rss
twitter
  •  

“Hope Springs,” a Fallen Empire Short Story: Preview

| Posted in My Ebooks |

0

A few months ago, I was asked to contribute a short story to the fourth Beyond the Stars science fiction anthology, and I said sure. I had just finished the last novel in my Fallen Empire series, so I decided to use the opportunity to check in on the hero and heroine a little later. Even though they were supposed to be living happily ever after, or something like that, I figured they would still have an adventure or two along the way. In fact, a honeymoon seemed like a most excellent place for a new adventure. So that became the idea for the new story.

I tried to make the story so that new readers wouldn’t be confused, but if you’ve read the series, you’ll certainly know these characters and, I hope, enjoy visiting them again.

Here’s the little blurb:

After months of spaceship chases and terrifying battles, Leonidas and Alisa are finally relaxing on a moon full of hot springs, but trouble never fails to find these former soldiers, and they’re soon embroiled in a mystery and fighting for their lives once more.

If you’ve already picked up the anthology, thank you. If you’d like a preview of the story, read on…

Hope Springs

Steam wafted off the water and curled around Alisa Marchenko’s bare legs. Snow dusted the rocky hills above the hot springs, and the cold air pimpled her flesh. She pulled her robe tighter, tempted to jump into the closest pool, but it would be polite to wait for—

A six-and-a-half-foot tall, heavily muscled man strode out of the changing cabin, wearing nothing more than flip-flops, plaid swimming trunks, and a raised eyebrow. Leonidas Adler, former imperial Cyborg Corps colonel and new husband to Alisa, looked her up and down.

“There were robes in your changing room?” he asked, his eyebrow drifting higher.

“Yumi warned me about the nippy air, so I brought one with me.” Alisa grinned, admiring his physique—nothing fat or flabby on him, despite the gray hair sprinkled at his temples—and amused at seeing her fierce warrior in such innocuous clothing.

“Yumi did not warn me,” he said flatly. “All she said was that she knew some of the scientists who opened Hope Springs and that the tourism money funds their research.”

“She also said it would be a delightful spot for our honeymoon, since neither the Alliance nor the empire has ever had interest in it.” Because the moon was little more than a rock in space, filled with geothermal vents, geysers, and scalding pools. Fortunately, the hot springs in the tourist area were suitable for soaking. “You’re not cold, are you? Surely, some of those implants are designed to keep cyborgs from freezing to death on chilly moons.”

Alisa patted his forearm, though none of his implants or other upgrades were visible on the surface—he appeared completely human, and, as he was always quick to point out, he was human. He hadn’t received the cyborg surgery until he’d joined the imperial service.

“I am sufficiently hardy,” he said a trifle stiffly, but he laid a hand on hers as he surveyed the pools where other tourists already lounged, some in swimming suits, others not. A nude, hairy fellow climbed out of the water and strolled past them, not bothering to grab a towel. “I may be overdressed,” Leonidas added.

“You’re welcome to remedy that if you wish.” Alisa slipped an arm around his waist and waved her other toward the water. “This is going to be wonderful. Five days with no crew or motherly duties to worry about. We can soak in the pools in relaxed bliss.”

“Are you sure we’ll need five days just to sit in water?”

Blissfully sit in water that, the brochure promises, will leave us with a radiant inner glow. There are massages and aromatherapy sessions too.” Alisa led him toward flagstone steps descending into a steaming pool. “I thought you were ready to retire from activities such as being shot at, irradiated, and having our minds manipulated by rogue Starseers.”

“Yes, but this seems… sedate.”

“My honeymoon plans also include copious amounts of vigorous sex.”

“Ah?” Leonidas slid his arm around her waist, and his eyelids drooped. “In that case, do you think five days will be enough?”

“With Beck in charge and Abelardus piloting my freighter, their delivery could take longer than anticipated. We might—”

Shouts from the other end of the pool area interrupted her. A woman in a yellow biohazard suit, complete with boots and helmet, raced down a ramp and across the snow-edged flagstone deck. She slipped and flailed, but caught herself, throwing a worried look at something small in her gloved fist. She raced toward Alisa and Leonidas while frequently glancing over her shoulder. Shouts came from up the ramp and beyond the rocks framing the sunken hot springs.

Alisa stepped into the pool to get out of the way, but Leonidas faced the woman, as if he would stop her. If she had stolen something, that might be appropriate, but this was hardly their fight.

Two black-clad men leaped over a rock wall and landed at the bottom of the ramp. No, Alisa amended. Not men. Androids. They’d just dropped more than twenty feet without pausing.

Leonidas had not stepped into the woman’s path yet, perhaps undecided as to whether he should interfere, but she veered toward him.

“Cyborg?” she blurted.

Before Leonidas could answer, she slipped on the flagstones and tumbled into him. He caught her before she could fall. Alisa grimaced, worrying that the woman—and that suit Leonidas now held—were in need of a decontamination shower.

“Delay them,” the woman blurted, breathless. “Please. This will help your kind.”

Nude people yelped, scurrying out of the way as the androids sprinted along the deck. The woman released Leonidas and ran around him. She raced toward stairs near the changing cabin that led out to the parking lot.

As the androids ran after her, their featureless faces and silver eyes dispassionate, Leonidas sprang into their path.

Alisa groaned, even though she’d known as soon as the woman appealed to him for help that he would give it. Honorable and noble. That was Leonidas. Whether he could win a battle against two androids while nearly naked or not. If he had been in his combat armor, she would have bet on him winning, but in flip-flops? As powerful as cyborgs were, androids were just as strong and had fewer weaknesses—no human flesh, no ability to feel pain.

“I’ll get your rifle,” Alisa yelled, racing up the stairs. She hated to leave Leonidas, but they hadn’t brought down any weapons. It was only due to his habitual preparedness that there was a blazer rifle in the rented air car.

Thumps and grunts sounded behind her, and she glanced back, wincing as Leonidas tumbled into the pool—or had he been thrown?—locked in a wrestler’s grip with one of the androids. The other android, with Leonidas out of the way, resumed his run toward the parking lot.

Alisa cursed. She charged up the steps, flip-flops slapping awkwardly, and raced past the admissions booth, where a teenager was sticking his head out and gaping after the woman in the suit. She had made it out into the lot, bypassing rows of tourist shuttles and private aircraft for a compact spaceship parked along a rock wall to the side. Its hatch opened, and Alisa thought the woman would make it, so she headed for her air car. But a shadow fell across her, and she leaped behind a shuttle.

Two distant suns gleamed in the grayish brown sky of Altar Moon, but both were blotted out for a moment as a black, hawk-shaped ship cruised low over the parking lot. Weapons bristled from its underbelly.

One of its e-cannon ports glowed blue, then fired with a thwump. Energy crackled in the air, and a blue bolt slammed into the parked spaceship. It exploded in flames and black smoke, debris hammering nearby craft. A piece of hull the size of Alisa’s head slammed into the shuttle she hid behind.

“What in all the suns’ fiery hells?” she grumbled, not daring to lift her head until the clangs and clacks died down.

When she stood, eyeing the sky warily, the attacking ship was already zipping toward the horizon. A smoking crater and a charred wreck remained where the other ship had been. At first, Alisa didn’t see any sign of the woman, but then spotted scraps of that yellow biohazard suit, along with—

She gulped. Was that an arm? Almost charred beyond recognition, it appeared to be all that remained of the woman.

