“Cora, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
I whistled between my teeth. “I do like to outdo myself,” I said.
I glanced over my shoulder at Noah, who was slowly losing a fierce battle with humidity. His brown eyes were half-hidden by the fog creeping up his glasses, and his black hair had fluffed out to nearly twice its usual size.
“You know. You’re welcome to leave and let me face the felding all alone,” I said, adopting the most innocent, pure-hearted damsel look I could muster.
With a sigh, Noah tore off his glasses and wiped them on his short-sleeved shirt. The black material was terrible at cleaning his glasses, though, and poor Noah ended up replacing humidity with dust and fabric fibers. “You know I wouldn’t,” he replied, giving me a cross glance.
Of course, I knew. I grinned and turned my attention back to the soft slap of the boats’ hulls and the dull roar of the waves, heavy with debris from the latest storm, beating lowly against the docks.
“We’ll be fine,” I said, as I resumed walking along the dock, Noah following despite his protests.
“How do you even know this is the right place?”
“I overheard Father and Professor Faye talking about it,” I said.
“Overheard,” Noah said flatly.
Okay, maybe overheard wasn’t the best word to use. Overheard implied that it had been happenstance. And it wasn’t. I had snuck out of my room in the dead of night and listened through the crack in a barely open door, after all.
“Details!” I declared, waving flippantly. “Point is, I know. The felding is here. I promise!”
“And you couldn’t let your father and Professor Faye handle it?” Noah asked.
“I imagine they’re both busy planning for the upcoming semester,” I replied. “They already have enough to do. We’d actually be helping if we dispatched this felding for them! Besides, we’re going to be acolytes soon, and—”
“And there’s a big difference between two new acolytes and alary like your father and Professor Faye.”
The alary were the elite warriors who secretly protected humanity from all the evil and creepy monsters in the world. But I was tired of letting them do everything, while I sat in the wings being treated like a fragile academy princess. I raked a few damp strands of blonde hair back from my eyes and looked across the road at my destination: the water treatment plant. The sound of churning water blended with the mechanical clang of grinding metal, as we waited for a car to pass by. Over the noise of the water treatment plant, a screeching snarl echoed off the buildings around us. I grinned at Noah, then sprinted across the road. I paused at a round, concrete wall, waiting for him to cross the road and join me. Despite there being no cars in sight, Noah looked both ways twice and sprinted across the road as if Satan himself ran in pursuit.
“Ready to slay a dragon?” I asked.
“Actually, I was thinking about Professor Lynn, whose great-aunt—”
“Had her head ripped off and eaten by a dragon,” I finished, rolling my eyes. “My father’s only told me that story a billion times. I don’t need it from you, too.”
“He’s just looking out for you,” Noah said. “As am I.”
I knew that, but sometimes, my father acted like I was nine instead of nineteen in three weeks. And I suspected if my father had his way, I’d be kept as far from danger as possible for the rest of my life. Even my angel-blessed blood and destiny as a warrior wasn’t enough to soothe my father’s fears of losing me. Like he’d lost my mother Aurora. Best not to think about her.
Noah wasn’t much different from my father, though he had absolutely no reason to be so protective. He was only twenty but fretted over me like an old, overly doting grandmother. But he’d once promised my father that he’d protect me, and despite that promise being made when Noah was eight, he took it very seriously.
“Besides, Professor Lynn’s aunt was killed by a fire dragon,” I said, forcing a smile. “This is a water dragon, and considering it’s just living in this water plant, it has to be small. The humans probably just think it’s an alligator.”
The hissing screech of the dragon split the air around us, just on the other side of the concrete wall. The solid, straight concrete wall. I tipped my head back, judging the height. Fifteen feet? Twenty? There didn’t appear to be any ladders or footholds and no nearby fence or tree to jump from.
“How are we going to get in?” Noah asked, as if he’d read my mind.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked.
It really wasn’t, but I refused to admit that I hadn’t foreseen this particular obstacle. I’d figure it out. I didn’t come all this way to be defeated by a concrete wall.
“We leave it to the alary, who have wings, years of weapons training, and blessings from the angels?” Noah asked.
“No,” I replied.
I kept walking along the length of the structure, searching for any way up. There was something odd, a place where the moonlight cast a short, horizontal shadow. I trailed my hands up the concrete, groping the space. My fingers brushed against an object, damp and solid, just above my head. It was the remains of something. A step or a ladder, maybe? “We climb,” I said, grinning.
Noah sighed and cast his eyes heavenwards, as if God Almighty might instill him with enough divine patience to handle me. I sucked in a deep breath and jumped. My fingers curled over the edge of the step as I hauled myself up. My eyes darted upward, squinting through the darkness. There was another step, a couple feet up. Carefully balancing on the narrow step, I pulled myself onto the next one and quickly scaled the side of the concrete. My arms burned as I reached the top and pulled myself onto the rim, being careful not to fall into the water on the other side. I turned to Noah, reaching a hand to help him stand as he joined me. “See? No wings needed,” I said.
