Ella folded her arms, examining the new recruit with some skepticism. She was short and lanky with scruffy amber colored hair, cheekbones so sharp you could whet a blade on them. The recruit blinked up at her with impossibly large light brown eyes.
“I’m very good with a sword, and I can cook too if you don’t think I can fight,” The smaller girl shuffled her feet, staring at her shoelaces as if they were the most interesting things in the world.
She admired her bravery. Most wouldn’t risk coming this far out from the commons. The hangar where Ella and her teammate had relocated to was set thirty five miles away from the commons. They were on the outskirts where the area gave way to the territory marked by the dragons. In the rafters, Jacob flicked the end of his cigarette, ashes and sparks drifting down around the new recruit. She frowned and swatted at them as if they were annoying insects. Jacob laughed and grabbed hold of a pulley allowing his weight to drag him down to the floor.
“So you said your name was Nia, right?” Ella asked, tapping her foot impatiently.
This girl was a bit slow on the uptake. She’d found that she had to repeat what she said several times before Nia replied. She reminded Ella of a deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, brown doe eyes staring in fear back at her.
Ella sighed in exasperation, speaking louder in case the girl hadn’t heard her, “Your name, is Nia, right?”
Nia tilted her head to one side, blinking for a moment before nodding slowly, “Yes, Nia Raldi.”
Jacob stood a little ways off, taking a long drag of his cigarette. The red hot end illuminated his face in the half light of the hangar, the shadows dancing across his blue eyes. He almost looked demonic, a smile twisting the corners of his mouth upwards. Ella made a mental note to buy him new razors when they next journeyed to the commons. The thirty something year old soldier was looking a bit scruffy.
Ella and Jacob had lived alone on the outskirts for almost three years. When Ella was only fifteen, she had stolen whatever weapons she could from vendors in the commons and had vowed to slay the dragons which had taken the lives of her parents. Luckily, Jacob Patrician was able to stop her before she left the outskirts. At fifteen, Ella would have most certainly been slaughtered by the dragons who roamed just beyond the barrier. Now, at eighteen, Ella had a total of five dragon kills under her belt. She still had the eyes of the dragon who had destroyed her home memorized, the fiery orange orbs imprinted in her mind for all eternity. It had been the first creature she had slain alone after a year of rigorous training with Jacob.
She looked to Jacob for advice on what to do with the girl. It wasn’t solely her decision as to whether or not Nia could stay. He left the shadows and sauntered towards them, stepping into the square of light cast by a hole in the ceiling.
“You an honest lady?” He drawled, blowing smoke over both Ella and Nia.
Ella made a face, coughing pointedly at Jacob. She absolutely despised his filthy habit, always chastising him to quit. Her best argument was that if he fought fire breathing creatures, why should he kill himself by breathing smoke? Jacob usually retorted with something along the lines of, ‘Dragons don’t really breathe fire, you know,’ which would lead to a heated debate on the different kinds of dragons and whether there was a type somewhere out there that possessed the ability to spew flames upon its enemies.
“I don’t think I understand…” Nia took a few steps back, away from Jacob. Ella couldn’t blame her for being slightly intimated. Jacob stood at about five foot seven inches and wore a thick bomber jacket which caused him to look much larger than he actually was. He had a long scar which ran from his temple down to his chin, just barely missing his ear. When he was five, a small dragon known as a viper had sliced his face open when he attempted to befriend it. He often told the story to fellow fighters when they visited the Commons, describing it as the day he vowed to slay all of the creatures which had invaded his home. Ella often teased him for marking his scar as the most important turning point in his life. He didn’t argue with her; after all, Ella’s family had been brutally slaughtered by a dragon when she was a child. Jacob’s damaged visage was nothing compared to the blow her heart had been dealt.
“We don’t take kindly to you strangers, little lady,” Jacob pulled in a breath of smoke from his cigarette, exhaling it into Nia’s face. She didn’t even flinch as the cloud drifted across her, curling around her head. If Ella didn’t know any better, she could have sworn that the girl breathed in the second hand willingly, her eyes fluttering ever so slightly.
“It wouldn’t be very nice of you to slit our throats while we was sleeping now would it?” His face split open into a grin, lips pulled back to reveal two rows of painfully crooked teeth.
Nia stepped back even further, her back clanging against a supporting post. The sound echoed through the mostly empty hangar until it was only a faint whisper tickling the air around them. Ella sighed in exasperation, flicking her long black beaded hair over her shoulder. Each metal object tangled in her curls clattered against each other. They were her own personal wind chimes, their music singing sweetly in her ears.
“Jacob, you’re scaring her.” Ella pushed him away from Nia, approaching the timid girl.
Ella was mystified by her. It seemed impossible that such a quiet, skittish, young individual could find their way to the outskirts unscathed - especially with recent reports that a dragon had been spotted in the area only two nights ago. Nia fidgeted slightly under Ella’s gaze. Her eyes darted fearfully around, finally resting on the sword at Ella’s hip. It was an ancient weapon forged from the beginning of the war. Directly after the death of her parents, Ella had taken it from her father’s study in order to defend herself against the next wave. She never used it until after Jacob discovered her several weeks later hunkered down in an alley. It took months of training before Ella felt comfortable actually using it in combat.
