by Brandon Perkins
“What was this from?” Abby asked as she pointed to the ridges of marred flesh on Caden’s left arm. Her fingers traced the jagged path that began at his elbow and stretched to his shoulder. Abby shuddered as she pictured the gruesome wound that would have left this disfigurement.
Caden let out a long breath and walked away from Abby then sat down hard on a thick slab of concrete in the rubble. He slid his knife and a sharpening stone from the leather pouch at his side and stared at the ground for a moment before he began honing the blade.
“My dad always told me a sharp knife is a safe knife,” he said, ignoring Abby’s question.
“Well?” she pressed.
“Let it go,” he said.
“Why?” she asked.
“It’s not something I care to talk about,” he said, slowly sliding the blade along the stone.
“I’ve got a scar too,” she said and turned her back to him, lifting her shirt to expose the five-inch web of pale tissue on the middle of her back. “Playing hide and seek as a kid, I was squatting down, hiding in front of this house behind some bushes and when I stood up to run, I forgot there was a window sill sticking out right above my head. It tore my back open. I ended up with like twelve stitches.”
Caden chuckled. “That’s a lame-ass story,” he said. “Best come up with something more interesting than that.”
“Yeah, it is,” she said as she shrugged and turned toward Caden. “But that’s what happened. Now, your turn.”
Caden stopped sharpening and looked back up at Abby. She waited for his answer with raised eyebrows.
“I got it the day they arrived,” he said. “The first day. I’m sure you remember it well enough.”
“They were everywhere,” Caden continued. “Their ground forces bashing down doors in our neighborhood, taking whoever and whatever they wanted. They took my daughter and I couldn’t stop them, though God knows I tried. They left me this,” he touched the tip of his knife blade to the scar, “and my dead wife lying on the floor next to me. I should have bled to death.”
Abby sat silent for a moment, resisting the urge to move close to him. She knew all too well what had happened to his daughter, having survived it herself.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry for what?” he asked. “Making me remember something I’d like to forget?”
“I’m sorry for what happened to your wife and daughter,” she said. “But no, I’m not sorry I got you to talk. We barely know anything about each other. You’re not the only one who has lost someone. At least if we talk about it, I feel I am getting to know you a little better.”
“We should know as little as possible about each other,” he said. “I’m not here to protect you. All I want to do is kill as many of those bastards as I can before the end.”
“And if we’re going to work together to do that,” she said, “I need to feel I can trust you. If I know a little about you, it helps.”
Caden lifted his gaze to Abby, frowning.
“Don’t try and feed me any bullshit about you being better off working alone,” she snapped. “You saw what I can do.”
“Alright,” he said, returning to his knife. “What’s your story then?”
“I was engaged,” she said. “I wanted a fall wedding. You know, those couple of weeks in October when the weather hasn’t really gotten cold yet, but the leaves are all changing colors?”
Caden nodded, concentrating on his work. Abby swallowed hard and continued.
“Lucas texted me to meet him at a bakery downtown. He had found a good price on a wedding cake. We didn’t have a ton of money for a big fancy reception but I definitely wanted a cake.”
She walked to another slab in the rubble across from Caden and brushed off the dust before sitting.
“When I got there,” she said, her voice breaking. “The place looked like this.” She motioned to the scene around them.
Debris and bent rebar littered the ground in every direction. The buildings of the once-bustling downtown entertainment district lay in ruins. Torn stone walls stained black with char marks and twisted steel beams jutted from the structures like the bones of a rotting animal carcass. The devastation was a grisly reminder of the day the Draak arrived.
“I have no idea what happened. I never saw him again.”
“So bringing up these painful memories is supposed to help us somehow?” Caden said.
“It helps me,” Abby said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “I just needed to know why you are still fighting back when most people have quit.”
A low rumble shook the ground, vibrating deep into Abby’s bones.
“Shit,” she said, turning toward the sound.
“Get across the street,” Caden ordered. “When the big bastard shows himself, do your thing.”
“Where will you be?” she asked, jumping to her feet.
“Don’t worry,” he answered, then walked toward the center of the street. “It will be focused on me. Just be sure not to miss.”
The dragon’s thunderous footsteps pounded the pavement, toppling sections of loose building walls. Abby crouched out of the line of sight of the massive winged reptile lumbering toward them, watching Caden from behind the twisted remains of what had once been a truck. She focused and felt her skin grow hot, the air surrounding her hands shimmered from the heat they radiated.
Caden tensed and froze, the knuckles on his clenched fist white. The monster’s enormous black-scaled head finally came into Abby’s view. Bearing razor-sharp teeth as tall as a city fire hydrant, in what almost looked like a grin, it focused on the easy human prey standing in its path. The Draak sitting astride the back of the dragon gave a command in its slurred alien speech that Abby knew meant the end of Caden if she didn’t strike soon.
“Now!” Caden yelled.
Abby’s heart pounded in her chest as she lifted her hands and directed white-hot flames at the creature, melting the top of the mangled vehicle shielding her from view. The roaring column of flame struck the dragon squarely in its eye and the leviathan let out an ear-piercing shriek of fury and pain, stopping in its tracks.
Abby directed a second column of fire into the dragon’s head and the sickening smell of burning flesh finally reached her nostrils as the creature tried to spin away, ejecting its Draak rider. The beast’s tail whipped in a frenzied attempt to lash out at its attacker, striking the building behind Abby and sending huge pieces of concrete and steel hurtling toward her. For a moment, Abby ceased her attack to dodge the flying rubble. A piece of broken wall large enough to have flattened her struck the ground right next to where she had been standing a moment before, throwing debris toward her with the impact. A steel reinforcement bar ripped into Abby’s leg, slicing her thigh open. She screamed and with a burst of adrenaline and rage ran out into the open street in front of Caden, away from the dragon’s flailing tail. She pulsed the fire from her hands once more into the reptile’s open, shrieking maw and the white-hot flames seared the dragon’s head to a charred lump of smoking flesh. As the dragon’s body slumped to the ground, she saw movement next to her as Caden ran past, seeking the thrown dragon-rider.
“Don’t pass out, not now,” she muttered to herself. She didn’t dare look down at her own injury, though she could feel the wetness of her blood-soaked jeans against her skin.
“Did you find him?” she yelled after a few moments.
At first, there was no reply. Then a dark object flew over the smoking black carcass, smacking the street with a sickening sound and rolling a few feet in front of Abby. She instantly identified the object as the Draak dragon rider’s head.
“That’s a yes,” she said and grimaced as she sat and tried to straighten her injured leg.
Caden returned, clutching loot he had pilfered off of the dead Draak. He said nothing, dropped the items he was carrying when he noticed Abby’s injury and tore open the leg of her jeans to assess the damage.
“Oh man,” he said, sucking air in through his clenched teeth at the sight of her wound.
“Is it bad?” asked Abby.
“You’ll live,” he smiled reassuringly as he used his knife to cut strips of denim from her pant leg.
Abby finally glanced down at her thigh, watching as blood poured from the gaping wound and the world began to spin.
As her vision faded to blackness she heard Caden say, “But that’s going to leave one hell of a scar.”