Stalked by Flames update and excerpt

I’m still working through edits on Stalked by Flames.  The book is coming together nicely, but still has a few kinks to work out and a round of proofreading.  Thanks to the eight beta readers who volunteered last month to read the first quarter of the novel.  You were all a tremendous help!  My current expectation is to have the novel out by July 27th.  As soon as it is available on Amazon I’ll post the link here, through social media, and my newsletter/email alerts.

For those who’d like a taste of the novel, I’m posting the first three chapters below.  There may be some minor tweaks made during the final proofread, but otherwise this is the version I’ll be publishing soon.  Hope you enjoy!


 

 Chapter 1

 

Bailey

I should have known the day was going to be bad when I stepped outside and saw vivid purple and red northern lights in the sky—at nine in the morning, in Oklahoma.  Checking my water bottle, I didn’t find anything suspicious in the clear liquid.  Then I caught other people staring upward, too, gawking.  Thank God.  I’d begun to wonder if the hit of acid I’d dropped two years ago had come back to haunt me.

The lights faded and the sky turned dark and ominous shortly after that, which should have been my next clue to stay inside and wait it out.  Not to mention it was a Monday and doomed by default.  But I didn’t, so I only had myself to blame when the clouds unleashed bucket loads of rain on me while I loaded all my personal possessions into the backseat of my truck.

That wasn’t the end of the troubles, though.  Not even close.

Right after turning in the keys to my apartment I discovered my truck had a flat tire on the front.  Someone had slashed it, leaving the poor thing to look like an undercooked soufflé.  I spent the rest of the morning at the shop getting it replaced.

Then right as I was about to escape Norman city limits, my friend Trish called to remind me I hadn’t turned in my library books yet.  It was almost as if fate itself intervened so I couldn’t leave Oklahoma anytime soon, though I suspected she’d wanted to say goodbye one last time.

Another storm approached from the west as I balanced a high stack of books in my arms, heading for Bizzell Library.  With the semester over and graduation just two days ago, there weren’t many people lingering on campus.  Just a few students lounging on the grass and a guy feeding the squirrels.  Most people had gone home for the summer.  Much like I hoped to do.

The ground shook and two of my books tumbled to the sidewalk.  Damn earthquakes.  They were getting more frequent with every passing month, and the experts couldn’t explain them.  Oklahoma had a reputation for tornadoes—not earthquakes.

A few dozen other places in the world were experiencing similar problems.  Extreme weather, earthquakes, and an unsettling sense of doom that left everyone feeling the end was nigh.  Of course, I didn’t buy what those crazy guys on street corners shouted.

I leaned down and grabbed the fallen books and put them back on top of the others before resuming my walk toward the library.  Now that the tremor had passed there wouldn’t be another one for at least thirty minutes.  At least, that’s how it usually went.  None were on the scale of the big California earthquakes, but they were strong enough that you felt them when they struck.  The constant shaking was beginning to take its toll on structures.  I kept waiting for a building to come crumbling down.

A student exiting the library held the doors open when I reached them.  I mumbled my thanks to the guy and kept going.  Five minutes, tops, and I’d be out of there by noon.  Texas wasn’t having all these problems.  I couldn’t wait to get home to my parents’ working ranch where I could put my shiny new business degree to use.  The paperwork alone had become a mess since I’d left, and I had a lot of plans to help increase profits.

Trish, my best friend, stood behind the checkout counter.  We’d been roommates during our freshman year.  I’d never been good with people except those closest to me, but she’d poked and prodded until I let her into my inner circle.  If not for her forcing me out of my reclusiveness, my college experience might have been limited to classes and my dorm room.  I still didn’t like interacting with people much, but she’d helped me improve my social skills a lot.

Trish had graduated on Saturday too, but she planned to stay on for her master’s program.  Her boyfriend, Justin, was chatting with her.  I wasn’t surprised to see him there.