The android that had been chasing her reached the wreckage. Ignoring her remains, he poked through the mess. He must have been aware of Alisa’s presence, but he did not acknowledge her.

Not certain she was safe, and worried about Leonidas, Alisa ran down the aisle to their air car. She opened the canopy and grabbed a stun gun and Leonidas’s blazer rifle.

She turned to head back to help him, but he was striding down the aisle toward her with something furry gripped in one hand. No, not furry. Hairy.

“Is that the android’s head?” Alisa asked, considering the water dripping from his prize.

“There’s a serial number in its scalp. We may be able to find out who it belonged to.”

“What about the other one?” Alisa nodded in the direction of the destroyed ship, though other craft blocked the view. Sirens wailed off to the south. Far too late, the local enforcers were arriving.

“I didn’t see him.”

“He’s over there.” Alisa waved for him to follow.

She weaved through the air cars and shuttles, hoping to approach without being heard. But when they reached the smoking crater, the android was gone. Wreckage lay strewn up and down the aisle, with a piece of the hull on the pavement a few meters from them. The name of the ship was visible despite its charred and warped edges. Klondike.

Alisa pointed at it, but Leonidas looked toward the wreck and the tattered pieces of that yellow suit. His jaw tightened.

Three ships appeared overhead, red and yellow emergency lights flashing as they descended toward the parking lot.

Leonidas drew Alisa back between two vehicles. “We may not want to stick around for questioning.”

“Why? We don’t know anything.” And Alisa wouldn’t mind getting some answers if the enforcers had them. “Or are you worried they’ll object to you taking that souvenir home?” She pointed at the android head.

“They may object to this as well.” He reached down the front of his swimming trunks.

“A cyborg penis?”

His eyes narrowed to slits, and Alisa expected him to point out that this was an inappropriate time for humor. All he did was withdraw a petri dish with a green smudge inside.

“The woman stuck this in my waistband when she crashed into me.” He turned the clear dish over in his hand. “It’s oddly warm.”

Shouts came from the wreck. The first enforcer ship had landed and was discharging people.

“Normally, I’d be jealous about another woman handling your waistband, but I’m more concerned that you might have smothered your nether regions with something toxic.”

“Presumably, the potential toxins are locked inside the dish.”

Alisa grunted dubiously.

“We can pick up Yumi, and she can take a look,” Leonidas said. Yumi had also come down to Altar Moon, but she was off doing research and visiting colleagues rather than enjoying the hot springs.

“We can, but maybe it would be wiser to hand that and that—” Alisa pointed to the dangling head, “—over to the enforcers. Whatever’s going on, it has nothing to do with us. Waistband fondling aside.”

Leonidas turned over the petri dish. “She implied it might be useful to cyborgs.”

The green smudge looked like some kind of algae, nothing more. But Leonidas wore a determined expression. Knowing him, he probably felt he had failed the woman, and some sense of justice motivated him now.

“I’m not going to get the honeymoon I imagined, am I?” Alisa asked.

“If we figure out what this was about quickly, there could still be time for vigorous sex.”

“What about the bliss we’re supposed to find in the hot springs?”

Leonidas grunted noncommittally and started toward their air car, careful to stay out of sight of the authorities. Alisa sighed and trailed after him. This honeymoon was not going at all as she’d imagined.

~

Please check out the anthology to read the rest (and there are lots of great stories by other authors in there too): Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns.

Dragon Rider Chapter 3

| Posted in My Ebooks |

0

The Beginnings boxed set (with Dragon Rider in it) is now out, so you can grab the whole story at once, but if you’re still on the fence, here’s one more chapter. (Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 are already up.)

Beginnings at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Chapter 3

Taylina eased around the bend in the wide tunnel, expecting someone—or something—to speak into her mind again. Another roar sounded instead, one that jarred her to the core. Had it been directed at her, she would have fled in terror. She was tempted to flee in terror anyway.

But the tunnel opened up, and her curiosity—and her mission—would not let her turn away. A vast chamber bristling with columns, stalactites, and stalagmites stretched away from her. Only the center lay clear of rock formations, leaving enough space for a dragon. No, for two dragons.

One great, scaled golden dragon stood on his haunches, his wings spread wide and almost touching columns on either side of the chamber. His long sinewy tail slapped the stone floor behind him as he glared down at a second dragon. This one was also golden, but he was down on all four of his legs with his wings pressed tightly to his body. Magical, almost ethereal, golden tethers circled him in three places, light from them illuminating the chamber as they seemed to crackle with energy. They bound him, Taylina realized as she watched him trying to move his wings but finding resistance. His powerful rear leg muscles bunched, as if he would spring like a panther, but the magical tethers kept him from leaving the ground. The other dragon snarled at him, the chamber trembling faintly in response to the reverberations of his power.

“I think that’s Bergethor,” Raff whispered. He pointed to the dragon towering over the other, then gripped Taylina’s shoulder, as if to keep her from running out to speak to him.

She hadn’t intended to fling herself in the middle of whatever was going on. “Is that one of the Cofah dragons?” She pointed to the imprisoned one. They appeared about the same size, but the one bound by the magical ropes was definitely at a disadvantage.

“I have no idea.” Raff looked around the chamber. In addition to the natural stone features, there were rugs on the floor in the center, and here and there, wide, garishly colored green and purple ribbons swirled up the columns in oversized decorations. “I don’t see its rider, if so. Maybe he was eaten.” Raff glanced back the way they had come, probably wanting to flee before the dragons noticed they were there.

But they could not do that. Taylina had come for a reason, and as soon as these two finished with their business, she would proposition Bergethor. If this other one was not working for the Cofah, she would happily proposition him too.

Your treacherous ways are so odious that they’re the talk of the entire island chain, one of the dragons announced, his voice once again resonating inside Taylina’s mind. Bhrava Saruth? Wasn’t that what he had called himself? He’d also called himself a god… Big words for someone bound by magical ropes. Perhaps of all Iskandoth, he added, glaring up at Bergethor with angry green eyes. Free me from this prison, and I will not tell Lysidia Shay how cowardly and treacherous you are. Or about your fascination with female giraffes.

Lysidia is my mate, a deep voice responded.

You neglected her for ten years!

Her breeding cycle is only once every twelve. It wasn’t time to mate with her again. What were you doing sniffing around her hindquarters like—

I was keeping her company with my noble wit. That is all, you jealous cow-molester.

Taylina rubbed her head, now feeling the headache Raff had spoken of. Even though she was simply overhearing the dragons’ telepathic conversation, and none of their attention was focused on her, the raw power being flung with each word made her nerves ache.

“These are the beings you want to help us?” Raff muttered.

Bhrava Saruth’s green eyes shifted toward them, and Raff winced. They should have let the dragons finish before speaking. Taylina shifted uncomfortably under that gaze. Great power emanated from those piercing eyes, the irises slit similarly to a reptile’s eyes. They were wholly inhuman. Alien.

Even the humans have heard of your vile, treacherous ways, Bergethor the Betrayer, Bhrava Saruth announced. See? They couldn’t believe the trap you set for me, so they came to witness for themselves.

For the first time, Bergethor’s head swung toward the entrance to the chamber, his maw parted to reveal fences of long, pointy fangs, his yellow eyes even colder and more alien than the other dragon’s.

“Uh, that’s not why we’re here,” Taylina said, her voice sounding puny in the chamber.

Thieves! Bergethor roared in their minds.

