After the collapse of civilization Nora and her family live a quiet life in the Midwestern Plains until a great fiery god of the sky descends and makes her an irresistible offer—an offer that will take her away from those she loves forever. “Dragons of Tomorrow” is a standalone story by the author of the Stranje House series, available now from Tor Teen.
Earth, Midwestern Plains
The gods circle high above us in a never-ending ring of fire. Winged creatures that occasionally shimmer into view as if we mortals only deserve a fleeting glimpse of their majesty. Be they dragons, angels, or demons. No one knows. People have argued the question for more than a decade.
My brother and I tiptoe through the grassy plains, hunting. “Nora!” He tugs on my cloak. I turn and see terror whitening his features. “Look.” He points to the sky. A streak of golden flame blazes earthward toward us.
“Run,” I shout, and shove him ahead of me. “Run!”
We dash across the prairie, heedless of snakes and rabbit holes. Poisonous fanged creatures are nothing compared to the sure-death bearing down on us, a creature who can scorch the skin from our backs in a single breath, or inhale and suck all the oxygen from the air only to soar away and leave our lungs collapsed.
My younger brother runs faster than he has ever run before, his legs blur as he whips through the tall grass. Our quivers and arrows clatter against our backs as we leap small rocks and juke around bushes.
Stop! The command thunders in the air, not actual words, but an unmistakable impression so forceful the ground shakes. Stop!
But we do not stop. No. We keep running, heading straight for a rock outcropping about a hundred meters away. If we get there, we might be able to squeeze into the cracks and hide. The sky flares with hot light. Any minute we’ll be roasted alive.
This time the ground doesn’t shudder beneath our feet. It is a less terrifying command. The dragon wants something. I slow, realizing the creature will overtake us long before we reach the rocks. We aren’t going to make it. Not together. But if I distract it, my brother might be able to make it to safety.
“Keep going,” I gasp to Robbie. “I’ll buy you some time.”
My feet thud to a stumbling halt. These are my last minutes of life. I crouch, gathering my breath. What is this thing, time, that we humans value it so highly? We will trade everything to hold on to one more minute, one more day. What are thirty more years, I wonder, when I have already had sixteen? Thirty years are nothing to the creatures stalking us. It is said they live for centuries.
Robbie casts a desperate backward glance. I wave him on, still stooped catching my breath. The beast hovers above me, fanning the air with its massive wings.
I wheeze to my captor, “What do you want?”
The massive being alights on the ground with the grace of a butterfly landing on a rose petal. The earth does not split open. The grass barely stirs, but the creature burns so hot and white I must shade my eyes with my arm.
I’ve heard tales that looking directly at one of them will melt a man into a charred puddle. This is the end of me anyway, so I dare to look, blinking as I strain to peer into the brightness. “What are you?” I whisper to myself, knowing the answer will not be given. Long ago people stopped asking. Once upon a time, our bravest journalists and scientists dared to investigate. Those who survived, returned home with broiled metal lumps that were once recorders and cameras, but with no answers. The dragons did not speak to them.
I picture scraps of my shoes and clothes poking out of the molten heap of my flesh. My brother is safe in the rocks now. I pray he will hide his eyes. I do not want him to watch me die.
What am I? The dragon’s question blows against my face like a scalding summer wind.
Is this a riddle? Is he insulted that his victim dares to ask his identity? The earth bumps beneath my feet. If he has claws, I think he must’ve tapped the ground. A wave of fear rushes through me and I hunch down awaiting his wrath.
Nothing happens, except I sense impatience. Curse him—he expects me to answer.
I hesitate. “Are you a dragon?” I try to peek at him, but the blaze is still too bright.
Myth? His response ripples through the air forcing me to take a step back. You think me a flying lizard? Its angry roar rumbles through my innards, joggling my balance, confusing me.
Not a dragon, then. A fiery angel? But I dare not suggest another wrong answer.
Once again an impatient thump jolts the ground. I want to run away, or rush at the monster and pummel it with my useless fists. Since both would be futile, I cross my arms tight and clam up. My silence does not appease him. He must enjoy playing with his prey.
What am I? he demands again.
I hate it when people ask questions they already know the answer to. If I were a humbler, wiser person, I might flatter him and say a god. Instead, I cover my eyes, jut out my chin, and defy this creature. He plans to roast me alive anyway. “A demon?”
