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Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Dragon Empire

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The first few pages of The Dragon Empire:

1
What he was seeing could be the death of him, he knew, yet Grendar couldn’t look away. The undergrowth that had been hampering his progress through the jungle no longer seemed thick enough to conceal him. His hearts pounded and his throat constricted. What if they saw him? The human guise he was wearing wouldn’t exactly protect him, not considering what they were doing.  
Through the ferns and palm fronds he could see them: four dragons the color of a starless night sky. At over twenty feet from hindquarters to nose, they were twice Grendar’s size. They gleamed in the tropical sun, their obsidian-colored scales contrasting with the bright blood on their long snouts and claws. On the beach before them was the source of all that blood. The partially eaten bodies of several people lay scattered about the sand like tortured and discarded dolls. The biggest dragon—one Grendar knew well—held a body beneath one of his massive forelegs. He reached down and tore a chunk of flesh from it, scarcely chewing before he swallowed. Both the sight and sound made Grendar flinch, the motion feeling foreign in a human body.
A breeze blew off the ocean, its salty essence tainted with the reek of carrion and death. Bile stung the back of Grendar’s tongue and nausea rolled through his stomach. People were protected, and for good reason. To kill one, let alone eat one, went against the creed of the Dragon Empire. Such a thing would get a dragon banished.
This morning it had seemed like an excellent idea to fly to the distant Breekay Islands and practice his human transformation spell. What with finals coming up at the end of the year and all. Now it seemed like the worst idea he’d had in a long time. He shivered in his borrowed skin and prayed that they wouldn’t smell him.
Not far beyond the black dragons, a ship lay crumbled against the jagged rocks that littered the bay. So the dragons hadn’t killed the people, they had found them. That didn’t make it much better. Their barbaric behavior was still unforgivable.
He started to shake, his nerves making it even harder than normal to concentrate and hold himself in a human body. Losing the form now, here, would make too much noise. Panic seized him and he jumped, hitting his head on a palm tree. Leaves rustled overhead, drawing the attention of the black dragons. Grendar ducked as low to the ground as he could get. He could turn invisible, but if he spoke the words to the spell aloud, they would know exactly where he was. Not to mention, he couldn’t do two spells at once. The transformation spell was hard enough to maintain.
“Quiet! I heard something,” the biggest of the four said.
Grendar’s shaking grew worse at the sound of that voice. He heard it in his nightmares, it had tormented him his entire childhood. Even now, when he was entering into adulthood, it still elicited a bone-chilling fear in him.
One of the other dragons flipped his long neck up and gulped a chunk of flesh down his throat. He wiped blood from his long jaw with a scaled finger before shaking his head at the bigger dragon. “You worry too much, Sidean. It’s probably just a bird.”
That too was a voice that visited Grendar’s nightmares but not nearly as often as Sidean’s.
The four of them turned to look in his direction. Sidean’s golden eyes focused right in on Grendar as if he had used a locate spell. Their gazes met and a phantom chill raced down the spikes that lined Grendar’s spine. It couldn’t really travel down his spikes since they weren’t there at the moment, but it felt as if it did. A horrible hunger filled Sidean’s eyes.
“Fresh meat,” he said in a voice that was thick with the blood of his current meal.
Grendar dropped his control on his human guise and rose up onto his hind legs as a dragon. He shuffled backwards fast as he could, stopping only when his flailing green wings hit a tree. He turned, ducked around it, and took off running on all fours. Behind him, he heard the other dragons struggling to get through the underbrush.
Being smaller and more agile, Grendar wove easily through the jungle and left his pursuers behind. A myriad of greens speckled through with bright spots of flowers blurred before him. As an emerald dragon, it was easy for him to blend into the jungle. Still, Sidean persisted, crashing through bushes and small trees.  
 If he could just make it a few more yards he had a shot at getting away. His heart pounded so loudly in his ear canals he could no longer hear anything else. The jungle gave way and the ground disappeared. Such a powerful relief flooded through him that it nearly brought tears to his eyes. Unfurling his wings, he took to the air. The main island wasn’t far away. If he could make it there and into the company of other dragons, he’d live. He stretched out his neck and tail and flew for all he was worth. The wind carried threats and curses to him. Massive wings soon slapped thunderously at the air in his wake. He pushed himself harder.
The ocean glimmered a brilliant blue below him. Bright sunlight bounced off the low peaks of the waves, tempting him. He may be able to out-swim them better than he could out-fly them. Out here in the deep, though, it wasn’t a good option. There were predators within these waters that made his pursuers look harmless. Counting on his skill to out-maneuver the other dragons, he flew on.
In no time at all they left the tiny, uninhabited island behind. The turquoise and blue ocean passed beneath him at a dizzying speed. Fear slowed time despite the appearance of the world zipping by, making it feel like forever before the big island came into sight. Just when he thought he might die from anticipation, his shadow fell over land. The muscles of his wings ached from his frantic flight and his throat burned.
Golden fields of wheat swayed in the wind roused by his wings as he dove low. The bigger dragons wouldn’t be able to maneuver so easily in the unpredictable air currents this close to the ground. The huge shadow that covered him from above was not encouraging, though. Ahead of him the field stretched on for what seemed like miles. In the distance he could barely make out the plateau where the city Ait Culmhaut perched. He wasn’t going to make it.
With his adrenalin pumping and his mind racing, he couldn’t focus enough to recall the words of the spell he needed. That he even needed words frustrated him. Most dragons were adept at spellcraft and didn’t need to use words. But he was not most dragons. Thankfully, Sidean and his mob needed to know the words to spells as well, for like him, their skills lie in other areas. Areas like pummeling and chasing.
Focus, focus! He chided himself.

With nearly a thousand pounds of black scales and claws breathing down his neck, that was easier said than done. With mating season closing in, this group was more aggressive than they’d ever been. This time he was afraid they were going to hurt him badly. Shoving his doubts aside, Grendar dug deep, calmed himself, and found the words he needed. All he had to do was out-think the other dragons. Considering how out of breath he was, he had to do it fast. 

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