The icicles drooped as the Sun crept above the flat white horizon. Edwin watched clear water drip from their tips, making small puddles in the brown rocky floor coated with mushy snow. Nearby, he saw delicate swirls of smoke spiral upwards as a fire began to burn. Surrounding it were three members of the Alliance. He couldn't make out who they were from the distance, but he did not doubt one would be his sister Nayah. She was always up before dawn as sleep often failed her. Night troubles ran in the family. Although he often slept through the night, Edwin's slumbers were not without ailment. He had horrible, vivid dreams ripe with brutality and fear.
They had haunted him ever since his selection, when he had been tied to a high one. He felt the faint ridges on his wrists where the shackles had imprisoned him, remembering. That was the day everything changed. But despite the pain and the struggle, it had ended well. He had joined the Alliance that day - he had found freedom.
He shrugged himself out of his sleeping bag, now a wretched and mouldy bag riddled with bugs picked up on the road. He would not get rid of it though - it carried his memories; and besides, he was lucky to have anything to sleep under at all. Most of the Alliance had nothing but the clothes on their back.
Nayah waved him over when she saw him arise, seemingly pleased about something. He went over to her, and smelled the glorious smell of meat cooking on an open fire. The hunters had been lucky this morning.
"Breakfast, as discovered by me," said Nayah proudly, "It's polar bear."
Edwin raised an eyebrow, "By yourself?"
"Yes," she said defiantly. Next to her, Jonathan scowled. He was the deputy of the Alliance and was the strictest member of the group. He was thin and wiry with pale skin and thin, wispy black hair. People tried to gauge his age, but guesses ranged from mid-twenties all the way to early sixties. A lot of the older members of the Alliance swore he hadn't aged or changed at all since they joined the Alliance. Everyone knew not to cross him though, and that his word was law. Even the captain, Todd, was wary and reserved around him.
"She revealed herself," said Jonathan in emotionless tones.
The fact that Nayah had exposed her true self in public was not news to Edwin. She had always been careless and a risk-taker, but he had to feign surprise in front of Jonathan.
"Are you crazy Nayah?" complained Edwin.
She shrugged, "We needed food. Sometimes you have to take a risk. And anyway, we're in the wilderness. The high ones don't stray here. You know the harsh weather cracks their perfect faces."
Aadam, the other figure standing by the fire, snorted. He was Nayah's best friend (and arguably more than 'friend', though few talked of relationships in the Alliance). He had a fierce image - tall, heavily muscled, with obsidian skin and eyes as black as bullets. His personality, however, was very different. He was light-hearted, good-natured and full of humour. Although he lacked any significant intellect, he had great instincts and was invaluable in a crisis, which was a common occurrence for those of the Alliance.
Jonathan shot him a dirty look, "We are in a remote part of the land, but the situation is getting ever more volatile, as you all well know."
Nayah nodded solemnly, "I know."
"We can hunt in a pack in human form with the strength of one dragon," said Jonathan, "Glory is lethal, Nayah."
"Do you ever ask yourself what strength we may have if we were all dragons?" asked Edwin suddenly, voicing a thought that had been playing on his mind for some time.
"Of course," said Jonathan and Nayah in unison, to their surprise.
"And what do you conclude?"
There was silence. That was the million dollar question. What would the low ones achieve if they united in their stronger form, the form of the dragon?
The thing that made someone a high one or a low one was not due to birth, gender, status or any other man-made construct - it was simple genetics. Certainly, that meant that there were low families and high families, as the genes were thought to be inherited for the most part. But there were occasional exceptions.
The low men carried a mutation, a gene, or a set of genes (no one really understood the science behind it) that meant they could shift their form from their regular human one. That form was known as the dragon; as they breathed fire from their lungs and had wings on their back. It gave them great strength, speed and keen senses. Undoubtedly, a single dragon was stronger than any high man. And yet, it was the high men that held the power. It was the high men that ruled, and crushed, and killed the dragons beneath their feet.
Why? Because that was the way of things. Tradition held more authority than biology. The high ones had always been in command, the low ones had forever served. There were no exceptions.
Apart from the Alliance.
Discovering the Alliance had been the answer to Edwin's prayers. It was a bleak and harsh life for a man to live, full of hiding and secrecy and starvation. But it was a life of liberation; freedom from the iron chains of society was an invaluable thing, worth every disease, bruise, wound and night without a warm meal in the Alliance. This cruel life that Edwin faced for the rest of his existence was his salvation. In the bitter cold morning, huddled by the smoky fire as he choked on its ashes, Edwin thanked his gods for giving him such a gift, pitying those low ones who had not escaped the demons' grasp.