There weren’t always dragons in the Valley.
Cold sleet rain bracketed the moorland as pools of water slowly gathered in depth, rising with each rivulet that ran down the slopes of the Valley of Earls.
Running equally as fast as the water across the Valley, was the terrifying shadow of a dragon.
Terrifying, awe-inspiring and legendary, the recent accidental re-discovery of dragons could be attributed to man’s constant pursuit of technological advancement.
The project known as the Albion’s Underground, was a complex and ambitious transport project that was going to transform the rail network across the country. Tunnels were to appear all across the entire nation, creating a super network of trains that would connect every citizen to every major and minor city.
But as the projected advanced, strange stories began to emerge.
Strange tremors spooked the workers early. Then came the discovery of large stones that resembled eggs. It wasn’t until the stories of huge caverns that were not made by man that the public began to fear.
Then came the first death. A simple man, Robert Mayor, father of two sons, a loving husband, a dedicated miner, accidentally struck what seemed like a spiky wall.
Within moments, superheated flames spewed viciously from an open cave mouth, and extinguished Robert Mayor in seconds.
From that moment on, the age of Man bowed before the Era of Dragons.
The dragon that flew over the shallow pools of water, was atypical of its species. Males were smaller than female dragons, and more brightly coloured, despite their stony complexion. It wasn’t uncommon for males to have a more reddish tinge to their dark, granite skins, with different eyes. Their fire was also more amber, than bright red.
These biological differences mattered little, when dragons could fly in speeds of 300km/h, boasted an average wingspan of 60 metres, weighed 30 tons, had nearly impenetrable scaly spiky armoured skin and whose breath could melt anything it touched at a scorching 200 degrees Celsius.
But this was the scientific view of dragons. What they represented to the survivors of humanity, to the final, dwindling population that once ruled the world, was extremely potent. These dragons were once the stuff of mythical legend, now a horrific reality. They were monstrously terrifying. Within 3 years, humanity lost almost everything, dominion of the water and earth, superseded by air power, something they hadn’t quite mastered yet, nor would ever do so now.
There was a nonchalant arrogance, to how the dragons toyed with humanity, how they would casually swipe away armies of men with a slow, lazy flick of their huge clawed legs. How the sound of a dragon’s dive from kilometres above petrified people into standing still becoming easy “ash” prey.
To see a dragon, was to acknowledge a creature far superior to yourself. The huge dark golden eyes that emanated ancient intelligence. The scaly and muscular reptilian body that radiated heat when breathing fire could be felt metres away. And the wings, ancient and beautiful, when splayed out for take-off, would buffet and send humans flying with their powerful updraft, bullets bouncing off them with impunity.
The population that scorched the Earth, only numbered less than a hundred. They were slow to adulthood, but once fully matured, an unstoppable, almost celestial force.
The simple rule was, if you saw a dragon, you prayed to the lords of the sky, the deliverers of ash.
Fortunately, there was no sign of life in the valley. It was as desolate as any area in Albion was. So the dragon kept flying onwards, searching for any survivors, rolling lazily in the sky, a King casually surveying his kingdom.
Situated on the coast of Albion, the Valley of Earls was noted for its’ tunnel tombs, in which laid the ancestors of the Blackmouth clan. These ancient tombs were numerous in their numbers, sorted by generation and accessible only via humble grassy mounds that protected large burrow entrances.
Despite their humble appearance, the Valley of Earls’ tombs were sophisticated. Water that drained down the slopes of the Valley, were actually directed into the tombs, to fuel huge water wheels that powered much of the underground city, that now existed in existential fear of dragons.
Named Earlwood, the underground city was carved into the sheer cliff-side of the Albion coastline, accessible only by submersible or by boat when the tide was sufficiently low enough.
Earlwood was constantly under construction, a testament to its newly created status. Silence did not exist in this noisy cavern, with the sound of people’s chatter and machinery, a constant hum that created its’ own special type of headache, nicknamed by the locals as “earlesome.”
