Contest (164) - Theme: "Dragons" courtesy of @kittie_pie Congratulations @Keitsumah for "Set Me Free" The writing was excellent, the story emotions were impressed on the reader. Send me a PM with your theme for the next contest. And we'll use it in three weeks. @Wreybies will get your bronze medal to you soon. Competition was tough again. I enjoyed more than one of these stories. @BeckyJean continues to impress us, coming in second with "Dragon's Breath" The other stories all tied for third and I'm putting @qp83's "The Dragon Hunter" in there as well because if I'd had another vote I would have voted for this story with the clever ending. Thanks again to all the forum members who voted. You'll find all the stories HERE _________________________ Set me Free [Word Count: 3,143] Collision. The screech of scales, claws. The scream of beasts in combat. Sand and dust billow in the air until the arena is thick with it. I bite my lip and watch anxiously from my position, shackled hands pressed together in fervent prayer. I do not want either of them to lose, but I will be whipped again if he doesn't win. And he will be butchered. For both our sakes, I must pray that he can tear the other's throat out. The dragons collide again, the scars along their backs rising up and pulsing: thick with blood and muscle that will never know the feeling of flight. Their wings were torn out as hatchlings, and from there the two drakes had grown, caged and beaten like dogs. Their own instincts to fight for territory work against them here in the arena. They can do nothing but hate one another. They can do nothing but will the other's blood to flow between their fangs. Down their throat. Compared to the carcasses of stray dogs they are fed once a month, I can't doubt that their own kind taste better than that. To fight is to feed. To feed is to live. Long, sinewy bodies coil and ripple like waves. Their long, angular heads snap, whip, bash, and gouge. Three rows of tiny white teeth gleam against the blazing heat of the day. I grit my teeth in anguish when the tan male clamps down on the red's foreleg, blood streaming. A dragon's teeth do not grow soldiers when planted --they are just teeth. But they are so sharp they can puncture even their own kind's dense scales. A prize for any hunter. My hands move to the bars of the window I peer from at ground level to the fight, and I can feel the earth vibrate when the red drake slams into the other. Despite how delicate and thin these creatures are, their bones are strong, and their scales still stronger. With a resounding screech of fury from the tan drake, both topple over into the sand in a mass of tangled limbs and glinting scales. The crowd roars in approval. Bets are placed, food dropped. Veils pulled over faces to keep the dust out of delicate, painted eyes. I have no veil. I have nothing but my own sack-cloth dress and chains. And a corner in the holding pen to sleep in. But all of it, as well as my own life, can be taken away in an instant. I have learned to be happy with the little mercies I am given. There is a bellow from one of the drakes then and I jerk so close to the bars my cheeks hurt, trying to see what is going on. The red slams his head into the other, curled horns locking. I don't see the wounds etched into his brilliant crimson hide, and can only watch as pools of scarlet turn the sand to mud, steaming in the sunshine. They jockey for position. Dig large hind talons into the earth for leverage. Their thin forelegs slash at air, near useless on land. These creatures are not meant for the earth's imprisonment. I've seen too many go mad and throw themselves against the roof or at the sky until they break their own limbs and have to be put down. Please... please win Rhu'daul. I nearly drop to my knees and beg when the tan male rises above the red, forcing him down. Rhu'daul's body vibrates, and I can just hear the high-pitched hissing that goes between them. Both are dominant males. They cannot -no, willnot- back down and flee like they would in the desert, should one prove stronger than the other. There is nowhere to go. Nowhere to run. One must live, and one must die. Please... His fore-claws brush the earth, brace. I watch the tip of his tail twitch in agitation. My red drake. My dragon. I have seen him grow from a tiny hatchling as long as my forearm, named him after the ruby color of his scales. Now he stands taller than any horse, easily the length of fifteen men. His horns, like an antelope's, curl back in a graceful arc, ringed in by dense bone. His hind-legs bulge with thick muscle meant to launch himself into the air for flight, but the long, angry scars that span from shoulder to hock are his only remembrance of once owning wings. I remember the awful sound he made when they were stolen from him. And even though they hated each other, would kill each other, the other dragons within earshot had all keened. But despite the devastation of those wounds, Rhu was, and is, still stronger than me. Whenever the Dragon Master enters the holding pens, he alone will rise up and snarl; even attack if the man goes too close to his cage. No amount of whipping or starvation will drive fear into my Rhu'dal's heart. It is in the same moment that my spine straightens with pride that I see his head jerk, slide under the other drake's jaw, and his teeth close around the soft spot just beneath his opponent's head. The crowd's cheer is a deafening roar as he closes his maw like a hunter's trap and shakes his head rapidly. I grip the bars and