This time, with the dragon’s attention—his ire—focused on them, Taylina fell to her knees. It was as if her muscles turned to mud and could no longer support her body. Almost as irritated as she was afraid, she again longed for the support of her staff.

“That’s also not why we’re here,” she said, trying to sound brave out of some notion that dragons might respond better to bravado than fear. It worked with the coyote pack that roamed the island. Besides—she eyed the tacky ribbons—what was there to steal?

Something that might have been a dragon chortle rang out in her mind. The human female thinks your decor is as ugly as I do, Bergethor. Perhaps if you had let Lysidia Shay visit outside of breeding years, she might have assisted you with appointing your cave in a manner worthy of a golden dragon.

Silence, mate-stealer, Bergethor cried, his head swinging back toward Bhrava Saruth, his long neck snapping like a whip. I will destroy you for your impudence.

Take these bonds off me, and fight me like a gold dragon, not a scheming silver or a puny bronze.

Bhrava Saruth’s head flew backward, as if he’d received an uppercut to the jaw. Bergethor had not moved, other than to narrow his eyes.

Coward! Bhrava Saruth cried mentally, then shrieked aloud, the same shriek that Taylina and Raff had heard on the way in.

With the dragons’ attention on each other, Taylina managed to pull herself to her feet. She looked down at the healing wand still gripped in her hand. The light emanating from the crystal on the top was feeble compared to the flickering illumination of those energy bindings around Bhrava Saruth. What could this tool—or any of their tools—do to dragons? Even if they could affect the great creatures, should she try? What good could it do? Did she have something that might free Bhrava Saruth? If so, would freeing him be wise? She had no idea who was in the right here. Surely, getting involved with dragon politics would only lead to her death.

Yes, Bhrava Saruth’s voice cried in her mind. Free me! I am a god. It is blasphemy for him to trick and torture me so. Pure blasphemy!

“Uhm.” Taylina looked at Raff, hoping he would have an idea of what they should do. Bergethor, however grumpy and accusatorial, was a resident of the island and the one who seemed more likely to help—surely, he couldn’t be happy about those Cofah dragons invading his homeland. He also didn’t, as far as she knew, think of himself as a deity. She wouldn’t be surprised if one of the seven gods struck Bhrava Saruth down for his blasphemy.

Free me, Bhrava Saruth said to her again, the words so compelling that she almost stepped into the chamber. But even if she wanted to free him, it wasn’t as if she could walk up with a pair of scissors and snip magical ropes.

Free me, and I will bless you, Bhrava Saruth tried again right before Bergethor did something to him, and his head snapped to the side. Blood trickled from one of his nostrils, and Taylina felt pity for him, even if he wasn’t the resident dragon here. A god must be magnanimous. I will bless you. Or grant you a favor!

“A favor?” Taylina whispered, turning again toward Raff. Had he heard Bhrava Saruth’s offer, or had those words been spoken only to her?

Though he was still wincing and appeared to be in even more pain than she was from the power being thrown about, he met her eyes.

“This is what we need,” she whispered to Raff. “Is there anything you can do? Or…” Taylina eyed the bag of tools, trying to remember exactly what she had stuffed in there. Was there anything that might affect those ropes? “Or maybe if we distract Bergethor, the ropes will go away?” she added, thinking of the way Raff’s globe of light had gone out when he’d been distracted.

“No,” Raff said. “It’s a tool, not something he’s projecting from his mind.”

He pointed toward the ground at Bhrava Saruth’s feet, a black disc just visible behind his haunches.

“Could you find a way to disable it if we could convince Bergethor to leave for a while?” Taylina whispered, remembering that Bhrava Saruth had read some of her thoughts. She did not want Bergethor doing the same and hoped he was less inclined to poke into her head.

“I… don’t know,” Raff said. “Dragons make things much differently from the way we humans do it.”

“You’re the tool expert. This is what you do.” She tried to sound encouraging rather than desperate. “I’m sure you can figure it out.”

“Not with a dragon standing on it.”

“I don’t think the one standing on it is the problem,” Taylina said.

You cannot do this to the god Bhrava Saruth, you toad-licking troglodyte! Stop before—ow! Blasphemy!

“Not the main problem,” Taylina amended.

Raff grunted dubiously.

“I’ll try to convince Bergethor to take a flight.” Taylina squared her shoulders and stepped into the chamber. “Bergethor? We came here to warn you about something. Can you spare a moment from your, ah—” She looked at Bhrava Saruth and groped for a word.

Blasphemy! he suggested in her mind, loudly enough to send a stab of pain through her skull.

“Your project,” Taylina finished.

When Bergethor’s head swung toward her, she locked her knees. She refused to fall down again if he communicated with her.

Do not trouble me with your grating barking, thieves, Bergethor spoke into her mind, his hard yellow eyes boring into her soul. If you are not gone from my home when I finish dealing with this fool, I will turn you to ash.

Taylina was beginning to warm to the idea of working with Bhrava Saruth, however delusional he was. Bergethor was every bit as unpleasant as the stories said.

“We’ve come all the way across the island to warn you about the invaders,” she said, projecting her voice into the chamber, trying to sound confident and calm. Bhrava Saruth looked at her. For the moment, he did not seem to be in pain. At least she had distracted Bergethor from his torture.

I do not need your kind warning me of anything, Bergethor replied. Do you think I don’t know about the Cofah and their dragons? That their force is here to complete the takeover and occupation of Iskandoth?

Raff sucked in a breath. The words must be echoing in his mind too. Hearing the confirmation of what she had suspected upset Taylina, but it did not change her mission. She must worry about freeing her people, her town. There was nothing she could do for the rest of the country.

“Aren’t you concerned that they’ll come for you?” Taylina asked, extending a hand toward the tunnel. “You are not a Cofah dragon.”

I am nobody’s dragon. Those fools who align themselves with human interests deserve to be dropped into volcanoes. Bergethor’s scaled head rose, his horns almost brushing the ceiling, and he stared at her, proud and defiant. Those dragons will not bother me, regardless. I have nothing to do with the ridiculous human war.

“That’s not what I heard,” Taylina said, trying to keep her mind blank so he would not read the lies in her thoughts. “I was close enough to hear the dragons and their riders speaking to their commanders. They know there is a dragon on this island, and they have orders to get rid of him, to get rid of you. That is why we came to warn you. Perhaps, if you left now, you could slip away under the cover of night. Or you might even strike a blow against them, surprise them by appearing in the darkness.” She said the last wistfully, doubting he would entertain such a notion, but it would be wonderful if he could lure at least one of those dragons away so she and Raff might have more of a chance of dealing with the others. Somehow. She glanced at Bhrava Saruth.

To her surprise, his head bobbed in something akin to a nod. Did he agree with her strategy here? Or was he promising that he would help with the Cofah if they found a way to free him?

Lies, Bergethor cried in her mind, and Taylina stumbled back. Intense energy battered her in addition to that word, and if not for Raff catching her, she would have fallen again. You think I cannot see the lies in your mind, puny human? Do I look like a hatchling? Or some pathetic bronze dragon that would fall for your weak attempt at trickery? Nobody tricks a dragon of my stature!

His wings spread wide again, and his great maw opened as smoke curled from his nostrils.

“Look out,” Raff ordered, grabbing Taylina around the waist and hoisting her into the air.

She dropped the healing wand as he sprinted away, locking her over his shoulder. She was tempted to struggle, or to tell him to let her go, but she feared she knew what was coming.

