First three chapters of Forged by Flames and a publishing update

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m running a little behind on getting through final edits.  It’s likely that I won’t be uploading Forged by Flames onto the retailers until sometime on Saturday (October 29th).  My apologies for the delay! For anyone who would like an alert once the novel is available, you can sign up for my release alert list here.  You are able to select which retailer/format you use so you’ll only get an email when the book is available with your preferences.

In the meantime, I’m providing the first three chapters of the novel for you to read while you wait.  Hope this helps 🙂

 

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Chapter 1

 Bailey

I clutched the steering wheel and searched for a threat, any threat. The last gasps of autumn were approaching now that November was almost over, which meant dragons on the west side of Norman, Oklahoma had been out in force searching for enough food to get them through the coldest days of winter when they’d be stuck in their dens semi-hibernating. Though there were still plenty of cows and wildlife in the nearby countryside outside of town, some of them had developed a taste for humans.

“Where in the hell are they?” I glanced over at my slaying partner, Conrad, who sat in the passenger seat of the truck. He held a loaded crossbow with the front aimed at the floorboard, ready to lift and shoot out the window if we came across danger. Conrad wasn’t flame-proof like me, but he could do some damage from a distance while I went after the dragons up close with my trusty sword. He’d been working out more too and building up his already toned muscles to give him that much more of an edge. The extra strength came in handy if he had to release a rapid succession of bolts or carry me to safety if I got badly injured during the fight.

The dark-skinned nineteen-year-old—wait, that’d be twenty since his birthday was two weeks ago—gave me a grim look. “You’ve killed so many of them, I’m willin’ to bet they’re hiding from you.”

I ground my jaw. “Only three this week and it’s Wednesday. I need to kill more.”

Conrad had no idea how much I needed it, considering the dark and deadly side of me was something I tried to keep well-hidden from my friends. Slaying was the only way to bring relief to the irrepressible instincts that drove me to attack dragons wherever I could find them. To a certain extent, I’d learned to control myself, but lately I hadn’t found many reasons to bother. The motivation to curb my killing desires had been for the sake of the red shifter dragons—some of whom I’d become allies with since they weren’t a threat to humans. I hadn’t seen much of them lately, though.

“Maybe we could address the big elephant in the room,” he said, arching a brow.

I stopped at an intersection and leaned forward in my seat, taking the opportunity to get a better look around for any fire-breathing beasts. “We’re in a truck—not a room.”

“You know what I mean, Bailey.”

I didn’t look at him or say anything. It was a topic I’d been avoiding for a while now.

“Ever since we rescued those kids you’ve been actin’ different. You’re all weird and cagey and shit. About the only time I see you smile is right after you kill a dragon.” Conrad ran a hand over his short tufts of hair that he’d started growing out recently. “Don’t think I didn’t notice this all started about the time Aidan stopped comin’ around.”

I stiffened. He wasn’t wrong, though Conrad wasn’t aware of the full story. No one knew that after we fought a major battle against the pure dragons at the Norman airport—to rescue a group of children and push the clan out of town—Aidan and I had met again later that night.

Fresh from battle and our blood still pumping, the attraction between us had been higher than ever. Aidan had also been working through his feelings because he lost his father—the pendragon—during the fight. They hadn’t been on the best of terms, which only made him feel worse. Alone in Aidan’s lair, we’d taken comfort in each other’s arms. It had been one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and the scariest.

Considering he was a shape-shifter, a rare breed among dragon-kind compared to the pure beasts that outnumbered them ten-to-one in the world, and I was a slayer born to slaughter all fire-breathing creatures, it probably wasn’t the smartest move on our part. Still, it was one of those moments I’d remember forever.

We’d grown close over the months he’d been training me to slay his enemies—the pure dragons—and I’d learned to trust Aidan despite my instincts. In his human form, he could be more civilized than half the people I’d met since D-day (the arrival of the dragons) six months ago. Despite that, a relationship between us couldn’t work. I’d been doing my best to accept that the same way I had to accept fighting dragons for the rest of my life. Slayers didn’t get sick or age. They always died in battle and usually before they reached thirty. Every day I survived was a gift. I had to do everything I could to get back to my family in Texas before my slayer heritage got me killed. Aidan was the key to doing that, and I needed to stop thinking of him as anything more.

“The new pendragon is keeping him away,” I said, pressing on the gas pedal. The truck jerked forward, and we continued our way north on 36th Avenue.

“Yeah, I bet he did after he found out about you.” Conrad paused and narrowed his eyes at me. “But do you think the pendragon suspects you and Aidan are getting a little too close?”

I jerked the wheel, almost sending us off the road. It took a moment to get the truck under control again. “What are you talking about?”

“You ain’t foolin’ me, girl. You’ve got that whole angry and bitter vibe goin’ on. That’s the real reason you started spending almost every day out here huntin’ dragons—to avoid thinking about what you can’t have.”

I tensed, realizing Conrad was right. For those first few weeks, after I last saw Aidan, I stayed at his lair most of the time until the need to hunt dragons overwhelmed me. It hurt not being able to see him. Then Aidan’s sister, Phoebe, came by and told me her brother had been sent far away to patrol their clan’s borders. I’d realized I needed to stop fantasizing that there could ever be anything serious between us. My family needed me, and I’d nearly allowed my emotions for a dragon shifter to make me forget about the people I loved. If not for the giant chasm running parallel to the Oklahoma border with Texas, separating me from my mother and step-father, plus a huge clan of pure dragons who wouldn’t be easy to get past, I’d have gone home already.

