CHAPTER 1

The plains of Larumbell stood as serene and unmoved as they had ever been for the past ten thousand years. A wistful breeze caressed the sweet grass, and brought news of the sun and of the goings of trees. All was quiet as the hills lay down to sleep.

Except for the blood-curdling scream of a dragon about to breath its last. Merestone the dragon desperately beat his ripped and battered wings, that they might deliver him to the shelter of the sky once again, but to no avail. He blinked blood from his eyes and turned and gazed at his oppressors as they drew ever nearer. There was no escape this time. His hunters had him trapped in the gaping, open plains of Larumbell. He kneaded his talons in the young grass and clenched his teeth as his pursuers faced him.

The dragon bounty hunters were a real bunch of straggly ragamuffins armed with swords, pilums, bows, keen brains and bad breath. They grinned madly as they came galloping up the hill, astride irritable horses of various color. Their leader, the biggest and ugliest of the lot, drew his bow and aimed the fatal blow straight for Merestone's heart.

Suddenly, his horse whinnied and balked, and his master was about to rebuke him with a vulgar oath, when a fireball fell from the sky like a bolt of thunder. Soon the air was filled with fire and smoke, the cries of terrified horses, swearing, and the rushing of great wings. A young dragon named Calomel was stirring up a fire storm, and causing utter chaos, with horses charging to and fro and men running away from renegade flames.

There was little time for gratefulness on Merestone's part, for in the diversion, he and Calomel pelted towards the distant forest.

Maurine shut the book with a decided whump.

Images of horses and fire melted away and reality gripped her with frightening suddenness. She gazed absentmindedly at the cover of Tales of Dragons, wishing she didn't already know the story through and through. She seemed to think that if she read it enough times, she might just slip into the pages and witness the dragons and their adventures for herself.

Maurine was twelve years old, with dull, brown hair, and a face that looked much older than it should have. She was fairly tall for twelve, quite skinny, and her arms and legs were thin from being unused and forgotten.

If only she wasn't stuck here, day in and day out, living out her dull, miserable life. It wasn't that she was extraordinarily poor, or that she was an orphan, but despite her family, Maurine always felt so cold and so lonely. She was just another face, just another life.

Maurine's little sister Emma suddenly appeared at the door of her room.

"Maurie, mummy says you need to come down and set the table for dinner." Emma's sandy braids swayed at shoulder length, and her eight-year-old body was still quite young and petite. This declaration wrenched Maurine back to earth and away from her trailing thoughts. Maurine made no reply, but stormed past Emma and went down the stairs to help her mother.

After an uneventful dinner, Maurine returned to her desolate room in a thorough state of depression. Hoping it might ease the demons that tortured her insides, she drew her sacred wooden box from its shelf, and observed its contents on her bed. She repeated this ritual every time she was in such a state, which seemed to be more often these days.

The box was only about six inches square, with carvings of dragons curling all across its surfaces. She loved this little box dearly, partly because it was so mysterious, and more importantly, because her father had given it to her. When Maurine had asked where he had gotten it, he had merely said slyly; "from one of my travels".

What was most remarkable about this box were its contents. Inside, there was a little necklace adorned with claws and teeth, some stone circles with missing centers that appeared to be coins, and papers with strange lettering with curves and punctilios. There was also a large, black talon, and a very small rectangular piece of scarlet paper . It had the curving, dotted script on one side, and the other, were printed two words: Vermont-Thresparia. Seeing as she lived in Vermont, she wondered what the other word could mean. She wondered what all of it could mean. She wondered. . . .

It was dark now, and knowing she wouldn't be able to sleep, Maurine decided to go on a little nighttime stroll. She wasn't sure why, but her hands remained fastened to her treasured box as she crept down the stairs, and slipped away from the house. The air was cool and bracing. Maurine breathed it in, hoping it would bring oxygen to not only her lungs, but to her starved soul as well. She walked in the stillness of the night, thinking of nothing. Her mind was blank as she walked through the cavernous woods, and her feet directed her to a path she knew well. The trees were dark and menacing, but also mysteriously beautiful, as they cradled Maurine on her night-time sojourn.

She found herself at a familiar haunt; an abandoned train station. It was nothing but a forlorn bench placed in front of a decaying platform. The rails were old, and boards were missing from the tracks. Maurine felt as though it reflected her mood with the prowess of a mirror. She sat on the bench, clutching her box, not quite sure why she had come here.

But then, she heard something. It was a huffing, puffing sound, far in the distance. It was so faint, it was difficult to tell what it was, but all at once, it became louder and more defined. There was something rhythmic about it, like the rocking motion of a cantering horse, and with a precise downbeat, almost. .like. . . . a train? On the horizon, a fiery, smoking something was galloping into view. The noise was horrendous, and this...train was alive with fire and smoke. Maurine could hear the grinding of wheels and gears and the screeching of metal colliding with metal as the train roared ever closer.

Now she could hear the earsplitting squeal of brakes being harshly administered to the rails, and it seemed that the rail would be ripped apart by the enormous engine. Slowly, with thanks to the violent braking, the train came to a halt. The train's engine now stood just a little past Maurine, and she was facing the train, except, it wasn't a normal train engine at all. She blinked. She blinked again.

Instead of a normal engine, two enormous automaton horses, and replacing sinew were churning pistons and gears. They were a mass of tangled pipes, pulleys, rods and gears. They bowed their metal plated necks and snorted steam and smoke. Placed deep in their chests there could be seen two boiling furnaces, that fed liquid fire all over their twisted bodies, like a sort of heart. Their heads were terrifying, with eyes like red-hot embers. One of them pranced and emitted a horrible, unearthly scream and belched smoke and sparks. To Maurine this somehow completed the image of the terrible beauty of these awesome horses.

She sat there, gaping at what stood before her, and wondering if she had fallen asleep on the bench and was having a very real dream.

Suddenly something else happened that awoke her from her reverie. A man stepped out of the compartment just behind the fiery stallions. He wore a navy blue uniform with gold buttons and had a squashed appearance, and almost all of his face was hidden behind a large, bushy beard so only his extravagant nose protruded from its depths. He walked purposefully to Maurine and stopped before her, extending his hand.

"Your ticket please."

"My what?"

"Your ticket please," He repeated in a deep, rumbling voice.

"My....ticket......." Maurine trailed off, and one her hands independently reached into her box and drew out the small scarlet piece of paper. The man took it without hesitation, and with a sharp pin he had secreted, pricked her finger. Maurine jumped a foot in the air, gasping, and then held her breath and waited to see what would happen. The man took the pin and dabbed the drop of blood on the scarlet ticket, and as it was absorbed into the paper, it turned a shimmering gold.

"All is in order. Step aboard please."

She felt numb. She looked at the train, and then back to the woods, from whence she had come. When she looked back to the train, the man had disappeared. Maurine took a deep breath, and walked irresolutely to the second compartment, opened the door, and stepped inside.

The inside was warm and well cushioned, and beautifully designed. The walls were lined with windows that peered into the dark abyss of night. She sat on a bench and felt the train lurch. She could hear the horses heaving and bellowing and their gears grinding . She lay her head down and extended herself on the padded bench, and felt her mind slip away from her. At last she shut her eyes, and thought no more.