He flaps his wings.
The gust knocks me over and sends me rolling like an insignificant pill bug. Tumbling backward. I think of our lost cities, of charred mounds of steel and plastic that were once televisions, or cars, or buses. I remember the rubble heaps these creatures made of our skyscrapers, our entire civilization burned to ash. Those memories force me into humility. I uncurl, but remain on my hands and knees. “I’m sorry.”
What are you? His new question flows up from the ground around me and hums through me with curious vibrations, almost as if he doesn’t already know the answer. Almost. He knows.
“Human. Flesh and blood,” I answer through gritted teeth. “And bone.” Don’t forget bone. That will be the only part of me that remains when this ordeal is over.
Is that all?
Is he mocking me? “Isn’t that enough?” Wind smacks me again, this time I fight the gale and struggle to my feet. “All right! There is more. Lots more. We have feelings and thoughts. Hopes and dreams. We love each other. And . . .”
And you hate each other.
“Yes, sometimes,” I admit. “But there’s more to it than that.” How can I explain the part of me that is so utterly undefinable? The dragon waits while I struggle to find the right words. “There is something deep inside. Something we know nothing about.”
But you know something about it, don’t you?
I shake my head. Arrows in my quiver rattle against my back. “No. No one does. It is a mystery.”
Do not lie! Wind rushes against my face, blowing my hair back as if I stand in the middle of a fierce storm.
I shout into the gusting air. “What would you know about it? You’re not human.” My fists knot at my sides. “How can you possibly know what lies inside of us.” I shiver and step back. It occurs to me that maybe they taste our essence when they kill us. Does it have a flavor, the thing that lies in the depths of man? When we die, does that indefinable part of us rise up and perfume their faces? Does it stink, or is it sweet?
You can see me.
“I can’t. You know I can’t.” It’s true, and yet I try squinting through my fingers. I see nothing but a churning mass of blinding light. “What do you want?”
Wind whirls around me, stinging me with sparks as hot as embers from a campfire. Suddenly I feel naked, as if the creature can actually see into my depths.
How long have you known? His question gusts across the prairie, bending the grass sideways.
“What do you mean?”
Annoyed with me, his response shakes the ground. How long have you known about what lives inside you?
The essence of man is an arguable point. Mankind has debated it for centuries, but I doubt the dragon trapped me here on the plains to discuss philosophy. “I don’t know.” I shrug. “Maybe forever.”
The creature draws back and I risk looking again. Something glimmers inside the brightness, something . . . magnificent.
And strangely familiar.
Forever. In a burst of light, that one word pours over me, drenching my being, splashing out across the plain, rushing to fill the vast open space—so full I can hardly breathe.
I am forever, the creature explains. That is what I am.
I shake my head. “Doesn’t make sense,” I murmur. “You don’t understand. Forever is a measurement of time.” Perhaps the creature needs a dictionary.
He ignores me. You are one of us.
Now he is being even more absurd. I laugh. I don’t mean to laugh. It just bursts out of me. Nor do I intend to scoff, but he’s asking for it. “Me? One of you?” I hold out my skinny arms, turning them every which way. “I see no wings.”
I glance over my shoulder at the boulders to make sure my brother is still hiding, and exhale with relief.
Your brother is one of us, too.
“My brother? You mean the little kid who fled from you in terror?” The one watching us from the rocks. Not likely.
The beast rustles. Its blinding light expands. Either the creature intends to fly, or it is puffing up in order to blast me with flames. The earth shakes. My hands fly out to keep my balance. Little good that will do when the earth opens up to swallow me. There’s nothing out here to cling to except for grass and a few small stones.
“What are you?” I shout my question again. I’ve nothing to lose. Whether I live or die, I want to know why the dragons have driven us out of the cities. Why they terrorize us. Why they haunt the skies.
We are not dragons. Stones beside my feet tremble and rattle. The ground shakes so hard I fall. The boulders! Robbie will be crushed. I whip around to check if the outcropping is collapsing.
“No!” I thrust my hand skyward, warding off the rising creature.
The ground immediately settles, but my palm feels as if it exploded. I cup it against my chest, hoping the tingling will stop. As soon as the beast soars away, I inspect it. The flesh on my hand is hot to the touch, reddened, but not burnt.