As Raff rounded the bend and sprinted for the exit, red light flared behind him. It preceded the flames that flooded the passage. Heat hammered at Taylina’s back, and the sound of crackling fire filled her ears. For the first time that night, true terror flooded her body. And she was helpless to do anything about it.

Fortunately, Raff kept running. Only when he reached the mouth of the cave did he pause, gripping the wall as his toes dangled over the edge. The dark surf roared far below, waves pounding against the cliff.

Taylina thought he might jump with her still clutched over his shoulder, but he looked over his shoulder. The flames were dying away. Thanks to the bend in the tunnel, the fire hadn’t quite reached them. She eyed the tunnel warily, wondering what they could do if Bergethor stomped out after them.

But a shriek came from inside the chamber. Bhrava Saruth being tortured again. Taylina did not know whether to be thankful or not that his crime, whatever it had truly been, had irked Bergethor more than the idea of humans lying to him.

“Now what?” Raff asked, setting her down gently.

Taylina slumped against the cave wall, the salty sea breeze tugging at her hair. “I don’t know.”

~

Thanks for checking out the Dragon Rider preview! Here are the links for the bundle again in case you want to read the rest:

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Dragon Rider: Chapter 2

| Posted in My Ebooks |

2

Here’s the second chapter of my soon-to-be-published Dragon Rider adventure. The first chapter is here if you missed it.

Chapter 2

Night fell, but the fires continued to burn in the groves and the town, lighting up the cloudy horizon with a reddish tint that made Taylina sick to her stomach. The bag full of tools had grown heavy, and she leaned on her staff as she picked her way along the goat trails in the center of the island. She could no longer hear the cries of people nor the clanging of the town bell, and she tried to tell herself that was simply because she had walked too far away. It didn’t mean that everything was destroyed and everyone was dead. It couldn’t.

She hadn’t seen any of the dragons since twilight, but she would not have lit a lantern, even if she’d had one. She worried about being spotted from the skies. Thinking of the way those soldiers had shot at people who were fleeing, people who had clearly been no threat, she couldn’t help but fear for her safety, so she moved as quietly as she could in the dark. She kept her ears open, too, hoping to hear the rustling of brush that might mean others of her people were around. After all, she’d seen them fleeing away from town. But perhaps they had stopped once they reached the wilderness, turning to watch what unfolded back in the harbor.

Taylina passed through the rocky contours of the center of the island. It was quiet there, only the roar of the ocean audible in the distance. Whenever the clouds parted and the moon shone through, she could make out the cliffs ahead of her, the rugged terrain marking the dragon’s half of the island.

“Taylina?” came a soft call from behind her.

She froze, leaning against a boulder to blend in with the night. But the voice was familiar.

“Raff?” she called quietly.

“Yes.” Pebbles crunched under his feet. “When I told you to hide, I didn’t mean for you to hide so far away.”

“I gave myself a mission.”

One she hated to delay. Even though she was relieved to hear her friend’s voice, and her aching body appreciated the rest stop, she did not want to linger. She had to convince Bergethor the Bleak to help before it was too late to matter, before there was nothing left to fight for.

Raff appeared in the shadows, picking his way toward her. He grunted softly as he walked, as if in pain.

“Are you all right?” she asked, remembering that he had gone off to try and stop those soldiers.

“I’ve had better days.”

It was too dark for her to see much, other than his dark body silhouetted against the reddish sky behind him, but he seemed to be holding his ribs.

“Do you need anything?” she asked, though she did not know what she could give. She hadn’t had time to grab food or water. Nothing.

“Nothing I can have right now,” he said with a sigh.

“What happened? Mind if we keep walking?” She pointed down the path.

“Why? I think we’re far enough from the invaders.” His tone turned even grimmer than it had been. “They’ve got the whole town to worry about. I doubt they’ll come looking for us.”

“What’s happening back there? Can you tell?” She touched her temple to indicate that he might “tell” with magic.

“They’re rounding everybody up—a lot of our people escaped and are hiding in the hills. I met up with your brother there, but he didn’t know where your parents and sister were—he’d been running errands when the attack came and hadn’t been able to get back to the woodworking shop. Do you want me to take you to them? It’s a good four miles back. Tay, what are you doing way up here? If I didn’t know your aura so well, I never would have found you.”

“Then I’m glad my aura is distinctive, because I think I’m going to need you.”

“Oh, that’s a given, but for what, in particular?”

“Only sorcerers and sorceresses get to become dragon riders, right?”

“Uh, right,” Raff said, his confusion evident in his tone, even if she couldn’t see his face. “As far as I know. Usually powerful sorcerers with soulblades—magical, sentient swords.”

“What about toolmakers?” Taylina asked.

“I might be given the honor of buffing a dragon’s claws.”

“Well, you’re going to do more than that.” She grabbed his arm. “We’re going to talk to Bergethor the Bleak.”

Raff had started to step toward her, but he faltered. “We’re what?”

“He’s the only one who can help.”

“Help what? Eat us so that we die quickly and aren’t captured by the Cofah?”

“We’re going to talk him into helping us.” Taylina started down the path toward the cliffs again, hoping to show that she would go whether Raff came with her or not. But she hoped he came with her. He knew so much more about magic, and probably about dragons too. Maybe this mission was suicidal, but to simply hide in the hills and wait for the Cofah to leave—or settle in—was not acceptable.

“How are you going to do that?” Raff asked. “Note: I said you and not we.”

“You’re leaving the lowly woodworker to confront the dragon alone?”

“You promised me you weren’t lowly.”

“I just told you not to call me that or I’d club you.” She shook her head, continuing on. This wasn’t the time for jokes. Not when most of her family was still missing, as far as she knew. Not when the world was in chaos.

“Taylina…” Raff grumbled but trailed after her, jogging to catch up. “Do you have a plan? What are you carrying anyway?”

“As many tools as I could gather, so the Cofah wouldn’t get them.”

“Here, let me carry the bag.”

Taylina almost told him that she could handle it, but in truth, toting them while leaning on her staff was wearying. Even though the salty, smoky night air was not hot, sweat dampened her brow and her back under the bag. She paused to give it to him.

“Thank you,” she said when he accepted it. “As to the plan, that’s part of it. I’m going to offer to trade him our tools.”

“What does a dragon need tools for? They don’t even have hands.”

“Well, he’s got a big cave in the cliffs, doesn’t he? I’m sure he likes collecting treasures to stick in it. Some of those wands we made are colorful and glow perkily.”

“Perky wands, just what a dragon needs. As far as treasures, I think you’ve been reading too many books. I bet his cave is full of bones, the bones of those he’s eaten.”

“If he’s not interested in the tools,” Taylina said, “I’ll point out that the Cofah are invading his island, just as much as they’re invading our island. Maybe he’ll be territorial and go out and attack them to drive them away. He’s lived here for centuries, the tales say.”

“Wouldn’t he have already done that? I’m positive he knows what’s happening. He probably knew those Cofah dragons were coming before they were anywhere near our island.”

“Are you going to stomp all over all of my plans?”

“Just the ones that are likely to lead to you—us—being eaten.”

“Better than being Cofah slaves for the rest of our lives.”

Raff grumbled something under his breath, but he continued to follow her. He uttered a prayer to the sea god when they crossed the Creviced Tiers, the official dividing line between the dragon’s half of the island and the humans’ half. Even though Taylina believed Bergethor would be too busy monitoring the invaders to pay attention to two humans crossing onto his side, she couldn’t help but glance up often. The moon came out as they climbed, and that left more of the sky visible.

