I opened my sleepy eyes to a sharp pain in my side. Groaning, I rolled away from the pain, only to roll onto my bruised shoulder. A sharp thud hit me in the back, causing another string of pain from the steel boots kicking me. I groaned again and looked up, expecting to see one of my half-brothers, and saw Lisa. “Get up lazy-bags!” she growled at me. I did as I was told, smoothing out my clothes as I did so. “What’s up Lisa?” I asked, rubbing my new bruises. “Dad wants to speak to you about mum” She replied. Noticing my bruises she added cruelly “baby human”. I followed her out, feeling the worst I had ever felt in my 13 years. I pushed away the human skin door flap and shuddered. As we walked over to our father’s tent, I heard the crack of whips and the screams of men and women. I shuddered again and my sister shoved me. “Stop shaking, sacredly cat!” She jeered. I looked down at the floor, noting the blood marks. Why did I feel this bad? I was used to the pain and suffering of humans – I had had to put up with it and make it worse for thirteen years! We reached the skin hut of our father and I walked straight in. Dad was stood in the centre of the hut, his arm round my step-mum. She glared at me and walked out with Lisa, cuffing me viciously on the head as she went. I stood, head down, waiting. After a while he spoke “Jack, you always were my least favourite son, being half human, so I have decided upon something.” I looked up at him, saw his red eyes flash, and hastily glanced back down at the floor again. “I will allow you to become like any other son of mine. All you have to do is the ceremony.” I felt sick. There was no way I could say no, or yes. “And you have to kill Anaya.” Anaya. That was mum. She had run away after I was born, when Lisa was three. Before then, she was a rebel human. She had hated the humans and had resolved to join us. She could never become Ifacle so had lived with us. My father had hated her as much as she hated him so naturally they were together. She left when I was born because she hated Dad so much. And she hated us. Dad blamed me for her leaving; he said it was the only good thing about me. My skin was pale but not as see-through as normal Ifacle skin. My eyes were red and my hair black. I was a half-breed and was hated by everyone. My sister was also a half-human but she didn’t look like it at all. She was my father’s favourite daughter, his only daughter. Special. I was a mongrel, a disgrace. “Well Jack?” he spat my name as if it was poisoned. I smiled, hiding my feelings behind the mask I had created as a young child. “Oh venerable father, I will prove my worthiness. I will do this gladly and perhaps you’ll be proud of me” I said, almost choking on the words that came out of my mouth but glad that I was annoying him, even though I was very aware of what the punishment could be if I pushed it too far. Dad snarled and lunged forwards, twisting my arm behind my back and forcing me to my knees. “Say that again, bastard boy, and you will disappear!” He growled, twisting my arm further to the point of breaking it. I bit my lip harder, refusing to cry out. “Don’t try that again, boy. I hate that snivelling talk almost more than I hate you, understood?” Dimly I nodded. Anyone else would have got away with it, and I had thought that I would too. “Now go away, scum!” He released my arm and I got up and stumbled away from his foul breath, my arm hanging limply from my side as I rubbed life back into it. I brushed past the hanging door, just missing the wooden doorpost as I half-tripped. I got outside into the sunlight and pulled myself upright, wincing. My sister and her friends dragged a gang of humans past me. The 16year olds attempted to spit in my face. I knew they had immunity. We weren’t allowed to fight with slave leaders in case the slaves got away while we were distracted. My arm throbbing, I turned away, ignoring the jeering of watchers and my sister. My sister, Lisa. Even she hated me now. And next month I would have to go through the ceremony. My first kill. I walked through the village, past old Nemod, the warrior hero of our sect, and headed towards the green land. Soon, I was sat upon the grass at the boundary of our village, two fields away from my sister and the rest of my family. I was on a rise so I could see over the fence that the humans guarded. Further away, when my eyes followed the river, I could see a village. It too was heavily guarded but behind those walls I could see happiness. There were women socialising, children playing and best of all there were no work gangs and no arena for the ceremony.
