First two chapters of Captured in Flames

Thanks to everyone for your patience and understanding as I’ve worked a very long time to get this novel ready. As promised, I’m posting the first two chapters of Captured in Flames so you can get a taste of what’s to come. Expect a pre-order link in the next few days with the novel set to release on August 18th!

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Chapter 1

Bailey

People thought slaying dragons was a glamorous job full of danger and excitement. Sure, I could take a beating far better than the average person, fire couldn’t burn me, and I had super strength, but all that good stuff came with some significant downsides. Today was a prime example of the horrors I faced in my line of work.

Snot covered me—icky, gooey snot—and lots of it.

The green dragon in front of me huffed, puffed, and blew out a monstrous sneeze that had to have stirred a hurricane down in the gulf, never mind that we were in Oklahoma. The shock wave ran over me, stumbling me back and leaving my hair and clothes dripping in green goo. My stomach twisted, bile rising into my throat. I fought it down and blinked a few times to clear my vision. The first time that happened, I nearly died. I’d been inside a building when a dragon released a torrent of snot, soaking everything in sight from the ceiling to the floor. The beast recovered faster than me. I kept losing my balance on the wet floor and hurling every time my face planted in the goo. At least today, I stood in the middle of a large parking lot with open air so I could maneuver out of the mess.

The past week had been more than a little rough. A nasty cold had spread through the dragon community, making my job more difficult than usual. It was supposed to be rare for the beasts to get sick, but I’d since learned that they were more vulnerable to illness during late winter and early spring.

They were still adjusting to their return to Earth almost a year ago and were more susceptible to changes in their environment. Our planet was far different from Kederrawien—a barren landscape with little vegetation where all dragons had lived for a thousand years after a group of sorcerers banished them from our dimension. To make matters worse, the spring weather in Oklahoma couldn’t decide if it wanted to be chilly or warm. The dragons would venture out on a nice day only to get smacked by a cold front later that evening. Their bodies couldn’t handle anything close to freezing temperatures, and we had a much higher pollen count than they’d encountered before. Seeing them suffer would have been funny if it didn’t have such hazardous consequences for me.

I took a washcloth from the pouch on my leg harness—the third I’d used that day—and wiped the worst of the snot off my face. It was in my hair as well, but I’d found keeping it in a French braid helped minimize the amount that stuck. The greenish goo smelled sort of like Play-Doh, though the consistency was much stickier. I grew up on a ranch as the only girl with three brothers and didn’t shy away from yucky stuff, but I didn’t think anything could have prepared me for dragon snot. It took gross to a whole new level.

The beast before me snorted and a small flame puffed from its nose. One advantage to my prey being ill was that it severely stunted its fire-breathing capabilities. Sick dragons couldn’t roar out flames the way they usually did, which made things easier for me. I might not burn, but a wall of fire could blind me so I wouldn’t see an attack coming. My current adversary had an annoyed look in its red eyes when it failed to produce a decent flame.

“Performance problems?” I asked, not knowing if it understood me. Some of them had picked up English, but not many.

I gripped my sword, prepared for what would come next, and didn’t move when the dragon leaped forward, claws outstretched. Waiting until the last moment, I ducked and then rammed the tip of my blade straight under its chin to the roof of its mouth. I didn’t have the strength to get any farther—dragon bone was rock-hard—but I had another weapon. While my enemy swiped and clawed at its neck, trying to get free, I rolled underneath its body and stabbed a shorter blade between its ribs and into its heart. The beast groaned and shuddered.

That was my cue to scramble away as fast as I could.

As I rose to a crouch several feet away, it let out one last huff and slumped to the ground, wings unfurling almost to my feet. If I’d been underneath the body, it would have crushed me. This particular green dragon was about the size of a small elephant and weighed at least as much. The neck was several feet long, and the tail was the length of a truck. All in all, it must have been at least ten times my size. Since completing the slayer rite of passage last year, I’d evolved physically into something much stronger and more durable than the average human, but I still had vulnerabilities. My bones could still break with enough pressure, and I needed to breathe like everyone else.

Loud clapping sounded behind me. I turned and found Conrad standing about a hundred feet away near a large store front with blown-out windows. My friend and sidekick wore a big grin as he walked toward me, boots crunching on broken glass.

