Home > Dragon Outcast (Age of Fire #3)

Dragon Outcast (Age of Fire #3)
Author: E.E. Knight

BOOK ONE

Hatchling

“A BAD START IS STILL A START.”

—Tyr FeHazathant

Chapter 1

No pleasant dream, this. Discomfort and darkness, cold and cramp, clinging tendrils binding. The restrictions vexed him.

The hatchling struggled against his torment, twisting his neck to a more comfortable position, for his head kept jerking uncontrollably.

Suddenly his nose tore free of its bonds with a startling crack that ran down his body to the tail-tip. A membrane gave way, air tickled at his nose, and his lungs greedily pulled in its enticing freshness and a comforting, musky odor that filled him with longing.

A weight dragged at his belly, and he knew he had to be free of it. He reached up a rear claw and tore it away, the small pain worth the greater freedom.

The pain brought an additional benefit: His mind cleared of dreams and confusion and doubt. Instinct took over his little body, from deepest fiber to smallest hatchling scale. He pushed in every direction at once, head twisting and battering at the gap as his nose worked out.

Then it all gave way and he sprawled, whipping his tail around and fighting to right himself in a mass of clinging membrane and white shards. He opened his eyes, but the light pained and confused him, so he shut them again.

A wet web hung on him. It stuck everywhere in his scales, in the folds of hide and bone behind his jaw, his crest, his claws.

Strange, strange, strange. No clouds or currents or friendly sun, yet he was not frightened at the newness. The musky smell told him that all was well. He was safe.

He brought up a forelimb and wiped the web away from his eyes and off his crest. Now he could go to work with his long, flexible neck and sharp teeth, getting it off his limbs.

“We’ve done it; oh, thank Susirion and the four shapers, he lives.” The voice, the mind, more than half his own, had spoken to him in the egg. Through it he had seen brilliant sunlight and hot, flowing gold, blended and poured into his consciousness. This was the voice of his dreams, the spinner of images bright but vague around the edges, sunlight, crashing ocean waves, herds of blotch-backed beasts thundering below, leathery wings flapping and a proud, booming voice shaking the mountainside with song.

“Open your eyes, my jewel. See your mother and your world!”

Mother!

He opened his eyes, and it took a moment for his vision to clear. Too much to take in: a wall of green scale, curled-down head with its sniffing nostrils and shining, wide-open eyes, darkness filled with strange columns bathed in a glow from pools of light gathered on the floor, even a gentle, probing tail-tip as thick as his midwaist flicking bits of…of…shell, his brain supplied…flicking bits of shell off his haunches.

Wave after wave of love, delight, contentment rolled out of her and over him. This was better than any of the dreams before. The hatchling basked in it, a tiny thrumming deep in his throat answering her powerful one. They prrumed to each other. The ground almost vibrated with the low, resonant thrumming.

Two other eggs stirred. One rolled into the other with a soft tap.

The shifted egg opened like a jagged-toothed mouth, and a powerful red form spilled out. Its back legs outdrove its front, and it collapsed forward for a moment, jaw flat against the hard ground.

It squawked. He listened to the echoes and determined that they were in a confined space, but a very large one, and that a vast distance—to his few moments of experience—yawned behind, like his body, far longer than it was high.

The hatchling hardly noticed its smaller forelegs, its powerful neck, the clinging goo trailing from its rear limbs and bits of egg flying off its whipping tail. He had eyes only for its crest, a short rise of flattened horn sweeping back from its eyes.

Every instinct screeched: Threat, threat, threat!

The Red snorted liquid out of his nose. He opened his eyes and blinked. The tiny sharp spur crowning his nose turned toward the hatchling. The Red gathered himself, short flaps of armored skin behind his jawline rattling angrily against the base of his crest.

The hatchling found his own flaps answering the sound.

Tchkka-tchak tchkka-tchak tchkka-tchak!

The Red lowered his head and exploded toward him in a flash of glittering scales, mouth agape, fans wide and menacing.

He shifted to dodge him, but the clumsy new body didn’t react the way it did in dreams. They reared up on hindquarters, claws scrabbling and mouths biting—

—suddenly they were suspended in space.

Falling, but not for long.

