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I always find starting a new series nerve wracking. Is there enough action? Did I do a good job world building? Is there too much action? *sigh*
I found this one particularly difficult because I wanted to integrate new people along with the old. I hope everyone enjoys my attempt!
Here is a little sneak peak to hold you until Saturday!
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Jiang dug his claws in the sand as he stood behind his dragon shifter brethren, right where they told him to be. He could barely see the emperor over their broad shoulders. His fellow dragons had formed a semi-circle around Jiang to keep him from harm. They always watched out for him. Jiang blinked back tears. Despite their care, this would probably be the end of them all.
A heavy pall weighed him down as if the little magic he possessed had been suppressed beneath a heavy curtain and smothered around him. Jiang shivered at the unpleasant sensation. As the youngest of the Chinese water dragons, Jiang’s tribe protected him as well as they could, but there was no way to hide from Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. It turned out there was also no way to fight him. Huangdi had burned down their homes, tortured innocent people for information and wiped the minds of the humans until the once revered dragons were now considered little more than creatures of fantasy. Huangdi even wore the dragon on his clothes as a symbol of his complete domination over their kind.
His hatred for Huangdi tasted bitter on Jiang’s tongue, an unpleasant flavor only the emperor’s death could erase. He wished for one wistful moment he had been born a fire dragon. Those beasts could have turned the emperor into ash. Sadly he was born into the wrong caste for pyrotechnic tricks and no doubt the emperor had sorcerers to counter those spells too.
Holding back a whimper, Jiang tried to remain strong. He trusted Zhou, his leader, to do what was best for them even in this helpless situation. Bowing down to Qin Shi wasn’t an option. The emperor didn’t care about loyalty or sacred dragons. He only cared about power, how he could build it and where he could steal it. Whether the dragons caved in to his demands or not, Huangdi would have his way.
Zhou shouted at the emperor. “You cannot destroy us! No matter what you do, we will continue our fight!”
Big words in a desperate situation, too bad Zhou was bluffing. The emperor had already proven he could take out the dragons with his powerful team of sorcerers. The five of them-Jiang, Zhou, Liang, Tian and Wei-were the last remaining water dragons willing to take a stand. The others had either swum off to sea or died beneath the emperor’s iron fist.
Jiang hadn’t seen sign of any other dragon in years. Were they it? Were they the last remaining dragons? Only five dragons stood in the middle of the Taklimakan desert, a handful of beasts soon to find their death in the grip of a mad emperor. Jiang’s life had been one of fighting and hardship, why should his death be within a sea of calm? Years from now archeologists would find dragon bones among the dinosaur fossils and wonder how they came to be. Jiang smiled sadly at his own imagination.
The emperor smirked, an evil expression on an already unpleasant man. “My sorcerers will take care of your feeble attempts to ruin my destiny. Without you the others will fall in line. Without the dragons there will be no more resistance or reason for hope. I will give you one last chance. Serve me or become an example of the power I wield.”
Jiang held back a whimper. Even if Zhou agreed he knew the emperor wouldn’t let them go. He couldn’t chance the dragons coming back to ruin him. Huangdi wasn’t the type to leave an enemy behind. He’d scorched entire towns to avoid that fate. Jiang lowered his head and braced himself for death. How had the emperor brought them so low with only a handful of sorcerers under his command?
“We refuse to join your cause!” Zhou challenged. Even now, in their final hours, Jiang never doubted Zhou’s leadership. The eldest and strongest among them, Zhou had led them well. It wasn’t the dragon shifter’s fault that the deranged emperor didn’t follow the rules of combat. No compassion existed in Huangdi’s eyes, instead madness had taken root and spread to all those who followed him.
Even if they wished to stop the fighting there would be no peace. The emperor would never rest until he bent them all to his will. Jiang shook off his melancholy and straightened his shoulders. If he died today he’d go with dignity. Zhou’s scales reflected the sun above them, a glowing figure of righteousness even to the end. Pride spread through Jiang. He would go to the afterlife with his brothers in arms and be proud of what they’d accomplished.
Without warning Zhou lashed out at the men around him. His tail caught the cheek of the closest sorcerer and sliced it open. Blood splashed on the sand, a crimson exclamation mark. The sorcerer clutched his cheek but quickly seared the wound closed with a flash of magic.
Huangdi had escaped the attack but fury filled his voice as he screamed at the sorcerers. “Contain him!”
Ropes slithered from the lead sorcerer’s hands and lashed around Zhou’s ankles, pinning him in place. Zhou roared out his anger.