“I’ve noticed the Cofah dragons haven’t come to this side,” Raff observed as they used the moonlight to guide them up the craggy terrain, higher and higher, toward the peak of the island—and the cave where Bergethor made his home. As a girl, when Taylina had gone out in fishing boats with her father and brother, she had seen it, the dark opening high in the cliffs that overlooked the Southern Shoals. She had only seen it from a great distance, as the town’s fishing and trading ships did not venture close to land on that side of the island, but she remembered it well, and how ominous it had appeared. She’d thought she had seen yellow eyes peering out from the darkness, though her father had told her it was her imagination.

“There’s nothing over here for them but trouble,” Taylina said. She feared there was nothing over here for her and Raff but trouble too. He was considerate enough not to mention it. “I appreciate you coming with me,” she said, glancing over her shoulder.

“Nobody should have to face a dragon alone.”

“You’re a noble man.”

“Uh huh. Just to be clear, you will be the one in front when we face the dragon. Far in front.”

Taylina wiped her brow again, more from the exertion than from nervousness over walking into a dragon’s cave. Climbing up steep slopes and clambering over the rocks where there were no trails was taking its toll, and she had jammed her leg awkwardly so many times that her hips throbbed, even the perfectly normal one. She almost welcomed a confrontation with a dragon, if only to end this night.

They came around a natural rock tower, and sea air blasted at them, the strong southerly winds that always buffeted this end of the island. They had reached the far side.

Taylina squinted at the cliffs overlooking the water. They were far more sheer than she had realized. In the dark, she couldn’t see the cave entrance or even guess at its location. Nor could she imagine how they would climb along those steep cliffs. Even climbing them during the day would be difficult, especially for her.

“Don’t tell me we’ll be stuck waiting until dawn,” she said.

“I’ll risk a light,” Raff said, and unfurled a hand.

A glowing, silvery globe appeared in the air in front of Taylina, illuminating the rocks for ten feet in all directions. It also illuminated Raff’s face, and she sucked in a startled breath at the dried blood on his cheek and jaw, and the huge purple knot at his temple.

“I better not make it any brighter,” he said, “in case the other dragons are about, searching. I also sensed another warship to the south of the island, maybe watching to make sure our people don’t escape in ships.”

“Lovely of the Cofah to be so thorough.” Taylina waved at his face. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. The Cofah didn’t like my magic, as it turns out. They informed me in a physical manner.”

“They’re a rude people.”

“They are.”

Taylina nodded at the globe. “Can you send it along the cliffs so we can look for the cave?”

He hesitated. “The dragon may see it. Or sense it. It’s minuscule power compared to what he can make, but with nobody else making magic on this side of the island, it’ll stand out like a beacon.”

“Then he’ll come out of his cave to check it out. I fail to see the problem.” Taylina would be happy if the dragon came to them, so long as he didn’t incinerate them with gouts of fire before she could offer her deal.

“You’re a strange girl, Tay.”

“Says the only man in the village who waves his fingers and makes things glow.”

“I’d be more proud of the ability if people didn’t squint at me and mutter under their breath when I pass.” Raff flexed his fingers, and the silvery globe drifted away from them, traveling along the cliffs and shining its light into nooks and crevices. “They didn’t do that when I was apprenticed to Kraig the baker and had no idea I had dragon blood in my veins.”

“Nobody gives bakers squinty eyes. Everyone loves bread and sweets.” While leaning on her staff, Taylina watched the cliffs as the light traveled higher, wondering how she would climb up there if they spotted the cave. “And the fact that your bread always rose, your loaves never oozed over the side of the pan, and your dragon-horn cookies were always perfectly shaped should have alerted Kraig to your strangeness.”

“Oh, he knew I was strange. Just not in a magically gifted sense. I—oh.”

The light stopped moving, its glow now illuminating a large opening in the rock.

“That’s the spot,” Raff said.

“Maybe you can shine your light more brightly, so it’ll wake him up, and he’ll come out.”

He frowned at her. “I don’t think you read the right kinds of books as a girl. Don’t you know it’s never a good idea to wake dragons from a good sleep? Or at all. Ever. Let sleeping dragons lie.” He scraped his fingers through his lank hair. “Tay, this is not a good idea. I think we should go back. Once things have settled down, we can work to free our people if they’ve been captured.”

“Captured? Are we sure that’s all they’ll do? How many are already dead, Raff?”

“I…” He looked away. “I’m not sure. A lot of people were in pain. My senses told me that much. I didn’t want to—I was afraid to look too closely.”

“We have to do this.” Taylina imagined Raff astride Bergethor’s back, swooping in to attack the other dragons and drive the Cofah away from their shores. Maybe she would be allowed to ride along. She couldn’t do anything to help in a battle, but she would give a great deal right now not to have to walk all the way back across the island, with its rough terrain. “We have to,” she said again, more quietly.

As Raff sighed, Taylina leaned her staff against the rocks and braced herself to navigate the cliff. The cave entrance lay thirty or forty feet to her left and at least twenty feet up. She hated the idea of limping into a dragon’s den, of showing any weakness at all to Bergethor, but she couldn’t climb and carry it with her.

“I don’t suppose you can telepathically call to him and ask him to come out?” she asked.

“I’m not good at telepathy.”

That wasn’t quite an answer to her question, and she remembered him speaking into her mind before, but she supposed she couldn’t blame him for being afraid. Maybe she was being foolish and naive for not sharing that intense fear.

Determined, and not wanting to examine that fear too closely lest it dissuade her from her path, Taylina climbed out onto the rock face. Raff’s light floated closer to her again, illuminating the cliff so she could pick the least challenging route. She could put weight on her right leg, but not as much as her left, and it ached so much that she simply wanted to lie down in bed and go to sleep. Her bed in her little cottage out behind her parents’ house. In the past, she had lamented that she hadn’t found a husband and moved into a more proper home, but that cottage sounded like paradise right now. She wondered if it was still standing.

“Focus,” she whispered to herself, looking up to find the next handhold.

After finding a way to tie the bag of tools around his shoulders so he could use both hands, Raff followed her onto the cliff. After a few moments of climbing in silence, a high-pitched shriek came from above them.

Taylina’s hand slipped, and her heart tried to leap out of her throat. Raff’s light winked out, leaving her in darkness.

“What was that?” she whispered.

Raff groaned, pressing his forehead to the rock. “The dragon. Couldn’t you feel the psychic power in that cry?”

“Psychic power? It sounded like someone stepped on a cat. A big, loud cat.” She squinted toward the cave entrance, but she could see little without the light. She grew more aware of the roar of the surf below, of how deadly a fall would be from up here.

The shriek came again, then cut off abruptly.

“That’s not how I imagined a dragon’s roar,” Taylina said, her heart hammering in her chest and the hairs standing up on the back of her neck.

“I don’t think that was a roar. I can sense… someone—something—is in pain.”

“Bergethor?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could one of the Cofah dragons have come over here and confronted him for some reason?” Taylina asked. “Or even attacked him?”

Why would they bother if he was staying out of the invasion? It wasn’t as if Bergethor had proclaimed himself an ally to Iskandoth.

“I don’t know any more than you do,” Raff said, his voice tight and terse, as if he had a pounding headache. Maybe he did.

“Can you make the light come back?”

“You’re a tyrannical lowly woodworker.”

“And you’re too far away for me to club,” she said.