We’d chosen to hunt in a place once known as Crossroads Mall since many dragons were nesting there and killing the humans who lived nearby. The location was also convenient because it was just over the border from our safe zone, where the green beasts couldn’t enter, making it a shorter traveling distance. I tried to avoid driving far in my truck, considering gasoline was fast running out in a post-apocalyptic world, and going anywhere from our home base in Norman took a lot. There weren’t many resources left for getting fuel.

The twenty-year-old man before me was one of my most loyal friends. Conrad was of average height and build with dark skin, brown eyes, and a close-shaven head. Though the young guy was very well-toned, most wouldn’t have thought he could fight dragons any more than me (a notably petite woman), but he had plenty of courage and had recently become fireproof. Not because my friend was a dragon slayer—that was a genetic trait he didn’t inherit. Rather, he’d been gifted his flame resistance last fall when we’d gone on a quest to recover the fragments from a magical orb. No man could have been happier to gain that ability. Conrad rarely let me go out hunting without him anymore, living for the thrill of killing dragons.

“Good job, Bailey,” he said, then gestured toward the side of the building. “I got another one waiting for you over there.”

I glanced over, catching sight of a green dragon with its mouth and snout looped with rope. Its tail swished angrily from side to side as it smashed holes into a nearby store wall. Debris flew with every strike—as if everything wasn’t trashed enough already. The rope and grappling hooks holding the beast were something we’d acquired from a local sorcerer, and Conrad found a way to make them work for him. Dragons couldn’t burn or break through the special rigging, so all my battle partner had to do was bind them up for me to finish.

Easy job, right?

Not exactly, but my sidekick had a knack for leaping on the beasts’ backs and tying them up. A mechanical bull would have been nothing for him if he ever got the chance to try one out. Conrad didn’t have my super strength to punch through a dragon’s hide and scales, so he didn’t bother with blades often and instead trussed them up for me to strike the final blow.

I nodded at him. “Thanks. I got it.”

Not wasting another moment—sometimes they did manage to escape if given enough time—I rushed over to the squirming dragon. It bucked hard as soon as it saw me. I’d been coming up to the south end of Oklahoma City to hunt a lot recently, and they were beginning to recognize my face.

Pickings had become slim where I lived in Norman. As a slayer, I couldn’t go between kills for long, or else there would be consequences.  It was the curse of my kind that we had a constant need to kill fire-breathing beasts. A week was about as long as I could make it before my iron control slipped, and that wasn’t a good thing since I was in a serious relationship with a dragon.

Well, he was half of one. Aidan wasn’t pure like the ones I fought today but rather a shifter. He could look like a regular person except for his eyes, which were yellow-gold with a slight feral glint to them. His breed was rare and only made up about ten percent of the entire world’s dragon population. I didn’t get an itch to kill him in his human form, but it took concentration to hold myself back when he was a beast. If I went too long without fighting others of his kind, he began to look like prey. The last thing I wanted was to kill the love of my life.

On the other hand, pure dragons needed their population thinned as much as possible. I stared at the bound creature before me, watching it struggle harder as I stepped in front of it. One of the grappling hooks dug into its neck and another into its right foreleg. Conrad’s rope work didn’t appear neat and pretty, but it did the job.

Pain and fear shown in the beast’s eyes.

“I’ll make this quick,” I said.

Not wanting to make the dragon suffer any longer, I pulled a dagger from my belt and struck down on a soft spot behind its skull. This method wasn’t easy since I had to aim for a target no wider than my blade, but it was the quickest and most painless way to take them out. Still, it took all my strength to punch through the thick hide and scales, deep into the brain. A tiny spurt of blood came out, and then the dragon’s head slumped to the ground.

A small part of me felt terrible at that moment for taking a life, even that of a predator, but each kill hardened me a bit more. I’d been fighting them since last August—eight months now—and the compassion that once filled me diminished the longer I hunted. What would I be like in a few more years, assuming I survived that long? Dragon slayers didn’t have the best survival rates despite the fact they couldn’t age, and few made it past their first few years of fighting.

“They don’t deserve your sympathy,” a deep-timbre voice said from behind.

I jerked my dagger out and spun to face my father—who was holding a dragon head in his right hand. Blood dripped from the slain creature’s open mouth and neck. Wayne had been fighting the beasts for a lot longer than me, and it showed in the hardened expression on his face. The man appeared somewhere in his forties, but he was closer to sixty. He didn’t complete his rite of passage until later in life, so he at least looked experienced, whereas I would be stuck at twenty-two years old forever since that’s when I became a slayer. My father was much bigger than me and actually looked like a man who could kill dragons with his large, muscular build and fierce brown eyes. His black hair was down to his shoulders, loose and wild after his latest kills.

