“There’s a dragon in the sea. Can’t you see him?”
The waves brush against the stone steps, smothering the bottom two until they can’t be seen anymore as the local crazy man walks past, muttering to himself about sea dragons and magic. The cold, beautiful coastline of Silloth stretches out for miles, wrapping around a small corner of England, but it feels like it’s a million worlds apart from the rest of the busy world. It certainly is in the middle of nowhere, for me at least. The sky fills with bright, vibrant oranges and yellows that reflect across the calm blue sea as the sun sets. This is my favourite part of the day, but it fails to make me smile, to make me feel less lost and alone today. I wrap my tanned arms around my short legs, breathing in the familiar sea air, and try to forget today. It doesn’t work.
Fuck. I knew hiding here wasn’t a good idea, as he knows it’s my secret spot, away from the visiting tourists. This is the end of the promenade, where it meets the old lighthouse. I climb to my feet, just as my boyfriend—no, ex-boyfriend as of half an hour ago—stumbles to a stop in front of me, sand spraying onto my worn boots. He’s handsome, so my grandmother says, six foot tall with blond hair and honey brown eyes. She also told me the pretty ones always, always fuck up in the end.
She was right.
“I can explain. If you’ll just listen—”
I chuckle, wiping a stray violet lock of my hair out of my eyes. Dying my black hair violet was one of the only things I’ve done for myself in a long time, and I love the colour. Finley said he preferred it black. “Explain what, exactly, Finley? You want to explain how you slept with a friend of mine? I don’t think that needs to be explained. We’re over.”
I turn around and leave. I’m done with him, and this damn town I’ve been trapped in since I was six and my grandmother took me in. The sad truth is this is the only place I have ever known, and I don’t have any friends except for my ex-boyfriend and my friend who he slept with. I don’t have anyone but my grandmother, and something about that fact makes me sad. I can’t remember my life before I was six, and my grandmother won’t tell me anything about where I lived before that. I only know that my parents died tragically after travelling for years but that my mum was born here, in Silloth. I’ve been stuck here with my grandmother, my only remaining family, and I’ve never left.
School finishes soon, only three days away from graduating, and then I can leave. I can get out of this small town, see what the world has to offer me. My grades are high, and I’ve been accepted to several universities from Edinburgh to London. I just need to make my choice exactly how far I want to go from my grandmother. She still needs my help, but I’m not sure I can be here to help her without giving up the chance of leaving this town. The stubborn old lady refuses to let us have any carers in.
Finley scrambles up to my side, grabbing hold of my arm to pull me to a stop. “Let me go,” I demand, loud enough to turn the heads of several people nearby. Finley looks around, noticing how many people are looking, and roughly lets me go. I shake my head and turn away, walking back to my house.
“Ellelin, please, just listen to me!”
I pause, turning back to look at him standing on the edge of the road. “Look, we were going to break up. I’m going off to university, and I’m sure not staying around here for you. Just go and live your life. We both know your life is here with your family. Just leave me the hell alone.”
“But I love you,” he weakly protests.
I chuckle as I walk away. I’ve always told him not to say that to me, because I don’t believe you can fall in love at eighteen, or at least, I never felt that way about him. Love is destruction, according to my grandmother and every romance book I’ve ever read. So no thank you. I want security, a decent apartment, and money to travel the world. Not a life trapped in a small town, popping out babies with a man I don’t really care that much for as he cheats on me. That would be my life here with Finley, and I’d rather have no life than that.
I look at Finley once last time, remembering that he was charming and made me laugh once, but every one of those good memories is now tainted. “You certainly didn’t love me when you were screwing my only friend. It’s over. Leave me alone.”
Finley looks like I’ve broken his heart as I tuck my hands into my pocket to warm them up and cross the road, hoping he doesn’t follow me this time. The bitterly cold sea breeze blows against my black hoodie and leggings, reminding me I shouldn’t have left without my thicker coat this morning.
I head down the streets until I come to our small, terraced home, the street quiet and empty. All the terraces around here are a multitude of colours like a rainbow, and ours is yellow. The yellow paint now is chipped, faded, and cracked in so many places, and the windows look close to falling off, but I love this house. It’s quirky, like my grandmother, and I’ve never not felt at home here. Our house stands out in the row as every other house is freshly painted, but we don’t have the money for that, and our neighbours make sure to mention the paint every time I bump into them. One day, I’m going to have a good job and be able to repaint the house for my grandmother. One day.
