This week, I’m sharing out the current drafts of the prologue and first chapter of The Book with a little bit of commentary. Click here if you’d like to to start from the beginning!
All right, chapter one – now we can start opening the main threads of the story. This first scene introduces the central protagonist, Xenasi (shen-AW-see), and gives her a little bit of background. After several rewrites and revisions…I don’t hate it. (>^-‘)> It could still use a good bit of tweaking, though.
Xenasi was a hatchling again, crawling amidst burning planks, crushed eggs, and lifeless newborn dragons.
Although the heat of the flames caused her no discomfort, the smoke from the smoldering wood blurred her vision and threatened to suffocate her. She scrabbled along the ashen grass, burying her head and sucking in clear air wherever she could find a cool pocket. She could sense larger beings moving about the area, could hear them mumbling to each other and knocking things over. She tried to crawl faster, to get away, but was too weak to go much further, so when she found a bush yet unreached by the flame she squeezed into it, curling up as tight as she could amongst the leaves and trying not to make a sound.
A sudden crash erupted from where she had come, and she heard a series of angry shouts which after a few moments turned into horrified screams, then nothing but the hiss and crackle of the flames which were creeping up on her. She held her breath and shivered in the scorched air.
After a while it seemed that she might be alone, though still she dared not emerge to check for herself. A drift of smoke found its way to her hiding spot, however, and much as she tried to hold it back, a fit of coughing seized the hatchling and threw her into convulsions. When it stopped, she lowered herself further and strained to listen, but still heard nothing beyond the roar of the flame.
Then a pair of hands were upon her and lifting her out of the bush.
She cried out and twisted around to see the form of her abductor – a cloaked figure, hooded and dark. She squirmed and lashed out, biting onto his arm, but tasted only cloth. The figure did not respond in kind, but rather shifted her weight to the arm on which she latched and stroked her head gently with the other hand, speaking in a calm and soothing tone.
When she let go, he sat down upon the ground and set her before him, and she realized with a deep breath of fresh air that he had taken her away from the fire, debris, and death. He offered her the mouth of a waterskin which she sniffed warily, then took between her jaws as he tilted it back. She clasped the sides of the skin with her foreclaws and drank greedily of the cool, clean water while the cloaked figure produced a cloth and began to wipe away the soot from her glittering vermillion scales.
Her thirst sated, the figure presented her with a few strips of dried brown meat, which she readily devoured. After that, she began to drowse, and he gathered her up in his arms and continued onward.
They traveled together for a moon’s time; to where and for what, Xenasi was unaware. She knew little of the world, but the cloaked figure fed her and kept her safe, so she stayed with him. He spoke to her at times, but words were still a foreign notion to her infant mind. As the forest thinned and became desert, they avoided other forms of life, and the world seemed emptier than it truly was.
Their solitude was eventually broken when they were set upon by another dragon, who landed before them with a show of force. He was eight feet long with coal black scales but for a milky underside, and he growled and spoke to the figure in tones of palpable menace.
The figure was holding Xenasi, stroking her softly while responding calmly to the black dragon’s anger, until with a reassuring word he set her down and backed slowly away with his hands held up in front of him. She looked up at the figure in confusion as he stepped back, then at the larger dragon who bore his teeth in fury.
No, she tried to plead, as she always did. He helped me; he saved me…please…don’t…
But she was just a hatchling, and could not speak.
The black dragon’s jaws parted and a near-blinding bolt of electricity discharged from between his teeth, striking the cloaked figure and sending him sprawling backward off his feet. As the dragon leapt toward his fallen foe, Xenasi turned away and clenched her eyes shut.
When she opened them again, she was no longer a hatchling. The tension in her muscles slowly relaxed as she blinked away the lingering traces of sleep, trying to shake off the enduring sensations of the familiar dream. The sun was washing languidly overhead as she rose to stretch her anxious legs, noticing a distinctly four-sided rock poking up from the earth beside her and tapping it idly with her tail. She sat for a moment and closed her eyes again, taking a deep breath and letting the swell of vertigo come and go before unfolding her wings to absorb the rays of sunlight which leaked through the sparse canopy overhead.