He was half-Cherokee, and he’d seen a lot of sun, giving his skin a weathered appearance. I wasn’t too different in complexion since I’d inherited some of his Native American traits as well as being a quarter Malaysian on my mother’s side. The other half of me was of white European ancestry, but no one could ever figure out my genetic mix unless I told them.

My father was a legend among dragon kind for his killer prowess. They feared him, often fleeing at the mere hint he could be nearby. When we hunted together, he always let me go in first so that he wouldn’t scare off the prey before I had them distracted. Not that it was totally necessary since he was a master of sneaking up on the beasts. I hadn’t gotten that sly yet and sometimes gave us away before we could attack. He was slowly teaching me the art of stealth. Today, he’d gone to the opposite end of the mall so we wouldn’t hinder each other. God only knew how many kills he’d made in the last hour. I’d heard sporadic dragon screams, but that didn’t reveal much. Sometimes, his prey never got a chance to make a sound.

I narrowed my eyes. “I prefer to keep some of my humanity, thank you.”

“There is still no need to be soft with the beasts,” he said, his lips thinning.

Until last fall, I didn’t even know who my father was or if he was alive since he disappeared before I was born. It wasn’t until he saved my life after I attacked a dragon nest beyond my skill level that I met him. We had a lot of tension between us at first, especially because of my relationship with a shifter, but then Wayne came to stay at my house last Christmas. During his visit, he, Aidan, Conrad, and I fought two insanely powerful rogues together. It took all of us working as a team to kill them, and in the process, my father came to accept my “different” way of life. He still didn’t get it entirely, though.

“You don’t just lose your humanity toward one kind of creature,” I said, wiping my blade with a cloth. “If you lose it, your compassion for everything fades.”

He worked his jaw. “Is that how you see me? Too far gone?”

“Well.” I shifted from foot to foot. “You’ve still got a bit of soul left, but you could definitely lighten up.”

Wayne’s lips twitched. “I have since I found you.”

His words made me feel warm and fuzzy inside. When I first met him, I didn’t think there would be any hope of building a relationship, but we had slowly gotten closer over the last few months. He’d been living in Tulsa until recently. It wasn’t until December that he’d decided the other two slayers up there—new like me—could handle things without him. After that, he’d come to help manage the dragon population in Oklahoma City. We joined together once or twice a week and took out the larger nests that would be difficult to do alone.

“That’s so sweet,” Conrad said, joining us. “Guess I won’t need any sugar in my coffee later.”

Of course, my sidekick usually joined us in our family hunt—often providing comedic relief.

My father rolled his eyes and tossed the dragon head at the young man. “Find someplace to put this.”

“Seriously, man? You like this beheading shit too much and need to find a new hobby—fishin’ or something.” Conrad threw the head back at Wayne. “I’m with Bailey on keepin’ some of my humanity.”

My father tucked the dragon head under his arm—likely planning to post it somewhere later as a warning to others. Or maybe he’d put it on a wall. Who knew? Since he hadn’t invited me, I’d yet to visit his new home. “I do fish…sometimes.”

My eyes rounded. “You fish?”

“I find it’s relaxing, and it gives me something fresh to eat,” he said, shrugging.

I learned something new about him every day. “Do you do anything else to relax?”

“Nothing I want to discuss.”

Conrad and I glanced at each other, wondering what that meant. Wayne wouldn’t tell us unless he wanted to, so I wouldn’t try pushing him. He could be more than a little secretive. Getting to know my father was like peeling away the layers of an onion one at a time and took a lot of effort and patience, but it was worth it to catch glimpses of what he hid inside.

“How many dragons did you kill today, man?” Conrad asked, wisely changing the subject. He’d gotten to know my father a bit as well.

Wayne frowned. “Eight, I believe.”

“Nice work,” I said. He’d taken down more than I could ever hope to do in an hour. “I got three and thought that was good.”

“Technically, you finished two of mine too,” Conrad pointed out.

My father studied me, pride and concern in his gaze. “You’ll get better and faster with time. This isn’t a competition, even if your friend here thinks otherwise. The two I trained in Tulsa could not have done better than you today.”

Conrad stiffened. “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with keepin’ count. Gotta impress the ladies somehow.”