If you looked at them, you wouldn’t think they were a good match.  She had wild curly red hair, pale skin, and a curvy figure.  He had brown hair in a military cut, tanned skin from a lot of time spent outdoors, and a toned physique.  She wore bright, colorful clothing to match her personality, he stuck with earth tones.  He never joked and took everything seriously.  Even their interests weren’t the same.  From the time they’d started dating two years ago until now I’d never understood how they stayed together.

Neither of them noticed me walking up.  Not even when I cleared my throat.

“I’m telling you, it’s fracking causing the earthquakes,” Justin said, his tone serious.

She rolled her eyes.  “Maybe we should frack later and really shake things up.”

“You’re just trying to change the subject.”  He gave her an exasperated look.  “The way they’re drilling these days—it’s important we do something about it.”

Justin was an environmental science major who really got into his studies.  Before college he’d served in the army for six years in the infantry and had done two tours overseas. Now he was enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program with only one year left to go.  The guy was all about serving his country in whatever way he could.  Now he thought he could do more as an officer.

It made him an interesting choice for Trish, considering she took life a lot less seriously than he did, unless you counted books.  Whether they were fiction or non-fiction she practically lived in them.  Probably the reason she’d chosen to major in library science.

I dropped my stack of books on the counter in front of her.  “Am I interrupting something?”

“Oh, look what the earthquake shook up,” she said, giving me a once-over.  “Bailey, you look like crap.”

I tucked a stray strand of my black hair behind my ear.  Whenever it rained, it fell limp and lifeless.  Cutting it to shoulder-length for the summer hadn’t given it any of the body the stylist had promised.  I suspected my make-up was ruined, too.  It was definitely one of those days.

“There’s another storm approaching,” I explained.

Trish sighed.  “Great.  It’ll probably strike the moment I head home.”

“Not to worry.  I brought an umbrella,” Justin reassured her, patting his backpack.

He was always prepared for anything.

“So you’re really out of here?” Trish asked, drawing my attention back to her.

“The truck is packed and the tank is full.”  I’d even loaded up on water and snacks so I wouldn’t have to stop before the state border.

She scanned the books into the system.  “Make sure you call me when you get home.”

It would only take a little over four hours to drive to my stepfather’s ranch southwest of Dallas.  I’d arrive well before dark and maybe even in time for one of my mother’s home-cooked meals.  After eating like a bum since Christmas break, I was ready for some real food.

A rumble of thunder sounded above our heads.

“Yeah, I will,” I said, glaring up at the ceiling.

Trish came around the counter and gave me a hug.  I had to admit I was going to miss her and all the fun we’d had together in the last four years.  We planned to meet again at the end of the summer, but that seemed a long time away.  Too bad she couldn’t come live on the ranch with me.  I could use a buffer against my brothers.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait until the storm passes?” she asked, pulling away.

“It’s not raining yet and the radar showed it clear to the south.  I’ll be fine.”

The ground jerked beneath our feet.  Our eyes widened and we grabbed each other for balance.  Then it started shaking faster, sending us tumbling down.  Screams rose up around us and books spilled from nearby shelves, crashing to the floor.  Was this it?  Was this the earthquake that would finally do us in?  Maybe those folks preaching on street corners had been right after all.

Trish and I huddled against the counter as more than a minute went by with no sign of it letting up.  Justin kneeled next to us muttering about fracking, but unlike his usual bravado he looked worried this time.  We’d had some earthquakes recently, but nothing bad enough to send my heart racing into overdrive.  It had to be at least a 6.0 on the Richter scale.  Maybe higher.

About the time I thought the roof would surely come down on top of us, the shaking stopped.  A moment later a loud roar came from somewhere outside.  I’d never heard anything like it, but the angry sound sent chills down my spine.  What the hell was wrong with this place?  It had been fairly normal when I’d first arrived on campus.  Now a day couldn’t go by without something weird happening.

I stood, dusting myself off.  The ceiling had cracked and bits of plaster had spilled down, but the library didn’t look too bad.  After all that shaking it should have appeared a lot worse.

“I’ve got to go,” I said.

A few other students had the same idea and were already heading for the doors.

Trish gripped the counter as she rose up.  “Are you sure this is a good time to leave?”