Unlocking the latch, I open the door and head inside, where the warmth of the lit fire makes me sigh. “Nan, it’s me.”
I take my coat off and rub my eyes. I’m exhausted after cleaning caravans for two hours after school to give us a bit of extra money for food, as my grandmother tries her best, but everything is expensive. Between work and school and caring for my grandmother, some days I feel like I never rest. No wonder my boyfriend cheated on me. Never have enough time to be with him—with anybody, in truth—which makes it sadder that I decided to surprise him by walking to his and sneaking in through his bedroom window today.
My grandmother doesn’t reply to me, and I frown as our cat, Jinks, jumps up onto the back of the sofa. Jinks is pure white with strange red glowing eyes, but the vet swears it’s normal. I swear he looks like the devil, especially in the middle of the night. I stroke the back of his head as he purrs at me for food. “Alright, Jinks.”
I feed him in the small kitchen at the back of our house before going to search for my grandmother in the garden, where she usually is. The thick grey clouds above suggest it’s going to rain soon, and the sun has nearly set completely. The solar fairy lights around our garden flicker to life along the path as I walk down the long stretch. The garden stretches all the way back, and my grandmother has filled it with beautiful flowers, trees, and bushes. I find my grandmother at the back of the garden, on a metal bench, wrapped in a pink knitted blanket, watching the sky above. Her sea-coloured blue eyes, the same as mine, fall on me, and her wrinkled face lights up with a loving smile. Her grey hair is messily pulled up into a bun, exotic, multicoloured flower slides clipped in, and she is barefoot even when it is a cold late summer day.
“Elle, darling. How was your day?”
I sigh, sitting next to her and crossing my boots. “Finley cheated on me with Daisy. You were right about him.”
Her hand picks up mine and she pats it twice. “I don’t like being right, dear. He was never good enough for you.”
I lean my head on the rotting shed behind the bench. “How did you meet this one true love of your life you tell me about? How did you know you loved him?”
She sadly smiles at me, looking away after a moment. “You simply know when you meet the one who will turn your life upside down. I knew because I couldn’t stand your grandad. He was arrogant, annoying, and always two steps behind me. He drove me around the bend most of the time. But one day I realised it wasn’t that I hated him, that I loved him, and I didn’t want him to ever stop annoying me. We built a life together, had your mother, and we were happy until his stupid heart packed out on me. Typical. Men always leave first.”
I smile at her, enjoying her story. “I don’t think I ever cared about Finley all that much.”
“I know, dear. That’s why you are allowed to feel sorry for yourself tonight, and tomorrow you’re going to face the world with a smile. He isn’t worth crying over. When you meet the man that is, you won’t ever be able to move on. You will just exist.”
For a moment, I see her sorrow, and in a blink, she hides it. I’m all my grandmother has left now everyone else is dead, and sometimes I think I’m lucky I don’t remember my parents or grandfather. I don’t have to mourn them like she does. I change the subject, as I don’t want to upset her. “Are you going out tonight?”
She stands up. “Of course. Dorris needs her ass kicked at bingo. If I don’t go, who else would put her in her place?”
I chuckle, standing up and linking my arm through hers as we walk back to the house. “I’m going to curl up on the sofa, watch some disgustingly cheesy movie about love, and eat chocolate ice cream, because that will make me feel better.”
My grandmother kisses the side of my head. “Leave some ice cream for me, dear. When I’m back, we can share and talk shit about Finley.”
I laugh, breathing in how she smells like mint and garden herbs, which makes me relax. This is home and I’ll miss it, but I’m ready to get out and see the world.
A few hours later, I curl up on the sofa after my grandmother has gone out and turn on the TV to search for a good movie. I just pop open the lid of my chocolate ice cream when there is a frantic banging on the front door. I groan, putting down the tub as the banging continues. I know exactly who it is. Finley knows when my grandmother goes out to bingo, as it’s usually our time alone. I unlock the door, intending to tell him to piss off, but he barges in without asking. I slam the door shut behind him.
“You’re interrupting my ice cream and crappy movie. What do you want?”
