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THE AWAKENING PROLOGUE (THE EARTH DRAGON)
Mount Everest. Tallest mountain in the world. 88 miles into the air, the jagged, snow covered peak stretched. Challengers from across the world came to test their mettle against the mountain and it's treacherous summit. 28 year old Marcus Soft was no different. A natural climber, Marcus had invested nearly every dime he had on this trip. Months of preparation, years of training, weeks of travel .. and he was stuck several hundred meters from his goal. A blizzard, unexpected by the Weather Service, had seemed to settle atop the mountain. He'd already lost his guides, along with several days of supplies, in an avalanche that shouldn't have happened. Since when did Everest have earthquakes this high up, anyhow? It was mid-morning, best as Soft could tell. He had insisted on making camp the night before and radio in for help, for all the good it did. They had spent hours trying to raise someone through the blizzard, only to be told that no flights were being sent up until the storm cleared. Peeking out the tent flap, held in place by a clasp fastened to a support pole buried deep in the ice pack, didn't do much to improve Marcus' mood. It was white, a sheet of it. The same view he'd been trapped staring at for 2 days. Marcus dropped the flap and turned toward the pile of blankets in the corner, sighing as the mound began to shift.
"You know, Mark," the blankets spoke, "You keep doing that and I might start to think you're actually afraid."
Marcus scoffed. It had only been the third time, fourth? He shook his head. "At least I'm awake before noon," chimed Marcus, tapping his empty wrist. The man in the blankets panicked, throwing off the layers of warmth to check his own wrist. In all the years Marcus had known Ryan Welk, he'd never seen Ryan move faster than when they were late. Once in college, the two had sprinted the length of the campus, nearly 2 miles, because they thought they were late for a mid-term. As their luck would have it, it was cancelled. It seemed like wasting effort was their talent. All this effort.. only to be stopped by some stupid snow. A wrist watch shoved under Marcus' nose brought him back to the present, "HA! It's only 11:38. I'm up before noon, too," a twinkle of pride in Ryan’s voice.
Ryan rose out of his "nest" and within a few minutes, the two friends sat in their tent sharing a small meal of granola and coffee. Neither of which tasted the best, but they hadn't eaten since yesterday and they would need to be alive when this storm broke. IF the storm broke. That thought sent a chill down Marcus' spine. Ryan, dusting the last of his granola from his fingers, rose and moved to the front of the tent. Lifting the flap away and sticking the entirety of his head outside the tent he exclaimed, "Mark! Storms over, man! I hear da' chopper!"
It was true. Now that he actually listened, the wind outside the tent had stopped. When had it done that? He had looked out just a few minutes ago and it was still .. well, whatever. If it was over, that meant it was time they got as far away from this forsaken place as they could.. or at least until Marcus got the itch to try again.
"Then you better get in here and help me pack," Marcus said over the building thwack of the helicopter blades. A thought occurred to him then and he froze with a blanket half shoved into his duffle bag.
"Yeah," came the reply from outside the tent.
"Snow stopped, right?"
"Sure did, pal."
"See the helicopter yet?"
"Nah, but I can hear it. Listen," Ryan said.
The crunching of his boots stopped. Sound seemed to stop. It was silent. Just the sound of them breathing. Marcus jolted when the nearby radio crackled to life.
"-er. MS One, do you copy? Over."
Marcus snatched up the transmitter and flung himself into the small camp chair next to the equipment.
"Roger that, Rescue. This is MS One. We're light two with two ambulatory and ready to leave. Over." It was hard to keep the smile out of his voice, let alone off his face, but Marcus was relieved to see Ryan with the same ridiculous smile he was sure he had on his face as well.
"Ten-Four, MS One. Rescue has your position and will be picking you up within the hour. Godspeed and we'll see you on the ground. Over."
Marcus dropped the transmitter and in unison the two whooped with delight. Neither had said it aloud, but they both knew the other was afraid. They didn't know if they were going to survive the day, let alone another night, on Mount Everest. Now they were going home. By this time tomorr--
The ground seemed to shift under their feet. Panic gripped Ryan's expression as Marcus toppled backward into the camp chair.
