Chapter 1: "Prey"

I always knew that dragons existed. At least, they were hypothetically real. In my mind, they weren't actually giant, fire breathing lizards. Dragons were supposed to be the elite people who were just born better. Whenever I thought of them, I pictured the wealthy, naturally athletic, and superbly talented individuals who came into this world better than the average idiot. Oddly enough, I wasn't completely wrong in my assumptions.

It seemed that I ended up being wrong enough to be in a pants pissing situation though. My legs went numb, resulting in my being unable to get up from my position on the ground. My eyes went wide at the towering titan before me. I tried to say something, but not even a pathetic whimper could pass through my trembling lips. I desperately gripped at the ground. The fallen leaves of the autumn season crumbled in my fingertips just like my heart was doing in my chest.

The four legged lizard stood over me. Its massive form loomed above me in a way that a human normally looked down at a rabbit. Beautiful white scales shined in the light of the setting sun. Mismatched eyes glared down at me. While the right eye was so blue that it put the sky to shame, the left eye was filled with the green lush of life that had faded from the forest with the arrival of the biting cold of the aging year. Two curved horns stuck out of the top of its skull and pointed down to me as the beast lowered its head to examine me. Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a tail behind the predator but ignored that in favor of focusing on the certain death right in front of my face.

If I was to predict how I would die, it would not be like this. The concept of dying of old age or illness had always been at the front of the possibilities. There were times that I conceived my demise at the hands of another person's stupidity. Of course, there was also the possibility of a self-inflicted end. The thought of being killed because I wanted some quiet time in the woods had never even entered my brain as a possibility.

My day had started out as boring as usual. Wake up. Slug through the morning. Endure boring teachers giving boring lectures on boring subjects. Keep my head down. Try to keep conversations among friends with whom I shared no classes. Try to resist the urge to throw myself through the window for the last few torturous hours of the farce known as the public education system. Spend precious free times with friends until they leave me. Go do something on my own.

Of course, I had the absolutely brilliant idea of resting in the forest. I thought the cool air of the autumn season would ease my aching school induced headache. The variety of colors in the leaves calmed me. Like always when I wanted to be left alone, I moved to the unoccupied section of the woods which always seemed abandoned. Even the animals tended to avoid this part of the forest. In retrospect, I probably should have been suspicious about that, but I've been coming to this spot since I was a kid, and nothing happened.

Enjoying the warmth of my hoodie, I sat down against my favorite tree. Pulling out my notebook from by book bag, I began to doodle. My brain buzzed in pleasure as I let my mind drift away from the restraints of reality. For a few brief minutes, I forgot about every trouble which plagued my life. When my solitude was shattered, I jumped in surprise. A shout of terror almost left my lips.

"I know that you were in the antique room."

My heart felt like it was trying to push its way out of my sternum. Confusion churned in my stomach. Was the deep voice talking to me? Before I could answer, a feminine voice responded to the man, "No I wasn't, Father."

I immediately recognized the female tone. It was a girl at my school. We shared a few classes. Her name was Rebecca or something. She was drop dead gorgeous, but her personality left a lot to be desired. I never said a word to her before and didn't plan on changing that now. She and her dad seemed to be having some sort of conversation on the other side of the tree behind me. Shaking my head, I tried to ignore them, but their strange words piqued my curiosity.

"You didn't cover your tracks very well, Becca," the man stated. "I told you to leave that armor alone. You know that our kind can't wear it. It's dangerous."

The girl seemed to abandon her previous denial, "I'm not planning on putting it on or anything. It's just cool to look at. It's hard to believe that humans made it."

"They are the innovators of this world," the man argued.

"In technology, yes, but they've been so spiritually dead for so long," Rebecca sighed.

"That is their curse. Every evolutionary step which they take leads to them killing each other," the man explained. "That is why we avoid them. Eventually, they'll end up instinct. For the sake of preserving history, we preserve their technology. That's it."

"Shouldn't we try to help them, though?"

"No. They already proved that they do not wish for our help," I could almost hear the man's frown. "You're worrying your mother. Stay out of the antique room. Rid yourself of your fascination of the humans. They do not deserve your compassion."

"But Father—"

"Are you challenging my authority?"

A sudden weight spread through the forest. My muscles tensed without my consent. Thousands of tiny needles seemed to press into every individual nerve in my body. Bile began to creep up my throat. What I could only describe as my base instincts screamed at me to run away from the certain death behind me. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't get my limbs to obey my commands.

"N-No, sir."

"Good."

The weird pressure suddenly went away. I swiftly moved my hands over my mouth to stop the relieved sigh which would have given away my position. Before I could even begin to calm down, the sound of flesh smacking flesh echoed through the previously silent forest. If I wasn't so terrified, I would have felt outraged by the obvious sound of the man smacking his daughter. Pity crawled through my spine as Rebecca released a pained cry.

"I understand that you're young, but you need to learn our rules," the man commanded. "If you keep doing such stupid things, then you'll get yourself killed. The elders are far less lenient than I am. If you speak that way to them without the proper power to back you up, then you'll end up in the combat arena. At best, you'll lose a limb."

"I-I know, Father. I'm sorry."

"I don't care for your apologies. I care about if you learn or not," the man sighed. "I need to head back. You can let loose your little tantrum here. See you tonight, Becca."