Though the days were growing warmer and swarms of bright leaves could be seen reforming on the birches all around, the spring air still left a coolness in the earth beneath her feet, sending an unexpected shiver along her body as her core temperature struggled to adjust to a waking state. She sat for another moment in silence, until a rustling in the brush entered the periphery of her awareness.
“There you are,” she heard Kaliska’s voice as a faint urging back into the present.
Xenasi opened her eyes and turned her head, offering a small nod in greeting to her sister.
“I thought you might have been looking for something to eat.” Kaliska sat and rubbed the bridge of her snout with the back of an arm, drooping slightly in apparent exhaustion. As their father’s natural daughter, she was also a stormlighter, ebony and ivory scaled with ram-like horns, a pointed muzzle, and lucent amber eyes.
“I’m not that hungry,” Xenasi said, not entirely in truth. She stood in full and straightened herself up. In the lithe and lanky shape of adolescence, she was of a size with a leopard, if not tighter of frame and longer of limb, and built more similarly to the jungle cat than her lesser reptilian cousins. Kaliska was older and larger, if by no great degree then enough to inspire a healthy sense of competitive envy. “Where have you been?”
“Just snooping around,” Kaliska sighed, feigning an air of indifference before turning a look of suspicion on Xenasi. “Did you hear those noises last night?”
Xenasi thought about it, but could not recall anything out of the ordinary. “I must’ve been asleep. What noises?”
“Mm…I’m not sure how to describe it. An hour or two past nightfall there were these…long, trembling howls, coming from somewhere out east. Like…wrraaaaa-waaaa-raaaar-waaargh—!”
A simper crept across Xenasi’s mouth at her sister’s impression, complete with closed eyes and raised head, and she couldn’t quite suppress the snicker that followed.
Kaliska glared. “It’s not f—” Her indignation was cut short by her own sudden laughter, but she stifled it with a sharp breath snorted forcefully. “It’s not funny.” She looked behind herself. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What does is that I ran across human tracks in the area.” She began pacing.
Xenasi slipped a prominent cuspid over her lower jaw and looked away, swishing her tail anxiously. That never led to anything good. “I guess we should keep low for a while.”
Kaliska stepped past Xenasi, eyeing the horizon. “No. We need to find out what these men were up to.”
“They were traipsing into draconic lands. Probably hunting our prey. Stealing our plants. They’ve taken enough from us, haven’t they? They don’t belong here, and we don’t have to tolerate it.”
Xenasi narrowed her eyes. “Who knows how old the tracks are? Just let it be. You know what happened to Father.”
“I know what happened to both of my parents.” Her voice had become bitter.
Intentional or not, the exclusionary nature of the comment made Xenasi wince. “It’s not worth it, Kaliska.” She stared uncertainly at a tall patch of grass. “Besides, they’re not…all like that.”
Kaliska snorted. “You have no idea what your mystery man would have done with you if Father hadn’t rescued you.”
Xenasi felt her blood begin to boil. “No one does,” she snapped back. “Father saw to that.”
“And rightly so.” She glowered at Xenasi. “They took him from us; doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
“It means…we shouldn’t make the same mistakes as he did.”
Kaliska’s mouth fell open a little and she blinked in disbelief. “It’s not a mistake to want to keep your land and family safe.” She turned and glared forward, at nothing in particular. “And that’s what we’re going to do. So come on.”
“No,” Xenasi said firmly, stepping in her sister’s path.
Kaliska stared at her for a moment, almost expressionless. “Fine.” She brushed past Xenasi. “I’ll go by myself.”
Xenasi slammed her tail against the ground as her sister walked away, then spun around and marched off in the opposite direction.
She was still fuming when she reached the river not far ahead, and she lowered herself at the bank to drink liberally of the cold water in hopes that it would cool down her mood. When she had her fill, she lifted her head and shook off the loose droplets, then closed her eyes and counted slowly and silently to four.
