Once in a Dragon Moon by Ophelia Bell

 

 

Prologue

“You three are moving like sand sloths.” Dmitri lifted his fossil lantern, waiting for the others to catch up. “Myron was adamant. He said to meet him at sunset.”

The lantern barely illuminated ten feet into the dry-packed tunnel, but its soft, amber glow helped them avoid fissures from a decades old cave-in.

“Seriously?” Santer snorted. “We live in a pit. A pretty, crystal-encrusted pit. For all we know, the dual suns blew up while our elders played patty cake in the dark.”

Ksenia dragged her spiked gloves along the walls, sending sparks into the gloom. “Speak for yourself, shnookums. If you don’t like it here, then you should leave. It was your Volkhv ancestors who convinced the elders to march us underground, so stop complaining.”

“Why do you always bring that up? It was centuries ago, and only because the elders were too afraid to do anything else.” Santer caught Ksenia’s hand mid-scrape. “Cut that out! You’re making my teeth hurt.”

She laughed and patted his face. “Aw, the baby Volkhv is teething.”

“Nice try, adventure junkie, but goading a Volkhv never works,” Santer let go of her wrist. “We’re seers, so we see you warrior types coming a mile away.”

“Will you two cut it out?” Dmitri stopped, cocking his head as a buzzing crackle sounded in the distance. “Do you hear that?”

“What is that?” Ksenia squinted and angled her head as well, her sleek ponytail sliding over her shoulder. “A cave-in somewhere deeper in the tunnels?”

Dmitri shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve never heard anything like it before.”

“Maybe it’s vapors escaping through the fissures,” Santer added. “Whatever it is, we should get Myron and clear out. At least until we know more.”

“And how can we know more if we don’t investigate?” Ksenia pushed past Santer to listen to the sound again. Screwing up her forehead, she looked at Dmitri. “Static?”

He nodded. “Could be. Myron would know best.”

“Then let’s ask him and get the hell out of here before the mine collapses under our feet.” Santer pushed past them both.

The three hurried down the tunnel. The buzzing crackled and whined, making them wince the closer they got to their sanctuary. Theirs wasn’t a sacred space; for the four friends, it was an escape from unending shadow and dragon-made light. They were the youngest generation of Clan Sandrekar, the Sand Dragons of the vast deserts of Nova Aurora. Or they had been, until marauders realized the dragons’ scales were worth a fortune.

Thousands of years of runoff from the Ice Mountains flowed into the desert landscape, lush with minerals. Heat from Nova Aurora’s dual suns crystalized the mix, forcing a genetic anomaly in the Sandrekar that presented in their unique opalescent scales—an opalescence unsurpassed in camouflage and impenetrability, and worth a fortune on the intergalactic black market.

They’d been hunted to near extinction until they’d escaped beneath the same sands that were once their home. All but forgotten, they thrived in complete isolation in a vast subterranean domain, fed by underground springs and crystal deposits.

“Myron!” Ksenia shouted over the piercing hum. She raced with Dmitri to their sanctuary door, shoving it open to find their geeky friend hunched over a set of archaic wires. Half his head was hidden under enormous headphones, and he didn’t look up.

Dmitri snatched the headphones. “Dude! Are you deaf? Can’t you hear that squealing buzz?”

Myron uncrossed two wires inside an open-faced metal box. The annoying buzz faded immediately, but a lopsided grin spread across his face. “This is so cool! You won’t believe it. I fixed the receiver!”

Santer moved to Dmitri’s side, opposite Ksenia, and the three peered at the box on Myron’s worktable. “That tangle of cables and dented metal was a receiver?” Santer reached to touch one of the wires, but Ksenia smacked his hand away.

“Yes.” Myron leaned back in his chair. “Better yet, I got a signal.”

“A signal for what?” Ksenia asked.

“Whatever they’re broadcasting outside. Music. Talking. A lot of time devoted to encouraging product sales.” He unplugged a cable and slid his finger along a small lever. “Listen.”

A melodic tempo trickled from the device, unlike the instruments familiar to the dragons. Myron bobbed his head in time to the beat until Dmitri reached forward and turned one of the knobs. Sharp static cut through the music, and then a single voice came through.

“—Hot Wings duo is returning to the arena after a year’s break, but we’re confident the former League champions are ready to—”

Dmitri adjusted the device again, silencing the voice. Ksenia reached out, stilling his hand.

“Wait. Go back. What was that?”