I don’t know how long I sat there with my hands round my knees, watching, but it was the afternoon when I heard a shout and looked behind me to see Lisa chasing a limping slave over the fields towards me. She was gaining on the man quickly but he had a large head start and I reckoned that he would reach safety and the fence before she caught up. I stood up and I saw defeat and fear appear in the poor man’s eyes. Behind him, I saw Lisa’s eyes narrow. “Stop him you fool!” she yelled. A sudden spur of hope appeared in the man’s eyes and he looked at me, appealing to my better nature. A strange feeling came over me and I gasped and took a pace backwards, shaking uncontrollably. Thoughts that weren’t mine flooded my head, and I felt old, thousands of years old. The man limped past me, a look of gratitude on his face. He limped down the hill and got to the outer fence just as I collapsed to my knees, still shaking. As he went over the fence, the feeling left me and I was felt empty. My sister ran up to me and snarled. “Fool!” She yelled at me, her face thunderous. “Lisa, this is wrong!” I cried, realising I knew for certain now. She grabbed my trembling arm and pulled me to my feet, twisting my arm behind my back savagely. I stopped trembling, anger welling up inside me. I span around, in the opposite direction to how she was twisting it, and landed a direct punch on her nose. She fell back, her nose spurting blood, surprised and I could see Lisa behind the Salinerca that she had absorbed. Taking control of her body she said “Run, Jack, I’m starting to find this fun!” as she said it, her voice changed back to a guttural growl and the Salinerca came back into control. She cuffed me hard and laughed. I span round, my head spinning and tried to run. She caught up with me easily and I fell forwards. Pinning me down, she howled an unearthly howl, calling my father. “Time to die, worm!” she cackled. Twisting, I threw her off and ran off towards the mountains, away from my village and the human village. I ran fast, an animal-like panic coming over me. I ran through streams and mud, hearing her curses fall further behind me. I didn’t stop running. Running through a charred black field, I veered off to the right. I felt drawn to a pile of rocks next to the stream that fed the river. There was a cave next to the sparkling water, it was well hidden but somehow my frantic mind knew it was there. I stumbled and fell, cutting my leg open. Crawling through a crevice into the cave, I curled up around a large, smooth rock. Exhausted, I slipped into a nightmarish sleep. Sometime later I woke up to the sound of voices outside the cave. “Are you sure he didn’t continue to the mountains?” It was my father’s best fighter, Gildar. “I saw him, Gildar, then I came back and alerted you. Can I eat him when we find him?” That was Lisa; they must be searching for me. I opened my eyes to find it was pitch black. The voices were muffled and I could tell it wasn’t dark yet outside but there was no light coming into the cave. There must have been a rock fall. “Sure! But we have to find him first. You should have an idea of where he is, half-blood” Gildar half-snarled. “Be careful Gildar, I might just have to hurt you!” She snarled back, “He’s moved on and doubled back to the mountains I guess, let’s go!” I heard footsteps moving away and let out my breath. After a while longer, I managed to fall back into restless sleep, dreaming of beating slaves and having to do the ceremony. Worst of all I dreamt about my sister. She had told me to run, and then wanted to eat me. She was no longer Lisa, that much was for sure. She was Ifacle, Salinerca spawn. I hated this now more than ever. I dreamt;
‘I was running towards mum, her brown hair billowing out behind her in her bearskin boots and tunic, she seemed happy to see me, we got closer, closer and then mum stopped, the smile disappearing from her lips. Her face went pale and she fell to her knees. A bubble of blood escaped her lips and she fell forwards, Lisa’s dagger in her back. Lisa stood behind her, except it wasn’t Lisa; it was just a shadowy form wearing her face. I stopped running. “Mum…” I whispered then turned and fled, the world becoming blurred, then I was falling down and down into a deep black hole “Let go of me, Lisa!” I cried, “Let me go!” The Salinerca laughed a chilling laugh, “FOOL, YOU SHALL DIE, YOU HAVE NO SISTER, SHE IS LONG GONE!” Tears were streaming down my cheeks now, “no… she isn’t…please…” I begged, struggling to breathe, “Give her back…she’s not gone…give her back…I…” I coughed, sending salty tears further down my face to drip into the abyss. “TIME TO DIE, BOY!” The Salinerca cackled, and everything went black.’
