Incarnadine swept overhead again. Something was happening with the armies, but I couldn’t take time to look. And where did my friends go?
“A god honors us with his presence,” Zidanta Red announced. “Behold the epitome of true power and majesty!”
“Caedannnn!” I yelled, backing away, trying to keep an eye on the draconic and the circling dragon at the same time.
“Beryl! Over here!”
I boosted my legs, turned tail and ran for my life. Caedan slowed the four-wheeler just enough for me to leap aboard. Rick grabbed my shirt again, and Caedan accelerated.
“What is the bleaking dragon doing here?” Rick cried as he helped me get seated.
“The draconic couldn’t have called him, could it?” I wanted to know.
Rick and I looked back. Incarnadine descended over the battlefield. He didn’t seem to be looking toward us. Below, the two armies separated, running in opposite directions. I couldn’t help but notice the bodies both sides left behind on the ground.
The dragon reared back its head and unleashed hell. A massive stream of fire exploded from his mouth and enveloped the fleeing green army. Another quick circle, and another burst of flame caught those few who escaped the first. In seconds, not a single soldier clad in green remained standing. Flames licked the edges of the now-blackened arena of death.
“Chromatic hells,” Rick swore. I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate to say. A dragon had entered the battle and shown his true power. In moments like this, I could understand why many people called them gods. The devastation gave me a sick feeling inside.
Incarnadine did not land with the destruction of the enemy, but turned and sped off toward the north. Heading home, I’d have to guess. At least it didn’t come after us. That meant the draconic couldn’t communicate with it… or more likely, it just didn’t think we were worthy of pursuit.
We killed a dragon, but we made sure someone else got the blame. And so we could never claim credit for it. No one knew who we were. We couldn’t call ourselves dragon slayers or anything like that. We had no reputation. No one feared us, even though we had killed a thousand-year-old god-like monster.
“So the dragons are joining the fight themselves now,” Caedan stated the obvious.
“Maybe,” Rick said. “Maybe this was a one-time thing. Maybe they’re spying on each other and he knew Viridia and Atramentous wouldn’t be around. I don’t know.”
“It’s going to change everyone’s tactics,” I said. “Will any of them send troops out to fight when a dragon can destroy all of them at once?”
“The dragons don’t care how many humans die. You know that.”
“We don’t even know what their objectives are,” I countered. “They’re not trying to actually capture each others’ cities. So why send troops at all?”
“To control the rail lines? I don’t know. We need to be smarter about this.”
He had a point.
We rode mostly in silence for the duration of the trip. The four-wheeler had been designed for two riders, making our ride especially uncomfortable, complicated by how often all three of us kept scanning the sky. The skies belong to the dragons, as we were taught all our lives. I couldn’t repress the sick feeling in my stomach every time I looked up, certain I would spot a growing red shape.
The concern over the skies led to the evolution of our current home. At first, we lived in a cave, including Loden’s amazing workshop full of his inventions. But the cave did not provide a lot of room for the seven of us to do much more than sleep, or explore the workshop. The rest of our time, most of us would rather be out in the open air. All of us had grown up in the cities; outdoor living was a new and exciting experience. But too much time outside might get us spotted by one of the dragons.
Don, the most construction-minded of our team, came up with the solution. Every day, he worked on this new project: erecting a roof of sorts over a wide area outside the cave. With the help of Lovat, the orphan boy who excelled at scrounging, Don obtained a number of lengthy cables. He mounted a pair of them into the hill above the cave entrance and stretched them across open ground until he reached the next hill, at least a couple hundred feet. He added many more cables, stretched in various directions, criss-crossing each other to form a supportive web. Railroad ties, obtained from old and unused portions of the rail lines, were then used as pillars to help support the cables in the middle. After all that, he began the arduous process of covering the cables with whatever scrap wood or tree branches we could find, moving dirt on top of that, and even transplanting grass in patches. We hoped it would be camouflaged well from above. All of us did our part in the work, of course, but Don led the way. And all of us enjoyed the freedom of movement the new hideout gave us.
Kelly dubbed it the “Achromatic Asylum.” I liked the “achromatic” part, meaning “freedom from color.” But we all kept shortening it to just the Asylum. I guess because we all still believed we were crazy.
Bice came up with the idea of using one of our two four-wheelers to haul water from a nearby creek. Some empty barrels from Loden’s workshop, once cleaned, provided ample storage for a few days’ worth drinking and cooking water. Bathing still required a trip to the creek.
We brought large stores of imperishable food with us when we arrived, but they would not last forever. We had regular discussions about obtaining more, but no decisions had been made yet.
Caedan drove the four-wheeler under the Asylum roof and brought it to a stop. Kelly, the only one of our friends in sight, set down a glass of water on a table, one we had dragged out from Loden’s workshop. As she approached, Rick and I jumped down from the four-wheeler. Kelly’s eyes glanced at me for a moment before locking onto Rick.
I’m not going to lie. It still hurt. For a short, tumultuous, and glorious time, Kelly was my girlfriend. But I blew it. And now she and Rick were an item. Rick had offered to back off, but I didn’t want to deny either of them any happiness they could find in this messed-up world. But yeah… it still hurt.
“How’d it go?” Kelly asked.
Rick caught her up in a quick embrace before answering. “Not good.” He set her back down. “Incarnadine showed up.”
Kelly’s eyes widened. “The dragon himself? Chroma! You three are lucky to be alive!”
I pulled my goggles off. “Lucky, tired, and dirty. Caedan likes driving us through the dustiest places he can find.”
Caedan, still sitting on the four-wheeler with one knee pulled up, laughed. “Those parts are the most fun!”
Kelly looked over the three of us. “No question on the dirty part. You guys need to head down to the creek.”
“I’ll go right now if you come with,” Rick suggested.
Kelly shoved him away. “Gods, you’re incorrigible.”
I still don’t know what “incorrigible” means. If it describes Rick, does that mean I should try to be more incorrigible? Or was it a negative comment? I wasn’t about to ask her what it meant, but who else could I ask? Bice?
At that precise moment, Bice emerged from the cave entrance. The ex-priest wiped his hands on a dirty cloth as he joined us, smiling as usual. “Did anyone see you?”
“I fought the draconic, but only scratched him before Big Red showed up,” I said. “A few more minutes and the plan would have worked.”
“You’re lucky none of you were killed,” Bice said.
“Here comes the ‘I told you so,’” Rick complained, rolling his eyes.
“I did tell you,” Bice said, tossing the cloth to Caedan. “You could have been killed, captured, led the enemy to our base, or any number of other possibilities. And even if you succeeded, what good would it do?”
“We would have killed another one of those lizards!” Heat rose into my face. “We’ve got to do something. We can’t just hide here for the rest of our lives!”
“I agree. But if we work on getting better information, we can choose better targets. Something that may actually make a difference in this war.”
Caedan looked up from cleaning his goggles. “You talk like you have a suggestion.”
Bice’s smile broadened for a moment. “Maybe I do. Once you’re cleaned up, come see me in the workshop.”