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Hidden in the gaps of the rain, the Void wove its insidious ink through the darkness and closer to the beating hearts of humans.
It had not needed to break free. Its cage, the source of so many pains and agonizing moments, had been opened. It had slithered free, but kept itself hidden in shadows, fearing the error would be too soon discovered. The chaos had hidden it as it slipped out of the building, the prison where it had been held.
Now, it was free. It had escaped the land between the clouds in a rush of water, tearing its body into shreds of blackness, droplets of oily putty falling from the tips of slithering tentacles.
It was unseen by the humans of the land below, who had long ago unlearned the truth of their myths.
Where were those naïve creatures now? The small humans who dared to call it myth?
It didn’t matter. The Void would sniff them out, take its time, enjoy the fear and destruction.
It had dreamed of the carnage during its imprisonment. The desire and determination to kill every human that crawled on the earth, the ones responsible for its capture, was all that pushed it through the days of fire and lightning.
This earth would be the Void’s, and the humans running rampant would learn the meaning of true fear. The pleasure of inflicting the torture ignited the fire in its belly once more.
Humans—the thought spat out in its mind—how they thought of themselves as something more than cattle. As though they were alone in this world, on top of the food chain. The Void would have scoffed had it not been reduced to this temporary slither of itself.
The streets were absent of those scurrying creatures. They hid behind brick and mortar, as though the power of rain and wind could not blow their structures down if it desired. The sound built as the rain fell harder and faster, the wind picking up traces of the Void and scattering them further than it would have liked.
It hissed from its newly forming mouth, calling together the other ink-dripping tentacles of itself. The noise set the dogs of the neighborhood to barking. Slowly, parts slithered toward each other, and it began to reform. The hacking gurgle that escaped the undeveloped mouth sounded nothing like the laugh the earth had heard in eons past.
But that mattered not. Once reformed, it would again rule and terrify this world.
It twitched from its indulgent, fiery plans. Starvation flooded its weakened mass.
Discovering it could slip to the earth as a trail of dark ichor, broken into pieces, had been fortuitous. It did not remember, but much had been lost over time. Soon the others would follow, escaping through their cages and dripping through the rain as it had shown them.
First, it had to be whole again. It had to be ready to lead. It had to feed.
Curling its newly formed fingers, the Void felt bones crack into life, bending the encasing flesh, a mottled grey and black shell that darkened as more pieces came together, sucking and tearing through the rain.
Black wings, dark as obsidian, creaked like drying leather as they soaked up the polluted water from the sky. It remembered all its old forms and took from them the parts it most enjoyed.
The silhouette made the night look as midday. A figure with outstretched wings.
It was a true darkness the world had forgotten, but would never forget again.
The Void saw with newly formed eyes—three for now, but it could call upon more if needed—the first petty human through a nearby window.
Three would be enough to frighten.
Craig got up to pee. The bloody rain, three days in a row, and he felt like an hour hadn’t passed without him needing to pee yet again.
He looked out the window and instantly regretted this ritual.
Frozen, with his dick still in his hand, he watched as thick globs of ink moved on their own out of the puddles of rain and couldn’t turn away.
His breath seemed heavy and loud in the small bathroom. His eyes stung from his refusal to blink. When he couldn’t fight the pain in his eyes any longer, he blinked. In that moment, the beast completed its transformation and stood, silhouetted against the skyline.
A sound, like the kind a strangled cat would make, issued from his mouth.
He blinked again and the beast was gone.
But the raised hairs on Craig’s arms, his limp penis, told him more than he wanted to know. This was not some midnight imagining. He’d seen a monster, and Craig knew without a doubt that it had seen him, staring and immobile, as he watched its reanimation.
The word dropped from Craig’s mouth in a whisper before he left the bathroom and raced to the insufficient safety of his bedroom.
The Beast opened its mouth, its bulk hidden beneath the window. A smile of jagged bumps and small, sharp teeth split across its face.
“Beast…” The copied word scratched out between black tongue and raw throat. “I like it.”
It was going to be almost too easy. It watched the human as it scurried away from the window into the depths of the building. Hunger pulled, and it jumped to the windowsill of the now-deserted bathroom. It had been so long since it had feasted.
