Chapter One: Maren CHAPTER ONE Maren
Naava roared, her cry reverberating through my entire body. I turned my head just enough to see the sky we’d left behind. The Talons were gaining on us.
“Can you outfly them?” I called to Naava. I’d hoped they would land to investigate the wreckage of Lumina burning—instead the Talons had bypassed the ruins entirely once they had seen us flying in the distance. And for all my bravado, I did not know how to confront a battle-ready Talon or their dragon. It had been mostly luck that I’d escaped those I had encountered.
Naava extended her wings to their full span, taking in an enormous breath. You must hold on. I haven’t carried your kind in some time.
Hold on? I wrapped my arms as far around her neck as I could, hunching forward to keep the dragon kit tucked between our bodies. She squeaked in protest, digging her claws into my shirt. I called to Kaia. “She says to hold on!”
Whatever reply Kaia might have given was lost to the wind, but her arms tightened around me—just in time, as Naava swooped low, and my stomach lurched. The height that had seemed glorious only minutes before turned terrifying. If I lost my grip—I didn’t even want to think about it.
Glancing back, I saw that the two Talons had halted their approach, their dragons’ wings beating just enough to keep them aloft. The wind shifted, and I caught a whiff of fire root… and saltwater pearl. The Talons had instructed the dragons to wait. Why?
But instead of taking the opportunity to flee, Naava made a sharp turn—and shot directly toward them.
Kaia gasped, and I grabbed the kit just as she started to slide off Naava’s neck. What are you doing? I cried.
Naava ignored me, and I tried to control my growing panic as we drew closer to the Talons. The only thing steadying me was that despite our approach, the dragons made no move to attack.
It suddenly occurred to me—the Talons were accustomed to hunting creatures on land. There were few things that could threaten a dragon, and none that could take to the air. And with all dragons in Zefed under the emperor’s control, these Talons had never fought against one of their own before. They didn’t know what to do any more than I did.
Naava pulled up just outside the dragons’ reach, her great wings flapping. The Talons were dressed in identical black uniforms with leather armor and helmets, bandoliers strapped diagonally across their torsos. We were close enough that I could see the confusion on their faces. These Talons must have been told to investigate the disturbance at Lumina, but it was clear no one had warned them about an enormous dragon wreaking havoc upon the land.
I looked at the dragons. They both had dark green scales, though one had a longer tail than the other. On the ground, they would have been at least twice my height. But compared to Naava, they seemed small. Neither of them carried cargo large enough to be human. My heart plummeted. Sev must be long gone, then.
One of the Talons shouted across the sky in Zefedi. “You have stolen the property of His Beloved Grace, the Flame of the West. Surrender the dragon!”
Naava roared in anger, and I almost laughed. How could they possibly think that I was the one in control? Of course, a Talon would have no other way to understand what they saw—the concept of a free dragon was entirely foreign to them.
“Dragons are not property!” I shouted back in the language of the empire. “And they have been held in captivity for long enough!”
I nudged Naava with a thought. They don’t have Sev. We should leave while we still can.
No, she replied. They smell wrong. They are all—wrong.
She roared again, letting out a furious jet of fire. The other dragons finally retaliated, their flames cutting so close that I felt heat against my neck as Naava flapped her wings, taking us high and out of their reach. I barely had time to flatten myself against Naava’s back before she folded her wings and entered a steep dive toward the Talons. The scent of fire root was strong around us, but as Naava spun through the air, I saw the dragons hesitate.
Kaia screamed as we cut through the space between the Talons, and then we were behind them. Naava banked in a tight turn as the dragons wheeled to face us. She was faster than them, and nimbler, too. The Talons fumbled with their bandoliers, reaching for new vials of oil.
My children! Naava roared.
The dragons’ heads snapped toward us. And then Naava sang.
The kits at the fortress had sung in quiet, burbling tones that could be explained away as an uncanny wind by those who worked at the fortress. The yearlings had sung in their sleep as well, their soft voices ringing only in my ears. But Naava’s song was furious, an elemental shriek that crashed through the air. To most humans, I imagined that her song must have sounded like a ferocious battle cry. But I could hear the melody, and the sorrow and urgency layered within. There was no Verran equivalent of this song, but I understood what she was doing. She was pleading with the other dragons.
Their gazes followed Naava as she dipped in the air and brought us nearer. I was close enough to see the Talons’ shocked faces below their helmets—and then I watched as the dragons’ heads tipped curiously to one side. The Talons reared back, yanking at their reins. The dragons bucked in midair and refocused, baring their fangs and spitting fire. Naava snapped her wings closed and dove as a plume of fire rushed into the piece of sky we had just occupied. She pulled out of the dive so quickly that my breath caught in my chest. My arms were burning with the strain of holding on as Naava burst upward again, arrowing straight back toward the Talons.
