Heya folks!  Just finished the prologue for book two and I figured I’d share.  No, I don’t intend to publish EVERY chapter in full here.  Gotta save you something to read later, right?  But I’ll give you plenty of teasers.  🙂

And since this isn’t REALLY part of the book two plot, per se, I figured it was ok.  So, check it out.  And, as always, comment, share, throw soft fluffy things!  Enjoy!

stone dragon sketch3

Morning, 22 Freia, 1396
Abion, Southern T’Lanth

“Don’t let go of me,” Ericka’s father yelled as he pushed his way through the tightly packed crowd.

“Yes, Papa!” Ericka called back. Her shoes felt like they were made of lead and it seemed as though the ground itself were clawing and grasping at her feet as she stumbled along behind him, clutching his arm with one hand and her small satchel of supplies in the other.

The streets were choked with refugees, some pulling carts of belongings, others with little more than the clothes they were wearing.  The tumult of yelling, screaming and wailing assaulted her ears, punctuated by the sharp cracks of cannon fire and thunderous roll of explosions.  A strange, low, rumbling vibration seemed to course through the ground, into her feet and up to her head. The effect was almost nauseating.

It was early morning but rays of the rising sun were masked behind plumes of black smoke and soot from dozens of burning buildings, transforming the sky to rusty twilight hues.  The thick, acrid fumes attacked Ericka’s eyes and nose, and every breath tasted like a combination of charred wood, oil, and ash.

Again, she had to shake aside a lock of her hair that had fallen into her face.  She wished now that she’d tied it back, but there really hadn’t been time. The Imperium attack had begun just before dawn, and when the alarms sounded across the city, she’d barely had time to get dressed and grab her emergency pack before her father had drug them both out of their home to join the flow of other fleeing civilians. 

She wondered if she’d thought to pack any hair ties in her satchel.

Hair ties?  Seriously?  How could she possibly worry about such a thing? Her entire world was crumbling apart—turning to ashes, just like the city from which she and her father were now being forced to flee for their lives. Abion, one of the few remaining free T’Lanthan cities and the only home she’d ever known, was finally being devoured by the terror of the Great War.

An enormous shadow plunged the street into deeper darkness. Ericka looked up and gasped in awe as the underside of a massive Coalition skycruiser passed overhead, angling north toward the attacking Imperium forces.  The complex lattice of runes covering its hull shimmered slightly in the shadowy haze and the low, rhythmic thrumming of its powerful magical reactors seemed to suppress the noise of the crowds below.

Without warning, the vessels ventral batteries turned and opened fire, illuminating the belly of the ship with bright, staccato flashes.  Ericka clasped her hands to her ears as the cacophony of muzzle blasts echoed through the streets, rattling windows and shaking dust from the rooftops.

The ships engines ramped up in pitch and its hull groaned ominously as the massive vessel suddenly began to heave sharply to port.  Ericka’s father, suspecting what was about to happen, grabbed her arm even as the whistling scream of incoming shells became audible over the din of battle.

The volley streaked across the sky, catching the futilely evading Coalition vessel across the starboard bow.  The first shells impacted the ships magical barriers, sending luminescent waves of blue ripples dancing across the faceted surface of compressed force as the magic-rending HEV shells ripped apart the structure of the shield matrices.  A subsequent volley followed seconds later, cutting through the weakened barriers, then ripping into the hull and superstructure with explosive fury.

“Get down!”  Ericka’s father yelled, yanking her down and hunkering over her like a human shield.

Ericka’s reflexive scream blended with those of the other shocked onlookers as burning debris rained down from the heavily damaged ship.  She opened her eyes as something landed with a dull thud just a few mets in front of her.  It took a moment for her mind to register that the charred, smoldering object was, in fact, a human leg, sheared at the knee, partially wrapped in the tattered remains of a pant leg and still wearing a Navy-issue boot.

Ericka had seen some grievous battle wounds during her nurse training but that did little to stifle the sudden urge to be sick.

Nobody had dared to believe that this could happen.  Abion was an agricultural center, with little apparent strategic worth.  But the city’s value did not lie in its fields of beans and grain, nor its meager industrial capacity.