They hit hard, the hatchling atop the Red, the Red’s crest striking first and absorbing much of the blow.

The hatchling brought up a rear limb and raked the Red’s flank. When the Red shifted he bit, but his jaws closed on air as the Red lurched away.

The Red swung around, rushed him, used his weight to roll the Copper, got atop him. Bit down—

He put up his left forelimb to protect his neck, and the Red’s jaws closed on it rather than his neck and they rolled again. They clawed and scratched at each other’s scales. He tried to push the Red away and right himself. A tearing pain in his forelimb, and the Red tightened his grip, braced those massive rear haunches, and began to pull, jerking his head back and forth, rending muscle and joints as the hatchling squawked and tried to bite at the Red’s neck.

Craack!

The hatchling didn’t know what caused the Red to drop his limb. Then the Red jumped off him and climbed up, up, toward the eggs and another crested head.

The hatchling jumped after him—no foe is getting away that easy!—but he sprawled as he took his first step, hurt forelimb not where it should be. It seemed to be folding itself against his breast, claw turned inward.

He wobbled on three limbs and tried to climb, but fell on the first attempt. He heard high-pitched, angry cries from the vicinity of the eggs.

His second attempt at a climb went a little better, as he braced himself with his tail. But he fell again when he shifted his rear limbs and his tail slipped on the hot, wet liquid dripping from his limb.

The third time he used his jaws, gripping a projection with his teeth when his tail could no longer support his weight. Panting, he heaved himself over the edge, up among the eggs again.

His vision blurred a moment and he felt dizzy from the climb. When it cleared again…

The Red fought another hatchling, a slight gray thing compared to the Red’s bulk. It had leathery skin rather than scales. The Red used his weight to upset the Gray and managed to get his jaws around the Gray’s neck.

The hatchling saw his chance. He coiled and jumped, throwing himself on the Red’s back with his powerful back limbs. He got his jaws around the Red’s neck, where it was thinnest just under the jaw….

The Red thrashed, used his weight to knock him over, and scrabbled. The hatchling bore down, feeling the Red’s panting breath and pounding neck hearts through his teeth….

The Red stiffened, every muscle in his body aquiver, and went limp. The hatchling closed his teeth on his throat, feeling the neck hearts rattle and die.

The hatchling went as limp as the Red.

Movement. The Gray was on his feet, facing him crest-to-crest.

Kill it! Kill and eat!

The Gray sidestepped to get around the corpse of the Red and rushed him, aiming straight for the bloody wound on his injured limb. The hatchling shifted to protect it, and the Gray drove his crest into his side, pushing, pushing….

He squawked as he went over a second time, grabbed for the Gray, but the hatchling danced out of the way of his rear claw and he fell….

Right on his bad forelimb.

The pain blinded him; it took him a moment to recover, and when he opened his eyes again he was alone at the base of the egg shelf, listening to more cracking sounds.

More?

He couldn’t even beat the lighter Gray. Suppose another such as the Red…?

But though he did not know it, he was the son of a powerful line, and his young hearts knew no despair. And he had his mother’s wit still intact. He rested, gathering strength. He’d let the others weary themselves tearing one another to bits and then come up fresh….

Except he felt so weak. He licked at his wounded limb, and the blood-tang left him both hungry and revolted.

No cries of battle greeted his ears. Maybe they were all bled out. He examined the wall to the egg shelf first, looked for an ascent with plenty of good grips.

This time, when he began to slip, he just tightened his grip and searched for a rest for his tail until he found the strength to climb on. He passed over the lip….

Nothing. Just two sprawled green hatchlings, uncrested and therefore innocuous, digging into the corpse of the Red. The blood smell inflamed his appetite.

My victory! My feast!

Others enjoyed his kill. He jumped on the Red’s corpse, claiming it, baring his teeth at the hapless Greens.

One, shorter of length and powerfully built like the Red, backed away. The other, longer and thinner even than the Gray, tripped, thrashed weakly.

Drive her away, his appetite roared.

He jumped on her, pushing, nipping her at the shoulder and hip points. She squeaked in alarm, pulled away.

He tore free a piece of fleshy tail she’d been gnawing at.

The other Green intervened with a growl, opening her jaws, glaring at him like the combative Red.

   
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