“I don’t know, but this is interesting,” Dmitri said, flicking another knob. The room echoed with a low buzzing and static.

Santer wrinkled his brow. “Now what’s going on?”

Myron groaned and leaned over, placing himself protectively over the receiver. “Everyone back.” He held up a hand until the other dragons retreated. “Luckily, this is only one part. I found these too.”

He pulled out a jumble of wide metal bands that looked like thick bracelets.

“And those are?” Dmitri asked, his hand already lifted to grab one.

“I think they were communicators. I got the incoming transmissions working, likely due to the outside world strengthening, or perhaps altering, the signal on their—”

“In simple terms,” Santer groaned.

Myron blinked at him. “They’re portable versions of the bigger receiver.”

“Oooh.” Ksenia snatched one of the bands and slipped it onto her wrist. “How do I make it talk about the fights again?”

Myron handed one of the bands to Dmitri and kept one for himself. “I’ve only fixed these, so we’ll have to share.” He gestured at the barely raised grooves along the sides of the metal cuffs. “Volume here. Selection here.”

Santer fiddled with the device on Dmitri’s wrist for a moment. “And this?”

The bracelet emitted a gentle tone, and the top displayed a faint image resembling waves resonating from one end of the screen to the next.

“That’s the ping,” Myron said. He pushed back a wisp of hair that had fallen into his eyes and indicated a tiny button. “I believe it was originally a troubleshooting component, but when I was working on them, I got the idea to have it trace the source in a series of information packets that—”

“Less technobabble, please,” Ksenia interjected.

Myron rolled his green eyes. “It’ll help you find spots in the caves with better signal, which could theoretically allow you to access more channels. Also theoretically, it could help you find a broadcast tower on the surface.”

“This is actually rather impressive,” Santer said.

“Thanks.” Myron beamed. “Now go experiment. I’m going to get this one to Leo and Demyan.” He shook the device on his wrist.

“Where are your other halves?” Dmitri asked.

“Wrangled into a last-minute family thing. I dodged because I’m sneaky, but they’re too slow.”

Ksenia was in the doorway first, then turned back for a moment. “Thanks. It’s nice that your pursuits have led to something impressive for once.”

The dragons filed out, each already distracted by their small, yet powerful link to the surface world.

* * *

Ksenia barely lookedup from the wrist device on her way back to her quarters. The tiny controls clicked under her touch, and a high-pitched squelch sounded just as she rounded a bend in the tunnel. Two other Sandrekar warriors were passing by and eyed her with alarm.

“Uh, too many sand beans,” she muttered, feigning a belch and patting her stomach.

They chuckled and continued on as she sped up to a fast walk, slipping beyond the door to her private room in the barracks and shutting it behind her. She threw the lock and made a beeline for her bed, climbing on and settling back to focus on the device. She hadn’t mistaken what she’d heard. Arena fights on the surface. Gladiatorial contests.

She slowly skimmed the channels until the voice she’d heard earlier filtered through the static.

“. . . this season’s full bracket has yet to be set. Tryouts are scheduled throughout the month, so perhaps some new contenders will appear. The exhibition matches are underway now, and there are always surprises in store during those. Remember the year when the Hot Wings duo’s mate gave birth in the stands? Not much can top that.”

The voice was joined by a second one, as if the pair were engaged in speculative banter about the contest. “That was something else. Personally, I’m curious to find out if Midnight Star will continue her reign as top solo champion. No likely candidate has appeared thus far, but there is still time for new teams to throw their gauntlets in the ring at every level. The new duo, Silver Fangs, rose through the ranks in their bracket last season, coming out as the champions among two-man teams while Hot Wings took a break. Unlike Midnight Star, there is one clear contender to unseat them now that Hot Wings have announced their return after a brief hiatus to welcome their second child into the world.”

She left the audio on while she undressed and bathed, then made herself a dinner of rations with viper jerky mixed in. Normally she’d head out to the mess hall at the north end of the barracks, but she didn’t want to miss a single second of the broadcast, and she definitely didn’t want to share the find with anyone else.

Arena contests were so up her alley, something she hadn’t known she’d needed until now. Silt vipers—the rock eater snakes’ smaller, meaner cousins—were a challenge, but the mindless, burrowing beasts had stopped being a rewarding quarry ages ago. Fighting other races of shifters, pitting her skills against someone equally matched, sounded more her speed.