The Void heard the wheezing beyond the room. It didn’t bother to quiet its footsteps or shrink to stop the sound of its wings and claws scraping along the walls of the narrow hallway.
The heartbeat of the human raced, the sound of air rushing in and out in short gasps.
At the doorway, it stopped and waited for its meal to see. The Void had expected a scream, but the terrified silence was just as rewarding.
Slowly, it crept up the wall and over the ceiling, scratching flakes of paint down onto the carpet, until it stopped over the bed and the still body of its prey.
Opening its mouth, it was finally rewarded with a scream.
The Void laughed and dropped down onto the man. It wrapped its wings around him, easily trapping the flailing limbs. This human did not have a good survival instinct.
Sharp claws on the tips of its wings crunched through the human’s shoulders and pinned him to the mattress beneath. The poison was slow. It had time enough to enjoy the pain and horror of its feed.
The Void let out another blackened laugh. It joined its prey’s screams in a cacophony of chaos. It was a beautifully horrific chorus, improved with the sound of tearing flesh.
The Void’s razor-sharp claws peeled the first layer of meat from the body beneath it, then the next. Each piece it consumed with slurps and moans as it filled the emptiness within and rounded out its silhouette into the nightmarish shadow of a balloon animal gone horribly wrong.
Blood dripped down over its chin as three eyes morphed and bulged to five. With this new sight, it could see the veins carrying the blood beneath the skin that remained.
The Void, consumed by the sating of his own desires, enjoyed hearing each new snap of bones as he disarticulated his meal. Small, jagged teeth gnawed fingers, grinding them to a white powder, before sucking out the marrow of the arm bones.
Outside, the rain grew heavier, louder, as thunder and lightning echoed outside of the apartment.
The Void noted the increase in tempo, but nothing would stop it taking its time to enjoy its first kill.
Its first feast, in lifetimes.
The shuffling in the seats behind Blue might as well have been a roar in his ears. His eyes narrowed at the woman. A pair of burly guards dragged her by the arms from a small door recessed into the back wall. It was the only wall in the large, cavernous room not obstructed by hundreds of Skyans, come to see the results of the trials, in their macabre curiosity.
He couldn’t blame a single one of them. Hadn’t he come for a similar reason?
The room itself had once been beautiful to him. The clear, domed roof gave an unobstructed view of the cerulean-blue sky above. When the clouds lowered, and the light brushed in just the right way, fingers of a lover’s caress, a rainbow of colors would flood the room and fill Blue with a sense of immortality and the freedom of the skies.
It was the largest room of the building, allowing those from all the clusters to gather. But now, it was too close, the crowded room too loud to his ears. The sky beyond was weeping a thin mist of rain, sliding down the curve of the roof like tears on a cheek.
The woman, the prisoner, stepped into the small cage on its dais. It sat in the center of the suddenly hushed crowd. All eyes were laser-focused on her. Her long, blonde hair, nearing white, hung limply around dirt-smeared cheeks and the deep grey eyes that had once reminded him of a coming storm. Purple colored the skin beneath her eyes, and her cheeks were sunken with the bones protruding.
Those eyes—once so familiar, but now as distant as a stranger’s—avoided looking at him and their children. He tore his own gaze away and looked above her, to one of the four diamond-shaped jewels that rested on shelves halfway up the walls.
The one behind her head was white. He knew it would not stay that way.
Blue’s daughter gripped his left hand so tight the tips of his fingers were beginning to whiten. His son, who sat to his right, pushed his father’s hand away when it was offered. Moments like these, it was hard to believe they were the same age. Just thirteen years and yet here they sat, silent with backs straight. So much older.
He ached for those days, now lifetimes ago, when he could wrap them in his arms, hold them close and promise them it would all be okay. When he believed those words were more than just platitudes.
What could he say or do to comfort them now? He had shown up without much doubt of his wife’s guilt, but a small flame of hope continued to burn in his chest. It was a fool’s hope. And it was a hope for his children, no longer for himself.
He had wanted them to stay home, to spare them the horrors this trial would bring—the looks, the whispers, the rumors—in the hope it would wipe this day from their memories, but it had been no use. At the mere mention of it, his son had become enraged, screaming obscenities and demanding to attend. His sister said nothing, simply stepping beside her brother, face unreadable as ever. Her actions spoke louder than any words could.
