One thing that has been bothering me about the story is the fact that Stone's mother regularly lies to him during his upbringing, feeding him false facts for her own amusement. Why will become relevant much later on in the story, but one of those lies can be confusing to the reader. Stone believes 1000 years has passed since dragons wiped out humanity. Which is why, at the end of this chapter, he believes (dragon) generations have come and gone without humanity. This is not true. He'll come to find out soon that only ten years have passed. It will lead him to wonder what else his mother has lied (or been wrong) about and why. I'm still on the fence about this particular dynamic between them.
For future reference, I will be posting each chapter with version numbers to show how many drafts they've gone through. Even though I've worked on this one many times, I consider it the first draft for Patreon purposes. Patreon also doesn't seem to have all of the basic formatting Word does (centering, justify, indents, tabs, etc), so quite a bit gets stripped away. If this becomes an issue, I may consider some other means of posting chapters.
Just as a note, this is the only chapter that will be released to non-Patrons. All further chapters in the novel will be Patron-only, which can be acquired by pledging as little as one dollar a month. I'm not sure on the exact details of book release, but it is reasonable to assume the novel will be released within a year of my completing the manuscript.
– 1 –
Stonefall opened his eyes.
Silent and still, masked nose to tail in mud, he’d caught scent of another dragon. A vague length of black and red took shape behind the eyes, as all his senses worked as one to form an image. Chill moisture in the air told of coming rains, a scent of ozone and earthen tinges, pale wind through his ears and shades of blue across his scales.
The other dragon jarred them all, overcame him with its presence in the breeze, pushed back against the hairs between each scale. It carried traces of dark soil and bricklebark in its claws, a swirl of browns that grew sharper with each beat of its wings. Peak moss and thistleroot across its belly pulsed greenish black, while the heady sweetness of a fresh kill in its maw swam in reds.
The forward thrust of its bulk pulsed in whites and grays, defined talon and tail, membrane and scale, horn and tooth, until the image in his mind was more detailed than the winged form that at last came into view.
Another male, Stone thought, and larger than I.
No chance of a meal, confrontation would only end in injury or death. Neither seemed appealing nor worth the risk. The craggy hillside he’d taken refuge in was hardly a prize, certainly not a lair. It had been moons since last he fed. Another day would do no harm. He decided his time was better spent searching elsewhere for a home.
At barely five winters old, Stone had been forced from his mother’s lair when it came time for her to mate again. He’d been hiding from larger dragons and seeking shelter ever since. This coming winter would be his tenth.
The other moved further on downwind at a steady pace and circled left. Had he sensed another dragon, he would’ve surely attacked. He was searching the rocky earth and ravines for prey after all. Stone might not have been an easy kill, but he’d go a long way toward filling a belly.
The thought made his stomach tighten.
No dragon had ever died from starvation, but neither did the hunger ever cease. Those with a secure lair could choose to hibernate and wait for prey to replenish. Sadly, Stone was not one of them and a long way from the deep slumber.
He patiently waited for the other to be far enough away, and upwind for good measure, that it wouldn’t take notice or give chase if it had. He pulled free of the mud, shook its weight from his wings and quickly left in the opposite direction.
He flew low to the ground to keep his scent from travelling far and in the hope of catching anything to eat. Most prey lived deep beneath the surface, hidden from keen ears or the reverberation of heavy wings. Still, they came up from time to time, to gather what little food the land could offer.
Creatures that dared the open were either difficult to take or posed a greater threat. Stone had seen all too often the remains of careless dragons. A single mistake, any injury to a wing, and even the largest of dragons became carrion.
Stone followed close the edge of craggy hillocks and deep ravines, always mindful of his surroundings, always careful to remain unseen. He expertly overturned rocks at steady intervals as he passed, listening and feeling for their echoes to return. A flash of browns might mean a delver warren, yellow gold a barrow slug, blue grays a mole or glow worm. All that came back, however, were the disheartened pangs of empty black.
A forest brushed his senses in salty gray and chilly dusk. On the other side of the nearest hill, just beyond the pallid blue of a dwindling stream, its taste lilted in hollow tones upon the wind. Like most woods, its boles were without fruit and gone to stone. Something rustled in the sounds though, a jagged edge of shadow green and noxious ebon to a point.
Stone pulled up short, focused his attention and felt it pass before the trees. He was off in an instant, pushed forward with all speed and powerful thrusts that sent eddies of loose soil and small rocks billowing outward. Still low to the ground, belly scraping with each beat, he gritted teeth in anticipation of a long awaited meal. So overcome with an anxious surge of blood racing through his veins, he noticed too late the other two at either side far off in the distance.