Even better if she could fight on a team. Her entire life, she’d craved the camaraderie she saw among the Sandrekar military units, the members of her clan who guarded the boundaries of their system of caves, keeping out the myriad wild subterranean beasties that would otherwise ravage their homes. Joining up as an orphaned young sand dragon, she’d expected to find a special place among them, find friends who would become as close as brothers or sisters. Maybe even find a mate one day too, because the civilian males definitely didn’t know what to do with a woman like her.

But it hadn’t worked out that way. She was big for a female, perhaps a genetic holdover from before the Sandrekar Clan escaped into the tunnels and caves beneath Nova Aurora’s surface. Her tall, bulky stature made her seem more of a threat to the others than she was, but she had no idea how to remedy the issue. And then after one fateful battle with a particularly vicious viper where she’d beat her unit to the beast and slaughtered it in a whirlwind of rage, she’d earned a reputation as a madwoman, causing the other soldiers to give her a wide berth. As a result, she remained an outcast from everyone but her small, tight-knit group of childhood friends.

Not that she didn’t love the guys, her cousin Leo included. They were the closest friends she had, but they all wanted different things.

When the broadcast she was glued to eventually went silent, her heart fell. She flipped to another channel, hoping for the company of new voices for a change. This broadcast sounded like one of the advertisements at first, but without anything better to do, Ksenia lay there in the dark, listening, and soon a new broadcast started.

“Thanks for joining us on Nova Aurora Live. Our guest this evening is none other than the renowned matchmaker Gerri Wilder. Gerri, as the new Arena season is about to begin, I understand you’re a fan of the sport. Any chance you can share your predictions as to the winners this year? I’m sure all our listeners would be eager to hear, considering your legendary foresight.”

The woman laughed, and Ksenia got a strong sense of worldly wisdom from the clever way she dodged the question. Gerri admitted that she liked to make a bet or two, but refused to speculate to the public about who might win or lose. After all, her vocation was matchmaking, not predicting winners.

Ksenia’s mind churned over that revelation, not because she wanted a mate—not exactly—but because what she did want, and desperately, were teammates. Teammates who could match her skill, and who would relish a fight the same way she did. Teammates she could share the glory of winning an arena match with. Could Gerri’s skills extend to finding her something like that?

With a sigh, she lay back and listened, her attention only half on the interview while her mind mulled over a fantasy that grew more and more detailed. One that included her in an arena, hot sand beneath her boots, and one, two, or even three other dragons standing at her sides, ready to dive into combat.

Ksenia wanted that so badly she could taste it, and she fell asleep to dreams of a match that perfect.

The next morning, after enduring yet another breakfast in the mess hall catching wary side-eye from her fellow soldiers, she made her decision. She went back to her room and packed, barely paying attention to what she threw into her bag beyond the bare essentials.

She made her way to the abandoned tunnel in silence, keeping a low profile as she passed other dragons along the way. But when she made it to the exit, she faltered. Santer and Dmitri were striding in from the opposite hall where their families resided. When they heard footsteps approaching from a third direction, she laughed out loud.

“I should’ve known.”

“You too?” Leo asked.

“Of course,” Dmitri responded. “It’s time.”

Demyan nodded in agreement, and they all approached the still-closed heavy metal door that severed them from the rest of the world.

“We’ll have to keep our secret,” Dmitri said.

They all nodded.

“We decided to say we’re from a rural tribe,” Myron said. “And we won’t shift unless we know it’s safe.”

“Centuries have passed. We could be in the clear,” Santer added optimistically.

“Let’s go,” Ksenia growled. “There will be plenty of time to chat while we’re hiking through gods know how much sand for hours, if not days.”

Dmitri smirked and took hold of the lever beside him. Santer joined him, and together they pulled the rusty handle down.

The ground shook, the cavern creaked, and the door opened outward. Yellow sand drifted in, piling at their feet.

They stepped out. An urgency hummed through Ksenia’s bones, and she wondered if they all felt it. The twin suns, hanging high in the blush pink sky, called to her dragon.

A heavy creak sounded behind them, and within seconds the door had crashed shut. Sand quickly piled around it, part of the design that helped camouflage the entrance and kept them hidden.

Ksenia looked around, one hand shielding her eyes. “Guys? What’s that over there?”

They all stared with her.

Dmitri growled.

Demyan swore.

“I think it’s a sandstorm,” Myron shouted as a flurry rose at their feet. “Brace yourselves!”