The air sparkled with late afternoon sun and perspiration gleamed on her skin as wave after wave of heat rose from the pavement. She pressed her body harder against the bricks hoping for some relief in the inch of shade the towering building offered, but it was no use. She wouldn’t be finding any relief in the shade.
Thoughts of foraging swam in her brain, but she couldn’t bring herself to move. Hunger pains rumbled through her lower abdomen eliciting a deep groan. Not now! She closed her eyes and willed herself to believe she could wait until the sun set.
She jerked awake at the sound of her name. “Wha-the-hell?” Someone was shaking her shoulder hard. Her head bumped against the bricks, but in her not-yet-awake state, it felt like a bullet piercing her brain. “Ow! Stop!”
“Jana, you have to wake up!” Shoulder shake… again.
She opened her eyes a slit, but everything was a blur. “Toni, is that you?”
“Who else, you idiot?”
“What the hell?”
“It happened again.”
Jana shoved Toni’s hands away and closed her eyes. “I’m so not in the mood for your shit right now.”
“Jana!” Toni’s voice pierced into her ears and her head started to ache.
“Toni, I swear to God, if you don’t leave me alone…”
“But Jana, there’s been another one.”
That was all it took to bring her completely awake. Her eyes snapped open and with startling clarity focused on Toni’s frantic grey gaze.
“Everyone thinks it happened sometime in the past few hours. Behind Pappy’s. They sent me to get you.”
Jana was on her feet before Toni finished. “Show me.”
They left the alley behind the building and stepped onto the main road. Traffic was light for a Saturday afternoon. It seemed the heat was keeping everyone inside.
“Does the Dragon know?”
“He knows everything that happens in his territory.”
Jana glanced at Toni. “Except who’s killing kids, apparently.”
Three in as many months, including the one they were on their way to see. Jana had her suspicions about who was doing it, but she had to be sure before she took it to the Dragon. He’d already threatened to banish everyone who had entered his territory in the last three months; she didn’t even want to think what he would do to someone she suspected might be the killer.
Toni led Jana to the restaurant some among them considered their headquarters. Whether that was true or not, Jana couldn’t say. She’d never actually been inside. She looked questioningly at Toni, but her look was ignored. Jana continued to follow her into the thin alley next to Pappy’s Place that led behind the building. Not much back there except for rats. Jana’s guts tightened painfully, only this time it wasn’t hunger.
Some of the gang was still there. Jimmy was bent over next to the building puking his guts out. Jana slowly walked past Jimmy and regretted it the minute she saw the source of his sick. Beads of sweat were already slithering down her face from the fast walk in the heat, but one look at the body and they turned to ice.
“Jessica?” Her friend’s name was torn from her lips, a cry of shock and loss. Jana hadn’t known either of the others, but she knew Jessica. They’d worked the same street for a few weeks before Jessica moved on to better fare. Friends came fast and easy on the streets. It was almost a necessity. It was them against the world, the elements and the unfairness of it all. They had to stick together.
Peering down into her friend’s sightless eyes, tears welled up in her own. God, she couldn’t have been much older than her. Who would do such a thing?
But Jana knew the answer; knew it now more surely than she had when she’d seen the first two bodies. She also knew that she had brought him to the Dragon’s territory, and if she didn’t do something about it, she would surely be kicked out. She couldn’t let that happen. This was her home now.
Toni laid her hand on Jana’s shoulder, but Jana didn’t move. “Jana, we have to leave before the cops show up.” Her voice pierced the silence and finally brought Jana out of her own thoughts.
“Who found her?”
Poor kid, Jana thought. “Did someone make the call?”
“Yeah, Ian did.”
Just then, they all heard the distant wail of the siren. With one last look at Jessica’s broken body, they all shuffled towards the alley. It wouldn’t do Jessica any good to have them all arrested. The cops were good for some things, but not for the living. They’d round them up and most of them would go to Juvie or worse – they’d be sent back to their “homes”. The sad reality was that most of them had a damn good reason for leaving in the first place. The cops would just have to solve this one without their help, but so far, it seemed they were at a loss too.
The Dragon’s realm covered almost twenty blocks, including an old abandoned shack down by the docks. Jana set out at sunset, armed with not much more than her courage. She carried her dad’s old pocket knife in her pack that she’d stolen when she left. She wasn’t sure she could use it as a weapon, if it came to that, but she pulled it out and shoved it in her jeans just in case.
The air hung thick around her, not much different from earlier except the sun wasn’t causing its usual havoc. She shivered despite the mugginess of the early evening. She knew she probably shouldn’t be facing him alone, but she didn’t have a choice. She didn’t want anyone else to die.
