The first book of the Gardone Trilogy. You can buy a copy of the self published version from Amazon. (Use this code for a 15% discount: WS7HZXJV)
Cover art copyrighted by Judy Schmidt and used with permission.
Is that her? ZieZee’s thoughts passed to her partner as she pointed down the rocky slope through branches of naked trees that reached into the sky like giant spider legs.
Dorg looked at the large mound of snow in the ravine below, nodded, and answered with his mind. Yes, she’s under there, protecting the egg.
Cloudy vapor froze in frigid air as it left their bodies, marking time in steady puffs. Only two creatures could survive this icy tundra: their kind and the massive beast nesting in the gorge below. They watched and waited, camouflaged by thick white fur on the snow covered ridge. To the keen eye they looked awkward; standing knee deep in the snow made them look unnaturally short, even for snow apes.
Let’s get it over with; I want to get out of this cursed animal. Her thoughts again filled his mind.
Not until dark, we need that advantage. Besides, these apes are one of your best creations…fast, nimble, and strong. Enjoy it; you’ll be ataiki again soon.
Better than human, she answered.
The corner of his lip curled in satisfaction. Swine was better than ataiki but ZieZee was too stupid to know. Her ignorance worked to his benefit, it let him manipulate her. He reached up and wrapped his four fingers around a thick branch, jumped, and sailed through the air. He swung branch to branch until he had weaved high to a perch that hung precariously over the cliff and he sat in a forked limb, letting his legs dangle. But ZieZee hadn’t followed him. He looked down and saw her still standing in the snow below.
Her voice again filled his mind. I’m not going up there.
He didn’t answer. It was her own fault she was miserable. He turned and looked at the mound of snow directly below him. It was like a large knot on a tree, an unnatural blemish that called attention to its abnormality. It didn’t belong…it had to be Nix, the dragon. For two years they had searched, tapping deep into the spiritual realm, but dragons were fortified against their detection. This was common with magical creatures. But this had to be her, everything pointed here. Moving close enough to verify would be foolish because if she was awake, she was watching and waiting. If she was sleeping, the pulse of the ground and the heat of his body would wake her. Either way she wouldn’t pass an opportunity to feed since for six years she’d been unable to leave her egg. He would assume it was her and they would proceed as planned.
He clutched the vial that hung from a leather strap around his neck and lifted it to his bulgy, pink eyes. The silver container hid the contents and he considered opening the lid to look inside, but it wasn’t a serious consideration. He’d never take a chance like that with victory so close when he understood little about the green, luminescent fluid. Whatever it was had evolved when the demigod Vitaneous was destroyed, five hundred years prior. For hundreds of years he had been afraid of it, in fact everything he knew about it had come in the past year after he forced ZieZee to swallow several drops. Drinking it somehow magnified their connection to the spiritual realm; hopefully it would be enough to subdue the dragon.
It’s dusk, can we start? ZieZee’s voice spoke alongside his thoughts, startling him. Sometimes he didn’t like how she could speak right to his mind, invading his solitude. He growled, one of the few sounds he could make as an ape, and it quickly escalated to a loud rhythmic chant. He beat his chest.
What are you doing? You are going to wake her!
He ignored ZieZee and filled the canyon with his howl, which echoed off icy granite walls towering around them. When he finished, the mountains replayed his screams in an eerie chant that slowly faded back to silence.
He focused on ZieZee and sent his thoughts, we need to move fast…there is lot to do. Ready?
Why did you do that? Now she knows we’re here.
He didn’t answer until his disgust at her thick brain faded. It wouldn’t help if she sensed his indignation. He cleared his mind. Because now she’s looking for a meal, it will weaken the protections around her mind. I’m taking the vitane now; see you on the other side.
He opened the vial, cocked his head, and poured the liquid down his throat. It lacked the burning he was used to in human form and for the first time, he noticed the bitter taste and slimy texture. His chest warmed. He licked the sides of his mouth and his head twitched at the tartness. His chest burned with heat. He looked down, making sure he was directly above the mound of snow covering Nix but his vision doubled, tripled, and then faded into a single bright haze as death snuffed the life from his body. His perceptions changed with the shift to the spiritual realm. All physical sensations ceased, replaced by intuition, thought, and emotion. Now he existed like a cloud of warm air: a pulsing aura of energy unseen by the creatures of his world below.
The dead body of the ape he left behind slumped and, for a moment, remained frozen in the forked branch. Then it teetered, rolled sideways out of the tree, and tumbled like a puppet towards the ground. Dorg could see none of this. Nor could he hear the snap of jaws as the dragon’s neck shot out from under the white blanket in a barrage of fangs and flying snow to catch the ape in its maw of long white daggers. But even without physical senses, he experienced it in vivid detail through mental perception, including the sudden crimson stains that spattered the pristine snow. He was keenly aware of bones shattering and crunching as the dragon devoured the ape. He perceived her hunger. She hadn’t eaten in months and was starving.
