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Project Heavenstorm (Chapter One of my novel)
#11
Here's a re-edit of Chapter One.  Most of the changes are in the opening scene, with the dialogue between Vithan and Olokuvon.  It is made clear that Vithan's level of power is extremely rare for humans, even in Kesalzhin College.  I have also discarded the Prologue.

I am thinking about swapping the "good-guys-talk-about-stuff" scene with the "bad-guys-commit-mass-murder" scene, but I haven't made up my mind yet.

EDIT:  I've just swapped the two scenes.

NEW EDIT:  I have also added a few lines to the very start.

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Chapter One
 
We are all born pure, thought Dahal Savithar, and then the world makes us filthy.  I shall rejoice in expunging the filth that is the world.
         Far ahead, across the ocean, was the place where the fire was going to be lit. 
         Kesalzhin Island College was still a few hours away; yet in his mind, Dahal Savathar could already smell the stench.
         As he stood on the prow of the Chalivon, his blond mane and longcoat billowing in the ocean breeze, the only thing he could physically smell was the salty tang of ocean.  He did not have the Draconic ability to smell a seagull kilometres away; nor did he have the rare gift of counting Human and Dragon auras a few dozen kilometres away.  Nonetheless, he could feel something over the dusky horizon; a cluster of life, like stars seen through smoke.  This scanning accomplishment, however, meant little more to Dahal than the petty limitations of his Human physical senses.  He set his standards far higher.  His mind’s mastery over matter was a source of far greater pride, but greater still was the privilege of exclusive knowledge.  How many mortals in history knew for a fact that Godhood was a goal within reach – not just a dream or a promise, but a proven possibility close enough to touch?  Compared to such knowledge, all mortal life shrunk and shrivelled to the status of worms.  Soon they would live to see His glory, they would cower before His glorious presence and exalt His Holy Name.         
         Be patient in these final hours, said a voice inside his head.  You shall have your opportunity.
         Dahal unclenched his fists and turned to face his advisor, standing a few metres away, wearing his characteristic slight smile.  The man’s attire was a strangely precise imitation of neatness and affluence - a grey and black pinstriped suit and a matching tilted hat.  Even the expressions on the Pinstriped Man’s porcelain-like face seemed equally theatrical, equally selected.  Whether that smile was out of sympathy, or amusement for Dahal’s passion, Dahal could not be sure.  The Pinstriped Man was the only crewmember he could not scan even at close range.  That mattered little; Dahal owed him a favour after all these years.
         Dahal, said another mindvoice – much weaker than the Pinstriped Man’s, as any Human’s would be.  It belonged to Jihosky, the team’s scanning specialist.  There’s a squadron headed right this way.  I’m not sure if they’ve spotted us, but they’re sure to pass within a kilometre in the next five minutes.
         The news did not surprise Dahal.  So long as they kept sailing at a sea slug’s pace, Commodore Syjilika could camouflage the ship fairly well, even in her sleep.  Nonetheless, the closer they got to their goal, the more risks they could afford to take.  Dahal had spent years preparing for such risks.
         Leave the diplomacy to the expert, Dahal ordered.  He walked past the motionless Pinstriped Man and around the corner of the nearest cabin.   In the wide space beside the towering sail mast, two Dragons lay glistening under the lamplight.  Syjilika had the fine black-and-white stripes of a zebra – the result of expensive scale dyeing rather than inherited genes.  Bysamathark gleamed blood red, more muscular than most male Dragons.  A huge leather eye patch covered the ex-General’s left eye, studded to his skull in four places with red crystal spikes. The Dragons raised their deer-like heads, the stripes on Syjilika’s neck rippling with rainbows as she moved.  All four nostrils on Bysamathark’s huge, blunted snout expanded and contracted alternately as he glared at Dahal.  He seemed more prepared to attack than follow orders.
         “It seems that the authorities are finally catching up with you, Bysamathark,” said Dahal.
         “Your stare is misplaced,” rumbled Bysamathark.  “You are in command.  My responsibility is now yours.  Enjoy the burden.”
         “Shall the camouflage be tightened?” purred the mock-sweet voice of Syjilika.  “Shall all lamps be extinguished?”
         “No,” said Dahal.  “On the contrary, I want you to lift the camouflage.”
         The two Dragons widened their eyes.  Dahal merely smirked.
         “After all,” Dahal added, “we have nothing to hide.  Though you might be the exception.”  He nodded at Bysamathark.
         Syjilika slowly blinked once.  From on board the Chalivon, there was no obvious visual change.  However, Dahal could feel a subtle lightening of the air, as if energy was being sucked out of it.  He knew that, for the first time in twenty hours, the Chalivon would be visible to any outside observers. 
         That included the nine military Dragons appearing over the darkening horizon.
         From this distance, to the naked Human eye, the Skywatch squadron seemed no greater than a flock of seagulls.  As far as Dahal's crew was concerned, they were not much more of a threat.  But there were over five thousand Dragons in the Skywatch, with well over a thousand of them in the Western Seaboard nations alone.  This squadron could call for reinforcements at any time, and they would arrive in far less time it would take the Chalivon to reach Kesalzhin Island.  Leaving the freighter behind and carrying the cargo in a last-minute supersonic flight to the island was not an option - not yet.  For now, caution was required, as was precision.
         Bysamathark rendered himself invisible without any help from his mate.  Dahal and Syjilika approached the bulwarks, shortly followed by the rotund and bespectacled Lieutenant Jihosky.  The other eight Dragons and five Humans on board stood close by on deck, feigning respect yet ever wary of the squadron approaching the ship. 
         The Skywatch Dragons were now close enough for almost any Human observer to scrutinise with the naked eye.  Most of the squadron Dragons each wore the two thin gold neckbands of Patrol Officers.  The leader at the apex of the V-formation, an unusually young spotted male, wore the four bands of a Squadron Leader.  As the entire squadron slowed to a levitating halt, the Squadron Leader nodded respectfully at Commodore Syjilika, then at Dahal.
         “Inconvenience precedes apologies, Senator,” said the Squadron Leader, “but our duty is to scan your vessel, by orders of President Chalivon and Skymarshal Banthonotrax.”
         Dahal smirked.  It was obvious that they had been searching for the President’s namesake – the vast sailship he had stolen the previous night.  The various forgeries Dahal had used to justify the ship’s absence could keep the authorities stalled for only so long.   Inevitably, some would have made a connection between the disappearance of a colossal maxifreighter and the near-simultaneous disappearance of a certain one hundred and twenty large and expensive items.
         “May you state your objective?” Dahal enquired, pretending not to have a clue.
         “That information is classified,” said the Squadron Leader.
         “Understood.  You may approach a few more metres.”
         The Dragon Squadron floated closer.
         Prepare, Dahal mindspoke to his crew.  Jihosky was exempt from this command, for he had no powers over matter.  Bysamathark had to stay camouflaged.  The Pinstriped Man had no need to intervene - not against mortals.  Most others on board were primed to strike.  For a fleeting moment, he viewed the Dragon Squadron through fourteen pairs of eyes, fourteen rapidly shifting angles.  He felt eight Dragon throats inhale, eight Dragon stomachs ignite, five Human auras - including his own – extract ambient energy.  He also felt Syjilika, the fourteenth piece of the living weapon, focusing all her power on only one task – preparing to generate the strongest possible camouflage field over the largest possible area.  There would be no witnesses save for a handful of sea creatures.  They were all ready.  He was ready.
         “Close proximity will improve our scanning efficiency,” said the Squadron Leader.          
         “I know,” said Dahal.
         “Reinforcements are the alternative to your co-operational lacking.”
         Dahal gritted his teeth.  This scaly, spotty brat – barely out of the pouch – was preaching to him – a member of the Varantuan Senate – about his rights and obligations regarding International Law.  And his attempt at mastering Varantuan language and grammar was gratingly peculiar, like so many Dragons.  The world could not keep functioning this way, with the foolish preaching to the wise while hiding behind “Rule of Law”.  No matter.  That would all end soon.
         “Very well,” said Dahal, mustering up a small portion of his considerable energy to keep his smile.  “Call.”
         The Squadron Leader closed his eyes.  A few seconds later, he opened them wide, as if awaking from a nightmare.  “They’re jamming us!” he roared. 
         Dahal extended his hands and fired.  The plasmic energy blasted its way into the Squadron Leader’s chest, causing him to gasp in the instant before his insides were vaporized, his flesh and blood boiled away into gory mist and his naked bones danced and twisted and splintered in mid-air.  To his left and right, most of his crewmembers were disposing of the other eight with adequate swiftness, splitting their flame and lightning into branches, vaporizing flesh and bone before it could touch the surface of the sea.  It was like the execution of that Dragon security guard at the harbour the previous night, multiplied by nine - kill the pests, cremate the remains.
         Within seconds the carnage was over, and ash rained upon the barely perturbed sea.  Dahal held on to hope, knowing that this was only a foretaste of the glory to come.
         “Keep scanning the air for other squadrons or patrols,” he said to Jihosky.
         “Yes Sir.”
         Dahal heard the tremor in Jihosky’s breath, felt the tumult in his aura.  Dahal would have vaporised the coward had Jihosky not been so convenient.  Nonetheless, all present had a role to play.  In the end, it would all be worth it.   
Dahal sniffed the smoky, soot-tainted air.  This time, he stopped imagining the moral stench of Kesalzhin.  He imagined a world cleansed and purified by His Divine Touch.  He imagined that there was no air left to smell or pollute, no flesh to defile the land and sea, just a clean vacuum and purifying sunlight.
         The ship sailed on to Dahal’s glory.
 