He should have stopped them, became the dictator his son accused him of being, but in the end, he was fighting his own battle, and losing the love of his life with it.
So, here they were, the entire family, watching the inevitable execution of wife and mother. Her own mother was nowhere to be seen. If she were there, she had not deigned to come to the pew for the family of the accused.
It was day seventeen of the trials, and the Guardian leaders, known as the Four, sat with slumped shoulders and heavy-lidded eyes. It was an honor to be on the Council of the Four, one that came with both power and longevity.
Blue knew all about that honor. He’d been removed from the Council of the Four the day his wife had been arrested. He itched at the fresh scar near the crook of his elbow. The strength waned more obviously in Blue’s replacement then the other three.
It was the last call of the day, just as Blue knew it would be.
“Fang-Ripper.” The widest of the Four stood, keeping his eyes on the piece of paper in hand. “You are accused criminal twenty-nine of the infanticide trials. You have confessed to thirteen acts of inappropriate use of our people’s crystal shards, and ten cases of torture of juveniles.”
Fang-Ripper’s nostrils flared as her eyes roamed over the crowd. “Those are your words, not mine.”
So many Skyans had come to see justice done for the children of their race. Blue’s eyes closed when his wife finally looked at him.
He could forgive her for the crimes to their people. What he could not forgive were her crimes to her own family, or the secrets she had kept and the consequences he would have to pay for them.
“Do you deny your guilt?”
“I took the children, and I made them better.”
Blue watched Fang-Ripper’s hand rise to her chest, fingers searching to clasp something no longer there. He clasped the pendant she had given to him moments before the door to their home was forced open and his world was turned inside out.
Slowly, as though stuck in a thick syrup, he opened his eyes as the roar behind him became thunderous with the stamping of hundreds of feet. Individual words bled together, until nothing could be discerned except the anger and the outrage.
Parish, the oldest of the Four, and once Blue’s closest friend and confidante, stood and slammed his palms down on the desk. “Enough!”
The Guardian’s palms slammed upon the desk a second time, and that finally did the trick. Perhaps not instantly, but the sounds dulled and soon silenced.
“You say you made them better,” Parish continues, “but you have provided us no explanation when questioned. You have given us no reason to believe your words. In truth, what you did was torture until death the next generation of our people. You, madam, are sick. Perverse. The very worst example of what a Skyan can be, what our people are capable of, and you deserve nothing short of death. And so it shall be. Your sentence is death, to be carried out immediately.”
Blue’s daughter squeezed his hand and he reacted, squeezing back for just long enough to reign in his anger. She continued to cling to him. Surprisingly, his son had leaned closer to his side, not quite touching but brushing his father’s coat.
Today, he would fail them again.
The cut was clean, a black, crystalline shard dragged across Fang-Ripper’s slender neck.
Fang-Ripper kept her head held high until the blood dripped, slow and agonizing, out of the cut, stark against her pale skin.
When she began to choke, a hacking cough and gasp that echoed around the silent crowd, neither of her children looked away.
Twenty years later…
Green light streamed through the wall of windows. Kiera leaned back on the third-floor staffroom bench and sipped her coffee as the storm drew closer. Her office was a large rectangle overlooking the serpentine river that cut through the suburb. The kitchen was her favorite place, not just because of the coffee machine, though that was a big draw, but also for the amount of light that flowed in, even now.
That hypnotic, green light danced across the long table, the uncomfortable benches, and the few armchairs squashed together at each floor-to-ceiling window. Each crack of thunder, each flash of lightning, made her flinch, shoulders coming together as though to make herself a smaller target. The sound of rain against the building grew louder, a roaring musical tattoo—drums, trumpets, cymbals.
They’d needed rain. The news had gone on about the drought for weeks now, but it was such a heavy, sudden downpour. There had been nothing on the weather app this morning. She wouldn’t have come in early, or at all, if there had been.
She shivered, despite the warmth of the coffee. So why was she smiling this time?
The hair rose on her arms and at the back of her neck. Green meant hail, right? Could a storm be too much for the earth to take? The river was already rising against the bank, threatening calamity.
And still, she smiled between each sip of coffee. Must have been something in the air.
