The air in the dragon arena was thick with tension. Everyone around Callum stood in pairs, buckets of water held close to their sides as they awaited the chaos that would eventually ensue.
His hands were calloused and blistered from burns. He’d spent the remnant of the weekend in the forge, working on the new tailfin any moment he could find, painstakingly waiting for hours on end for Ethari to leave or turn his back in order to reveal the intricate metals he’d been slaving over.
Needless to say, he was beginning to regret not bothering to wear gloves. Bare hands meant more mobility, and detail could be placed into his work, but the burns and cuts from hot metal… he wasn’t sure the ease of movement was quite worth it.
Today, Gren had explained, they would be facing a Hideous Zippleback. One of the more dangerous dragons that the vikings had managed to capture and force into captivity.
Without the slightest bit of warning a lever was pulled, and the door to the dragon’s cage flew open. A large plume of foul-smelling smoke filled the air around them until all Callum could see was the vague figure of Rayla beside him.
He suspected that Gren paired them up together solely due to their past interactions in the class--most of which were disastrous in his opinion. He personally wished he’d been paired with Claudia. Maybe then he’d be able to return to her good graces and no longer be the awkward ex-friend she seemed so intent on ignoring.
“Don’t mess this up,” she hissed under her breath, as the other groups ran out through the fog.
“No promises,” he replied.
His hand instinctively flew to a small weight in his pocket, where an eel had been carefully confined earlier that morning. He prayed to the gods that the stench of fish hadn’t lingered on his clothes.
Actually, nevermind. If the Hideous Zippleback smelt the eel then maybe it would avoid his group.
The air was thick and moist when he breathed in. Then again, maybe it was just the leftover congestion from briefly getting sick over the weekend. It turns out falling into a freezing lake and then just spending the rest of the day in soaked clothing isn’t very good for your health--especially when you were as prone to illness as Callum.
Sounds of shuffling could be heard from around them. The area was growing dim and the gas only rising in thickness, to the point where he could barely see two feet in front of him.
He heard a splash of water and sudden shriek from the side, one that sounded suspiciously like Nyx. A hand on his shoulder startled him. Rayla stood close at his side, her expression serious and blank.
“We need to move and hide in the mist. If we can survive long enough for the fog to begin to dissipate…”
“...we’ll be able to easily find the correct head.” Callum finished Rayla’s sentence, his water bucket clutched tightly in his hand.
These dragons weren’t like Zym, he kept having to remind himself. They produced forms of fire, water would eliminate that threat.
Zym was immune to water, he realized suddenly. If a fire dragon would be submerged they’d be unable to produce fire for as long as they were wet, with Zym the same rules didn’t apply. Water conducted electricity. If Zym were to use that to his advantage…
The sound of footsteps appeared to the left of them as they backed towards a wall, and Callum turned to the sound. The figures of Soren and Claudia appeared. Soren’s bucket was empty.
A look of disgust crossed his face as he spotted Callum.
“Aw, come on! I thought you were Corvus!”
“Sorry to disappoint.”
Rayla’s mood seemed to immediately sour at their appearance, her eyes flickering from each sibling as she studied the two, “Soren, your bucket is empty.”
Claudia let out a laugh at that observation, “Yeah, he used it on Nyx. You should’ve seen the look on her face, it was hilarious.”
“I’d rather not, if I were to be completely honest,” was Rayla’s reply.
It suddenly hit him that Rayla really wasn’t that popular with the other teens. Sure, she was respected and praised as the prodigy among them, but never seen actually hanging out with them.
A low grumble sounded from off to the side. Rayla let out a curse before grabbing Callum’s arm, dragging him off to the side.
“We can’t talk. Not when there’s a literal dragon stalking us.”
The two of them disappeared into the fog before the two siblings could follow them.
“So, is there any plan other than hiding the entire time?” he heard himself ask, immediately regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth.
She’d just told him to be quiet. He was an idiot.
“Do you have a better one?”
Okay, so Rayla didn’t kill him.
That was a plus.
“I mean, if we were to find both of the heads and doused them one of them has to be correct, right?”
“How would you expect to do that?”
A voice shouted out from overhead, calling for Soren and Claudia to get out. How they would manage to do that, Callum didn’t have a clue.
“The fog is thicker over here because this is where the dragon is,” he said, spewing his thoughts aloud so Rayla wouldn’t be left in an awkward silence, “if we head in the direction of the thickest fog, we’ll eventually come across the Zippleback.”
Rayla stared at him through the gas.
“That is a ridiculously stupid idea.”
“I mean, we don't have to-”
“No, shut up. We’re doing it.”
Rayla turned and began to move in the direction they’d come from. Their vision became more and more clouded as they walked. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and realized that it was Rayla keeping track of his location, so that they weren’t separated.
Soon, the low grumble of a dragon’s voice echoed through the air around them. Callum felt Rayla’s stiff grip on him disappear as she shifted her full attention to the sound.