Finley runs his hand through his hair, and I smell the alcohol on him. Great, he is drunk. “To talk to you. You have to give me another chance. You just have to let me fix us. I love you so much.”
I roll my eyes, going back to the door to open it, but he grabs my arm to stop me. He’s always been a bit grabby when he’s had a drink, and considering he’s twice the size of me, I can’t do much as he pulls me away from the door and back into the living room. For the first time, I realise that I should not have opened the door to him. “Let me go, Finley, and go home. We can talk when you’re sober.”
“No,” he angrily snaps, tugging me against his body. “Look, you just need to listen to me. She kissed me and then one thing led to another. I was just horny and stupid, but I love you. You have to forgive me, Elle.”
I try to pull myself away from him, but his grip is iron-tight, borderline painful. “No, I don’t. We can talk tomorrow, Finley. Let me go.”
Instead of letting me go, his thick hand wraps around my throat as he tries to kiss me, and I panic, trying to push him away. My voice comes out frantic, and I scream, “Let me go!”
Finley doesn’t listen, pushing me backwards towards the sofa, kissing my cheek and mumbling about loving me. Dread pools in my stomach as I struggle in his arms, trying to get away and fearing what will happen if I can’t. Dating Finley was a big mistake, but I was never scared of him until now. I manage to lift my leg and I knee him hard, making him groan in pain and let me go. He trips on the sofa, falling to his knees and cupping his balls. “What the hell is wrong with you? Get out of my house and don’t come back!”
He glances up, and the look he gives me sends chills down my spine. He’s going to hurt me for that. “No, I’m going to make you listen to me. You’re mine, Ellelin, and we are not breaking up!”
I back away towards the kitchen, knowing I’m going to have to leave and run. He is drunk, so I have a good chance of escaping through the garden if I run fast. At least if I scream outside, my neighbours will come and see what is happening.
I hear the back door unlock, and my shoulders sag in relief. My grandmother’s back from bingo early, and maybe the shock of seeing her will make Finley leave. Finley rises to his feet as I stumble away, and he pauses, looking over my shoulder to the kitchen. All the colour leaves his face. A shocked scream rips out of my throat as a silver dagger swiftly flies past my cheek and slams into his chest, blood spraying across the carpet between us. His scream is bloodcurdling and terrible, as I freeze in shock. Red hot fire spreads out from the dagger, burning him so quickly that, within seconds, he’s nothing but ash falling softly on the blood-stained carpet. The dagger falls with a thud, and my scream dies away as I turn around slowly.
My heart pounds in my chest as I face the four massive men standing in my tiny kitchen. The man in the middle lowers his hand, smiling at me through waves of shiny thick black hair as his red, fiery eyes meet mine.
“You can thank me later.”
“Y-you killed him?” I sputter, taking a step back in shock. I’m shaking from head to toe as the men all look between each other.
“Humans don’t like murder, dumbass,” the red-haired man says, patting the shoulder of the man who threw the dagger. He is wearing a black shirt tucked into black trousers that scream money. “Arden, you broke this one. You can deal with her. The last one bit me.”
Arden groans. “I’m not dealing with this one, Lysander. I’m already bored.”
Arden leans against the wall, picking up another dagger from his long trench coat and playing with it, throwing it up and down in the air. Lysander looks at the other two. One of them watches from the darkness of the back of the kitchen, and I can only see his outline. The other steps forward, a playful smile on his lips as locks of white hair fall into his moss green eyes, and he pushes it aside. He goes to say something when a deep voice speaks from the back of the kitchen. “She’s going to run, and then she’s my problem.”
“She’s not going to run, Grayson. Arden just saved her from whoever that fucker was,” he murmurs. “I’m Emrys. You’re Ellelin, right?”
“Boyfriend. That was my ex-boyfriend, and you just murdered him,” I croak, snapping out of my shock. “How did you do that? How did you burn him?”
Arden’s laugh is deep and taunting, just like his eyes as they meet mine. “We are dragon shifter kings, babe. Fire is my skill.”
“Arden, you’re being a dick and scaring her,” Emrys mutters, stepping closer to me with his hands in the air. He is wearing a dark blue jumper and dark jeans. For some reason, I get the feeling they don’t wear clothes like this often. “He forgets humans don’t know about magic and dragons. We aren’t here to hurt you.”