It’s an ambush! Stone growled and dripped liquid fire from his maw. And like a fool, I fell for it.
There was no turning back. The two were already closing in on his flank. He was larger than they but knew he stood no chance at killing all three directly. Facing off against one was entirely feasible, though not without risk. Three was simply out of the question.
While wyverns somewhat resembled small dragons, in that they had wings and talons, sharp teeth and a pointed maw, the similarities ended there. They had no scales to speak of, no horns nor spine ridges, no deadly breath of any kind, but their tails ended in a bulbous stinger with a highly potent poison. The toxin was strong enough to render any creature helpless within moments and killed from within by eating away at vital organs.
Unlike dragons, however, wyverns had imperfect perception. As with any creature that relied heavily upon sight, they could easily be tricked.
Stone sped straight for the lone wyvern and took it full on in the chest. He turned his body away at the last moment, avoided the stinger by a scales breadth and shoved the smaller creature into the stony limbs of a tree. It crashed through in a burst of bright shards and debris before tumbling tail over head toward the ground.
He followed without delay, wings tight at his side. He pulled up at the last, barely slowing his descent, and landed with great force upon the wyvern. Beneath the crushing weight, its chest collapsed to the sickly crunch of bones shattered into flesh and the torrid wetness of every organ pressed to ruin. Its tail twitched for a brief moment, but life had left its eyes.
The other two were nearly there.
Stone sighed in frustration, as his stomach knotted at the smell of meat. It would’ve made quite the meal, if he survived and could reach it before scavengers caught the scent. He forced regret aside and took wing deeper into the forest.
Few dragons would consider traversing the petrified forest. The density of varied trunks and webwork of clawlike limbs made it difficult to navigate, with far more risk than reward. Stone had little choice. He needed the thick trees and scattered sunlight to obscure vision, to trap his prey into thinking they were the hunters.
Ranging from fairly slender, no wider than a leg, to truly massive in girth, some trees spanned the length of a dozen dragons end to end and were of a height to block all trace of sun and sky when viewed from below. In varied states of decay, once victims of dragon breath, some were hollowed out shells, now frozen in time, while others had borne the brunt and stood defiant in its wake. The true danger in flying between the hardened boles was in the haphazard growth of outstretched limbs. One slip in judgement, a single lapse in concentration, could mean a fatal tear in a wing or a cascade of stony timber.
An unpleasant end, either way.
Stone sensed a fallen tree up ahead, far enough off the ground for a ruse. He slowed to allow the pair within range and dove toward the log, clawing up earth as he passed beneath. One chose to fly around, while the other flew headlong into the cloud of upended dirt. Stone raked talons against the petrified wood to slow his momentum and carry him into a turn on the other side. He swooped back down with claws ready as the baited wyvern came through.
He took hold of it by neck and tail, forced its stinger to the ground and bit down at the base. Through acrid flesh and heavy muscle, knobby bone and fragile spine, Stone pulled free its wriggling tail to the ruddy gold of an anguished cry. The wound spewed a viscous black of jingling heat across his claw. Its lifeblood in his mouth, stomach clamoring for more, he once again forced down the hunger at his core.
The other wyvern had swung around, hovered in air and watched on, exuding the heady scent of ashen fear in beat and breath. Stone saw and felt the very moment realization dawned upon the creature, when it knew the chase had turned and its only option was to flee.
Stone pushed off with all strength, called up the roiling bile deep within him. Mere wingspans away, the molten longing reached his throat. It ignited in his maw, flowed between teeth and tongue, and dripped in a fiery semblance of saliva along his jaw. He loosed the stream of liquid flames with a roar that shook the trees. So hot as to warp the air around it, his breath engulfed the wyvern tail to breast.
Flesh curled and blood boiled, beneath the charring of brittle wings. A pained keen escaped its mouth, but the inferno raced inward, soon stole all from its lungs, and burned the wyvern from within. The smoking ruin of its carcass plummeted to the ground, smashed through waiting limbs amidst a shower of forest bones.
Stone quickly followed, as a nervous thrill fled his heart and unrelenting hunger moved to fore. He landed heavily upon the remains, splitting char and brittle frame in swirls of smoke. He tore open its chest and began to feed.
There was never time to savor. Meals were a frenzied race to finish before something else, something more dangerous, caught the scent. He wasted little time in chewing but gulped down each bite of charred meat, senses lost in the tender whites and ashen reds across his tongue. There were still two more wyverns. If he didn’t hurry –
He sensed a pair of stalkers enter the forest.
