Astrid couldn’t remember the last time that she had been as carefree as Ava, but she wished she could go back to those times. Despite herself, a small smile crept across her lips as she watched Ava laughing and splashing in the river, her long light brown hair getting soaked as the water sprayed up and hit her.
She and her sister looked a lot alike. Except from the obvious difference such as Astrid had wavy red hair and bright blue eyes after their dad and Ava had straight brown hair and dark brown eyes after their mom, they still had the same freckled face, the same nose, and even similar face shapes. When Ava grew up, she’d definitely be a beautiful young woman.
“Come and play with me, Astrid!” Ava giggled as she kicked up even more water, managing to spray Astrid from where she sat and watched on a large boulder beside the river.
Not wanting to let her watchful eyes off of their surroundings for one moment, Astrid shook her head. “I think I’ll just stay here and watch. I’m feeling a little tired anyways,” she lied, scanning the dense undergrowth around them once again. She had been doing this for years and years, but it had paid off several times, so she wouldn’t stop doing it anytime soon.
“Don’t be mad, okay?”
Astrid perked up suddenly, watching Ava intently. “Mad at what, exactly? What did you do?”
Ava shrugged as she stooped down and absentmindedly picked up several rocks from the bottom of the river. “I made a friend last week and we’ve been playing together. His name is Owen. He’s really nice.”
Steam shot out of Astrid’s nose as she stared her little sister down. “You cannot have any friends! Especially if they’re human. You know what the human hunters did to Mother, to Father, to Christian, to Sammy. I don’t want that to ever happen to you too. Either you stop seeing him or we’ll leave town first thing in the morning.”
“No!” Ava screeched, her draki voice coming from deep into her throat. “Please, Astrid! Please let me keep him! I haven’t had a real friend in my life. Please let me keep him. I beg you!”
Fiercely shaking her head, Astrid got to her feet, practically glaring down at Ava. “You don’t know what the hunters are capable of! They will tear you apart limb from limb! They will make you beg for death!” She crossed her arms, her emotions wavering when she saw Ava’s chin quivering, but she had to be resolute for her own sister’s safety. “At first light, we will leave town, and you will not contact this boy again. Am I clear?”
Ava’s lip trembled before she burst into tears and began sloshing back down the stream, her tears running hot down her face.
“Wait!” Astrid called after Ava, raw emotions churning in her heart. She shouldn’t have been so cross with Ava. All her sister wanted was a friend, a chance at a normal life. “Ava, wait. I’m sorry! Please come back.”
She ran after her sister, her good eyes peering through the darkness as to follow Ava’s tracks, but she found it increasingly difficult. Ava was born with the abilities of stealth and camouflage whereas Astrid had been born with the gift of fire and brute strength. If Ava didn’t want to be found, then she wouldn’t be.
“I’m sorry!” Astrid called again, her heart rate accelerating with fear as she spun around in circles, straining her eyes for any sign of her sister. “Please come back! I didn’t mean it. Ava, we can work something out. We can! Please just come back!”
But the night remained silent, so sign of her sister anywhere. Oh no. What had she done?
As tempted as she felt to transform into her draki form, she restrained herself. Although it would be much easier to move quickly and use her enhanced draki senses for tracking, it wasn’t safe.
“Ava, where are you?’ Astrid whispered, her eyes wide as she trekked through the forest. She weaved in and out of trees, across the river, and over lush, forest earth with her ears perked up, trying to pick up even the faintest sound. Nothing. All she could detect were the chirping crickets and the trickling river. Where on earth had her sister run off to?
Continuing through the dark forest, Astrid was now on the verge of freaking out, her heart practically jumping out of her chest and every cell in her body on edge. Hunters could be out here. She could be in trouble!
Right then, a shrill scream echoed through the night, setting Astrid over the edge. That was Ava!
Astrid burst forward with renewed speed, crashing through the foliage and undergrowth as she raced forward. She didn’t care as the branches scratched her arms as she flew past. She didn’t care that she could almost collapse with the fearful adrenaline shooting through her veins. All that mattered to her was Ava.
Her feet stopped abruptly as she caught sight of Ava in her draki form, but she wasn’t alone. She was trapped inside a large net with five hunters surrounding her. They prodded her with their feet and even poked her with one of their spears to make her roar in pain.