Lysander sits down on my grandmother’s chair, crossing his legs at the ankle. “Just let Matron explain it all. We burnt her boyfriend to a crisp; she isn’t going to believe anything else we say.”
Emrys ignores him. “We’re dragon kings from four courts. We’re not from this world. Your world is connected to several worlds, including ours, and we can travel between.”
My hands feel sweaty as I cross my arms. “What does this have to do with me?”
Lysander grins. “You’ve been chosen. All you need to do for now is come with us through a portal.”
I lower my arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you.” I step back and accidentally stand in what is left of Finley. I step aside, cringing as I rub my shoe on the carpet.
Arden laughs, the sound echoing. “She just stood on her piece of shit boyfriend. It’s almost funny.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “Fuck you.”
He meets my gaze, running his eyes up and down over me. “Anytime, princess.”
My cheeks burn as I take another step back, looking between them all, focusing on the shadow outline of the man in my kitchen. For whatever reason, he feels like he’s the most dangerous of them all, and I can’t even see what he looks like from here. They all look pretty dangerous, and I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of this. They’re all muscular, ridiculously tall, and handsome. All I can think about now is how they just burnt my ex-boyfriend to a crisp in the middle of my living room. How is that even possible? And now they’re talking about kidnapping me.
I steel my back. They aren’t taking me anywhere without a fight. “I’m not going with you. Get out of my house.”
Emrys tilts his head to the side, his forest green eyes softening. “I know this is creepy and you don’t trust us, but we don’t want to harm you. You have been chosen to come to our world and compete in an event. This is an honour. There are several bloodlines in this world that came from ours, including yours. Your bloodline was sworn to the same magic we are bound to, allowing us to find you and bring you back to our world. Four of the chosen will become our brides. Become dragon queens. More will be explained later.”
I feel delirious as I chuckle and then laugh. “I’m pretty sure I’m going mad. I must be dreaming. Going completely mad. You’re kidnapping me to become your dragon queen, and I have to compete for the honour? I’m not fucking doing that. Find a girl the normal way.”
“I like this one,” Emrys laughs.
Arden throws a dagger at him, and swiftly he catches it midair. “I don’t.”
Emrys pockets the dagger before he runs his hands over his face, looking frustrated. “We are wasting time here. Let’s just knock her out and go home.”
“Agreed,” Arden replies, leaning off the wall. I don’t think, only act, as I turn and run. The front door lock melts as I run for it, so instead, I fly around the banister of the stairs, lugging my ass up the steps as fast as I can, my heart pounding.
“Arden, go after her. You freaked her out by killing someone!” Emrys demands.
“He was going to attack her! She should thank me for killing his worthless ass!” Arden all but growls.
“I will go and fix this mess,” Lysander sighs, my grandmother’s chair creaking, “while you two fight like children.”
“Good luck!” Arden shouts while laughing.
I get to the top of the stairs, stumbling around the corner and pulling the bathroom door open, slamming it shut behind me and locking it. I don’t know what use the locks are going to be against—what did they say they were? Dragon shifters? Are they actual dragons, wings, and scales and all that? No, this can’t be real. No, none of this can be real. I’m going mad.
I hear Lysander’s heavy feet thudding up the stairs after me. He is real, and I have to find a way to escape. I look around the room for anything. Anything at all to defend myself with. My eyes flicker to the small, frosted window. I’ve never climbed through it. It’s thin and I’m not sure I will fit through it. Fuck it. I have to try. I start cranking it open when I hear the bathroom door handle being twisted, the door shaking. My mouth parts in surprise as clear water runs up the door from the bottom, smothering every inch of it. I don’t move as the water suddenly turns to ice, the door shattering in shards of wood and ice. Lysander stands on the other side, leaning against the frame, his thick arms crossed. “Running is completely useless, Elle.”
“Don’t call me that. You killed the last person who called me that!” I snap. I might have hated Finley for cheating and attacking me, but he didn’t deserve to burn to death.
He raises an eyebrow. “I don’t control fire, Elle. I’m the water dragon king, so you can’t blame me for that one. If it matters, I agree with Arden. He deserved to die for laying a hand on a woman. I would have done far worse with him if we had more time.”