“Uh, yeah.  This place is falling apart.  You should go, too.”

She shook her head.  “The library was built to last.  It’ll be fine.”

Trish was the one who worked here.  I had to hope she was right.  A part of me wanted to grab her and force her to leave with me.  With everything that kept happening, it couldn’t be safe to stay here.  She was stubborn, though.  I could see it in the tilt of her chin that she wouldn’t go anywhere.  Crazy woman.

“Just be careful,” I warned.  “The next earthquake could be bigger.”

“I will,” she promised.

We hugged one last time and I hurried toward the doors.  Outside a cool blast of wind hit my face and more thunder rumbled to the west.  There were a handful of people grouped together in front of the clock tower.  I was in such a hurry to get to my truck I didn’t think anything of it until one of them pointed at the sky.

“Holy shit, is that for real?” a guy asked.

I swung my head in the direction of the football stadium and nearly stumbled.

“Are those…”  I couldn’t bring myself to finish.

“Dragons,” a young woman next to me breathed out.

Her words were followed by the snapping of pictures from people’s cell phones.  I blinked, unable to believe it.  Bright flashes of light lit the sky and more of them appeared.  They were fearsome green creatures with wing spans that could rival a small jet.  I counted at least ten of them, flying in every direction.

Several of us moved closer to the bike racks to get a better view as one swooped low, heading for Owen Field.  There wouldn’t be any football games today, but the university bookstore was in the stadium.  Students starting summer classes today would likely be going by there.

One of the dragons paused midair and flapped his leathery wings as he stared at something below.  His jaws opened wide and he let out a stream of fire aimed toward the ground.  Another school building blocked our view of what he targeted, but terrified screams erupted from that direction.  They cut off abruptly a moment later.

My stomach twisted.  Had he just killed them?  Had I stood there and watched as helpless people burned to death?  None of this should have been real—dragons didn’t exist!  I felt a measure of relief when a group of people came running from that direction.  Maybe most of them had escaped the flames.

“Look.  Another one is coming this way!” someone yelled.

I jerked my head to the right.  Just beyond Nielson Hall another green dragon flew straight toward us.  His massive hind legs stretched out and his claws caught on the roof’s edge, wrenching it apart.  Bricks and mortar crashed to the ground.  The dragon was less than two hundred feet away and coming toward us fast.

“Get out of here,” I screamed.

By this time there were about a dozen of us who’d gathered by the bike racks.  People ran in every direction.  I pivoted on my heels and almost tripped over a young woman sprawled on the ground.  Tears streaked down her face as she struggled to get up.  There was no way I could leave her like that.

I leaned down and grabbed her arm.  The dragon swooped right over us, letting out a stream of fire that struck several guys farther down the sidewalk.  The girl made choking noises as we watched the men’s bodies disappear in the flames.  I covered my mouth to keep from gagging as well.  By the time the dragon moved on, there was nothing left but piles of ash.  Even the pavement had been scorched partway through.

“Oh, dear Jesus.  Save us all.”  I turned to find a woman who looked to be in her fifties standing there.  She clutched her purse close to her chest and had an expression of horror on her face.

I could totally relate.  She looked a lot like I felt.

The younger girl whose hand I still held gripped me harder.  “He’s coming back!”

I swung my gaze around to find the dragon circling for another go at us.  Good grief, did these things not give up?  What the hell had we ever done to them?  They acted like rabid beasts who’d escaped an animal sanctuary—except even bigger and more deadly.

Taking hold of both women, I pulled them with me through the maze of sidewalks that made up the campus grounds.  The library entrance wasn’t far, but I didn’t think that was a good idea.  The dragon knocked pieces of one building down with only its claws and its fire could burn through cement.  Who knew what it would do if it saw us going in there?  Trish was inside.  I couldn’t bring the danger to her if I could help it.

I headed around the library to where the path narrowed between buildings.  It would make it harder for the dragon to follow with his massive wingspan.  But he was closing in too fast.  With every beat of his wings the air stirred around us.  It was like a slow drum beat that would end with our deaths.  If I didn’t buy the other two women time, none of us would make it.  With a heavy heart I released my grip on their hands.

