen up my muscles, and Sofia lets go of my arm.
“Christina could work on her delivery, but she isn’t wrong,” Fatema says. She crosses her arms in front of her thin frame. “The demons are getting bolder. This boy isn’t their first dragon kill. We may be demon hunters, but we are not immortal. Soon the royal families will send teams of elite trackers to investigate the murder and find the demons who committed it.”
The urge to fight suddenly leaves me, replaced by a burdened feeling of defeat.
“I know that,” I say softly.
Of course, she is right. They all are. But moving around from city to city and never settling down... it hurt. Oklahoma City isn’t overwhelmingly exciting, but it was home for nearly a year.
Sofia tugs me into a side hug, and I lean into her. She’s a full head shorter than me, but I always feel safe in her arms.
“It’s okay, Nessa,” she says, her fingers running through my ponytail.
Christina sighs, forgetting her anger. “Shit, Inessa. I’m sorry. You know we’re not doing this to hurt you. But if other dragons discover your presence here, Erik—sorry, the Ice King—will be notified.”
Fatema nods solemnly. “You are the eldest of the heirs to the fire-wielder throne, betrothed to marry him. Running away from your duty for the past nine years has done nothing but stoke tempers and provoke Erik’s pride. He will hunt you down and hold you to the marriage promises your parents made on your behalf.”
Hearing Christina and Fatema say what I already know feels like a punch to the gut, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. But I’d been running for nearly a decade, and I wasn’t about to surrender to the Ice King, a dragon fifteen years my senior.
“Where will I be going?” I say monotonously. Sofia releases me from her warm embrace.
“Juneau,” Fatema says.
Alaska? Freaking Alaska, where everything was fucking cold?
My hands mold into fists.
“But I’ve lived in Juneau before,” I say.
My thoughts flit to the kind werewolf Suzanna Johnson and her sweet son, LJ. Memories of them filled me with unexpected fondness and contentment.
Fatema raises a brow. “Yes, I know. However, their supernatural community is very dense, so your presence in Juneau would go unnoticed. The most powerful werewolf pack runs the city. You can hunt in the woods, and any unnatural animal deaths will be ignored or covered up to protect the pack from human scrutiny. As territorial as werewolves are, they won’t let other dragons sniff around their pack lands.”
What if people recognize me?
I push the thought aside. Even if civilians remember eight-year-old me, I doubt they’d connect me to dragon royalty. Despite their superior sense of smell, supernatural creatures have a hard time sniffing out the dragon side of me, especially with the intense, fruity perfume Christina makes me wear.
Besides, Fatema’s mind is made up. She’s the eldest of the four of us, and her word is law.
“Have you made arrangements already?” I ask.
Christina snorts. “I’ll get the money we need from my family. By the time you fly up to Alaska, we’ll have a house arranged for you on Elm Lane. You know, the place all the rich people stay?”
I give her a thumbs up.
“And you are registered at the big high school; we all are,” Fatema adds. “Sofia, Christina, and I will stay a few weeks in Oklahoma to scrub away your identity and plant false leads if needed.”
“If all goes well and the dragons don’t look too closely, we’ll join up with you by the end of August,” Sofia pipes up.
“You better,” I warn playfully and elbow her. I send an asking gaze to Fatema. “Am I leaving now?”
“That would be best,” Fatema says. “You do have your emergency bag with you?”
“Yes,” I sling the small duffle bag off my shoulder and throw it to the ground. It contains the necessities: clothes, snacks, godawful fruity perfume, a credit card, and a cell phone.
My three friends move back, giving me some space.
Christina makes a light-hearted shooing gesture, “get on out of here, sis.”
I remove my jacket and chuck it at her. Christina dances out of the way, her low chuckle echoing down the street.
I smile, calling the dragon forward. My nails are ripped out as talons grow in their place. Fangs pierce through my gums. My skin is sliced off and replaced by scales. Bones break and grow in size, and the clothes on my back tear up.
The public library becomes small compared to my size. My head bows to the ground as I pick up my emergency duffle bag with my teeth and hold it in my mouth.
I used to scream in unbearable pain in my youth every time I shifted, but dragons grow out of the pain.
I flex my wings, and my tail swings back and flips a car. Seconds later, I’m airborne, disappearing into the darkness of the sky.