Robbie comes tearing out of his hiding place, and the two of us run all the way home. We burst into the kitchen, where our mother has a fire going and the stewpot bubbling. Without looking up she asks, “Did you catch a rabbit?” Catch—she can never bring herself to say the word kill. I’m too winded to answer, but Robbie rushes to the other side of her worktable. “Nora talked to one of the dragons!”
“They’re not dragons, not exactly.” I don’t know why I said that, don’t know if it’s even true. They may very well be the dragons of myth. Maybe thousands of years ago these same creatures came and left, and that’s where the whole idea of dragons started, I don’t know.
Mama plunks her knife down beside a heap of carrots and turns to stare at me. “You did what?”
Robbie scampers around to her, his mouth rattling nonstop. “I’m telling you, Ma. She talked to one of ’em—a huge dragon. She made me hide in the rocks but I peeked out and saw her. The thing was gigantic.” He throws his arms wide, but still not wide enough to describe the breadth of the creature.
“Don’t talk nonsense, Robbie.” Mama picks up the knife and goes back to chopping. Chop, chop, chop, her jaw grinding, then she bangs down the knife again. “No one has ever talked to one of those monsters and lived.”
“But it’s true! I saw her.” Robbie smacks his hands against the worktable. “Tell her, Nora! Tell her what happened.”
“What’s he talking about?” Mama glances sideways at me, eyes narrowed, and I know she doesn’t really want to hear about it. It’ll only make her more scared than she already is.
Even if she wanted to know, how would I explain it to her? The dragons, or whatever they are, don’t talk—not like humans anyway. “I don’t know.”
Robbie’s face squeezes up as if I’ve pinched him. “I saw you.”
“I’m not sure what happened.” This is half true, half a terrible lie. Those few moments with the beast on the plains are scorched into my memory as surely as if the creature had seared the skin from my body. His words, you are one of us, still throb in my head.
Mama goes to the fire to toss the carrots into the kettle, and I follow her, scraping my feet against the dirt floor. “Don’t do that,” she scolds automatically.
I stop scuffing. “One of them chased us, and I knew we wouldn’t both get away. So, I thought maybe if I distracted it—”
“Nora!” She drops onto a stool by the fireplace. “You little fool. You could’ve been killed. I swear, you’re as reckless as your father.”
“If I hadn’t stopped, that thing would’ve gotten us both.” I feel disrespectful calling it a thing. It’s much more than that, but I don’t know what else to call it.
Mama hunches over, holding her shaking head in both hands. “I hate them. I hate those horrid beasts.” Curled up like a turtle, she lets fly a string of murmured curses. “Why can’t they just go away and leave us alone.” She sits bolt upright and smashes both fists against her thighs, glaring at me as if . . .
As if I am one of them.
“How did you escape?”
I shrug. “It let me go.”
“Told you.” Robbie snags a morsel of carrot left on the worktable. “She talked to it.”
Mama looks scared, like she thinks I’m some kind of freak, or a diamondback rattler snaking across her floor. Any minute she’ll take a broom to me. The only way I’m getting out of this is to change the subject. “Do you need help with supper?”
Mama stands and wipes her palms against her apron. “Guess this means there is no meat for the pot. I suppose you may as well go out and pull up another potato.”
We’ve come home empty-handed before and she never added an extra spud to the stew. This is tantamount to killing the fatted calf, a celebration that both her children are alive. Leastwise, we’re alive today. I guess that’s worth celebrating. On my way to the garden, I look up. Rings of fire still blaze through the atmosphere. Ever present. Ever watching.
Carefully, I dig the earth beneath a cluster of bright green leaves and locate a bulge that promises a fist-size potato. Unearthing it, I snap off the root, making sure to replant the other tubers. After all that running today, I’m guessing Robbie will be extra hungry. I’ll bet he could eat this entire potato by himself.
Your brother is one of us, too.
I don’t like riddles. Robbie can’t possibly have anything to do with those creatures. He watches me from the doorway, brooding, with his arms crossed, and a pout a mile long. I hold up the plump red potato and smile. He isn’t impressed. “Traitor,” he mutters as soon as I’m near enough to hear. “Why didn’t you tell her the truth?”