He didn’t smile. Instead, he gazed into the murky pool of water beneath us. “Is it even in here?” Noah asked.
I bent down, peering closer into the water, but only saw my own distorted reflection in the smooth surface. In the murky water, my blue eyes looked black and my pale hair a dingy gray. I pulled at my black blouse, which clung uncomfortably to my skin. The humid air that struck my bare stomach didn’t offer the comfort I’d wanted. The sweat gathering under my breasts and beneath my sturdy, canvas pants was worse. If there hadn’t been the threat of a dragon, I’d have been tempted to jump in fully clothed, despite the filmy layer of grime floating on the water’s surface.
Without warning, a flash of blue lightning lanced through the water toward us, just as something slammed against the concrete. A jagged sliver forked up the side of the wall beneath Noah’s feet, a trickle of water seeping out of the crack. Noah stumbled backwards as the concrete shuddered under his feet. I grabbed his arm to stop him from stepping off the ledge.
“Careful,” I said, as he regained his footing.
I drew a four-inch cylindrical rod from my back pocket and pressed my thumb into the m-shaped rune – flicking my wrist the way I’d seen my father do a thousand times. The weapon extended into a nine-foot lance with a deadly point.
Noah’s jaw dropped. “Cora, no. You didn’t,” he said.
“Oh, but I did!” I replied, smirking. “What else were we going to use to fight a dragon?”
Noah smiled, a new eagerness flashing in his eyes. He reached over his shoulder and drew a star-bright Crusader’s sword from the sheath across his back. “The sword of Saint George?” he suggested.
“And you criticized me for stealing my father’s dragon lance!” I exclaimed.
“The good Saint’s sword was just gathering dust in the library,” Noah said.
“There’s hope for you yet,” I replied, “but God above, my father is going to kill us both.”
My father was the chancellor of Divine Providence, the academy that trained the alary, and as his daughter, I knew I’d get a good scolding and a slap on the wrists. At worst, maybe a month of latrine duty. But Noah could face real punishment, especially for borrowing a Saint’s weapon. His mother worked in the kitchens of Divine Providence, and his father had abandoned him long ago. Noah didn’t have a high-ranking family to protect him.
“It’s not too late to turn back,” Noah said, his voice becoming serious, “and pretend none of this ever happened.”
I shook my head and tightened my grip on the lance. “Not unless we’re hauling the head of a water dragon with us.”
The surface of the water churned a little. I watched for flashes of blue, studying the shimmer of moonlight reflecting on the surface.
“Do you see it?” I asked, as I circled around on the ledge.
I tucked my father’s lance between my bicep and my ribs and curled my hand around the weapon’s shaft, forcing it steady. My whole arm ached from its weight. It was bigger than me by about three and a half feet. That gave me a good reach, but I hadn’t anticipated it being so unwieldy. Father always made it look so easy, and the life-size mural of Michael and his six brothers slaying a dragon horde in the great hall made it look simple enough. Tuck under your arm, aim, pointy-end forward. But they had wings, which probably served as a counterbalance. God, why hadn’t I thought of that before? As blue lightning flashed in the water, I suddenly wish I’d brought a trident instead or a sword like Noah had.
A swish of a finned tail flicked up through the surface. I stabbed the lance down before the dragon could disappear into the depths again. Its snarling cry tore through the air and echoed off the water, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.
The dragon dove, threatening to pull my lance with it. Frantically, I pushed on the rune, causing the lance to collapse once more. Red blood spurted from the tip, staining the water with a colorful cloud. Once more, I pressed the rune on the lance, extending it to its full length again. Beside me, Noah cried out. I barely caught sight of the triple row of jagged teeth, as the blue-scaled beast reared out of the tank behind us. For a split second, I stood frozen and mesmerized. I’d always heard of dragons as being monstrous beasts who ate the hearts of angelborn for power. A hundred angel hearts and—the bestiaries said—a dragon could become human. I’d seen countless illustrations and tapestries of dragons being slain.
But I’d never realized how beautiful they were. The dragon’s scales looked like sleek, polished sapphires, and its delicate-looking wings were thin and translucent like a dragonfly’s. Even the dragon’s sharp spines and crests seemed lovely, like icicles clinging from a tree. Then, the spell was broken, and I steeled myself for the coming attack. It snapped at Noah, who slammed into me, pushing me off-balance and into nothingness.
Over our heads, the dragon launched from the edge of the tank. It flew through the air with its short wings, then dove into the murky sludge just feet from us. When my body struck the lukewarm water, I floundered, struggling with the weight of my father’s lance. Praying that the dragon didn’t choose then to strike, I collapsed the lance and dragged my way up through the water, gasping for air as I broke the surface. My eyes stung with the rank, chemically treated water. My soggy boots dragged me downwards, but I kicked hard to stay above water. I reached the edge of the tank and leaned against it, swiveling my head to look for Noah.
