By Beka Gremikova
The docks stink of fish and cigars. During my early days as a Magickal Protections Officer, I used to retch almost daily. Now, the stench merely reminds me of what it hides—the light, sage scent of drakonixes.
I stalk down the creaky wooden planks, gripping Amaka’s leash as she slithers in front of me. With her flicking tongue and flaring wings, she’s the epitome of a drakonix on the hunt.
Beside me, Thera nearly bounces out of her boots. “I finally get to crack my first mill!”
She reminds me of earnest juniors from my guard captain days. My heart wrenches. “You won’t like what you see.”
She snorts. “I know that.”
My nostrils flare. She only thinks she does. “Then you’ll know there are rules.” My fingers tighten around Amaka’s leash. “No barging in. Hang back and watch.”
Her lips thin. “I’m plenty capable, Sariah.”
Please, Captain! We can do it! Voices from the past echo through my mind, and I nearly stumble over a crooked plank. Sensing my distress, Amaka looks back at me. Her dark, trusting gaze helps steady my breath.
Back then, I’d yearned for the love of those under my command. In exchange, I’d forfeited their lives—allowing inexperienced soldiers to tumble headfirst into a bloodbath. I left the guard soon after, but, unable to shake the lifestyle completely, I’d joined the MPOs.
Amaka forges ahead, tugging me from my memories. She leads us to a large warehouse and stops at a narrow, locked door. I press my ear against the wood. The hisses of agitated drakonixes float through, but no sounds of human activity.
“Not sure if anyone’s in there,” I murmur, “so you’ll stay and cover me.” Most mill runners are cowards who surrender immediately, but sometimes you stumble across a trigger-happy one.
“I should go in!” Thera protests. “Then you can tell whether I’m capable—”
“Case dropped.” I kneel, joints creaking, to pick the various locks. Thera hovers, her angry breaths brushing my neck.
The last lock pops. Before I can react, Thera pushes past me into the gloom.
Stubborn kid! I lurch to my feet and creep after her, Amaka at my side.
Halfway down the main aisle, Thera stands frozen, surrounded by rows of small, cramped cages full of drakonixes. The rookie freeze, my boss calls it. Despite my annoyance, I can’t help wincing. My own rookie freeze suddenly feels like just yesterday.
The air reeks of urine, feces, and decaying corpses. Amaka’s scales click in distress, but she stays her course, pulling me toward the back of the warehouse. Probably the mill runner’s headquarters.
Thera jolts from her horrified reverie and peers over her shoulder at me. I point back the way we came, but she glares and continues down the aisle.
My teeth grind. If this kid thinks her “determination” will impress me, she’s dead wrong.
Amaka stops, tilting her head, tongue flicking rapidly. Her scales bristle across her long, muscled body. The frilled crest between her eyes flares bright orange as flames erupt between her gaping jaws.
A shadow rises from the cages to my left. I catch the glint of a gun and leap to the side as a loud bang! echoes through the room.
The bullet hits my hand. Pain shoots along my fingers, and I drop, gasping. Amaka’s leash slips away. Thera screams, “Stop! MPO!”
Amaka’s wings unfold, sparks shooting from their webbing. She launches into the air, her shriek ringing in the spacious warehouse. Wings alive with flame, she divebombs the shadowy mill runner, snarling.
Instead of running like any sane person, he raises his gun.
Aiming straight at Amaka.
My vision blurs. All I can do is utter a wordless scream.
Thera tackles him from behind.
The gun drops from his fingers, clattering against the floor. They land in a heap, and Amaka drops onto the mill runner, pinning him with her claws as Thera rolls away.
Blood drips from my hand as I lever myself off the floor and stagger toward them. The mill runner cowers under Amaka’s claws, and Thera stares at my hand, eyes wide. “Your—your hand…” She gulps.
Probable shattered bones, but I shrug. “Could have been worse, if not for Amaka.” I hesitate, not wanting to praise Thera for disobeying, but knowing a job well done still deserves acknowledgement. “And you.”
She starts. “Me?”
“Yes. Amaka protected me, you saved Amaka…”
The drakonix turns to me, ignoring the quivering man pinned beneath her talons, and starts to lick my wound. I wince at the flaming heat of her saliva, but it acts as a disinfectant at least. “We’re a team, Thera. We need to have each other’s backs, and when it came down to it, you did.”
“I also went against your orders.” She cuffs the man, setting him in a corner. Soon, the Magickal Rehabilitation Officers will come claim the surviving drakonixes, and we can drag this guy to the slammer.
“Yes.” This time, I do glower, and she flushes. “Which I do not appreciate.” When she bows her head, I murmur, “Listen, I know you want to prove you’re capable. Sometimes, it’s nothing to do with that—it’s experience. I’ve watched inexperienced people die because I couldn’t say no to them.”
“Oh.” Subdued, she helps me sit on the cold stone floor before wrapping my fingers with a bandage from the sack at her waist.
I keep my voice soft yet firm. “If you act rashly and disobey just to prove a point, I will make that tough choice and recommend you never get your badge.”
“I understand.” She glances at me—perhaps not with love, but with a deep, healthy respect.
I take a breath. “Then we’ll live and let live.” I squeeze her shoulder. “Thank you, partner, for saving my partner.”
Thera brushes Amaka’s scaly head and makes a kissy face at our drakonix. “And thank you, partner,” she tells Amaka, “for saving our partner.”