Dad was calling. Kel didn’t care. He wanted to stay and keep looking. Running his stone fingers over his chair, his desk…taking in the room he’d grown up in.
He gazed into the bronze mirror. A smooth, perfectly round boulder with long arms, short legs and emerald eyes frowned back at him—his glossy rock skin shifting from jade to blue as he turned, gleaming in the firelight. His face was part of his boulder body’s surface, but could pop out like a turtle’s at any time.
He studied his reflective skin. A labradorite if ever there was one. The torch let off sparks within its portico a few feet away, and Kel flexed his arms.
It wasn’t fair. He’d never wanted to move. This wasn’t the kind of thing that was supposed to happen. He and his family were supposed to win.
That sounded slightly more urgent. Most likely serious. He could dillydally a wee bit longer, though. He let his eyes wander the room again.
His bed. A marble bowl stuck to the ceiling. He reached up to touch it—and gravity shifted around him. He fell into the bowl, the surface he’d been standing on becoming the ceiling. That never got old. It likely never would, no matter how long he stayed.
“Kelmor Ketarn! Come out here now!”
The way everyone rolled their r’s was always comforting. Even when he was a wee bit late, listening to people speak was great.
“Kel!” A boulder rolled in from the tunnel. As it halted, legs and arms sprouted from its sides. Its eyes opened—just Kolath. Kel’s father. A shiny hematite with a perfect sense of time. “What’re you doing lying in bed! We have to leave now!”
“I know.” Kel felt the words escape his stony lips—but he didn’t understand them. He didn’t want to. “Because of the dragon.”
“That’s right.” Kolath waved a finger. “The Flame Dragon could show at any second. We cannot be here. You understand?”
Kel let his head pop out from his boulder body, stony neck supporting it. He gave a small nod. “I understand.”
“So let’s go! Now!”
“Dad, I’m only ten. Give me a break.”
“Lives are at stake here.” Kolath put his hand against the tunnel’s archway, narrowing his eyes. “And you’re twelve. Come on.”
Kel’s eyebrows creased, and he sat up. “Twelve?”
“Great boulders, lad! Do you have no perception of time?”
“Maybe.” Kel shrugged. “I don’t care, dad.”
“Why not?” The dragon was forgotten. Dad spread his arms. “Your dad’s a timekeeper, and you can’t be bothered to keep track of anything?”
Kel swallowed. “I don’t see a need to.”
“You don’t—” Kolath crossed his arms, head popping out from his boulder body. He shook his head. “Listen, Kel. What’ll you do when I’m gone?”
“We live for centuries, dad. Who cares about time.”
“I care!” Kolath indicated himself with his thumb. “And you can’t—” he pressed his palm to his forehead, closing his eyes. “Nevermind that. Let’s go.”
And that was the final warning. When dad got calm, Kel needed to roll. “Fine. Lead the way.”
“That’s the right attitude.”
Kolath turned around, tucked in his limbs—and rolled off down the tunnel. Kel approached the tunnel’s threshold, then glanced back at the room. This was it.
He tucked in his head and limbs, clenched his abdomen—and burst into a roll. He could go forty miles an hour on a good day. Maybe fifty.
Today he was going twenty.
He bumped into the wall and ricocheted to the ceiling. Gravity shifted, and now he was rolling on the ceiling. Twelve years, and he was still figuring out how to roll without bumping into things. That nanosecond of information—when his eyes were facing ahead during the roll—wasn’t a great deal. At least on the run, he’d have the opportunity to practice.
Boats. Helenberry shells like canoes dotted the lava river, geolites tucked in them like peas in a pod. One pea to every pod. Families beside one another. Some labradorites, rhodochrosites… But all dark against the lava’s glow. Most had their hands in the lava, ready to paddle.
Kel’s stomach knotted. The whole of Ticora was here—or at least the last evacuation party. Everyone else had up and left.
“Charges in place?” Kolath waved to geolites sitting in clefts far above the river. They waved back. “Great. Aim to blow them when the last boat is twenty meters out! We’ll stay on the shore and roll out through side routes.”
They were collapsing the exits. No way the Flame Dragon could follow them to their new habitation. Only a few hours from here—but with all the wide tunnels in pieces, an eternity as far as the dragon was concerned.
At least, that was their hope.
“Kel, find your mother and hop in a boat.”
“Aye.” Kel rolled down the bank, uncurling at the bottom. Mom was somewhere here—
“Kel!” A fiery opalite waved at him, not five meters out—Mom. She grinned. “About time.”
Kel cracked a smile. He took a spare helenboat and set it on the lava. Tucking his legs in, he set himself inside—and there. His muscles relaxed. Floating on the lava was great. Not that he wouldn’t sink like the stone he was if he tumbled off the boat.