~ ~ ~
 
The Spotted Dolphin did not understand the politics of Humans and Dragons, yet he understood death.  He understood the cruel tooth of the Shark, the slowing of the ageing pod member.  And somehow, he understood the terrible sight he had witnessed not far away, above the surface.  He had seen the fire and lightning touch the nine Dragons and turn them to skeletons ... then clouds.  Whatever the means, he knew it was murder.  Countless generations had been taught this dire concept.  The needless cruelty of some Humans - and some Dragons - was etched in his racial memory.  It was a fact of nature, and could not be altered.
         Not unless he prayed to the Kujiras.
         Seconds after the death of the Dragons, the Dolphin had submerged.  He sped far, far away from the terrible site, undulating through the reassuring coolness of the sea, dodging the many startled fish he detected with his sonar.  They had bigger things to fear than him.  He had no time to feed.  He had to warn the Pod.  They all had to pray.
         The Humans and Dragons riding in the Floater were not worthy of Mayhara’s Domain.  The Kujiras knew that.  Everyone could hear their ever-present mighty voices, carried through the sea from great distances on their way to equally great distances.  Their language was faster and more complex than those of the other, smaller Whales, and they wove and entwined around common Whalesong like fine kelp around a clumsy Seal.  No one could understand their language.  That did not matter, for the Kujiras understood all languages; the Dolphins, the Orcas, the Humpbacks, the Gulls, the Humans, the Dragons, the shifting colours of the Cuttlefish, the migrations of Clouds, the dance of Stars.  They understood all.  They knew all.  They judged all.
         He would pray to the Kujiras, and they would come, even if they took a whole day to swim here.  They would raise the ocean and shatter the mysterious barriers of land.  They would punish the killers wherever they hid.
         Mayhara Herself would see to it.
 
~ ~ ~
 
Vithan Varox awoke as the shadow loomed over him.
         It could not have been described as deep sleep to begin with; merely a drowsy meditation as the haze of campus lamplight seeped through his eyelids.  But now the haze darkened, and remained so.  Even when half asleep, Vithan knew what this meant.  He opened his eyes to face the immense Dragon head eclipsing the crystal lamp.
         “You are resting in our Creator’s Eye,” the Dragon spoke in a smooth, resonant voice.  “Is this another one of your baffling artistic statements?”  The Dragon’s deer-like head was silhouetted against the lamplight.  Only his amber eyes stood out, glowing like the eyes of a colossal cat. 
         “Buggered if I know,” was Vithan’s reply.  He suddenly remembered where he was.  One of the courtyards of Kesalzhin Island College had a vast ground-tile mosaic of the Dragon Goddess Tikamath.  Vithan had lain down in Tikamath’s surfboard-sized pupil ... but when?  Hours ago?  Most probably, judging by the rich deep-sea tones of the sky.  “I should bloody well hope I’m not obscuring Her vision,” he added.
         “Her vision is obscured by nothing, I assure you,” said Olokuvon.  “Not that you would care much,” he added.
         Lamplight bloomed above the Dragon’s ear as he lowered onto his belly.  Olokuvon’s black and gold scales glinted like a city at night, highlighting his tiger stripes.
         “Speaking of such matters;” said the Dragon, “for one who does not believe in ghosts, you most certainly look like one at this moment.”
         “What, more so than usual?”
         “If I filter out my heat vision,” said the Dragon as translucent membranes slid over his eyes, “I can see your clothing blending in with the black tiles.  At this moment, under this light, you are a disembodied white face with floating hands.”
         “Then remind me to pose like this for my graduation portrait.”
         “Relighting of the cave lamps begins in a few minutes,” said Olokuvon.  “Are we to collaborate?”
         Instantly Vithan sat up and crossed his legs, recalling the duty he had agreed to – a duty that Kesalzhin’s more powerful students volunteered for every week.  They were to light a select portion of the thousands of crystal lamps far below the surface of the island, for the benefit of academic researchers and seasonal tourists. “Of course I want to help,” said Vithan.  “I’m almost as strong as you now.”
         Olokuvon moved his head back so that he was not directly over Vithan.  “Is that so?” he said.  “After our last duel?  Prove your boast.”
         Vithan prepared to prove his boast, relaxing his mind and body, letting the universe’s natural ocean of energy flow into his innards and veins and nerves, igniting his adrenaline with ecstatic tension.  Olokuvon inhaled, doubtlessly experiencing similar sensations.  Vithan now felt the tingling energy travel like ball lightning down his arm, splitting as it reached the palm and fingers, itching his marrow with its desire for release.
         “Very well then,” said Vithan, his voice miraculously steady.  “One, two, three, NOW!”
         Olokuvon exhaled a stream of golden-hot fire.  Vithan blocked it mere metres away from him with a bolt of blue fire from his hand.  A miniature nova flashed between Human and Dragon, momentarily filling the surrounding courtyard with daylight.  Nearby small buildings rattled as the shockwave brushed over them.  Vithan was grateful that they were unoccupied.  He had annoyed enough people this year.
         “The improvement is adequate,” said Olokuvon as the smoke cleared and drifted away.  "You should soon be reaching your maximum potential at this age."
         "There are way too many variables.  Psionics isn’t always an exact science.  For all we know, I could be stronger than you in a few years.”
         “Do I hear another boast?” said Olokuvon.
         “Oh, perish the thought!” said Vithan, mocking the Dragon’s grandiose tone.  “Because us little mammals all know how much you Dragons value modesty.  Don’t forget, I did rate one in a million for the Human populace.”
         “Well thank you for reminding me for the seventh time this year.  Don’t you know that you are not the only one on this campus?”
         “Really?”  Vithan raised an eyebrow.  “Wait, don’t tell me, it’s … what’s-her-name, isn’t it?  You know.  That Nekalifan lady in my Mythology class.  The tall one with the braids.  Neck and hips like a Dragon.  Just your type.”
         “Perhaps it is her, perhaps it is someone else.”
         “Ah, the confidentiality clause for your thesis research.  But I won’t have to worry about any of that stuff in a few weeks.  As soon as I finish my exams, I’m going to tour the entire continent.  Properly, this time.”
         “Only one continent?”
         “Well, you could always give me a ride to Tansolu when I’ve gone through every single country in Karastyna.”
         “You only have to send me a mind call,” said Olokuvon.  “I could pick you up personally, or I could send one of my friends.”
         “Good show.  I want to see all the landmarks up close.  The Temple of Mayhara, the Statue of Tikamath, the Star of Kylastoria.”
         Olokuvon cocked his head.  “Suddenly you have a fixation over religious landmarks?”
         “I’m fascinated by how belief inspires such creative devotion.  It’s almost an alien concept to me.  I need to work out what makes you believers tick.  That goes for both species.  Actually, they say that the God Hater vandal was religious himself.”
         “Of course,” said Olokuvon.  “Anything to clear atheists of suspicion.”  He locked his jaws in a smug Dragon smirk.
         “Well, they’re inadvertently teaching us the art of propaganda here, so we may as well put it to good use.  What time are you leaving for the mainland?”
         “The plan has Alathaka and I leaving before midnight.  All other Dragons have already departed.”
         “What do you lot actually do at Sakatoth?”
         Vithan used the most common Human term for the ceremony, for the Dragon name - like all true Dragon names - was unpronounceable to Humans.  Yet he knew how stupid the question was, how discouraged by tradition an answer would be; but he still expected Olokuvon to give something away, through a look or a joke or whatever.
         The Dragon’s gaze was perfectly steady.  “If I told you, I would then have to eat you.”
          “You don’t have to tell anyone,” said Vithan.  “Humans have vivid imaginations.”
         Olokuvon raised an eyeridge.  “Is that so?  Can you calculate the number of positions possible with a long neck and tail?”
         “I have counted them all,” said a third voice, resonating with a velvet purr - a theatrical imitation of Human femininity.  Vithan and Olokuvon turned to face the source of the familiar voice.
         Alathaka was large even by Dragon standards, being of the subpolar variety; yet she seemed to glide from step to step as if walking underwater.  She was living proof that adult Dragons - while conscious and healthy - could control their own gravity weight.  Her stripes were red and blue, as ornate as a suit of vines.  Her neck and breast were as curved as a swan’s.  Her almond-shaped eyes were slightly larger than Olokuvon’s, gleaming like lamps of jade.
         The two Dragons rubbed their muzzles together, purring softly. 
After a few seconds, Alathaka turned down to Vithan and licked his face with her raspy tongue.  “Your flavour ignites my belly,” she said.
         Vithan rubbed his saliva-dampened cheek.  “Well at least it doesn't ignite your breath,” said Vithan.  “Thank God you’re going away for a week,” he added.
         “’Thank God?’”  Alathaka raised and cocked her head.  “Coming from you?”
         “Sometimes you make me want to pray for deliverance,” said Vithan.
         “Your anxiety will be short-lived.  We leave within five hours.  After your lamplighting.  For now, I shall snack on some oxen.”
         She slinked away, deliberately sliding the end of her tail under Olokuvon’s neck.  Olokuvon squinted and purred at the affectionate contact, watching his mate walk away.
         “She’s been hanging around those drama students for way too long,” said Vithan.
         “And why should she not?”  Olokuvon turned to Vithan.  “She’s a living prop.”
         This was not a joke.  Alathaka was the only Dragon actor in a troupe that included nine Humans.  For her last performance - A History of the World in Five Acts -, she played both the narrator and the stage, shifting her bulky posture for every era.
         “Are you prepared for tonight’s task?” he asked.
         “In a sense.”
         “How do you want to ride?”
         Vithan paused for a moment.  It was always cold underground.  The planetary crust was well over a hundred kilometres thick, so it was a long way down before it started warming up.  And while he did not mind resting on stone tiles, he preferred life's finer luxuries.
         “So I can sleep on the way down,” he finally said. 
 
