"What? Where?" Steve muttered over the cackle of his walkie-talkie. He dropped his fork on the plateful of bacon and started packing up. "I’m nearest, I’ll be there ASAP. Have Glen and Lynn follow me as soon as possible."
His companion was looking at him quizzically from across the table. "Relax, John. You didn’t screw up this time. In fact, I guess it’s time for your trial by fire." He got up and tossed him the keys. "Come on, you’re driving."
John just nodded and followed as Steve got up and stepped out of the supply depot. John had been on this internship for three days now and he still had that feeling of awe and majesty whenever he gazed upon the vast expanse. The green grassy fields were bounded to the north by a heavily wooded area and to the southwest by a small mountain range. The sun was on the way down by the mountains; it would be dark soon.
"Where we going?" John asked as he stepped into the driver’s seat of the open-air off-road jeep they had been using for patrols.
Steve jumped into the passenger seat and gestured. "North by northeast. Floor it, we need to be there fast."
John nodded and soon they were speeding down the grassy plains.
"Are we headed into the forest?" John asked.
"Yup," Steve was rummaging around in the supplies in the back of the jeep. To John’s surprise, Steve pulled out a scoped hunting rifle.
"What’s going on? There’s going to be trouble?"
"I hope not," Steve said, loading and readying the rifle. "But best be ready."
Before John could ask any more questions, they both heard a loud thunderous roar ring through the air.
"Yup," Steve nodded. "It’s Amethyst." Steve pointed to the edge of the forest. "There! Look!"
They were still some distance away, but the dragon was large enough for John to see. Amethyst was on the ground, her amber-yellow scales glistening in the receding sunlight. Her large wings were pinned to the ground somehow and she seemed to be struggling with some sort of ropes. It was starting to get dark, but John could still see a number of small figures milling around the dragon. "What are they doing--?" John wondered aloud as they got closer.
"Poachers." A grim look took over Steve’s face as he aimed the rifle and took a shot. It was a warning shot, there was no way he would hit anything at this distance. "Hang on Amy!"
The poachers turned at the sound of the warning shot. John saw that there were six of them in all, and they had a large truck nearby, barely large enough to carry a small dragon. Two had trapped Amy in a net of ropes weighted down by what looked like metal drums. One of them, a stocky man with a dark tan and wearing army fatigues was shouting instructions to the others. Three were holding rifles.
"Shit, " John said, recognizing the threat. He quickly braked and turned, sending the jeep into a spinning drift. "Get down Steve!"
The two of them ducked as shots rang overhead. The jeep skidded to a stop and John and Steve quickly spilled out the passenger side and crouched down, using the vehicle as a cover.
"Great instincts kid! Here!" Steve tossed the rifle to John as he pulled out the walkie-talkie from his belt. "Keep ‘em busy!"
Nodding, John picked up the rifle. Now he understood why weapons training had been a requirement for this internship. He took a peek over the jeep’s side. The poachers were still firing, but keeping their distance. Amethyst struggled uselessly against the weighted ropes and her roars kept echoing. John fired a shot, then sat back to reload. "I think the dragon’s wounded Steve! Her left wing looked like it was bleeding!"
Steve nodded. "Bastards! They probably clipped her wings to force her to land." He spoke into the walkie-talkie again. "Glen, Lynn, where are you? These guys are heavily-armed!"
"Ten minutes out!" a voice cackled back.
"Not nearly quick enough," Steve grunted as more shots rang overhead and John managed to fire back a few times. "You got any of them yet kid?"
"They’re too far, I can’t get a good shot," John shook his head, "I don’t understand, why doesn’t the dragon breathe on them?"
"Amy’s too young kid, just like you," Steve replied, "You saw her snort out a couple of small fireballs outta her nostrils the other day right? That’s all she can do without getting exhausted." A few more shots rang over their heads. "Well, we only got one shot now. Cover me." He reached over back into the jeep again, being careful not to expose his head.
"I don’t suppose you have a rocket launcher in there," John said as he fired off a couple more shots.
"Better," Steve said, finally pulling out a weapon only slightly larger than a pistol.
"A flare gun? How is that going to help?"
"It doesn’t fire flares kid," Steve aimed the gun upwards. "Watch and learn." He pulled the trigger. What shot out certainly looked like a flare to John, as it slowly arced upwards into the sky. At the peak of the shot, where a flare would have exploded into bright light, instead a loud roar pierced the heavens. "Gotta hope she’s nearby…"
John saw the poachers look up at the sound in alarm. "What the heck was that?" John asked, "Who is nearby…?"