Images of the world below flashed through his mind like a dream. He sensed ZieZee, in the body of the other snow ape, descending into the gully. In the next valley, five wild apes slept huddled in a small cave. Beyond the stars he felt the shunning force of the great light, the power that seduced nearly every detached soul to abandon this world. It beckoned to all, save three: ZieZee, himself, and what was left of Vitaneous. It rejected them, pinning them forever to this forsaken world. It certainly had never expected them to fill a barren wasteland with life, as they had done. And now that they were learning to harvest energy, it wouldn’t hold them forever.
He jolted at ZieZee’s cry for help. She had left the ape and was with him in the spirit realm, fighting Nixun. She was straining, pulling, screaming…how long had it been? Was it too late? Once he had lost himself for hundreds of years in such rumination. He sensed the dead body of the ape, left behind where she had taken her own flask of vitane. It was still warm and able to sustain life. Relieved, he focused on the dragon and felt himself immersed in its essence and ZieZee’s struggle. He pulled with her, expecting the dragon’s soul to break free as happened with other creatures. But instead, a bolt of energy lashed through him, burning like acid. He raged, shooting back in full concentration and crashed into the dragon, splitting the dusk sky with lighting. Thunder cracked and rolled and the dragon’s body fell limp.
A new essence joined them, Nix, floating like spider silk on a breeze. She was like a baby in this new world, unable to maneuver or even comprehend her surroundings. They encircled her, guiding her to ZieZee’s ape lying dead in the snow. Both body and essence still craved life and the two latched quickly. The ape’s chest expanded thrice, and then an eye cracked open. Nix was inside.
ZieZee drifted to the empty, motionless corpse of the dragon. Dorg sensed life returning to the giant beast; a talon twitched, a wing opened, and red eyes glowed. ZieZee had again become mortal. She tried to stand but collapsed in a cloud of snowy dust; it would take her a moment to learn how to control this new body. Practicing on the summit eagles helped, but nothing could have completely prepared her for this.
The ape rolled in the snow.
He sent ZieZee his thoughts. Hurry, before she gets control. She’ll fight to the death to protect the egg and we need her alive…to put her back when we are finished.
Nix could live for at least a month in the fattened body of the ape, even if all she did was lie motionless in the snow. Eventually, they needed her soul returned to the dragon body. If she was injured or killed their plans would be worthless. After nearly a thousand years of work, Dorg wasn’t about to let that happen. ZieZee thrust her legs and fell forward, grunting as flames shot from her nose and melted a long stretch of snow.
The nest, ZieZee told him. We’re too late.
Dorg sensed warm radiant energy below, the infant was alive. They were not too late. ZieZee stumbled again, raking claw marks in the snow as she failed in her awkward attempts to stand. Finally, she lunged and rolled sideways, sliding on her back halfway down the slope to the ape, which was also struggling for control. Then something moved in the nest.
As an the image of the scene formed in Dorg’s mind, the ape made a gurgling sound which was surely meant to be a booming roar from a dragon’s body. Nix grunted and pawed in confusion as she slipped and inched back towards the nest. ZieZee, meanwhile, rose and stretched her new wings.
What should I do? ZieZee asked.
The image clarified and Dorg pulsed in fury. The egg lie in pieces, hatched. Plans destroyed. His rage culminated in volatile energy that radiated a faint red glow above the nest that even mortals could see. An infant dragon lay curled and quivering below. ZieZee was right, they were too late. An egg would have survived the flight over the mountains but this newborn would not even survive the next few moments. Death was imminent. There would be no dragon child to ransom cooperation from Nix.
I told you we shouldn’t have killed the father, ZieZee said. You’ve ruined everything…
That pricked his rage and the red glow exploded, spawning a storm of fury that rained shards of burning energy on ZieZee. She shrieked and roared. Dorg shut her out, for two reasons; he didn’t want to expose her to more damage, but moreover, he didn’t want to hear her foul response. What did it matter? All was for naught…
The ape, now ably walking on all fours, reached the nest and threw herself on the tiny dragon to warm the freezing child. Even a dragon, with its size and heat, had little chance of saving the newborn after such an extreme sting of chill. The young spirit soon detached and its essence dwelled briefly while accustoming to the spirit realm. Dorg made no attempt to shield it from the call of the great light; he had no use for this soul. A wave of love passed from child to mother before it pulled away, leaving Nix howling and caressing the dead body with pudgy ape fingers. The child’s essence hesitated and then streaked through the sky.
A dark ambiance touched Dorg’s mind; ZieZee was cursing furiously and trying to attack him. But it was pointless. In mortal form she could neither see nor sense him and without vitane, she would have to take her life to free her soul. Even she wasn’t stupid enough to kill the only living dragon. He would deal with her eventually but he could not help her until after returning to the lair where he would take a new body, cultivate more vitane, and then come for her. It would take weeks.
