Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Story excerpt: Dauntless (dragonrider sequel)

 Hi friends!

It's busy busy bee time here, so today I've got something different and, I think, pretty special for you. It's the beginning of the sequel to my UF novella Luckless, tentatively titled Dauntless. It's got walled cities, monsters, dragons and the people who ride them...it's got it all!

I hope you enjoy :) More Rivalries next time!



The sun hung like a ball of steaming sulphur in the sky, edged by a corona of sickly yellow and brown. The last dust storm was still making its presence felt by obscuring visibility in all directions. Evan Luck’s eyes stung from the particles, and even with the mask over the lower half of his face, his lips and tongue felt coated with residue. He wanted to spit but forced himself to swallow instead, leaning forward so he could get a better look over Ladon’s shoulder.

They were the lowest unit to the ground, circling and hovering as close as they could to the caravan from Cheyenne while maintaining just enough distance to keep the livestock from spooking. It was a slow, tedious task, but a vitally important one as well. People from all over the Rocky Mountain region had been making the dangerous voyage to Forge—the fortress city built from Denver’s remains—over the past year, ever since it had become clear that Forge was not only surviving in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, it was thriving.

The reason for that was the dragon that Evan was currently sitting astride, and Ladon—Lee Caldwell when he shifted into his human form, the rarest of dragonkind—had as strong a sense of responsibility as Evan did. One of the horses below bucked as Ladon’s shadow passed over it, and before Evan could say anything, the dragon was moving up again, letting the steady wind propel him higher into the air.

You were fine, Evan expressed to Ladon. As an empath, he was one of a select group of people who could communicate and bond with dragons. With his first dragon, Juree, it had been different—they hadn’t spoken in words so much as in feelings and impressions. When Lee was Ladon, though, words seemed to pass across their bond with ease. The rider had his mount under control again quick.

There’s no need to stress them if I don’t have to, Ladon replied. His voice was like a distant roll of thunder in Evan’s mind, booming and heavy but not overwhelming. It was completely different from how he sounded as Lee, which was good, because as much as Evan loved Ladon, his relationship with the dragon was completely different from the relationship he had with the man. Besides, we’re getting close. Only five miles to go.

Finally. Cheyenne was about a hundred miles north of Denver, and traveling by the old highway I-25—which was still the best bet despite the broken bridges and hiding spots for monsters for a party of this size—was slow going. They were on day five of escort duty, and Evan felt like he hadn’t slept for more than four hours at any one time since they’d started. He didn’t like being away from their home so long, and he hated leaving Jason under someone else’s care.

Especially right now.

Reflective worry flared across their bond from Ladon, and Evan reached out to soothe him with his mind even as he stroked a hand down the side of his neck. He’s all right, he said, almost believing it himself. You know he loves Charlie, and she’d never let anything bad happen to him. If things had gotten really rough, she’d have sent us a message. Forge now had a dragon to spare for that—its youngest bonded dragon, the slender, black-scaled beauty who had bonded with a sylph-like teenage girl named Vanessa two years ago. They weren’t built for aggression, but for speed, and had taken to their role with alacrity.

It was a blessing, a city with so many dragons, but also a burden. Dragons needed to be fed, and as monsters dried up in close proximity to the city, they had to feed on livestock instead. The cattle, sheep, and goats Forge already had wasn’t enough to sate the appetites of five adult dragons and the mated pair’s numerous hatchlings. Even with Ladon taking most of his nourishment in human form, to spare the herds, it was still a lot of meat. That was where the trade with Cheyenne came in.

They had lost their last dragon, an old, grizzled brawler named Friya, in a battle against a horde of rougarans this past winter. Without a dragon, Cheyenne was both too big and too small to survive on its own—packed with people who’d streamed in from the countryside as times got tougher, but without the massive fighting beasts or weaponry necessary to hold off the monsters who had made Earth their home and seemed to be steadily swallowing it, mile by mile.

The rifts between dimensions, the rifts that had opened out of nowhere and released Armageddon on the world, had been closed for nearly a hundred years now. Humanity had been devastated, by beasts and then by its own weapons as it turned its nukes on the biggest of the newcomers, wrecking the climate. That devastation was still going on most places, only getting harder and harder to combat.

Without the bonds that had spontaneously formed between dragons and humans, they would all have been dead long ago. As it was, the smaller outposts were still being overwhelmed, not enough dragons around to defend them, or the dragons that were there unable to find a human empath to bond with and taking off, wild and free and dangerous, for new horizons.

Ladon sent a stream of warm, soothing affection through their bond. Don’t worry, Evan. I’ll never leave you.

Evan rested his head against Ladon’s warm, scaly skin for a moment. I know. He was grateful for it every day, for the dragon who had chosen him after Evan had thought he’d lost his chance at another bond forever. He’d wanted to die, after Juree’s death. Ladon was his second chance at life, and he would do anything to keep him.

A bright red flare shot up from one of the outriders on the ground, startling Evan out of his contemplation. He looked down at the woman who’d fired it, sitting astride a steady gray mare who didn’t flinch even as Ladon’s shadow enveloped her.

“Bolters!” she shouted, and even though she was too far away for Evan to hear, he could read her lips just fine. She flung out the hand holding a pair of binoculars toward the mountains. “Bolters coming in from the west!”

Bolters. Shit.

