Prologue: “The Lone Survivor”
Lucion stared unseeing into the campfire. His ears strained to hear past the rustling treetops and creaking boles of the dark forest. Gusts of wind tore through the woods as if searching for him, the noise drowning out the chatter of his four companions. If anything else was moving out there, his group would never know it. The coming storm didn’t concern him, but the ogre footprints did. They looked a week old and likely meant no trouble, and he was certain enough of this to have lit the fire and slapped deer meat over it, but the value of alertness wasn’t lost on him. His own prey lay chopped in pieces before him.
The hunter’s gaze shifted to the ruins of Castle Darlonon perched among the looming mountain peaks overhead. For a moment, he thought lights twinkled in some of the windows. A cautious glance at Rogin showed his brother hadn’t noticed the lights, which was just as well. Rogin had told enough stories about people going up there and never coming back that no one believed much of anything he said anymore. Just minutes earlier he’d sworn a dragon had appeared in the night sky, but of course that was impossible. As Lucion turned the deer haunch over, Rogin walked off into the woods to relieve himself and the darkness swallowed him. As if to celebrate, the woods groaned loudly, and the wind howled through the treetops. Lucion shivered.
“It smells so good here,” said a woman’s voice, and the men turned in surprise, seeing an elegant woman breathing in deeply through a pert nose, her full bosom straining against the red silk of an evening gown. Golden hair framed a heart-shaped face and tumbled past her petite waist. She stood at the clearing’s edge, her radiance making the shadowy woods seem all the more dark. Her green eyes boldly danced from one man to the next, appraising them. Captivated by her allure, they hardly noticed she could not have been more out of place so many miles from any settlement.
“I haven’t smelled such fine meat in so many years,” she purred, eyeing Lucion. He could’ve been the most handsome man alive for the way she gazed at him.
Mesmerized by her attention, he pleasantly replied, “It is only fresh deer, my lady, not even seasoned, but you’re welcome to your share of it and all that we have.”
Her bright eyes locked onto his as if the others didn’t exist. He wished that were so, for he wanted her all to himself and trembled as she came nearer. Fine words had never been his to command and he stood at a loss, adoring eyes saying more than words ever could. As she stopped before him, her feminine scent washed over him. He smiled like a schoolboy.
In the silence, she kindly asked, “Why so quiet? Dragon got your tongue?”
Not noticing the subject had come up again, he stammered, “Uh, n-no, my lady. Dragons, well, they uh, they don’t show themselves around here no more.”
Eyebrows arched in surprise, she asked, “Is that so?”
“Yes, my lady. They were banished by the Ellorian Champions some years ago, to another world. The Dragon Gate up there in the castle keeps them away. You’ll be safe here, that I can promise you.” And he meant every word, for his heart would burst if anything happened to her. He didn’t mention that the champions had disappeared without a trace some years ago and that if the dragons ever got loose, no one would be able to send them back. The planet would be destroyed. There was no sense in worrying her.
Seeming amused by his assurance, she asked, “So then you haven’t seen a dragon recently? Tonight, for example?”
Startled, he wondered how she could have known and replied, “Oh no, nothing like that. Uh, Rogin here did think he saw something in the sky earlier, but it was nothing.” He couldn’t tear his eyes away long enough to look for his brother. It was good that this was so, for he might have noticed Rogin was still missing and alerted her to this.
“What did he think he saw?” The seductress slowly ran a finger down his chest. The long, bright red nail was sharp enough to cut through his shirt and draw blood he didn’t notice.
Lucion hesitated for fear of causing concern, but then she leaned closer and breathed him in long and deep, clearly enjoying his scent. Aroused, he confessed helpfully, “A dragon.”
As if expecting that, she smiled in satisfaction, her green eyes finally leaving his to look over the others. They stood as mesmerized as Lucion, who felt as though a pleasant heat had ceased bathing his face. The sudden coldness startled him. His devotion faded long enough that he wondered aloud, “Who are you?”
Her gaze returned to his playfully. “Someone who doesn’t like witnesses,” she purred.
Before he had a chance to understand what she meant, his head flew from his neck, a bemused smile still on his face. It was still rolling across the ground when she went for the nearest man, who stared stupidly at the long, gleaming nails dripping with Lucion’s blood. She raked open his belly, shoving a hand inside to pull out organs that she bit into with delight, dark blood spurting across her face. As he collapsed beside the fire, the others fumbled for weapons and the woman spoke a strange word.
Her appearance morphed and grew as they watched in awe, golden scales reflecting the firelight as two enormous, leathery wings blotted out the dark sky. A sinuous neck lifted her giant head into the night, two baleful eyes glaring down on them with lust. Four thick legs and feet ending in talons supported a huge golden body that no normal weapon could pierce. She took her time, snapping up the next man in her fanged mouth and cracking him in half. She hadn’t tasted such warm blood in years and relished it like wine. The last man turned for the woods, but her barbed tail snaked out to impale him where he stood, holding him aloft. The dragon chewed slowly as if savoring every morsel, her forked tongue licking her lips as she gulped them down.
Her jaws weren’t the only ones agape, for out in the bushes knelt a staring Rogin, horror riveting him to the spot. As he watched, the golden dragon lifted into the night air with a powerful leap and thrusts of leathery wings, scattering embers across the clearing. Then she sucked in a great breath and blasted fire down on the evidence, setting the forest ablaze so that Rogin crept away on his hands and knees, his back awash in heat. With a snap of her wings, the dragon turned and soared away to Castle Darlonon, where she rose into the sky and then plunged down inside to disappear.
And Rogin ran. He ran as far down the road toward Olliana as his legs would carry him, finally collapsing before a startled farmer, tales of dragons, fire, and death pouring from his mouth. At first no one believed him, but soon lights appeared in the ruined castle at night and ogres trolled the woods, chased from the peaks by mercenaries at Darlonon. Just the one dragon had been seen, but the others couldn’t be far behind now that the Dragon Gate stood open. Someone had to close it, but only the long-missing champions could.