A blow to her back crashed into her like a ton of bricks and knocked all the air from her lungs. The ground was ripped from beneath her. Jerica yelped, flailing against the talons that wrapped around her shoulders. They were bigger than her entire legs were and ended in razor sharp tips. But as quickly as he grabbed her, he dropped her again.
Jerica yelped again as she fell. She flipped once midair before landing heavily on her back. She still couldn’t draw a breath. She gasped, but it felt like no air would go into her lungs past the block in her chest. She pushed herself to her feet as Kaidren landed in front of her. The ground shook beneath them.
He blocked her only path to the house.
There was no chance she’d make it to the woods.
Her only other options were off the cliff or back towards the cave. She whirled around and sprinted as fast as she could. She only landed one—two—three steps before Kaidren’s tail crashed into her right side. She flew through the air and landed on her face, coughing. The force of the impact made her entire body throb with pain.
She weakly pushed herself to her hands and knees.
“If you’re smart, you’ll stay down this time,” the gravelly voice that’d met her and the Nykerians the first day growled, piercing directly into her mind.
Jerica whimpered and scuttled backward on her hands and feet until her back was pressed against the incline that led up to the cave. He advanced swiftly. The ground shook beneath him with each and every angry step he took towards her. He stopped when his head was hovering directly over her body. His head was large enough it seemed to block out the sun, casting a massive shadow in a wide berth around her.
She panted shallowly, staring at him in a dumb silence. Her heart felt like it was going to explode. Or, maybe, it already had. Sheer terror blocked any rational thought she might have had. It blocked any thought at all. All that existed was her jagged breaths, his massive body, and the way she trembled so badly that the world felt unsteady beneath her.
“You want to gawk? Is this impressive enough?” Kaidren trumpeted, lifting his head as he shot a massive flame into the air. And then he stopped and pressed his head even closer to her, tilting it so that his eye – easily the size of her torso – was mere inches from her face. “How about you slumber now? Then I’ll stare at you as you sleep, and see how you enjoy it.”
Jerica squeaked with terror.
Her brain couldn’t form any thoughts. Much less words.
She gaped at him in a terrified silence.
There was a flicker of motion to the left. Then Aerik came swaggering into view to her left, smirking down at her as he stood next to Kaidren. He took a long, slow sip of his coffee, leisurely watching as she lay terrified on the ground. Her chest heaved as though she’d fought a long battle.
She swallowed hard.
“I did warn you,” Aerik said casually. “You recall that? Yesterday, down by the mushrooms, when I told you to leave Kaidren alone? And then again at dinner, when I specifically told you he doesn’t like to be gawked at? To not go into his cave uninvited?”
Jerica’s chest rose and fell heavily. What does…? She glanced at Kaidren then looked back at Aerik and nodded tensely. He had warned her. And she’d never regretted a decision this much in her entire life.
“And what did you do?” Aerik asked, raising his eyebrows. “Mm?”
Jerica swallowed hard, somehow simultaneously feeling like a criminal on death row and a school child, all at once. Her voice was a mere squeak when she finally found it. “I went in his cave.”
“You went in his cave!” Aerik agreed, a bit too enthusiastically. He patted Kaidren’s face affectionately. The scale he touched was larger than Aerik’s entire hand. Aerik looked at Kaidren then back down at Jerica. “I suggest you apologize.”
Kaidren let out a low growl that shook her insides. Her stomach sank even further, and she pressed her shoulder blades against the ground even harder, as if it would open up and swallow her if she tried hard enough. “I apologize, Sir Dragon. It won’t happen again. I swear.”
“Apologize to Aerik now.”
Kaidren growled, baring his teeth.
“I’m sorry,” Jerica said hastily, panicked as she turned her gaze back towards Aerik. “I’m so, so sorry. I apologize.”
“For what?” Aerik asked, lifting an eyebrow with a slight smirk. He was enjoying this.
“I don’t know.”
Kaidren growled again. “For disobeying and disrespecting him.”
“For disobeying and disrespecting you.” Jerica’s gaze snapped back towards Aerik.
“Sir!” Jerica repeated.
Aerik smirked. “I accept your apology.”
Jerica was silent. She didn’t dare to move.
Aerik turned his gaze back towards Kaidren. “How about it, Kaidren? Shall we forgive her this time? It certainly appears that she’s learned her lesson.”
Kaidren snorted, sending a cloud of smoke into her face.
Jerica choked on a cough, staring up at him with wide, watering eyes. A few agonizing moments passed – each one feeling like it lasted an entire lifetime – before Kaidren lifted his head and stepped over Jerica. The heat radiating from his abdomen warmed her face as his shoulders then belly, then tail passed directly over her.
The ground shook with each step he took.
Jerica collapsed the instant the tip of his tail passed her. She closed her eyes. Her entire body was shaking violently with the effort it took to keep from completely falling apart into a sobbing, trembling mess. Exhaustion washed across her, intense pain radiating down her side as the adrenaline seeped out of her body.
Jerica’s eyes snapped open. Aerik was standing over her. She scrambled to her feet in an instant, perfectly obedient. She nervously looked back at the cave, but Kaidren was already too far inside to see. She swallowed hard, torso throbbing from the force of the impact that had driven her to the ground.
“Are you ready to behave now?” Aerik was holding the sword she’d dropped and swung it lazily by his side. “Or did Kaidren leave too soon?”
“Yes sir!” She was flustered, not sure whether agreeing or disagreeing was the right answer here. But she’d say anything to ensure Kaidren didn’t come back out of the cave. “No sir! Er. I-I will – I –”
“You’ll obey?” He sipped his coffee, nonchalant.
“Yes sir!” She swallowed hard as he took a step nearer her.
Aerik pressed the sword into her hands. “Then go clean the weapons, as you were told.”