Travis Springs usually didn’t hike in the national parks. He preferred his mountains dragon free, thank you very much, but his buddies told him this hike was safe and worth the risk.
Everyone knew the best hikes were in the national parks, and Travis figured he’d have to get over his aversion to dragons if he was going to be serious about climbing mountains.
The scenery was breathtaking. The valley below him shimmered in greens and yellows. Not to mention the mist that rose from the steam vents covering the entire Yellowstone floor.
He stopped to take a drink. According to the map, he was a quarter of a mile from the top. This was one of the smaller mountains, and so it had to be safe. It was rumored that the dragons in Yellowstone typically didn’t come down from the very top of the tallest peaks.
Travis looked up and saw a gold speck high in the sky. He shivered and watched the path as he walked and went over in his head the words he read and heard over the last few weeks. Dragons didn’t eat people. There were no documented cases. His fear was irrational, but then again most fears were.
He concentrated on the ground and climbed up the rocky terrain. After about twenty minutes, he finally made it to the top.
Travis refused to look up at the sky and surveyed the valley below him. In the distance a herd of buffalo grazed in the plains. He took a few deep breaths and felt his fear subside. He’d been silly.
He took a chance and peeked at the sky. The speck looked closer, and his stomach clenched. But then he reminded himself that because he reached the top, the speck would obviously be closer.
Travis’s hands shook as he took a drink of his water. He convinced himself that he’d spend fifteen minutes or so and then head back down. But he didn’t waste all day climbing to the top, just to race to the bottom.
Travis dug in his bag and found his camera.
The air around him suddenly felt ten degrees warmer. Sweat beaded on Travis’s forehead. A hot wind whooshed from above him. He clutched at his camera and looked up.
The golden underbelly of the dragon was only about ten feet above him, flying over him quickly. The thing had to be a hundred feet long from snout to the tip of his tail. Travis felt his jeans go wet. If he lived to tell this tale, he’d leave out that detail. He reminded himself to breathe.
As fast as it had come, it was gone. Travis couldn’t move. He watched the dragon turn and head back toward him. Travis clutched the camera and took a picture as the dragon opened its wide mouth. Its teeth were three feet long and wicked sharp.
Seconds before the jaws clamped down on him, he dropped the camera. The air from the dragon’s throat blistered his skin, but it didn’t spew fire. Travis’s final thought was, “What a horrible way to die.”
As the dragon flew away, thoroughly pleased with his meal, he didn’t realize he left behind not one, but two souvenirs. The camera.
And a foot.
The sea’s salty air reached into the hideout and woke Obsidian. Not ready to get up, he stretched his wing, feeling for Skye. Instead of finding her warmth, he met the grimy cave floor. A shot of panic zipped from his horns to his tail.
She always woke him before she got up. Opening his eyes, he searched for her. She sat near the entrance to the cave, staring over the ocean, the early morning sunlight reflecting off her sapphire scales.
She swiveled her neck and narrowed her eyes. Tears flowed down her ice-blue snout and over her smooth underbelly, forming a pool between her feet. She unfurled her great wings and shook her head, splattering teardrops on the walls.
Skye never cried, at least not in the hundred and sixty-two years they’d been together. Her occasional tantrums caused entire forests to disappear and caves to collapse, but her silver eyes always remained dry. Obsidian moved forward to comfort her, longing to understand why she wept.
Stop, she shrieked in his mind.
Her sorrow became his. Obsidian took three deep breaths and tried to identify her emotions. He wanted the easy free flow of feelings they often shared, but he could barely keep his mind straight with the turmoil.
As royal dragons, they could feel the emotions of those around them, a gift Obsidian usually appreciated. Except in situations like this. Now he wished for the gift of the canyon dragons, who could probe minds.
He forced her feelings away, focusing on peace and quiet. When he pushed out all her sadness, he continued toward her, convinced if he were near her, she would calm down.
Silvery blue flames erupted from her jaw. Obsidian ducked to avoid being singed, his mental block faltering, and a wave of desolation flooded his body. He shook, and his eyes watered. He squeezed them shut, fighting again to regain control of his emotions. He had to put a stop to this.
What’s wrong? he asked and crept closer.