~ ~ ~
 
The dolphin was coming along fine.  Now she only had to add the fins and flippers.
         Tilanna Tionomes sat on the floor at the neater end of the leisure room, facing away from her crystal-strewn study desk.  The incomplete dolphin hologram floated before her at breast level, projected by the green crystal on the carpet.  She pinched the dolphin’s back, feeling the sleek softness provided by the crystal’s neurotactile projectors, and stretched the grey blubber upwards and tailwards.  Within seconds she had moulded a perfectly curved dorsal fin.  Only practice could guarantee such finesse.  The typical beginner would probably have made the dolphin’s dorsal fin into a wobbly cone.  But then, Tilanna would not have blamed anyone for botching the job in this environment - not while her roommate was doing everything in her power to provide a distraction.
         Kehenta Glathwill sat in a corner strumming a guitar adorned with black ampli-crystals. She seemed to be serenading an empty wineglass on a footstool in front of her.  She would strum a cord, twisting the tuning peg to prolong the guitar’s sharp whine.  Then she would press a large crystal on the side of the guitar’s neck.  The face of the resinous instrument would liquefy, and one or more of the ampli-crystals would shift a few degrees, focusing their energies more intently on the wineglass.  Kehenta would then strum again, the tone of the cord now subtly altered; more bass, more treble, more white noise, more of everything, whatever suited her.  Frequently, the wineglass would vibrate so strongly that the rim would blur, much to Kehenta’s delight.  Occasionally, the glass would explode, much to Kehenta’s amusement.  After such a successful experiment, Kehenta would use her psychokinesis to bring the shards together over the glass stem, melt them and remould them into the cup of a wineglass.  Then she would start all over again, using new sound combinations.
         Had Tilanna been less tolerant, she would have wished that Kehenta would try the same experiment on her own skull.
         “All right,” she said, “how many ways are there of shattering a wineglass with a guitar?”  She stretched the dolphin’s flanks out into fins.  “Without using the guitar as a club, of course.  Oh, just listen to me.  I’m giving you ideas.”
         “You have sixteen crystals,” said Kehenta, “each with thirty-two facets.  So far, about one out of twenty of my experiments have been successful.  You’re the prodigy here.  You work it out.”
         Within a few seconds, Tilanna worked it out.  “Gods of All,” she sighed aloud, “she’ll be at it until the Universe implodes.”
         The tail-fins complete, Tilanna held out her arm and undulated it rhythmically.  The dolphin mirrored these motions, undulating from head to belly to tail.  When Tilanna stopped, so did the dolphin.
         “It’s looking great,” said Kehenta.  “I know who to ask next time we need props.”
         “Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a Kujira?”
         “Nah.  Might upset all the Mayhara worshippers.”
         “I thought you welcomed controversy.”
         “My uncle’s a Mayrian.”
         “Oh.”
         “You wouldn’t want to incur Mayhara’s wrath anyway,” said Kehenta.  “They say her shriek could wipe out a whole city.”  She plucked her guitar, emitting a sound distinctly like a whale call.  “And since this campus is only half a city, I guess that’ll take only half a shriek.”  She made a whale call again, but cut it off before it could resonate.
         Tilanna stared at the projection crystal on the floor.  It emitted rays of light, caging the dolphin; then rapidly retracted the rays and “sucked” the dolphin into its luminous core.  Tilanna picked up the sated crystal and placed it on the desk before she got up.  “I’ve saved it,” she said.  “Time to get on with my own work.”  She patted her hip pockets, making sure the right crystals were tucked there.
         “Has anybody worked out why there’s so much fluorescent moss underground?” said Kehenta.
         Tilanna paused, remembering all the theories postulated over the centuries on this very subject.  She was too much of an expert to provide a simple answer, so she settled on the most sensational one.  “The current theory states that only Humans could really benefit from fluorescent moss.  So someone must have planted it there, thousands of years ago.  Selective breeding could have been involved, or something more subtle.  These are the Colonists we’re talking about, after all.”
         Kehenta raised her eyebrows and nodded.  Whether she believed the tales or not, the subject of the planet’s Colonists always intrigued her.
         On the way to the door, Tilanna glanced at the mirror – and remembered what she was wearing.
         “Are you sure you want me to keep these?” she said.
         “Either you keep them or I’m posting them back to my parents,” said Kehenta.  “I’m not planning to put any weight back on any time soon.  No offense.”
         “None taken,” said Tilanna.
         Unlike Kehenta, Tilanna was not a stage performer, so fashion was never her highest priority.  Had she been planning a night at the dance hall, she knew that the young men (and some women) would appreciate how the long-sleeved top and trousers hugged her rounded contours, their fine black-and-grey lines accentuating even the smallest movement.  It was a small irony that the clothes meant for Kehenta seemed tailor-made to complement her own light brown complexion, her long black braids.  But she was not dressing to be seen.  She was dressing to go underground.  Literally.
         “It’s the practicality and mobility I’m most impressed with,” she said.  “And the warmth.”
         “Then don’t forget to thank me at the end of your essay,” said Kehenta.  “For your field work clothing.  And inspirational music.”
         “Oh, I won’t forget that, don’t you worry,” said Tilanna.  “You’re rehearsals have inspired me to get off my big bum and go out to do some actual research.”
         She walked out the door, leaving Kehenta to her sonic experiments.