“How unfortunate.” Raff took a deep breath, one she could hear from several feet away, and the light reappeared.

As she continued her climb, a third shriek came, the power in it seeming to rattle her bones. Maybe Bergethor was having nightmares. Either way, he was certainly distracted by something. That might explain why he hadn’t noticed Raff’s light globe.

Taylina reached the cave opening, a vast hole wide enough for a dragon to fly through with his wings spread. She pulled herself up, her arms and hands having always been stronger than her legs. Even so, they were exhausted, the muscles trembling, and she collapsed in the entrance, only glancing inside to make sure nothing was preparing to leap out at her. The light’s influence did not extend far, and she couldn’t see more than a few meters into the cave, but she could make out a wide tunnel. Wide enough for a dragon to lurk in.

Raff pulled himself up beside her, and a sorrowful moan came from deep within the cave.

“It must be the Cofah,” Taylina reasoned. “Hurting him or purposely torturing him because…” She shrugged helplessly, still not certain why a Cofah dragon would be bothering Bergethor. Unless he had sent out some telepathic threats from within his cave?

Raff knelt with one hand braced against the rock wall, his eyes distant as he looked inside with his mind. The globe of light waned as he concentrated on something else.

“There are two dragons in there,” he said, a note of wonder in his voice.

Taylina pushed herself to her feet, using the wall for support since she did not have her staff. “Maybe if we can help Bergethor, he’ll be grateful and want to help us.”

“I don’t think gratitude is an emotion dragons experience toward humans. And how would we be of help against another dragon?”

“I did bring some of our better tools.” Taylina lifted the bag from his shoulder and poked into it. She remembered stuffing a healing wand in there. It had the power to seal wounds and knit flesh back together. If Bergethor was injured, perhaps it would help.

“That’s the Rod of Fecundity,” Raff observed as she pulled the wrong tool out. “I don’t know much about Bergethor’s problems, but I doubt he’s crying about his lack of fecundity.”

“You never know. I hear he doesn’t get out of this cave much.” Taylina stuck the rod back in and found the tool she wanted, an ebony wand with a white crystal that glowed softly, illuminating their surroundings.

“That sounds like a sociability problem rather than a fecundity issue.”

“Maybe we can discuss all of his problems with him.”

“Oh, I’ll relish that conversation.” Raff muttered something about not being a “dragon therapist” under his breath.

Taylina figured it would be a victory if they could get the grumpy Bergethor to speak with them at all. With the healing wand in hand, she headed into the tunnel and rehearsed possible ways to open a conversation. She leaned against the cool, damp stone as she advanced, wishing she’d found a way to carry her staff up here, and also wishing that the healing wand could fix her hip, but she had been born with the deformity. No healer had ever had a solution for her.

An indignant roar echoed from the depths ahead, wind stirring Taylina’s hair and raw power flowing across her body like a lightning bolt striking nearby. Raff gasped and hunched over, hands gripping his knees.

“Is that the same dragon?” Taylina asked. The roar had sounded nothing like those shrieks of pain.

“I—” Raff pressed his palm to the side of his head. “It’s hard for me to tell. There’s so much power, I can barely sense my own body.” He squinted at her. “Isn’t this pounding in your head? Can’t you feel them?”

“Not as much as you. I feel some irritation, some power. That’s it.”

“For once, I wish I was mundane.”

“There are perks to being lowly,” Taylina said and continued forward.

A yellowish glow came from around a bend, flickering slightly, as a campfire might. She had a hard time imagining a dragon lighting a campfire.

Raff stumbled as he walked after her, also using the stone wall for support. Taylina wished she could do something for him, but doubted the healing wand would help with headaches created by the proximity to dragons.

I am the god, Bhrava Saruth, a powerful voice spoke into her mind, ringing inside of her skull. Taylina stumbled, almost dropping to her knees. I am—ow, you cow-molesting, limp-snouted—ow!

Taylina gaped at Raff. “Did you hear that?”

Both of his hands were pressed to his skull now, but he managed a pained nod. “Yes.”

“Was it a dragon?”

“I have no idea.”

~

I’ll post the next chapter in a few days, but if you’re interested, you can also pre-order Beginnings (which contains Dragon Rider) in the usual spots:

Dragon Rider: Chapter 1

| Posted in Ebook News, Fantasy / Science Fiction, My Ebooks |

7

My Beginnings boxed set, which bundles a new adventure (Dragon Rider) with four of my existing Book 1s, has been uploaded to the various stores, but won’t be live until the 28th. I thought I’d post the first couple of chapters on my site for anyone who’s been patiently waiting for some dragon action.

Dragon Rider is set approximately one thousand years before the events in the Dragon Blood series, when the Cofah first came to conquer what was then known as Iskandoth. In that era, the sight of a dragon in the sky was not uncommon.

Dragon Blood fans have met Bhrava Saruth, the dragon who thinks he’s a god. (Interview here.) It takes a couple of chapters before he appears in Dragon Rider, but once he’s there, I assure you (or perhaps he assures me), that he’s the star.

Chapter 1

Magic flared, making Taylina squint and look away from the glowing emerald at the end of the scepter. Heat radiated down the shaft, making it grow uncomfortably warm in her hands.

“If you make this explode, I’m going to club you over the head with the handle.” Taylina lowered her voice to a mutter. “What’s left of it.”

Raff, her lone colleague in the tool shop, grinned at her over the glowing gem, his shaggy blond hair dangling in his eyes. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a lowly woodworker to threaten a powerful sorcerer.”

“I’ve known you since you danced in the front yard, wearing your smallclothes like a headdress and proclaiming yourself a powerful clansman chief. I don’t feel you have the right to tell me what’s appropriate.”

“I’ve matured a lot since then.”

“Did I mention that, with the exception of the smallclothes hat, you were utterly naked?”

“I have no recollection of that event.”

“I’m sure your aunt Veyluis could fill you in on the forgotten details. She paddled you afterward, as I recall.”

Raff grimaced at her. “Your memory is good for a lowly woodworker.”

“Yes, it is. And if you call me lowly one more time, I’ll definitely club you.”

“Such violence. It’s no wonder the handsome bachelors in town haven’t come a-courting.”

She scowled at him and shifted her weight, aware of the dull ache in her hip that always came when she stood too long—aware, too, that her awkward gait and limp were the more likely reasons men didn’t come a-courting. It had certainly been the reason for much childhood teasing.

“Sorry,” Raff said, touching her arm. “It was a thoughtless joke.”

“That’s creepy, you know.”

He blinked and withdrew his hand. “My touch?”

“No, when you get all sensitive because you’re reading my mind empathetically. Or telepathically. Whatever it is you’re able to do now. You used to be obtuse.”

“Oh, I think I’m still that.”

“Maybe a little.”

They shared a grin. They’d known each other far too long for any slips of the tongue to seriously offend. Taylina was glad that he hadn’t changed much in the years he had been away on the mainland, studying to become a sorcerer and a toolmaker. Back when he’d first been accepted to that fancy mage academy, she remembered fearing that she would lose her best friend.

Disturbed by the heat, she shifted her grip farther down the scepter’s handle. She worried that an explosion was a real possibility. It wouldn’t be the first wooden handle she had painstakingly turned on her lathe, only to later watch it blow up when Raff tried to imbue it with magic.

“Raff, maybe we should—”

A distant boom interrupted her. The emerald lost its glow as Raff lost his concentration, turning toward the front window. His mouth dropped open, and his eyes grew round with horror.