Folding her wings, she moved her body toward the front of the cave. Her head struck the ceiling, stripping off the stalactites. Obsidian winced for her. The light disappeared as her body filled the opening, and smoke engulfed the enclosed space.
Are you upset about last night? Obsidian asked. They’d argued about the future, a future she thought was in jeopardy.
She didn’t answer. He took advantage of the darkness and moved to her, running the side of his jaw along her neck, something that always pleased her. She jerked, and he recoiled, her rejection stinging.
Back off. I can’t be near you. Her voice, normally sweet in his head, was now icy and cold.
Skye, he whispered, trying to understand.
I mean it, Obsidian. Leave me alone.
The distance she created was unnerving. Curse the rules he had to follow. Once again he wished he had been born of one of the different dragon races or at a different time. If that was the case, their future would be sure. But he’d been born a royal dragon, a possible heir to the throne, and so far, his life was dictated for him.
We could run away. Find the mountains in South Africa where the council could never find us. In a few years, the new king will be crowned, and we’ll come back. Obsidian knew that as soon as the king was chosen, he was off the hook.
She shook, her wings rustling and her tail swishing. That won’t work. Not now. Two days ago we could’ve done that, but not today. You should go and present yourself to the council.
Becoming human is not urgent. I’ll wait. I can’t stand to see you like this.
You can’t wait! she roared.
Skye collapsed and heaved with sobs. Obsidian draped his neck across her, hating the rules he was bound to. Royal dragons had to go through the human experience before their five hundredth birthday. He put it off because he treasured the time with Skye. Plus, he hated his human form. They had to take it occasionally in their lessons, but he’d never gone out among the real humans.
You’re going to leave me. We’ll never be bonded, she whimpered.
Obsidian sighed. This was absurd. I only have to be human for ten years. Maybe less if I finish everything early. We’ll be bonded as soon as I’m done. You know this.
She pulled out from underneath him and spun around. Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Your Majesty. She spat the words and leapt from the ledge of the cave, soaring over the sea. Her silver wings shimmered in the sunlight, her body still heaving, as she flew south.
Obsidian’s entire body tensed. He dug his claws into the cave floor. He’d never been called Your Majesty. He was a royal dragon, but he wasn’t the king. He closed his eyes and hurtled into the biting wind, heading north.
Birds twittered. An airplane passed high above, and the waves of the ocean crashed below. Obsidian turned inland, heading for a quieter setting, drifting through the air and landing at the edge of a lake.
The sharp scent of pine stung his nostrils. He cracked his eyelids a sliver, searching for his reflection. When he found it, his insides turned cold. His body, a glittering gold for four centuries, was now a deep coal black.
Obsidian sat on the bank staring at his new self, disgusted. In the sunlight he could still see some gold, but mostly he was darker than the night sky. He hated what it meant for him. Skye left because she understood that in spite of all the plans they made, the inevitable had come to pass. They would never be together again.
Obsidian’s heart ached. His mate would now be chosen for him, and Skye would never qualify. He sniffed and watched the black smoke float above him. His smoke used to be gold. He was glad he never sealed himself to her because then they both would’ve been killed as soon as he turned black.
They’d had their silly little fantasies of what life would be like after he fulfilled his duties. Once one of his brothers was chosen, most likely Prometheus, he would have finally allowed himself to be sealed to her. Their children raised by the sea. Now Skye would never become his mate, because he had been selected.
Dragons came in many colors—silver, gold, red, blue, orange, yellow, and purple. But only one dragon was black.
Aspen’s eyes flashed opened and settled on the picture of a rust-colored dragon hanging above her bed. Her hands shook as she pushed her hair out of her face. It was just a dream, no biggie. Her right hand ached. Weird. She looked at it and found her knuckles red.
Someone spewed curses from the other side of her room. She sprung out of bed, ready for a fight. Her dad danced around the room holding his eye. She must’ve hit him when she woke up. Damn nightmares. Damn Marc. Why’d he haunt her after all these years?
“Oh, Dad, I’m sorry. I was having a bad dream.” Aspen leaned over, picked up his ranger hat, and handed it to him.
“It’s okay. Next time remind me to yell from the door.”
She chuckled, still trying to get a good look at his face. “Sure, I’ll remember to do that while I’m sleeping.”