~ ~ ~
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#12
Yes, definitely switch the scene with daal savathar and the battle with that good guys talking about stuff.
I like this introduction to a story if it starts with the bad villains and a dragon Air Force
And THEN goes to the university
Reply
#13
I have just swapped the two scenes in the chapter above.  Thank you for your feedback, Dfleymmes.
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#14
Here is the re-edited Chapter Two.  Most of the changes are in the first few paragraphs.  Vithan would rather stay in "bed" than actually get stuff done, being the reluctant hero.  There is also a brief mention of the rarity of Tilanna's abilities.

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Chapter Two
 
Vithan awoke for the second time that night.  It took him at least a minute to remember that he was in the belly of a Dragon.
         His mind leaden with drowsiness, he lay there curled up in the silken warmth, in the comforting darkness.  He listened to the background roar of the stomachs, to the rhythmic sighs of the spiracles at the edges of the pouch as they inhaled carbon dioxide and exhaled oxygen.  At that moment, nothing else existed.  There were no nightly tasks, no exams, no plans or deadlines, no outside world – just his own private universe, as dark and warm as the thickest winter blanket.
         Vithan had once seen a crystal hologram of a newborn kangaroo in its mother’s pouch.  It looked like a fetus in a bag of moist, wrinkly skin.  Dragon pouches were on another level entirely, just as their brains were above those of simple marsupials.  The body pocket for raising their offspring just happened to be ideal for Human comfort.  But then, Dragons were unlike any other creature on Haloken, right down to their microscopic cells.
         So what were Dragons?  Where did they come from?  Not even the Dragons themselves had an answer outside of myth and legend.  And Vithan – being the person that he was – preferred a more grounded explaination than myths or legends.
         Dragons obviously were not mammals, but they weren’t exactly reptiles either.  No one had ever fully explained how the furnace in a Dragon’s second stomach worked, how the layers of internal force fields functioned without need of conscious control, nor why Dragon blood (once donated) usually had such reliable healing properties.
         Yet somehow, it all worked.  After all, Dragons lived.
         After a few minutes of mindless basking, Vithan remembered what he was doing there in the first place.  Somewhat reluctantly, he slid between the layers of Dragonhide and reached out to the pouch orifice.  As expected, the opening was so tightly shut that Vithan could not even slip his fingers through.
         Why bother? thought Vithan.  After all, Olokuvon could handle the lamps all by himself.  He was tonight’s official lamplighter – Vithan had simply agreed to help out.  Besides, Olokuvon was probably close to finishing anyway.  Perhaps interrupting him would even break his concentration.  All Vithan had to do was to curl up and sleep away the night, letting the real world fade into the haze of dreams.
         Yet, as always, reality struck him like an ice-cold dagger to the back of the head.
         Olokuvon was – at most – a few hours away from leaving the island for the Sakatoth celebrations, and he was not allowed to bring Humans with him.  He would have to leave Vithan on the campus before he departed for the mainland.
         With a heavy sigh, Vithan knew that he only had to give the word, and the outside world would become real again.  Life would continue.
         Open up, Vithan mindspoke.
         In response, the portal to the outside world irised open.
         Vithan gripped the lip of the pouch and poked his head out.  Cold air rushed in, and goosebumps tingled under his sleeves.  Olokuvon’s underbelly loomed above Vithan like a golden sky.  His forelegs and claws swayed and twitched like exotic, upside-down trees in the wind.  The underside of the Dragon’s neck and jaw stretched off into the distance.  Something glowed on the far side of his head, surrounding it with an aura of light.  Two fully charged crystal lamps glowed to his left.  It was obvious that Olokuvon was carefully recharging the third one with the power of his mind.
         Below the pouch, it was a fifteen-storey drop to the tunnel’s smoothly rounded granite base.  This was hardly a concern to Vithan; he was only just reoriented enough to levitate.  He was not quite ready to fly in a straight line, but at least he was confident that he would not fall like a drunken amateur.
         “Did you sleep well?” Olokuvon enquired.
         “I thought you were going to let me know when you started lighting.”
         “The larger lamps are my self-appointed duty.  The smaller lamps are yours.  The present lamp is my final one.”
         “That’s right.  Leave the easy stuff for the mousy little Human.”
         “As usual, you were reluctant to get out.  I could feel it.”
         “Yeah, well, if I have to get out anyway, I may as well make the most of it, you bloody stickybeak.”
         “Stickybeak?  Should I ignore sensations I am feeling within my own pouch?  How is that supposed to work?  If you had a small mammal down your pants, would you ignore it completely?”
         “All right all right, I don’t think I can argue with that one.  Not without sounding … bloody weirder than I already am.  Just let me out and get this over with, all right?”
         Olokuvon’s pouch loosened and Vithan floated out.
         “Have you heard from Javiliki?” said Vithan.
         “She has been out of contact since last night,” replied Olokuvon.  “That is well within character.”
         The pouch opening contracted until it became barely visible.  Slowly somersaulting in his own nil gravity field, he dived under the length of the Dragon’s tail towards the far wall of the granite tunnel. 
The smooth cylindrical tunnel – one hundred metres wide – curved away into the distance, lit by a set of three large crystal lamps every hundred metres.  Dozens of smaller lamps were scattered randomly among them.  
         “They gave you an irregular tunnel this time?”
         “Yes,” said Olokuvon.  “A possible punishment for defeating you in the last duel.  You are still backed by some staffmembers, mysteriously enough.  But here is your chance to justify their support.”  The Dragon turned his entire body to face the crystal-strewn wall. 
Vithan glared at the same wall, cautiously estimating the distance to the crystal pattern and its diameter.
         “Remember what I demonstrated,” said Olokuvon.  “The fire becomes an extension of your nervous system.  Everything it touches will be felt in your fingertips.  Be careful not to shatter lamps this time.  Your success will bolster my thesis.”
         “Well it’s a right mighty honour being your laboratory rat.”
         Vithan outstretched his arms and fingers, feeling the energy entering his body from every direction, then travelling up his bones.  The tips of his fingers tingled as the energy within writhed restlessly.  He let go, and the outpouring of energy spread for hundreds of metres, sparks branching into sparks like trees of lightning.  The crystal lamps brightened at the touch of his mindfire.  Not one of them burst.
         “That should give them an extra week of life,” said Vithan.
         “Impressive,” said Olokuvon.  “Your victory in the next duel is a faint possibility.”  His wings folded back, he gracefully air-swam up to Vithan. 
“Do you ever actually use those wings for flying, or are they just for good looks?”
         Olokuvon outspread his vast wings, like leafy sails, their veins luminous with fire.  “Your theory?”
         “Flying.”
         Olokuvon exhaled a puff of flame at Vithan, who blocked it off as before.  The explosion briefly outshone all the surrounding crystal lamps.
         “Again impressive,” said Olokuvon.  “The Sentinel may await your return.”
         Vithan winced at the memories this brought back.  He had been booted out of the Vaxlom Sentinel Recruitment College for psionically lashing out during the telepathic hazing ceremony.   Two of his fellow recruits had required extensive therapy afterwards.
“Are you deliberately trying to depress me?” he said.
         “I am merely trying to amuse myself at your expense.”
         “Well thank you very bloody much.  Do you want to go straight to the surface, or do you want to rest first?”
         “The latter.  Freshwater pools are within range.  We can refresh on the way back to the surface.”
         They both floated down to the base of the tunnel.  Vithan felt his black socks touch the smooth granite floor.  He remembered that he had left his shoes inside the pouch, which Olokuvon was now sitting on.  Not for the first time, Vithan felt grateful that Dragons could control their gravity weight; otherwise he would be as flat as a flounder by now.
         The Dragon curled his tail around to his side.  Vithan sat against the curve of the tail, threading his arms between the blunt spines.
         “Do you believe the stories about these tunnels?” said Vithan.
         “The details contradict each other.  One may believe a handful, but not all.”
         “I’m talking about the general gist of them – about how the Colonists created them.  I mean, just look how smooth they are.”  Vithan ran his fingers along the rocky floor in front of him.  His fingertips glided, betraying only a hint of friction.  "Apparently they did the same with all the caves as well, although they were obviously more of a rush job."
         “The tunnels must be purposeful creations,” said Olokuvon, “though the mindpower would have been of considerable magnitude.”
         “They say that they used machines.”
         “If the Colonists created the Elixir Shield, then they could have created machines capable of boring these tunnels.  The energy required would have been far smaller.  Can you sense the Shield’s energy?  It’s still five times our distance from the surface,”
         “Yes, I can feel it,” said Vithan.  “I can just sense it in the background.” 
There was no denying it.  Vithan could sense the Shield like the faintest vibration, the softest hum, the dimmest light.  Yet it was unmistakably there, radiating its presence like a beacon through all those kilometres of stone, like a mountain glimpsed through fog.  The multifaceted, luminously opaque Elixir Shield could have covered a city, and probably did for all one knew.  No Human or Dragon had ever successfully scanned through it, much less penetrated it by force.  Trying to blast through it was like having a mosquito trying to bite through granite.  Compared to the Shield, the combined might of entire armies and squadrons were pitiful.  The twenty-one-thousand-year-old Elixir Shield was a constant reminder of the lost mysteries of the past; and, perhaps, the possibilities of the future.
         “Do you believe the Elixir’s hiding under there?” said Vithan.
         “I believe that something is hiding under there.  How can the idea of the Elixir sound any more preposterous than the Shield itself?”
         “I’m not saying I don’t believe in it,” Vithan rushed in.  “’The Elixir’ is just a name.  Whatever it really is, there has to be a perfectly secular explanation for it.  It’s probably another piece of technology.”
         “How could you be certain?”
         “Well, just look at today’s military shields.  Never mind how much weaker they are.  The Elixir Shield’s obviously designed for defence.  So whatever it’s hiding might possibly be designed for offence.”
         The Dragon nodded.  “Then perhaps it was abused destructively.  That’s what the legends have been saying for twenty-one thousand years.”
“Yes, but unfortunately that’s also one part of the legend that’s most likely to be true.”
         Vithan may only have believed shreds of the legends, but tales of the Elixir had continued to fascinate him long after he had ceased to believe in their literal interpretation.  The legends tended to contradict each other; some stated that the Colonists had created the Elixir, while others stated that the Elixir had always been there, and the Colonists had merely discovered it.  Whatever the case, the results were the same – the Elixir granted power beyond the wildest imaginings of mortals.  It was the original absolute power that corrupted absolutely.  The legends spoke of individual mindpowers magnified by millions, even billions.  They spoke of the War of the Immortals, the razing of cities, the boiling of oceans, the blackening of the sky, the death of tens of millions.  They spoke of events so terrifying that the memories of nearly all survivors had to be erased so that the secret may never be rediscovered.  Vithan had always found that last part a little too convenient, as the details in legends often were. 
“So …” said Vithan, “do you have to get ready for Sakatoth now?”
         “Later.  Resting is for now.”
         “I think I’ll join you.”  Vithan yawned, under the influence of his own suggestion.  He slumped down in the curve of Olokuvon’s tail, cushioning his head against the scaled flesh between the spines.  “Why am I sleeping so much today?”
         “Because, as you would so colourfully phrase it, you are a bloody lazy sod and you visit the tavern too often.”

