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Enslaved and Forced to Fight Dragons
Aran awakens in chains with no memory. He’s conscripted into the Confederate Marines as a Tech Mage, given a spellrifle, then hurled into the war with the draconic Krox and their Void Wyrm masters.
Desperate to escape, Aran struggles to master his abilities, while surviving the Krox onslaught. Fighting alongside him are a Major who will do anything to win, a Captain who will stop at nothing to see him dead, and a woman whose past is as blank as his own.
Caught between survival and loyalty Aran must choose. If he flees he will live, but the Krox will burn the galaxy. Stopping them requires a price Aran may be unable to pay:
Learning to trust the very people who enslaved him.
Release date: September 20, 2017
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Print pages: 330
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Voria hopped from the ramp before the transport had completed its landing. She clung tightly to her jacket as the sudden wind buffeted her. Voria didn't let it deter her, leaning into the gale as she crossed the landing pad. Like everything in the Tender's palace, the landing pad was cut from shayawood, taken from the corpse of the goddess herself.
That wood shone in the sun, whorls of brown and red, drinking in the sunlight. Voria had never been this close to the palace, and had never seen so much shayawood. It had been designed to awe, and it succeeded.
The view only reinforced that awe. The palace floated in the sky over the world of Shaya and afforded a magnificent view of the goddess herself. Her body stabbed into the sky, the immense redwood branches scraping the upper atmosphere. A multitude of tiny starships flitted back and forth between them like flocks of tiny birds.
Were a single limb to break, it would doom the cities clustered at the base of the mighty tree. That was the dilemma of Shaya. The goddess's lingering energies created a breathable atmosphere around her body, but if you left that radius the rest of the moon was barren and inhospitable. They needed her body to survive, but that body could also destroy them.
Voria wove a path through the wind, snaking her way to a pair of wide palace doors. They were flanked by a pair of war mages, each encased in golden Mark VIII spellarmor. They cradled menacing black spellrifles, the barrels lined with spell amplification sigils. Voria could make out nothing of their faces behind the mirrored faceplates.
To her surprise, both war mages snapped to attention when she approached.
"Major," boomed a male voice from the mage on the right. "The Tender is expecting you. She's made the...unusual request that you be allowed to carry your weapons, and that you not be searched."
"What is it you think I'd be hiding, exactly? All I'm carrying is a spellpistol. If the Tender wants to wipe me from existence, no spell I'm going to cast will make any difference," Voria countered. She waved at the doors. "Let's get this over with. I have a war to fight, and I don't have time for politics."
The guards stepped aside, snapping back to attention. Voria eyed them suspiciously as she passed, trying to understand the reason for their respectful behavior. The Confederate Military was a joke to Shayan nobility. War mages did not salute officers, rank non-withstanding. Even her training as a true mage wouldn't warrant that kind of respect.
She entered a spacious greeting room lined with hover-couches. A blue one floated in her direction, nudging her hip in invitation. Voria shoved it away, and continued toward the room's only occupant. The Tender stood next to a golden railing, shayawood vines snaking around it. Shaya's branches were visible behind her, though the woman herself commanded attention.
Her hair shone in the sun, capturing all the colors of autumn. Reds and yellows and golds all danced through her hair, changing as the light shifted. It poured down her back in a molten river, contrasting beautifully with the Tender's golden ceremonial armor.
Voria had often been called pretty, but she knew she was a frumpy matron next to the Tender. Though, in Voria's defense, she didn't have the blood of a goddess to magically enhance her beauty.
"Welcome, daughter," the Tender said, beaming a smile as she strode gracefully from the railing. "Thank you for coming so quickly."
"Just because you slept with my father doesn't make you my mother," Voria countered flatly. She schooled her features, attempting to hide the pleasure she took from needling this woman.
The Tender raised a delicate eyebrow, stopping a meter away. She frowned disapprovingly, and even that was done beautifully. "I meant figuratively, daughter."
"Why did you call me here?" Voria demanded. She'd fluster this woman if it killed her.