Bolters were one of the strange, semi-historical cryptids that had flourished ever since the opening of the rifts. That some of them must have gotten through in the past was undoubtable—Rock Slide Bolters were mentioned in bestiaries from centuries ago. They had been treated like a joke back then, but they were very real and very dangerous now.

They were supposed to keep to the mountains, clinging to rocky clifftops and sliding down scree fields to catch their prey, but since so many people and their animals had abandoned the higher elevations, the monsters had followed the food. The bolters were bigger than the leeches that had attacked Forge two years ago, with four-part jaws that split open like the petals of a flower, revealing rows of teeth capable of crushing both rock and bone. They weren’t as numerous as the leeches had been, though, and their tiny limbs meant they could be outmaneuvered fairly easily.

Their tails, though—up to thirty feet long, practically impenetrable, and flexible and strong—were the real danger. If a bolter caught up to the caravan, it wouldn’t need to run into people with its immense jaws, it would just wrap them up with its tail and crush them to death, then feed itself at its leisure.

Bolters were a problem, but he and Ladon could deal with it. They had to—if the monsters made it into the caravan, it would be a massacre. A bolter’s rocky hide was too thick for fire to stop them quickly, even dragonfire. That meant they’d have to get low and crush them.

Check their numbers. Ladon swung west, and Evan peered through the dust for any signs of the big but slow-moving carnivores.

There. One, two…three…four. That seemed like an awful lot for a supposedly solitary species. Shit, this was too many for just Evan and Ladon.

You want me to signal Gorot and Grenia? he thought to his dragon. Gorot and Kisthe were the mated pair of mature dragons housed in Forge. Kisthe and her rider Jack, however, had opted to stay home, protect the city, and prepare her next pair of mature hatchlings for the upcoming Choosing while Grenia, the largest of their growing brood, flew with them.

Please do so. I’ll make the first pass. The wind is with us—a wall of flames will at least slow them down, and not inconvenience the caravan.

Got it. Evan pulled a blue flare out of his saddlebag even as Ladon went into a dive, tucking his wings back and blowing a long, white-hot line of flame across the bolters, searing the head of the one leading the way. It writhed, snapping its whiplike tail in a wide, twitching arc, but its scream was more angry than pained. Its tiny eyes, no larger than marbles, were practically vestigial—bolters followed scent, not sight. The dragonfire was nothing more than an inconvenience to it.

Pssshhhtt! Evan fired the flare as Ladon came out of the dive. In the distance, ponderous green Gorot and his strong, snakelike daughter Grenia changed direction. Their riders weren’t yet close enough for Evan to sign to, but it didn’t matter—dragons could communicate with each other the same way they could speak to their bonded empaths.

Gorot will take the one on the far left, Grenia the one on the right. Their riders will assist as they can. I will handle the middle pair. The ones that were farthest along. Ladon was half again bigger than Gorot, who was as tall as a lodgepole pine, so it made sense for him to handle the worst of it. Still…

Be careful. Tell me what I can do to help you.

He felt Ladon’s smile in his mind. Guard yourself carefully, beloved. Ladon turned again, banking hard so he could get a good approach for his landing.

Fighting on the ground was dangerous, so dangerous, even for the biggest and most powerful of dragons. Evan’s heart was in his throat as Ladon bared his claws, swooping in and coming down with a crunch right on top of the closest bolter’s head. He clenched it tightly in his forelegs, trying to rend it in two, but the bolter was too armored for the assault to break it. Its whippy tail snapped over its had, whip-crack!, striking at Ladon however it could.

Evan hunkered down against his dragon’s neck, doing his best to stay out of the path of that deadly tail. In many ways, dragons would be a more formidable force if they didn’t have to protect their human riders during a fight. Evan had already been the cause of one dragon’s death, and if his weakness brought harm to Ladon…

You aren’t weak.

Concentrate on the bolter, Evan chided him even as his chest filled with warmth at his dragon’s reassurance.

Our kind would be just as savage as the rest of these monsters without our connections to you. We need you just as much as you need us.

Right now I need you to focus. The tail had gotten dangerously close to Ladon’s eyes several times. Fifty yards away, Evan could see the next one crawling steadily, relentlessly toward them. Bolters never ran from a fight—once they had scented their prey, they would go through whatever they had to to get it.

I…almost… Ladon roared and dug his claws in deep, finally penetrating the bolter’s hide and twisting his body so hard that he wrenched its head out. A gout of foul-smelling blood erupted from the bolter’s corpse, and its tail fell to the ground with finality.

Good job. Now they could focus on the one coming at them from due west, and then—

A high-pitched dragon’s scream erupted from their right. Evan’s head snapped around and he stared in dismay at Grenia and her rider Tommy. The dragon had come down in front of the bolter instead of behind it, and before she could change position, it had clamped its immense jaws around one of her forelimbs. She screamed again and again in rage and agony, blowing her furious flames over the bolter, but it barely slowed the gnawing down. Blood poured down her limb, and as he watched in horror Evan could just make out her rider jumping from her back.

Oh, fuck. The pain must have driven their connection out of her mind, and Tommy didn’t have the training to force his way back in. Grenia had become wild, savage—she probably didn’t even remember that she had a rider right now, much less that she was endangering him with the heat of her flames and her thrashing body. If he died…if she killed him…

1 comment:

  1. !!!!! What a place to stop! But happy to see these characters again.