Something very odd happened the moment the dragon took Arthur through the rip in the sky. It was as if he instantly lost all sense of direction. And at the same time, it was so much more.
There was no up or down. He felt like he was falling and yet could feel his stomach uncomfortably pressed against the dragon’s sharp spine. Every inch of his body felt like he was on the verge of being ripped apart, yet he was compressed together. He was dizzy and yet stationary. He was out of his body and yet screaming within his own mind.
These were not sensations he could explain to himself. Only feel and endure.
Thankfully, it only lasted a moment. Within the next, they were blasted out in bright sunshine.
Still half convinced he was falling, Arthur scrabbled for a hold, kicking his legs in the air.
The rider turned in her seat and gripped the back of his shirt to hold him still. The knowledge that someone had a hold on him was enough to get himself back under control.
Only then was he able to look around.
His first thought was that they had been in that awful rip for much longer than he had thought. It had been just past noon a few moments ago. Now the sun was low to the horizon. It was almost evening.
Tess the dragon buzzed to the side to give way to another dragon angling towards the rip. As she turned the view changed.
Arthur’s jaw dropped open. They were at the site of another scourge eruption.
This cone was much, much larger than even the one in the valley. It seemed to dominate the entire sky. Tess was so high up Arthur had no way of measuring it — dozens of tree lengths at least — and yet they only came to around the middle of the cone. It made ants of the dragons near to it.
No scourgelings came out of the top. After the first shock wore off, Arthur recognized that this must have been the site of an ancient eruption. So old the crumbled dirt had turned into stone.
Terraced roads had been cut into the deeply-sided slopes, winding around and around the cone and leading in and out of cut-through entrances. Vegetation including entire trees looking like tiny sprigs dotted different areas. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of dragons darted back and forth, in and out of arched entrances, and looping around in general chaos.
This must be a hive. Dragons built their hives out of ancient scourge eruptions.
Ringing the hive on all sides were buildings and streets. There were so many dwellings, in all shapes and sizes, that Arthur found himself boggling all over again. It went on and on, stretching as far from the foot of the hive as he could see.
Two rivers wound through it all. One from under the hive itself, the second splitting off into canals that threaded all through the city. The water blazed like fire in the reflection of the sinking sun.
Tess buzzed down to the base of the hive. An area had been cleared between two large buildings, like the square back in his village except several times as large.
There were white tents and long tables set up. Shocked and dirty people sat huddled together in clumps, weeping. Some of them were bloodied. Easy to guess that these were the survivors of the scourge attack.
Tess set down with barely a jolt. Her rider unbuckled themselves from the saddle and turned to Arthur. “You still alive?”
She had a woman’s voice, though he couldn’t have known through the thick jacket, helmet, and covered face.
Arthur croaked out something that was supposed to have been “Yes.”
His effort must have satisfied the rider. She slipped off Tess’s side and went to her dragon’s head.
The dragon was crowing for all the courtyard to hear. “Tess caught boy! Tess caught boy!”
The rider caught the dragon’s head between her hands and squealed at her in a sudden high, excited voice. “That’s right, Tess. You were a very, very good girl!” She scrubbed her dragon’s head as if she were an enthusiastic dog.
The dragon hopped in place, jostling Arthur who was still hanging on, stomach down. He couldn’t seem to force his hands to unclench. He was shaking like a leaf in autumn. He couldn’t even make himself sit up.
“What have you got here, Jo?” another woman’s voice asked.
The rider, Jo, turned from praising her dragon. Her voice returned to normal. “Tess and I found him at the very top of a pine tree. Trying to escape a wave of scourge, I think.”
“Tess caught boy!” Tess called again. “Tess very, very good girl!”
The other woman came around, took one look at Arthur, and grinned. She was a short, maternal-looking woman with a kind round face and fizzy red hair, pulled back. “Spatial rift sickness can be a bear. Let’s get you down.” She started working on Arthur’s clenched hands. “Did you wet yourself?”
This was asked kindly, but it did jerk him out of his shock. “No!”
The surprise was enough to make his hands release the strap. Off balance, he slid off the side, stomach scraping all the way down.
It was only a short fall as Tess stood maybe as high as his neck. But his body was strung so tight, for a moment he fully expected a thousand-length fall.
Arthur gave a short scream before he hit the ground, and crumpled, feeling immediately embarrassed.
The woman came around the other side and thankfully didn’t laugh. “There you are, and I see you still have dry pants. Good,” she said with a brisk nod. “Are you hurt anywhere? Did the scourge bite or scratch you?”
“No,” he said. “I…” He held up his hands to show scraped palms. “I climbed a tree.”