Ever since he broke up with Christine in early December, he’d been on a rash of one-night stands. I rarely saw him at night. With his reputation for fighting dragons, a surprising number of women were happy to hook up with him. Who knew he could get lucky so much in a post-apocalyptic world?

Wayne’s gaze jerked to the horizon, and he stiffened. “Your mate is here.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, following his line of sight and not seeing anything. “Aidan was supposed to be doing patrols on the western border today.”

It was dangerous for a shifter to enter pure dragon territory, and we were about half a mile into their land. I-240 in Oklahoma City made up the northern border between the Taugud (shifters) and the Shadowan (pure dragons). If he got caught on this side of the interstate, they’d kill him.

“He’s walking from there.” My father pointed to the southeast. “Must have stayed in neutral territory as long as possible before shifting and crossing.”

The interstates were considered strips of territory where any dragon could move along without repercussions from the neighboring clans. Still, anyone traveling on them could attack anyone else they found and violate no laws or treaties. The old Crossroads Mall was at the corner of two neutral paths—I-35 and I-240, making it an extra dangerous area.

We hurried to meet Aidan, knowing he wouldn’t have taken the risk to come here without an important reason. I noted that his thick, black hair had gotten a bit windblown. It was medium length and reached just above his striking yellow eyes. He had a light olive complexion and a lean, toned body. The shifter walked with confidence, strength, and grace despite being in enemy territory. I’d never met another guy like him and knew I’d never want anyone else.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, starting to hug him before remembering the dragon snot covering me. It wouldn’t make me sick, but it could affect him.

His gaze ran up and down my body, checking for wounds the way he always did after I hunted. He lingered on a deep gash on my cheek. His hand rose to touch it, stopping short of contact. The wound would fully heal within a few hours, but he still didn’t like to see me hurt.

Aidan’s jaw clenched for a moment before he forced himself to relax. “The pendragon wants you at the fortress right away. It can’t wait.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

He looked to my father and Conrad, hesitating. “We should speak alone.”

I sighed. “It’s okay to speak in front of them. I trust them.”

A few more seconds passed before he finally replied. “Kade found another page from his tome, and we think it pertains to you.”

Oh damn, that didn’t sound good.

Chapter 2

Bailey

“The mysterious book with his predictions?” I asked incredulously.

It was a book Aidan’s uncle had written long ago. The process had taken years and put him in strange fugue states while he transcribed the text. After completing it, he forgot everything he’d recorded onto the pages. And then it went missing.

Until now, they’d only found one page. It had sent us on a long, dangerous journey to recover an ancient orb that could allow a sorcerer to control dragons and slayers. We’d barely survived traveling hundreds of miles, including crossing through two pure dragon clan territories. Conrad and Danae got the best end of the deal since they became fireproof at our last stop, but we all became bound to protect the orb and keep it from falling into the hands of a power-hungry sorcerer. Too bad we didn’t know for sure which sorcerer that was or their location. We only had our suspicions for now.

Aidan nodded. “Yes, that book.”

“What’s the page say?” Conrad asked.

“I have no idea. They sent me straight here after finding it.”

My faithful sidekick lifted his chin. “I’m goin’ with you. I want to know what this is about, and you ain’t keepin’ me out of it.”

“No.” Aidan shook his head. “The pendragon made it clear he only wanted Bailey.”

“Fuck him.” Conrad put his hands on his hips. “I don’t trust that dude not to do something to her if he doesn’t like what the page says.”

I gave him a reassuring look. “You don’t know that it will be anything bad.”

“If he wants you there right this damned second, it can’t be good.”

Aidan ran a hand through his dark hair. “I’ll be there, and trust me, I can protect her better than you.”

That was what I counted on, him being there. I hated pandering to the pendragon, but for the sake of Aidan and his clan, I tried to cooperate. It would only cause more trouble to refuse the summons.

My father’s expression turned fierce, and he crossed his arms. “I could do even better.”

“Dad, you know they’ll never let you into the shifter fortress,” I said, giving him a gentle smile—the kind one saved for ferocious beasts on the verge of attack. “But I’ll be fine. They need me for the coming war and would never hurt me.”

He grimaced. Wayne didn’t like that I would fight with the shifters in an invasion in Texas sometime soon—exact dates to be determined—but he also understood my reasons. I’d been trying to return to my mother and family for nearly a year. Helping to win the war was the only way I could do it.