My heartbeat finally began to slow down as the man's footsteps began to fade away. This was bad. I probably was not supposed to hear that. Suddenly, the reason this place was abandoned dawned on me. That man most likely owned this land. He seemed pretty sure that absolutely no one was around, even though there were no warning signs or fences to protect his privacy.

Sniffles signaled that Rebecca was beginning to cry. A grimace twitched across my face. Confusion, terror, and plain awkwardness all surged through the forest's atmosphere in the course of five minutes. This had to be the worst situation of my life. I could hear my conscience whispering at me to comfort the sobbing girl. Logic quickly smacked that notion away. Who knew how this girl would react to my arrival? I would be saying how sorry I was that I snuck onto her property and just so happened to see her father abuse her. Yeah, that would go over phenomenally. If she didn't call the cops, then she definitely at least give me a swift kick in the balls.

I should probably wait for her to finish crying before I leave. Stealth was definitely not my specialty. Well, intentional stealth was not my specialty, because I've apparently been accidentally sneaking into someone else's property for years. Grimacing, I tried to ignore the sounds of crying. That was when the trouble started.

Once again, terror flooded through my system when the sobs transition in a roar of rage. It wasn't a woman's scream though. The roar was that of the beast which would soon become my nightmare. What I would soon learn to be a dragon began charging through the area. The cracking noise of the trees around the forest make my bones ache in shadow pain. Soon the heavy footsteps approached the tree which I had my back pressed against. My mind finally realized that I should run.

Not caring about the bag which I placed on the ground beside me, I jumped up to move in a complete sprint away from the monster behind me. Cold sweat rolled down my skin. My lungs burned. Through my panic, I could hear the titan notice me. It caught up to me within seconds, and that was when my legs gave out on me. I flopped down face first onto the dirt before flipping over to finally see the dragon.

It lowered its head down to examine me. Hot breath from its snout washed over my trembling form. My eyes widened in horror as it opened its jaw to show its impossibly sharp teeth. In the back of my mind, I hoped that the first bite would kill me. I really did not want to find out what it would be like to slowly chewed up or swallowed whole. Spending hours being burned away by stomach acid had to be up there in the list of worst ways to die.

"Eli?"

I blinked upon hearing the feminine voice from the dragon. Not only was it sentient, but it knew me. That voice sounded just like the girl from my class too. It couldn't be, "Rebecca?"

"Why…" her eyes narrowed. "You shouldn't be here!"

"I realized that," I could see my face grow ever paler in the reflection of her eyes.

"Go! Get out of here before one my family notices you! Don't look back or tell anyone about this!"

I did not need to be told twice. Rolling away, I broke into a sprint once more. Like she commanded, I did not look back. My eyes could barely focus on anything even as I kept them locked as straight forward as possible. Trees and shrubbery blurred around me. Even as the rural gave way to the concrete urban streets of my town, I did not slow my charge. Only when I burst through the front door of my house to leap up the stairs to my room did I pause finally catch my breath.

Completely drenched in sweat, I had to fight not to fall again. I raised my arms up to stare at my trembling hands. My body tumbled to the bathroom on autopilot. Collapsing to my knees, I flipped up the toilet lid in order to stick my head into the porcelain so that I could safely release the vomit which had been threatening to exit my stomach ever since the horror began. The contents of everything I ate that day violently slid up my throat. Only once I no longer had anything left in my stomach did I move my head up.

Rolling over to sit down, I leaned my head against the toilet paper holder. My eyes slid closed in exhaustion. I heaved out several heavy breaths in order to try to calm myself down. Before I could become anything remotely close to calm, the familiar voice of my mom echoed from the bottom of the stairs.

"Honey! Are you okay?! You tore through here like you were getting chased by a bear!"

A bear? I could deal with that. Compared to a dragon, a bear sounded tame, "I-I'm fine!"

I winced as my voice cracked. Mom seemed to notice this, "You don't sound fine!"

"Um, yeah. You're right. I'm not fine. Y-You see…it had to do with this girl. She, um, shot me down pretty hard. I guess that I, uh, overreacted. Sorry to worry you."

"Oh," understanding laced Mom's voice. "I'm sorry to hear that, sweetheart. Do you want to talk about it?"

"No!" I gasped. "I just want to be alone right now! Please!"

"Well…okay. I understand. Dinner will be ready soon. Do you want me to wrap it in tin foil?"

"No, no," my heart finally began to calm down. "I'm starving. I just need a few minutes."

"Okay, hun."

I listened to Mom step away from the stairs. When she was gone, I placed my hands over my face to silence my screams. After a few moments, I stopped. Lowering my palms, I stared up to the white ceiling. As the base survival instincts of my body finally calmed down, I felt exhausted to the point of wanting to pass out on the bathroom floor. I couldn't do that though. Mom would only get more worried if I collapsed. Plus, I still had to get some of my homework done.

Wait. I left the bag filled with my books and notes in the forest during my escape. This time, I did not smother my yell of frustration. Great. Now I had to deal with that too. I thought about maybe sneaking back to get my books but decided against taking a single step into the woods. Facing my angry teachers was slightly better than confronting a dragon. Only slightly, though.