I woke up, sobbing, with tears dripping onto the floor. I was no longer clutching the comfortingly smooth rock, and I couldn’t find it when I groped around in the blackness. Sharp stones poked into me as I wriggled back through the crevice into the outer cave, reopening the wound on my shin and creating several more cuts. I stumbled out of the cave and glared at the water, my tears splashing into it. I knelt down and washed my leg, the icy water stinging as it whipped around the gash. My tears splashed upstream of my leg, for some reason I couldn’t stop crying. Then my tears turned blood red, splashing into the pale, dark haired boy who was my reflection. I wiped my eyes and looked in wonder at the red tears now dripping into my palm. After a while, they turned back into salty water. I dipped my hand into the water to wash it off. As I pulled my hand back out I gasped. My reflected eyes were no longer red; they were now a vivid green. I stared into the water and raised my hand to my eyes; the reflected hand moved too, it was me alright. I felt lighter too, not as unhappy. *Hic* *splash* *hiss*, three sounds came towards me. I grabbed a rock and spun round, sending a spasm of pain up my leg, not sure what to expect. A small green lizard sat facing me, about the size of a newborn babe. It had a darker, hard tip on its nose and sat with its head on one side, looking at me. I tried to remember what I had overheard about animals from the captive slaves. It yawned, showing me two rows of razor sharp teeth. I leapt backwards, wondering whether it was dangerous and then realised it probably wasn’t as it could have attacked me from behind when I wasn’t paying attention. My leg gave in and collapsed, pulling me down with it. I dropped the rock. The thing stepped forwards and unfurled bat wings that had appeared from nowhere. It cocked its head again and hiccupped? I gazed in wonder as it coughed and a blob of green liquid came up from its throat and splashed onto the floor. Immediately the rock it had landed on hissed and a cloud of steam rose. It seemed to look a bit embarrassed at that. I laughed, a strange sound for me, then winced, I wasn’t supposed to laugh, I had used to, when I was younger; but my father always beat it out of me. It came over towards me, and I pulled back until I was stuck against the cliffy bank. Seeming to sense my discomfort, it stopped. “What are you? You’re so intelligent…” I whispered. It seemed silly, me being frightened by this small animal. I stood up, and drew myself upright, trying not to look frightened; after all, my home village was scarier. Seconds later I sat back down in the stream, my eyes wide as the thing spoke. “I’m a dragon silly” *hic*”, it didn’t cough up any green liquid this time. “You, you spoke…” I whispered, fascinated. It blinked and rolled it’s eyes, seeming to say “well duh(!) of course I did stupid!”. Then I realised that it had said it, but I hadn’t seen it’s lips move, I must have blinked. “I’m not stupid, dragon, you are!”. “No, I’m not and you must be even dimmer than you look to believe that” it said, without moving its lips. “You’re speaking without speaking…” I told it. *hic* “no(!), really(!)?” it asked. I gulped, “oh...” It grinned, showing me it’s teeth again, “Now we’ve got that sorted, it’s good to meet you, young one! I am Gloria, the acid dragon and you are Jack, half-Ifacle son of the Lenithal Sect chief with green eyes. You ran away from your home and your sister Lisa because she betrayed you , you knew it was wrong and because you felt me helping that man through you...” Gloria stopped as I sat gaping at her, tears streaming down my face. “I know it’s hard for you, young one, but you will understand later…trust me. It’s ok to cry, it’s ok to be afraid. It’s not ok for your people to do what they’re doing. Now, how are we going to get out of here?” I couldn’t do anything as I sat there crying my heart out for all the slaves I had beaten, for the dead and for myself. Gloria came closer to me and wrapped a wing around me, curling up on my lap and nuzzling my face. It was strangely comforting for me with her there and for the first time I felt whole and ok, not good, but ok. I don’t know how long we stayed there but eventually my tears turned to sobs, which turned into hiccups (we kept hiccupping in unison which made me smile), which eventually faded into silence. Gloria removed herself from my lap and told me to wash my leg and she would find something to help it. I washed my leg in the icy stream that I was sat in, wincing as it stung again. Gloria returned later and I felt that she was exhausted. She was carrying in her jaws a poisonous flower, complete with poisonous leaves and I gasped and backed off. She looked at me curiously and dropped the flowers. “I hope that you appreciate these, Jack, I had to go into what you call ‘the green country’ to get some, at least sneaking around is easier when you’re my size!” I gaped and backed further off
“Gloria, they’re poisonous you silly thing!” She looked at me strangely and then laughed at me. I was hurt, and for some reason felt silly.
“Silly boy! They’re only poisonous to Salinerca and spawn of The Dark One! Since you are neither then you’ll be fine!” she laughed.
“I am spawn of The Dark One, that’s what Ifacle are!” I yelled in despair.