"Because this, all of this, will be wiped away unless you prevent it." The Tender stretched an arm to indicate Shaya and the cities below her. She smiled warmly, as if she'd just related a bit of political gossip. "Would you like some lifewine? Or an infused apple?"
The Tender crooked a finger, and a crystal ewer floated over to Voria. Golden liquid swirled within, and Voria could feel the power pulsing from it. It was, for her people at least, literal life. But drinking it would cause her eyes to glow, revealing her true nature for hours.
"No, thank you." Voria stepped away from the ewer and frowned at the Tender. "Certainly your time must be valuable. You've dropped a melodramatic statement about Shaya being destroyed. Please tell me that's just hyperbole."
"I am being quite literal, I'm afraid. If you do not fulfill your role in the struggle against Krox, then all of this will be wiped away," the Tender explained. She sighed...prettily. "Please, come with me."
"Fine." Voria crossed her arms, eyeing the Tender as the woman led her from the railing.
The chamber curved around the outside of the palace for nearly a hundred meters, finally ending at a pair of tall double doors. Unlike most of the palace, these were not shayawood. They were covered in a multicolored mural depicting Shaya herself.
Voria leaned closer, realizing that the door was covered in thousands of tiny scales. Dragon scales, each of incalculable worth. They glowed with their own inner fire and their combined magic brought the mural to life. Branches swayed as an invisible wind rippled over the doors.
The Tender placed a palm on each door, then pushed gently inward. The doors opened of their own accord, sliding away to reveal a dark chamber. Voria followed the Tender inside and waited impatiently for her eyes to adjust.
The doors slammed shut behind them, and a bonfire sprang into existence near the center of the room. The flames were pure blue, edged in white. Their sudden light illuminated sigils emblazoned on the floor in a circle around the flame. A ritual circle, possibly the most powerful that Voria had ever witnessed.
"What am I seeing?" Voria asked, abandoning all attempts to fluster the Tender. She'd fought in the Confederate Marines for four decades, and had never seen magic on this scale before. The immensity of the power humbled her.
"This is the Mirror of Shaya. It is an eldimagus for finding and interpreting auguries. You are familiar with auguries?" the Tender asked, walking gracefully to stand just outside the magical circle. The flame brightened at her approach, like a pet preening for an owner.
"Conceptually. They're visions of a possible future, dreamed by a dead god," Voria ventured. Divination wasn't one of her strong suits, though she was proficient enough with the basics.
"Some auguries are," the Tender corrected gently. "Some were created by living gods, before the moment of their death. These auguries are of immense power, designed to shape the future for hundreds or even thousands of millennia. I've spent the last several years studying just such an augury."
"And you feel that has something to do with me?" Voria raised an eyebrow.
"I'll allow you to judge for yourself." The Tender smiled mischievously, then turned to the ritual circle. She sketched the scarlet sigil for fire, and a pinkish one for dream.
The mirror flared and immense magical strength gathered within the light. It resolved into an image, so lifelike that Voria recoiled. A vast force hovered in the void, its body comprised of stars, its eyes supernovas. The creature was a living galaxy, a god that made every god or goddess Voria had encountered seem a tiny speck.
"What is that thing?" she whispered, unable to drag her gaze from the vision.
"That is Krox," the Tender answered. She rested a hand on Voria's arm, and warmth pulsed into her. It eased the fear the image had evoked, though not the horror that something so alien could exist. "The forces you fight, what you call 'the Krox', are his children. And they are united in a singular purpose, the resurrection of their dark father. This augury is a desperate cry from the past. It's meant to give us the tools necessary to stop his return. If we fail in this, the cost is incalculable."
Voria studied the flames, silently digesting what the Tender had just said. After several moments another image flickered into view. An enormous skull floated in orbit over a barren world. Long, dark horns spiraled from the temples, and purplish flames danced in the eye sockets and mouth.
"That's the Skull of Xal," Voria ventured, recognizing the Catalyst.
The face of a young man superimposed itself over the flames, covering the image of the skull. The hard eyes and strong jaw made him look older than he probably was. He held a sword loosely in one hand and dark lightning crackled from his hand into the blade.