“What is it?” Taylina asked, laying the scepter on a table.

From their spot in the back of the tool- and clutter-filled shop, she couldn’t see much outside, but Raff had powers that she did not.

He closed his mouth, shook his head grimly, and jogged toward the window. Taylina grabbed her staff and limped after him, skirting the big planing and cutting tools without trouble. She had spent almost as much time up here as she had in her family’s woodworking shop, and she could have navigated it even in the dark.

“It’s the Cofah,” Raff said, gripping the windowsill.

Dread curled through Taylina’s gut as she joined him to look out the window. Their island, way down in the southeast panhandle of Iskandoth, had thus far been ignored by their country’s would-be conquerors, but judging by the four huge imperial warships floating in the harbor, that had changed.

The tool shop was a half mile up the slope above town, so Taylina had no trouble seeing over the whitewashed buildings and flat rooftops to the protected harbor and the sea beyond. The cheeky Cofah had sailed right up to the docks. Her stomach clenched when she spotted several of their fishing ships wrecked, the masts broken, the craft tilted onto their sides. Flames leaped from the devastated hulls of more than one. Seven gods, how had she missed hearing the battle? Or had the Cofah caught everyone by surprise and done this with lightning speed?

“Look.” Raff pointed skyward with one hand and gripped her arm with his other.

Clouds grayed the sky, and twilight wasn’t far off, so it took her a moment to see what he was pointing to. But as the village bell tower started clamoring a warning, she saw it. No, she saw them.

Three dragons soared in the sky, human riders in black Cofah military uniforms astride their backs as if their mounts were horses instead of massive, scaled creatures with wings that stretched thirty feet or more. Reptilian tails streaked out behind them while long, sinewy necks snaked about, their lizard-like heads peering at the landscape below, sword-length fangs waiting to chomp into man or beast. Oh, Taylina couldn’t see those details well from her spot more than a mile away, but she had seen the dour man-eating dragon that claimed the back half of their island before. The great creatures were agile and strong, but also magical and nearly impossible for a human or even an army to defeat in battle. The idea that human beings, even if they were powerful sorcerers and sorceresses, had talked some dragons into working with them—and allowing themselves to be ridden—boggled her mind.

Another boom sounded, one that started a chain of many. Cannonballs soared from the warships and crashed into the docks and the buildings on the waterfront. The dragons, two golden and one silver, arrowed out of the sky, straight for town, and Taylina stepped back, fear flooding her body even though the creatures weren’t yet close to the tool shop. One breathed fire, doing little damage to the stone structures, but the others must have launched some magical attacks, for an invisible force greater than the fiercest hurricane seemed to strike the large two-story town hall near the docks. The entire building exploded into thousands of pieces of rubble.

Taylina stumbled back as screams made their way up the hill, mingling with the gongs from the bell. As loud as the booms of the cannons were, they could not drown out those cries.

“Mother, Father,” Taylina whispered, their faces leaping to the forefront of her mind. “Jessa and Morlin,” she added, naming her little sister and older brother. They were all down there now, most likely still at the woodworking shop. The woodworking shop right in the center of town. She hoped Jessa was with their parents. Her sister had been simple of mind and easily confused since enduring a childhood illness, and wouldn’t know what was going on. “I have to get them,” she whispered.

“Tay,” Raff said, not releasing his grip on her arm as she turned toward the door. “What can we do?”

“I don’t know, but we can’t stand here and watch our homes burn, and our families—” Taylina broke off, not wanting to contemplate what might happen to everyone. Would the Cofah keep attacking until the town was leveled? Or were they trying to take over without destroying everything? Would people be captured? Imprisoned? Killed?

Taylina jerked her arm out of Raff’s grip and limped for the door, ignoring the dull ache in her hip. She thrust it open, and the scent of smoke hit her like a slap to the face. The screams were louder outside, and she spotted people fleeing town, running up the brushy slope in the direction of the tool shop and beyond. Hiding in the hills might be the best way to avoid invaders, even if it meant the townsfolk had to leave their homes and everything they owned behind. Taylina couldn’t head in that direction, though, not until she found her family.

She started down the winding dirt road that led through the juniper and oleander, but paused when one of the dragons veered inland. It seemed to be coming straight at her. Before, she had only noticed one rider on each dragon’s back, but this one had picked up three more, men in soldiers’ uniforms.

“Get off the road,” Raff whispered, touching her arm.

She hadn’t realized he had been following her, but she was glad for his presence now. As someone trained to use magic, he would know more about dragons—and how to avoid them—than she did.

Using her staff to navigate the uneven terrain, Taylina stepped into the shadow of a stray olive tree that had grown up far from the cultivated groves in the flatter land above the town.

The dragon, its magnificent form visible even through the branches, soared in their direction. Even from a distance, its sheer size and the power of those wing beats inspired awe—and terror. Taylina’s knees weakened, and she felt herself a fool for contemplating running down into the town.

“It’s not after you, is it?” Taylina asked.

“I haven’t done anything to irk any dragons lately,” Raff said, hiding under the tree with her.

“But it might sense your power.”

“My power is insignificant compared to that of a dragon. It might be coming after you.” He gave her a worried frown. “The males are known to shape-shift and take human lovers.”

The dragon coasted low over Chay Jarffle’s house, the medicine woman’s small home perched along the same road that led to the tool shop. Its massive jaws opened, and fire blasted from its throat. Unlike most of the stone buildings in town, the house was made from wood, and it burst into flame as if it had been doused in alcohol first. A scream erupted.

“But I don’t think love is what’s on their minds now,” Raff added grimly.

Tears sprang to Taylina’s eyes, and she gripped the tree’s gnarled trunk. “Why are they doing this?” she whispered.

Again, she felt the urge to race down there and confront the intruders, to drive them away and protect her family and friends. But what could she do? Limp ferociously at them and beat them with her staff?

“I’m afraid this means Iskandoth lost the war,” Raff said. “I’m surprised there wasn’t word from the mainland, a warning, but we’re so far out of the way. Maybe nobody thought to warn us.”

“They should have. We’ve been the ones supplying the magical tools to help the army and the sorcerers over there.”

Raff sucked in a concerned breath, and Taylina looked at him.

“I wonder if— What if that’s why they’re here?” he asked. “Because of the tools. Maybe they want to keep us from supplying them to—” His eyes widened as he broke off.

The dragon had landed. In the center of the dirt road, less than a quarter mile down the hill, it lowered its body to the ground, and three of the four riders slid off. Fierce-looking, shaven-headed men with maces, bows, and swords, they immediately strode up the road. The dragon leaped into the air, banking back toward the town, or perhaps the harbor where longboats full of Cofah troops were being rowed toward the docks. In each one, a man or woman in sorcerer’s robes stood at the prow, some soulblade or magical staff at the ready.

Two of the soldiers striding up the road carried empty canvas bags over their shoulders.

“They are coming for us,” Raff whispered.

“Us or the tools?”

“The tools most likely. Damn it, Tay, there are dozens of powerful artifacts in there that we’ve made. Since the supply ship was delayed, they’ve been stacking up and…”

Raff grimaced, perhaps thinking now of why the supply ship might have been delayed these last months. Was the capital, way over on the western side of Iskandoth, embroiled in fighting? Or had it already fallen?

“Come on.” He gripped her shoulder. “We have to get away from the road. This tree won’t hide us from their eyes when they’re right next to us.”

Taylina knew he was right, but for a moment, her legs wouldn’t move. Numbness had crept over her entire body.

