Once & Future Dragons by Marianne Morea

 

Prologue

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

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

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

Ksenia dragged spiked gloves along the rock walls, sending sparks into the gloom. “Speak for yourself, snookums. If you don’t like it here, then you should leave. It was your Volkhv ancestors that 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! Your making my teeth hurt.”

She laughed, reaching to pat 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 to listen. “Do you hear that?” A buzzing crackle sounded in the distance.

“What is that?” Ksenia squinted, angling her head as well, her sleek, trademark 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 up 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 were, 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 dragon scales. An opalescence unsurpassed for camouflage and impenetrability, and worth a fortune on the intergalactic black market.

They were hunted to near extinction until they 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 from his head. “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 on their friend’s 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 work table. “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 with a grin. “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 explained. 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’s head nodded in time to the beat until Dmitri reached forward and slid 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 break, but we’re confident that the former League champions are ready to—” Dmitri adjusted the device again, silencing the voice.

Ksenia reached out, stilling Dmitri’s 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 stepped back. “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 when they fully worked. 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 within seconds. “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 pointed 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 techno-babble, please,” Ksenia interjected.

Myron rolled his green eyes. “It’ll help you find spots in the caves with better signal. Which could theoretically allow access to more channels. Also theoretically it would 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 said, shaking 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 the small yet powerful link to the surface world.