Prompt: a story with dragons and a ‘broken sky’.
All the warriors among all the birds had made their attempts already, and all had failed. Evidence of their failure was everywhere. Taravien lumbered forward, her legs splayed out to the side rather than directly under her, pushing aside the feathers like Autumn leaves. As a dragon she had two ways of walking and two ways of flying.
There was the wolf’s run with legs straight down. It was excellent for building up speed, for taking off and landing. Then there was the lizard’s crawl, for when you stalked prey through tall grass. Taravien usually never used it, as she preferred to catch bats and birds on the wing. Now she had no choice, for the broken sky pushed her down; it got worse the closer she came to the rusty human city in the distance.
For now there were still trees all about her, as it was the land of the birds. Each and every one had either bent or snapped to accommodate the sky’s illness. All nests had fallen and no eggshell could stay solid under its own weight. Between the naked hatchlings and the fallen warriors there was plenty of meat about, but Taravien couldn’t bring herself to swallow a single one. Every corpse was infected by that acrid industrial smell spewing out of the city. It was the gas that broke the sky, turned it that nauseating yellow.
Taravien was not the best-suited in her family to walking great distances; that was her uncle Ferktail the gray. He hunted mostly moles and badgers, and never even used his wings. They were shriveled and holey on his back. He had fled at the first sign of trouble, into a deep burrow he’d stolen from some other creature. Taravien’s parents had to remain behind and take care of her littler siblings. She fought for their future, in the hopes they wouldn’t have to learn their wings were useless.
It had to be the humans’ doing. When the yellow crept into the sky over dragon land it came from the direction of their noisiest city. Whether magic, science, or both, the gas was a curse. Anything moving through clouds of it felt ten times heavier. It pulled all the natural clouds down as painful rain. It grounded the birds who lived so close to the people, a folly born from their desire of human crumbs. It would eat the dragon’s sky next… so Taravien crawled and dragged her wings behind her.
“Golden dragon,” a hornbill squawked. Taravien crawled under a leaning tree and its mane of white moss. The bird was in its shade, flat on its stomach, black wings held out to the sides. It was yet another bad omen, for birds were among her natural prey. If it called to her then it did so to beg for help or share information in the hopes that predator and prey could be a dynamic set aside in favor of war against the human toxin.
“Yes?” Taravien whispered, her forked tongue flicking in and out, tasting the bird’s desperation. “Who are you?”
“One of many,” the bird squeaked. “In all my flock I made it the closest. By the end, every feather felt like a stone and those stones felt only sorrow. I was grounded here, bound to my grave.” Its beak clicked weakly. Taravien heard other beaks click off in the underbrush: a chorus of defeated warriors. “I want to tell you all I know. You’re a dragon. Mightiest of the sky beasts. You’ll stop them.” Taravien nodded; it took significant effort just to get her head back up. The broken sky bent her neck in the middle, making it look like a snake squeezing under a rock. “Look for the smallest door. That’s where they hide the greatest evil.” The bird’s eyes blinked slowly. “The phoenix can help you more…”
Taravien moved on after whispering a thanks. Even if the foul smell dissipated she would not partake of them. Birds could be silly, shallow, flippant things, but all that had been pulled from their souls, down into the ground, by the broken sky. The dragon continued on until the trees could no longer hold in the ground. All the plants were flattened into a sort of carpet that tangled her black claws. Her golden scales were the only spot of color in the blackening mats of green.
She couldn’t lift her head high enough to see the small cliff, so she tripped and rolled down its edge. Her mind froze because she’d never felt such a fall. It wasn’t like her first attempts to fly, where ancestral dragon magics softened the air beneath her. It wasn’t like a bird dropping dead because of a stilled heart. This was the sky pushing down, rejecting all its natural inhabitants, vomiting its very potential as a hellish downpour. The young dragon rolled to a stop and immediately received a burn across her eyelid.
“Aaahh!” she hissed, scrambling back as dry brown scales flaked off her jaw and neck. There was fire before her: another victim of the cliff. This bird’s wings were also spread wide, but they emitted blankets of smoke that could not rise. From wing tip to wing tip, the creature was its own blazing red horizon. Here was a phoenix, the winged smile of the sun itself, just as grounded as the rest who wore feathers instead of flames. It was five times the size of Taravien and the smoke it emitted made it difficult to breathe with her head hanging low. Still, she dragged herself around to its fused glass beak.
“Dragon,” the phoenix addressed, “run.”
“I cannot,” the golden beast argued. “None can run under this heavy broken sky. I must know. How do I defeat the humans?”
“The gas…” the phoenix struggled to say, “flammable. Run!” Taravien pulled her head to the side and saw a rolling blanket of the yellow gas tumble down the cliff. She realized too late this was what had done the phoenix in. Perhaps its wings were strong enough, but the gas had made it explode out of the sky and crash there. The cliff was its crater. She couldn’t run, but she had to perform the best approximation possible.
She made it only twenty feet when the new bank of gas struck the downed phoenix. There was an explosion, a thing few animals had ever been forced to experience, and it threw her the rest of the way to the human city. What a horrible beast the blast was, all roar and body heat with no flesh and blood. It was like an evil thought realizing it had the room to expand.
Blackened and weak, Taravien dragged herself under the nearest cover: a pile of broken wooden beams. From there she observed a factory. Its chimneys billowed yellow gas. People came in and out the large front doors, happy and laughing. Occasionally machines came out of the ceiling, with false stiff wings, and soared away. So that was their game. They wanted to push every natural denizen of the sky down and out, all so their wagons could take to the wing and face no traffic.
There was another littler door just as the hornbill had said. The people moving in and out of this one had sly eyes and stiff mouths. These were the ones that knew what they did. They couldn’t laugh about it. They worked with the real side of the factory. If there was a way to destroy them it was through there.
Taravien waited until the dead of night, when the doors were clear. She dragged her wings over to the little one. It was locked, but dragon teeth make excellent skeleton keys. She bit the knob from its moorings and tore it free. The door swung open.
Dragons did not have the written word, so the signs meant nothing to her, but their pictograms did. She found canisters labeled with flames and yellow clouds. Here was their supply of gas. With one careful claw she twisted the valve. A thin jet shot out. She closed it again. The phoenix was dead, but surely its flames still burned back at the crater.
The golden dragon took her prize, one canister, and dragged herself out. A phoenix flame was eternal, even if the bird was not. It would burn at first, but Taravien would hold a small remnant of that flame in her mouth. When she was used to it she would share it with a jet of the yellow gas. A brilliant idea. Dragons could steal canisters, combine them with the borrowed flames, and breathe a fire of vengeance onto the selfish humans.
Taravien was the first, but soon all dragons would be known as fire-breathers. They would torch the factories and explode the sky, until the natural order was intact once more.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by OfficerGenious during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!