“I know it can’t ever work,” I said, shooting Conrad a look. “So I don’t want to hear another lecture.”

His eyebrow raised in disbelief. “But do you really accept it?”

“It doesn’t matter what I accept. What matters is I know what I have to do,” my voice came out clipped.

I didn’t want to talk about this with him or anyone else. The more I discussed it, the more it bothered me—and not just because of Aidan. There were still days where I woke up surprised the world was filled with dragons, and that I was expected to slay them. Never mind that I might have begun to fall in love with one of the damn beasts. My future was never supposed to be like this. I’d just finished college when the apocalypse began and had meant to return home to my parents’ ranch to help them run it. Then my whole life spiraled out of control on that fateful day back in May. The only thing I could do now was keep slaying the beasts that were ruining the world and work on getting back to my family.

Conrad was quiet for a minute. “Alright. I’ll let it go, but only cuz you look miserable enough without me making it worse.”

I snorted. “At least you’ve got someone you can care about openly.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” he said, smiling at the mention of Christine. We’d rescued her and her daughter after a tornado struck Norman shortly after D-day. That was the beginning of her and Conrad’s relationship, though they’d gotten even closer after we rescued Christine’s daughter, Lacy, from a dragon that had kidnapped her and a few other human children in town.

“It’s good you have somebody,” I said, truly happy for him.

“Thanks,” he replied, then frowned and looked away.

“What is it?”

He shook his head. “Nothin’. Let’s just find some dragons for you to kill.”

That was strange. Conrad usually didn’t keep anything from me, but I wouldn’t push him for now. The tone of his voice made it clear he wasn’t ready to open up about whatever was bothering him.

“Okay, but I’m here if you need to talk.”

He glanced at me. “Yeah, I know.”

In the middle of the road ahead, a middle-aged woman with long, brown hair streaked with gray appeared out of nowhere. I slammed on the brakes, jerking us forward in our seats as the tires screeched across the pavement. The truck came to a stop about twenty feet from where she stood.

“I’m going to kill her,” I swore, rubbing the side of my neck where the seatbelt had dug into my skin.

Conrad slowly removed his clenched fingers from the dashboard. “Not if I get to her first.”

We hadn’t seen Verena in weeks. The sorceress revealed herself when and where she chose. Mostly, you had to be useful to her in some way, or she didn’t waste her time with you. It didn’t escape me that if she was showing up now, she wanted something. I glanced at my pistol where it rested in the center console, but before I could make up my mind on whether to carry through with my dark thoughts, I found myself unbuckling my seatbelt and getting out of the truck. The damn sorceress had taken over my free will again.

Fighting every step, I nevertheless made my way toward her. It irritated me to no end that while I could feel every part of my body, I couldn’t control myself. Too bad being a dragon slayer didn’t diminish her ability to manipulate me. Sometimes I wondered if sorcerers were the ones who created slayers like me in the first place—to battle the beasts for them. All I knew was that my race had been around for thousands of years, and the ability to fight dragons was passed down through the family lines. We got greater speed, strength, and immunity to fire, but magic still worked just fine on us. It was damned inconvenient.

Verena clasped her hands together in front of her. The slender woman was wearing a purple, flowery skirt and a beige tank top today. It seemed wrong that she could look that normal with so much power behind her hazel eyes. She was born more than a thousand years ago, but according to her, she’d been under a sleep spell when the dragons were sent to another dimension, and she didn’t wake up until a little over twenty years ago. By outward appearances, she looked like she was in her early forties. I wouldn’t have called her beautiful, more like average with a thin nose that looked like it had been pinched a few too many times, but she kept herself clean and well-groomed—which was better than a lot of other people since the apocalypse.

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

She lifted a brow. “It’s time.”

The tight hold she had on my body eased a fraction, allowing me to speak without struggling as much. “Time for what?”

“To repay me for the favor you owe,” she said, an Irish lilt in her voice.

I tensed. No matter how much I’d anticipated this would come up eventually, there had been no way to prepare for it. Last summer, Conrad had been shot by some human looters, and he’d been dying. I’d had to do something to save him. This was before my friend, Danae, discovered she was a sorceress with an affinity toward healing. The only person I knew back then who might be able to help was Verena, so I’d taken a chance on her. She wasn’t a very strong healer, but she had enough skills to keep Conrad alive and eventually get him back on his feet. I’d been willing to agree to a future favor in return without even knowing what it might be because he was my friend, and I’d do anything for him. There’d been no choice at the time.

“So what’s it going to be?” I really hoped it didn’t involve something horrific.

Verena smiled. “Nothing as dreadful as what you’re thinking. You will be going on a journey soon to locate a long-lost artifact—an orb to be precise. Once you have recovered it, you will give it to me. That is all.”

“Um, I hate to break it to you, but I don’t have any upcoming travel plans, and I don’t know anything about a lost orb.” Her hold on me was slowly slipping—she couldn’t maintain it for long—and I managed to wiggle my fingers.

“You will soon enough,” she said, confident.

I wasn’t sure how Verena’s predictions worked, but she did seem to have a knack for knowing about things that would happen in the near future. That must have been how she could always find me. If she said I’d be going on a journey, then it was probably true. “Why do you want this artifact?”

She gave me a cryptic smile. “I have my reasons, but they aren’t any of your concern—yet.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of two dragons flying in the distance. They were headed toward a nearby neighborhood. What little hold the sorceress had over me was quickly diminishing with my need to fight the beasts, and I took a step forward. It appeared when it came to dragons; they took precedence over her magic.

Verena followed my gaze and a look of satisfaction came over her. “I see you’ve got work to do.”

I forced my gaze back to her, needing an answer to my question before I could leave. “What is so important about the orb?”

“It is a matter of life and death, and I must have it.” She narrowed her gaze. “Do not even consider giving it to anyone else…or you will regret that decision.”

“What are you going to do? Kill me?” I took two more steps toward her, glaring.

“Oh no, my dear.” She shook her head. “But you do not want to find out what happens when you forsake a promise made.”

Maybe not, but a sorceress who liked to take control of my body without my permission and manipulate me couldn’t be up to any good if she wanted an orb. Never mind the question of why she couldn’t get it herself. “I’m not giving it to you.”

Her expression turned ominous. “Think very hard about that because if I don’t get it, very bad things will happen to you and those you care for.”

My palm grazed the hilt of my dagger, strapped to my leg harness. “If you hurt my friends, I will kill you.”

“I am not the one you need to be worried about.” Her gaze turned pitying. “Just get me the orb and all will be well.”

“You can forget it if you think…”

A breeze swept over us, and she disappeared. Damn it all to hell—I still needed answers! Where was this orb supposed to be located? Why did she want it, and what did she plan to do with it? Most important of all—what would happen if I did somehow get the thing and didn’t give it to her?

Up in the sky, I caught sight of the dragons swooping toward a neighborhood down the street. The terrifying sounds of human screams rose up, chilling me to the bone. One of the beasts blew flames at a target I couldn’t see, but I knew there had to be people in its fiery path. I had to hurry if I hoped to save the neighborhood in time. Curse Verena for distracting me from my job when people were in danger.

I spun toward Conrad. “Get me my sword and move the truck off the road.”

He was already ahead of me, tossing the sheathed blade in my direction. “Here!”

I caught it by the handle and took off running. Conrad knew the drill well enough to know he had to hang back until the battle was over. Then he’d help me clean up the mess that came after.

 

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Chapter 2

Aidan

 Warm air glided through Aidan’s scales and past his wingtips. He enjoyed the comforting feel of it, knowing there wouldn’t be many days left like this in the year. They’d just suffered through the first major cold spell last week. Every morning, frost had covered the thick vegetation of southeast Oklahoma, and his breath had fogged the air. Aidan and his patrol partner, Falcon, had barely been able to muster the energy for their border patrols.

Dragons did not handle low temperatures well. Once it became cold enough, they would have to hibernate through most of it. As shape-shifters, Aidan and Falcon could change into human form and withstand the winter weather better, but they wouldn’t cover nearly as much ground on foot. Their clan, or toriq in the dragon language, relied on the patrols to keep them safe. The primary advantage they had was that the green dragons on the other side—the Bogaran—were pure and could not shift or handle the cold as well as them. Aidan and Falcon had only seen one of them in the past week, and that one had flown sluggishly on its side of the border, paying little attention to the red shifters on the west side.

The recent calm had been a welcome respite from the tensions between his toriq—the Taugud—and the dragons in Arkansas. The Bogaran weren’t happy with the shifters confiscating a stretch of their territory and pushing them out of Oklahoma. They’d attempted several raids over the border in the past few months since they’d lost it, but they didn’t make it far before Aidan, Falcon, or some of the others patrolling the area had stopped them. With any luck, the arrival of winter would cease the Bogaran’s attempts altogether. They had more than enough territory for a toriq their size, perhaps five thousand dragons taking up half of Arkansas and part of Louisiana. They did not need the small section they lost. It was the main reason Aidan and his people had been able to take it without much difficulty last summer.

Do you smell that? Falcon asked telepathically. The red dragon flew a short distance ahead with his nose sniffing the air.

Aidan inhaled deeply and caught a faint whiff of Bogaran stench. There are two of them nearby—about three miles southeast of us.

The warm weather has brought them back out. Falcon let out a snarl and led the way closer to the border.

They flew over a forest of trees that rose and dipped with the rolling terrain. Most of the vegetation had withered and yellowed with the approaching winter, but there were still pine trees dotting the landscape to break the monotony of color. Aidan hadn’t seen many humans since he began his patrol duties in this area. Before his toriq took over, the pure dragons had laid waste to numerous towns. Some of them had been burned completely to the ground with only scorch marks remaining. Very few things could survive dragon fire, and human-made structures were not among them. They still found some houses and neighborhoods left alone, though. The Bogaran must have been saving them for future raids, but the Taugud would never allow that to happen now. The shifters preferred to live in harmony with humans whenever possible and protect them from the pure dragons.

Aidan had attempted to make contact with the clusters of humans he occasionally scented, but even in his human form they were too suspicious and fearful of him to talk. He’d grown tired of pulling bullets from his body—not that they could do much damage—and decided to let them be. Humans needed time to see the shifters meant them no harm, and Aidan could hardly blame them for their anxiety.

His gaze caught on two green dragons coming over the trees in the distance. They had slender necks and shoulders leading to large, round bellies. Their forearms were short without much of a reach, but they had sharp talons protruding from their feet and long tails that could whip around in the blink of an eye. Full grown pure dragons could be almost twice a shifter’s size or more. Their weight and strength made them difficult opponents, but not impossible to defeat.

The wind picked up, bringing with it the distinct stench of dragon urine. The Bogaran patrol was marking its territory on the other side of the border. It was a warning to those from any other toriq to stay away. The beast within Aidan growled, demanding he cover the scent with his own. His inner dragon had different priorities and did not care about politics or rules. He existed as a separate entity, almost always trapped within the recesses of Aidan’s mind, but he could be even more feral than the pure dragons. It was a constant battle to keep him contained.

As far as Aidan knew, most shifters did not have to live with their beasts constantly trying to claw their way to the surface, but he’d always been more in touch with his inner dragon—even more so in recent months. His relationship with Bailey had somehow brought that side of him out. Beast liked the slayer and wanted Aidan to form a stronger bond with her. Something about the slayer called to him, defying all reason.

One of the Bogaran roared and let out a billow of fire. The flames hung mid-air for a moment before extinguishing. Why don’t you come over and join us?

Aidan winced at the menacing voice inside his head. The dragon had spoken telepathically in a method any of their kind could hear within a short distance. Falcon growled, signaling he had heard the message as well.

Aidan and his patrol partner flew until they were no more than a handful of wingspans from the border and stopped. They wouldn’t cross the invisible line, but they did make it clear to the two Bogaran males that they would get a fight if they came much closer. The green dragons hovered approximately fifty feet away, and despite their taunting, they knew the odds were not in their favor. Their bodies might be larger and stronger than the shifters, but they were also slower and less agile. Would they risk it anyway? Aidan and the beast inside hadn’t gotten a good battle for a while. He half-hoped the dragons would give him a reason to let off some steam.

Think we’ll get a fight? Aidan asked Falcon, using a private line of communication.

The other shifter, who was a few hundred years older and more experienced, glanced at him. It is difficult to say. We have already killed several members of their toriq who made that mistake.

That much was true, but the last deadly battle they’d faced against a Bogaran patrol was nearly four weeks ago. Aidan doubted the peace could hold much longer. These dragons were young adults, judging by their shiny, unmarred scales. They couldn’t have been more than fifty or sixty years old. This could very well have been their first important assignment since leaving their mothers’ nests, and they’d be looking to prove themselves. It was rather surprising they’d been entrusted with such a task.

I believe they might risk it, Aidan said.

The green dragons inched closer. Falcon let out a warning growl, one that should have struck fear in the youths’ hearts. The Bogaran paused for only a moment, however, before continuing forward. Like two children, they were edging closer to forbidden fruit.

Falcon shot a look over his shoulder at Aidan. I think you may be right.

Are you too scared to meet us? one of them taunted.

Stay on your side, Aidan warned. As much as he wouldn’t have minded a good fight, battling these young ones would be too easy. He would get no joy from hurting or killing them.

The green dragon on the left let out a snort. And if we don’t?

You will not live to regret the decision, Falcon replied.

The youths let out enraged growls and surged forward. Aidan and Falcon prepared themselves for the moment their opponents reached them, each taking a battle stance with their claws out. They adjusted their altitude to about five-hundred feet off the ground, forcing their attackers to come up to them. That left enough room for maneuvering, but it wasn’t so high they couldn’t survive a fall.

Just as the four of them were about to clash, a loud roar sounded from behind the Bogaran youths. They spread their wings wide and jerked to a halt right before crossing the border. A moment later, a large green beast came into sight. Its body was so massive that it had to be almost three times Aidan’s size. They only grew to that proportion if they primarily dined on human flesh and lived to become ancients—rare dragons who survived well beyond the normal life expectancy. Bailey’s first kill had been an ancient, and it was a miracle she’d survived that battle without Aidan’s assistance. The slayer’s advantage had been that her opponent underestimated her.

Shifitt, Aidan cursed. That one will not be easy to take down.

It was coming toward them fast, eying Aidan and Falcon like it wanted them for its next meal. And with a dragon such as that one, it was entirely possible. Had this been a setup to bring them closer? The gleam in the younger Bogarans’ eyes made him suspect as much. No wonder they’d been brave, though they were quickly backing away now.

I can handle the big one, Falcon said, if you take care of the other two. I do not want them attacking us from behind if we only concentrate on the ancient. That is likely what they are planning.

Aidan eyed his patrol partner. He was the strongest warrior in their toriq, but would that be enough against this raging beast?

Are you certain? Aidan asked.

Falcon kept his gaze on the incoming dragon. Yes.

Left with no other choice if he didn’t want to insult the warrior, he went after the two younger Bogaran. They’d moved a short distance away, but not far, and they were already gazing at Aidan with the confidence of two fighters who thought they had the advantage. From behind Aidan, he heard Falcon clash with the older dragon. Their roars and growls filled the air, and it was all he could do not to turn around. Instead, he kept his focus on the younger ones.

Aidan stretched his arms out, using his greater reach to advantage, and slashed at the closest Bogaran’s eyes before it could touch him. The dragon yelped and wrenched away, swiping at his bloodied eyes. A talon cut through the edge of Aidan’s right wing. He jerked as pain rippled through him, but it would take a lot more damage than that to bring him down. He turned to face his attacker. Because of the pure dragon’s shorter forearms, he’d had to come very close to make that slice. Aidan reached out and grabbed the youth’s head. Using all his strength, he dragged the Bogaran through the air and rammed him into his friend. Their wings collided and crumpled into each other. The blinded one clawed at the air, unable to keep himself aloft. He fell, heading for the sea of trees below.