         “But not today,” said Vithan.  “I haven’t tasted … one drop … since …”  Vithan struggled to keep his eyes open as the Dragon eyes before him blurred and dimmed.  “Oh bugger it, you’re mesmerising me, aren’t you, you … sneaky bastard.”
         “Of course.”
         “Are you sure you’ll … wake up …”
         “On time?  Absolutely.  Do not worry.  With or without gods, the world always spins on to carry us into the next day.  It never forgets its simple promise, and I won’t forget mine.”
         Within seconds, Vithan’s senses dissolved into haze as oblivion reclaimed him.
 
~ ~ ~
 
Tilanna stood on the edge of the abyss.
         The chasm was a hundred metres in diameter, taking up a good part of the cave floor beneath the Assembly Hall.  It went down for a whole kilometre before it curved away into a tunnel.  Three crystal lamps lit the smoothly rounded stone for every hundred metres.  Three Administration Towers could have been stacked one on top of the other down there, and the uppermost would still have been more than ten storeys below the level of her feet.
         Ten storeys was roughly the distance from Tilanna’s feet to the rim of the chasm below.  She was standing on the edge of the vast, open Dragon access door in the centre of the Assembly Hall’s floor.  Directly beneath her feet was one of the massive metal slabs that made up the Dragon access door’s spiral shutter.  Multicoloured lamplight from the Assembly Hall’s roof filtered in through the enormous, many-petalled stained-glass window in the ceiling, adding rainbow wraiths of light to the chasm far below.
         Tilanna could understand why many other Humans were afraid of heights, but they did not bother her.  She was one of the few skilled Human flyers on campus.  However, that was not her most noteworthy talent.  When it came to scanning, she was one in a million.  Literally.
         There were quite a few Kesalzhin students capable of scanning through thick walls of masonry.  Tilanna could do this in her sleep, which had given her some interesting dreams over the years.  She stared into the pit and scanned the granite caves below to a depth of five kilometres.  To her mind’s eyes, all granite, metal and marble turned as translucent as bottle glass.  Hundreds of kilometres of tunnels twisted and looped like bejewelled worms in a planet-sized apple.  Scattered among the tunnels were hundreds of caverns, some clearly kilometres across when one measured them against the connecting tunnels.  At this depth, all the tunnels and most of the chambers were lamplit.  Most of the fluorescent moss was found further down, where crystal lamps were scarcer and moisture was still adequate.  However, there were long streaks of moss to be found along some of the shallow tunnels, particularly to the left of her field of vision.  Yes.  That was where she was going.
         A few kilometres from her destination, she could not help but notice the distant sleeping Dragon, his tail coiled protectively around a tiny Human figure.  This week’s lamplighters, presumably.  She would try not to wake them.
         Tilanna relaxed her scanning vision, and the stone returned to its solid opacity. 
         She then jumped off the edge of the chasm and began her fall.
         At first, she let herself fall naturally.  Even after a few seconds of constant acceleration, the trios of lamps glided leisurely past, the scale of the chasm masking the speed of her descent.  She enjoyed feeling the wind between her hair-braids for as long as it was tolerable.  She wove a streamlined shield around herself when the airspeed came close to burning.  After a kilometre, she swerved along the bend in the tunnel.
         As always, she had calculated everything.  It should take her no more than five minutes to reach her destination.  She would then take crystal recordings of four different luminosities of moss - twenty minutes at most.  Then she would spend, say, twenty minutes relaxing and enjoying the subterranean view.  Finally, she would take five minutes flying back up to the surface.  After all, her essay was due in three days, and she wanted to make a start tonight.  She had a reputation to live up to.
         Fifty minutes underground.  That was the maximum.
         She would curse herself if she took any longer.
Reply
#15
Here's the re-edit of Chapter Three.  The only major change is that it has Tilanna recognizing Vithan and Olokuvon from a distance.

