Dardo’s wings were tired, his mouth ached, and his back itched underneath his midnight blue scales. After two years on the run, he knew he couldn’t stop until he found a place that could hide his massive form.
“Mother?” he asked the starry sky. “Where can dragons hide if there aren’t any caves?” He smiled as he imagined her deep purple eyes thinking of an answer. His smile faded when he thought of his own answer. “Maybe we’re not meant to live.”
Tucking away the thoughts of his mother, he continued searching the flat terrain below. A small farm came into view. Angling his wings to catch the warm air, Dardo slowed. After a quick hypersensing scan of the overgrown fields below him, he landed with a soft thud beside a paint-chipped red barn.
He patrolled the dark area to stretch his legs and wings — and scratch his itching back by rolling around in the overgrown grass. He sneezed twice, intensifying the pain in his mouth and bombarding his mind with questions. What had his mother been trying to tell him that day? Was it his fault she hadn’t heard the werecats until it was too late?
Two years ago, Dardo ran to his mother crying about the pain. She carefully examined the oblong lump on the roof of his mouth. “That shouldn’t be there,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s almost like—”
Her roar echoed throughout the cave. “They’re here! Hide!” She pushed Dardo into the front room before rushing toward the padded footsteps behind them.
Tucking his trembling wings in tight, he crouched as low as he could behind the largest stalagmite near the entryway. It no longer hid his entire form, so he tried to stay in the darkness of the corner.
Wild hisses. A bellowed roar. Several pained yowls. “Dardo, fly!” His mother’s desperate plea vibrated through him.
He jumped but stayed hidden when the whoosh of a large net settled in the archway across from him. “Mother,” he whispered in a choked sob, “come with me.”
With her acute hearing, she heard him. “I’ll always love you, Son!” she yelled out in a semi-muffled roar. “Fly, Dardo! Fl—”
He waited, stretching to hear more from her. Nothing. “Mother?” he whispered again. “Mother?”
When the net had slid out of sight, Dardo darted out the entryway and into the cloudless night. “I love you too, Mother,” he had whispered to the wind as his tears fell to the ground.
Dardo kicked the grass shaking off the memory before entering the deserted barn. His wide frame cracked the already-broken stalls on both sides of the breezeway, but his thick scales, although soft, prevented any splinters.
After curling up as comfortably as he could in the cramped space, he tried to sense his surroundings again. He sneezed for a third time, shaking loose a clicking sound in his head. Where was it coming from? Dardo felt for the protrusion in his mouth, trying to alleviate some of the pain, but nothing was working.
“I guess I’ll never know, Mother.” He gave a half-smile to the stars through the half-torn roof. “I’ll try to pretend this annoying ringing in my ears is simply the crickets singing me a lullaby.” He tucked his tail around his wing. “What’d you say?” Resting his head on his tail, Dardo smiled with his eyes closed. “I love you too, Mother.”
An earsplitting snap jolted him awake. He grimaced at the sun’s assault, but he listened, trying to drown out the clicking that grew louder inside him. He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe. Was that…
“I’ll guard this side,” a commanding voice hissed. “You two take the top with the net. And Jackie, take the other—”
“But I’m better with the net,” a small voice proclaimed.
“Would you listen to me for once? We’re so close this…”
The roof creaked. Dardo shifted his wings to free his legs, noticing the broken post swinging like a pendulum. Above that, two figures with pointed ears — accentuated by long, furry black tufts — extended an all-too familiar net from one side of the barn to the other.
“Werecats,” Dardo said under his breath, planning his escape route.
“Shh!” The commander silenced any further discussion. “It’s waking up.” He lowered his voice, almost to the point of nonexistence. “We have to hurry, so don’t argue.”
“Fine.” Her footsteps were light upon the uncut grass, heading to the open front doorway.
Hoping to scare them, Dardo stood up and started to roar. Nothing came out. Instead, a sharp pain in the roof of his mouth ripped through him as if he’d crashed into the side of a mountain. He closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to regain his senses.
“Now!” the commander yelled. “What’re you waiting for?”
Without a sound, a soft yet heavy net enveloped Dardo. His legs buckled. His neck bowed. He couldn’t fight it. Letting out a low growl that masked the faint clicking sound, he opened his eyes. A pair of small brown eyes stared back at him.
Dardo tried to fight the net again, but the two felines from the roof jumped down and landed without a sound on either side of him.
“Now what?” the small-voiced Jackie hissed. Her ears bent back as she reached in to touch their catch, claws extended. Gripping a necklace with her other paw-like hand, she stared into the dragon’s eyes.
A low snarl escaped him, and the pain began to ease.
“Even though you’re new to the hunt,” the commander said, grasping scales as he climbed up the net, “you should know what needs to be done.” He bent down in between the thick, slightly s-shaped horns and extended his claws until they reached Dardo’s eyes. “It’ll be quick, Beast.”
Jackie jerked her hand back. “Uh… Ryan?” Her black and grey striped tail curled around her leg, and she inched backward.
“Did you even read the handbook?” he hissed, gripping the horns a bit tighter as Dardo pushed up.
Standing directly in front of Dardo, she searched his eyes. “Yes, but—”
“Then why are you worried?” Ryan repositioned himself atop Dardo’s velvet scales and brought his front claws back down. “What’s that click—”
“Ryan!” Jackie yowled and used her furry, speckled arms to shield herself from the deafening roar that evolved into something more.
A geyser of fire erupted from Dardo.
The commanding voice atop him emitted a pained cry— “Jacarada! Move!” — and fell from his spiky head.
Vaguely concerned about the curious brown eyes that were in front of him only moments ago, Dardo closed his mouth in fear of causing any more damage. Fire? Where had the fire come from? What was happening to him?
He didn’t stick around to ponder his questions after the net disintegrated. Leaving his feline attackers behind, he rushed out of the blazing barn and spread his wings. In seconds he was soaring into the smoke-filled sky.
One last wailing cry for Jacaranda echoed up to him as he escaped. “I’m so sorry,” he admitted, unable to look back and unsure of the lives he had ended.
For the first time since the night he had left home, Dardo felt no pain, but his tears fell anyway. “What’s happening to me, Mother?”