Jake Stoddard

Gredna surveyed the sand and scrub ahead, tapping a claw to her muzzle. How could they get home?

Rocky mounds closed in on them from three sides. The hollow looked familiar, but no tracks marked the area.

Her brother, Hokle, crouched on all fours by a streambed, moonlight glinting off his tan scales and body spikes. “Can we stop? I’m exhausted.” He swiped a groove in a patch of damp sand. When water leaked into the hole, he lapped at the thin puddle.

Gredna sighed. “You know, we wouldn’t be in this mess if you hadn’t insisted we leave the hunting party.”

“I thought I saw signs of forktails—and I was right.” He jabbed his snout toward her with the last word.

“Yeah, well, now we’re trapped in these hills.” Gredna searched for any sign of the hunting party’s passing. “Let’s keep moving.”

Hokle groaned. “Can’t we rest first?”

“Not unless you want to be eaten. It’ll be dawn soon.” Too soon.

“We could hide until sunset.”

Gredna shook her head. “I overheard the elders at council yesterday. They’re moving the tribe in the morning. We’d be left behind.” Gredna spotted a route twisting through the rocks to the ridge.

“They wouldn’t leave without us.”

How thick was his skull? “They won’t waste time waiting for us if they think we’re dead. And we will be if we don’t move. Come on.” She labored up the barren slope, her legs aching. The day had been a long one, and her brother wasn’t making it any shorter.

Hokle trudged after her. “I don’t think this place is as dangerous as they say,” he grumbled. “When was the last time anyone died here?”

She bit back a retort.

In the saddle between two hillocks, tufts of grass lay bent and broken.

“They passed through here.” She pointed east. “They went that way.”

Hokle collapsed with a sigh and wrapped his tail around his feet. “I’m taking a break.”

Gredna clenched her teeth and took a deep breath before facing him. “We have to keep going.”

“I know, and I will. I just need to rest first.” From his bag, Hokle pulled out and admired the fist-sized head of a baby forktail snake. “That was a good hunt, wasn’t it?”

Gredna lifted her chin to the fading stars. Patience.

A shadow passed over the moon. A shadow with wings and a tail.

She crouched. Keeping her voice low, she said, “Hokle, we have to go. Now.”

“I told you, I need a break.”

She leaned close, and her whisper quavered in his ear. “I just saw a dragon.”

Hokle’s eyes bulged. “Where?”

Did he actually sound more excited than afraid?

“Flying. By the moon.”

He looked. They searched the sky for several minutes. The predawn light should have revealed the danger.

Hokle slumped. “I don’t see anything.”

She snapped her jaws. “I’m telling you, I saw it.”

Hokle leaned back against a boulder. “I’m not moving from this spot until I’m ready. I haven’t slept since yesterday morning, and I’ve been walking all night.”

Gredna harrumphed and stalked several paces away. She’d been awake and hiking just as long.

“Do you think I should wear this on my right or left?” Hokle held the head beside the spike on his shoulder.

“I’m leaving. If you’re smart, you’ll come with me.” Gredna stomped across the saddle to the far side, following claw marks on ledges.

Hokle stayed where he was.

Gredna tried not to think about him—she’d just get more aggravated. She kept watch above but did not see the dragon again.

Had fatigue from the long hunt made her imagine it?

She reached the top of an escarpment where a switchback trail led down to desolate plains. Mountains jutted from the earth in the distance. Rising behind them, the sun cast a brilliant, yellow glow over the jagged horizon.

Dawn. She had to get out of these hills.

Movement in the plain drew her eye. The hunting party.

Half-a-dozen of her tribe’s hunters hurried away. Several spikelings like herself scurried after them.

They all had sense enough to flee. She could catch up with them now.

Gredna took a step toward them.


With a hiss, she turned back.

Before long, the saddle came into view.

“Hokle!” she called.

Her brother appeared, his upper body hovering over the horizon. The first rays of morning lit his face. He watched her approach, head cocked.

A great mass of red and orange sailed through the air behind him.

Gredna rushed ahead. “Hokle, run!”

The dragon swooped down, its fiery scales shimmering like ripples in an oasis pool.

Hokle’s eyes widened, and he twisted around in slow motion.

The dragon crashed atop him, and he fell to the ground, out of sight.

A scream rent the air, smashing Gredna in the chest. She skidded to a halt.

The dragon’s toothy maw lunged down, and Hokle’s cry died.

Gredna tore her gaze away. She swallowed and forced a breath.

A tear welled in her eye. She brushed her face with the back of her hand.


Fear squeezed Gredna’s heart and pulled her gaze back.

The dragon studied her, motionless. They stared into each other’s eyes for an eternity while Gredna’s pulse strangled her.

Then the great beast continued eating.

With a shudder, Gredna slunk away. She crept at first but soon sprinted, unable to outrun the horror replaying in her mind.

First published in Havok in 2022 as Hike Home.

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