Still, glad I didn’t race back for the train now.
She sipped on her bitter black fuel, feeling vindicated as she watched frozen chunks of ice join the fat drops of rain smashing against the reinforced, double-glazed windows.
She looked at her phone, tapping her index finger against the back. She smiled at the scar that ran across the skin between her knuckles. One of her souvenirs from fencing class.
The green light deepened to a dark grey. The pummeling on the building grew louder, drowning out all other noise. The lights flickered.
Kiera pushed off from the bench and left the kitchen. Back at her desk, in her seat, her cubicle, she pushed herself back and rested sapphire blue Doc Martens up on the desk. Her little bit of ‘fuck you’ was normally hidden beneath her uniform of long, black pants and ‘professional’ white blouse.
The others wore different shirts, a useless way of individualizing themselves. Kiera stuck with the shirt with the embroidered sigil of the company over her left breast for pure convenience. These were not the kinds of clothes she would have ever bothered to purchase for herself.
She brushed cold fingers over her arm, prickling the hair on her skin as she looked beyond the office’s wall of glass. At least the claustrophobia was less than her library assistant job two years before. It had been in a dark room in the middle of the library, no windows and dust for days.
Of course, three floors up, these windows didn’t open, but at least she had a view.
The lights blinked out. Darkness settled over her.
With the power out, no more coffee. At least she’d already made her first cup.
The whir of computers and ducted air-conditioning died as a thunderclap made Kiera jump in her seat. She slapped her feet to the floor and gripped the edge of her desk.
“That was close…”
Her laughter echoed in the empty office as her heart thudded in her chest. The adrenaline pumping through her veins was her favorite fix, made her feel lighter.
She chugged on her coffee, gasping as the still-too-hot liquid burned a trail down her esophagus.
The battery-operated clock on her desk illuminated green dashes that told her it was a little after 7am.
Was anyone else stupid enough to come in today? Usually, Kiera resented the others who came in and got the bulk of their work done in the stupid o’clock quiet, but the dark and stillness pressed in on her. One other person would have been nice, maybe.
She could wait out the storm. She had to wait out the storm. Fear threatened her enjoyment of the darkness, so she stuffed it back into the pit of her stomach where it belonged.
Outside, it looked as though the sun had yet to rise. She knew the fallacy, because she had drunk her first cup of coffee watching it come over the horizon while she sat on the shitty balcony of her one-bedroom apartment, the place that cost enough to make her aunt almost cry when she told her.
As it was, Aunt Em had clung to her fingers, and all but begged her to stay, to live on the farm and be safe. She hadn’t mentioned Kiera’s history—the voice in her head, the nightmares, the sleepwalking—but it had radiated in her eyes and the concerned crinkles on her face.
Kiera had been ready. The voice, the nightmares, even the sleepwalking were long gone. Years gone.
So why were they in her mind now?
Turning her back on the torrential downpour, Kiera stood and looked over the partitions, like a cityscape in miniature, streets and blocks, a walkway like the river running through the middle. The desks were pods of six, the cream and brown color a mix that reminded her of movies set in the Seventies. Three desks at the end were hotspots, with nothing personal to indicate sole occupants like the rest of the pods.
But even the static desks held minimal whimsy or personality, except for Josie’s desk and its multitude of crystal pyramids. They scattered the surface and threw rainbow lights over the dreary walls of their day job.
Kiera’s own desk had three stress balls, things she had never needed at any previous job. The purple dragon was her favorite. She spoke to it more than the fairy or the bridge. The bridge was her free memento from the sunset climb of the Story Bridge over the Brisbane River. The climb itself was immortalized in the photo frame beside it. Her five-year-younger self wore a big grin, despite the hideous blue and grey jumpsuit she wore.
Kiera laughed and flicked the photo of her face.
“Ah, so young. The climb wouldn’t do anything for me now.”
Sky diving, daredevil rock climbing, fencing, axe throwing—everything and anything she could find. Except for spelunking. That shit was terrifying. She couldn’t imagine anything giving her a fraction of the thrill that bridge-climbing version of herself had experienced.
“Except maybe climbing it in a storm.”
