Sora sat in the back, as far away from the window as she could get. The stone floor was cold as ice, but it didn't hurt her.
Around her everyone was bustling, shouting. Plates fell to the floor every few minutes and brooms swept in to clean up the mess and knock legs along the way. Sora huddled away from the madness.
It was all a lot of stress. Why have a giant feast for a night filled with terror? Why stress out cooking, when you were already stressed trying to keep your children safe? They treated it like some sort of stupid holiday. And Sora, the nine-year-old hiding in a corner covered in rags, was their Santa Claus.
She shifted her bare feet against the floor, ignoring the grit rubbing against her toes. They’d clean her up later anyway. For their holiday. The one she had to provide.
The servants glanced at her as they swept by, but everyone was too busy to notice her. Some great hero, she thought bitterly.
The doors to the dining hall swept open, and Sora’s mother stormed in, already barking orders.
Sora scooted back, being careful to make sure there wasn’t a tapestry or something behind her. She didn’t want to be seen. She wanted to sulk in peace before her ‘big moment’.
“Chop up the onions! Clean the geese! Flambe the pudding! WHERE’S SORA??”
Sora jumped and scuttled back farther, trying to make herself as small as possible. Her heart was pounding. Don’t see me, don’t see me, don’t see me… she prayed.
“SORA!” Her mother swooped in. “What are you doing here?” She hovered there, breathing heavily, careful to stay several feet away from her daughter. She glared into her eyes. “Why don’t you do as you’re told?”
Because I don’t have to obey, Sora thought, with an unexpected stab of venom. Why should I? You can’t control me. I could kill you here if I wanted to, as easily as breathing. I could kill everyone.
She blinked. Where had that thought come from? She didn’t want to kill anyone. She never, ever even wanted to hurt someone.
Except for the dragons, I guess.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I came upstairs for a little bit to get a snack.”
Her mother knew that was a lie, but she didn’t press her.
“Hmmm,” she said, giving her the evil eye. “You need to get downstairs to get ready. No more fooling around.” Then she was off, barking orders, back into the hurricane. Sora watched her go. She would never be in a crowd. She would never hug someone, or dance, or hold hands, or touch someone. She couldn’t, without burning them.
She sighed. Well. It is what it is. She stood, pushing off the wall and moving forwards to the staircase.
The effect was immediate. The crowd parted like water, the message rippling down from person to person.
She could hurt you.
She’s a monster.
Sora tried to make herself as small as possible as she moved through the crowd. She was careful not to tread on someone’s shoes or walk too close to the wood tables. She could feel her heat brushing over everyone.
Monster. She felt sick.
Once she was through, she hurried down the Sora-proof stairs with relief. No more staring eyes, no more people. She was safe, at least for now.
Twilight was falling outside. The sky turned a deep purple blushing with pink. Tiny white stars were beginning to sprinkle across the dark clouds. She gazed out the window. Out there were the dragons. Out there was the danger, the threats.
Tonight I get to kill them…
She jumped and looked down to her hands. Her fingers were curling inwards dangerously, as though picturing a knife handle in her palm. She shuddered violently and continued down the hall a little faster than before.
Tonight was the night of the Hunt, and Maren was scared.
Her heart was pounding. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want anyone to die. She wanted to live, spread her scaly wings and fly.
That is if we survive tonight. She sighed, shifting uncomfortably. Beside her Abungu gave her a reassuring look.
“Don’t worry,” he said gently. “We’ll make it through. It’s just for one night.” He put on a brave face.
She nodded nervously. “Yeah.”
They’d been put on runner duty, along with Glyn and Chrysanthe. A lot of help was needed to guard the tribe. They were the fastest.
She took a deep breath, squirming and sinking her claws into the soil. She’d been around for the Hunt for years. This time just felt so much more… dangerous. Worrying.
I have more to lose, she thought, glancing over at Abungu. His handsome face was focused straight ahead, his eyes clear and sharp. She wished she had that kind of confidence.
Just one night, she reminded herself. Just one night and just one huntress.
She pushed aside the image of the murderous little girl with a shudder and focused instead on guarding. Right. The moon was high and it wouldn’t be long now. An owl hooted quietly in the distance, and the gentle splash of a brook trickled nearby.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
Maren’s head shot up. She raised her snout to the air and saw the others doing the same.
Stillness. Darkness. And yet she had the creeping feeling that there was something there that hadn’t been there a minute ago.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
The tribe is safe. She tried to ignore the pounding of her heart. The clearing stank with fear.
Snap. Snap. Scrrrape.
Her breathing was fast and shallow. Chrysanthe swallowed and raised her spear. Abungu glanced at Maren. His eyes were serious and he looked calm, but she could smell the fear radiating from him. He reached over and took her talon, squeezing tightly for a moment before he let go.
Scrrrape. Scrrrape. Scrrrrrraaapppeee.
And the tiny figure appeared at the mouth of the woods, burning red and gold. Her dark hair was tangled with twigs. Her eyes were full of fire.
Maren’s muscles tensed as she got ready to run. That was their job. Run and lead the Huntress away from the tribe.