“Go!” I urged.  “I’ll catch up.”

The older woman’s eyes met mine.  She knew what I was doing—it was written all over her face—but there was also the understanding that one of us had to make the sacrifice.  With a grateful look, she took the girl’s hand and pulled her along.

I spun around.  The dragon still focused on them and hadn’t altered his flight path.  I had to do something to catch his attention.  A quick plan formed in my mind.

“Hey, jackass.  Over here!” I screamed.

No reaction.  I looked around, searching for something useful.  A book someone had dropped lay on the ground.  I scooped it up and tossed it in his direction.  It went high enough to reach his line of sight before fluttering down about a hundred feet from him.  His beady red eyes narrowed on me.  He swooped lower and headed my way.

I screamed and flailed my arms at him one more time for good measure, pushing back my rising fear, then dashed for one of the pillars that ran alongside the library.  It wasn’t much cover, but it was several feet wide and made of brick.  Surely he couldn’t burn through all of that?

The earth shook with another earthquake just before I reached it.  I lost my balance and stumbled the rest of the way, falling just before I reached the pillar.  My hands and arms scraped the cement as I dragged myself behind it.

Heat like I’d never felt before suffused my lower legs where they stuck out.  I cringed and tried to pull them closer to my chest.  Flames licked the ground on the other side of the pillar, almost reaching my face.  It was all I could do to make my body as small as possible.

I caught sight of the dragon swooping back up as bricks started falling.  A chunk from one hit my arm and another grazed my leg, sending rivulets of pain through me.  I frantically rolled away as what was left of the pillar started to crumble.  My shoulder hit the library wall, stopping me.  I wasn’t far enough yet.  Before I could move another brick crashed in front of my face.  I winced from where a piece of it had cut into my forehead.

I dragged my body along the wall, unsure if the overhang above me would hold with the pillar gone.  Unless I wanted to risk being buried alive, I had to get up.  Slivers of pain shot through my legs as I pulled them under me.  They were bare to my mid-thighs, though my jeans had run to my ankles before.  Had they been burned in the fire?

The dragon was coming back around again in the distance.  My breathing came out ragged as I got to my knees.  I needed to get down the corridor where the women went and try to make it inside another building before it returned.  I’d barely made it to my feet—which were oddly lacking shoes—before a roar filled the air.

A second dragon had entered the scene, coming from Elm Street.  For crying out loud, couldn’t I catch a break?  How many of these things would I have to fight off before I could get to safety?  The new dragon was different from the first in that his scales were a deep red color, and his shoulders were more defined so that he had human-like arms coming from them.  He also had small horns on his head and back.

To my surprise, he didn’t head for me.  As the first dragon swooped down from the north the two collided, tumbling to the ground.  The red one sank his teeth into the neck of his opponent.  He was smaller than the green dragon.  I estimated his body to be about the size of a cow while my initial attacker was more like a small elephant.

As they wrestled across the sidewalk it appeared the red one’s size worked to his advantage.  All the larger dragon could do with his neck caught was flail his legs.  I couldn’t help but watch the fight.  It was like seeing a fantasy version of National Geographic.

With his wings folded tightly against his back, the red dragon rolled until he came out on top.  He clawed at the green one’s belly with his front arms, raking it with deep gashes.  Guts spewed onto the ground.  The green dragon struggled, but in a matter of seconds his flailing slowed to a stop.  I could only guess losing half his organs had done him in.  His legs fell to his side, and his head slumped.

The winner unlatched his teeth and climbed off his opponent.  Then he turned, swinging his red tail around.  I discovered another difference between him and the green dragon when his gaze met mine.  This one had yellow eyes and they showed signs of intelligence I hadn’t seen with the other creature—as if I was looking at a human inside an animal’s body.  He was assessing me, rather than just leaping in for the kill.

My back hit the library wall.  Searching to my left and right, I couldn’t find an easy path away from him.  How was I going to get myself out of this?  He was going to act any second.