Kiera shuddered at the mere idea, though she felt a smile tug at her lips. She’d never have the chance to climb the bridge again. Her contract was nearly up and her plans to head north were sorted. Josie was the only one she’d miss. The last two years had felt longer than most. She couldn’t remember the last thrill she had, unless she included Hannah. Hannah had been fun at least.
Kiera shook her head of memories.
She just needed more adventure. Brisbane had lost its charm long ago. She needed more.
For now, she would settle for coffee.
She looked at the screen on her phone as she plonked it on the bench beside the sink. She chewed her lip, convincing herself she wasn’t worried her phone hadn’t rung yet. Aunt Em hadn’t called yet, hadn’t called when the storm began.
She always called.
The pounding of rain continued to envelope her as she put her cup under the machine and hit the worn, grease-stained button. Nothing happened, and for a moment Kiera just stared at the machine, head tilted to one side. Another thunderclap made her jump. She facepalm.
“No power, idiot.”
“What?” Kiera looked around, hope and fear warring at the idea of finding someone behind her. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
The voice was back? The voice was back! No. It wasn’t possible. Therapy and pills, all those appointments and treatments. The voice was nothing more than the result of trauma. Losing both parents. It couldn’t be back; she’d taken her pills that morning.
But even Kiera knew she was lying.
Before the thought could germinate into further panic, her phone pinged with the slow buildup of the Star Trek: Voyager theme, her favorite TV show, one her Aunty Em would watch sitting beside her, holding her hand too tightly or wrapping her arm around her shoulder and pulling her close so all Kiera could smell was kerosene and paint. . She forced in a deep breath, let it out slowly, plastered a shaking smile on her lips and snatched the phone off the bench.
“Hey, Aunty Em. About time, I thought you weren’t even going to check on me this storm. Like you just don’t even care.” Her tone was wooden, forced frivolity in the words. She was rewarded with a soft chuckle down the line and her shoulders dropped a little from her ears. “How you doing?”
“Oh, you know. Crazy as always.” Aunty Em’s Aussie accent faded into the background, the British one that hinted at her undiscussed past taking over.
Something was bothering her. Kiera tapped her fingertips on the edge of the bench as the silence stretched.
“Are you safe out of the storm?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Kiera let out a breath. She could deal with her storm worries; she’d been doing so since she could remember. “I got to work early this morning, to finish a project.” Em didn’t need to know her normal routine. “I’m all safe and tucked away in the building.”
“Why would you go in when you knew the storm was coming? It isn’t safe to drive in these conditions. You know it’s not. You know…”
“I know. Of course I know. But it wasn’t on the weather app, Aunt Em. Besides, I took the train in this morning. I’m safe. I made it before the storm hit. I promise, you don’t need to worry about us. Me. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Kiera didn’t remember the crash that had killed her parents and left her with a disfiguring scar, when she took her shirt off at least. Her fingers trembled over her chest, feeling the rope of scar tissue beneath the material. Her Aunt remembered the crash all too well.
“I’m okay. It’s just a little freak storm. I won’t go anywhere, I promise. Besides, it’ll probably just blow itself out soon enough.”
Deep slow breathes came down the phone line.
“It’s okay, I promise.”
“What’s happened, K?”
“What’s happened?” Aunt Em—stern, serious parental figure, Aunt Em—was now on the other end of the line.
Kiera felt like she was twelve years old again. “I heard the voice.”
“You know the voice is just your conscience. Have you seen your doctor recently? Do you need a refill on your medication? Perhaps the dosage needs to go up.”
“I know.” Kiera laughed, nodding to herself and pretending the prickle in her eyes was anything but tears. Hell, she would have been happy to have a sudden case of conjunctivitis. “And yes, I’ve seen the doc and got my refills. It’s okay. It was just the once.”
“And you are safe inside? You’ll definitely stay inside, no matter what?”
“Of course, I’ll stay inside.”
The heart attacks her aunt would have had if she’d known how many light showers Kiera had danced in during her life, just to prove she wasn’t scared of a little rain. Who wanted to feel like the Wicked Witch of the West?
The silence stretched.
“More nightmares, K?” Aunt Em asked.
Kiera closed her eyes as another crack of thunder rattled the glass in the frames.
