“You have to feel the ground beneath you. Look for the point where the Earth pulls you down. Feel for it and keep yourself right above that point. Always keep your mouth open, just in case you forget to breathe. You want to stay on the balls of your feet so you can move quickly and skirt around your opponent.” Ella was standing on the flat rooftop of the building opposite the hangar. She was circling around Nia, showing her how to balance and keep herself upright during a fight. Although the young recruit had claimed she was good with a blade, her attack methods against the feather stuffed dummy in the hangar proved her wrong. She’d slashed at it wildly, without method or form. Ella admired her violence, but recognized that she needed structure to continue fighting Nia held up her own blade, a rusted thing that Ella only used for practice. The soldier should have been using a practice blade as well, but the night was dark and she could hear things moving below them. Her fear had overridden her common sense, and her dragon killing blade shimmered in the moonlight. Nia swallowed thickly, shaking so badly the metal of her blade was vibrating. “You have to keep a steady hand. Shivering isn’t going to get you anywhere,” Ella sighed and lowered her blade. Nia visibly relaxed, the tip of her sword immediately drifting down and clinking against the rooftop. “Maybe we should take a break,” Ella wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She’d almost given up hope for the girl, if it hadn’t been the lingering memory of their first fight and how cunning she’d been. “No,” Nia snapped and Ella’s eyes flew open. She hadn’t expected such a loud, harsh noise to come out of the mouth of the timid and cowardly girl. There was a fire alight in her eyes and her teeth were bared, ever so slightly. She lifted her blade and lunged forward, aiming to slice across Ella’s neck. The soldier bent backwards to avoid the attack, bringing her own sword up. She wasn’t quite fast enough for the nimble recruit who slashed again, back the way she’d come. Fortunately, she was able to block the attack, her blade crashing against the older, rustier one. She pushed against her and found her footing, leaning against Nia. The girl grunted and pushed back, sliding her blade away to dart backwards. She shifted her sword to her left hand. Ella frowned and wondered why she had done that. As far as she knew, Nia’s right hand was dominant. “What are you-” The girl half turned and twirled her blade from her left hand to her right, tapping the edge against Ella’s side. Time seemed to stop and a wry smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “If I’m not mistaken,” She licked her bottom lip, “I’ve killed you.” Ella stared in shock at her opponent. Ambidextrousness was not something she’d anticipated. “You’re going to be useful,” She gasped, pulling away and bowing her head a little. “Remind me never to underestimate you,” She twirled her blade around, switching from her left hand to her right. She cocked an eyebrow and laughed, “Mistress, do you really think we’re done here?” She turned a complete circle and flashed her sword out, aiming to scratch the end of Ella’s nose. She sidestepped and met her attack by plunging her blade towards her middle. “Raldi, I believe I’ve killed you,” She mocked her earlier statement, grinning like she’d just found a dragon’s nest. The recruit laughed impishly and nodded her head to her teacher. “Well, seeing as we’re both dead, perhaps it’s time to relax and have something to drink, yes?” Ella clapped her new friend on the back and took her sword from her. Her fingers brushed against hers, the slight touch sending shocks of electricity through her bones. The soldier casually looped her arm through Nia’s, both swords strapped to her hips. “Some r and r is in order.”
