Artemis was absolutely aching.
The dragon had apparently decided it would be best for the both of them to fly the night through, and she was no more than an unwilling passenger. Her legs were stiff from the sitting position, which was not helped by the constant rolling of his shoulders.
Although she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her squirm, she was nearing the point of not being able to help it. She’d never ridden a horse this long before, let alone a dragon of his size – without a saddle or compassion for her comfort.
The only mercy she found was from the wind. Sure, her face and shoulders were chilled from its blast, but the dragon’s body below her was warm. Heat seeped up through his scales and into her legs, and Artemis siphoned it without remorse.
But the wind and the dragon were no friend to her clothes. Her dress was already tearing at the back. Each time the dragon took a stroke of his powerful wings or angled himself to change direction, the soft material would catch on his scales and shred as easily as parchment.
Artemis didn’t care one bit about the dress, but after flying through the night, each piece that flittered off into the wind felt like it was a part of home that she would never get back. Eventually she stopped looking back all together.
Far below, the landscape had transformed into terrain she never thought she would get to see. Glassgarden was a land of lush grass and fields, dotted with shady forests that sat patiently at the bottom of rolling hills. She had learned long ago not to be fooled by the peaceful-looking terrain that was painted beyond her window, because the long, slowly ascending hills were more of a barrier to a neighboring kingdom than the highest, strongest stone wall would ever be. Men exhausted themselves trying to climb them, horses crippled themselves trying to descend.
Just about the only thing that could challenge them were dragons. Dragons like the one she was riding, whose wings had carried her far beyond her cradle in the hills to this rocky, uninhabited unknown. Razorit had always been strong enough to ward them off their territory before.
It only took one failure for everything to change.
Leaning forward, she held the spinal protrusion before her for stability and tried to stretch her legs out.
“Feeble creatures, humans,” the Black said shrewdly. The first words they had spoken to each other all night. “I carry you, yet you ache.”
Artemis narrowed her eyes bitterly, partly from the cold, partly from the insult. “I have a name.”
“Artemis. No title, I noticed.”
A little taken aback that he’d put in the effort to memorize her name in the fray, she replied, “That’s…more of a dragon thing.” Though it occurred to her that she likely had gained some sort of unholy title just by perching herself atop a black dragon.
“Hmph. Figures that green dragon would target you, then. Cowardly, if you ask me.”
Despite her trepidation around this creature, Artemis couldn’t let that go without inquiring. “Cowardly?” she echoed, unsure. Never, in her eighteen years had she thought of Razorit as such.
“To only prey on those weaker than oneself – the mark of cowardice, in my eyes.”
An uncomfortable turmoil wobbled in her stomach. She couldn’t pretend that she agreed with the way Razorit had treated her these past few years, but she also didn’t like to think that meant she sided with the black dragon against her family either.
Slightly indignant, she asked, “Did you think that female to be weak, then?”
Surely, he would not insult his own kind?
Or not… Artemis thought. How cruel.
Artemis almost thought she had spoke this aloud when he said, “Great age weakens us all.”
Her stubbornness evaporated instantly, replaced by the horrid implication. She watched him lift his snout into the wind and sniff gently, as if he hadn’t imbedded the worst realization into her mind.
Artemis swallowed down the lump in her throat. “She…she was elderly?”
Unsure what his aim was by adding that when she already felt sick, Artemis didn’t give him a reply. She tried not to dwell on it further, knowing Lane and Razorit had perfectly good reason to hunt any black dragon down. They despised both humans and dragons alike, and were prone to savagery…or so she’d heard. It was in their blood, their memory, their ancestry. The fact that this dragon had bartered with her at all seemed to be a lucky misfortune.
But…if that dragon was weak and elderly and alone, was there really any glory in such a conquest?
Artemis shook the annoying thought away. It wasn’t her place to say, to question. The other dragons didn’t question it, so why should she? It was only this dragon that took issue with the death, and she had paid the price in full. In Artemis’ estimation, Lane owed her big time. If she hadn’t intervened, this inexperienced dragon would have plucked him up and hauled him off while he was unconscious, leaving Razorit behind.
Separated like that, they would have been dead within minutes.
Now I’m separated, Artemis thought gloomily. How poetic.
She looked down at the unfamiliar landscape but didn’t see any of it. Would Lane let her be? Chase her until she fell just as the black dragon predicted? Next time, would he still be the brother she admired, and would she still be the sister that he adored?
Artemis looked over her shoulder for the umpteenth time, unsure whether to be relieved or dismayed that Lane wasn’t there.
But perhaps the real question was what she was going to do if she saw him again. Not to mention what would happen if any other set of partners saw them brazenly careening through the sky. Lane’s guests had fled from their party in horror, and would be heading back to their homelands to relay the news.
Dragons of all colors – Reds and Greens, the Blues and Whites, and every color in between would know of them. Artemis’s head fell into her hands, and she grasped her tangled bangs, unable to quell her worries. Unable to stop the realizations piling up.
The Great Ones will know!
It was only a matter of time. The strongest, eldest, and most feared and loved dragons of them all would hear of her, riding the last black dragon known to man to who knew where. If she thought she was doomed before, she didn’t know what to call this feeling of utter certainty that she wouldn’t live now.
There was only one Great Dragon per clan, but even one would be too much to fight off—
Fight? she thought, horrified that the idea had even crossed her mind. How could she be thinking such things? It was blasphemy. The Great Ones were practically Gods of this world; noble and legendary creatures of order. Was her desperation so great already that she’d so soon warp them into her enemies?
The thought didn’t sit well when she realized the answer.
Artemis knew enough at least that the chances of a Great One rousing to pursue them were slim, but that wouldn’t stop other pact partners who were as crazy as Lane and Razorit from trying to gain a title for themselves. They’d have to be truly crazy to challenge this dragon.
At that point, only the black dragon’s ferocity and merciless attitude could protect them. It was cruel how things had turned out. She’d had so little power before, besides being able to hide in the shadow of her stronger brother. Now she had so much potential power at her fingertips…and she still didn’t feel safe at all.