Memories of storms wrapped up in Aunty Ems arms while she told fantastical stories about her paintings flooded her mind while the silence stretched like taffy. It had been a long time before Kiera learned that Aunty Em’s paintings were based on Kiera’s own nightmares.
“No,” Kiera answered, pain starting behind her eyes. A common enough occurrence when the interrogations came. “I haven’t had any.”
“Not too long now and you’ll be off on another adventure, huh?” The tension was a plucked violin string, but at least Aunt Em was trying.
Kiera pushed herself up on to the staff room table, shuffling her feet on to one of the uncomfortable, plastic chairs. She leaned forward, forearms resting on her thighs. One hand hung loose in the air while the other kept her phone pressed to her ear.
“How far away are you going this time?” Em’s tone caused an instant lump in Kiera’s throat.
“Aw, Aunt Em, don’t get like that. I always let you know when I get somewhere. And I visit as often as I can.”
Kiera choked back the gasp, desperate for Aunt Em not to hear it.
“Not heading this way yet then. I didn’t think so.”
The light dulled further. Kiera spun to see a brief flash of something falling from the sky. A wooden something.
“No, no, no, no, no, no!”
It had looked like the hull of a ship, but that was crazy. She hadn’t fallen asleep, or… Maybe she had? But she didn’t have the nightmares anymore.
“One ‘no’ would have sufficed.” The tinny voice rang distant as the phone slipped away from Kiera’s ear.
“Sorry, gotta go. Love you.” Kiera pressed the red button on Aunt Em’s growing panic and tossed the phone on the table. “There isn’t a ship flying in the storm. There isn’t a ship flying in the storm.”
She muttered it like a mantra, like it would change anything.
And I’m just your conscience.
“Shut up, Jiminy.”
You were talking to Aunty. How did she know I was back, hmm?
“I’m not asleep.”
Kiera couldn’t tell if she was certain or surprised. With her nose pressed to the reinforced glass, she tried to see the ground where the ‘ship’ had landed. Streaming rain and mist blocked the view of the street below. She forced her shoulders to unclench and laughed as she stepped back.
Another echo of thunder clapped.
Not thunder. A scream.
“No, it was thunder. Why the hell am I talking to you?”
Had it been a scream? A scream that was far too close for comfort?
A blur of green slipped through the raging clouds, moving closer by the second. Kiera backed away from the window, liquid fire rushing though her veins. Tendrils of iridescent green and blue, like the branches of a weeping willow, followed behind a jade green dragon. A dragon with horns like twisted, dead branches and a textured chest of what could be mistake for vines and leaves. It’s beak glinted silver in every flash of lightning.
A ship, followed by a dragon. This couldn’t be real. Dragons didn’t exist. This was Brisbane for god’s sake, not some fantasy realm in a Peter Jackson movie. Brisbane. It was beautiful, yes, but it was a town pretending to be a city, in a country that was little more than a puffed-up island. Dragons and flying ships did not belong here.
Kiera’s feet moved while her mind struggled to catch up. She raced to the foyer and groaned. She rolled her eyes as the light for the elevator remained dark.
No power, moron.
She headed for the fire escape doors. In the back of her mind, she felt Aunt Em’s panic, but there was a dragon and a flying ship. There was no way she was staying inside.
She could deal with the lecture later. Better to beg forgiveness then be denied the adventure.
The three flights down took far too long. Breathing hard, Kiera pushed into the ground-floor foyer and ran to the glass door.
“What is this company’s obsession with glass?”
She looked out at the water rolling down the hill, easily ankle deep by now. Taking one last glance down at her boots, she shrugged and pushed open the door.
Sound boomed against her ears. It was incredible how much a few sheets of glass could muffle the rage and rush of nature. Stranded cars were pushed out of their spaces, starting to drift down the street.
“Okay, a little more than ankle deep.”
She turned left, up the hill, keeping as close to the building as possible. Water sloshed into the tops of her boots, soaking through the bottom of her pants. It was deeper further out, and the idea of what could be lurking beneath made her shiver more than the cold water. The force of the rain kept her face pointed toward the rough, red brick.
She turned at the edge of the building and headed to where the impossible thing had fallen past her view.
She hadn’t believed it. She had hoped, but not truly believed.