“You got lucky. Some of them can climb, too.”
“They rotted the trunk out from under me,” Arthur said, though to his ears it sounded like whining.
However, the woman could not be more sympathetic. She knelt to his level and patted his shoulder. “You poor dear. You’re safe now. I know you said you weren’t hurt, but we’re going to get you looked over and then get something hot to eat. You’ll feel better soon.”
“Magda, Tess and I need to go.” Jo the rider had finally broken off from praising her dragon’s goodness and courage. She had pulled down her mask to show olive skin and a wide mouth. “The fighters just got control of the airspace, but I’m sure there are more people out there.”
“Of course. Here.” Standing, Magda hunted through a pouch attached to her belt and pulled out a milky green chip with 1 emblazoned on it. “Here’s your token.”
Arthur wanted to ask what that was about. The token exchange had the air of a transaction. But there was a more important consideration.
Slowly, painfully he stood to his feet. His legs still felt like jelly, but they held. “Thank you,” he said to the rider. His words felt so weak and insincere for what she had just done. Even Tess blinked blank yellow eyes at him. “I would’ve died. I— “
“We were just doing our job,” Jo said, gesturing to include Tess. The purple dragon blinked empty yellow eyes at him. “And you might have still thought of something. It’s not every boy who can keep his head enough to try to signal a flying rider.”
He hadn’t tried to signal anyone.
Before he could find something to say, Jo put her hand on his shoulder — a familiar gesture that surprised him.
“What direction was your farm?” she asked.
They thought he was a farmer’s brat. Made sense. He’d seen the remains of a few farmhouses here and there from atop the ridge.
Arthur shook his head. He still felt too scrambled to make up an effective lie.
Jo must have thought he was still in shock. That wasn’t too far from the truth. “How many were in your family?”
This, he could answer. “Just me and my dad. My mom and sister…” He choked the next words off, alarmed to find his emotions so close to the surface. “It was just us.”
Jo exchanged glances with Magda.
“All the Lobos are to bring their rescues here,” Magda said as if that was supposed to mean something to Arthur. “Don’t lose hope yet.”
The rider nodded briskly. “Tess and I will look around the area we found you and see if there are other survivors.”
“Don’t,” Arthur said, knowing it was a fruitless task. Weeks of keeping secrets to himself had ingrained the habit but he couldn’t let the rider fly around on a wild goose chase when there might be real farmer families to be saved. A halting story of half-lies tumbled out of him. “I got separated from the rest. There were men hunting for scourgelings, and for… for…” He looked guiltily at the rider and couldn’t say it.
Jo, however, finished for him. “Vultures. Looking for fallen dragon riders and their cards.”
Behind them, the normally bubbly Tess hissed.
“They thought I might be carded,” Arthur said quickly. “They wanted to kill me and check my heart, even though I got nothing. I don’t know what’s worse: them or the scourgelings.”
This last part seemed to earn him a bit of favor from the dragon rider, judging by her smirk.
“Then the scourgelings came up on us and I ran,” Arthur finished. “I think the scourgelings ate them.”
“Then good riddance.” Magda huffed.
Jo turned to her. “Keep an eye on this one. He has some guts in him. Might even be a dragon rider one day,” she said with a wink. Then she turned to her dragon and held up the token, taking on that excited voice again. “Tess! Look what I got!”
“Jade stone!” Tess trilled, bouncing from foot to foot. “Tess find more! More! More people for stones!”
“That’s right.” Jo put up her mask again up on her nose and then swung up onto the dragon. In a moment, they were buzzing away.
Magda put her arm under Arthur’s. “Let’s get you a seat.”
She guided Arthur toward the tables, which was difficult for him as his legs were still trembling.
This was ridiculous. He used to face death all the time back in the border village. But something about so many shocks at one time — and that terrible rip in the sky — had nearly undone him.
Arthur took deep breaths and firmly told himself that he was safe. He made himself believe it.
Slowly, his heart rate calmed though he still felt shaky.
Magda guided him to sit at a table. “Anyone look familiar?” she asked.
She meant the other people who had been rescued. A few had glanced at him, hoping that he was their boy dying almost at once. Arthur shook his head.
Looking unsurprised, Magda pulled out a small pile of papers and then took out a wooden pencil. Red had carried one of those, though Magda’s looked brand new instead of the stubby thing Red had used.
“Let’s get some information down, so when we find your father, we can get you two reunited. Let’s start with your name.”
“Arthur,” he said at once and wanted to slap himself. He needed to be smarter than this. Then again… he had gone by Ernest in the caravan. If Second was looking for him, that would be the name he asked about.