Four, she had long ago decided, was her favorite number, for it was perhaps the number that made the most sense. The world was made of fours. She was made of fours. She had four limbs, and on each hand four claws (each foot too, if including the heel, which she did). Her head, tail, and wings made a four pointed cross which described her poles. There were four directions, four seasons, four worldly elements. It was a nice, round, even number, and it could be applied to almost anything.
Xenasi opened her eyes and stared back at the reflection which greeted her. The creature she saw did not greatly resemble those whom she had known as her family. Covered mostly in sleek scales of glinting red, her underside from chin to tail was a dull white. A stripe of black trailed from the middle of her snout down her back to the first quarter of her tail, down most of which ran a crest of finlike protrusions contoured toward the rear. Her rounded muzzle ended in simple slits for nostrils, and was set between two large emerald-green eyes, split vertically by her narrow pupils. Two smooth horns drew back from her head at a slight downward angle, of the same matte black hue as her claws (that she possessed a four-color palette, conveniently comprised of two pairs of chromatic opposites, was not lost on her). Her particular breed was not native to these lands, she knew, and if she had ever seen another of its members, she had been too young to recall it now.
Her father had been a capable caregiver, but Kaliska was wrong about his motivations. They were the same as her own were, now. It was not for a sense of protecting her territory that she wanted to pursue this sign of men, but for a need of vengeance for her father, just as he had felt for her mother. Does she not see that, Xenasi asked herself, or does she just not care?
As she let her thoughts turn about, gazing into the calmly running water before her, a glimmer on the riverbed caught her eye. Peering closer, she saw it again – a glitter of blue and silver caught amidst the rocks and earth at the river’s bottom. She slid a fang over her jaw and sighed, contemplating whether obtaining the sparkling ornament was truly worth getting wet, but as it began to stir again, she realized the current would soon loosen it and pull it further downstream. Ultimately, curiosity and shinelust got the better of her, and with a deep breath, she pushed herself into the water.
Folding her wings in tight, she paddled swiftly toward the bottom of the shallow stream, her tail playing a rudder to keep her on course. As she neared the object, the agitation she caused in the water knocked it from its hold, and she was forced to lunge sideward to grab for it. It almost slipped from her grasp, but she managed to clutch it in her claws and pull it to her chest. She then let herself sink for another moment so she could plant her hind feet on the riverbed and push herself back toward the surface, placing her prize gently between her teeth to free her arms for the ascent.
She reached the bank, scrabbled out, and shook off, peering around as a sudden sheepishness crept over her for the stunt. When satisfied with the lack of onlookers, she settled down and held the ornament before her to examine it more closely, turning it over in her hands, which, while not quite as dexterous and spindly as a man’s, could grasp and manipulate well enough. It was around three inches in diameter, textured silver wrought in the shape of a sun or starburst – nine triangular petals radiating out from an inch-wide circular polished sapphire. The sun danced along its facets delightfully and made Xenasi wonder how anyone could have tossed such a pretty thing into the river.
It was the sort of token she would expect a human might carry, and its discovery echoed Kaliska’s suspicions of a recent presence in the area, but when admiring the aesthetics of the ornament it was difficult to begrudge anyone who would leave it behind. A delicate but thankfully intact chain looped through the back of the setting, making a pendant out of it. She didn’t trust herself to be able to refasten the little clasp if undone, but found she was able to slip it over her head and around her neck if she put her horns through, first. She glanced at the water’s surface once more, appreciating the manner in which the silver and blue set against the white of her chest. She adjusted it carefully, trying to get one of the points to face straight up. Why couldn’t it have had eight points? Nine was hard to get symmetrical. She fiddled some more, finally accepting that it was as close as it was going to get.
And then tweaked it again.
Xenasi sighed, peering back into the woods. Part of her wanted to go after Kaliska, just to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid, but a larger part knew that her pride would just lead to another quarrel. Probably better to let her get it out of her system. It was unlikely that she would get herself into any real trouble.
Or at least she hoped.