“Did I hope it was true, or hope I was crazy?” she muttered, as she kept moving forward.
Who says you can’t be both?
A small laugh made her stop in her tracks. She shook her head. The voice was just her imagination, and ignoring it was the best way to get rid of it again, just like the therapist advised. Besides, it was the least of the day’s craziness, the least of her current concerns.
There, between her office and the river, was a boat like nothing Kiera had seen before. It had no sails, and the wood looked frail and old, ready to collapse at the next onslaught of rain, and yet it still stood, the same color of ancient wood she associated with the trees at the botanical gardens. It seemed to throb, like it had a heartbeat. Kiera rolled her eyes, because she wasn’t poetic, and a ship couldn’t pulse. It was just the persistent rain warping her perception. Still, how had a ship this size gotten in the middle of the road?
But then there was the dragon, an entirely different sight to behold.
Its head swayed back and forth, its scales a gem green, jade or emerald, nothing at all like her friendly purple stress ball. She had been wrong in her initial appraisal of its size. It was large enough to have carried several riders on its back, though she doubted it would allow it, even if she could imagine them clinging to the thick vines that scattered it’s back.
Through the haze of rain, the dragon looked like a twisted sculpture made from roots and vines, earthy greens and browns, with a sharp bark and a sharper bite. The dragon snuffed air from its nostrils. Dirt washed from its head, turning the rivulets of rain cloudy like a weak cup of tea. Two horns, the grey of a paperbark tree, sprouted thorns like rose stems as they curved up and back from its head. The horn on the tip of its nose reminded Kiera of a triceratops.
Wings flicked and snapped at the rain and air. Between the bones of the wings, lit from behind by the flashes of lightning, draped the sheer greenness that had reminded Kiera of the leaves of weeping willows. Up close, the membrane looked far more delicate, though she doubted it would be.
When it slammed its tail down, the ground trembled and drops of water pelted all around it.
Is this what earthquakes feel like?
Kiera froze, even in her coldness, as her eyes met the dragon’s. Large, black ovals, shining as though it could see into and through her in the space between heartbeats.
Movement beneath the dragon pulled Kiera’s attention unwillingly away from its investigation of her. There, waving a staff over seven feet long, fire raging from the end of it, stood a man with salt and pepper curls on his head. He was large, with broad shoulders and a dirty, brown trench coat that flapped in the wind, whipping around his body. His boots were a baggy looking brown leather halfway up his legs, a mere shade lighter than his pants. His lower face was covered in a grizzled bead.
Kiera choked back the laughter.
“Oh my god. It’s a bloody dragon-fighting pirate.”
There’s a problem with that?
All thoughts of laughter left Kiera as she ignored the re-shattering of her mind and studied the man closer. Something else was wrong. Kiera looked down at her own feet and back to the man’s.
“Bloody hell, the water ain’t touching him.”
She was certain the voice in her mind was giving her a slow clap.
The man’s hand that wasn’t waving the flaming staff, rested on the hilt of what could only be a sword—an actual freaking sword. Through the haze of the relentless rain, the flames on the staff looked as though they burned a thin, watery violet.
How did it still burn? How was he dry?
Kiera’s eyes blurred as she looked for something to explain, to answer her questions. She bounced her attention back and forth between dragon and man, unsure which was more intriguing to her.
There was a thick blackness on the dragon’s front claws that washed away like the dirt on its face. The watery rivers glinted a stained pink. Kiera’s breath caught in her throat as the tainted water touched her boots
It’s not dirt.
“Is it blood?”
The voice was mercifully silent as bile rose, burning the back of Kiera’s throat.
She turned back to the pirate; anything was better than the blood. His mouth moved, but the words were lost in the downpour and wind, snatched away from her hearing.
He inched closer to the dragon. The river rushed beside them, rising as the water from the street flowed in past Kiera’s ankles, the roar of it adding to the overall chaos.
Kiera’s breath was heavy from her open mouth, the sound too loud in her ears. Movement flickered to the man’s left. He had a companion. She was tall and leather-clad, with short-cropped, dark red hair. If the man saw her, he made no indication. Instead, he took his hand off the hilt of the sword and reached toward the dragon.
Time slowed, and for the smallest of moments, the idea of suspended time flashed through Kiera’s thoughts. But nothing could control time. Not even a dragon, surely.