The other dragon regained control of his wings and went after Aidan again. His jaws opened wide, spewing a stream of fire. It blinded Aidan but didn’t stop him. He reached through the flames and grabbed the youth’s upper and lower jaw, knowing exactly where they’d be. With a wrench, he pulled them far apart until a crack broke the air. The dragon let out a strangled scream, his flames dying down. Aidan grabbed one of his wings and spun him toward the trees where his friend had disappeared. He could only hope this served as a lesson to all the Bogaran that the Taugud were not to be taken lightly.

With one last glance to be certain the youths would not be coming back for more, he flew toward Falcon. The warrior was still locked in a deadly battle with the larger dragon. Blood and wounds covered his body. He was holding his own so far, but the weak flapping of his wings and his slowing strikes said he didn’t have much left to give.

Aidan altered his flight path. He could not help his friend from the front without getting in the way, but he could attack the green dragon from behind. As the ancient bit into Falcon’s arm, Aidan flew straight into the large beast’s back. He wrapped his arms around the dragon’s neck and with all his strength, he squeezed. It was a lot like trying to break the trunk of an old tree with one’s bare hands. This ancient was built sturdy and strong. Aidan failed to even cut off his air supply, and the dragon continued to gnaw on Falcon’s arm. This was going to require far more drastic measures.

He hooked his feet into the dragon’s belly, while still holding the neck, and spoke telepathically to Falcon. Fold your wings and force the ancient to take your weight.

You can’t be serious, the warrior snarled.

Aidan could hardly blame him. I know it will hurt, but you are going to have to trust me.

After a slew of curses, Falcon complied and folded his wings. As soon as Aidan saw it, he did the same. The ancient had to flap twice as hard now that he held the weight of two shifters. Still, he did not let go of Falcon’s arm. Aidan caught the top of the green dragon’s right wing and pulled it downward at an awkward angle. They began to plummet. The ancient growled and let go of Falcon, who spread his wings to take flight again.

Move away. I will take it from here, Aidan said.

He couldn’t see if the warrior did as he instructed. The ancient was twisting its head around, attempting to snap at Aidan with razor-sharp incisors. Shifters might have the greater reach in their arms, but their necks were short. Not so with the pure dragons. They could turn their heads behind them, though Aidan had always gotten the sense it was awkward for them. His grip loosened when one of the ancient’s furious snaps grazed his snout. With his feet, he dug his talons into the dragon’s back and legs to rip through the scales and into the softer tissue underneath. The dragon twisted and jerked, causing Aidan to lose hold of the beast’s right wing where he’d still been clutching it. He could barely hold on with his remaining arm now. His opponent was stronger than anything he’d ever fought before. They spiraled through the air as the ancient did everything he could to knock Aidan off of him.

Then he felt a jerk, and they were both being pulled downward. The dragon let out an angry roar.

Let go! Donar screamed into his head.

Where had his cousin come from? He was supposed to be down in Texas helping the Faegud with their masonry work as part of the new treaty agreement. Aidan had been so busy fighting the ancient he hadn’t kept track of where they were going, but surely the battle hadn’t gone that far south. The toriq lived a couple of hundred miles away, by human measurement.

Trusting his cousin, Aidan let go and backed away. He looked down to discover Donar and another shifter tearing at the bottom of the ancient’s wings as he attempted to stay in the air. Falcon returned to the fight and bit into the green dragon’s neck, crunching it with his powerful jaws. The ancient’s struggles weakened, and within a few seconds his body went slack. Donar led a countdown, and they each let go of the dragon at the same time, allowing the body plummet to the earth in a crumpled heap. Aidan soared to the ground, landing next to the ancient to check its breath. The dragon showed no sign of life. With the gaping wound in its neck, exposing the insides of its throat, Aidan didn’t doubt it was dead.

Donar landed next to him, folding his red wings. Dear Zorya. That was a big beast. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that large.

Neither have I, Aidan said. What are you doing here? I thought you would still be in Texas.

My time there ended yesterday, so I returned to the fortress. Donar paused to nod at Falcon and the other shifter who landed nearby. I thought I would be able to relax for a few days, but this evening the pendragon sent me to fetch you.

Why? Aidan asked.

The pendragon had made it very clear he wanted Aidan to stay far away from the fortress and the human town of Norman, which was why he’d been on border duty for the last two months. Nanoq didn’t want him anywhere near Bailey and didn’t trust that Aidan would stay away from the slayer on his own. It was ridiculous since he had no intention of breaking his promise, but the pendragon was still solidifying his place as the toriq’s new leader and would not take any chances. Nanoq was already uncomfortable with the idea of a slayer in his territory, and that Aidan had allied with her in secret. It would take time to earn his trust again.

Then a grim thought occurred to him. Does this have anything to do with the mating festival?

He did not say, Donar replied, shaking his head. Only that you must come at once, and I had to bring your replacement with me.

I assume that is him. Aidan glanced toward the shifter who had arrived with his cousin. He didn’t know him, other than he was one of the toriq’s stronger warriors. If Falcon must be left with someone else, especially now that he was wounded, that male would do.

Donar followed his gaze. It is.

Then let us go. I would like to be back in time for the midnight meal. Aidan didn’t want to think too hard yet on what could have caused the pendragon to call him back. Whatever it was, it had to be important, but he truly hoped it had nothing to do with the mating festival. Now that Aidan had been intimate with Bailey, he wanted no other female. She might be a slayer, but he’d decided once the time was right he would claim her as his own. He was confident she would return his feelings and give their relationship a chance.