The noise silenced, and a split-second later he saw the huge outline of a tall, long neck appear in front of him.
He panicked, and before he could think things through clearly he shoved his bucket forward. The water inside surged quickly in the dragon’s direction, before promptly falling short and splatting across the ground.
He was pretty sure he heard Rayla mumble the word “ idiot ” under her breath.
The Hideous Zippleback’s growl grew, the noise filling his ears and causing adrenaline to spike as the dragon’s head lowered quickly to his height. In another bout of panic, he shut his eyes and spurted out a quick, jumbled “ howdeedodeethere ” to the dragon, not thinking for a second of the pretty girl standing only a few feet away.
The growl silenced, and the thick fog immediately began to dissipate as soon as the Dragonese word left his mouth. He slowly peeled open his eyes to see the dragon’s head hovering only a few feet away from his face.
It’s gaze wasn’t filled with any malice, only curiosity. It opened its mouth and spoke, it’s words sounding more like gibberish than anything to Callum.
He held his breath as the dragon sniffed at him.
The brief moment of peace was interrupted by a wave of water splashed over the Zippleback’s head.
Chaos immediately erupted, the dragon letting out an animalistic screech and rage filling the air as plumes of thick gas spewed from the jaws of the dragon.
“Wrong head!” Callum shouted as he hastily backed up.
“We wouldn’t have had to worry about the wrong head if you hadn’t wasted your bucket!” Rayla shot back, seeming content on abandoning him as the dragon began to attack.
“ Rayla, Callum, get out of there! ” he heard Gren’s voice shout, and Callum was about to do just that when his thoughts drifted back to the eel he’d slipped into his pocket.
He didn’t have any time to linger on that idea.
There was a brief lull in the noise before a quiet click sounded throughout the arena, a small orange light illuminating somewhere to his right.
Almost instantaneously white filled his vision, unbearable heat filling the air around him. Blasts of fire surrounded the two of them in quick, rapid succession. He heard Rayla fall to the ground beside him, a cry of pain so quiet Callum could’ve imagined it following.
Almost as quickly as the fire had begun it’d faded once again, the Hideous Zippleback now in full view before them, the flames having burnt away all of the released gas and leaving everything in full view, the only remnants of the fog being the ash that floated throughout the air.
“What are you doing? Run!” Gren once again called from above, and it took him a second to realize that he was referring to everyone in the arena, not just him and Rayla. The silhouettes of Corvus and Nyx could be seen across the arena, scrambling frantically to the exit.
He looked to his side, where Rayla had begun to leave, she was clutching her left hand tightly. Burn blisters were stretching across her wrist.
They needed to leave.
The dragon let out two simultaneous roars as its long necks twisted about with no real rhyme or reason. Its large body was blocking the way to the exit.
“Rayla, when I give the signal go to the exit,” he said, devising a plan in his head as he spoke.
The dragon began to move towards them.
“ Run ,” he heard himself shout, immediately turning and dashing in the opposite direction, to where the large cage stood with its door wide open.
His hands frantically fumbled with the button to the pocket that held the eel. He could feel the looming presence of the Hideous Zippleback behind him as the pluming gas once again filled the air around him.
He tried not to think about the fact that, if it were to ignite the fumes in that moment, he’d be nothing more than a burnt pile of ash.
Finally, finally the pocket flew open, and Callum gripped the eel tightly as he dragged the long fish out and into the air, ignoring how the cartilage crunched under his fingers. The looming shape above him halted as he spun, turning towards the exit and hurriedly blocking the way out.
He lifted up the eel in front of him, and the dragon made a terrible shrieking noise, repeating the same painful, gibberish sounds as it backed up. Callum bit back the rising terror at the sight of the violent dragon, slowly forcing himself to step forward. He moved far too slowly, with the fog quickly dissipating without one of the heads constantly spewing the foul mist.
With one last stride forward, the dragon was in its pen. He tossed the fish forward, guilt clawing at his chest at the fearful shrieks of the dragon. It took all of his strength to reach up and force the door shut, making sure to secure the latch and turn back towards the exit… where Rayla was standing, leaning against the arched entrance to the arena, a look of disbelief written on her face.
Callum was suddenly all too aware of the eyes that drilled into him. He quickly crossed the arena, to where Gren had approached and was looking over Rayla’s wounded hand.
“Callum, could you go get the first aid kit and take care of this? The others have some injuries that I need to tend to.”
He regretted agreeing as soon as the words left his mouth.
Rayla’s eyes looked like they held something akin to murder. Her lips quivered slightly, as if she was holding herself back from speaking.
The burn on her hand looked worse than it was, he realized as soon as he returned from the storage with the medical kit they kept at the arena. It was very minor, the only skin affected being the very top level. It was relatively harmless long-term if properly treated. At worst it would scar, which was likely considering the side.
They were both lucky that this was all they came away from that fight with.
Rayla let herself sit down against the wall, and Callum kept silent as he spread the required salve across her skin and applied a bandage.