cheer. The other drake gurgles, blood pouring down both their chests as he claws at Rhu'daul's thickly plated breast, but his struggles cease the moment a loud crack rings out against the arena walls. His hind legs tremble, then buckle, his weight driving his body deep into the mud. My red drake shakes his head again to be sure is foe is dead, and when he is, he drops his enemy and bellows to the skies. The gills on either side of his head flare and display brilliant colors. Golds, greens, and blues. I see the second ribcage on his long body expand and a small burst of brilliant flame escapes his jaws. I grin like a giddy child when the crowd reacts in surprise. Dragons can only breathe fire when they eat a shining mineral called platinum, which they filter from the sands, but the Dragon Masters are very careful to be sure they cannot access the mineral. Yet I defy them in my own way. Whenever I can, I sneak a handful of sand to the cages for him to eat and filter. I know he would just as soon bite me as well as the Master, but I am careful. I take pride in him. I do not feel sad that he hates me just as much as any other human. His hatred is blind: all of his kind's hatred is blind. I merely envy that he is brave enough to act upon it, and hope that his rage can encompass mine as well. "Good boy, Rhu." I whisper in praise. "Go0d-" I gasp in pain when a heavy lash sends pain through my entire body. The Dragon Master stands over me, and his cruel eyes glint in the light that filters through the bars. I hadn't heard him come up behind me. "Good? That fight should have taken half the time. He was not desperate enough." the man growled. "He's to be fed half rations this month. And if I find you trying to feed him more than that, you'll be flogged. Is that clear?" "Y-Yes master..." I'm curled in a ball and cover my head with my hands, chains clinking. Joy is a memory. My own blood trickles down my back like liquid fire and drips to the floor. Hidden underground, under the foundations of the arena, the dragons are only allowed to see the sky when they fight. And like them, I am trapped here in our collective sandstone tomb, with nothing more than a barred window to see the outside world. I shiver when he raises the whip again. "Get moving! There's another match in one sun-span, and I need the sil'dayra in the chutes!" he growls. I nod fervently and dart away before he can whip me again. Not a second later I can hear Rhu's angry bellows as he is forced into the exit chute by the pole-guard. I slip between the bars of his cage and fumble to the back gate, open it and jump out as the drake charges in and slams into the front gate where I had been standing a moment before. The next step is the most dangerous for me and takes a few seconds, but I manage to hook the back gate with a pole and close it before he can notice my presence. The hot tang of blood coats the back of my tongue, and my nose is filled with his scent. As I am sure his nose is with mine. Not a second after I close the gate he turns in my direction and smashes his narrow head between the bars to try and get at me, teeth snapping. I don't flinch, and instead make sure to stay between the two cages so the small green dragon penned behind me can't get the opportunity to lay into me either. Its always a fatal mistake for a Dragon Slave to jump back when one dragon snaps at them, only to end up in the jaws of the one caged behind. "I'm sorry, Rhu." I whisper, and turn away to limp down the aisle of cages, his deranged, angry snarls burning into my back like fresh wounds. Rhu is the only red one in the bunch, along with two blue and one green. Tan dragons are the most common. Any other colors are unheard of. I stop for a moment and examine the blue sil'dayra my Master is so proud of at the moment. She came out sterile, so the she-dragon was quickly dumped into the arenas, useless for nothing other than entertainment when she would have otherwise been used to lay eggs to feed the nobles, as well as breed new fighting dragons. I call her Sikla. She lays in the back corner of her cage, seemingly asleep. But I know better. I see one pale blue eye, half-lidded, watching me. Out of all the others, she is the trickster. The males don't know how to react toward her. She smells like something that isn't a threat, yet Sikla has been trained just like any other drake. In most fights, she's got surprise on her side, and I can hear the crowd call her an illegal. A cheat. Only males should be allowed to fight. She should have been put down. But my Master has trained her well and made her entertaining, so the Lord of "our great city" lets him do as he pleases. I feel the Master's eyes bore into my back when he walks past and I jump to it. There's no time for caution. I need to open the gate and set her in the chute for the next match. The chains to the gate rattle loudly, and I keep one wary eye on the small blue dragon as I put my hands between the bars. She's been fed well recently, so she should be considered safe. But a fed dragon can just as easily be more dangerous than a starved one. You can never tell with her. I was right. The moment I take my gaze off of her to undo the final lock, she strikes. I pull my hands back quickly, but she still manages to ram her muzzle into one and crush it against the bars. I gasp in pain and tears spring to my eyes. Sikla growls when she doesn't get a hold, though, and I'm able to pull my hand back in relatively one pice before she can sink her teeth into me. I kneel on the ground, heart in my