She glanced at me sharply and said, “No, Jack, you are not spawn of The Dark One, you can’t be spawn of both and since you are spawn of The Light One then it is impossible for you to be. Now chew the flowers and spit them on your wound, then chew the leaves and we’ll get out of here. Trust me.” I did what she said. It seemed easier for some reason. Almost instantly when I started tentatively chewing the leaves, the pain diminished. I smiled, an unfamiliar muscle movement. “Let’s get out of here now then, Jack m’boy” Gloria grinned with a weird accent. I laughed then winced, remembering the rule. Seeing my reaction, Gloria nudged me and urged me to follow her.
We set off down the stream, away from the mountains, towards the hated green land. I wondered where we would be going after we got out of the dark lands. Gloria apparently knew what I was thinking because she said “we’re going to find ou…my brethren. Then we shall go against The Dark One aga…we shall go against The Dark One”
“How? How can you possibly expect you and me to defeat the Holy Dark One? You’re no bigger than a… a… small thing, and I’m not strong enough to be able to fight! Even with your brethren you aren’t a match for the Holy One!” I felt despair rising within me again, coupled with me thinking about my family – Lisa, Anaya and father – I didn’t know his true name, no one had ever told me. I suddenly felt very lost and alone, nobody would be upset about me having gone - nobody cared, or maybe someone did – the humans would have one less Ifacle to torment them and mum wouldn’t be killed by her son. I limped on in silence as Gloria hiccupped and started to talk again. “Jack, you and me and my brethren WILL be strong enough, given time, believe me. We will defeat The Dark One, but you are wrong that He is the Holy One; He is evil, not holy or righteous. You have a lot to learn – but I would not expect anything different from your upbringing, child. It will be tough, but know this; you aren’t alone, you are loved – by me, along with others.”
I looked across at her. “But you don’t even know me!” I protested, “and no one else will ever care!” Gloria smiled, and I suddenly felt uneasy. We walked on for longer, my feet hurting, as Gloria taught me about The Light One. My stomach grumbled and I wished I had a human to bring me food. I sat down by the stream, dangling my feet in the chilling water. “I need food”, I told her, “And my leg is hurting again, get me some more of that stuff and some food too.” Gloria looked at me, seeming slightly surprised, and said, “get it yourself!” rather huffily before lying down next to the stream and closing her eyes. I glared at her. I was an Ifacle sect-chief’s son, I was higher up in the sect order, and she had to do as I asked! It should be her pleasure to get me food! Any human would do so cheerily, or get hit with my whip. I reached for the whip, tied onto the rope around my waist. Gloria’s head snapped up and she glared at me, hiccupped and coughed up another green globule, making the hiss as it hit the floor sound like a threat. “Throw it away Jack, now!” she ordered, and, as with the runaway man, I felt compelled to do the right thing. I obeyed, tossing it onto the charred earth on the other bank. I felt foolish and, suddenly, felt manipulated too. I scowled at Gloria and limped off to try and find food. I wandered on the charred earth for a few minutes before realising that I didn’t know the first thing about finding food, it had always been provided for me by the slaves on the few fields of dark corn that we grew. I limped back towards Gloria, the stream showing up as a light cut on the dark land, reflecting the dull grey sky. I glared at Gloria as I passed her, pretending I had found food, determined not to be seen as weak and pathetic. She stood up, even though I could swear that she had been asleep, and followed me down the stream as it started to rain. The slaves loved this kind of weather; it cooled them and washed them. Also, we hated it so stayed inside for as much as we could. There were more escapes when it was raining than when it wasn’t. I shivered. My leg was aching, I was hungry, thirsty, my feet ached, Gloria was ignoring the rules, and me, and it was raining. We trudged along the side of the stream for a while longer, my stomach growling. It was getting quite late when my leg refused to walk anymore and I sat down heavily on the muddy charred earth and groaned. I looked round at Gloria. She wasn’t behind me anymore. I looked up and down the stream, suddenly worried. I sighed. She was nowhere in sight – I guess that she must have been disgusted with my behaviour, although why, I didn’t know. I looked at the rocks closer to the stream, wondering which one to sleep by. I chose a nice looking rock crevice and slipped into it, shivering in my human hide tunic and trousers. I nestled into the crack, hearing the water rushing outside around the rocks and slipped into a fitful sleep.