For a moment, he lets me see past the charming smile to the true darkness hidden in his soul, and it scares me. I’m not going with them. No fucking way. “Don’t make us chase you. It’s boring and pointless. You can’t escape.”
“Fuck you!” I snap, picking up the nearest thing and throwing it at him. My nan’s multi-coloured squeaky duck flies pathetically through the air, and he catches it. Lysander’s lips twitch in amusement before he squeaks it once and throws it over his shoulder. “Fine. We’ll do this the hard way if we must.”
He steps into the bathroom and reaches for me. In a split second, I look around quickly for anything and grab the top of the toilet lid, lifting it and smashing it straight across his head. He looks so surprised for a second, right before he collapses onto the ground, blood pouring from a deep cut on his forehead. “Holy shit.”
I drop the toilet lid on the floor, wasting no time as the others might notice. I go to the window again, propping myself up on the ledge and pushing my legs through first. I manage to squeeze right through the window as I hear them running up my stairs. My heart pounds as I softly shut the window and lie down on the tiles of the back porch, listening to them for a second.
“Whoa, the little human princess knocked him out. How the fuck did she do that?” Arden questions.
Emrys laughs. “Make sure Grayson doesn’t do anything stupid, while I heal him. She’s impressive, that one. Make sure she doesn’t hurt herself trying to escape.”
“It was the toilet seat,” Arden laughs, and I hear him picking it up. “Or was it the rubber duck in the hallway? Either way, it’s hilarious.”
“I’ll get her,” Grayson’s dark voice states.
The others go silent. Emrys clears his throat. “Don’t hurt her.”
His voice is like death. “The brat hurt us.”
“Gray!” Emrys shouts, but Grayson doesn’t reply. Dammit, he is coming for me, and I’ve wasted too much time. I slide down the roof panels, some of them clicking under my weight. Rain begins to pour out of the sky, making the roof slippery. A cry escapes my throat as I slip, sliding off the roof and slamming hard onto the grass. Ignoring the pain in my ribs, I climb to my feet and start sprinting straight up the garden. All at once, thick green vines shoot out of the surrounding ground, coming out of everywhere, and one trips me. I fall over, only to be caught in the vines. I fight them as they are wrapping around my legs, arms, and chest. I manage to snap a few of them, but more just keep appearing until they’re wrapped so tightly around me, squeezing me until I almost can’t breathe.
Grayson’s face comes into the moonlight. He is gorgeous with thick brown hair, dark golden skin, but there is a harshness to his silver eyes that matches the cruel smirk he gives me. He looks at me like I’m pathetic. “You’re going to die first in the Dragon Crown Race. You’re clearly stupid.”
“Let me go, you fucking monster!” I scream, struggling and wriggling the best I can. He smells like the earth itself and a mixture of sandalwood that reminds me of forest walks. “Let me go! Let me go! HELP! I’m being kidnapped by crazy magic men who think they are dragons! HELP!”
“Shush, brat. You’re just embarrassing yourself and giving me a headache,” he mutters, picking me up with the vines like I weigh nothing. He throws me over his shoulder. “It’s time to go.”
My eyes widen as he twists around to look at the others, who are walking up the garden path to us. There’s something in the middle of our garden. It looks like a shimmery wall, almost like it’s water, but it’s gold, illuminating and bright on the other side. Creatures fly through the air around the mountains and castle in the distance. They are too big to be birds. They are dragons. Actual dragons. Through it, I can see tall mountains and a silver castle nestled right in the middle of them. Orange fields surround the mountains, luminated by the night sky full of glowing yellow stars. I scream, panicking as Grayson turns and begins to walk towards it.
“Will you knock her out, Emrys? She is pissing me off,” Grayson growls. I’m pissing him off? They are literally kidnapping me and making it sound like a chore. I hate them so much. What is my grandmother going to think when she comes home, finding a pile of ash and that I’m missing? She is going to be so worried. She has lost everyone else.
Emrys walks up to me, his eyes surprisingly soft as I keep screaming, hoping someone will come and help me. No one is going to save me from them. Oh my god. “I’m vaguely impressed with you, Elle. I hope you win.”
He touches my cheek, and suddenly I can’t breathe. I gasp for air right before everything falls away into darkness, where I can hear wings.