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Dragon Rider Chapter 3

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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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 |

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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 |

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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

 

 

Star Nomad (Fallen Empire, Book 1) Available: Read Chapter 1 Here

| Posted in My Ebooks |

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The science fiction adventure series I’ve been talking about for the last few months is finally out! Book 1 (with 2 and 3 soon to follow) is available on Amazon. For the first couple of weeks, it will be 99 cents (you can also borrow it if you’re a part of Kindle Unlimited).

I’m trying KDP Select (which requires exclusivity) for the first 90 days, so it’s just available on Amazon, but I plan to go wide with the series later in the year unless the results over there are mind-blowing. I know you don’t all read on Amazon, so I thank you for your patience.

StarNomadWebSmallHere’s the blurb and the first chapter of the novel:

The Alliance has toppled the tyrannical empire. It should be a time for celebration, but not for fighter pilot Captain Alisa Marchenko. After barely surviving a crash in the final battle for freedom, she’s stranded on a dustball of a planet, billions of miles from her young daughter. She has no money or resources, and there are no transports heading to Perun, her former home and the last imperial stronghold.

But she has a plan.

Steal a dilapidated and malfunctioning freighter from a junkyard full of lawless savages. Slightly suicidal, but she believes she can do it. Her plan, however, does not account for the elite cyborg soldier squatting in the freighter, intending to use it for his own purposes. As an imperial soldier, he has no love for Alliance pilots. In fact, he’s quite fond of killing them.

Alisa has more problems than she can count, but she can’t let cyborgs, savages, or ancient malfunctioning ships stand in her way. If she does, she’ll never see her daughter again.

Star Nomad: Fallen Empire, Book 1

Chapter 1

A dark shape scurried through the shadows ahead, disappearing under the belly of a rusted spaceship. Alisa Marchenko halted, tightening her grip on her old Etcher 50. Rustling sounds came from beneath the ship, along with a low growl. Alisa hoped it was just another of the big rodents she’d seen earlier. Those weren’t exactly friendly, but at least they didn’t endanger anything higher up than her calves—so long as she remained standing.

Mica, her fellow scavenger on this self-appointed mission, bumped into her back, jostling her. Alisa caught herself on the hull of the rusty derelict and grimaced when her palm smacked against something moist and sticky. She wiped it on her trousers, glad for the dim lighting in the cavern.

“Sorry,” Mica whispered, the shadows hiding her face, but not the fact that she carried a toolbox almost as big as she was. Alisa ought to have her leading the way—she could sling that box around with the authority of an assault rifle. “Can’t we risk a light?” Mica added. “We might trip over some unexploded ordnance down here and blow ourselves up.”

“I see your pessimism hasn’t faded in the years since we served together.”

“Pessimism is an admirable quality in an engineer. Pessimistic people check their work three times, because they’re sure something won’t be right. Optimistic people check once, trust in Solis-de to keep the ship safe, then blow everyone up.”

“I think you’re mistaking the word optimistic for inept.”

“They’ve got a similar ring to my ear.”

Alisa looked past Mica’s short, tousled hair and toward the mouth of the massive cavern. The skeletons of dozens of junked ships stood between them and the harsh red daylight of the desert outside. She was tempted to say yes to Mica’s suggestion of light, but the sounds of punches and grunts arose less than fifty meters away. A guttural male voice cursed in one of the Old Earth languages, and someone cried out in pain. A juicy and final thump followed, making Alisa think of a star melon splatting open after falling from a rooftop. Men laughed, their voices rough and cruel.

“No light,” Alisa whispered.

Mica shrugged, tools clinking faintly in her box. “You’re the captain.”

“Not unless this works, I’m not.”

“I thought you got promoted at the end of the war.”

“I did, but the war’s over,” Alisa said.

The war was over, and the Alliance had forgotten about her in the aftermath, leaving her in the hands of the dubious medical care available from the local facilities. Alisa had eventually recovered after spending a month in a dilapidated turn-of-the-century regeneration tank and two months learning to walk again, but she had little more than the clothes on her back. Worse, she was stranded on this dustball of a planet, billions of miles from her home—from her daughter.