Abion sat on a natural escarpment, a one-hundred fifty met high cliff where the fertile plains of northern Astella fell away to swampy lowlands that stretched hundreds of kilomets into neighboring Meilaan.  The southern border of the city extended to the of very edge of the precipice where a bustling array of skycruiser docks stretched for kilomets along the ridge.  The framework of steel lattice, platforms and lifts jutted out into the sky like a separate city growing sideways out of the cliff face.  Staffed by thousands of dockworkers, the skyport serviced a seemingly endless stream of cargo vessels carrying the abundant produce of T’Lanth’s southern farmlands to markets all across Freidia.

Abion was the perfect launching point for the Imperium’s inevitable campaign against the Meilaani Kingdoms to the south, and they intended to take it.

That same embattled skyport had also become the last remaining hope of salvation for thousands of refugees whose only recourse was to try to claim a spot on one of the civilian skycruisers whose captains bravely attempted to evacuate the city before it was overrun.

The crowd began to push more desperately southward, urged on by the desire to escape the titanic battle being waged over their heads.  Ericka and her father were swept up in the flow.  Trying to escape the stampede was pointless.  To even slow down could mean getting overrun and trampled to death.

As they finally neared one of the entrances to the docks the flow of the crowd began to slow and congest.  Up ahead, a temporarily erected barricade blocked the double-gate through the perimeter fence.  Near the barricade, a CAF officer stood on top of an armored vehicle yelling and waving his arms in an attempt to instill some sense of direction to the flow of people crowding the checkpoint while several of his comrades, manning the gate itself, did their best to keep the press of anxious people at bay.

Frustrating the officer’s efforts, a heavy voidcaster battery atop a nearby building unleashed several salvos toward some unseen target to the north, its shrill blasts drowning out his instructions to the increasingly agitated crowd.   

Ultimately, it was the approach of a heavy crawler from the direction of the docks that forced the crowd to give way, clearing room for the small convoy that followed it.  Ericka covered her ears as the armored behemoth rumbled by followed by two light troop carriers and some hundred or so infantry on foot, marching in a slightly haggard formation, despite the efforts of their officers to tighten them up.

As the fresh and clearly inexperienced troops trudged by, one of the them happened to glance in Ericka’s direction. By the look of him, he must have been close to her age, nineteen cycles, perhaps even a cycle or two younger.  For a moment their gazes locked.  He flashed her a weak smile but there was a haunted look in his eyes and he quickly turned away, focusing on the back of the man in front of him.

Ericka watched the young man march away, suddenly reminded of her childhood friend, Justin.  He’d volunteered to join the Coalition Army just last cycle, despite her emphatic protests.  Of course, he’d repeatedly insisted that he would be fine, which was just plain foolish, since they both knew that he truly had no say in the matter.  What was it with men—always attempting to placate their loved ones with pointless bravado and reassurances?

She’d been so distraught that the only thing she could do was run away amidst a storm of emotions, leaving him there without so much as a simple goodbye. It was days before she finally came to realize what she’d done and by then it was too late.  He’d shipped off to training with only her furious rebuke to take with him.

She’d heard no word since, not even a letter to assure her that he was okay.  And she had no idea how to contact him, or if it was even possible.  And why should she even expect one?  She’d been selfish, she understood that now.  He’d bravely stepped up to do his duty and she’d thrown a fit about it.

Perhaps as some form of atonement, she’d joined a nursing corps and had been helping tend to wounded soldiers that had been assigned to Abion’s few remaining hospitals.  It helped a little, but her inability to apologize to Justin had haunted her nearly every day since.  Now, watching these young men march solemnly off to what might very well be their first and last battle whilst civilians, like herself, fled to safety behind them, riddled her with newfound guilt.

She’d blame the tears blurring the edges of her vision on the smoke.

After the convoy had cleared the checkpoint the soldiers manning the barricade began ushering the now somewhat more sobered mobs into the dockyard.  Ericka and her father made their way through the gate and joined the mass of people moving slowly toward the towering lattice of steel that were the docks themselves.

Keeping a tight grip on her father’s shirt, Ericka strained for a better view of the astonishing display arrayed before her.  Guided by men and women in military uniforms, the crowd gradually coalesced into semi-organized lines that snaked their way toward the various ships moored at the docks.  Even now, one of the haulers, presumably full, backed away and began to turn toward the southeast, while a nearby military transport rapidly disgorged troops who quickly formed up into units and set off toward the city.  In the sky beyond, several more ships, both civilian and military, waited impatiently for their turn to berth at the congested piers.