"What am I seeing?" Voria asked. She recognized the spell, basic void lightning. But she had no idea why she was seeing it.
"This man will be instrumental in helping you triumph in your impending struggle," the Tender offered. The light of the flames reflected off her eyes as she studied the images still appearing. "He can be found at the Skull of Xal, along with something else vital to the coming battle."
"You mentioned a coming battle twice. That makes me think you've got the wrong person." Voria eyed the double doors, but didn't attempt to leave. "The Wyrm Hunter is low on munitions. We're down to a handful of tech mages, and no other true mage besides myself. We have no potions, and the Marines sent from Ternus have no battle experience. The worst part? We're down to six support crew. Six people, to keep an entire battleship flying. Trust me. Whatever battle this augury thinks I'm a part of, it's got the wrong person. Hunter should be in space dock, not leading a charge."
"I understand your reluctance, but I assure you that you are the person this augury is meant for." The Tender's rebuke was gentle, but still a rebuke.
Voria licked her lips, forcing herself to be silent as she watched the augury. It now showed a familiar man, one of her tech mages. "That's Specialist Bord."
The Tender said nothing, watching intently as the images continued. The view zoomed out to show Bord's surroundings. He stood next to a golden urn the size of a tank. The surface was covered in sigils, and a sickly grey glow came from the top.
"I do not know how, but this 'Bord' will be instrumental as well, in a different way. You will need both the men displayed in order to stop her," the Tender's voice whispered.
"Her?" Voria asked, blinking.
The augury shifted again. This time the flames showed a gargantuan dragon, floating in orbit over a blue-white world. Its leathery wings stretched out to either side and its head reared back. The dragon breathed a cone of white mist that billowed out around a Ternus space station.
"Nebiat," Voria snarled. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the ancient dragon, a full Void Wyrm. The dark scales and spiked tail were unmistakable. She ground her teeth, acid rising in her stomach. She'd do anything to kill that Wyrm. Anything.
"I thought you'd recognize her. Whoever created this augury believes you are the one person strong enough to stop her." The Tender stretched out a hand and rested it on Voria's jacket. Pleasant warmth flowed into her. Voria wished she'd stop doing that. "I know that you lack the resources you need. But I also know that you are needed. If you will not do this, then the Krox will burn another world. You can stop that, Voria, though the personal cost will be high."
"Isn't it always?" Voria straightened her jacket, already turning to the door. "I'll find a way to stop Nebiat, but that will be a whole lot easier with Inuran weaponry. They're hunting for Kazon. If I can find him before anyone else, the Consortium will provide me with enough material to pursue your augury. Help me find him, and I'll help you fulfill it."
"I already have." The Tender turned back to the flames as the augury began to repeat. "Study the augury carefully, Major. There are many layers to be delved, including Kazon's whereabouts. Pursuing the augury will lead you to him."
Aran lurched awake as the transport entered free fall. Gravity pulled him upward, jerking him to the limits allowed by his restraints. The ship shook violently, the thin lights flickering for several moments before returning to a steady illumination.
"Wake up," a female voice bellowed. The speaker moved to stand in front of Aran, and he realized groggily that he was surrounded by other men and women in restraints.
The chrome harnesses pinned their wrists between their legs, preventing them from standing or defending themselves. Glowing blue manacles attached his wrists to the harness, and he could feel their heat even through the armored gauntlets. He wore some sort of environmental armor, the metal scarred and pitted from long use.
"Good, the sleep spell is wearing off." The speaker wore a suit of form-fitting body armor, much higher quality than Aran's. Her helmet was tucked under one arm and the other hand wrested on a pistol belted at her side. A river of dark hair spilled down both shoulders. "You're probably feeling some grogginess. That's the after effects of the mind-wipe. Each of you have been imprinted with a name. That will be the only thing you can remember. We've given it to you, because otherwise slaves tend to have psychotic breaks."