Her fingers strayed toward a pocket with an envelope in it, one of her few possessions. It contained a letter from her sister-in-law Sylvia, a letter written by hand in a time when most communications were electronic, a letter that had taken weeks to find her in the hospital, a letter that explained that her husband had died in the final bombings of Perun Central. Only knowing that her eight-year-old daughter still lived and was staying with Sylvia on Perun had given Alisa the strength to endure the months of rehabilitation and the weeks of scrounging and planning to reach this place, to come up with a way to get back home.

Mica started to respond to her comment, but Alisa turned her back to end the conversation and continued picking her way through the junk piles. Talking was not wise, not down here.

More noises came from the wreckage all around them, including a chewing sound that Alisa found unnerving. A few more steps, and she heard something being dragged through the fine dust on the cavern floor, dust that drifted upward with her steps, teasing her nostrils, making her want to sneeze. She pinched her nose, having no delusions that the men hiding in here were anything but criminals, criminals who wouldn’t care that she had helped free them from the oppression and tyranny of the empire.

As they drew farther from the entrance, the smell of the junk cavern grew stronger, scents of rust and oil and burned wires, but also of butchered meat and carcasses left to the animal scavengers. Alisa was tempted to keep pinching her nostrils shut.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Mica whispered.

“I know where I left the ship six years ago.”

“That’s a no, right?”

“The engine was smoking by the time I made it in here. I doubt anyone fixed it up to move her.” Another clunk came from the darkness, and Alisa added, “Talk later.”

Soft growls and snarls came from the path ahead. Alisa made herself continue onward. The creatures making the noises did not sound large.

She caught herself reaching toward the side of her head, to tap on the earstar that had hung there like jewelry for so much of her life. Assuming the satellites were still in orbit on Dustor, she could have used it to call up a map of their surroundings, but she had lost it in the crash. Mica did not wear one, either—she’d said she sold hers for food. Apparently, computer and communications tech was easier for her to give up than her tools.

Alisa’s toe bumped into something on the narrow path. It did not feel like a rock or piece of debris. She started to step over it, not wanting to know the details.

A beam of light flashed up ahead, someone heading down the path toward them. Alisa stepped back and grabbed Mica’s shoulder, pushing her toward wreckage to the side of them.

“Hide,” she breathed.

The light was definitely coming in their direction.

Mica found something to crawl under. On the opposite side of the path, Alisa patted around a pile of dusty reels of cable of all different sizes, the mound rising well above her head. She squeezed between it and something large, poky, and metal. There wasn’t room to get more than a couple of feet off the path. She hoped that whoever had the light did not look around.

The beam of light approached, angled down toward the ground from someone’s earstar. The footfalls of several people accompanied it.

Alisa squeezed more tightly into her spot, turning her head from the path, not wanting her eyes to reflect the light. A few male grumbles and curses reached her ears as the men navigated the route, bumping into things, kicking dented cans out of the way.

Before the group reached her, their light played across the thing she had bumped into on the path. A human body, that of a woman. The clothing was ripped, flesh torn away by some hungry animal, but the sightless eyes remained open, an expression of utter terror frozen in them.

Alisa closed her own eyes, not wanting to see, not wanting to wonder if she, too, had been driven down here by desperation, searching for a way off this world.

The men with the light continued down the path without slowing. A faint tink came from the other side, and Alisa winced. She didn’t think Mica had been foolish enough to make noise—there was probably another rat poking around behind her—but the sound might cause someone to look in that direction.

The men stepped over the body without slowing. Alisa watched them out of her peripheral vision, noting the scarred, bearded faces, the greasy hair, the tattoos, and the weapons they carried, a mishmash of daggers, shotguns, BlazTeck energy particle weapons, and rifles collected from who knew where. One carried an e-cannon that looked like it had been torn off one of the ships and modified for hand use. Alisa reminded herself that she, too, was armed, with the Etcher she had traded for, but it carried bullets rather than battery packs, and if she fired it, everyone in the cavern would hear.