Five bottles of Jacob’s beer stash and several hours later, Nia and Ella sat on the rooftop opposite the hangar, watching droplets of liquid gather on the clothesline stretched from the abandon apartment building to the roof of the base. “Do you ever look at the stars and wonder how they got up there?” Nia slurred drunkenly, glassy amber eyes blinking owlishly up at the sky. Ella chuckled and set her own bottle aside. The kid couldn’t handle her liquor that was for sure. She was higher than a kite on a windy day. The girl leaned against Ella and batted at the beads in her hair, more cat than human in that moment. Ella absently ran her hand over the smaller girl’s tangled hair, sighing. If she looked hard enough, she swore she could see particles of dust moving from the breath she exhaled. Nia turned her head up to look at Ella. She caught herself staring at her fire colored eyes, studying the flecks of color in her irises. “If you take a photograph, it will last centuries,” Nia murmured, smiling slowly at her teacher. Ella turned away, embarrassed, and studied the drops of water falling from the rope. There was a hush in the air, like all the things that slid and slithered in the night had turned their heads to listen to the words lazily exchanged between the two women. “You talk too much,” Ella muttered, her heavy eyelids sliding shut. She felt like someone had dripped glue onto her eyelashes, weighing them down. “If we fall asleep up here, we’ll die.” Nia commented flatly. Ella hummed in response, her fingers dancing across the girl’s shoulder, then her neck, and finally floating up to run through her hair. “You’re. Intoxicated,” Nia mumbled, pulling back to frown at Ella. She shook her head and cleared her throat, “I’m sorry, I’m wrong. Intoxicating,” She pulled back her lips, teeth flashing in an awkward and stupid smile. Ella chuckled and stood, throwing her bottle off the edge of the building. It shattered below, echoing back with the sound of water crashing against rocks. She took the rusted blade from her hip and slid it over the top of the rope, holding the dull blade in one hand and the hilt in the other. “Grab hold,” Ella smiled fondly at the scruffy new soldier. Nia obeyed, wrapping her thin frame around Ella’s torso. She could feel her breath against her stomach, strangely hot. She lifted her feet off the rooftop and they slid along to the hangar. At some point during the blisteringly fast ride down, Ella lost her grip and the pair tumbled onto the hangar roof. Nia ended up on top of Ella, gaping in shock at her teacher. Ella laughed and smiled so big, her mouth swallowed her eyes. Whether they had kissed or not was a fact thrown into the abyss. Ella could not remember what had occurred after they had crashed onto the roof. She awoke in her cot, wrapped in her blanket and a new one, thick and soft. She coughed and sat up, the stale taste of alcohol numbing her tongue.
Jacob was sitting near the cot in an old computer chair. He was sitting backwards in it, his chest pressed against the back. He grinned and put out his cigarette on the fabric of the chair. “Bout time you woke up,” He chuckled. He gave her a knowing wink, stood, and kicked the chair away. The man slunk off quickly, expecting Ella to come after him out of anger. In truth, she couldn’t remember a thing, and was left to sit stupidly in her bed. Her mind tried to piece together the events which had unfolded but everything was a dark blur. She pressed a hand to her temple and sighed. She had a horrible hangover. Ella swung her legs off the cot and stood, wandering over to the patch of light on the other side of the hangar. Nia had made herself at home, a spare cot set up near the training dummies. The scruffy haired girl flashed her a smile when she saw her teacher approaching. “Good morning! I made breakfast. I hope you don’t mind.” Ella directed her attention to where Nia was pointing. A few chipped plates carrying steaming eggs remained scattered on the table where the training weapons were laid. One plate looked like it hadn’t had eggs, streaks of red smeared across it. Ella frowned, rubbing at the back of her head. She wasn’t quite cognitive enough to wonder what the red was on the plate. She grabbed a plate of eggs, nodded her head to Nia as a form of thanks, and carried the plate back to her cot. Nia watched her leave, the smile sliding off her face. Had she done something wrong? The recruit studied her hands and sighed. She’d made a horrible mistake.
Jacob sat down beside Ella on her bed, twirling an unlit cigarette between his fingers. This particular pick of poison appeared to be hand rolled, bits of nicotine and paper falling out of his hand and fumbling fingers. “I don’t expect you to tell me what happened up there,” He muttered, coughing into his elbow before continuing, “But I do expect you to get yourself back together and get back out there. Somebody said there’s an unusual crawlie snatching up livestock. Nothing big, just enough to spook little ones and old ladies,” He smirked and lit the cigarette he’d been playing with, jamming it roughly into his mouth. Ella watched him carefully from the corner of her eye, remaining silent. “Said it’s red as blood,” He mused, smoke and sparks filling the uncomfortable space between them. A cold chill slithered down her spine and she clamped her teeth together to prevent a gasp from rising from her heart. The red dragon had chosen not to kill her, and instead killed its own kind. Now it was slaughtering livestock, and the thought of ending its life sickened her. For once, she felt a stab of guilt for her duty and her job. Ella ran a hand down one segment of beads in her hair, trying to think of way to get out of this one. She didn’t know if she could bring herself to pull the trigger and end the life of the odd dragon. “You’re meeting with farmer Ted in three hours. Get ready,” Jacob stood and left her alone in the dark, returning to his rafters and the nightmares that haunted the hangar there. She stared up into the blackness, trying to discern his shape amongst the shadows and the light cast by the few bulbs that still functioned. There were two rules or ultimatums that Ella lived by. They were truths carved into stone that were unshakeable and unchangeable. One was that all dragons had to die. The other was that Jacob would never leave her. Both were now as thin as paper held over a flame and she could feel the edges blackening as the flame leaped higher. Her heart felt as if it were permanently stuck in her throat, beating away at her esophagus walls. The soldier stood and walked numbly out of the hangar, drifting past Nia and into the light of day.
