I twisted the fake ring around my finger. A thin sheen of sweat made the metal band slip on my clammy skin. In the vast tunnel surrounding me, my footsteps echoed the staccato beating of my heart. The air held the earthy scent of ore and fresh dirt, and firelight sputtered from rusted sconces bolted to the rocky walls. Its glow shone over a short figure standing just ahead. The rusty helmet and red tunic denoted him as a dwarven guard.
His hooded gaze shifted to stare at my mismatched clothes that came from all over the Intergalactic Dragon’s Highway. He could have been staring at anything—perhaps my patched wool pants? No one wore anything but lightweight fabrics here on Farion Waypost. If he’d been looking close enough, he could have seen the holes in my scuffed, ankle-high boots that came from Wyrm Gully. Only knee-high boots were worn here. I brushed strands of raven-black hair out of my eyes. It had grown past my chin and gave me the look of a scrapper, but maybe that was a good thing.
Clearing my throat, I strode with purpose past the guard. Stay calm, I told myself. Play the part. Regular scrapper kid. Nothing to see here.
“You, boy!” The guard’s voice thundered in the dome of the cavern. “Where are you going?”
I ground my teeth, but when I turned to face him, I attempted a polite smile. “Is it too early to speak to the boss?” I spoke in my most courteous tone, although a trickle of anxiety raced through my blood. After living my whole life on the Intergalactic Dragon’s Highway—or Dragon’s Way—I’d learned it was never a good idea to be rude to guards.
“Mines just opened. But that’s a problem for you, ain’t it? What’s your business?”
“Appointment with the boss,” I answered confidently. “For a job.”
The guard gave a mirthless chuckle. “Wanna work the mines, huh?” His jeering tone hinted that he thought I must’ve been daft to work in such a place.
“Yes.” I stood tall. I knew his type. Always wanted to intimidate lowly scraps like me. I wouldn’t let him. “Is there a problem?” I challenged.
“No problem… yet. But you can’t get inside without a ring. Where’s yours?”
“Identity ring,” he huffed.
“Oh. Right.” I held up my hand, and the golden band looked orange in the firelight. Don’t inspect it, don’t inspect it, I repeated in my head.
The guard focused on the ring, his eyes narrowed, as if disappointed I had it. “Fine. Keep moving.” He nodded to the depths of the mine, where magical blue firelight replaced natural flames.
“Yes, sir.” I gave a polite bobbing of my head, then continued through the tunnel, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. He likely didn’t have any magic to inspect my ring more thoroughly, and I was grateful for that little bit of luck. I was also grateful he hadn’t asked my name. I hated that question. Hated lying even more, though it was a necessary evil. If anyone found out my real name, I ran. That had been a family rule for as long as I could remember. Mom had never given a good reason. Just said, “it’s dangerous.”
But I learned to live with it. I’d gone by eight different aliases, which made it even more important for me to remember my identity.
Judah Starweaver, I’d repeated only yesterday as I pleaded through clenched teeth at our rover’s magical core, trying to keep its dying ember alive for another day. “Judah Starweaver,” I’d said thousands of times to the picture of my dad—a stranger—hanging on our wall. “Judah Starweaver,” I mumbled as I walked deeper into the tunnel, water dripping and machinery clanking, the scent of old grease wafting from the depths of the mine.
Judah Starweaver, I wanted to say to the mine boss leaning against a boulder. Instead, I said, “Martin Van Buren.”
His bushy eyebrows rose, and his hardened stare told me this wasn’t a person to mess with. He reminded me of a gnarled tree that had been battered by storms. His skin was like old bark, knotted and hardened. Wrinkles deeply etched the skin around his eyes. He ran a hand through his graying beard, its wiry strands like dangling moss. “Martin Van Buren?”
I stood straight. “Yes.”
I didn’t answer. He wouldn’t recognize the eighth American president. America was a fairytale from a planet that existed as a flat disc, during a time so long ago no one cared about it.
“You got a ring?” he asked.
I held up my hand. “Yes, sir.”
He waggled his fingers. “Give it here.”
I hesitated before pulling the metal band off my finger. Heart racing, I handed it to him. It was a useless piece of metal—one I’d forged myself. If he’d taken the time to study it, he would’ve seen the golden seal missing a few webs. But to prove it was real, he’d need a high-level spell.
“Where do you come from, Martin?” His eyes didn’t meet mine as he inspected the jewelry.
A difficult question, but it was a lie I had practiced. “Wyrm Gully.”
“Wyrm, eh?” He looked up at me and knit his eyebrows. “They have mines on Wyrm?”
“You’ve worked them before? Know the dangers?”
“I have. And I know.”
“Hmm. Doubt it.” He shifted his heavy frame. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen.” I was thirteen, but I was big for my age. This was an easy lie. He bought it without a blink. But deep inside, a piece of me broke every time I lied. Would there even be a Judah Starweaver left after I’d told so many lies?
“A ship is arriving soon,” the boss continued. “Big group of seven dragons. Three full tows. You think you can help our team with the off-haul?”