throat. Her hatred is blind. Her hatred is blind. She does not know that I have every intent to help her could I do so. I have no reason to feel angry with her. But I am weak. What can I do to better them, when they have nowhere to go? They cannot fly. I can demand no kindness or respect from animals when I deserve none. I am merely another being who is responsible for their imprisonment. I deserve it. The gate slides open with a creak then and she turns. I remain still, mindful not to draw attention to myself, and after a tense moment she heads in. It's as if she's aware of a way to vent her rage that may prove more satisfying than biting a small, malnourished human. Another minute, and then the tip of her tail vanishes down the tunnel. I wait a second to make sure she isn't hiding around the corner, waiting for me, then fumble with the gate again to close it. It takes twice as long as usual. Every time I try to use my injured hand I wince. As I finish I can feel the Master's gaze on me again and glance out of the corner of my eye. We stare at each other. I at his feet, and he at the wound across my back. It tingles in response. I do not need to be reminded that if I do not behave, I will receive many more wounds similar to the first. "Clean the cages and feed the red one." he says. "And remember, he gets half rations. I can't afford to have any lazy dragons here." "Yes, master." The next fight has begun, but I do not go to watch this time. Instead, I lay on the ground, trying to avoid any sort of movement so my back can scab over quickly. I have taken many lashes before and lived. This is a minor warning. Not a punishment. I keep one eye open for the Dragon Master in case he is lurking nearby. I am done with my chores for now, but he will beat me no matter what I am doing so long as it irritates him. Rhu has gone quiet now. He watches me from his cage, the both of us wounded and bleeding. At one time I may have thought that made us twins, but now I am too tired to care. Defeat lingers in my vision like a black shroud, threatening to overwhelm me with black thoughts. I have already lived longer than many Dragon Slaves are expected to. I am good at my work. That makes me valuable to my Master, in a small way. But I do not want to live this way. Cannot live this way. I will go mad like the dragons, when they cannot fly. Caged, chained. It is only a matter of time. I wonder again what I could do to better those who hate me, yet I love beyond all reason. They can fight, can wound, can kill, whereas I am too weak to even go up against the Master and have any hope of leaving a mark before he beats me senseless. I look to Rhu'daul again. Large, blood red eyes stare into mine. A predator contemplating its prey. Wondering if I will die here, on the ground and just out of reach no doubt. I look at his powerful hind legs. The cruel, wicked talons that can slice into a man's armor like a knife through butter. His teeth and jaws. His tail, used like a mace to crush and pulverize opponents. If I were him, I would only want to be set loose one more time, and kill as many as I could before I went down. I would have my revenge upon humanity. I would rend them to pieces, burn their dwellings to the ground. Devour their children and their flocks. If I were a dragon none would survive my fury. My hands touch the chains that keep the front gate closed. I blink. When had I moved? But it doesn't matter. I see him. I see me in his eyes. Pools of blood reflecting my small, pitiful frame. My face is cast in shadow. My hands tremble and I undo the first lock. No. I am no longer myself. I am him. He is what I want to be. He will do everything for me. Will end this suffering for me. For all of us. The second lock. I look around now and do not see simple beasts. I see my own kind. Locked, shackled, and caged. If I set them free, they will wreak their havoc upon the race that has destroyed us without qualm. The third. Rhu stands now, comes close to the gate. I think I see curiosity and bloodlust in his eyes. He knows. He knows. My heart pounds in giddy delight and I fumble with the last. The gate clicks. Opens. Then I am at the next cage. It seems like everything has gone silent around me. All of them are watching me. I cannot even hear the dragons in the arena as they fight for their lives. Or maybe they have all sensed what I am doing. One. Two. Three. Each lock falls, each cage opens and releases a new version of the terror I want everyone who had enslaved us and destroyed us to feel. I look back with a smile and see each dragon poke their head out of their holdings. Rhu is standing in the middle, red ringed in by brown, green, and blue. I brave the hallway and push at the main door. Sunlight pours in. I see the sky. People of all shapes and sizes walk along the road, oblivious to what I am about to unleash upon them. Maybe some are innocent. Maybe only a few are guilty. But a dragon's rage is blind, as is mine. There is the faint crunch of sand and stone between claws as the dragons move forward as a group, scenting fresh air. They pay no attention to one another, or to me. But one does. "You're free, Rhu'daul." I whisper, a mere foot away from the massive drake that I had once coddled as a hatchling. My hands, chained, reach up and place themselves on his muzzle -soft, velvety skin that gleams like fresh blood. It has been so long since I have touched him, and tears flood my eyes. "You're free!" The first screams ring out and teeth meet in my shoulder. I have set him free. And now, I am as well.