Further edit:  I've added a few sentences explaining Dahal's tactics.

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Chapter Three
 
The shoreline of Kesalzhin Island was less than a kilometre away.  Dahal could make out the dozens of lighted windows far above the forest trees.  The Assembly Hall and Administration Tower loomed over everything, their crystal lamps drowning out the evening stars.
         His old college.  The stench in his soul was insufferable.  After all these years, he was only grateful to return as a master.
         Sir, they’re here.
         Dahal turned to face the stern in response to Jihosky’s announcement, and his smile returned.
         Twenty-one transparent Dragons were approaching the Chalivon.  They were invisible to the naked eye, but Dahal could sense their mass and motion, especially as they whooshed overhead and began their spiralling, decelerating orbit above the ship.
         The Dragons had approached from four different points on the West Coast.  Being all officers of the Skywatch, they had timed their departures to coincide with ocean patrol duties. 
         These planned reinforcements had not been needed until now, and certainly not on the previous night.  This was the only time the newcomers could join in without their absences arousing suspicion back at their Skywatch bases.  Now, they were needed more than ever.  Within minutes, if all went to plan, it would be too late for the Coastal Defense Forces to intervene.
         Dahal levitated a few storeys above the deck, in full view of his crew.  After a moment’s reflection, he levitated a few more storeys to ensure he was above the heads of all Dragons on deck.
         “Human crew, prepare to fly ashore,” he broadcast both vocally and telepathically.  “Main flyers can do all the levitating.  Illusionists, keep the group camouflaged.  Dragons, tear out the crystals and start the circle.”
         Three Human crewmembers capable of levitation rose above the deck, each carrying another Human crewmate in a transparent bubble.  While Dahal stayed behind, the rest rapidly shot out towards the shore, becoming more and more translucent with distance.  The Dragons levitated, and turned their attention – and mindpower – to the deck itself.  The deck split open from prow to stern, the timber flashing into ash, the steel hissing as it liquefied, the masts falling outward from the centre.  The entire three-hundred-metre length of the maxifreighter was being gutted like a fish.  Within seconds the innards were exposed – all one hundred and twenty of them.  The giant boxes were levitated row by row.  The metal casings glowed fiery orange as they softened and liquefied, then peeled away to expose their contents.
         Inside each box was a crystal a metre wide, its sixty-four facets as clear as glass.  As crystal lamps on the last few masts fell away, the military crystals refracted rainbow splinters that danced frantically within the ship’s exposed interior.
         Already, seawater was gushing in through rends in the ship’s hull like a dam turned inside out.  The semi-molten remains of the freight boxes hissed as they fell into the water, sending out explosions of steam that rose to engulf the levitating crystals.
         More Dragons descended from the spiralling group above, parting the rising steam cloud in their wake.  Most of the Dragons levitated three or four of the crystals towards them, then packed them into their pouches.
         “Remember,” said Dahal, “three degrees apart.”
         The Dragons swerved and flew away, fading into transparency with distance.  Dahal flew on after them.  Behind them, the remains of the Chalivon – no longer recognisable as a sailship – sank beneath the sea and steam.  The camouflaged Dragons split up, heading along their designated routes.  Dahal headed straight for his meeting site on the beach, where the translucent forms of all his Human crewmembers awaited, fading into full view as he approached.  He had chosen a site many kilometres away from the mouth of the river that led directly into the campus.  He landed between Jihosky and the Pinstriped Man, already turning to sense the distant Dragons skirting the beaches of Kesalzhin Island.
         “This had better be worth the budget,” he said out aloud, knowing all too well that the stakes were far higher than anything related to mortal economics.
 
It was a peaceful summer night on Kesalzhin Island, and Chancellor Kalina Tathaunen had one final staff meeting to organise.  She carried her pocket crystal lamp from her private quarters to her office desk, confident that the decorative searchlights and holograms beyond the balcony would inspire her rather than distract her. 
         Soon, she would have her free time.  This early in the summer holidays, the advanced students stayed behind for their supplementary classes and exams.  Within two weeks, most of them would join the other ninety per cent of students – visiting their home countries and often touring elsewhere.  Shortly afterwards, Kalina would leave caretaking duties to Vice Chancellor Akrimmar, allowing herself to visit the mainland for both business and pleasure.  There were dozens of relatives, friends and professional acquaintances to catch up with.  There was also her other occupation - the one she rarely spoke of on this campus.
         A metre from the desk, she froze.
         Something else was distracting her ... something nibbling at the edge of her consciousness, like an important fact temporarily forgotten.  She scanned the entire island in a sweeping arc.  Was that motion she sensed?  Maybe it was a few flying Human students dancing on the thermals.  The motions and positions were hazy.  They could have been anywhere.  Still, perhaps they had their reasons to camouflage.  She knew about the sexual practices of Human flyers.  She had been with one in her youth.  Just let them be, she thought as she sat down at her desk.  The night deserved its pleasures.
 
Tilanna checked her pocket watch before flying over to her last patch of moss.  It had been eighteen minutes since her descent from the surface.  She was doing well.
         Still levitating, she turned to face the other side of the moss-splashed tunnel.  The last and brightest patch of moss was roughly forty-five degrees from the top, vaguely fish-shaped and three times her length.  She flew the full hundred metres, grateful she could still keep herself warm so far underground.  The moss patch expanded to fill her view.  After spending a few seconds adjusting to the glare, she took her crystal out of her pocket and gently pressed it against the moss.  The blue-white glow gave her hand a neon-like sheen.  Her mind meshed with the crystal, measuring the luminosity of the moss in milliwatts per square centimetre, then quickly using her own brain (unlike many other students) to convert the reading into watts per metre.  Her reading complete, she recorded it in the crystal before shifting it to another part of the moss patch.  Five readings were necessary to provide a reliable average.
         Tilanna froze in the middle of her second reading, distracted by the faintest tickling sensation on the inside of her skull.  She turned away from the moss, looking down the distant bend in the tunnel.  Were those two male students awake?  She scanned in their direction.  The granite walls turned translucent as her point-of-view rushed through them, rapidly decelerating as it approached the two students.  Tilanna recognised both of them.  The tiger-striped Dragon had interviewed her weeks earlier for his thesis on psionic development.  He had been very polite and charming.  And the Human … well, he was a twit.  She remembered him from her Mythology class.  Was Vithan his name?  He had a long pale face and hair as jet-black as his clothing.  Like many of those trendy campus sceptics, he would often joke openly about myths and legends that cultures throughout the world had cherished for centuries.  He and the Dragon duelled rather frequently in the sky over Kesalzhin; but it was only an act, or a sport at most.
         The tiger-striped Dragon purred as he slept.  He held the sleeping man close in the coil of his tail, sheltering him under the vast veined tent of his wing.  The Dragon’s aura filled the scene with soft radiance.  They appeared as peaceful as two living creatures could ever be.
         The pair shot away into the distance as Tilanna retracted her scan-vision.  She certainly had nothing to worry about from those two males.  The twitch in her mind was nothing more than a false alarm - perhaps a dream from one of the sleeping pair going transleak for an instant.  She would remember to leave the Dragon access door open for them when she returned to the surface ... in thirty minutes, not one second more.
         She returned her attention to the moss.
 
On the beach, the invaders were gathering.
         The thirty-two Dragons faded into view as they returned from their perimeter errand, their pouches empty.  Syjilika added her invisibility field to Dahal’s, ensuring that all the Dragons were unseen from outside as they landed on the sand.
         Dahal walked up to the most lightly built of the Dragons - one of his original sailship crew.  He was red and white, like a fox, and wore the two thin gold neckbands of a Patrol Officer – the lowest and most common rank of the thirty-two Dragons present.  While the other Dragons were built like Nekalifan temples, this young male was lean and serpentine.  One could tell from his bright scales that he was in his twenties; and this was for a species that did not reach “middle age” until two hundred.  Furthermore, it was well known that his psionic strength was average for the general adult Dragon population – below par for the fighting body of the Skywatch.
         Yet the other Dragons did not look down on Tanekyra.  All but the highest-ranking officers treated him as an equal. 
         On each side of Tanekyra’s neckbands was an eight-pointed star.  The star stood for “specialist”, yet that was the understatement of the century.  As far as the surrounding Dragons were concerned – indeed, as far as the entire Skywatch was concerned - Tanekyra was The Crystal Expert.
         “Formation is complete, Sir,” said Tanekyra.  “Reaction should take place in exactly one minute.”
         “I’m pleased to hear that,” said Dahal, “because if this fails, we’ll know who to blame.”
         Tanekyra’s gaze was steady.  “Be assured,” he said, “what I lack in raw power I make up for in precision.”
         Everyone was staring at Tanekyra.  Everything that they had worked for, lied for, stolen for, killed for, risked their lives for depended upon this minute, this young buck.  He had been deeply involved in the latter stages of the secret government project.  He had arranged the theft of the fruits of that very project.
         The other Dragons treated him as an equal, and thus judged him by similar standards.  If he failed them, they would punish him as an equal.
         The giant crystals had been placed in circular formation around the island – some on the beach, some in the sea.  They were each about a kilometre apart; only three degrees of the circle they described.  And they were set to react within the next forty seconds.
         Dahal’s Human crew had been psychologically conditioned for what was going to happen, in order to maximise their concentration.
         “They’ll definitely see this from the mainland, Sir,” said Jihosky.
         “I should hope so,” said Dahal.
         Jihosky took out his chain pocket watch.
         “Twenty seconds ... Nineteen ... Eighteen ... Seventeen ...”
        
Tilanna pocketed her crystal, then floated down the base of the tunnel, preparing to relax before her journey back to the surface ... in twenty minutes exactly.
 
“... Fourteen ... Thirteen ... Twelve ...”
 
Alathaka took up a good part of the ancient courtyard as she sat, speed-reading the luminous, shifting Draconic runes that danced above the crystal before her.
 
“... Nine ... Eight ... Seven ...”
 
Vithan and Olokuvon slept soundly.
 
“... Four ... Three ... Two ... One.”
         Jihosky put down his watch and looked around, his gaze aimed high at the evening sky.
         Nothing happened.
         Tanekyra blinked several times, breathing heavily.  It was clear that he could feel the pressure of dozens of gazes - Dahal’s especially.
         Dahal raised a glowing hand.  “Make your peace wi-”
         The beach lit up, and a column of white light rose into the night sky like a vertical sun, towering above the silhouetted trees in the foreground.  Even the Dragons had to bend their necks to follow its ascent into the stars.  A thunderous roar like a million waterfalls followed a second later, rustling trees in its wake.
         Tanekyra sighed.  “Thank Tikamath,” he said in his own language.
         A second column towered further in the distance, then a third, then a fourth.  Nets of bluish light - as high as the columns themselves – wove from one to the other.
 
All over Kesalzhin College, students stopped in their tracks and gazed up, some dropping their food or drinks or crystals, many dropping their jaws.  The rising columns of light dwarfed the mightiest architecture, here or anywhere.  Crystal lamps dimmed and flickered all around.
 
Alathaka jerked her head up from her text crystal.  “What in Tikamath’s Name?” she snarled to herself in her native language.  Harsher curses followed.
 
Kilometres below, Tilanna sat in the base of the moss-streaked tunnel, gazing upward, her scan vision on maximum.  “No ...” she said to herself.  “No.
 
Kilometres away, Vithan and Olokuvon awoke with a start, having sensed the same nightmarish power surge, tugging for their attention like a falling sensation.  The lamps they had been relighting were now flickering, confirming the nightmare’s reality.
         “Can you feel that?” said Vithan.
         Olokuvon instinctively tightened his tail-coil around Vithan.  “The power is tremendous,” he said.
         “What the hell's going on up there?” said Vithan.
 
A hundred storeys above the surface, Kalina stepped out onto the balcony, already in a daze.
         The cage of light surrounded all the visible campus and forest, filling the sky.  On the paths below, hundreds of Human students stood in the flickering lamplight, gawking at the vastly grander light that was caging in their college, their entire island, bar by celestial bar.
         Energy cage, thought Kalina, desperately clinging on to rationality in the midst of her shock.  But the largest ever recorded energy cages were located in the Haxlia Dragon Rehabilitation Centre, and each had a diameter of four hundred metres.  This one was a hundred times as wide, had ten thousand times the base area.  The expense would have been unthinkable.
         She looked directly upward, and gripped the barrier.  For the first time since childhood, she was experiencing vertigo.  The night sky was being reduced to a disk of darkness, its stars dimmed by the greater light that enclosed them.  Dozens of shafts of light radiated out from the disk, fattening as they extended outwards and downwards to enclose the ground all around her ...
         Her mind, accustomed to grasping the scale of things, faltered before the scene above and around.
         The cage was closing, column by column.  The disk above was almost complete.  Judging by the relative size of the disk of sky above the cage ... those columns had to be at least two hundred kilometres high.  No Human or Dragon had ever flown at that altitude - at least, not in recorded history.
         Kalina knew that there were others to call to; but they would come anyway, their agendas tempered by ancient patience.  For now, more immediate help was needed.
         The rapidly closing gap in the cage faced toward the mainland.  Kalina faced it, focusing on the Republic of Varantua hundreds of kilometres across the sea, on its capital city of Panument, exerting all her mindpower in a telepathic scream ... until the final column rose in her way, and her transmission dissolved in a crackle of random thought.
 
Dahal watched the rise of the final column with a certain paternal pride; he had not created the city shield, but he had adopted it.  The last net of blue fire wove its way from the last column to the first, blocking off the ocean a hundred metres from the beach.  The shield was closed.  He turned to his crew.
         “There’s only one Dragon left, but we still have to contend with over a thousand Humans.  A handful of them would have Sentinel potential.  That is why mass mesmerism is absolutely essential.  Despite their numbers, our collective will is more than enough to overpower theirs.  Remember, we are dealing with artists and academics, not fighters.  Take them by surprise, render them docile, and we eradicate the need for physical conflict.  We must cultivate a reasonable public image if the Global Council is to meet our demands.
         “Altogether now, commence levitation.  Break into formation.  Hold moderate camouflage until we reach the campus.”
         As one, the invasion force began to levitate.
 