Still, in that moment, Kiera pondered. Would the dragon meet the man, push his snout into the outstretched hand, like a cat might with their owner?
Then the man’s companion moved.
With a screech, the dragon pulled back from the man’s touch.
The man’s scream came too late. The companion froze, caught in the dragon’s stare.
Kiera watched as the dragon snuffled and moved with speed that defied its bulk. Front claws, vine-twisted, snapped forward. It reminded Kiera of a movie she had watched as a child with a man who snatched flies out of the air. She’d forgotten the name of it, and that thought itched at the back of her mind. Insane that anything could distract even the smallest part of her thoughts.
But then her thoughts stopped dead in their tracks. The dragon effortlessly plucked the companion, Winger, from her feet and shook her like a ragdoll, tearing flesh with its claws, breaking bones with the force it swung her around, then tossed her aside. Kiera wished she had blinked. That would have been all it took to miss this horror.
Red rain burst forth. Winger’s lifeless body dropped unceremoniously on the ground in front of the dragon. The beast snarled before it jammed the claws on its wings into the asphalt, cratering the road, and pushed itself off from the ground. The gust of air forced Kiera back toward the wall as the dragon flapped its wings and took off.
The glass of the office building cracked and exploded inwards as the dragon’s wings beat air at them. Someone was going to be red-faced explaining that one.
A bubble of nervous laughter caught in Kiera’s chest, the pain gaining momentum, until the wind from the beating wings forced her down to the ground. The rain grew heavier, louder, and fiercer.
Water soaked through her clothes and flooded over into the tops of her boots once more. She looked up just in time to see the dragon fading into an unidentifiable speck. The green light that had come over the world when the storm began receded as the dragon disappeared into the distance.
It was so fast.
The man’s voice boomed like thunder, but the words, if they were words, didn’t translate as adrenaline spiked in her veins.
Her instinct for flight finally kicked in. She pushed herself back to her feet. Her knees stung as water seeped into the myriad of grazes beneath her pants.
Kiera turned to run back inside, but stopped dead in her tracks when a body floated by. It looked like that of another warrior, being carried through the currents of the receding flood waters. She wanted to run, but she was frozen. The large man ran towards her, his voice still booming, screaming at her in words her brain could not put together.
It didn’t make sense. None of it made sense. Kiera backed up against the wall of the building so hard a piece of mortar stabbed into her palm.
Blood, that’s real. Pain, that’s also real.
The man reached for the body, holding onto it before it could be washed away.
“Wake up girl and help me!”
Bile touched the back of her tongue. The rain lulled to a soft mist.
“Help me!” he roared.
Kiera looked around.
You idiot. Who else could he be talking to?
“Who else would I be talkin’ to?” His voice rumbled in harmony with the storm ebbing away. “I need ‘er out the rain. Me ship’s too far away.”
“Not for long if you keep stuffin’ about. Now. Help. Me!”
She knew when not to argue. Well, maybe not all the time, but right now, she was at a loss to find words at all.
Following his directions, she grabbed the girl by her knees and helped carry her into the lobby of the office. Kiera’s stomach roiled each time she looked at the girl’s face, images of the redhead being crushed in the dragon’s claws repeating in her mind. They could have been sisters with the same short, cropped hair and sharp cheekbones. With the mix of water, blood and mud smeared through it, Kiera couldn’t even be certain of the color.
They laid the body on the white-tiled foyer floor. The stark contrast between it and the dirty appearance of the woman caused a small pulse of pain behind Kiera’s right eye. She winced and the man, a head taller than Kiera, took off his brown trench coat to lay it over the girl’s body, up to her neck.
Kiera began to tremble.
He shoved a small round wafer into her hand. “Eat this.”
She placed it on her tongue. In moments, her body didn’t just feel warm, but dried, her clothes following suit with the heat from her body.
“Well, that’s handy.”
“It ain’t handy; it’s necessary.” He jerked his head toward the door next to the elevator. “What’s back there?”
“You mean the carpark?”
“Good.” He disappeared back out the front door, leaving Kiera alone with a strange and damaged woman who might or might not actually be dead.
A woman Kiera was too scared to touch again.