Aran probed mentally, reaching for anything. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten here, or what he'd had for breakfast. Or where he'd been born. There was a...haze over the part of his mind where those things should be. His name was, quite literally, the only thing he could remember.
A beefy man on Aran's right struggled violently against his bonds. "Listen little girl, you'd better let me out of this chair, or I'll fu--."
The woman withdrew her pistol and aimed it at the beefy man. White sigils flared to life up and down the barrel, and dark energy built inside the weapon.
The weapon hummed, discharging a bolt of white-hot flame toward his chest. It cored him through the heart, filling the chamber with the scent of cooked meat. His body twitched once and then he died silently.
"Nara, you began the demonstration without me," called an amused male voice. It came from out of Aran's field of view, but the booted footsteps approached until Aran got a glimpse of the speaker. "You know how much I hate missing it. This is my favorite part."
A tall, slender man walked over to the woman who'd executed the beefy man. He wore jet-black environmental armor, and had a stylized dragon helm clutched under his arm. One of his eyes had been replaced with a glittering ruby, and his bald skull was oiled to a mirrored sheen. His right gauntlet was larger than his left, and studded with glowing rubies and sapphires.
Aran could sense...something coming from the gauntlet. A familiar resonance that danced elusively out of reach.
A cluster of armored figures entered the room behind the one-eyed man. They fanned out, taking up relaxed positions along the far wall. Each guard carried a rifle similar to the pistol the woman had fired. Blue-white sigils lined the barrels, though they appeared inactive at the moment.
"I'm sorry, Master Yorrak," the woman he'd called Nara finally replied. She gave a deep bow, which she held for several seconds. Finally she straightened. "This prisoner...volunteered. And I know that we are pressed for time. I thought it prudent to educate this batch quickly."
"Efficient as always. I'll handle the rest of the orientation." Yorrak patted her cheek patronizingly, then turned toward the slaves. Nara shot him a hateful glare, but he seemed oblivious. "Good morning, slaves. My name is Yorrak, true mage and pilot of this vessel. I'm going to make this very simple. In a moment we'll be landing. When we do, your restraints will be removed. There is a rack of rifles near the door. Take one, and step outside. Nara and her squad will lead you beyond that. Obey her orders without question, or meet the same fate as our late friend here." Yorrak moved to the corpse, prodding it with a finger.
"Are there any questions?" he asked, rounding on them.
"Where are we?" Aran rasped. His throat burned, and he blinked sweat from his eyes.
"The Skull of Xal, one of the more remote, and most powerful, Catalysts in this sector," Yorrak proclaimed, thrusting his arms dramatically into the air. "You're about to be granted a wonderful opportunity. If you survive, you will become a tech mage. Those of you who apply yourselves might even rise to the rank of true mage, one day. That will increase your relative value, and I treat my mages very well. Now, I'll leave you in Nara's capable hands. I'll pick up any survivors in the second ocular cavity. You have two hours. Oh and one more thing. If Nara isn't with you when you exit the Catalyst, I'll disintegrate the lot of you."
Yorrak strode past Aran, eyeing the slaves gleefully as he exited. What a sadistic bastard. Aran caught a brief glimpse of the hallway before the door hissed shut behind him, but saw nothing that helped his current situation. The transport, if it was a transport, shuddered violently for several moments, then finally stabilized.
"If you listen to me, you have a very high chance of survival," Nara said, drawing their collective attention. She stepped into the light, affording his first real look at her. She had liquid brown eyes, and a light dusting of freckles across her entire face. She was pretty enough that Aran understood why she'd been picked to lead them. The whole girl next door thing made them that much more likely to trust her. "In a moment I'm going to release your restraints. You'll arm yourself from the rack, and then move outside. Some of you might be tempted to attack us. Before you do, consider your options. It's in both our best interests for you to survive. If you die, Yorrak has less slaves. You don't want to die, and we don't want you dead."
Her argument made sense, though Aran detested the idea of working with his captors. He didn't know anything about them, or about himself really. Was he a hardened criminal? Or just some idiot in the wrong place, at the wrong time? It was just...gone. All of it. Only his name remained, and even that might not be real.