The greasy men continued down the path, and she allowed herself to relax an iota. She waited until the light had disappeared and the sounds of footfalls had faded before easing out of hiding. Her long braid of dark brown hair got caught on a protruding piece of scrap, and she resolved to have it cut as soon as she had money. Whenever that would be.

“Blessing of the Suns Trinity,” she whispered for the fallen woman’s soul, then stepped past the corpse. “Mica?”

“I’m here.” Her voice sounded subdued, perhaps because she, too, had seen the body.

The path opened up as they continued down it, hurrying in the opposite direction from the men. An old conveyer belt stretched across a cleared area, with the skeletal shape of a crane rising up from the shadows. Alisa’s heart sped up with anticipation. She remembered walking past this spot on her way out of the cavern years ago.

A gasp came from behind her, followed by the sound of something clunking to the ground.

Alisa whirled around, raising her gun. The darkness lay thick along the path, towers of junk stacked high to either side, and she couldn’t see much.

“Mica?” Alisa risked whispering. That had sounded like her gasp.

A flash came from the side, followed by the scent of burning tar. A homemade fire starter had been thrown to the ground, and flames leaped up, bright enough to reveal Mica—and the big man holding her with his hand around her neck. A wiry man stood at his side, his hand blazer pointed at Alisa. Mica’s toolbox lay on its side in the dust at her feet. She struggled briefly, then grew still as her captor’s grip tightened. An utterly pissed expression contorted the angular features of her face.

Alisa admired her lack of fear, but felt a twinge of disappointment that her comrade had let herself be captured so easily. As a pilot, Alisa had fast reflexes in the sky, but she doubted she could shoot both men before the one with the blazer shot her.

“Thought I heard something,” the big man holding her crooned. He was one of the ones who had walked past them, with so many scars on his bare arms and face that they must have been self-inflicted. Despite his height, his features were gaunt, with no fat under the stringy flesh of those arms. “Got some pretties to add to our collection. This one feels good. Be fun to cut on her a little.” He leered and shifted his grip so he could grope Mica’s breast. “Spider, get that one’s gun. Can’t be having some girl shooting at us while we’re working our art.”

Mica radiated fury, and she tried to bash her head back and hit her captor in the face, but he was too tall. She stomped on his foot, but he wore hard boots and didn’t seem to feel it.

The wiry man grinned, displaying a mouth of missing teeth, and bounced up and down. He did not speak but took a step forward, holding out his free hand as he kept his blazer pointed at Alisa’s chest. She kept her Etcher pointed at his chest, too, assessing him in the dancing firelight. His chest looked stockier than his narrow frame would have suggested. Was he wearing body armor under his clothes? On the chance that it might deflect bullets, she shifted her aim to his eye. He halted, squinting at her, and twitched his free hand toward his big comrade.

“Why don’t you release my engineer and let us go about our business?” Alisa asked, trying to sound calm and reasonable. “We fought for the Alliance. We’re not your enemies.” Or your playthings, she added silently, horrified at the idea. She doubted talking would do any good, but maybe it would buy her a moment to think of something better to do.

“Alliance doesn’t mean worm suck down here,” the big man said. “Empire, Alliance, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. None of them make it easier to find food around here. Spider, a girl’s not going to shoot you. Get her damned gun.”

Alisa didn’t want to shoot them, not when it would alert everyone in the cavern to their presence. She was also well aware that she wasn’t wearing body armor or anything else that would deflect attacks.

“Oh, she’ll shoot you,” Mica wheezed, not as daunted as one might expect by the hand around her throat. The big man had her arms pinned, but she eased her fingers toward her shirt pocket so she could reach it. “She likes shooting people. Mostly imperial asteroid kissers, but I bet she’ll make exceptions for greasy troglodytes whose only memories of bathtubs come from their ancestors who colonized this hole.”

Spider had started toward Alisa, but he paused at Mica’s words. More the part about Alisa’s willingness to shoot him, rather than that bathtub insult, she wagered.

“Enh, just blow her away, Spider,” the big man said. “Ain’t worth getting killed trying to steal a veruska’s stinger.”

The wiry man nodded firmly, his hand tightening on his trigger. Seeing the determination in his eyes, Alisa fired first, then flung herself to the side. She rolled under the conveyer belt as a crimson blazer bolt streaked through the air where her head had been. Spider shouted in pain, but Alisa knew she’d only struck a glancing blow, if that. She prayed the hulking man wouldn’t break Mica’s neck as she scrambled into the shadows, expecting Spider to fire again.

Instead, a boom erupted from nearby, the noise hammering at Alisa’s eardrums. One of the men yowled, the sound a mingle of frustration and agony.

Alisa couldn’t tell which one it had been. She rose to a crouch behind a support under the conveyer belt, using it for cover as she sought a target. Acrid blue smoke filled the air from whatever explosive had been detonated.

Spider rolled about on the ground, almost smothering the flames from the fire starter. He clutched his ear, blood streaming between his fingers, his mouth open as if he were screaming, but nothing came out. Alisa had landed a better shot than she’d thought.

Despite his pain, Spider hadn’t dropped his gun, and even as Alisa lined up her aim for another shot, he glimpsed her through smoky air. He fired wildly in her direction.

She ducked back and targeted him through the support legs. Though a blazer bolt slammed into the belt a few feet away, sending shards of the machinery flying, she forced herself to find the calm in the chaos, to take a careful second to ensure her aim was true. She fired once.

Her bullet slammed into Spider’s forehead, and his head flew back, striking the earth and sending a puff of dust into the air. His arm fell limp, landing in the flames. He didn’t move it, and the smell of burning clothing and flesh soon scented the air along with the acrid taint of the smoke. Alisa grimaced. The war had taught her to kill, but she would never find it anything but horrifying.

Mica and the big man had disappeared, only her toolbox remaining, along with a dark smudge in the dust next to it. Alisa hopped over the conveyer belt to investigate, aware of shouts coming from all parts of the cavern. Most were inarticulate, a few in languages she couldn’t understand, but an enthusiastic call of, “Fresh meat!” made her shudder.

She couldn’t stay around here, but she couldn’t leave Mica, either. She was cursing herself for not seeing which direction they had gone when she glimpsed the remains of a warped casing on the ground. She picked it up, sniffed it, and dropped it immediately, the pungent scent familiar. Her fingers tingled from the brief contact.

A shuffling came from piles of scrap, and Mica walked into view, rubbing her neck and grimacing. “Animal.”

“Was that a rust bang?” Alisa asked, remembering the explosives the ground troops had often led with when assaulting imperial ships and fortifications. The acidic smoke could corrode even state-of-the-art combat armor. It was not as deadly to skin, but she’d seen people horribly disfigured and even killed from close contact.

“Sort of a homemade version.”

“That you kept in your pocket?”

“I keep lots of useful things in my pockets.” Mica picked up her toolbox, and they moved away from the body and the still-burning fire starter. “Don’t you?”

“I have half a chocolate bar and three tindarks in mine.”

“How’d you get chocolate in this hole?”

“I traded the painkillers the hospital gave me before kicking me out.” The medicine was highly coveted out in the lawless streets of the backwater planet, and Alisa had gotten her Etcher and a multitool out of the deal too.

“You didn’t need the painkillers?” Mica asked.

“Not as much as I needed the chocolate.”

“You’re an odd woman.”

“Says the engineer who carries rust bangs in her pockets. How did you manage to use one of those on that big brute without being hurt yourself?” As they walked, Alisa waved at Mica’s rumpled overalls, as faded and stained as hers—it hadn’t been an easy five months for either of them. Those overalls weren’t any more damaged, however, than they had been when they’d headed into the cavern. “You appear remarkably un-corroded.”

“The rust bang was insulated.”

“How?”

“It went off in his pants.”