 


 

Chapter 2

 

Bailey

The dragon stomped toward me on all four legs, steam puffing from his nostrils.  His nose was as big as both my fists put together.  I grabbed a brick off the ground and clutched it in my hand.  Maybe I should have tried to run—a normal person would have—but being attacked by dragons had spiked my adrenaline.

Whenever that happened it was as if another side of me took over.  I became a person who fought and stood her ground.  More than once my stepfather had marveled at my ability to compartmentalize fear and think clearly when in danger.  My mother hated it.  She feared it would get me hurt or killed someday.

I grew up on a ranch outside of Dallas where we had a lot of land.  When I was ten years old I’d decided to go out fishing by myself.  Along the path to a nearby pond I stumbled across a rattlesnake.  Most people would have run screaming, especially a girl my age.  I chucked a heavy tackle box at the thing.  That didn’t kill it, of course, but it immobilized the snake’s body long enough for me to beat it to death with my fishing pole.

That’s how my stepfather had found me.  Hovering over a mangled snake and pondering whether to get my tackle box back.  It had blood and guts all over it.  Killing a poisonous snake was one thing, touching icky stuff was another.

Now I had an honest-to-God dragon coming at me and once again I refused to panic.  I needed to weigh my options.  With my back against a wall there was nowhere to go before he’d reach me, but there had to be a way out of this mess.  Did the dragon have a weakness I could exploit?  Something to buy me time until I could get to a safe place?

I glanced at my brick—it was all I had.  A heat-seeking missile would have been preferable, but no one had told me we were about to get invaded by mythical beasts, so I didn’t have one on hand.  I looked up at the sky and wished a bolt of lightning would strike my opponent.  The storm wasn’t close enough to make that a possibility yet.  Not that I’d get that lucky.

The red-scaled dragon lumbered closer, less than ten feet away.  His gaze still didn’t show any signs of wildness or rage in it.  The tilting of his head made me think he was curious more than anything.  It’s what stayed my hand as he lowered his head to sniff at my legs.  The heat emanating from his breath warmed the skin of my calves.

I stared down and noted once again that my jeans had been burned off to my upper thighs.  The sandals I’d been wearing earlier were missing, too.  How had I lost half my clothes?  There weren’t any signs of burns, only scratches and bruises.

The dragon inspected all of this as his head inched upward.  His hot nose tickled the skin of my thighs and he let out a puff of steam near my crotch.  Okay, that was just a little too uncomfortable.  I smacked his nose.

“Back off!”

He shook his head and let out a snort, then reared onto his hind legs.  Flames licked up his body, consuming him.  Standing only three feet away, there was no escape from the heat.  I scrambled along the wall sideways, putting as much distance between us as I could.  What had just happened?  Did smacking dragons in the nose trigger some weird reaction?

The flames narrowed and became brighter.  Then a dark shape emerged within them that had me tripping over my own feet to get away.  It looked demonic—like something straight out of Hell.  There was standing my ground and then there was being stupid.

I spun on my heels and took off down the sidewalk that lay between the library and the building next to it.  A growl echoed down the corridor—a really angry one.  I passed by bushes and benches that provided no cover from a menacing dragon and kept going.  There were plenty of paths to take up ahead if I could just get past the library.  The damned building seemed to extend forever.

Through the racing of my heart I caught heavy footsteps behind me.  They didn’t clomp the same way as the dragon’s and sounded more like boots on pavement.  Glancing back, I saw a man with feral yellow eyes wearing strange clothing.  The red dragon was nowhere to be seen.  Shivers raced down my spine as I realized this guy’s attention was focused solely on me and he was racing toward me fast.  Where had he come from?

I gripped the brick in my hand—amazed I still had it—and slowed down.  It took a couple of deep breaths for me to find my calm place.  All the while, the boot steps came closer.  When the man couldn’t have been more than a stride away I spun around with my arm held high.  I launched the brick at his face, but he jerked his head to the side at the last moment.  It grazed his chin instead.