“Youngblood,” he said, using Ernie’s last name.
“Okay, Arthur. You said it was just you and your father at your farm?”
He nodded. She made a note.
“Do you know your father’s rank?”
He had no idea what people outside border towns thought was normal. There were no ranks in the caravan either. He decided to just shake his head. “We are just farmers. Not nobility or nothing.”
She gave him an odd look. "I meant card rank."
Arthur hoped he wasn't breaking out in a sweat. Quickly, he shook his head. "No cards."
She made another mark. “And how old are you?”
He sensed an opportunity here. “Thirteen.”
Magda’s gaze flicked from the notes. She gave him a look.
“Twelve,” he corrected.
She continued looking at him.
He wanted to bristle. He wasn’t that small! Well… he was growing! But the kids he played dice and card games with never treated him like one of the teenagers. In fact, he had fit in pretty well with the ten-year-olds.
Reluctantly, as if he knew he’d been caught in a lie, he said, “I’ll be eleven at the end of next month.”
That seemed to satisfy her. It also prickled at his pride a little bit.
“You’re almost old enough for your first card,” she said.
She really didn’t know he was carded. Then again, Tess was a purple, not a silver, and had seemed to be a… simpler creature than Doshi.
Magda made a few more marks. Then, turning, she gestured over to someone else.
A lanky teenager wearing a long white tunic edged in blue walked up. He stared at Arthur in a creepy intense way and a prickle went down his spine.
“Not scourge-touched,” the teenager said. “Aside from that black eye, he has some light bruising on the torso, a minor laceration to the throat and both palms.”
Magda made another note.
“Are you some sort of a treasure seeker?” Arthur asked. It was the only name he knew for people who could find things.
“More of a sickness-seeker,” he said with a chuckle. Then, abruptly all business again he continued to Magda. “He’s suffering from malnourishment with several vitamin deficiencies. Though it looks like some of it has started to be addressed. Good harvest last season?” he said in an aside to Arthur but didn’t wait for his reply. “He should have citrus juice along with every breakfast and supper meal for the next two weeks. Aside from that, no defects, nothing brewing.”
Magda nodded and the man walked away to visit a woman who was holding a fitful baby.
The whole exchange had sounded uncomfortably to Arthur like someone describing a horse they’d like to sell. He'd practically said Arthur had good teeth and sound hooves.
“What was that chip?” he asked. “The green one you gave to Tess’s rider?”
Magda didn’t blink an eye as she continued to fill out the form. “Oh, she’s on the rescue and evacuation team — we call them the Lobos, as we’re the Wolf Hive. Tess isn’t a fighter, so she can’t compete with the big dragons for shards. Every Lobo gets an extra incentive for a person recovered. Tess and Joanna are some of the best at what they do. Even better than some who have a seeker card.”
So, he had been sold. Sort of. Exchanged, maybe? Was it a bad thing?
He wasn’t sure yet.
Magda rose and went to the tents, returning with a plate heaped with thickly sliced beef, crisp greens, an apple, and a real glass filled with vivid yellow juice.
Arthur tried the juice first. It was shockingly tart and stung a little at the inside of his chapped lips. He loved it.
As he ate, Magda rose from the table to check on more people the dragon riders brought in. Most of these came aboard small purples, like Tess. Though there was a blue dragon so pale it was close to silver in the fading light. It didn't give so much as a sniff to Arthur. Once it's rider had collected two jade chips from Magda, they were on their way again.
Magda returned as Arthur finished the last of his plate.
“You ought to grab a cot and lay down,” she said, nodding to the largest tent. “They’re going to be rescuing people through the night as the sun is still up over there.”
Arthur stared, trying to puzzle out that sentence. “How can the sun be up somewhere else?” he asked, pointing to the now dim outline on the horizon. It had nearly set.
Sunset... there was something important about that phrase. Something which nagged at his mind, but he was too exhausted to work it out.
She chuckled as if he’d just made a joke. “Dutchy Rockhound's land is behind us by at least five hours.”
Arthur’s mind spun, but Magda ushered him from the table.
“Get some rest, Arthur. I promise to come to wake you when we find your father.”
Yeah right. That would be a good trick.
But a bed did sound good. He hadn’t slept in a real cot since he left his village.
Arthur went to the tent and found a free cot near the middle. The mattress was soft, the blankets thick. Several people were already sleeping nearby — or at least laying down. One wept quietly.
Arthur felt bad for them, but also disconnected from their grief. In truth, he had lost his family a long time ago. He just felt glad to be alive, and so, so tired.
He fell asleep almost at once.