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Chapter 3

Aidan

 Aidan and Donar flew for several hours to reach the Taugud fortress. The sun set during their journey, but clear skies and a full moon made their travel easy enough. Occasionally, they caught the scent of wood burning. With the nights turning cooler, some humans were risking using their fireplaces. They had no idea dragons could scent the smoke from miles away—not that shifters would bother them over it.

The fortress came into view ahead. Moonlight reflected off the walls, rendering the dark gray stone almost luminescent. Shifters in human form paced the ramparts and stood in the guard towers rising from each corner. There hadn’t been any direct attacks on their home in a long time, but they remained vigilant. It was only a matter of time before the pure dragons tried again. Long ago, the fortress had been designed so that no one could enter in their beast form. Every rooftop and wall had sharp spikes protruding from them. There were also tall obelisks with pointed ends rising from the wider walkways to discourage landing in the open areas.

No dragon could fly into the keep without severely damaging its wings. Shifters had learned thousands of years ago that this was the safest way for them to live, but it didn’t mean they were completely safe in their homes. There had been attacks in the past. If enough of the pure dragons came, they could eventually break down the fire-proof walls with brute force. Aidan knew of this happening once after the fortress was built—long before he was born. His toriq suffered many losses in that battle, but they did manage to prevent the invaders from gaining entrance. The one damaged section was subsequently rebuilt and reinforced. The pure dragons had long since learned they would have to engage in a protracted battle and be prepared for many of their brethren to die if they wished to destroy the fortress and its inhabitants. They seemed to have given up on the idea for now, but shifters knew better take their safety for granted.

Aidan landed in the clearing in front of the fortress and changed to human form. His camrium uniform closed over him like a second skin. It was soft and supple, comparable to the human version of leather. The difference being they processed their cloth differently, and they made it fireproof. Shifters could blow flames in human or dragon form, and their skin ran so hot it could burn most types of materials, given enough time. They had no choice except to wear special cloth derived from the black camria plant and reinforce it with magic. Aidan had manufactured several of Bailey’s warrior uniforms with the material so that she could fight her battles without risking the loss of her garments in dragon fire.

Donar grunted. “Are you ready?”

“As I will ever be.” As much as Aidan missed living in the fortress, there had been one advantage to his border guard assignment. He could avoid what he was about to face, and it wasn’t the pendragon that concerned him at the moment.

They headed for the gate entrance, and the two shifters standing there stiffened. A gleam of distrust filled their yellow eyes when their gazes caught on Aidan. It had been that way ever since the battle with the Shadowan a couple of months ago when his toriq discovered he’d been working with a dragon slayer. Bailey had stepped into the fight when she saw the shifters were becoming overwhelmed by the pure dragons. It didn’t matter that Aidan had made an ally who helped his people—they didn’t like that she was with a slayer. Their two races were natural-born enemies, and it was difficult to change that way of thinking.

Nanoq, the pendragon, didn’t send Aidan away only because he was angry about Bailey. He also sent him to the border to give the toriq time to recover from the shocking news. Unfortunately, it didn’t appear as though enough time had passed.

Donar gave Aidan a commiserating glance, and they continued on their way. No one knew his cousin had helped Bailey train to fight as well. It was best if Aidan took the full blame for that and kept anyone else involved out of it. Such as his sister, Phoebe, who only discovered the secret a couple of weeks before the others in their toriq.

The walk through the main thoroughfare filled him with discomfort. Shop vendors and artisans each gave Aidan the cold shoulder as he passed by them. Shifters milling about stepped out of the way, unwilling to even brush shoulders with him. His gut clenched. It hurt that they couldn’t see past their prejudices to realize he’d allied with the slayer for their benefit, and he would never do anything to put his brethren in danger.

The only people who didn’t give him bitter looks were the humans. There were about a hundred of them living in the keep, mostly refugees who’d crossed into the dragon dimension, Kederrawien, before it merged with Earth a little over six months ago. They had no reason to distrust a dragon slayer and likely enjoyed the idea of someone among their race who could fight back.

Aidan and Donar nearly made it to the end of the thoroughfare when Ruari stepped into their path, his bald head gleaming in the moonlight. He was a large male with heavy muscles and a warrior’s build, but his physique was just for show and intimidation. If one paid close attention, they could find signs of deceit and treachery swimming in the shifter’s yellow gaze. Ruari preferred to avoid physical confrontations by making himself appear too large to fight. His real talent lay in attacking his enemies through more underhanded means—ones Aidan had been the recipient of a few times over the years. Ruari used lies and manipulation to get what he wanted.

“I can see you are getting the greeting from our brethren you deserve, brother,” he said.

Aidan gave him a hard look. “At least I’ve been making myself useful. What have you been doing?”

His brother had always been the jealous type. The moment Aidan began to build any esteem among their people, Ruari always found a way to ruin it. He might not have had a hand in their brethren’s current dislike of Aidan—a miracle considering his brother found out about Bailey days before everyone else—but Ruari would be sure to stoke the flames of their toriq’s mistrust.

The shifter smiled. “Not to worry—the pendragon sends me out on regular missions. I’ve caught glimpses of your slayer running about fighting the Thamaran recently. I must admit she’s a pretty thing, if a little skinny for my taste.”

