I went straight home. I didn’t care what Mr. Brunswick would think, but I did feel guilty about not stopping to see Kelly. She would be worried sick. Every step I took reminded me of yesterday’s kicking and jumping. Why did it have to ache so much the next day? 

I heard an annoying hum when I entered the apartment. The refrigerator door must be open. I had wanted to fix it for months, but didn’t have the money.

Rick glanced up from the refrigerator as I entered, but didn’t seem surprised to see me. He also didn’t seem to be suffering any ill effects from yesterday’s poisoning.

“Beryl. Hey. I just woke up a few minutes ago, and I’m starving! Any of this stuff good?”

“We need to talk,” I announced.

He looked around the refrigerator door. “Sure, sure. Whatever. Let’s chat.”

“Who are you, really? Why are you here in Viridia?”

“I thought we covered that already.” He held up a bottle of apple juice. “Let me guess: made with only green apples?”

I shoved the refrigerator door shut, making him step back. At least I could silence the hum. “I’m serious!” I said. “I just got interrogated by a fewmetting draconic!”

Rick frowned. “I don’t think that’s a word. Or if it is, it probably shouldn’t be.” He mouthed it silently: “Fewmetting.”

I glared at him.

Rick sighed, took the lid off the apple juice bottle, and took a quick swallow. “I’m sorry that happened to you, Beryl,” he said. “But I’m not surprised. The good news, though, is it didn’t actually see us yesterday, or you wouldn’t be here now.”

“No. It said someone saw me in the vicinity.”

Rick nodded and put the juice down. “We lucked out, then. And I owe you again. Thanks.”

“You can pay me by giving me some answers.”

“What do you want to know? I told you already: my name is Richard Onyx, from Atramentous.”

“Why are you here?”

“I told you: things got too hot for me…”

“The truth!” I slammed my fist against the counter. The fridge started humming, even with the door shut. “The draconic told me you were inciting trouble everywhere!”

Rick’s eyes narrowed. “And you’re a big believer in the words of the draconics, are you?”

“I could have left you to them yesterday!” My hands trembled and I gripped them into fists. My adrenaline was pumped after the draconic encounter. 

“But you didn’t. Which means that you don’t care much for our dragon overlords. And that, my friend, makes us allies.”

“Allies in what?”

Rick moved into my tiny living area. “This is a nice apartment for a single guy,” he observed. “First floor, even.”

I followed, if only to get away from the humming. Pure luck had given me the first floor. My number came up on the housing lottery at just the right time it became available.

“Allies in what?” I repeated.

“Back in Atramentous, I was involved in… let’s call it an uprising,” Rick explained. He dropped into my favorite (and only) easy chair. I had saved up for over three months to get that chair. I should have spent the money on the fridge. “We thought we had an idea for taking down one of the black draconics and maybe getting a bit more freedom for our part of the city.” 

He looked at me as if expecting me to sit also. I remained standing, and crossed my arms. It was kind of stupid, but I still wasn’t ready to trust him.

Rick looked off into the distance. “We overplayed our hand and got destroyed. I’m the only one who escaped. All of my friends, all of my fellow… rebels… were either killed or captured. Is that enough info for you?”

I lowered my arms, and felt some of my nervous energy begin to drain away. “Sorry,” I muttered. I sat down on the loveseat, my only other real piece of furniture, passed down from my parents.

Rick glanced at me. “But you…” He pointed right at me. “You, my friend, think big! Kill the actual green dragon, will you?”

My head snapped up. “You heard that? But you were out.”

“Um, mostly out. I was fading in and out of consciousness. But I distinctly heard you say you wanted to kill the dragon.”

“Who doesn’t?”

Rick snorted. “There are plenty of people who think the dragons are gods, you know. And thousands more who just accept things the way they are.” He jerked to his feet and walked around the room. “They never even think about how things could be different. They just follow orders, do what they’re told to do, be who they’re told to be, and then die like everyone else. I don’t even know if they realize how miserable and pathetic they are! Bunch of sheep!”

My eyes widened. I had thought many of the same things, but it was something else to hear someone say it out loud, especially with such fervor.

Rick stopped pacing and looked at me. “Of course, you know why no one entertains those thoughts, right? Why no one in their right mind would try to kill a dragon?”

“Everyone knows.” I closed my eyes. It was the only thing that stayed with everyone from history classes. “A city rebelled three hundred years ago and killed their black dragon ruler. The other dragons destroyed them in retaliation.” Not just the people. They destroyed the city and everything around it.