“If I knew what that was, exactly, I might’ve said something. All I do know is it’ll be dark soon.” I brush past him. “I better help Mama with dinner.”
We eat in dusky silence. Robbie is usually a chatterbox but tonight he’s sulking. The sunset glows as red as the dying embers in the fire. That means it’ll be fair weather this evening. I decide to make peace with my little brother. “I’ll stand your watch tonight.”
“Fine.” He carries his empty bowl to the basin and goes to his cot to read. We light one candle and only allow it to burn long enough for us to do the washing up. Mama dresses for bed in the darkness, and I strap on my bow and climb the ladder up to the roof.
I try to recall what the night sky used to look like without trails of fire streaking across the blackness of space. I’ve no recollection. Tonight there are numerous fire rings. Even if there weren’t, the stars are so plentiful and the moon so bright, that the prairie glows like silver. A perfect night for thieving. I sit in a perch atop the roof watching for marauders, or coyotes wanting to pick off one of our chickens. All kinds of hungry outcasts roam the plains at night. Some of them are robbers coming from a village where they have failed to grow enough food and must steal to survive.
We’ve only one law left in this melted down world. There are no more presidents or governors, no more armies or capitals; all that remains is one simple law. The penalty for thievery is death. The reason is obvious. A stolen pig may mean the difference between a family surviving the winter or starving. Trouble is, there’s no one to carry out the law this far from a settlement. So, we take turns standing guard. One strategically placed arrow is usually enough of a deterrent to man and beast.
Up here, I can see for miles, and it always amazes me how alone we are. Dad thought it would be safer this way. He might have been right, but it is lonely. I’ve only Mama and Robbie to talk to and sometimes that grows thin.
I watch the guardians circle the sky and wonder if they have any notion what it is like to be alone and vulnerable. We used to go to school, back when we had a horse to carry us fifteen miles to the nearest settlement, and a father to watch over things while we were gone. Those days are over. Dad and the horse disappeared two years ago. Mama insists thieves got him. I don’t know, sometimes I wonder if he just went to find out what’s happening in the rest of the world. He might come back one of these days. That’s why I don’t shoot thieves in their vital parts. It might be our dad returning home without his horse.
I hunt the night sky for stars I recognize, for constellations my dad taught me. I find Hercules first, and in the Milky Way, there’s Deneb, the bright star inside Cygnus, the swan. It’s hard to see the stars tonight because there are so many dragon trails. One in particular swoops over the plains where Robbie and I hunt and then wheels back up into the heavens.
What must it be like to fly like that? To sail through the air so fast it leaves behind a stream of fire. If I could fly like that, I would soar over the earth and search to see if my dad is out there somewhere missing us, the way we miss him. Mama is never happy anymore. And Robbie, well, he needs someone to show him how to grow into a man. I do my best to teach him how to hunt and shoot the bow, but I’m a girl, what do I know about a man’s feelings or thoughts? Sometimes I tell him things I can remember about our dad, but that’s the best I can do.
I scramble to my feet.
Trouble is coming.
The low-flying creature that’s been circling the plains heads straight for me. I can’t climb down and run fast enough to lure it away from the house. I’d never get down the ladder in time. I brace myself in the rooftop perch, nock an arrow into place and draw back the bow. I’ve no idea whether an arrow will do any good or not. I expect not, but it’s all I have.
The sudden brightness blinds me. I duck, my arrow slips and flies into the creature.
You would do better to save your arrows for quail. The creature alights quietly beside me. No shaking. No scorching. Still, I worry he’ll catch the roof on fire. What are you doing? He asks this as casually as if we are friends meeting along the road.
“Same thing I usually do. Guarding the house.” I edge back and warn, “You’re going to wake up my family. They’ll come running and—”
They will sleep. A fog, soft as moonlight, drifts from him and flows through our roof. You were watching the stars. I saw you.
“I can do both.” I lean over the railing and spot my arrow in the ground beyond the house. It must’ve flown straight through him.
Sit, it commands, and stretches out on the roof beside my perch, lying back.
“How did you know I was looking at the stars? You were way over there.” I point, tracing with my finger the path he flew over the prairie.
How did you know that was me, and not one of the others?
I shrug. “A guess.”