They split in opposite directions this time, and Naava tore after the dragon with the shorter tail. The dragon kit was pressed rigidly against my chest. Kaia’s arms squeezed viselike around my waist, forcing my breath higher and shallower.
We pulled up next to the dragon. The Talon’s eyes widened in fear as Naava whipped her tail to the side, striking the Talon across the chest.
The Talon tumbled from the saddle, but her arm tangled in the dragon’s reins as she fell, yanking her body to a halt. She cried out in pain as she dangled. The dragon roared and swerved, its head dragged down by the weight. Naava beat her wings, and we rose higher in the air. She was preparing for another dive.
A movement caught my eye, and I turned my head just as the second dragon slammed into us, striking at Naava with its claws.
The sky went sideways. For a moment we hung in the air, weightless—and then we were falling.
I clung to Naava as my head filled with the dizzying image of the ground rising up to meet us. Kaia screamed, and I closed my eyes. For one—two—three breaths we tumbled. Then Naava’s wings spread, catching a gust of wind and sending us into a glide.
My hands were shaking with cold and adrenaline, but my relief was cut short by the warm, metallic scent of blood. I looked down—the dragon kit was all right. Her blue scales had grayed around the edges, but she wasn’t crying. Kaia’s arms remained locked around my waist. I turned, trying to see her face.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
“No,” she said, pressing her cheek into my shoulder.
That was good. But Naava was flying unevenly, her left wing less than fully extended. It was difficult to see against her black scales, but there was a gash above her elbow joint, and blood welling up from the wound.
We had to get to the ground. I looked around. The Talon was busy attempting to help her comrade back into her saddle, which bought us some time. But soon they would recover, and I did not want to contemplate our chances against them now that Naava was hurt.
Naava seemed to disagree. Despite her unsteady wings, she circled us back toward the Talons. She drew in a deep breath, and I could feel her body expanding. Then she opened her mouth and let out a column of flame so large that it engulfed both the dragons and their Talons.
Human screams and the scent of burning flesh filled the air. The dragons dove down, taking the Talons with them. I expected Naava to follow, but it seemed that she had used most of her strength with this attack. Her breathing was hitched and shallow, the flap of her wings increasingly erratic. Instead of swooping after the Talons to finish what she had started, she turned carefully in the air and kept us at a good distance. The Talons were badly burned, but the dragons’ injuries looked minor—it seemed that dragons weren’t so sensitive to fire.
You have been held by human hands too long, she called to the dragons. Come with me!
The dragons startled. It was as though they had never heard one of their own speak before. Perhaps they hadn’t. Before Naava, I’d only ever heard a dragon sing.
Despite her exhaustion, Naava was entreating them to join her. There was nothing holding them back now—the wounded Talons were too weak to control them. All the dragons had to do was throw off their riders and follow. But when Naava turned in wobbly circles, looking over her shoulder, the dragons did not come. They simply watched her, as if entranced.
The dragon kit shivered. I suddenly realized that the air around us had cooled, and clouds were rolling in. We were losing height, despite Naava’s determination. She would not be able to fly for much longer, no matter what else came our way.
“We have to go!” I shouted aloud.
No! Naava snapped. I will not leave them.
But she was done—I knew it as she let out another flame that was more spark than fire. She gave a long, mournful cry.
You’re losing strength. We have to get to safety! I pleaded with her.
At first I thought she would refuse to leave. But at last she turned away, leaving the Talons injured and the dragons in a haze as we fled.
Clouds quickly obscured the sky behind us as Naava flew low over Belat Forest. Landing in the forest would be ideal, as the trees would provide shelter and disguise our presence. I cast my gaze to the ground, searching for a safe spot. Naava was listing lower and lower.
“There!” I pointed to a small clearing carved out of the trees. Man-made or natural, I saw no other option. Naava took my direction without hesitation.
We swooped down, narrowly avoiding the trees that hemmed in the clearing. Naava landed heavily, the impact jarring me to my bones. The dragon kit leaped to the ground. I followed, folding into a graceless heap as my legs collapsed. Kaia slid down last. She staggered toward us and dropped down next to me, resting her head on my shoulder. Relieved of her passengers, Naava folded her wings and settled into a mountainous coil, closing her eyes and letting out a gusty sigh.
The dragon kit nestled into my free side, and I looked up. My view of the sky was ringed by the towering pine trees that surrounded us. There was not a sound in the forest besides our labored breathing. We had survived. My arms were too heavy to lift and my legs were shaking and my back ached with the strain of having lain across Naava’s body, but we had survived.
My vision blurred and I closed my eyes, giving in to my exhaustion and the waiting darkness.