Dusk fell. The hunt was over. The setting sun painted the Badlands a rich orange and cast long lazy shadows on the hard rock of the desert floor. Her father led the hunt today as he had for the last fifty years.
The wind above the clouds whipped past Cassiopeia's face. She had caught prey on this hunt, the other young dragons hadn't been as lucky.
Perhaps it was because of the black smoke the iron snake belched as it wound its way noisily through their Badlands. Once there had been thousands of bison dotting the plains. Draconis were able to feed their families, they were able to puck their prey. But now the great iron machine moved across the lands like hungry beast. The hunt was over for today and the hunting party was on their way home.
Cassi clutched her prey tightly within her claws and pumped her wings harder allowing her to easily glide over the layer of clouds beneath her. Occasionally she felt tempted to dive beneath the cloud layer to explore the world that had always been hidden from her.
Her father had forbidden everyone from venturing beyond the first strata of clouds.
"It is too dangerous. You might be seen. Or killed. Humans are irresponsible."
Still, on occasion, she would peak through a breach in the clouds and catch glimpses that often astonished her.
Towns had sprung up along the great iron snake. They sprouted up here and there bringing the most unusual creatures with them.
Cassiopeia was curious about these strange invaders. They intrigued her. She had seen their homes, their carriages, and their fields but only from a distance. While on the hunt she had heard the whistle of the thunderous snake and smelled its acrid smoke as the black steel beast roared on its rugged iron road.
Fifty years she had spent on the Earth and yet she had not met one of these mysterious invaders. Her father and the elders had forbidden it.
"The humans are too dangerous. Stay high, stay hidden, stay safe."
That was the code of her people. Humans had savagely hunted her people. They had killed Draconis out of fear, or as part of some right of passage, and they had even killed them for sport. Two centuries ago, the humans had driven them out of Asia and Europe during the time of The Great Migration, the humans had forced them to flee into this New World.
Her father, Thuban, was now flying ahead of the pack. Thuban led the Draconis and he alone was the commander of The Counsel of Elders. He was beloved and respected for having survived The Great Migration, and for his wisdom and guidance. He had led for more than two centuries. His voice was the strongest among their people and his word was final.
He was flying ahead of the pack, taking it upon himself the safty of his people. They looked to him for support and advice. He was a strong and impossing dragon. His strength and bravery were made evident by the scars etched onto his chiseled face.
Cassiopeia could see that the burden of leadership weighed heavily upon her father. Their numbers weren't growing and game was only getting harder and harder to find.
Other than Cassi only the members of The Counsel of Elders had caught prey during the hunt. Sadly, her peers were not great hunters. They were far younger hunters than in generations past, and the prey was not as it used to be. Men were spreading across the continent and what little space there was left was fading away.
Cassiopeia feared that if contact wasn't made soon a conflict would between her people and the strange two legged invaders would be inevitable.
Just ahead Rastaban, a meber of The Counsel of Elders screached loudly and released his prey which plummeted beneath the cloud cover. Something was wrong. A thin black plume penetrated the clouds and a sickly odor filled the air. Cassiopeia's heart caught in her chest.
"The nesting grounds!" She gasped. "Something's happened at the nesting grounds!!!"
Humans or not, permission or not, Cassi was not waiting any longer. She let go of her prey and dove into the clouds picking up speed as she went. The air was scorched in her and a sonic boom split the sky. Her young were down there, her first clutch of eggs. She had to get to them and nothing was going to stop her.
The clouds parted and hard red eearth came into view. The cliffs of their valley were wreathed in smoke and flame. Their nests were ablaze! Cassi could hear the shrieks of her brethern as they followed close behind her. She ignored them. Her young were all that mattered.
She landed on the Cliffside. Her father landed just before she did and quickly blocked the way.
"Father please!" Cassi pleaded as she tried to push forward. She shoved with a strength that could have moved mountains but her Father held his ground.
"My babies!" She shrieked desperatly "Why won't you let me save my babies!"
Her father didn't answer and ee didn't have to. Cassiopeiea knew the answer.
The eggs. Her very first clutch, were no more.