The soldiers paused, lifting their bows toward the side of the road to their right. A handful of townspeople were running up the slope, no doubt trying to escape. The scrubby brush only partially hid them, and the soldiers were able to target them. Arrows flew, and screams—women’s screams—came from the slope.

Raff cursed. “I’m going to have to try something. I wish—no, it doesn’t matter now. I’m not a warrior, but I have to do what I can. Tay, get up the slope, up to the grove and beyond. Hide up there. If I can, I’ll find you later. And I’ll check on your parents.”

Taylina wanted to object to running and hiding, especially if he was going out to risk himself, but Raff did not give her time to argue. He slipped away from the olive tree, ducking into the brush alongside the road, soon disappearing as he worked his way down the hill.

Taylina took a step after him, but her heel came down on a rock, and she slipped, an awkward jolt running up her leg to her hip. Pain throbbed deep in the joint. Reminded again of what a pitiful warrior she would be—unlike Raff, she didn’t even have magic to call upon and use cleverly—she turned and pushed through the brush back toward the shop.

A startled shout came from somewhere behind her. She hoped it was Raff using his power to hurl those men all the way back into the ocean. Unfortunately, she knew that was unlikely, since he was, as he had said, a tool-making specialist and not an elemental mage, but maybe he could come up with something.

She started to walk past the tool shop, intending to continue up the hill toward the olive groves, but she hesitated, her gaze drawn to the front door Raff had left wide open. As if in invitation to the Cofah.

“No,” she whispered. “You’re not getting the tools we made.”

Taylina looked back down the road, but the terrain hid those three men from view. Hoping that meant she had a little time—or that Raff was buying time—she veered toward the door. She grabbed a few tools from the cabinet full of finished projects, but soon realized she couldn’t carry that many of them, not when she needed her staff to lean on. She only took small items and ones she believed extra valuable because of their traits, stuffing them into a bag much as the Cofah had planned to do. Others, she moved to a storage vault under the floor tiles in the back. A sorcerer would have no trouble sensing their power and finding them. She hoped none of those men had such talents.

She limped back toward the front door, but halted abruptly. She hadn’t closed it, and the road was visible with two of the three men walking straight toward her. There was no sign of Raff. She ducked into the shadows behind a worktable. Had the men seen her? She hoped not. There weren’t any shouts.

With her bag over her shoulder and her staff in hand, she darted around tools and half-started projects, angling for a side window, one that wasn’t visible from the front of the building. She opened it, smoky air flowing inside, and crawled out. She had barely landed on the ground when the thud of the front door hitting the wall sounded behind her.

A man spoke in the Cofah language, which she did not understand at all, but she could imagine the words: “Take everything that’s magical or worth anything.”

Clangs and crashes followed on the heels of the words.

Taylina crawled away on her hands and knees, tears pricking her eyes at the sounds of destruction in the shop where she had spent the last two years working, in the shop that her father had helped her build when it first became clear that they needed to assist in the war effort, to help Iskandoth stay free. It seemed that their assistance hadn’t been enough.

As she crested the top of the hill, the olive groves spreading out before her, her eyes had even more reason to tear up. A dragon and rider flew over the trees, raining fire down onto the branches, destroying everything. She paused beside a boulder, hiding from the sky and also looking back behind her. More of the town was burning or destroyed now, and those boats full of soldiers had reached the docks. Troops raced everywhere, attacking or capturing the people who hadn’t run, those who were fighting back. Who were trying to fight back.

Gray plumes of smoke came from a familiar spot halfway up the hill, the tool shop. The bastards had lit it on fire.

Dashing tears from her eyes, Taylina picked a careful path around the grove. Frustration boiled inside her. She hated that there was nothing for her to do but hide and run—and avoid the fire leaping from tree to tree, hazing the sky with smoke that seared her nostrils and made her cough. She wanted so badly to help, but what could one lame girl do against dragons with fire and magic, and professional soldiers with blades and bows?

“You’d need a dragon of your own to fight back,” she grumbled, again wiping tears from her smoke-beleaguered eyes. She froze halfway through the motion, an idea leaping to her mind, startling her with its intensity.

“The dragon,” she whispered, looking in the direction of the southern half of the island, the half that belonged to Bergethor the Bleak.

The dragon was old, grumpy, and prone to eating sheep, dogs, and even humans foolish enough to walk into his territory. Not that anyone from town strayed onto that side of the island. An old treaty a past chief had made with Bergethor kept him from coming to this side of the island, and the locals were careful to heed the boundaries. Bergethor wasn’t a dragon that anyone bothered—certainly, nobody had ever asked him to join forces with humans to fight off the Cofah Empire. Or if they had, they had never been heard from again.

But what choice did Taylina have? Only a dragon had the power to fight another dragon. Of course, Bergethor was only one dragon, and she had seen three, not to mention sorcerers, but he was supposed to be very old. Weren’t older dragons more powerful than the young? Maybe he could drive the Cofah away.

“Just have to figure out how to get him to help,” she muttered.

The task sounded daunting, if not impossible, but she turned toward the south half of the island. Bergethor was the only one with the power to help, and one way or another, she intended to talk him into it. Before it was too late.

~

Chapter 2, coming soon… 🙂

If you’d like to have a copy of the story, you can pre-order it (it releases on Feb 28th) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Google Play.

Fallen Empire Reading Order (and Book 8 is out)

| Posted in My Ebooks |

13

I’ve just released End Game, the 8th and final book in my Fallen Empire series. Now that the series has grown to eight novels and several short stories, some folks have been asking about the best reading order, so here’s the list in chronological order. They can be read this way, but with the prequels, you may enjoy them more after you’ve read a couple of books in the series and know the characters.

Fallen Empire Series in Chronological Order:

Remnants — A short story that takes place 2-3 years before Star Nomad. It’s the adventure where Alisa and Mica first meet, and it’s currently only available in the You Are Here SF/F anthology.

Last Command — A novella that takes place 6 months before Star Nomad. It’s from Leonidas’s point of view and shows him carrying out his last mission before the fall of the empire. It’s currently available as a free bonus to those who sign up for the Fallen Empire newsletter.

Star Nomad — The first book I wrote and where the main adventure begins! The ebook version of the series is currently exclusive with Amazon (but if you’re reading this after Spring of 2017, it should be out everywhere), but the paperbacks can be purchased at Barnes & Noble and other online bookstores. Also, the audiobooks are being produced by Podium Publishing and are available through Amazon, Apple, and Audible.

Saranth Three — A short story that takes place between Star Nomad and Book 2, Honor’s Flight. It’s currently a bonus for newsletter subscribers.

Honor’s Flight — Book 2 in the series

Starfall Station — A short story from Leonidas’s point of view. It takes place between Book 2 and Book 3. It’s currently available through the free Star Rebels anthology. (This is available on Kobo, Apple, and Barnes & Noble, as well as Amazon.)

Starseers — Book 3

Relic of Sorrows — Book 4

Cleon Moon — Book 5

Arkadian Skies — Book 6

Perilous Hunt — Book 7

End Game — Book 8

Hope Springs — A honeymoon adventure that takes place after Book 8. It’s currently available in the Beyond the Stars: New Worlds, New Suns anthology.

Cyborg Legacy — This is a stand-alone novel that takes place a few years after the main series. It brings in a new hero, Jasim, but Leonidas also returns to go on the adventure.

 

\r\n"; } // end function form_reset() Contact";