The restraints whirred, and the harness released him. The manacles were still around his wrists, but the chain linking them together had disappeared. Aran rose to his feet and the other prisoners did the same, each looking warily at the others. It seemed an effective tactic on the part of their captors. Since none of them knew each other, they weren't likely to cooperate. That made mutiny a much lower risk.
Aran moved to the rack along the side of the wall, picking up the first rifle. It had a heavy stock, and a long, ugly barrel. The metal was scored and scratched, though the action worked smoothly. He scanned the base of the rack, bending to scoop up two more magazines. He had no idea what he'd need the weapon for, but more rounds was rarely a bad thing.
Other slaves moved to take weapons, the closest a tall man with a thick, black beard. He eyed Aran warily, moving to the wall two meters away.
Nara walked to the rear of the room and slapped a large red button. A klaxon sounded, and a ramp slowly lowered. A chill wind howled up the ramp, dropping the temperature instantly.
"Outside, all of you. Now!" Nara's words stirred the slaves into action, and they began filing down the ramp. Aran moved in the middle of the pack, and found himself next to the bearded man.
"Watch my back?" he asked, eyeing the bearded man sidelong. His arms were corded with muscle, and his eyes glittered with intelligence.
"Do the same for me?" the man answered, eyeing Aran in a similar way.
"Done." Aran pivoted slightly as he walked down the ramp, angling his firing arc to slightly overlap with the bearded man. The man echoed the motion. "What name did they give you?"
"Kaz. How about you?"
"Aran." The ramp deposited them onto a bleached white hill. A hellish purple glow came from somewhere beyond the ridge ahead of them, as bright as any sun. Aran's teeth began to chatter, and his breath misted heavily in the air.
"The cold isn't life threatening, if you keep moving," Nara called. Her guards fanned out around her, covering the slaves with their strange rifles. Something about the weapons tickled at the back of his mind, but the haze muddied the sense of familiarity. "Form two groups, one on either side of the ramp."
The guards broke into groups, pushing slaves into two lines. Aran moved quickly to the one on the right, and the bearded man followed.
"Do you have any idea where we are?" Kaz asked. Aran followed his gaze, taking in their surroundings.
A high ridge prevented him from seeing beyond the closest hills. The rock reminded him uncomfortably of bone, its porous surface just the right shade of pale white.
The purplish glow flared suddenly and Aran raised a hand to shield his eyes. Harsh, guttural voices boomed in the distance, and he heard the rhythmic pounding of metal on stone.
"Those," Nara began with a yell, "are tech demons. This is their territory, and they will defend it with their lives. Your job is to kill them, without dying yourself. Follow my orders, and we'll all get out of this safely."
A brutish creature leapt into view at the top of the ridge. Twin horns spiraled out from a thick forehead and it clenched and unclenched wickedly curved claws. It stared down at them with flaming eyes, the same hue as the glow behind it. The creature wore dark armor, not unlike the armor Nara and her guards had.
"Fire!" Nara roared.
Aran reacted to Nara's command, snapping the rifle to his shoulder and sighting down the barrel. He'd guess the demon to be about seventy-five meters away, but it was hard to judge distance without knowing how large the thing was.
The rifle kicked into his shoulder, firing a three round burst that echoed off the rocks around them. The rounds peppered the demon's left side but only pinged off armor. Kaz snapped up his rifle as well, but the shots went wide. Other slaves fired, the chattering of weapons fire lighting up the area around them as they added to the thick stench of gunpowder.
All their collective fury accomplished nothing. The rounds, even those that hit the demon directly, simply ricocheted off. The demon's face split into a wide grin, revealing a sea of narrow fangs. It leapt from its perch, bat-like wings flaring behind it as it sailed in their direction.
Only then did Aran realize the creature carried a rifle too. The weapon was heavier than their own rifles, and the fat barrel was ringed with red sigils, like the rifles their captors used.
"That thing is packing a spellcannon. Tech mages, end him!" Nara barked, stabbing a finger at the descending demon.
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