My momentum kept me going into a spiral I couldn’t recover from before the ground came rising up.  The brick slipped from my grasp as I crashed into the ground.  Damn.  I should have planned that better.  The man flipped me over and straddled my waist with his thighs, using his weight to keep me down.

“Get off.”  I tried to shove him away.

“Hold still,” he commanded.

I punched and slapped at him to no avail.  He blocked every move I made.

“No!”

He grabbed my wrists, forcing them to my sides.

“I’m not going to harm you,” he said, enunciating each word slowly.

There was no getting myself free.  The man himself wasn’t overly large, but he had solid definition in his muscles that he used to keep me pinned in place.  His form was lithe and he looked like he could move fast and strike hard.  Had I just gotten myself into even deeper trouble than with the dragons?

“What do you want?” I asked through clenched teeth.

He had short black hair, olive skin, and yellow eyes that slit like a cat’s.  I shuddered.  His looks both attracted and totally repelled me.  He wore tight-fitting black pants and a matching vest.  I didn’t recognize the material, but it looked sort of like leather except the texture was rougher where it rubbed against my skin.  There were no buttons or zippers, only laces.

“To talk to you,” he spoke slowly again, as if he was testing the words.  His tone was deep and guttural.  There was a distinct accent in his voice I couldn’t place.

I studied him, finding no hint of malice.  “Why?”

One corner of his lips curled up.  “You are brave…for a human.”

Romanian.  His accent sounded sort of like that.  Wait.  Did he say human?  Like he wasn’t one?  I narrowed my gaze to study his features more closely.  He had thick brows, a long nose, and sharp cheekbones that all appeared normal enough. It was only his eyes that stood out as different.  Animalistic.

“You’re not the dragon,” I said after taking him in again.

“Am I not?”  His tone came out amused.

“No.”  I shook my head decisively as if that alone could settle it.

He pulled my hand toward his face.  His touch was hotter than any human’s I’d ever felt.  I tried to jerk away from him, but he didn’t let go.  Instead, he lowered his mouth to my palm and blew a light stream of fire over it.  I felt the heat, but it didn’t burn.

“What the…?”

I stared at my hand in amazement, then at him.  He could blow fire from his mouth—and it didn’t hurt me.  This couldn’t be happening.

“Does that convince you?” he asked.

His English was getting better each time he spoke.  It was like he knew the words, but hadn’t had many opportunities to use them.  I’d met a lot of foreign students who talked like that.

I stared at my hand again.  “This isn’t real.”

“No?”  He let go of me and stood up.  “Then what is it?”

“It’s, um…”

I rose onto my elbows.  A picture in my mind flashed of all the people who had burned to death in front of the library.  That had been real.  As real as all the cuts and scrapes that pained me now.  There was no need to pinch myself to check if I was dreaming.  But how had I escaped being burned like the other people?  First my legs had escaped the flames—minus my pants and shoes—and now my palm.

The guy reached a hand down toward me.  “I am called Aidan and you are?”

I stared up at him.  Every instinct cried out that I couldn’t trust him, but I also recognized he hadn’t killed me.  He certainly could have if he’d wanted.  Instead he claimed he didn’t want to hurt me.  A glimpse at the sky revealed dragons flying in the distance—a lot of green ones.  Whether this was real or a dream, I’d play along with it for the moment.

“I’m Bailey.”

As soon as my hand met his he pulled me up to my feet.

“You are…smaller than I expected,” he observed, looking me up and down.  “Almost puny.”

I jerked my hand from his.  “Did you know you have eyes like a snake?  I’ve killed snakes.”

“Good.”  He squeezed my bicep as if testing its strength.  “Perhaps there is hope for you.”

“Hope?  What’s that supposed to mean?”

He gave me an odd look.  “You do not burn.”

“I got that.”  I glanced at my palm again, still surprised to find it whole.  “So?”

“I have enemies—worse than humans,” he replied, as if that explained everything.

“I’m still not getting it.”

He nodded toward the sky.  “Those are not my friends.”