He grinned, and she touched the reddening skin around his eye. “That’s going to bruise. What are you going to tell them at work? That your seventeen-year-old daughter beat you up?”
“Nah, I’ll come up with a better story. I know it’s early, but I’m heading to work, and I wanted to make sure you were packed.”
Aspen squirmed. “Uh, not exactly. But I’ll pack tonight, I swear.”
“We leave for Hawaii first thing tomorrow morning. Why not pack this now?” He twirled his hat in his hand, smiling. He was just trying to get her to ask permission. Something she didn’t do on a regular basis.
“Because I’m going rappelling, but I promise it’ll get done.”
“Aspen, we missed our flight last time because you hadn’t packed.”
“I know, but that was just California. This is Hawaii.”
He winked and left the room, giving her that “Yeah, sure” look. He wasn’t the best at enforcing rules, and he never stayed mad at her long, even when she royally screwed up. He didn’t need to worry. She might end up with nothing more than a bathing suit, toothbrush, and camera shoved in her backpack, but she was getting on that plane. It was Hawaii for crying out loud.
Aspen flitted around her room for a little bit. She dug out every single one of her cameras and lined them up on her dresser. It was unrealistic to take them all, but she’d never seen the blood-red dragons that flew around the volcanoes in Hawaii. She’d seen a few pictures, but no one was as good as she was at capturing them. Hell, most people didn’t dare get that close to the dragons. Even those that liked them.
Aspen’s whole goal in life was to become the Crocodile Hunter of dragons. But that would never happen if she stayed in her room packing on a perfectly good Thursday morning. She could pack tonight when the dragons were harder to spot. The clock read quarter to nine. If much more time passed, she’d spend an hour on the road because of traffic. Aspen threw on a pair of jeans, found her rappelling pack, and grabbed a banana before heading out the door.
Yellowstone crawled with tourists this time of summer. Aspen was glad the season was almost over and she could have the park to herself again. Her jeep wove carefully in and out of motor homes and minivans. She hoped she wouldn’t come across the all too frequent buffalo-in-the-road traffic jam. After a few miles, she found a hidden intersection with a small sign labeled “Authorized Personnel Only” next to a steep dirt road. She turned off the highway onto the road, kicking up a cloud of dirt—one of the advantages of being the daughter of two park rangers. She sort of was authorized personnel. All the rangers knew her, and if she got caught, they’d just laugh and tell her she was wasting her time. The golden dragons in this park were much harder to photograph because they never flew close to the ground. But she still tried. As she climbed the mountain, her skin tingled with excitement. This place was her best shot because last week she spotted footprints.
When she was four, Aspen met an actual dragon. Ever since then, she had to settle for shooting them in flight. Which wasn’t bad, but she’d give anything to be face-to-face with one again. This road led to the best chance of that happening.
She put the jeep in four-wheel drive to navigate the steep incline. The hair on the back of her neck rose. Her eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror, but the only thing behind her was dust from her tires.
A dark shadow passed in front of the car, and she slammed on the brakes, spraying gravel and rocks into the brush. The jeep slid backwards. She pushed it into first gear and accelerated, trying to keep from sliding. The ascent was slow, having lost all momentum. The rocky road went through a stand of pine trees. The shadow loomed larger as she moved closer to the top of the hill. She wanted to check out the sky, but the narrow road demanded all of her attention.
The jeep crested the hill, and the rocky road gave way to a large plateau. On the far side, the grass ended, revealing jagged rocks and a cliff.
Another shadow passed over the car, not just a shapeless cloud, but a shadow with wings. Aspen scrambled out of the car and looked up. The sun blinded her, and all she could see was a dark mass.
She rushed to open the hatch and flung aside her gear in search of her rappelling pack. She found it. It was the one with her GoPro inside. She dug through the bag, tossing out granola bars and water bottles, but the camera was nowhere to be found. She thought back to this morning, and her heart sank. The camera was sitting on her dresser—waiting to be packed. Damn her foresight for Hawaii.
She backed up and shielded her eyes, searching the skies. There wasn’t a dragon in sight. Not even way up among the clouds where the usual golden and silver specks flew. She’d just seen him.
The ground shook, and she stumbled, trying not to fall. She spun around. Sitting not ten feet from her was a dragon.