The Huntress stood there for a moment, swaying slightly, studying them. Then a slow smile spread over her mouth and she leaped across the clearing.
Glyn shrieked as she slammed into him, burns already spreading over his scales. His eyes met theirs in horror.
“RUN!” he screamed.
It was too dark to see anything, but Maren grabbed Abungu’s talon and bolted. Somewhere behind them she heard the rest of the guard flapping frantically. A snarl came from across the clearing.
Maren looked back only once, fleeting and over her shoulder. The Huntress stood there outlined in red, her eyes glowing. Her face was full of menace.
Maren shuddered and turned to run into the night.
Sora didn’t know what happened on the night of the Hunt, but when she woke up, she was covered in blood.
She was on the floor, half-naked and spilling red over the stone. Slowly she sat up, her head throbbing.
What happened? she thought. She couldn’t remember anything that had gone on. She’d killed… but how many?
Something flashed through her brain: her hands, curled around white shells blackening to gray. An oddly human scream. A pale blue dragon looking at her with horror in her green eyes.
“Sora?” There was a light tap on the door. “Are you awake?” Without waiting for an answer, her mother bustled in.
“Congratulations!” she cried. “Twelve adults dead, seven dragonets, and-” she lowered her voice dramatically, “seventeen eggs! Sora, darling, you get better each year.”
Sora’s heart thudded. “Seventeen?”
“About that. It was hard to tell since everything was ash.”
Sora winced as another image struck her- running through the trees behind two of the adults--one, the pale blue dragon from before; the other, a silvery green male. She’d killed their friend, she remembered. The purple female behind them.
“They’re all- dead?” she tried. The words tasted strange on her tongue. “All of them?”
“You should feel very proud,” her mother said happily. “Such a gift you have! You’re so lucky we have you, love.” She smiled at Sora.
“You let me kill seventeen unhatched eggs?” She stumbled away from her mother and towards the window. She felt odd.
“But why?” she asked quietly. “Why do you make me do this, every year?”
“Otherwise they slaughter us,” her mother said, watching with a puzzled expression. “It’s for our own good.”
“But not theirs.”
“Well-” She laughed, uncomfortably. “Well, no. But we-” She couldn’t even finish. There was no good answer. But we matter more? But our lives are more important?
“Not anymore,” Sora said in that soft voice, still staring outside. “I won’t do this anymore.” She felt strange, unattached. She wasn’t sure she was herself right now.
“What?” Her mother bristled and dropped her friendly air. “Of course you will. Don’t be ridiculous, Sora.” She shook her head and turned away.
“I won’t do it,” Sora said again, still soft. “I won’t kill them anymore.”
The force of their eyes on her- green as leaves, golden as the sun, beautiful and warm and intelligent and terrified. She wasn’t going to take the life away from those eyes anymore.
“Yes you will,” her mother snapped. “You have no choice. This is your duty to your people and your mother. You have to.”
“You can’t make me.” Sora turned slowly to look at her. “There’s nothing you can say.”
Her mother showed her teeth, but their was worry in her eyes. “You know you have to do this for your people and your family. It’s… your duty.”
“Not anymore.” Sora growled. She turned as if to walk away.
“YES!’ she shrieked. “YES, you will!” She surged towards her daughter as if she was going to grab her arm then jerked back at the last moment, rubbing at her smooth, unburned skin. Fury rose up in Sora at that perfect skin. Look at her, touching anything she wanted because it didn’t crumple into ash. Look at her, moving anywhere she wanted because she knew nothing would catch on fire. How DARE she, Sora thought with cold fury.
Time to go, she thought.
Sora could see her future far from it all. In the mountains she’d pray for forgiveness. Over the sea she’d call out to the birds and swim through salt. Across the dunes she’d trek and relish the feeling of being somewhere where burning was normal.
Let them fight together, she thought. Let the village here burn. Let the dragons be free again and let me make up for what I did someday.
She knew that was the fire monster in her talking, but she didn’t really care.
Sora walked out of the room without looking back.
Maren sat in the hut, holding onto Abungu’s talon gently as he breathed. She tried not to look as horrified as she felt, but someone kept coming up and putting a blanket on her anyway.
It could have been worse, she reminded herself, because she knew it was true. Abungu’s wings could have been scorched, or his throat burned out instead of his tail. He could have lost all his claws one by one. Or- worst of all…
Maren shuddered and didn’t allow herself to think about it or the nightmarish night from before. The woods had been alive with the smell of smoke and hints of red-gold flames poking through the trees. She and Abungu had been chased for miles through the dark woods, unable to see anything but each other. She reminded herself they were luckier than so many others. Her claws stirred in the water Abungu’s arm was soaked in. Like poor Glyn… And all those eggs.
Maren took a deep breath and looked down to her beloved again. She wasn’t going to let him see her afraid. He needed her. She had to help him learn to fly again without the weight of his tail to guide him. She had to stick with him through the darkest parts. And… when the Hunt rolled around again…
Don’t think about it.
Maren knew her future with Abungu was going to be beautiful. They just had to get through the bad, that was all.
But the next time Maren saw that little girl…
She growled low in her throat.
She’d better run.