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Authors: Wesley King

Dragons vs. Drones

BOOK: Dragons vs. Drones
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2016 Penguin Random House LLC

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eBook ISBN: 9780698175303

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


To Rick Niedziela
Who showed us what real courage looks


he air was nothing but smoke and ash, lingering over the room and covering everything in darkness. Forms moved in the haze like shapeless wraiths or spirits of the dead. When the iron-forged front door opened—which it rarely did—sunlight tentatively entered the room and fell upon the endless rows of swords and spears that lined the blackened walls, just waiting for blood. In short, Wilhelm's Forge was a grim, fire-blasted hole—tucked onto the side of a bustling city street and ignored by the most sensible folk.

But for Driele Reiter, it was one of the few places in Dracone where she felt like she belonged, and more importantly, where she could hide away from the crowds and be alone with her work. Dree was twelve but looked older: tall
and lean, with arms as hard as the beaten steel that they formed. Sweat dripped freely down from her forehead and created rivulets on her soot-stained cheeks like fresh rain snaking its way through the dirt.

Dree was a welder's apprentice and had been for almost two years. It was trying work, but it also was a rare chance to design and build and think about something other than the memories—grainy images of moments she wanted to forget, or brilliant flashes of scarlet and smoke. She stood over the blazing hot forge, lovingly pulling her afternoon's work out of the fire with a set of iron tongs and heavy leather gloves. She had already welded most of the contraption together with a torch, but she always liked to drop her creations in the fire at the end to smooth the sides into near-glass. It was the little details she admired.

Dree and the other apprentice made many things in the busy metal shop: broadswords, tools, even gleaming, fire-resistant armor. But a few months ago, Dree had received a different assignment from her boss, the domineering Master Wilhelm, and one that she particularly loved: a toy. She had worked on it every free moment she had, when the swords and shields were done and she could return to her special project.

It was a magnificent thing—a black iron dragonfly, each piece meticulously forged from casts of her own creation and then welded into place with a small torch. It was more intricate than anything she had ever made before, with almost ethereal quad wings, bulbous eyes, and delicate legs
that the master himself would have struggled to make. After dumping cold water on the toy and eliciting a shower of steam, Dree carefully picked it up, smiling for the first time that day. She wore gloves, but she didn't need them. Heat had never bothered Dree. In fact, even when the hottest fire danced over her calloused, leather-hard hands, it barely seemed to touch her. It had been that way her entire life.

And look what that's done for you
, she thought bitterly, fighting off a sudden image that flashed into her mind like a fork of lightning. Smoke and ash, but not in a welder's shop—the smell of burning furniture and wood and flesh. The screaming she still heard at night. And worst of all, a little boy who never left the fire.

Dree shook her head, trying to get back to the present. She had created something beautiful, and she could allow herself some time to enjoy it before it was sold off to some rich, young Draconian for more than Dree made in a week. Maybe a month.

“Finally done?” Sasha—Wilhelm's other apprentice—asked scornfully.

He looked like a welder's apprentice: tall and strong with broad shoulders and a matching block chin. Dree didn't like to admit it, but he was handsome—the heat seemed to have carved his face into stone, proud and rigid, while his eyes were a warm almond brown that moved from friendly to condescending almost instantly.

Sasha had no love for toys. He wanted only to forge swords and spears and talk about how he would much rather
be sticking them into a dragon's black heart up in the mountains. It was one of the many things Dree and Sasha didn't agree on.

“Perfection takes time,” Dree responded quietly, running her fingers over the lattice wings. Despite Sasha's comment, even Master Wilhelm would appreciate this.

“And a toy is a perfect waste of time,” Sasha retorted, shutting down his forge.

It was getting late, and the shop was closing for the day. Wilhelm would be in to inspect their work shortly—usually to bluster and curse and complain about his apprentices.

Dree ignored Sasha. She was the better welder by far, but Sasha was the clear favorite. Wilhelm said it himself all the time. It wasn't about their performance—Dree just had an unfortunate habit of getting into trouble.

Of course, Sasha had no idea just how intricate the dragonfly really was. The inside was filled with countless tiny mechanisms of Dree's own creation: gears and pistons and other things Sasha—and Master Wilhelm—couldn't even begin to fathom.

Dree thought of how her father would react if he knew she was creating such things. He would be furious. He didn't want Dree doing anything out of the ordinary and attracting attention to herself. Her father was a brilliant man who was afraid to be brilliant. He was afraid of a lot of things, actually. You wouldn't know it to look at him: He had Dree's wild chestnut hair and piercing blue eyes, and he was lined with the shadows of muscles that had long since faded after too
many years spent in an armchair. He'd hurt his back many years ago, bad enough that he couldn't lift anything or even really bend. In fact, Abelard wasn't able to work at all, and it was up to Dree's mother to keep the house afloat. With five kids, that wasn't easy.

Dree had left school at ten to get a job and help out her mother. She remembered the day well. She'd barely managed to pull the huge cast-iron door open before sneaking inside, her tiny hands trembling at her stomach.

She needed a job . . . now.

Master Wilhelm appeared over her, eyes as dark as coal. He was a welder to the core—a belly like a keg and a much-singed salt-and-pepper beard.

“What do you want, girl?” he asked, scanning over her ratty peasant's clothes.

“I want a job,” she murmured, unable to meet his hard gaze. “I can weld.”

He guffawed, his belly shaking like her mother's holiday pudding. “Are you mad?” he asked. “You look like a starving dormouse.”

Dree stiffened. “I can weld.”

Master Wilhelm stared at her, a hammer slung over his shoulder. “Is that so?”

“I know fire,” she said quietly. “Give me a torch.”

He paused for a long moment, and finally he shrugged and gestured to the forge.