“I suppose you have a lot of experience doing this?” she asked, breaking the silence.
Her voice was very much unstable.
He was not looking forward to facing her after this.
“I’m not known as the village menace for nothing,” he replied simply, holding back a cringe as countless memories of his various mess-ups and injuries resurfaced.
She quickly took her hand away from him the moment he tied the bandage, standing and grimacing as she moved her hand.
“This is going to hurt for a while, isn’t it.”
“Burns are some of the most painful injuries I’ve found you can get, so yeah.”
Her attention turned to Gren as he dismissed the class, and she quickly made her way over to him.
He took that as his signal to leave before anyone questioned him on his actions against the Hideous Zippleback.
Callum tried to ignore the furious footsteps that followed him as he exited the arena.
His ignorance was shattered the moment a furious silver-haired girl yanked on the back of his doublet, immediately stopping him from walking a single step more.
Sometimes he really hated how thin and bony he was. Most days, in fact. This moment only confirmed that fact.
“What the hell was that?” Rayla’s voice was sharp and condescending. The knowledge that she could easily snap one of his bones made her voice all the more terrifying.
Callum swallowed, trying to force down the rising panic that had been bubbling up ever since he slipped up and tossed the water in the arena, “What was what?” he asked, hating how his voice had the audacity to crack when he said that sentence.
“Don’t you dare play dumb with me!”
His voice cracked again.
Callum desperately raked through his mind for some sort of explanation. She’d heard him speak Dragonese. How the hell was he going to explain that?
“Look I know this seems really bad and I--”
“What was that thing you threw at it?”
Rayla rolled her eyes, and the sound of mindless chatter rose from up near the arena, where the other teens were beginning to make their way back to the village.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this…” she muttered, grabbing onto Callum’s wrist and dragging him away from the path and into the forest.
“Rayla, where are you--”
“Just shut up for a minute, okay? And don’t you dare tell anyone about this.”
They stopped walking when the overgrowth gave way to a small clearing, tree stumps and fallen logs lining the edges.
She released her grip on his arm roughly, shoving him forwards into the clearing and standing there expectantly with her arms crossed.
“Well. What was that?” she asked, “No one can randomly coerce a dragon into returning to the place of their captivity, especially not someone as small as you. You were holding something. What was it?”
Oh gods, Thor help him. He wasn’t getting out of this was he.
“So? What is it. You obviously know more about dragons than you’re letting on. What, have you been receiving training in secret or something?”
Callum threw his hands into the air, before untying one of his leather pockets from around his waist, trying not to gag at the smell that still clung to it. He tossed it to the ground in front of Rayla. She threw him a critical look.
“What is this?”
“Smell it if you want.”
She rolled her eyes, crouching next to it. Her face turned sour as the scent reached her nose.
“Why does it reek of fish?”
“It turns out dragons really hate eel.”
This peaked her interest, and she brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear as she stood back up, kicking the foul-smelling pocket back towards him. The lock was braided. Since when did she braid her bangs?
“And how would you know this?”
Callum bit his lip, searching for a lie that would pass Rayla’s intellect, “I spend a lot of time in the forest.”
Her response was almost immediate, “I call BS. I spend half of my time out here.”
“I may or may not have started hanging out around the Cursed Caldera.”
“The Cursed-- Are--” she seemed to stumble over her words, “Are you insane? ”
“I was looking for the Storm Fury! Okay?”
Callum was currently regretting every word that escaped his mouth.
“The Storm Fury that you claimed to have shot down last week?” Rayla’s voice had lowered slightly, no longer sharp and painful to his ears, “And I suppose you never found this fabled Storm Fury?”
“No. I didn’t.”
The lie slipped out too easily.
“And the eel?”
“One washed up on the beach.”
Wait, was there even a beach on that side of the island? He couldn’t recall whether or not the shoreline was bordered by rocks or sand.
“The dragons avoided it, and so I decided to test my theory on Terrible Terrors that wandered into the forest.”
Rayla was silent for a long moment, seemingly processing the information she’d just been given, and overturning his story to search for plot holes or inconsistencies.
Eventually she spoke again, “You mean you willingly carried around an eel in your pocket all morning, because of the off chance that you’d be able to use it against a dragon,” she confirmed, “without even knowing if the larger dragons would be affected?”
“It sounds really bad when you put it like that…”
“I don’t know if you’d noticed, but this class is meant to teach us how to fight and kill dragons, not scare them away.”
Callum was all too aware of that note, “Yeah.”
They stood there, in the small alcove under the trees. She drew one of her swords and walked past him.
“Fine. You can leave, if you want,” she said.
“Gladly,” he replied, noting the long gashes covering the logs and trees.
He hurriedly grabbed his discarded pocket from the ground and rushed out of what he assumed to be Rayla’s training area, not looking back once as he returned to the path that led to the village.
Rayla was super suspicious of him now.
He was going to have a hell of a time keeping her from finding Zym, wasn’t he?