“Ah. How did it get in there?”

“Must have fallen in.” Mica’s typically dour expression faded for a moment as she winked. “You rolling around in the dust and shooting people was a suitable distraction for it to do so.”

“Glad to hear it.”

Alisa managed a brief smile, amused that she had been worried her ally couldn’t take care of herself.

Lights flashed on the rocky ceiling far overhead, and the sounds of excited shouts grew closer. Shoes pounded in the dust nearby, reminding Alisa that they had made a lot of noise.

She turned her walk into a run, veering toward an aisle choked with piles of parts and some kind of vine that had no trouble growing in the dark. Though she worried that the half-starved brutes who called this place home would catch up with them, she felt more sure of her route now. The aisle had been a road the last time she’d been in here, with the place slightly more organized back then, and with fewer corpses along the way.

A gun fired behind them, and the sounds of a squabble broke out. Alisa hoped the scavengers would be satisfied that they could search—or eat—Spider’s corpse and wouldn’t look further, but she didn’t slow down. She couldn’t count on that, nor could she count on safety once she reached the Star Nomad. It had been inches from derelict status when she’d seen it last; the Suns Trinity only knew what condition it was in now. She was probably delusional to believe that Mica and her toolbox could fix it.

As they neared the back of the massive cavern, the shouts growing distant behind them, Alisa finally slowed down. Her lungs forced her to, even if her brain didn’t want to acknowledge the need. It was just as well. They ought to return to proceeding with caution.

“Is that it?” Mica whispered, pointing past Alisa’s shoulder.

They had reached another clearing, this one with a slender beam of daylight slashing down from a hole in the cavern ceiling. It provided just enough illumination to make out the hulls of four ships parked around the area. Grease and oil stains smeared the dusty ground in the open space, suggesting a fifth ship had rested there once. If one craft had flown out of here, Alisa hoped that meant another one could.

She stopped to stare at the familiar shape on the far side of the clearing, a tangle of emotions and memories washing over her. This ship had been responsible for her mother’s death, and six years hadn’t changed Alisa’s feeling of aversion toward it. Aversion and resentment. The clunky old freighter was even less impressive than she’d remembered.

The Nomad hadn’t been a beauty even in her heyday, and now dust dulled it further, coating every inch of the boxy hull while cobwebs draped the twin thrusters. Shadows hid the top and the front of the craft from her view, but she knew they would be equally neglected. She and Mica would have to assess the hull carefully, see if it was possible to make the craft spaceworthy again. Alisa ought to be able to advise her engineer on that. She certainly knew the Nomad well enough. Long before her mother’s death, Alisa had grown up on the ship, learning to fly and helping her mother run cargo from planet to moon to space station throughout the system. Under the empire’s rule, her mother had been forced to pay taxes and tolls at each port and had barely eked out enough of a profit to keep her ship in the sky and her daughter fed. But through sheer determination, she had kept Alisa fed. She had been a good mother—a good person—and emotion thickened Alisa’s throat as the years seemed to slip away, and she missed her anew. And she once again resented that the old ship had given out without warning, life support disappearing, her mother unable to—

“Captain?” Mica asked.

Alisa stirred, pushing aside the memories. “Yes. That’s it.”

She took a deep breath and walked through the dust toward the craft. She went slowly, looking left and right as she crossed near the light of the sunbeam. Just because they had left the other scavengers behind didn’t mean there couldn’t be more back here. The hatch was closed on the old freighter, the wide cargo-loading ramp folded away inside.

A bronze plaque had been bolted to the hull next to the hatch. It was too dusty to read, but she knew what it said: Property of Finnegan’s Scrap and Holding Company.

She had been there the day old Finnegan had affixed it, the day she sold the ship to him. Even if she had been grossly underpaid by the unscrupulous businessman, Alisa hadn’t been in the mood to argue back then, not with her mother’s death fresh in her mind. Still, she knew she couldn’t use that for justification of what she meant to do now. Steal it.