“I haven't had a good laugh in a while,” he sneered. “Make me something.”

He had returned to his work, still laughing, as Dree slipped on an overlarge apron and gloves, tied back her tangled hair, and started. Dree had never welded a day in her life, but when she'd set out for a job that morning, she knew she should play to her strengths. She liked to build, and she was born with fire. It was an hour later when she showed him her work. Wilhelm turned from his forge, sweat pouring from his scowling visage.

His eyes widened.

In Dree's slender hands sat an exact replica of the palace, welded from scraps and yet perfect in its details. A flag stood on the highest peak, the metal welded paper-thin and bent as if blowing in the northern wind.

He stared at it for a long moment, not speaking. Then he turned back to his work.

“You can start tomorrow.”

Two years later, Dree was still working at the forge. Of course, Wilhelm liked to remind her that a forge was “no place for a girl,” as he had said constantly in those first few days. But Dree had proven her worth a thousand times over—creating shields smoother than the surface of the morning lake that bordered the city and intricate metalwork like locks, scales, and trinkets that Sasha could never hope to replicate—and so far Wilhelm had never had a reason to fire her. She just had to keep it that way.

But neither Master Wilhelm nor Dree's father was there at the moment, and she simply couldn't resist showing Sasha exactly what a
could do. Making sure her back was completely blocking Sasha's view, Dree softly put her hand to the top of the iron-forged toy, where a little metal shaft led straight to the heart of the dragonfly—the engine. It just needed a bit of fuel to operate. A bit of fire. Luckily for Dree, the fire was always there.

She just had to let it out.

Dree's hand rippled with delicate red and blue flames, which should have burned her skin but instead passed over it like warm water. The dancing fire raced into the dragonfly's heart, and suddenly brilliant light shone from the many openings in the black iron, as if a lantern had been lit inside. Dree grinned wolfishly as the fire grew brighter.

It was working.

The lattice wings suddenly beat frantically, as if alive, and then picked up speed, moving in a blur. It shouldn't have been possible—even Dree knew that. But dragons could fly, borne by fire, and just as she had guessed, so could steel and iron.

The toy dragonfly lifted off the table, its quad wings almost humming, and then it tilted forward, buzzing across the forge and heading straight for Sasha, who finally realized what was going on.

“What the—” he managed, ducking as the dragonfly raced over his head.

He looked at Dree incredulously.

“How did you do that?”

Dree shrugged. “Like I said, perfection takes time.”

She so enjoyed the look on Sasha's face. It was well worth the risk.

And then Master Wilhelm raced into the shop, panicked.

“Clean up,” he barked, rushing over to a scattered pile of weaponry. “I heard that the Prime Minister is going to pop in.” He stopped when he saw his apprentices just standing there, confused. “Here!” he blustered, spittle flying from his mouth. “Move!”

Dree had just started for the toy dragonfly, which was buzzing around the far end of the shop, when the front door swung open, allowing sunlight to flood the windowless forge once again. The smiling Prime Minister strolled in, flanked by two of his cabinet members, who were eyeing the forge with obvious distaste. They all looked impeccable as usual. Francis Xidorne was the shining symbol of the new Dracone—smart and cultured and trendy.

His famous raven hair was long and curly, falling almost to his eyes. He wasn't a tall man, but his gleaming black boots and their generous four-inch heels gave him more height and matched the half cape he sometimes sported. Even at forty-nine, only a few wrinkles lined the corners of his oft-smiling lips. While he didn't wear the fire-resistant armor that was so popular among the younger generation, he did have a silver necklace with a lone dragon fang dangling around his neck, a sign of the thriving market of dragon paraphernalia and the larger trend of killing dragons in general. Dree despised
dragon hunters, but she wasn't about to tell Francis Xidorne that.

“Welcome to my humble shop.” Master Wilhelm hurried over with a massive hand outstretched. “My apologies for the state of it—”

“Nonsense,” Francis said. “That's the point of these visits: to see how our city is bustling.” He looked around, flashing his sparkling white teeth—whiter than any Dree had ever seen. “And it looks like business is good.”

Master Wilhelm was ecstatic. He loved the Prime Minister and was always going on about how he had turned Dracone around when he ordered that the dragons be hunted to the point of extinction and the path cleared for economic and cultural growth. It was that economic growth that had left Dree's father behind, along with all the old Draconian families—the ones who had admired the dragons, the ones who had counted them as friends.

“Yes, very good,” Master Wilhelm said, nodding and gesturing around the shop. “Orders have been pouring in, especially for weapons for our soldiers and the dragon hunters in the mountains. Excellent business, that. Never mind tools for building roads and houses and . . . Dree, come here and show the Prime Minister the toy you were working on today. Toys, if you can imagine! That's how you know times are good.”

Dree froze, watching the dragonfly out of the corner of her eye. This was not good. Francis smiled at Dree expectantly, while his two cabinet members just looked bored, whispering to each other and checking their gold-plated pocket watches.

“Will you come over here?” Wilhelm asked again, his voice lower.

Dree shuffled over, desperately trying to think of an excuse not to show Francis her toy. Sasha looked at her with a raised eyebrow. Toys weren't supposed to fly around like that. Even the dim-witted Sasha knew something was wrong.

“Well?” Master Wilhelm asked, sounding more and more agitated.

Dree had no choice. She had to show them. She turned to where the dragonfly had been circling in the corner and stifled a curse. It was gone. Dree looked around wildly and then noticed in horror that the dragonfly was now hovering directly over Francis's curly black head. Master Wilhelm's eyes went wide when he saw it, and he looked between the dragonfly and Dree, horrified.

“How?” he said.

BOOK: Dragons vs. Drones
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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