Strapped to her opposite hip was a gun which Nia shifted her attention to. It was worn and old, a red band painted around the barrel. Her curiosity got the better of her and the strange small girl reached forward, fingers eager to explore the new fascinating object. Before she could even react, she found herself pinned against the floor, a sharp pain screaming up her jaw and neck. Ella’s calloused hands were wrapped tightly around Nia’s thin fragile wrists, keeping them pressed against the small of her back. The smaller female’s head was twisted to one side, one eye looking up at Ella. Nia was surprisingly calm given her current position against the cold concrete.
“Make a move like that again and I’m feeding you to the scalies,” Ella hissed in her ear, hot and slightly disgusting smelling breath wafting over Nia.
Despite the harshness of the girl whose knees were crushing the delicate ribcage of the smaller one, the scruffy blonde felt something close to admiration towards Ella. She harbored feelings towards her that one might feel towards an imposing yet kindly teacher. Nia rolled her eye as far as she could to catch a glimpse of the young woman crouching on top of her. She almost gasped with fear and delight when she saw that her lips were pulled back into a snarl, a fire brewing in her blue green eyes.
Nia spoke softly, silencing the stronger female with her tentative and hushed tone, “Fear is a tool that should be used sparingly.”
Seizing the opportunity she had created, Nia slipped her hands from Ella’s grasp and flipped over. She pulled her feet up under her and kicked at Ella’s stomach, pushing her backwards. Nia sprang upon her in a catlike fashion, hands pressing her shoulders into the floor.
Ella decided that perhaps the recruit wasn’t as weak as she had first assumed. Jacob’s laughter interrupted the cold silence, jovial sounds erupting from the usually harsh and sarcastic middle aged man. Ella turned to look at her mentor, disgusted by his cheerfulness. A retort was ready on her tongue, prepared to inform him that this wasn’t funny in the slightest and that he should stop the infernal noises coming from his mouth. He walked over to both of them, pulling Nia up off of Ella by the back of her shirt.
“Not bad, shrimp. You got potential,” He kissed her cheek playfully.
Nia reached up to hit him, but then thought better of it. It wouldn’t be wise to strike her future employer. Ella, on the other hand, was fair game to spar with. A small smile spread across her face at the thought of future battles against her. Ella scraped herself off the floor, rolling one shoulder to make sure it wasn’t sprained. The Commons dweller had surprised her with a move that was almost animalistic in its nature. Jacob ruffled Nia’s hair and slunk off towards the darkest end of the hangar, a trail of sparks and smoke following him.
“We’ll start your training tomorrow,” He called over his shoulder to the new recruit.
Ella held out her hand to Nia, “Welcome to the team, Raldi.”
She couldn’t say she was all too happy that the tiny world she and Jacob shared had been invaded; however, it was nice to see a new face. Or, in her mind, a new punching bag. Nia cautiously wrapped her slender fingers around Ella’s hand. Ella frowned, confused by Nia’s approach to the handshake. The smaller girl did not shake her hand, but instead gently gripped Ella’s fingers. It was as if she were afraid the soldier would break.
“Goodnight Miss Thompson,” Nia’s voice whispered.
She released Ella’s hand and pulled the hood of her tattered jacket up. Ella watched her open the side door of the hangar and step out into the night. She couldn’t help but wonder what sort of woman would risk the dangers of the outside world to sleep beneath the stars. She was more than welcome in the hangar, yet she had slipped out without a single word. Jacob gave the departing girl a weary sidelong glance before shrugging at his teammate and slinking off to whatever dark hole he’d chosen as a place to sleep for the night. Ella remained staring at the door until Jacob hollered from across the hangar to shut off the lights before the scalies found them. She shook herself and ran to the switchboard, tearing open the metal hatch and flicking off the lights until they were both plunged into darkness. Her breathing was unsteady, her mind filled with horrible images of what could have happened and what could still happen if the dragons had tracked their location. The only light in the base was the still burning red end of Jacob’s cigarette, a single star in a sea of panic and despair. Ella sank to her knees by the switchboard, pulling of her jean jacket and spreading it out for a makeshift blanket. She could have crawled back to the straw mattress she’d fashioned for herself on the roof, but the exposed air didn’t seem like a comforting option given her current condition. A soldier with a panic disorder was hardly a soldier. She pressed a hand to her chest and coughed, gasps and muttered curses filling the emptiness. Jacob swore back at her to stop talking and get some sleep. Weary, she was all too happy to oblige.