But Finnegan had died in the bombings of Dustor’s nearby capital—she’d researched that when formulating this plan—and nobody had come out to claim this junkyard in the year that had passed since then. People had likely been stealing from it for months, ever since the security guards had quit patrolling and the lowlifes had moved in.

As she neared the hatch, a growl came from under one of the other ships. As she turned to look, something furry with a spiky ridge along its back burst out of the shadows. A sand badger. Forty pounds of fangs, fur, and bad temperament. It sprinted straight at her, snarling.

Alisa whipped her Etcher toward it and was an instant from shooting when she remembered the need to be quiet. If she fired, the noise would only draw more scavengers, and she couldn’t simply run and hide now. They had to stay here long enough to fix the Nomad and get it flying.

Jerking the gun up, Alisa met the giant badger’s charge with a side kick instead of a bullet. She pivoted on her left foot, launching her right toward the thing’s bristly snout, glad the hospital had returned her sturdy boots to her upon release. The sole crunched into the badger’s face, halting its charge but not its ferocity. It twisted its neck, snapping at her leg as she retracted it. She launched a second kick without setting down her foot. This time, it saw the attack coming and scuttled to the side more quickly than something with such short legs should have been able to.

As she danced away from another charge, Alisa yanked her multitool off her belt, flicking it to extend the laser knife. Mica ran in behind the creature, an oversized wrench in hand. When Alisa kicked the badger in the snout again, Mica lunged in and clubbed it in the back. The blow probably didn’t do much harm, but it made the sand badger spin around, its spiked tail nearly whipping Alisa in the leg. The creature snarled and charged toward Mica, who scrambled back as she waved the wrench back and forth like a fencer’s foil.

Alisa sprang after the badger, slashing with the laser knife. It cut through the spiked tail, lopping it off and eliciting a squeal of pain from the animal.

She winced at the noise and darted in, hoping to finish it off, but the badger was done fighting. It scurried back into the shadows, leaving a trail of blood in the dust.

Alisa let it go, doubting she could have caught it anyway. As she stood, gun in one hand and multitool in the other, she tried to slow her breathing so she could listen and hear if anyone was coming. All that filled her ears was the sound of her own ragged breaths. She hadn’t recovered her stamina yet, and it annoyed her how long it took for her breathing to return to normal.

Mica returned her wrench to her toolbox and joined her. “Remember how skeptical I was when you told me that if I joined you, we’d find a ship that could take us back to civilization?”

“Yes.” Alisa flicked the multitool again, retracting the laser blade and sticking it back in her belt sheath.

“I wasn’t skeptical enough.” Mica curled a lip at the bloody stump of badger tail lying in the dust, then looked at the freighter and curled her lip even further. “A Nebula Rambler 880? They stopped making those fifty years ago.”

“That just means it’s a classic,” Alisa said, though she couldn’t help but remember how her mother had died and shudder. The ship had gone from feeling like home to a cemetery overnight for her.

But it was the only ship she was going to find that nobody else had a claim on and that might still be spaceworthy. Assuming they could fix it. And assuming it had enough juice left in the battery to open the hatch so they could get in. She wondered if it would still recognize her as an authorized entrant.

“Yeah?” Mica asked. “Does it have shag carpet?”

“Just in the rec room.”

Mica snorted.

Alisa reached for the sensor panel beside the hatch.

A shadow dropped from the sky.

She sprang back, jerking her gun toward the figure that landed beside her. A hand, an impossibly strong hand, clamped onto her wrist, squeezing until she gasped, her fingers loosening. Her gun was torn from her grip, and she was thrust backward before she could contemplate a kick or a punch.

The force of the thrust stole her balance, and she tumbled to the ground. Though she managed to turn the fall into a roll and come up in a crouch a few feet away, it didn’t matter. She’d lost her Etcher, and she was too far away to use the laser knife. Not that it would have mattered. Dread filled her as she recognized her opponent—and the fact that he was pointing her own gun at her.

~

Pick up the book now: Star Nomad: Fallen Empire, Book 1

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