He surfaced a short distance away, but then dove and disappeared for several heartbeats. When he surfaced again, his face was frantic.
“What is it?” I shouted.
“I dropped the sword!”
I growled in frustration and tucked my father’s lance into my back pocket. Instead, I drew out my mother’s twin daggers, as always, sheathed at my thighs. With my hands free, I swam across the water and shoved the hilt of the second dagger into Noah’s hand, just as the water beneath us began to churn.
I kicked away from the edge of the tank and out of the path of the breaching water dragon. It broke the surface, jaw chomping. I gasped, pain shooting up my leg as its teeth sank into my ankle. I sucked a frantic breath before the creature dragged me beneath the surface. Twisting my body underwater, I thrust the dagger down at the scaled flesh of the beast. The blade turned against scales, unable to penetrate the thick, natural armor. I almost screamed in surprise as a second scaled body slammed into my ribs, but forced my mouth shut to preserve precious air, biting my tongue hard in the process.
I slashed again at the dragon holding me, then kicked hard with my other leg. Its teeth ripped through the skin at my ankle and snagged on my boot, a chunk of leather coming away in its mouth. I kicked off its head to surface, took in a frantic breath, and dove again.
I roughly wiped away water from my burning eyes and searched for the dragons. I barely made out the flickers of blue as their scales and wings glowing in the moonlight. Their tails swished, cutting through the water as they circled back on me. The water rippled as Noah dove beside me. We nodded at each other as the first beast snaked its way toward us. It cut swiftly through the water with its short wings and swaying tail.
The beast’s mouth opened wide like the gaping jaws of an alligator. I kicked away, out of its reach, as Noah slashed his dagger across the eye on one side. I buried my hilt through the other. Blinded and enraged with pain, the dragon snarled and thrashed. My chest burned, and I pushed myself back to the surface for air.
I barely managed to gulp a fresh lungful of air before the second dragon rammed into me. It seized my left arm with its jaws and wrapped its wings around me like a cocoon, dragging me beneath the surface. I slashed out with the dagger, slicing through the delicate skin of its fragile wings until the blade struck bone. It thrashed and recoiled. I surfaced again, then cried out as its sharp spines dug into my back. Once more, its jaws gripped my bleeding ankle. “Noah!” I yelled before my head sank beneath the surface again.
My lungs burned from the lack of oxygen, and the moon above the tank grew fuzzy as the dragon’s deadly grip pulled me to the bottom of the tank. Blood stained the water and swirled around me in clouds of color. How much was mine? My ankle and arm throbbed, and the deep gouges in my back burned like wildfire.
A shadow blotted out the light. The dragon’s jaws loosened, and its whole body grew limp. I slipped out of its grasp, but my clothes were sodden and my muscles weak with exhaustion. I kicked and swished my arms through the water, but my movements were sluggish. Heavy, impossible. My thoughts were groggy, slow, and my vision grew black at the edges, as murky as the water around me.
Strong arms wrapped around me. A part of me wanted to thrash, to fight off this new attacker, but I was so tired. So very tired. When the night air hit my face, I gasped, coughing up water as I was lifted through the air. My rescuer’s feet struck the pavement at the foot of the tank. Did he just jump down to the ground? Impossible. The distance was fifteen or twenty feet.He loomed over me, night-black eyes gazing into my face with sharp intensity.
“Dammit, Cora,” he muttered.
His dark, velvety voice was familiar, although my mind was slow to put a name with it. I blinked in confusion. My eyes burned from the water, but I was almost certain I glimpsed fanged teeth between his lips.
“Aamon?” I whispered.
I must be imagining things. It couldn’t be him.
My body recoiled from the hard pavement as Aamon laid me on the ground. Every cell of my body felt hyper-sensitive and charged. I shakily sat upright, my throat raw. My eyes traced over his dark hair, his strong jaw, and the barely noticeable scar that cut just beneath his right eyebrow. It wasn’t a scar earned in battle or anything like that. He’d hit his head on the coffee table as a child.
“Aamon,” I rasped, choking on his name.
He glanced at something in the distance, then shook his head.
A second later, his thumb traced my cheek, his touch like lightning. “Please, don’t do anything stupid,” he whispered. “Anything else.”
I shivered at the chill on my skin where his hand had rested. Then, he was gone, as if he’d simply become one with the shadows around me. My head spun as I looked around, trying to find him.
“Cora?” my father cried.
I glanced up. His metal armor and star-white wings shined in the moonlight.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Noah,” I croaked, my throat is rough and raw, “The dragons.”
He sighed and flicked a hand to command the others. I swallowed, closing my eyes against the pain that throbbed through every part of me. I couldn’t bring myself to move. My thoughts were in fragments, but still, I wondered if Noah was okay and if we at least managed to get a dragon head out of this whole, stupid misadventure.
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