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.)
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: