Chp. 1

Dark rain clouds filled the sky, far as the eye could see. Rain slashed down, blanketing the area in an impenetrable grey veil. Under these conditions, one would expect any person with even a grain of sense to be safely at home; yet, lightning flashes illuminated two figures steadily making their way through the skies in this foul weather.

One was male, a native of this world. He was a Cloudrunner, one of the members of the pterosaur-like inhabitants of this planet, and one of the two ruling tribes. His name was Kite, and he was currently on a special mission, given to him by no less than the Queen Cloudrunner herself.

His passenger was female, and if Kite was saurian in appearance, then hers could be called vulpine. Most males of any mammalian persuasion, and even some not, would consider her to be astonishingly beautiful. She wore only the barest amount of clothing necessary to preserve her decency, with arm, shin, and shoulder guards serving as armor. Her name was Krystal, last survivor of the doomed world of Cerinia. She was a newcomer to this world, having arrived just a few days ago.

Krystal's current unease had little to do with the weather, or the circumstances that had brought her to this unusual world. For several days, now, she had been plagued by nightmares, always of the same sort: being helpless, forced to watch as her home world disintegrated before her eyes. Those dreams had always ended with the same image, as well; a leering, half-seen face, gloating over the debris field that the only world she had known had become. Somehow, she knew, this nameless individual was responsible for Cerinia's destruction, and even now had designs to finish what he had started by killing her, its lone survivor.

She wiped rainwater from her hair, forcing herself to focus on the issue at hand. Cerinia's violent death was in the past; her mysterious maybe-pursuer was a part of a nebulous future. Making her way through this storm without falling off was the task at present, and if she lost her balance, all her troubles and hopes would swiftly be ended by the immutable law of nine-point-eight meters per second squared.

Krystal started as she realized that Kite had spoken to her. The normally chatty Cloudrunner had been unusually silent, prompting her previous reverie. She answered him in his native tongue, which she had quickly learned after arriving on this world.

"What did you say?" she asked.

"I said, 'Do you know what we're looking for in this weather?'"

"I received a garbled distress signal as I was passing by this world. It said something about a large palace on a mountain in the middle of a storm, and then it cut off. Whoever they were, they sounded like they were in big trouble. I thought I might be able to help, so I diverted course and came here."

Kite was about to reply when Krystal's danger sense abruptly went off. Without hesitating, she ducked her head just in time to avoid a fireball that came speeding out of the murk. She turned to see more flaming projectiles coming their way, including one headed straight for them. She raised her staff, the only weapon she retained from her home, and began to activate its shield, but the projectile slammed into it before the shield was fully powered. The impact tore the device from her grip, and sent it plummeting into the blank nothingness below her.

"Oh no! My staff!" she exclaimed. She almost told Kite to alter course to follow it, but a more immediate concern caught her attention. The source of the flaming projectiles was coming into view, a massive flying ship, shaped like an ocean-going vessel with wings on the sides and an animated, dragon-like figurehead that growled and hissed on the front. Kite banked down and out of the way of the airship, and came back up as it passed them. Krystal thought they were safe until two cannons on the back started spewing more fireballs at the airborne pair.

"Enough of this," she growled. She focused her mind, and brought her palms together, just barely touching each other. Static crackled and built up as she summoned one of her rarest talents; direct manipulation of energy. She opened her eyes and held her palms out in front of her, and twin orbs of sizzling blue-white plasma leaped from her hands and smashed both cannons into rubble. With the way clear, she bade Kite take her to the deck of the airship. The Cloudrunner perched nimbly on the back railing, and let her slide off his back onto the deck.

"Thank you, I can take it from here, now," she told him.

Kite grunted acknowledgment and took off from the rail. She sensed however, that he didn't go far, that he was hovering just out of sight under the ship, in case she needed his help again. Krystal started across the deck, careful not to be knocked over by the unsecured crates sliding across the surface. She headed towards the front of the ship, where she saw a baby Cloudrunner trapped in a cage. She tried to open the cage, but it was locked, and the metal was far too strong for her to break with her bare hands.

"Wait," said the captive. "You need to explore below decks. The captain of this vessel has hidden something special down there."

Krystal thanked the Cloudrunner, and started back towards the other end of the ship. A door set into the rear of the ship opened at her touch, and she took the stairs down, senses alert for any of the crew. The cargo hold was deserted, but there were a few individuals in the cockpit of the flying vessel. Krystal began searching among the boxes and crates scattered throughout the cargo hold, until something glittering gold caught her eye. It was a key, though to what she did not know. She tucked the key under her right-arm bracer, and headed back up the stairs. She approached the baby Cloudrunner's cage again, to see if perhaps this key could unlock it, but before she got there, the doors to the cockpit flew open, and a huge, hulking Sharpclaw bounded out. He was clad in form-hugging leather armor, a horned helmet on his head, and bore a large sword sheathed at his side. His right hand had been replaced by a two-pronged metal claw.

"General Scales," he said by way of introduction, "ruler, dictator, and tyrant of this planet. What brings one such as you to my world?"

Krystal's breath caught in her throat. Kite had told her about the Sharpclaw's chieftain, about his ruthlessness and brutality, but now did not seem like the time for a confrontation with him. "I'm not here to fight," she told him. "I came here because of a distress call."

Scales chuckled. "A distress call? My dear, the entire PLANET is in distress."

He turned to go back to the cockpit, but Krystal interrupted him. "The Cloudrunners told me about you; the evil General of the Sharpclaw tribe."

Scales had the nerve to look hurt at her accusation. "My girl, I am not evil," he protested. "You see, I rule over the various tribes of this world, and I must rule by fear. Otherwise the tribes always try to fight against me. If they would just accept my rule, then there would be no conflict." As he was speaking, he began to poke at the captive Cloudrunner with his artificial claw. Krystal rushed him, knowing that a fight was not likely to end in her favor, but furious that he would torment a helpless creature like the baby Cloudrunner. If she could just distract him from his sport, even for a moment...

The battle was over before it had even begun. Scales saw her approach and swept her up in his real hand. His hand dwarfed her head, and his fingers closed around her throat and chest and threatened to crush the life out of her. She hammered her fist on his hand, but may as well have been pounding on plate armor for all the good it did.

"Did you seriously think you could challenge me?" he hissed into her face. "No one can defeat General Scales! Now witness your end!" He hefted her up into the air and threw her over the side of the airship.

Krystal tumbled through open air with a wordless scream. She closed her eyes against the rushing wind, certain she would plummet to a messy end. However, her plunge was interrupted only a few seconds down by Kite's timely arrival. He dove underneath her and caught her on his back. Krystal wrapped her arms securely around his neck, shaking with nerves and adrenaline at the fate she had narrowly avoided.

"Th-thank you," she whispered hoarsely to him.

"You're welcome. Krystal," he replied. "Isn't it good to have friends in high places?" She chuckled weakly at his pun.

Kite flapped back up to the level of the airship deck. Scales's eyes bugged out at seeing the vixen safe and sound, only a stone's throw away from him. If there were any stones there to throw on the deck, she might not have been so smug, but she couldn't resist taunting him: "Bad luck, General! Maybe next time?"

"This is NOT over!" he bellowed after her as Kite took her away from the airship.

Krystal had other priorities higher than worrying about the impotent threats being shouted in her direction. "Let's see if we can find the source of that distress signal." Kite squawked acknowledgment, and banked north, following a course she could only guess at.