Anger seethed through Astrid’s veins as she watched the display. They would not kill her sister, she was the last thing on this earth that Astrid actually cared about. She would save her sister or die trying.
Large, brawny red muscles jumped out of her skin, giving way to arms, legs, a snout, sharp teeth, a tail, and strong, beautiful wings. She let out a deafening roar of anguish before bursting into the clearing, taking the hunters off guard. Her razor-like claws slashed right through the first two hunters and then she whipped around so quickly that her tail sent another one flying across the clearing, slamming hard into the trunk of a tree.
Astrid let out a snarling growl that ripped from her throat as she rounded on the last two, pure hatred burning through her eyes. She hated the dragon hunters. She hated them more than they could even fathom.
One of the hunters lifted a crossbow toward her and let an arrow fly, but she managed to dodge out of the way last second and make a swipe at him with her claws, not knowing if she killed him or not but hardly caring. She needed her sister out of that net now!
“Don’t come any closer!” the last dragon hunter said, pointing a spear toward her as if that small piece of twig could do anything to her. There was a reason why she had survived this long. Astrid was one of the strongest of her kind, and the pure love for her sister helped keep them both alive.
“Let her out of the net,” Astrid grumbled, still continuing to advance on him, steam shooting out of her nostrils. “Let her out of the net or I’ll fry you to a crisp.”
Surprisingly, the man laughed, his dark brown eyes seeming to stare into her soul. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. If you fry me, you’ll never be able to get the dragon out, and if she’s not able to get out, then the alchemy in the net will kill her if she’s not let out in time. But I have a better option than both of those. I’ll let her out on one condition.”
Hot, angry steam poured from her mouth and her nostrils, and she had a sudden bloodlust to kill this human. She hated him so much. “What’s your condition?”
The hunter slowly lowered his spear to the ground and held his hands up, almost as if to show he meant no harm, but she could smell the lie from a mile away.
“A trade. The dragon we caught is weak, definitely not a challenge for who she is to fight at the palace.”
“She’s eleven years old!” Astrid growled as she whipped her tail around the tree as well as around the man’s waist, holding him tight to the tree. She squeezed him hard, but not hard enough to kill.
“Eleven?” he asked, emotion in his eyes wavering for a moment.
“Yes!” she growled again, fury radiating off her in waves. “Let her go, now!”
The man shook his head, his eyes regaining that infuriating smirk once again. “I will let her go if you take her place. I want you to fight at the palace. That is my condition.”
“No!” Ava cried from where she lay under the net. “Don’t do it. I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have ran away. I’m so sorry.” She sobbed, but it sounded so weak, almost as if she were fighting off sleep.
Astrid looked from the man to her sister and back to the man again, but then her grip loosened on him in utter defeat. “Okay,” she whispered. “Just let her go. And promise me her safety.”
“On my life, I promise you that she will not be captured or harmed tonight. Do I have your word of cooperation?”
Nodding, Astrid’s heart accelerated as she loosened her grip around him entirely, and very slowly, she transformed into her human form, staring back at the man in defeat. But the man just stared back, unmoving, and for one blissful moment, Astrid thought that he might have changed his mind about keeping one of them for the fight. But he quickly regained his composure and walked past her toward the net, doing something to it so that the net lifted and Ava scrambled out.
“Ava!” Astrid cried as she rushed toward her sister who had changed back into a human and engulfed her in a hug. “Get away from here as fast as you can! And don’t come back. It won’t be just me and you anymore. You need to learn to take care of yourself from now on.”
“But Astrid…” Ava sniffed, her eyes full of tears. “I can’t leave you. I need you.”
“Go!” Astrid cried, pushing her sister toward the trees. “Leave, and don’t you come back!” With more reluctance than Astrid had ever seen, Ava changed back into a draki and camouflaged with her surroundings, and Astrid knew that she had disappeared. For now, she would be safe.
The man with the dark eyes approached her very cautiously, holding something in his hands that she didn’t recognize. “Now don’t put up a fight, or we will make it our soul purpose to kill that other draki.” He suddenly slapped something around her neck and the world immediately became blurry and unfocused. Before she could help herself, she fell to the dirt of the forest floor, her last thoughts turning to her sister. She hoped that Ava could take care of herself. If this sacrifice meant that Ava would live just a little bit longer, then it would be a sacrifice well worth the price.