In addition to the silence, Earlwood denizens had to constantly deal with a crush of people. Despite it’s significant size, which was only growing day by day, due to constant work on the “Wall”, it was too small to accommodate all 250,000 survivors, with more coming in every week, as they searched for refuge.
As terrible the noise was and the constant crush of people that filled the narrow, claustrophobic streets of Earlwood, this was only one of two safe cities on Albion that offered decent protection from the dragon threat. The other city, similar in scope and design, was in the north, named Dukes.
Whilst Earlwood was rough and poor, Dukes was beautifully crafted, despite the apocalyptic nature of the world. Artisans and city folks had turned Dukes into a semi-paradise that despite its’ appearance was hiding extreme maintenance issues, whilst the more wretched and desperate had created a cavernous stronghold that was functional in the extreme.
It was in this dark cavern of a city, lived a young man of barely 17 named Will Ashburn.
An “ash orphan”, after his parents perished in an dragon attack, Will didn’t know any better about the world before the age of Dragons. He never knew how green the grass was, how humanity once lived above ground, paranoia-free and with their heads aimed at the ground, instead of the sky.
No, Will only heard these stories from the old men who talked too much at the King’s tavern, or second hand re-tellings of the exploits of the legendary Huntsmen, a special forces unit that was specifically tasked with hunting dragons and the only men allowed to venture surface-side.
It was every boy’s dream to join the hallowed ranks of the Huntsmen and don the iconic dark green uniform and cloak and take the fight to the dreaded dragons. Will had heard so many stories, that he could recite each mission with compelling accuracy.
His favourite story was of the legendary lone Huntsman, the infamous Black Huntsman.
Unlike other Huntsmen units, who worked in groups of 4 to take down dragons, the Black Huntsman was an anomaly. Taller than his brethren, stronger and quieter, the Black Huntsman was famed for his stealth kills, which flew against traditional operating methods of his comrades.
Normal dragon take-down procedures often involved elaborate use of bait, a pair of Huntsmen known as runners who would lure the dragons in, dousing themselves in water and flame retardant clothing. They would run for a limited stretch, before diving into prepared burrows that would protect them from dragon-flame.
As the runners sprinted for their lives, the other two Huntsmen, the snipers would position themselves on either side of the dragon, targeting the singular weak spot on these huge, terrifying behemoths …. the dragon’s golden eyes.
No one quite knew why only the dragon’s eyes were their only weakness, but it didn’t matter. This was where the snipers had to aim, and use their specialised Boys Anti-Tank Rifles, a huge 1.5m gun that fired the monstrously heavy .55 calibre bullet.
With only 5 rounds in the massive top-loading magazine, the snipers were under enormous pressure to ensure all 5 bullets would be aimed at a dragon’s head, moving at 250 km/h.
If at least 1 of the 5 bullets went in, the dragon would be blinded and lose motor control over it’s 30 ton body. Crashing into the ground, one of the runners would then approach it and apply the coup de grace with his Anti-tank rifle up close, aiming the weapon up through the eye socket and targeting the brain.
Numerous hunts, kills and deaths have gone into this dangerous and risky procedure. But it was the only one they had.
All except for the Black Huntsman, who had a custom Westley Richards’ Droplock Double Rifle, chambered in the awe inspiring .577 Nitro Express. Originally designed for elephant hunting, the Droplock Double Rifle was a two shot weapon that featured custom double triggers, one for each barrel.
His method was far more riskier. Slow movement, steady hands and sheer gutsy stealth, the Black Huntsman would sneak up on Dragons whilst they were feeding or asleep, and empty both of his barrels at close range, staring at the Dragons head-on.
A single misstep, a flawed shot, or even the tiniest fraction of hesitation, the Black Huntsman would be killed instantly, either by fire or claw.
But he never made such mistakes. He was the most elite Huntsman in the entire unit. Credited with over 25 Dragon kills.
For each Dragon he slayed, he would keep a claw, and use it to scratch the tally of kills into the butt of his rifle.