Wisps of shadow at first, his senses sharpened their shapes into powerful creatures on all fours – sleek, agile, torrid fur in rumbling stripes of black and gold. Lethal felines the size of wyrmlings, these two were merely scouts. The cats hunted as a pride. Three times as many would be waiting beyond the trees.
Stone wasn’t at all surprised but more than mildly annoyed. He’d hoped to at least start on the second wyvern before being forced to flee or carry his meal away. Both stalkers had reached the first and would soon prowl toward the next. They had an exceptional sense of smell, but neither showed sign of noting his presence.
Frustrated, barely sated, he grabbed the carcass and flew deeper into the forest, farther than any dragon should ever dare to go. The trees were without mark or scent of any kind. There was no sense of another creature, no trace of lair or den. Lifeless and still, the long dead woodland offered little but quiet dark and empty solitude.
No dragon should ever come here, Stone thought in a sardonic tone, because there’s nothing to eat. Not even a scent or sound of water. The trees had grown larger the further in he ventured, some so wide he had no choice but to sway his course around them. He’d slowed his pace by half again to avoid being skewered by any number of jutting limbs. This place is a deathtrap.
A sound overtook him then, so startling he nearly dropped the only meal he’d had in moons. Both quiet and somewhat loud, like echoed whispers in his mind, they spoke a language he’d never heard – or no language at all. A shiver shook his spine, like charged talons swept across every scale and bone beneath. It seemed to lead in one direction, grew weak if he turned away to either side.
As he followed the strange whispers, the largest tree he’d ever seen came into sense. It towered over all the others, with branches that mushroomed out into a cloud cover of diffused light and shadowed grays. The face of it was like a wall, a sheer cliff of frozen wood that stretched the length of a hundred trees.
He flew into the whispers like pushing hard against a current. Its lull beckoned, pulled him forward, but the power trembling through his middle warned him to turn away. He landed before the great tree, where the echoes were strongest, and left behind his prized meal for a closer look.
He sensed an opening in the tree his eyes couldn’t see, one widened by hand and edges smoothed as eroded stone. He thumped the ground with his tail, sensed clearly in the vibrations some illusion at work, a play of light simple vision could not confirm.
Is this magic?
He’d only heard of it in tales his mother told, stories of fantastic battles fought to safeguard their future, when the dragons of old had faced down a blight upon the world, had scoured all with breath and claw until not a single foe remained.
There hasn’t been magic, Stone thought, since the time of the Wardens.
Or so he’d been taught.
Could his mother have been wrong? He reached a claw out to the false breach. Could their enemies yet live? He pushed past without resistance into the cold of a hollowed bole. Then why haven’t they restored the trees they so revered before their fall?
Stone quieted his racing mind and stepped through the absent opening, into the vacant tree, onto a floor that was not there.
It was difficult to gauge how long he’d been falling, tumbling head over tail down the narrow passage. What wasn’t hard to sense, despite his initial shock and subsequent disorientation, was the mass of lengthy spikes rushing up to greet him.
Stone flung wide both arms and legs, dug deep each talon into either wall, and slowed his descent to a shower of silver sparks. The gouges deepened to the first knuckle before he came to a complete stop, suspended upside down and eyes a hair length from pointed iron. A long moment passed before he could breathe again, when the pounding in his chest had subsided to a steady throb.
Further up the fashioned tunnel was another set of echoed whispers, an opening on his left hid by illusion. He carefully relaxed his legs and let fall his bottom half so he could turn and face upward without being marred. He was tempted to breathe the iron into a puddle of slag but wanted more to be away and back on solid footing.
As he passed through the second opening, he found it easier to differentiate between the whispers far above, those just behind him and the ones emanating from an egg at the center of the chamber.
It was unlike any he’d seen before, too small to be a dragon and too thick to be a wyvern. The shell had no spots or dimples, no speckles or grooves, just a patterned wave of striations like eddies in muddied water. Smooth, almost polished, it had the semblance of tree rings, though wider at the middle and warped along the lines. The whispers came from the shell itself, not whatever grew inside.
Stone thumped his tail against the floor and was puzzled by the egg’s shape. He tapped the shell with a talon and caught glimpses of arms and legs. Another tap showed no tail and a rounded head with rounded ears.
It can’t be. He wondered, Can it?
He rapped against the shell until he sensed every facet of the creature’s form, every curve and fleshy fold. He realized it was unlike any he’d seen before, because one like it had not been seen in generations.
Encased in Warden magic, it was a being the world had lived without for a thousand turns. For all he knew, it was the only one of its kind, the last of its kind. Remnant of a species now thought to be extinct, it should’ve perished long ago in the fires of dragon breath.
The egg Stone had found wasn’t merely unusual or even rare…
It was human.