Above the docks, a massive glowing rip appeared in the sky, expanding to become a rectangular opening to “somewhere else”.  Seconds later, a Navy skycruiser slipped out of the gateway, blue-green lightning licking at its hull schema as the massive vessel gated into local space.  Ericka felt a slight wave a nausea as the wailing of the gateway reverberated in the air.  Thankfully, it was short-lived, as the gateway vanished as soon as the vessel had cleared the threshold.

She watched the ship for several moments before a jostling from behind forced her to turn her attention forward as the line began to move again.  Something landed on her foot and she looked down to see a small stuffed animal lying against her leg.  She reached down and picked it up. The pink fur was slightly dirty and worn and the stuffing in its long ears was no longer stiff enough to hold them up, causing them to droop down at oddly cute angles.  The toys black eyes stared up at her and she was reminded of a similar toy she’d owned long ago.

She glanced around to see where it might have come from until her eyes settled on a small girl, no more than five or six cycles old, watching her sheepishly from behind the dress of a woman she was clinging to in another line a few mets away.  The parent hadn’t seemed to notice what had occurred.  The child was clearly terrified and the way her gaze was fixed on the toy, it was apparent that this was probably the only thing she’d been able to grab before being wrenched from her home.

Ericka stepped over, knelt down and held the animal out.  Hesitant at first, the child finally reached out, snatched the toy and hugged it tightly, clearly relieved.  The movement alerted the mother, who turned around with an irritated scowl, obviously too stressed to deal with a fidgeting child.

Ericka stood up, and smiled.  The mother, looking down and seeing her child’s happy reunion with her furry friend, quickly pieced together what must have happened and her expression relaxed.  She took a breath and looked at Ericka as though she was about to say something, then stopped.

It was then that Ericka noticed a brief, inexplicable sensation of feeling lighter.  It quickly went away, then came again, repeating almost rhythmically.  She looked around and noticed that, judging from the puzzled expressions, others seemed to have noted the odd sensation as well.  Then it dawned on her that it wasn’t her, the ground was actually shaking.  Not like the steady rumbling of an earthquake, but like something extremely heavy was…

A terrified shriek cut the air, drawing most everyone’s attention to the northeastern edge of the dockyard.  Ericka turned around and gasped at the impossible sight of a massive pair of what could only be stone dragons emerging from the edge of the city and stepping cautiously into the open area amidst the warehouses of the dock district.

The larger one, in the lead, held a long obsidian-colored, glaive-styled weapon covered in shimmering silver markings.  The second carried no weapon and was slightly shorter and leaner, although the two otherwise appeared identical.

Ericka was stunned.  She had never seen a real stone dragon before, as she imagined was the case with most people. Of course, everyone knew about dragons, particularly the netherdragon invaders from Gnisis that were so often the subject of war reports and filmreels.  But despite occasional claims to the contrary, the ancient Wyrms of Elandis were considered by most to be, at best, ancient history and, at worst, a myth.

Others claimed that the Elandian dragons had simply left Freidia long ago, hiding away on the great continent of Galendra far across the Eastern Sea and waiting for some proper time to return.  Some even believed that they already had come back, fighting alongside humanity in the great war.

Justin, himself, used to tell Ericka that he’d seen a dragon while hunting with his father in the mountains north of Abion.  She’d always believed that he was just trying to scare her, as he often did, and dismissed his insistent claims as just another of his boyish tall tales.

But here they were, and to her surprise, as she stared up at two of the most powerful, and as it turned out, very real, creatures from Elandian folklore, Ericka felt no fear, only childlike wonder, and a strange sense of reassurance.

Of course, her first impression was how incredibly huge they were.  Standing on their hind legs, their slightly hunched, humanoid forms were easily twice the height of the surrounding buildings.  They had no wings, which sort of made sense, considering their reputedly strong affinity with stone.

Also, appropriately enough, their rough, grayish-brown colored hides appeared more like rock than scales, despite flowing smoothly over their massive muscles when the creatures moved.  Their wide heads were somewhat flat and their heavy brow ridges, prominent lower jaw and downturned mouth gave them the appearance of wearing a permanent scowl.

But what struck Ericka most of all was their beautiful markings — fiery, luminescent lines and symbols that covered their rock-like bodies and appeared to emit motes of light that leaped off and swirled about them like sparks from a fire.  It was almost entrancing and she found it difficult to take her eyes from them.