He was humanity’s shining hope, the sole reason why the Huntsmen’s ranks always swelled with recruits, ashen or not.
He was born of Earls, slayer of Dragons, wielder of the Double Rifle and conqueror of Ash.
The Black Huntsman.
Every ash orphan like Will Ashburn, when they came of age, 18, would automatically be recruited into the ranks of the Miners.
The Miners were the men who constantly worked on the “Wall”, the nickname given to the sheer rock face that surrounded the city.
No matter the hour, day or even during Dragon attacks, work on the Wall was constant. It was a necessity for the survival of Earlwood. The city had to keep growing ever larger. They could not build up, so instead they built further and further into the ground. Work on the Wall was chaotic, dangerous, claustrophobic and horrific.
Tunnels could collapse at any given moment, cascading down into further tunnels beneath them, killing men by the dozens in mere seconds. But such was the nature of mine work, that everyone merely carried on their digging and axing, ignoring the bodies that were carried out by shattered men.
Will dreaded the idea that within a year, he would be pressed into mine service. Which is why he was currently in line for the Earl’s Army recruitment line.
This was his only way out.
Will knew that there was little chance of getting in. The age for enlistment was the same as the Wall. But he had a bit of faith in himself.
Years of surviving on the dark streets of Earlwood had created a man who stood tall, muscular and brooding. His brown eyes were hardened by the continuous hardships of fighting every single day for his existence. Yet they were softened by a curious intelligence, which was fuelled by the dozens of books he had stolen over the years.
Will Ashburn didn’t know why he loved reading so much, but after a whore had taken him under his wing and taught him how to read letters and numbers, Will never ceased his education. He knew deep down, that he had to learn everything faster and more expertly than those around him.
So he would devour books after books. Fiction. Non-fiction. Adventure. Romance. Science. This was the early onset of the 1900s. Knowledge was becoming the more prolific. Humanity was finally on the cusp of conquering the world, and mastering the art of metallurgy and industrial revolution.
Only years ago, this was heralded as the new Golden Age. That is, until the Dragons were unearthed.
Will however had no such interest in what might have been. What course humanity would have taken, if an apex predator never challenged them.
He was only interested in the immediate future, whether his rapid maturity was enough to fool the Army recruiter to let him into the hallowed ranks of the Earl’s Army.
Even his very existence, proven by old records was splotchy. Will Ashburn wasn’t even his real name. He had named himself, having grown up without any guidance, his true name a complete mystery to him, like the nature of his parents.
It was only by a miracle, that he was adopted by the fallen women of the famous Covent Garden brothel. Despite their status and lack of means, it was these women who created the tough bastard that stood taller than his more wretched brethren in the line.
They taught him the power of harnessing his emotions, on how to defend himself and the truth of living on the streets. They showed him how to deescalate a situation, how to aggravate then nurture people. The power of emotional manipulation was in his grasp, as was using his darkly handsome looks to his advantage.
The Covent Garden women were fiercely loyal to Will, as was Will’s allegiance to them. It was at their behest that Will had chosen this particularly Army recruiting line, amongst all of the hundreds of others.
The Army recruiter was a well known client of a particular girl at the Covent Garden stable. If anyone was going to overlook Will’s age, it would be this particularly greasy individual.
As the line shuffled forwards, Will kept his gaze forward, biting his teeth in nervousness, as he watched the large, rotund Army recruiter in his olive green uniform and cape wave men through and shake his head in disapproval at some of the younger looking folk.
Will was so preoccupied, that he almost forgot to hand his fake papers to sergeant who was busy processing paperwork.
Will took a deep breath. This was his ticket out of here. To establish his own legend in a legendary unit. To finally take the fight to the beasts that have taken so much from him.
Just as he was about to announce his name, Earlwood shook with all the force of a dragon attack.
This first chapter in a fantasy setting was written for the Vocal Media “The Fantasy Prologue” challenge.
I hope you enjoyed reading it!