"Avalanche?!", Ryan exclaimed, spinning toward the tents open flap and peering up the mountain. No snow seemed to be shifting around them from what Marcus could see of the outside, but the ground was definitely moving. Ryan, barely keeping his feet under him as the mountainside rolled and heaved, gripped the tents' support pole as he frantically tried to string his harness. Marcus, catching his plan, begun threading the reinforced nylon rope through his own harness and pitched the clasp at Ryan’s open hand. Neither spoke. They both frantically worked to secure themselves for what seemed like an eternity. The adrenaline, the panic, time seemed to slow in these moments.
Both secured, the two men hunkered shoulder to shoulder, tightly gripping the long steel pole with gloved hands as the mountain boiled and shuddered beneath them. Ryan had his head held in the crook of his elbow, resting atop his knees as he all but hugged the support pole. It was the avalanche survival position. Marcus couldn't fault him.. Ryan shouldn't even have been here. Turning his gaze toward the summit, Marcus froze. The snow wasn't moving. The mountain trembled, yet the snow remained undisturbed. How?
"What?,” Ryan’s voice was low, trembling. "What are you saying?" Marcus didn’t realize he was saying that aloud.
"The snow, it's not moving!"
"Who cares?! We're going to die, Mark!” Ryan’s panic was evident. “We're gonna d-", A roar pierced through the storm, deafening his protests. The mountain itself screamed and shook. The two men clung to the support pole as the mountain lurched. In that instant gravity seemed to stop working. Ryan and Marcus floated inches off the ground for the breath of a moment before they were both smashed back into the hard ice pack of their tent floor. The force of the impact, and having landed on his stomach, knocked the wind out of Marcus. Through watery eyes and barely able to breathe, he scanned the tent for Ryan. Somehow the force of the impact had bounced Ryan into the center of the tent, still harnessed to the support pole. He wasn't moving. Was he unconscious? Dead? Marcus swallowed hard and tried to call out, but the force of the impact had taken its toll. Trying frantically to regain himself enough to speak, he gripped the pole and pulled himself erect.
"Ry-an!,” Marcus croaked. His friends limp figure remained as still as the snow outside the tent flap. Anger quickly replaced panic as Marcus' hand flew to unclasp his harness from the support pole. He no longer cared if this mountain killed him. It had already tried once.
Free from his harness Marcus toppled to the ground next to Ryan, turning his friend over and yanking off his right glove, he reached to check for a pulse. There was none. His best friend was dead. Marcus stood. The earth around him rolled and pitched, yet Marcus remained upright as he moved to the entrance of the tent. Fist clenched in anger, he pressed down the tears that threatened to overcome him. Barely noticing the earth stilling beneath his steps, he strode out into the mayhem that had taken the mountain. Dropping to his knees, Marcus turned his face skyward and forced every breath of air he had just struggled to gather into a scream to match the mountains.
"A human?", a booming voice, seemingly coming from everywhere and nowhere. Marcus froze, hands out-stretched in mid-scream.
"W-who..?", Marcus replied. Was the voice in his head? The earth all around Marcus began to fall away. Slate, stone, and snow all cascaded down the side of the mountain in a massive sheet of white and grey.
"RYAN!!", Marcus stretched out a hand in vain at the tent and it's inhabitant as it plunged down the mountain. No. That wasn't right. The ground around Marcus wasn't falling away. He was being pulled upward! His head snapped around toward the summit and his mouth fell open in stunned amazement as a long, stone scaled neck rose from the peak. To either side of the man the top layer of stone was ripped away in a shower of rocks ranging in size from a small town car to an entire city block as two stone grey wings burst from the mountain. The neck bent and craned, bringing into view a stony grey visage, long stalactites poking out of each side of a snout nearly long enough to land a plane.
"A.. a Dragon?!"
"You're a clever human." The voice boomed again inside Marcus' head. One golden eye, set deep inside the stony head of Mount Everest, glimmered with amusement.
"Rest now, human, I've a job to do.” The voice chuckled, “Don't worry!” Could a mountain chuckle? It sounded like a rockslide, "I've got plans for you!"The still packed snow around Marcus' feet swirled and rose. As he shielded his eyes from the now whipping winds that surrounded him, a strange calmness washed over him. His fatigue and panic, doubt and fear all seemed to disappear as familiar and comforting warmth carried him off to sleep.