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Her Elemental Dragons: Stroke the Flame: Chapter 2

KIRA

“Kira?” a friendly voice called out. My best friend, Tash, who worked as a waitress in her father’s inn and tavern. Like most of the people in the Earth Realm, she had dark skin and thick black hair, which she often wore in a braid, and with her cheerful smile she made even the drabbest apron look good. She rushed over to me and gasped. “You poor thing. You’re completely soaked and look like you went mud wrestling with the pigs. Come in out of the cold and we’ll get you something to warm you up.”

“I’m all right,” I said, but it wasn’t very convincing. I’m pretty sure my teeth chattered. “Just need to change my clothes.”

Tash bit her lip, but nodded. “Did you get anything?”

“Yeah.” I handed her the bag with the rabbit. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. Between the elemental attacks on nearby farms and the Black Dragon’s taxes, food was scarce these days. Something Roark reminded us of often.

Her face softened with relief. “Thank the Gods.”

I snorted. “The Gods have abandoned us. Thank me for setting up the traps in advance.”

She chuckled. “Go clean yourself up, you’re tracking mud all over the kitchen. Mother’s going to have a fit.”

I stepped out of the kitchen and into the small room behind it, where I currently lived. Roark, Tash’s father, owned this inn and allowed me to stay here as long as I caught him some game and fetched some herbs and spices from the forest. If I brought something back, I got to eat that night. If not, I didn’t. If I missed two days in a row, he’d beat Tash in punishment. Oh, originally he’d tried to beat me, but I hadn’t cared. I’d suffered much worse before. He soon realized it hurt me more to beat his own daughter, my one true friend.

I’d never missed two days in a row again.

I quickly stripped off my soiled cloak, along with the rest of my hunting leathers, then changed into a simple blue dress with frayed edges. I exchanged my muddy boots for my one pair of dull slippers. Nothing could be done for my wet, crusty hair, which was more brown than red at the moment, but I tried smoothing it down anyway and wiped away the dried dirt.

Once again, I checked myself for any signs of injury, but there seemed to be no lasting damage from my brush with death. Even so, I sank onto the narrow bed and rubbed my eyes with trembling hands, willing the sense of dread to leave me. Between the old woman’s words and the lightning strike, my twentieth birthday was definitely not going as I’d hoped.

After pulling myself together, I returned to the kitchen. Tash herded me into the tavern, to the lone empty table in the corner. “Sit here,” she said. “I’ll fetch you something to eat.”

“Thanks.” I gave her arm a quick squeeze before she slipped away.

The inn was packed with soldiers and travelers trying to avoid the storm, and the air had a humid, musky scent. I quickly scanned the room, but the old lady wasn’t in sight. Perhaps she’d already gone to her room to rest. I ducked my eyes when one of the Black Dragon’s soldiers on duty gave me a stern look. They were always watching from behind their winged helmets and scaled black armor, ready to enforce her rule. The green markings on their shoulders signaled they were in the Earth Realm division of the Onyx Army, under the command of the Jade Dragon.

At the bar, a couple travelers were speaking in hushed tones, but the word “elemental” drifted over to me and caught my attention. I leaned forward, straining to hear the rest.

“Miners dug too deep and angered those big rock elementals,” a man wearing a dark green cloak said. “They smashed up the town pretty good before they were finally driven off.”

“Aren’t the Dragons supposed to deal with those?” another man muttered into his tankard.

A woman with a red scarf around her neck snorted quietly. “They’re too busy collecting taxes and trying to stomp out the Resistance.”

“I saw the Crimson Dragon the other day in the next village over,” another man said, making my back stiffen. “Flying overhead like he was looking for something. Or someone.”

The woman glanced warily at the nearby soldier before whispering, “I heard the Golden one was in Pebbleton a week ago.”

“We never get Dragons this far from Soulspire. Why now?” the first man asked.

The second man downed his drink with a sour look. “The Black Dragon is demanding more tribute than ever before. Her Dragons are there to make sure we obey. Or else.”

Cold fear gripped my throat. If the Dragons were nearby, that meant it was time for me to leave Stoneham. And soon.

I’d seen two Dragons in my life and never wanted to see one again. The screams and smell of burning flesh still haunted my dreams, but Stoneham had been safe so far. I’d been here since I was seventeen, living in the back of the inn that Tash’s family owned while keeping my head down and staying out of trouble. This town was at the very edge of the Earth Realm, far enough away from Soulspire that the Black Dragon and her mates never flew out this far.

Until now.

Tash set down a steaming bowl of rabbit stew and a tankard of mead, along with a small cake she’d decorated with white frosting. “Here you are!”

“What’s this?” I asked, arching an eyebrow at the cake.

“It’s for your birthday, of course. You didn’t really expect me to forget, did you?” She flashed me a warm smile.

“Thank you, Tash.” I hadn’t wanted her to make a big deal about my birthday, but I appreciated that she remembered it. She was the closest thing I had to family, after all.

She bent down and gave me a quick hug. “Happy birthday.”

I hugged her back. “Hey, did you see an older woman come through here with white hair? I stumbled upon her in the forest, but then I lost her.”

“No, but I’ve been in the kitchen all night. Father probably took her up to a room already.”

“I hope so. I don’t like the idea of her being out there alone.” Something about the encounter tugged at my gut with a sense of wrongness, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Tash squeezed my shoulder. “If you didn’t see her out there, then she must be safe inside somewhere. Maybe she’s staying with family in town.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, trying to banish my unease as I took a bite of my cake. “Mm. This is delicious.”

“Of course it is.” She winked, but then was called away to another table. I watched her go and sadness clenched my heart tight. I didn’t want to leave Stoneham. Tash was my best friend, and more than that, she needed me. If I was gone, who would protect her from her father?

Perhaps she would come with me if I left. But no, she would never leave her mother behind. Maybe it was only a coincidence the Dragons had been spotted nearby. Maybe they would never come to Stoneham.

Maybe I didn’t have to run. At least, not yet.

A commotion and a shout at the bar drew my attention. Two of the soldiers hauled the man in the green cloak off his stool and shoved him to the ground, while the woman cried out, “We were just talking! We didn’t mean anything by it!”

I watched with dread, my stomach twisting at the knowledge of what would happen next. I’d seen it before, and no matter how much I wanted to help those people or stop the soldiers, there was nothing I could do. I knew how to defend myself a little, but not against two armored soldiers with swords as long as my arm. The only reason I’d made it this long was by keeping my head down and staying out of trouble. But that didn’t stop me from wishing there was something I could do to stop this.

One of the soldiers grabbed the woman’s wrist and dragged her off the stool too. “Sounds to me like you’re part of the Resistance. Don’t you agree, Ment?”

The other soldier nodded, while a cruel smile touched his lips. “That it does. And we all know how we deal with Resistance scum.”

The cloaked man shook his head vehemently. “We’re not Resistance! We’re loyal to the Black Dragon, I swear it!”

“Tell that to the Spirit Goddess when you see her,” Ment said, as he hauled the man to his feet.

Roark glared at them from behind the bar and rubbed his hands on a towel, but said nothing. The soldiers gave him a nod as they led the two struggling people out of the inn. The door shut, and the entire room froze as a howling scream tore through the sound of the rain, before it was cut short. With grim faces, the other people in the tavern returned to their meals and their conversation, including the other man who’d been talking with the doomed travelers. Maybe we were all cowards, but it was the only way to survive.

I dropped my head as shame and despair battled inside me, along with the keen realization that there was no point in running. No matter where I went, there was no escaping the Dragons or their soldiers.


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