Was that why he’d attacked the green dragon?  Was there some sort of rivalry going on?  He did look different than the others—both his dragon shape and his coloring.

“Why did you guys come here?  And how?” I asked.

His expression darkened.  “We were in a different…world.  The wall that has separated us from you is weakening.”

I searched for a term that might relate to what he meant.

“Like another dimension?”  I cocked my head.

He mulled that over.  “Perhaps.  We were sent away from Earth long ago.”

“How long…”

A red dragon appeared in the sky, flying toward us from the same direction Aidan had come.  I stiffened.

“Do not worry,” he said, glancing at the new arrival.  “This one will not harm you.”

It landed next to the dead dragon Aidan had killed earlier, folded its wings, and sniffed at the carcass.  The man in front of me didn’t seem the least bit concerned.  In fact, he took hold of my arm and made me walk with him to greet the new arrival.  I considered running but knew I wouldn’t get far.  Besides, he had saved me from the last dragon who’d attacked.  It wouldn’t make sense for him to let this one finish me off.

Ihah,” Aidan said in a commanding voice.  “Ti dah garik neeman.”

For a second the dragon just stood there, then it turned around and left.  Spreading its wings to take flight into an ever-darkening sky.  The storm clouds were much closer now and lightning flashed in regular intervals.

“What did you tell him?”  And would those words make his kind go away if I said them?

“I ordered him to go and that…I will join him soon.”  Aidan turned to face me.

“He’s your friend?”

“He is from my toriq,” he paused, “my clan.”

“Can he shape-shift to human form like you?”

“Yes…all of those from my clan can do so,” he replied.

“And the dragon you killed?”

“No.”  Aidan shook his head.  “He cannot.”

At least he was giving me information.  Though I didn’t know if I could trust what he said, I felt compelled to find out all I could.  It could be useful later if they stuck around.

“Does it have something to do with your different color?” I asked.

He nodded.  “Those who have red scales can shift…but do not trust any other dragon.  Only me.”

“Why?”

Thunder rumbled and a flash of lightning cracked nearby.

“I must go.”  He turned and began walking back down the sidewalk.  “I will see you again soon.  Do not talk to other dragons.”

Okay, he seemed to be really stuck on that.  Like I was going to run out and find another one to chat with after he left.

“But…” I had a thousand more questions.

“Soon,” he called back.

Aidan reached the open area away from other buildings and trees where his clan member had landed before.  Flames erupted, covering him completely.  Seconds later they widened and a large dark shape became visible through them.  When the fire died down, he reappeared in his dragon form.  He really could shift.  His leathery wings spread wide and he took off into the air.

Yeah, that settled it.  This day really had been doomed from the start.

 

 


 

Chapter 3

 

Aidan

Taking to the air, Aidan searched for Donar.  His cousin wouldn’t have gone far, especially since most of their clan hadn’t made it through the fracturing walls in their world yet.  They might be strong fighters, but they were severely outnumbered at the moment.  The Shadowan and Thamaran dragon clans—who couldn’t shift to human form—could be ruthless.  It was only the sight of more humans than they’d ever seen before that kept them distracted.

They wanted revenge and he couldn’t say he entirely blamed them.  Humans had taken this world for granted while the dragons suffered in a barely hospitable land for all these centuries.  They’d nearly starved by the time the veil separating them from Earth started to weaken.  Only then did things begin to change and their hopes for a better life returned.

Using his strong sense of smell, Aidan found Donar waiting on the rooftop of a nearby building.  He spread his wings wide and sailed down to land next to his cousin.  They greeted each other with snorts of steam.  It was traditional among dragons in this form.

Why were you talking to the human?” Donar asked, speaking telepathically in their native tongue.

She is the dragon slayer I told you about,” he replied.

His cousin’s eyes widened.  “You are certain?

Aidan had chosen not to tell Bailey about herself yet.  She needed time to adjust to her new reality.  He and the other dragons had been able to see through the veil separating their worlds for nearly two decades, preparing them for what would come.  It had been murky at first, but with each year that passed more sections of Earth became visible.  Yet that advantage had only worked one way.  While humans could accidentally cross into their world, they couldn’t get back.  They were left trapped and waiting to return as well.