The farmer Ted lived much closer to the Commons than Ella and Jacob did. He claimed a small section of land comprised of a demolished building and the alley adjacent to it. He was famous for growing edible fungus and mushrooms among the refuse and debris. Although he owned one of the only surviving flocks of chickens, they weren’t able to produce eggs suitable for human consumption and therefore they were usually overlooked. However, Ted had been planning on slaughtering them to sell the meat off to the highest bidders. Meat was a commodity worth more than the combined population of the Commons and every slaughtered dragon head the hunters possessed. He would have been the richest and most popular man in the human community if he successfully bred enough chickens to create a meat farm. Now, he was left with a bloody mess, an empty pen, and trampled mushrooms. To say that the farmer was angry was a severe understatement. Ella stood in front of the hangar, her backpack secured tightly to her back with bungee cords and her sword gripped tightly in her hand. The trip to the Commons was no short jog, and she intended to come back with enough supplies and food to last for several months between the three of them. Her long hair was tied back with a strip of fabric, the beaded strands of hair lying in a thick cord against the back of her neck. She bounced on the balls of her feet, ready to run through the back streets of the city and onto the chaotic highway. It was usually filled with fleeing families and traveling survivors, wyverns perched on abandoned cars and buildings to pick off the weak and dying. She shuddered at the memory of the crush of bodies and the panicked screams when the final wave of dragons had come. That was the day her parents had died. The image of their mangled bodies and the acrid tang of blood on her tongue still felt fresh in her mind.
She turned at the familiar sound of soft foot falls, meeting the amber gaze of Nia Raldi. The girl looked thinner, if that was at all possible, hollow face turned towards Ella like a full moon. Her heart sank from her throat and settled in her chest as a heavy rock might settle at the bottom of a lake. “Hello,” The girl’s voice fluttered shyly over to her, a butterfly alighting timidly on a flower.
Ella took two staggering steps forward and shied sideways, keeping one eye fixed on her as if they were a dangerous predator and a frightened doe locked in a deadly dance. Finally, Ella closed the distance between them and wrapped her strong arms around the paper thin frame of Nia. The shorter girl carefully rested her face in the crook of her neck and breathed out a thank you. Neither of them knew exactly what she was thanking her for, but nevertheless the words were said and Ella nodded. A hand idly ran up Nia’s back, soothingly. There was a strange bond between the two as fine as spiderweb and as strong as chains. It was impossible to see until drops of drunken dew glistened on the lines or the sunlight shimmered upon it.
“I’m going into the Commons,” Ella broke the spell that had fallen over them and Nia stepped away, a few of the spiderweb strands breaking. One could almost see the strings drifting in the light breeze between them. Nia shook her head and grabbed hold of her jacket sleeve. Ella stared at her long fingers and the way her veins pulsed just beneath the surface of her pale skin. She swallowed thickly and carefully pried herself from her grip. The soldier could feel Nia’s eyes burning at the back of her neck, but she continued walking away. This was something she had to do alone, feeling the hot blood of the dragon beneath her own fingertips without the accusing eyes of the cowardly recruit scrutinizing. There was something about the girl that unsettled her and attracted her all at once.
Ella flipped up the hood of her jacket and slunk away into the winding streets of the city towards the small yet bustling human population. She would have to bring cigarettes back for Jacob and perhaps a gift as a peace offering for Nia. As Ella formed a mental checklist in her mind, she paused to find herself at the last intersection before the highway. Wooden signs had been erected on billboards and against crumbling buildings. She could hear the faint whir of the last cars that still ran with gasoline in their bellies. They were fools for trying to run on the last ounces of fuel the world had to offer. Ella crouched behind the remains of a feeble wall, most likely built in an attempt to stop the last wave of dragons. She could see a pack of refugees traveling together. She knew what it was like to run without stopping, weapons drawn and makeshift shields covering what little unmarred skin you had left. Swallowing around her heart which still lay numb in her throat, Ella ran to join them, whistling sharply to alert them that she was joining them. A young boy of about twenty, clearly not a refugee nor a commoner, was waving to her. She knew the routine like the back of her hand and flew across the concrete and torn land to meet him. The journey to the Commons had begun.