The grayish-blue sky she had started out with was just turning deep purple when she opened the door to the shack. It creaked on rusty hinges.
“Braden?” She called as she stepped inside.
The door banged as it closed behind her and she jumped at the sudden sound. Her eyes were still adjusting to the darkness but she looked wildly around hoping to see something in the black void.
“Braden? It’s Jana. Are you here?” She heard rustling off to her left and almost turned around and ran out the door. The streets were tough, but they weren’t face-someone-you-think-might-be-a-killer tough.
“What do you want, Jana?” The soft voice came from directly behind her and she swung around, almost losing her balance. He was standing right in front of her, a menacing shadow.
“I just… I… I…” She didn’t even know what to say. I think you’re a killer? Why did you kill those kids? How do you confront someone you’ve known all your life with something like this?
“Jana, you should leave.” His voice was still soft, but there was a hardness to it she’d never heard before.
“Why, Braden?” Her voice shook and she wished she sounded stronger, but any courage she’d had when she’d started was completely gone.
“How did you know?” The words came out on a sigh, like a lover’s whisper, only they were words that tore her apart.
Tears welled in her eyes. “You carved that same symbol in the tree by our house. Jessica…” Her voice hitched and she swallowed before starting over. “You’re getting better. On the other bodies I couldn’t quite make it out, but on Jessica…”
Silence descended between them. Jana didn’t dare look in his direction. She was afraid of what she might see. Instead, she glanced at the door behind him desperately thinking of a way out. She could make it past him, couldn’t she?
But did she need to? He wouldn’t do anything to her. Would he?
She must have twitched, giving away her frantic thoughts. Within seconds he was in front of her. His hands reached out and grabbed her arms hard, holding them to her side. He yanked her forward so their faces were within inches of each other. She could feel his breath on her skin as her legs flailed, trying to reach the ground.
“Why did you have to come here, Jana?” The whisper had turned to a yell and his voice echoed through the tiny shack. She could see his eyes now. His icy blue gaze bore into her and she realized she didn’t recognize him. How is it that someone you’ve known your whole life can become unrecognizable in a matter of seconds?
“Braden, please,” She cried. “I won’t say anything. I promise. You know me! I… I…” She was babbling. How pathetic to be pleading for her life when she’d walked down here with such bravado. “I just… I want to understand. That’s all.”
“Understand? How could you?” He sneered. “Why did it have to be you? Why?” He punctuated the last word by slamming her against the opposite wall. Her head banged against the boards and stars burst behind her eyes. She cried out and tried to lift her arms, a desperate act to shield her body, her face… anything from him, but it was no use.
Before she could open her eyes again, she felt a hard slam to the side of her face and she spilled to the floor, dazed. As if from a distance, she heard her own thoughts. Is this really happening?
She heard his shoes scuffling on the floor and thought more blows would come, but they never did. She heard a loud pop that burst through her ears and rang inside her skull. She tried to open her eyes. Only one of them obeyed. The other one was heavy and didn’t want to work. Everything was a blur, though, even with one good eye.
A large shadow suddenly stepped in front of her vision and she screamed. This is finally it.
It wasn’t Braden. Who the hell is it?
The shadow leaned down. “Can you hear me?”
“Yes.” The word was so soft she wasn’t even sure she’d said it out loud.
“Are you Jana?”
“Yes.” Louder this time.
“Let’s get you out of here.”
Before she could say anything else, the shadow picked her up and carried her out of the shack. Her head was pounding and she could feel the side of her face thumping in time to her frantic heartbeat. “Who… Who…?” She couldn’t speak around her thumping heart.
“Everything’s okay now.”
She lifted her face and looked into his eyes with her one good one. His eyes held her spell bound. Green eyes, so startling they couldn’t possibly be human. Was he? Human? Fuck, she must be in shock. She definitely wasn’t thinking clearly. Unless…
“You’re the Dragon?” Louder, but still barely above a whisper.
He smiled then, a soothing expression that washed over her, calming her heart.
“Yes. And for the record? I know everything that happens in my territory.”
I haven’t participated in a Chuck Wendig challenge for quite some time, but it was so much fun to write a story longer than 100 words. I don’t even know how this one ended up a little over 1800 words, but it did. When I first read the “dragon” prompt, I shook my head, thinking there was no way. I’m not what you’d consider a fantasy writer. But then he said to “think out of the box” and this story started to take shape. I posted the first 100 words last Friday and promised to finish it by today. Amazingly enough, that actually happened. (I ended up including the first 100 words here as well so you could read the whole thing)
I hope you liked it as much as I loved writing it!