The larger dragon appeared to say something to the other, then took a few careful steps toward the crowd, sending nearby gawkers scattering in all directions.  He studied the masses people intently while the other dragon remained several steps behind, keeping a wary eye on the area.  It appeared like they were looking for something.

Suddenly, the smaller dragon glanced skyward toward the north and growled something to the other, which prompted him to also look up and begin scanning the sky.  Ericka, wondering what could possibly concern such creatures, followed their gaze, trying to discern what had drawn the their attention.  She couldn’t see anything beyond the smoke and trails of tracer fire being exchanged in the fierce aerial battle above the city.

Then, in the distance, a shadowy, winged, shape weaved its way amidst the streams of anti-aircraft fire. It burst through a thick column of smoke, the rush of air from its wings severing the plume and leaving swirling trails in its wake. Its mottled grey and black coloration was near perfect camouflage amidst the roiling mass until a frail beam of sunlight cutting through the haze caught the creature revealing an image plucked straight from a nightmare.

Sheathed in plates of black and gold armor and wielding a massive three met long serrated blade, the Imperial Netherdragon appeared like nothing less than a demon out of Elandian folklore.  It suddenly dove hard toward the city below, pulling up just as it skimmed the rooftops and letting loose a long strafing blast with its terrible icy breath.  Even from this distance, one could make out the muted screams of hundreds of people, most likely other civilian refugees, caught in the deadly maelstrom.

The netherdragon banked around and coasted lazily on the wind, craning its long, sinewy neck as it scanned the battlefield below for more targets.  As it spied the mass of people crowding the docks, it circled into a wide arc, then let out an ear-splitting screech that echoed across the city, temporarily drowning out the sounds of battle.

A few seconds later, the call was answered by a similar shriek and a second dragon appeared from within the city and took to the air to join its companion.

The unmistakeable sound chilled the blood of all who heard it and soon the panicked cries of “netherdragons” began to spread rapidly through the crowd.

The netherdragons circled back and swooped low over the rooftops as they turned straight for the docks, barely bothering to evade the bursts of antiaircraft fire that licked at them from the city below.  Occasional impacts spattered across their magical barrier wards, sending showers of blue sparks and shattered bits of tungsten ricocheting off in all directions, but doing little to slow them down.

The sight of the approaching monsters set the crowd into a panic.  Those near the edges scattered toward the surrounding warehouses for cover but many, trapped in the press of bodies waiting in line on the docks, had nowhere to go.

A mad rush ensued, with many blindly pushing toward the waiting ships in some deluded hope of escape.  Many on the piers, tantalizingly close to freedom before the panic began, were pushed over or through the dock railings by desperate masses charging behind them, plummeting to their deaths amidst the maze of steel girders and platforms below.  Others were simply trampled in the flood of bodies.

Ericka and her father had been near the back of the crowd, but before they could retreat toward the warehouses along the northern part of the dock, they were pulled into the rush toward the piers in the other direction.  Desperately trying to stay on her feet and keeping a deathlike grip on her father’s shirt sleeve, Ericka was buffeted from all directions, pushed, grabbed, even smacked across the face with an errant elbow.  Finally, the torrent slowed as people packed against the rails could move no further and the crowd started to disperse to the sides.  Some started down the stairs and ladders of the dockworks but the going was too slow.  Trapped in the open, the crowd was an easy target for the rapidly approaching wyrms.

Ericka turned around to see the first of the dreadful winged nightmares on its final approach.  Wisps of icy vapor escaped its lips as it almost seemed to grin in anticipation of the death and destruction it was about to sow.  Ericka could almost feel its black, lifeless eyes staring right at her.  Her heart was beating so hard that it hurt and she could scarcely breathe.

In the haze of terror, she barely noticed as her father grabbed her from behind and pulled her to the ground.  She vaguely felt his presence over her as she lay pressed against the cool concrete huddled over her small satchel that she’d somehow kept hold of through the ordeal.

The magical icy breath of netherdragons was almost legendary.  The zub-zero chill and razor shards of ice were considered one of the most terrible ways to die.  She wondered what it would feel like.  Would it be quick?  Would it hurt?