It was all Aidan could do to hold himself in check and not attack his elder brother. Ruari had a way of getting under his skin, but he’d had two centuries to get used to the barbs and insults. Aidan would not fall into his trap, especially with so many observers there to witness it.

“If she was fighting the Thamaran, how could you have seen it?” he asked, lifting a brow.

Ruari shrugged. “She stays close enough to our border it is not difficult to observe from our side.”

“That’s brave of you, brother. I didn’t think you had the courage to get that close to the pure dragons on your own,” Aidan said, unable to help himself.

“You would be surprised what I’m capable of,” Ruari growled.

Phoebe, their sister, pushed her way through the crowd. She was a large-boned woman with toned muscles and the ideal build for a female warrior. Her long, black hair was pulled back with a tie on top of her head and left to hang down in the back like a horse’s tail. Only a single strand of silver fell across her face. She had light, olive skin, and features that made every available male in their toriq stare when she walked past. The stride she took left no one in doubt of her confidence or lack of concern about what they thought of her.

She took one look at their older brother and narrowed her eyes. “Don’t you have guard duty right now?”

Ruari’s face turned red. “That’s none of your business.”

“If you plan to keep standing here harassing our younger brother, I’ll make it my business.” She put her hands on her hips. “We both know what you’re doing, and it needs to stop.”

That was Aidan’s sister—the peacemaker among siblings. After a moment of hesitation, Ruari stomped off. He didn’t like being outnumbered, and he didn’t have their eldest brother, Zoran, to back him up anymore. Zoran was currently locked in the dungeons for his complicity in an attempted murder and would stay there until it was time for his banishment. He’d made the mistake of conspiring to kill the man who later became pendragon—the fool. Aidan was rather ashamed he was related to two such evil brothers and figured it probably didn’t make things any easier for him with the clan. Only Phoebe continued to cast a bright light for their family. They’d fallen far from their previously lofty position in recent months, and even the esteem his sister garnered could only help them so much.

“He’s been miserable and lonely,” Phoebe said, watching their elder brother go.

Aidan snorted. “Good.”

“I second that,” Donar added, finally breaking his silence now that their company had left.

He hated Ruari to such a degree that Aidan worried one day his cousin might kill him. Donar had a temper simmering below the surface he hid well, but if he ever let it loose outside of battle, the results could be devastating. Most people didn’t know that about Aidan’s cousin, considering he kept to himself and didn’t show off his fighting skills, but Ruari had played a part in Donar nearly dying from poison. His cousin wouldn’t forget that for a long time, and his anger might eventually take over his better judgment. Aidan would have to do his best to keep an eye on him.

Phoebe clasped their arms. “It’s good to see both of you. Things haven’t been the same without you two here.”

“I missed you too, sister.” Aidan returned the gesture.

Donar echoed a similar sentiment. He wasn’t as close to Phoebe, but the two of them got along reasonably well.

She stepped back. “I won’t hold you any longer. I heard the pendragon wants to see you right away, but come visit me when you have time.”

Aidan nodded. “I will.”

He and Donar left her behind and finally reached the castle at the center of the keep. It was massive with a great hall in the middle and several wings leading from it. There was a balcony near the top where the pendragon’s accommodations were located, as well as walkways for the quarters on the upper floors. Aidan maintained a room on the first level near the rear of the castle and not far from the kitchens. Because he was a member of one of the high families and his father had been the previous ruler of their toriq, he reserved the right to stay there.

He looked forward to making use of his room again, considering it had been a long time since he’d slept in a bed. He and Falcon usually rested in the woods near the border after patrols so that they could wake at a moment’s notice if they heard anything suspicious. Dragons might become especially lethargic near dawn until early afternoon, but they could fight the urge to sleep for an hour or two with the right herbs. Spies used that trick quite often. As a result, border guards could never truly be off duty or allow themselves to sleep anywhere comfortable.

With Donar staying by his side, Aidan passed through the great hall where it was filled with busy human servants. Few of them looked up from their work. Most were preparing for the midnight meal that would commence in less than two hours. Aidan followed a series of corridors until they reached the pendragon’s office. The large, heavy door was closed, but muffled voices could be heard within. He knocked once, caught Nanoq’s terse command to enter, and stepped inside.

Aidan gave a brief bow to the pendragon, then his gaze shot to Kade. What was his uncle doing here? The last he had heard, Nanoq removed the restrictions on Kade not being able to leave the library—something he’d not been able to do in centuries because of his wild predictions about the future and eccentric behavior—but Aidan hadn’t expected his seer uncle to be here of all places. His father, the previous pendragon, had wanted nothing to do with his seemingly insane brother. Apparently, their new leader felt much differently.

“Uncle,” Aidan said, dipping his chin.

Kade’s lips twitched. He might be about nine-hundred years old, but he only appeared to be in his fifties by human standards. Aidan’s uncle had long, wavy black hair that reached his shoulders and light olive skin. Only the lines around his eyes and forehead gave away his advancing years. He probably still had a century or so left in him before he’d go on to meet the dragon goddess, Zorya.

“Aidan.” The pendragon drew his attention back his way. Nanoq’s lips had thinned, and there was a grim look in his eyes. “Your time at the eastern border has ended…for now.”

Aidan frowned.  “I don’t understand.”

“Unlike your father—Zorya be with him—I am not as skeptical of your uncle’s prophecies. He has recently come into one in particular that is of great concern to me.” Nanoq worked his jaw. He was a warrior and a man with strong convictions. If he chose to put faith in Kade’s predictions, he did not do so lightly.