Night bled into day and Ella pulled herself off the damp concrete, groaning and cracking her aching bones back into place. “Rise and shine, sleeping beauty!” Her somewhat obnoxious teammate shouted, clapping her on the back. She jumped and whirled around, ready to clip him on the jaw until she saw the scruffy kid from the night before standing by the door which had only just clicked shut. “Well look who survived the night,” Ella smirked, staggering drunkenly to her feet. She wondered briefly if Jacob had put his ‘special ingredients’ into last nights dinner again. “I hope Im not intruding,” There it was again, that odd trill in her voice. Ella frowned and rubbed the back of her neck beneath her dark beaded hair, “Hey no worries, Jacob here was just about to get his ass kicked.” He rolled his eyes and pulled a pack of cigarettes from his front shirt pocket, removing one delicately from the box. He liked to do things old school, shoving homemade home rolled cigarettes into the same Old World box he’d been carrying around for over fifteen years. The man jammed it between his teeth and fumbled with his lighter, trying to get it to catch. He gave up and tossed it aside, pulling a match from his back pocket instead. Jacob was a walking fire hazard, Ella noted for probably the millionth time. He bent down and struck the match against the concrete floor, lighting the end of his cigarette. He blew a puff of smoke into Nia’s face, grinning and flicking sparks onto their feet. “Heard theres a greenie prowling around the idiot district,” Ella whirled and snapped at Jacob, “I hate it when you call them that. Theyre brave.” “Yeah, brave and stupid,” Jacob roared, slinging an arm around Nia’s shoulder. She looked about as pleased as someone with a cobra wrapped around their neck. “Let me tell you honey, them people think that they can live out there with the lions and tigers and bears oh my and not get their eyeballs sucked out and their livestock slaughtered but-” “Have you been drinking again?” Ella sighed, exasperated. Jacob blinked at her, mouth slack, shaking his head innocently. “No course not I would never-” “Save it Patrician.” Ella pushed him away and grabbed Nia’s sleeve, leading her to the door, “Cmon kid we’re going to have a crash course in dragon chasing,” “Bring back takeout!” Ella presented a lovely gesture to the inebriated middle aged man and dragged the new recruit into the blinding light of day.
It is hard to tell which is more frightening – the city in the daylight, or the city at night. Most appreciated the night. At least then you wouldn’t see your death coming. They treated it as some may treat the idea of dying in ones sleep. Rational human beings didn’t enjoy seeing their death approaching or being blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel. Ella McKnight was not a rational human being. She and the new recruit wound their way through the back alleys and abandon streets of the city, keeping a close eye and ear out for any monsters hiding around corners. Five miles out from the base, Nia tapped Ella’s shoulder, her eyes wide and her mouth hanging open. The soldier furrowed her brows, confused at the girl’s expression until she heard her small gasps. “Is there any way we could perhaps stop for a moment?” What a softie, unable to trek for even five miles? She’d never survive. “Yeah, but no longer than five minutes. That scalie could be anywhere,” Ella kept her hand on the gun at her hip, eyes darting around in fear. Jacob called her an idiot for being afraid all the time. She argued that her internal fear kept her alive and on her toes. Nia leaned against the wall of the building nearest them, her head resting against the glass window. Partially scratched off white letters advertised the building as a pharmacy. She sighed and her breath formed fog on the glass despite the weather being somewhat warm. It was late august and what little trees that remained in the city were only just beginning to show the colors of fall. “What is the point of this,” Nia murmured. Each word formed a new cloud on the pane of glass. “The point? What the hell are you talking about,” She snapped at the recruit, her head whipping around at the sharp sound of a rat scuttling amongst refuse. “The point of running around this city like we are creatures with our heads cut off,” The small girl rolled her eyes lazily up to Ella, straightening her spine and cracking her neck with her hand. “The only creatures running around with their heads cut off will be the dragons once I’m through with them,” Ella hissed, her dark eyes flashing. “Have you ever stopped to consider that we are creatures as well?” Nia blinked at Ella, her head slowly tilting to one side. A devilish and mysterious smile was spreading across her lips, pulling them up to reveal perfect white teeth. A loud roar interrupted their conversation. The glass window of the abandon pharmacy was vibrating, visibly shaking with the sound. Ella drew her sword from her opposite hip, the blade sliding against the metal sheath. It didn’t make a swishing sound like a Hollywood effect. Rather, it was a harsh grating sound like nails on a chalkboard. Nia winced at the sight of the blade and backed away from it. The ground was vibrating now as well. It felt like a small earthquake. Rats shrieked and scurried away to their holes, running from the beast.
“That’s a seven, maybe an eight. This might be interesting,” Ella whispered, keeping her blade ready. She turned to give Nia an order only to find that the girl was gone. She cursed under her breath and darted to the wall, keeping her body pressed against it. Another earth shattering roar screamed through the air and rattled Ella’s very bones. She could feel her heart fluttering in her throat, a frightened butterfly. She slunk down to the corner where the building gave way to a tattered highway. The young soldier slowly crept out onto the cracked blacktop, balancing herself precariously on the balls of her feet. The ground was vibrating, making her footing unsteady. She could feel warmth breath tickling the hairs on her neck. A tongue flicked out, grazing the hard knobs of her spinal column. The caged butterfly ceased it’s fluttering. She turned her head, ever so slowly, to see the shining red eyes of a class seven gray dragon.