Tears welled up in Jiang’s eyes. To see his leader subdued saddened him. He’d prefer they killed Jiang first so he wouldn’t have to see his friends die before him.
“My sorcerers will destroy you!” Huangdi’s voice rose to a strident scream. Some claimed the emperor stood on the edge of madness. Jiang knew Huangdi had been pushed off that cliff years ago. Why else would he wage a battle to take out an entire species for the sake of saying he could? The dragons had lived in peace for centuries until Huangdi decided to hunt them like prey.
“Do what you will,” Zhou growled. “You cannot win. There will always be those who fight back against the whip of insanity you wield.”
For them the war was over. As soon as they’d landed the emperor had taken them hostage. His sorcerers’ spell had bound them to the earth preventing the dragons from accessing their magic to fly. Jiang saw Zhou struggle against the bonds enough to move his feet and tail, but Jiang knew that even if he could escape, Zhou wouldn’t leave them behind. Zhou’s noble spirit prevented him from abandoning the lesser dragons like Jiang.
Huangdi’s mocking laughter pulled Jiang’s attention back to the emperor. The chilling noise did little to allay Jiang’s fears that he was seeing the last few minutes of his life. When the sorcerers laughed along with Huangdi, Jiang wished he could blast them with a torrent of waves, but miles lay between them and the closest body of water.
The emperor had planned his strategy well when he’d picked his spot to battle water dragons. The middle of the Taklimakan Desert contained little liquid in its depths. For water dragons the arid desert held no defense. Even Zhou could only call miniscule drops of water through the filter of crushed rock beneath them, certainly not enough to create a proper attack or break the sorcerers’ spell.
With no way to fight with their magic and unable to move enough to use claws or tail they were trapped. Dragons in front of Jiang wiggled restlessly trying to break free of their captivity. They couldn’t go far, but standing still to accept their fate went against their nature.
The hum of sorcerer magic crackled around him as if electrifying the very air. Jiang’s ears ached from the pressure of power pushing down on them. The sorcerers were ensuring the dragons couldn’t break free at the last minute—Jiang only wished he had that strength. He shivered from the electrical sparks crawling up his spine. A soft whimper escaped him as his limbs stiffened. He didn’t wish to appear weak in front of his enemy but fear had sunk into his gut with poisonous claws. He futilely tried to move his tail.
Huangdi nodded to his sorcerers then climbed up on his camel. His officers mounted beside him. “Goodbye dragons. I’d say you put up a good fight, but mine was better. Since you refuse to give me your power of immortality I have no further use for you.”
Were the rumors true? Had Huangdi killed dragons before to drink their blood and gain their magic? It must not have worked if he was ready to destroy the handful that remained.
Jiang growled. The only sound he could make. No other part of him could move. His limbs had stopped following his wishes and his paws had curled into tight balls until he couldn’t even twitch. Petrified he could only watch as the emperor rode away.
The lead sorcerer, his face wound an angry red, approached Zhou. Jiang watched as a surprisingly tender expression crossed the sorcerer’s face. He stroked a hand over Zhou’s snout. “The emperor holds our families hostage to bend us to his will. However, even the proud can only bend so far before they break. I’ve adapted his spell to transform you into stone. The enchantment can only be broken with the blood of a vampire and the resurrection of a dragon king’s line. Then you will be free.” The sorcerer slid an affectionate finger across Zhou’s nose.
Jiang suspected if Zhou were free he would’ve bit that finger.
“You might not believe me now but one day you will break out of this enchantment. Then you can take your revenge. Be strong, my brave dragon. One day we will meet again.”
The sorcerer’s tone indicated he looked forward to that day. Jiang didn’t think he should. Zhou didn’t have a reputation for leniency toward people who crossed him. Once freed, the dragon would hunt down those guilty of imprisoning them and make them sorry.
Still, hope grew in Jiang’s chest despite the dour outlook. The sorcerers weren’t going to kill them even if an eternal existence as a statue sounded like a special living hell. Freedom might never come. While vampires were quite common, no one had heard from any of the dragon kings in centuries. Stories were told of them going to sleep in the deepest sea, tired of the world of man. How long could it take for a king to awaken? What if none of them ever did?
Further fears crowded his mind. What happened if they broke? Stone could shatter. Would the wind wear them down year after year until there were only bits of them remaining? How would that feel? Would they feel it at all? Not to mention how would a vampire find them in the middle of the desert. They tended to stay away from the scorching sun. No, there was no way they would ever escape from this. Jiang knew he’d be a stone dragon until his body gave way to the erosion of time.
A tear dripped down his scaly face, blinking he froze, his lashes on the upswing.