Aidan glanced at his uncle. “The page?”

When he was young, Kade went through a period of blackouts where he had visions of the future. He’d carefully written each of them as they came, but in a strange twist, the details were wiped from his memory right after they were copied onto parchment. Even with re-reading them, it was difficult for him or anyone else to retain the information for long, assuming they understood it at all. This added to the impression that Kade must have been crazy. As he grew older, these events stopped and his predictions turned into minor ones he could recall, but few believed.

The tome containing the revelations went missing a century ago. Aidan’s uncle had blacked out again, so he had no idea if he’d been the one to hide the prophecies or if someone else had taken them. Kade had been searching for the book ever since. About two months ago, he found a sheet of parchment with one of his revelations copied on it. This was the first sign that the tome might still be around, but they couldn’t understand a word of what was written on the page. All Kade had known was that it was important, and it likely had something to do with an artifact and going on a journey. How his uncle even knew that much, Aidan couldn’t say.

“I have finally found a way to translate it,” Kade said, rubbing his face. “And the message it contains is far worse than I imagined.”

Aidan stilled. “How so?”

“For many centuries,” Nanoq said, taking control of the conversation, “there have been tales of an orb that could control dragons. One that was lost nearly three thousand years ago. Most thought it was a myth, but the story has continued to persist down the ages. The pure dragons are especially fearful of it because there are those among them who claim to be descendants of the ones who were affected. They say there are sorcerers who can harness the power of the orb and make it work for them.”

A shudder ran down Aidan’s back. The very idea of being manipulated and controlled by anyone did not sit well with him. Did the sorcerers not have enough dangerous magic already without having to add such a powerful object to their arsenal?

“It is difficult to separate rumor from truth,” Kade added, coming to stand next to the pendragon’s desk. “But the page I translated has revealed that the orb was hidden long ago in this region. It was broken and separated into three pieces in the hopes it could never be used again for ill purposes. But my prophecy says it will be if we do not find it first.”

“Where is it?” Aidan asked.

“I am still determining the precise locations of the fragments, but I am getting close. I am almost certain at least one fragment is in a cave that thieves have used for refuge—wherever that might be. The text is in an ancient Aramaic dialect, which is not easy to decipher or else I might have more details already. I’ve only got the help of a servant who once specialized in that area of history to help me. In fact, it wasn’t until he visited the library a few days ago that I learned in which language it was written. I know not why I wrote it in that particular dialect.” Kade shook his head. “But I suspect that was a common language in the world at the time the orb went missing.”

Nanoq sat back in his seat, frowning. “Except that it wasn’t spoken in this land where the orb was hidden. Your prophecies are more than a little confusing.”

“I am well aware.” Kade sighed. “But I do not believe a written language existed in this region to use from that same period.”

Aidan shifted on his feet. “Why bring me into this?”

The pendragon drew in a breath. “It is not as simple as sending a few shifters out to recover the pieces. Your uncle’s translation has revealed specific details of what we will need to obtain the orb. Certain…types of people and difficult tests will be involved to get past the spells protecting the fragments.”

“Such as?” Aidan prompted.

“There must be a dragon—though it need not be pure—and a human present.” Nanoq hesitated, a grimace forming on his face. “A sorcerer and dragon slayer are required to be there as well.”

“A dragon slayer?” Despite the fact Kade had told Aidan months ago that he and Bailey would be going on a journey together, he had not guessed it would be for something like this.

“Yes.” The pendragon appeared sick at the thought. “Whoever hid the orb made it so that only a group with all the races working together could ever reach it. They must have known it would be nearly impossible. In addition to that, the text says slayers can be controlled by the artifact as easily as dragons—should it ever be forged into one piece again.”

Aidan wouldn’t say it out loud, but while the slayer element surprised him, he was actually less pleased about a sorcerer needing to participate. “Isn’t it too dangerous to allow a sorcerer to come as well?”

“Yes and no. Though they are the only ones who can harness the orb’s power, they cannot forge it back together. Only the fire from a dragon who has the second flames can do that, which your uncle has informed me you have.” Nanoq gave Aidan an ironic look—few knew that secret about him, but now the pendragon could be added to the list. “Having said that, the text does mention the process for acquiring the third and final piece will make it whole again. If we choose a sorcerer who has only recently come into their power, they should not be able to control the orb at all.”

“There is none in the fortress like that,” Donar said, speaking for the first time since they entered the room. He had held back, stationing himself by the door.

“That is true,” the pendragon agreed, then turned his gaze to Aidan. “But if my spies are correct, your dragon slayer has a sorceress friend who has been studying the art of healing since coming into her powers. One with such talents would be the least threatening choice, assuming she passes a vetting process and you agree to the selection.”

Aidan considered it. While Bailey’s friend, Danae, was no weak-willed woman, he did not believe she would use her powers for evil purposes. At least, not at this early stage. Most sorcerers did not turn to the dark arts until they’d been practicing magic for many years. He suspected that overuse of it tainted them somehow. Danae had only been learning to use her powers for a few months and only for healing purposes. She was as close to non-threatening as they might hope to find if they must bring a sorceress along on their quest.

“I agree. She would be a wise choice,” Aidan answered the pendragon.

“Then it is time that I finally meet your slayer and her friend.” Nanoq folded his hands in his lap. “We will go after first meal tomorrow. For now, you are going to tell me everything you know about them.”

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