“It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Good. We’ll need those scrap ships processed before you can start mining cores in the pits, and I’ll warn you, it’s tough work.” He nodded to a tunnel over his shoulder, where pinpricks of soft blue lanterns were nearly engulfed by inky blackness. Deep inside, I could imagine the sound of pickaxes shattering rocks, the whirring of carts on tracks, and the glow of magical cores as they got pulled from the stone.
This mine wouldn’t be much different from the others. Same smell of brimstone, same long hours, same distrustful glares from the miners who’d been there half their lives. Honestly, I preferred working topside unloading scrap ships.
“I doubt they accommodate loads that big on Wyrm.”
“I can handle it, sir.”
“We’ll see.” He handed my identity ring back to me with his gnarled, tree trunk hands. Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief. He waved to a dwarf standing near the tunnel leading outside. “Fetch Smalley. We’ve got a recruit.”
After the dwarf left the corridor, the boss gave me a sly grin, one that creased the tree bark skin around his eyes and mouth. “You ever met a skion elf?”
I shook my head. Everyone knew of skions, of course. They were the only other sentient species to share Dragon’s Way with humans and dwarves. We’d arrived here at the same time, nearly two-hundred years ago, after our home worlds had been absorbed during the Great Shifting. But skion elves were a reclusive species, and most of them never left their city built around the Way’s nexus.
“I’ll give you a few tips on how to handle Smalley.” The boss threaded his knobby fingers together and rested them on his belly. “First, yes, that’s a nickname. Don’t bother asking his real name because you won’t be able to pronounce it, and I doubt he’d tell you anyway. Also, don’t stare at his eyes. He hates that. Last, and most important, don’t mention his height. It’s the same as pointing out the age of a human, so don’t do it.”
“His height?” I asked. “Why?” I knew plenty about humans and Earth history. I knew next to nothing about skion elves.
“Because…” the boss waved his hand, speaking impatiently, although I suspected he enjoyed lecturing me. “Elves have a few growth spurts during their lives. A couple times during childhood, like humans. They stay an average height for the next hundred years or so. When they hit their second century, most of them grow to over seven feet. Skin gets thin. Eyes change color. They start getting weaker. Bones and muscles break down. Nasty process, really. You see why you shouldn’t go on about how tall he is?”
“Got it, sir,” I answered.
“Smalley’s harmless, though,” the dwarf said with a wink. “He’ll give you a hard time, but he’s fair. You’ll be in good hands here, long as you keep the rules.”
“Good. You’ll be paid at the end of every nex. Five crescents. It’s decent pay for this far down the Way. If the crews are willing, you’re welcome to share a meal with them. Most of them are eager to ration a few bites, especially if they’re pleased with your team’s handling of the off-haul. Just don’t expect me to feed you. I’m no charity.”
“Understood, sir.” Five crescents, I mused to myself. Enough to afford a bag of bread flour and a salt cellar for Mom, and maybe some shoes for me, if I saved enough.
Footsteps came from the corridor. When a seven-foot-tall elf ducked under a wooden beam to fit inside the passage where we stood, a drop of fear wriggled through my veins.
I made a conscious effort not to gawk. I’d seen pictures, but none of them prepared me for this. He gave the impression of an albino spider. Long, thin fingers reminded me of its legs, spindly and milky white as he ran them down the front of his robes, ones that fell loosely around his skeletal frame. A few wisps of colorless hair hung down his face. Black, weblike veins crisscrossed beneath his thin flesh, and his pointed ears resembled the sharp tips of swords.
Dark, oval eyes took up half his face, and pinpricks of red pupils twinkled in their depths.
Even still, it wasn’t his appearance that put me on edge. It was a feeling hard to describe, like the elf was looking straight through me, past my carefully crafted lies and into my thoughts, where I kept all my hidden truths.
The skion—Smalley—gave me a brief nod. Although I stood straight, my head barely reached his shoulders. I remembered not to stare at his eyes, so I forced myself to look at the boss instead.
“Well, get going,” the boss nudged, a brief smile flickering across his face, as if he enjoyed seeing how uneasy I’d become in the skion’s presence. “It won’t stay bright all nex.”
I gave a curt nod, then followed Smalley through the long corridor. We strode past the guard who gave me a smug glare, and then stepped outside the mine, where the air held a damp chill. Gray sky surrounded us, although just along the horizon glowed the Dragon’s Way. The spiraling magical road wrapped around the blinding white nexus, which gave us light just as the sun had given light to Earth.
The Way glittered in ever-changing colors, although now it glowed in shades of green. I could get lost in the bright bands of stardust if I looked at them for too long, imagining what it would be like to visit the inner depths of the Way. Dragons and their smaller cousins, the wyverns and wyrms, would be flying out there somewhere, wings broad and scales gleaming—the only true magical creatures to call the road their home.
Their home… I thought to myself. If dragons and wyverns and wyrms could have homes, then why couldn’t I?