A shift in the mood of Nix caught his attention. She now emanated panic rather than sorrow, and even ZieZee’s anger had been replaced with curiosity. An image filled his mind of Nix pushing the tiny dragon body aside and frantically digging through the feathered lining of the nest. Then he sensed another life form. Faint and obscure, it had gone unnoticed. Twins! And the second child hadn’t hatched.
Nix pulled the egg from its refuge and sprinted away, hobbling through the snow like a three legged wolf as she held the egg against her furry belly with one arm. Even with the egg, she was faster than expected and before ZieZee could react, fresh tracks stretched halfway down the canyon. The dark thicket across the clearing was like a quagmire for a large dragon; there was no chance ZieZee could follow a nimble creature flying from tree to tree, and, apparently, all of them realized it. ZieZee beat her wings twice, shot into the air, flipped over, and dove for the ground. She pulled up at the last moment and shot forward in a silent glide just above the snow.
Don’t hurt her…we need her alive. Dorg said, re-opening his mind to her.
ZieZee closed the gap, gaining rapidly, but the lead was too great. As Nix leaped and reached for a dangling branch, a mere swing from safety, ZieZee rolled and slashed with an outstretched talon and clipped Nix’s back leg. Nix spun to the ground well short of the forest and ZieZee sailed past, barreling into the white covered evergreens as branches snapped, cracked, and chunks of snow fell to the ground in deep thuds.
Nix rolled and flipped onto her feet but ZieZee had already recovered and blocked her escape into the forest. ZieZee lowered her head, growling as she bent down on all four legs ready to pounce on the tiny ape. Nix seemed transfixed staring into the giant slit, blood-red eyes that used to be her own. She turned and shuffled the egg to her side, away from ZieZee, but cocked her head to keep her gaze. Then she opened her mouth and hissed, fangs bared in an apparent attempt to fill the air with fire, but only warm cloudy air came from her throat, fading even as it appeared. ZieZee jumped forward, knocking Nix to the ground and pinned her between talons built to shred snow apes. Nix thrashed and ZieZee pushed her deeper into the snow. Then ZieZee leaned forward and with her other front claw, pried loose the egg and then placed it into her fang-laced mouth. With a stiff beat of wings, ZieZee rose into the air with Nix clinging to her talons, refusing to let go. But with a quick shake, she was jolted free and fell back into the snow as ZieZee climbed higher and beat a steady course west, towards the caverns.
Dorg followed as Nix chased the departing fluttering spec in the sky. He told ZieZee he would join her in the caverns when Nix stopped, so they could find her again. But ZieZee didn’t answer. Time apart would be good and help her cool off to refocus on their purpose. He followed Nix for two nights until she finally collapsed broken-hearted and exhausted in a snowless clearing at the base of the mountains. Despondence and exhaustion would keep her in this area until they returned. Satisfied, he set his mind on the lair and sensed himself rushing over mountain peaks and thick forests.
He plunged through volcanic rock into the heart of the caverns that he and ZieZee called home. She was waiting, pretending to be asleep in a distant corner with one giant talon curled around the newly acquired egg. Below, he sensed the young man they had previously captured wrestling the straps that bound him to a chair. Dorg had handpicked this tall muscular warrior. His long brown hair and dashing smile were ideal to lead the humans to victory. Like swatting at a fly, he brushed the soul from the man and hurled it to the light as the body fell limp.
He filled his mind with images of the man and felt himself drift to the body. He imagined himself making a fist with the man’s hands and felt fingernails digging into his palms. He pictured himself speaking and felt parched lips cracking. Then he imagined expanding his chest to take in air and felt a cool rush through his throat. The man in the chair opened his eyes and Dorg saw shadows flicker on the cave walls. He gasped for air and coughed as life returned to the body. He had made it; everything had worked to his desires. But now he needed sleep, his energy was spent. The thought of his bed in a nearby cove was soothing and he leaned forward to stand but couldn’t. His legs and arms were still bound to the chair.
“ZieZee? I’m back, untie me,” he yelled.
The caverns echoed his voice. He twisted and spun his head for a quick look behind and a sting shot down his back and his neck popped. He winced and straightened. She was watching him with those big red eyes. No doubt still angry.
“It was an accident, I didn’t mean to attack you. You know what it’s like…it’s hard to contain emotion in spirit form. Please, set me free. I need sleep,” he said.
She could have answered, she had rested enough to send thoughts to his mind, but she didn’t. He sighed and leaned his head on the back of the chair, sagging into the straps that held him. She would forgive him. His plan had worked and that’s all that mattered. To the south, amid the clashing of steel and cries of death, he would soon emerge a hero. The humans would revere and worship him: the man who saved them from the dark ones. Then they would return Nix to her dragon body and hatch the egg themselves. Nix would do whatever they asked of her. All would be in place to lead the humans into an age of peace and prosperity. Finally, he would have the resources needed to research the vitane. After so long, the end of his banishment was near…maybe even within the lifetime of this new body.