You knew. Just as I knew you were looking at the stars.
Cool air blows over us and I sit back, staring up at the sky, wondering if I glance sideways at the dragon out of the corner of my eye, I might be able to tolerate the brightness.
I’ve been there, you know. He says this with the stain of melancholy, as if he’s feeling homesick while gazing at the millions of stars glittering above us.
“To a star? Really? Which one?” I point to Sirius, the brightest star in the summer sky. “That one?”
Wind ruffles my hair again. Yes. That one. All of them. Stars you can’t even see yet.
“That’s not possible. It would take a thousand lifetimes to see all that. Maybe more.”
The creature gives no answer.
“If you miss them so badly, what are you doing here? Why don’t you just go?” I wave my fingers at his alluring stars.
The air suddenly fills with a scent that reminds me of late summer roses. Of fading petals. Sweet, but dying. It pierces me with sadness. I turn to him. I don’t care if it blinds me. I want to see why he is grieved. The light is still too bright, but his wing brushes over me. Instead of melting my flesh, it bathes me in warm colors. I am swallowed up by delicious pinks, healing golds, and soothing blues. Starlight dances through my skin, whispering through my blood and bone like wind through a screen.
He folds back his wing, leaving me, and instantly I feel abandoned, as if he has ripped away the one good thing in all the universe. I am left cold. Alone.
We came for you.
“For me?” I step back, remembering the destruction and how those of us who survived ran away from the cities in terror. “Why?”
We do not abandon our own.
“My brother and me?”
And others. We watch over you.
“That can’t be true.” Tears burn at the corner of my eyes. I don’t understand any of this. I have not cried since my father left us. I never cry, and yet I feel hot moisture trailing down my cheeks. “You’re lying! You’re not here for me. You’re not here for any of us. You made our lives harder. We were happier before you came. Things were better then.”
“Yes!” Except I don’t know if that’s true. I can’t remember much about life before the dragons came. I was only five. Wind chafes my cheeks, rustling my cloak, making it flap. I’m grateful he doesn’t roar or shake the house, even though I can tell I’ve annoyed him.
“All right. I don’t really know if it was better,” I confess. “I do know it was easier. At least we had our dad, and Mama was happy back then.”
We dispersed your cities, burnt off the corruption, and put an end to the tools humans used to destroy each other. We did it to preserve those of you who belong to us.
Three more dragons circle above us. I worry they might arc down and carry me away. “If you’re here because of me and Robbie, you can turn around and go back where you came from. Leave us alone. I don’t need you. Go away. None of us need you.”
He rises—a blazing cyclone of flame atop our feeble roof. I fear the house will cave in or catch fire, but it does neither. It is not good for our kind to be apart. You are part of our clan.
“Your clan doesn’t need me,” I insist. But do I? It startles me to realize that, for the first time since my father left, I don’t feel alone. “There are hundreds of you.”
“Fine. Thousands.” I grip the splintery railing on my lookout. “There are only three left in my family. My mother and brother need me. You don’t.”
We will not leave without you.
There is an odd sense of relief in hearing that. There shouldn’t be, but there is. I will never be entirely alone. Deep inside I rejoice, and a fragrance drifts on the wind. Is it wild jasmine?
Someday you will want to soar with us through the skies and see all the worlds that are.
On that day, you will come with us.
I watch two more dragons making rings of fire in the night sky. I feel a longing that I suppose I’d always known existed, a yearning for something beyond these bones. Instinctively, I realize what it would mean to go with him. When that day comes, I will leave this human shell the way a caterpillar sheds its cocoon. “I won’t be able to come back, will I?”
Why would you want to?
My answer sleeps in their cots beneath us. I can’t bear the thought of making my mother’s sadness worse by abandoning her. “I have to stay here, to protect Robbie and take care of my mother. They’re my family. I love them.”
It is the same reason we must stay and protect you.
He hovers in the air above me, and already I miss his nearness. The moment I admit this to myself, strings of brilliant fiery gold starlight shoot between us. I look past him, to the other dragons circling our earth and soaring amongst the stars. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Cords of fire lace the vast darkness, connecting all of us.
I am one of them.
“Dragons of Tomorrow” copyright © 2016 by Kathleen Baldwin
Art copyright © 2016 by Linda Yan