“Come here!” She beckoned with one arm. “Quick, before we leave!”
Somehow she seemed less pushy. Kel had never minded her. “Aye.” He paddled out, dipping his hands in the warm lava. It hissed a little, and he leaned forward. His helenboat brushed between others, but everyone was oddly silent. Holding their breath, almost.
“Alright! Let’s go!” Kolath motioned—and every geolite began paddling as he watched from a ridge above the shore. Like lily pads drifting along, helenboats floated down the hissing lava river. Bubbles formed and popped around Kel, pillars of lava rising to the ceiling just ahead.
“He’s not a villain, you know.”
He glanced at his mom. “I know.”
“He’s just looking out for us. Keeping the hour so we don’t have to.”
Mom’s head popped out from her body. She turned to him, concern running like cracks through her stony face. “We need timekeepers, Kel. Years turn to decades. Decades turn to centuries. We don’t know time—and only a few of us can keep track of it very well.”
“Stop saying that! Do you really know?” She glanced back. “He’s heading the evacuation team for a reason. People depend on him. And that’s something to be proud of.”
Kel shrugged. “I suppose that’s true.”
Mom shook her head. “You know it is.”
Kel gave a loud, drawn out sigh. Not that she was wrong…
Then he heard it.
A metallic shriek. Like steel scraping steel. Echoing through the cavern, making his back tighten into little bumps.
“Dragon!” A voice far behind Kel. “Approaching the river!”
As if no one could tell. Geolites started shouting. Everyone was paddling, digging at the lava, wide strokes as boats bumped each other. No one could move fast enough.
“Dispatch the fighters!” Kolath was practically screaming his orders. “Stall it best as we can!”
Kel looked behind them. Purple light gleamed on the cavern’s walls, growing with the sound of rushing flames. Some fighters rolled toward it, while others picked up rocks.
Then he saw it. A funnel of twisted purple flame, blue ridges lining its back as it twirled through the air. Serpentine, its body a blur of fire. Blue flames like eyes burning in hollow sockets. A forked tongue of flame testing the air.
The Flame Dragon had arrived.
“Hurl the stones!”
Rocks sailed through the air, passing right through the dragon’s body. No effect. The dragon shrieked again, and Kel flinched.
What could they even do against such a thing? Stones were useless. Fists would be too.
Twin flames launched from the dragon’s body—its legs. One snatched a geolite, enveloping it in flame. The geolite melted as Kel watched, her silvery drops hitting the cave’s floor. The dragon closed its jaws—and its burning pupils seemed to settle on the boats.
It approached the bank, legs withdrawing into its body. Kolath glanced back at the boats, fear carving his face. The approaching flames gleamed off his hematite skin, purple mingled with blue. He turned to face the dragon—and clenched his fists. “Blow the charges!”
“No!” Mom reached for him, though they had to be twenty meters out by now. “Kolath!”
The geolites up in the clefts nodded—and struck their fists together to make sparks. Earsplitting explosions shook the cavern, sending rocks plummeting into the lava. Kel gripped the edges of his helenboat, gritting his teeth as more explosions shattered the tunnel.
The dragon was floating toward the bank, past Kolath, flame body hovering over the ground as if gravity had no effect. It opened its jaws, shrieking as stones fell through it. Its flames wavered—and it turned back just as the tunnel collapsed. Kel’s last glimpse was of his father facing the dragon as purple flames enveloped him.
Then stones blocked his view.
Kel stared, still gripping the helenboat. He let his eyes fall to the lava, which was foaming with debris. He blinked, lips pressed together.
Sobbing. His mother’s body was shaking. She was trying not to wail—he could tell—but her hands were pressed against her eyes.
What had just happened? Kel glanced at the debris. His dad was gone. That was it.
And it had happened so fast.
“My Kolath.” Mom sniffed. “My love, I wish we’d had more time.”
Time. Kel tightened his grip on the rim. If he’d cared more about time, maybe…
No. The dragon had no concern for time. It came and went as it pleased. That was the reason they’d left. No society survived without structure.
And Dad knew that.
Kel inhaled deeply, turning to face ahead. Paddling a little, he cleared his throat. “Best get going, I suppose.”
Mom was still weeping—but she nodded, wiping her face. Her voice was small. “I know.”
Kel swallowed hard, hands dipped in the warm lava. He felt numb inside. “I’m sorry, mom,” he whispered, voice cracking. “I’m so sorry.”
The Flames Chronicles, Book One
The Flames Chronicles, Backstory to Ayphae
The Flames Chronicles, The world of Ayphae
The Flames Chronicles, Book Two