For just a moment, Ericka thought of her mother and the day she found out that she was gone.  It was an LAV accident, according to the military reports.  All that mattered to a six-cycle old little girl was that mommy was never coming home.  Maybe she would come home today.

The ground shook violently and Ericka could see enough through the hunkering masses of people around her to note that a shadow suddenly covered the area.  A terrible screeching sound filled the air followed by what sounded like a thousand shattering windows as the temperature plummeted.  Ericka could see her short panicked breaths forming white puffs of frost as a thin rime formed on the ground just inches away from her face.  She braced for the pain.

But it didn’t come.

The temperature quickly began to rise again and Ericka could hear the screams and moans of the injured around her. She opened her eyes and turned her head to look around as best she could.  To her right, people were slowly beginning to move.  Many seemed as amazed as she was, first checking themselves in disbelief, then looking to others nearby.

Then she slowly turned to the left and nearly gagged at the sight.  Only a few mets away lay a scene of utter destruction.  Bodies upon bodies, twisted, mutilated, and riddled with rapidly melting needle-like shards of ice, lay scattered in tangled piles for as far as she could see.  Wounded survivors writhed amidst the carnage, crying out for help.  Flash frozen wounds and severed limbs were already beginning to thaw, creating a wet sticky film that oozed over everything.

Revulsed, yet unable to look away, Ericka stared at the bloodbath in near total shock until her eyes fell upon a small, familiar shape. Peppered with icy shards and surrounded by shredded bits of fur and stuffing, the black-eyed, floppy eared toy seemed to stare forlornly at her from beneath an unmoving mass of bodies.

Realization dropped on her like a lead shroud, snapping her free from the shock, and she burst out in uncontrollable crying.  A gentle hand settled on her shoulder.

“It’s okay.”  It was her father.  “We’re alright.”

He sat back, giving her room to get up.  “Sovereigns be praised,” he muttered, “we’re alright.”

It was an odd phrase, especially from him.  Ericka looked back at him but he was not looking at her.  He was looking up.

Roughly smearing her tears away with a dirty hand, she followed his gaze and gasped.

Hunkered directly over them was the larger stone dragon. His enormous head was only a few mets away, and his warm breath was the sudden heat she’d felt after the icy blast.  He opened his eyes and the huge, lava-colored orbs seemed to look down at her.  She was tempted to try to reach up at touch him.

Then, with a sound like cracking stone, he shifted his weight and got to his feet.  Sheets of ice shattered and rolled off of his back as he stood up and it was then that Ericka understood.  The shadow she’d seen before the attack.

But why had he saved them?

Offering no hint of an answer, the enigmatic creature simply picked up his obsidian glaive and scanned the sky.  The runes on the weapon and his body flared brightly as he seemed to spot something.  He backed up several steps and turned away, seemingly oblivious to the rising cheers, or deathly cries, of the humans he left behind.

***

Doctor Cory Reeds, Adamant’s chief medical officer, quietly unhooked the board off of the foot of the bed and slowly thumbed through the pages.  He noted with a slight sigh that the majority of entries on the charts were still unfilled, summing up the vast array of “unknowns” around this particular case.

Female.  Approximately sixteen to twenty-two cycles in age.  No apparent trauma, illness or infection, yet in a semi-comatose state since she was found by a Shiv Team scouting some abandoned ruins two days prior.

A slight whimper caught his attention and he glanced over the board at the girls young face.  Normally, he might have been hopeful at any sign of life from such a patient. In fact, for the first day or so the nurses were running to fetch him every couple of hours because the girl had moved slightly or made some sound or another.  Each time had been a false alarm and the girl was no more responsive than before. Whatever had knocked her out, she seemed to be having one heck of a dream.

Stranger still, according to his staff medimancer, attempts to delve for possible internal injuries using channeling techniqs had come up clean but attempts at deeper probes had been inconclusive, which left Reeds with little option but to rely on more traditional methods.

He walked around the side of the bed and, using a plain old thermometer and stethoscope he’d dug out of the bottom drawer of his desk, he checked her temperature and pulse rate.  Then he smoothed out the blankets on the bed and pushed a small lock of her reddish hair away from her face.

He was a combat doctor and he’d seen some of the worst injuries he could imagine, but he’d be damned if he’d ever seen anything like this.  For the time being, there was little more to do than wait.

He noted the time and her current vitals on the mostly empty chart, then hung the board back on the hook and continued his rounds.

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