“Yeah, the Blasted Lands. There it is, ladies and gentlemen: the visual evidence!” Rick waved at the window. “The constant proof that resistance is futile! Try to fight another dragon and the same thing might happen to you and everyone you love!”

“So let’s kill all the dragons.” Until I heard myself say it out loud, I hadn’t considered that my wild thoughts from the night before might ever go anywhere. But Rick kept saying all the things I already believed.

Rick lowered his chin and smiled. “Now you’re talking,” he said in a low voice.

Had I really said that out loud? Rick flopped back in the chair. We sat in silence for several minutes, our thoughts full of insanity. Six cities ruled by six dragons. Every dragon had a dozen or more draconics along with a small army of highly trained soldiers. How could we possibly overcome that? Let alone actually kill even one dragon?

“This is crazy,” I said aloud. “Even if we had everyone in every city on our side, how would it work? It’s impossible.”

“We don’t need everyone,” Rick answered. “In fact, the fewer people we bring into this, the better. We don’t need a massive conspiracy. I mean, I’m a… troublemaker, apparently, and you’re… what are you, anyway?”

I scoffed. “I work in a bike shop.”

Rick’s eyes bored into me. “That’s not all you are. Come on.”

“What do you mean?”

“I saw you. You have some kind of cybernetic implants, don’t you? That’s fortek. How’d that happen?”

I still wasn’t convinced I could trust Rick, but who would he tell about my forbidden tech? I didn’t like talking about it, but after demanding the truth from him, I couldn’t exactly keep secrets of my own. I closed my eyes.

“Three years ago, there was an accident… I still don’t know what it was. Some kind of explosion in one of the factories.” I took a deep breath. “My parents and I were walking outside when this entire wall collapsed on us. They were both killed instantly.”

“I’m sorry.”

I shrugged. “I survived, but the surgeons said I wouldn’t be able to walk again.” 

“That’s practically a death sentence in itself.” Rick spoke true. If you couldn’t work, the dragons had no use for you. Impaired people tended to disappear.

“My parents had a good friend who works in the draconics’ cybernetics department. I’m not entirely sure how he pulled it off, but he gave me an implant.” My hand went to the small of my back. “Back here, at the base of my spine. I’m told the scar is quite impressive. It lets me walk, obviously. And if I concentrate just right, I can… boost my leg power. It’s like some kind of energy that flows into my legs. I can run faster. Kick harder. Jump higher.”

“You can just think it?”

“Sort of.” I didn’t know how else to explain it.

“That is hue.”

“Definitely hue.” I found it interesting that someone from Atramentous used the same slang words as we did. “But I pay for it later. My legs are still aching from what I did yesterday.”

“Interesting. I’ve heard of implants to help with walking, of course, but not for the average citizen—”

“Only the elite.”

“Exactly. Your friend risked a lot to do that for you. He must be some kind of genius.”

I thought about Loden. “Yeah, I guess he really is.”

“Just the kind of genius we need to kill dragons?”

I couldn’t deny Loden’s brilliance, and he might sympathize. Once, he told me the dragons weren’t invincible. He seemed to have surprised himself by saying it, and didn’t elaborate, but I never forgot it. “I don’t know a whole lot of people that can help us,” I admitted. “But there might be a few.”

“It’s better than what I’ve got.” Rick sat up and spread his arms. “I don’t know anyone here, and everyone I knew before is gone.”

We fell silent again. I thought about the consequences. If we went any further with this at all, I’d probably end up like Rick, with everyone I knew either dead or imprisoned. Thinking about my own death didn’t seem like a big deal at the moment. But imagining Kelly and Loden dead or worse gave me pause. I considered telling Rick to forget the whole thing. I could help him get out of the city, but other than that, I would stay out of trouble and go back to my somewhat boring life.

My somewhat boring life of slavery to a giant green dragon that destroyed everything with any value. An image of dripping blood flashed through my mind. I pushed it away and felt the rage within.

No, rage wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be.

“It’s not going to work,” I said at last. “I’ll help you escape, but that’s all.”

Rick’s face fell. “Are you sure?”

“It’s insane. As much as I want him dead… no one can kill a dragon.”

Right about then, Troilus Green arrived at my door.

from Viridia, book one in the Dragontek Lore series…

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