On the Earth side, humans saw a rise in earthquakes and extreme weather, but they didn’t know what was happening.  The dragon world experienced the changes to a lesser extent. They did suspect early on it was a side effect of their worlds converging together.  They’d been planning for the day when they could finally cross over and return home after being banished for too long.

It was only a year ago Aidan had caught sight of Bailey through the veil.  He’d kept track of her as best he could, somehow sensing she might be a dragon slayer.  Her features looked similar to another slayer he’d seen—one from his world—and she’d had the mark on her wrist that looked like a star.  It was faint, but he’d confirmed it was the right shape when he’d blown fire onto her palm.

It is her,” he replied with confidence.

Do you think you can win her to our side?”  The tone of Donar’s voice in his head sounded skeptical.

Aidan couldn’t blame his cousin.  The dragon slayers who’d crossed over to their world would never consider working with the enemy, which was why he had to act quickly before he lost his chance with Bailey.  There weren’t many of her kind and he needed her if his plan was to succeed.  He’d been plotting it ever since he’d realized dragons would be returning to Earth soon.

Come. We must find shelter from the storm before it arrives.”

He took flight from the roof.  The last thing he wanted was to get struck by lightning.  It couldn’t burn them, but it had been known to stop a dragon’s heart.

Donar caught up a moment later.  “You didn’t answer my question.

Aidan didn’t respond right away, preferring to focus his attention on finding a good place to take shelter.  The pure dragons were fleeing the area as well, heading north, but Aidan didn’t want to go the same direction as them.  Instead he and his cousin went east.  The storm would eventually reach them this way, but they’d be safely under a roof by then.

A lake came into view ahead.  He knew humans had a tendency to put homes close to bodies of water.  It was an instinct most forms of life had.  He passed one house after another until he found one with no signs of occupancy.  Landing next to it, he listened closely and sniffed the air.  No, no humans had been here in a while.

He shifted to his other form.  His cousin did the same, turning into a man who looked to be in his late twenties by human standards—though he was much older.  Donar had the same olive skin color and short black hair as Aidan, but he was larger and had a square face.  His cousin tended to move stiffly, as if someone had fused a sword to his spine.  It was only when Donar fought that his movements became more fluid.

“I will give her some time,” Aidan finally responded, speaking aloud.  “The slayer must witness for herself how difficult getting rid of the pure dragons can be without training.  Then I will approach her again.”

If she survived long enough.  If she didn’t, then she was not the right one for his needs anyway.

Donar grunted.  “That may only convince her not to work with you.”

“You think I can’t convince her?”  He lifted a brow.

His cousin was one of the few who knew Aidan and how conniving he could be when necessary.  It kept him alive.  Each day he continued to breathe was a testament to his skills at making others see him the way he wished.  It wasn’t often a third son survived as long as he did when his father was the pendragon—the clan chief.

“Even for you this will be difficult,” Donar said, following him into the cabin.  “Every one of her instincts is going to tell her not to trust you.”

Aidan settled onto a musty couch and put his arms behind his head.  Human furniture was far more comfortable than anything he’d ever sat on before.  Dragons had ways of building things to be durable and resistant to fire, but not very soft.  It was a luxury to sit on something with thick cushions.

“I must make her trust me.”  Aidan glanced over at his cousin, who remained standing.  “It isn’t just my survival that depends on it.”

“That’s what has me worried,” Donar said, beginning to pace the room.  “I suspect things could get worse for us once the rest of the clan crosses over.  Your father is growing weak and won’t be able to lead much longer.”

Aidan’s jaw hardened.  “I know.  Believe me, that is all I think about.”

“The slayer is small.  Perhaps too small.”

He had already considered that.   “Perhaps, but with the right training she could use her size to her advantage.”

“We could search for another…”

“No,” he said, leaning forward.  “This is the one.”

“How can you be so sure?”  Donar gave him a frustrated look.

“Because it’s in her blood to be one of the best.”

 


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