He was cut off by another roar, seemingly a short distance away, from beyond the woods. He looked to the sky.
"There we go," Steve grinned. "You’re in for a treat kid."
A large winged figure was descending towards them quickly. "Another dragon!" John exclaimed, "And she’s a lot bigger too!"
"Not just any dragon, kid," Steve said, "That’s Amy’s mom!"
Her shadow was almost fifty-feet long as she flew over the two of them and circled back towards the poachers. She flew so close to the ground that her scales glistened with the reflections of the fading sunlight, and every flap of her enormous wings sent a strong gust towards John and Steve. John was pretty sure his mouth was agape.
The larger dragon roared again in fury. John looked behind the jeep just in time to see the poachers in a panic, dropping their ropes and guns and making a mad dash for their truck. He looked up and saw the larger dragon take a deep breath and then what seemed like pure hot boiling rage burst forward from her open jaws. The grass seemingly parted way to burnt leaves as the fiery breath scorched the ground, heading straight for the poachers.
The leader of the poachers was already in the truck’s driver seat, willing the engine to start. The others were scrambling into the back of the truck. But it was too late for them. The dragon caught up with them and in a matter of seconds the truck was completely wrapped in flames. With another roar, she swooped back upwards and around for another go, but it wasn’t necessary. As she turned away from the truck, it exploded into a violent ball of fire.
Amy cried out to the skies as her mother circled around and finally landed next to her. The mother’s majestic wings spread out as she landed and she let out another roar.
"Come on kid," Steve said, finally getting up, "Just stick close to me, they know who I am." He started jogging towards the dragons. John shook himself out of his stupor and followed.
"We’re gonna need the water choppers over here," Steve was talking into the walkie-talkie again as they jogged past the burnt grass.
Amy and her mother let out quiet wails as they approached. Not quite roars, but more like cries of… recognition? That’s what it seemed like to John.
"Easy there, girls," Steve said in a soothing voice as he slowed down and walked towards the ropes holding Amy to the ground. He kicked one of the barrels the ropes was tied. "Must be fifty pounds of rocks in there," he muttered as he pulled out a knife and started cutting off the ropes as the two dragons quietly looked on.
Finally, Amy had been cut loose. She loosed another cry again, perhaps in gratitude. "She looks tiny in the shadow of her mother," was all John could say as Amy tried flapping her wings. The left wing was useless, she wouldn’t be able to fly.
The mother let out a subtle roar, and started flapping her wings. Steve held on to his hat as the gusts blew over them. She hovered over the two of them and Amy for a bit, before she finally grabbed the smaller dragon with her hind claws and lifted her up. The two of them took altitude and flew off towards the mountains, into the sunset.
"Wow." John said. Then after a while he said it again. "Wow. That was… intense. What happens now?"
Steve nodded towards the mountains. "She has a nest there somewhere. She’ll nurse Amy for a few weeks until the wing heals. Dragons have naturally good healing, so she’ll probably make a full recovery."
John looked back at the charred remains of the poachers’ truck. "Does this happen a lot?"
"Not really," Steve shook his head. "They don’t often go for the dragons themselves. Couple of times a year, they’ll try raiding the nests for eggs or scales or leavings, that kind of thing. You’ll be surprised what they can get on the black market." He mused. "The last time they got a live one must’ve been something like seven or eight years ago. It’s why we only have eight dragons here in the preserve. Used to be nine."
"No new ones have been born since then?" John said.
"Nope. Dragon births have been getting rarer and rarer. Not enough males. We haven’t seen our male in a few months," Steve nodded towards the mountains again. "Amy’s the most recent birth we know of. No one knows if there’re any in the wild. The older ones are starting to die off too, so there’s a good chance the eight we got might be the last ones ever."
John shook his head. "It’s sad isn’t it, in a few generations, kids might think they’re fairy tales." Steve had no response, so they stood there in silence staring at the charred grass until the sounds of a helicopter started coming in from the east.
"Well, took ‘em long enough," Steve muttered before gesturing John back to the jeep. "Cheer up kid, you did good today. Who knows, maybe we make a difference. Maybe soon, dragons will be all over the world again."