Alathaka stalked along the adequately broad pathway, her head slung low, her ears flattened, parting Human crowds like an axe through driftwood.  They wandered and ran past her, their minds and voices in frenzy.  The energy cage was doing it to them - its scale, its rhythmic rippling, its broadcast of raw mindless power into the ether.  Dragons, however, were made of stronger stuff.  Alathaka knew that this phenomenon was many orders of magnitude above a mere illusion or psionic prank, yet too familiar in form to be some bizarre Kujira experiment.  Only a large nation had the means and will to produce such rigidly structured energy on such a scale.  The implications were very serious indeed.
         Beneath her active intellect, the crisis was peeling Alathaka’s psyche right down to the core.  Instinct was taking over - the urge to defend one’s territory, one’s clan, even if such were adopted or temporary.  Her reactor-stomach vaporized the last remnants of her bovine meal, pumping waves of energy into her internal force fields and aura.  How dare they invade Kesalzhin!  This was her College!  These were her friends!  Someone was going to fry for this!
         She was still stalking just before the mindwave stopped Human and Dragon alike in their tracks.
 
In the thousands of years Humans and Dragons had shared a sixth sense, there had been countless thousands of words to describe the countless thousands of textures available to that sixth sense.  As usual, cultures and languages had chosen some of the harshest sounding words to describe the most unpleasant of those textures.  The Lythinians had vyskhaxa, the psychic equivalent of intense light glaring into one’s eyes that hit the back of the brain like a solid object and scrambled one’s thoughts into gibberish.  The Nekalifans had khuktak, the psychic equivalent of having a dozen drill instructors screaming fast and complicated orders in one’s ears that one had to comprehend and recall in complete detail because the lives of millions depended on it.  The Varantuans had krakesquea (which only worked on Humans), the intensified revulsion of one’s own body as all nerve endings and the flow of blood along thousands of kilometres of veins was suddenly felt all at once.  The Dragons had a word that sounded like a gargling howl that tapered off into a bloodcurdling hiss.  This described the imaginary burning itch deep in one’s marrow that one felt like clawing through hide and flesh and bone just to extinguish.
The staff and students of Kesalzhin Island Boarding College for the Psionically Gifted felt all these sensations and more.  Some held their hands to their ears and shut their eyes, trying to keep out the deluge of unwelcome sensation – a reflex action that dated back to a time when the sixth sense in Humans was too weak to be proven.  Some fell on their knees and outspread their arms, avoiding contact with their own bodies.  Some vomited.  Kalina gripped the barrier tight and took deep breaths, directing her psychic energies inward to disinfect her polluted mind, outward to stem the flow of further assault.
 
Alathaka roared.
 
Olokuvon leapt from the tunnel base.  His throat screamed in Draconic, but Vithan caught the unmistakeable image in the telepathic shockwave.  Alathaka.
         Instantly Vithan reached out and halted the Dragon in midair.  He levitated to the struggling Olokuvon’s level, keeping his arm outstretched, his fingers clawed.  The gesture was symbolic; yet essential for visualising the invisible net of psychokinetic force he needed to restrain the writhing, clawing, thirty-ton Dragon.  It was agony.  It felt as if someone had stabbed his palm with an icicle that penetrated all the way to his elbow nerve.  It felt as if a rat-sized Dragon was clawing on the inside of his skull, searing his entire system as it grated the bone.  He also felt the very real trickle of blood under his nose, the price of straining his mindpowers to near-suicidal limits.  There was no way he would last another minute.
         The roles were reversed.  The Dragon was effectively in the Human’s pocket, and the experience was painful for both.
         “There’s nothing you can do,” said Vithan between gritted teeth.  “You’ll be outnumbered.”
         “Thus I shall die fighting!”
         In an agonising burst of added effort, Vithan spun Olokuvon around to face him.
         “Listen!  Just listen!  Victory is all about timing.  If we rush into this, we last a few seconds.  Or we can bide our time and take a few more of the buggers than we would otherwise.  We have that choice.”
         His pain was easing.  That was a good sign.  Olokuvon was willing to listen.
         “And what of Alathaka’s choice?” said Olokuvon.
         “She's even stronger than you.  She can look after herself.”
         “Then she’ll be the first to die!”
         The Dragon psychokinetically flung Vithan against the tunnel wall.  Vithan’s shield cushioned the impact, but the granite shattered around him.  At least the real pain was over – his restraint of Olokuvon had well reached its limit.
         “Is it inconceivable that she is also outnumbered?” added Olokuvon, his striped scowl huge in the flickering lamplight as he floated towards Vithan.
         “If she’s dead, you’ll feel it.”
         Breathing more calmly, Olokuvon closed his eyes.  He opened them after a few seconds.  “She’s unharmed,” he said.  “Occupied, but unharmed.”
         “You see?  We still have a chance.  This is not like one of our little fencing duels.  This is real.  To the death.”
         "Is your college worth fighting for?  Are your friends worth dying for?"
         "Don’t you dare doubt my integrity."
         “Are you prepared to die?  To cease to exist?  To become nothing?  With no reward awaiting you for your courage?”
         Vithan inhaled a trembling breath.  It was not like his friend to mock his atheism so bluntly.  But then, it was he who had brought up the subject of death; and he did not have a loved one up there being held hostage.  Who was he to moralise at a time like this?  He had to be honest.  Olokuvon would know if he were lying.  Did he want to live for another hundred years knowing that he had neglected to save lives, knowing that he could have made a difference?  Perhaps he could live with that.  People would understand.  He was right about being outnumbered.  But would he let Olokuvon fight alone?  Olokuvon would never leave his side in a time of true danger. 
         Vithan envied his Dragon friends.  He envied their courage, their determination, their unshakeable beliefs – whether in their Goddess or themselves.  If Vithan could spend the final hours of his existence knowing what this felt like, then, perhaps, it would all be worth it.
         There was only one answer he could live with.
         “Not in vain.”          
Reply
#16
I am planning to upload Project Heavenstorm to Amazon Kindle on Christmas Day.  I shall let you know if there is a change of plan.  I am always changing my mind about the small details, but I can't keep doing this forever.
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#17
Here's the brief description of the novel I am planning to use for the Amazon page.

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Twenty-one thousand years ago, it nearly destroyed the world.
 
One man wants to bring it back.
 
On the distant world of Haloken, the line between science and magic has long since blurred.  Humans and Dragons have mostly forgotten their differences and live side by side.  Godlike giants roam the seas, observing all, rarely intervening.
 
Tonight, all this could come to an end.
 
A psychically powerful fanatic and his private army of trained killers have invaded an isolated island college.  They hold staff and students hostage, demanding the nations of the world hand over its most powerful and ancient secret – the Elixir.
 
Only a small band of Human and Dragon students stand between the forces of evil and global cataclysm.
 
And where the Elixir is concerned, even the gods must tread carefully.
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#18
Here's the cover art:

   
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#19
Is this cover art the right proportions?
Or will you modify it?

Also right now this Cover doesn't quite do the story justice , by reducing a plot with a dragon air force, techno magic, dolphin cultures , etc to a practically mirrored view of what might be a dragon eye with a star reflection

Edit: I read no mention of cybernetic enhancements on a dragon in the story, but that might be the kind of iconography you're looking for? Like, a bunch of data/UI something that is more clearly a dragon eyeball, maybe with something more than a single star reflected ...
That's probably not how the tech in your story works? But that might communicate more.
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#20
(11-26-2019, 05:09 AM)Dfleymmes1134 Wrote: Is this cover art the right proportions?
Or will you modify it?

Also right now this Cover doesn't quite do the story justice , by reducing a plot with a dragon air force, techno magic, dolphin cultures , etc to a practically mirrored view of what might be a dragon eye with a star reflection

Edit: I read no mention of cybernetic enhancements on a dragon in the story, but that might be the kind of iconography you're looking for? Like, a bunch of data/UI something that is more clearly a dragon eyeball, maybe with something more than a single star reflected ...
That's probably not how the tech in your story works? But that might communicate more.

something like this? idk

 I made these covers in 10 min with a dragon image - it's basically inaccurate fanart for inspiration?.

anyway the story is rad


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