Aidan’s clan and another clan to the south had signed a treaty last fall, becoming allies after centuries of cutting ties. Their deal included them working together to expand the Faegud’s territory into central Texas. In return, the Taugud would get assistance against any threats to the north. There were other parts to the agreement, but that was the one that mattered to me. I’d met with the Faegud during Christmastime, winning their pendragon over so I could get home if I also helped.

“Fine, but I still don’t like it,” my father growled.

“I know,” I said, appreciating his concern. “But it’ll be alright.”

“I’ll be waiting at your house, and you better be fine when I see you later.”

I shook my head. “There’s no need to….”

“I’ll be there, too,” Conrad said, puffing his chest. “This ain’t only about you, no matter what they think.”

Good grief, the men in my life could be overbearing. One would never guess I was a formidable dragon slayer by how they treated me, but I supposed it made me feel loved. There were worse problems to have than protective friends and family.

“Fine, I’ll see you guys later.”

Aidan nodded at Conrad and my father. “I will return her safely.”

“See that you do,” Wayne warned.

I tossed my truck keys at Conrad. “Get it back safely.”

“No problem,” he said. It wasn’t the first time I’d entrusted him with my vehicle, and I knew it would be waiting at my house later.

Aidan gestured, and we started walking back in the direction he came. “You shifted to human form before crossing Shadowan territory, right?”

“Yes.”

The pure dragons in Oklahoma were all green, and shifters in Aidan’s clan were red. There was also a significant size difference between them—pure being two to three times larger—as well as physical characteristics such as shifters having shorter necks and more human-like arms. If he entered Shadowan territory in his beast form, they’d notice him right away. He’d had to make that part of the journey as a human to avoid getting caught. They wouldn’t know the difference as long as they didn’t get close enough to smell him or see his eyes.

Aidan kept us moving fast as we walked quickly toward the interstate. It was all I could do to keep up, but I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to linger. Should he be caught, it wouldn’t just mean us having to fight. It could be considered a violation of the treaty between his clan—the Taugud—and the Shadowan. There needed to be peace for now between them since the shifters would be fighting a different pure dragon clan in the south soon.

“Will you fly me once we cross?” I asked as we neared the interstate.

“Of course.” He grimaced at me. “After we clean you up.”

I checked from east to west, spotting a couple of green dragons flying nearby. Aidan guided us to an underpass so we wouldn’t have to go through neutral territory where we could easily be seen. Halfway under the bridge, I caught sight of a man huddled under a blanket. The sun would be setting soon, and the air was cooling. I saw a lot of homeless people during my hunts for dragons. Many of them couldn’t stand to sleep inside a house where a dragon might decide to burn the place down if they suspected someone was inside—it had happened often since their return to Earth.

I dug into a pouch on my leg harness and pulled out a granola bar. It was a precious commodity since food supplies were low, but I couldn’t help a random act of kindness now and then. The man looked up when we got close, and there was an expression of hopelessness in his eyes. That was another thing I saw a lot lately. People were scared, worn out, and losing faith that life would get any better. This one hadn’t shaved in months, and his brown hair was haggard and long. It was hard to tell his age since he was on the emaciated side, but I estimated he was only in his thirties.

“Here,” I said, handing him the granola bar.

He stared at me for a moment before snatching it from my grasp. Food inside grocery stores was long gone, and most trees and plants wouldn’t produce fruits and vegetables for a while yet. People were starving everywhere if they hadn’t hoarded enough to last the winter. Some chose to steal or even kill for food, but others had lost the will to live and waited for death.

He coughed. “Thanks.”

Aidan and I continued moving and came out from under the bridge, blinking at the bright sunlight. I breathed a sigh of relief. Crossing the border always felt even riskier than being in pure dragon territory. Demolished cars, burn holes, and rotting corpses littered the interstate to remind everyone—dragons and humans alike—of how dangerous it could be to anyone who passed through there. No one used those stretches of highway unless they absolutely had to and only as long as needed.

Aidan led me farther into shifter territory until we got behind some buildings where we’d be out of sight. It was quiet, with only the wind rustling through the trees nearby to break the silence. Not even the birds chirped. We were still too close to the border to see any activity except the occasional dragon patrol, but even they weren’t around at the moment.

“We must get you clean,” he said, wiggling his nose at my snot-covered garb.

The tight pants and halter top I wore looked similar to black leather, but the outfit was really made of camrium. A fire-proof cloth Aidan had designed for me with additional sorcerer spells cast on it so it could protect against blades and bullets. It was much more flexible than leather, which was important when one needed to move easily and quickly in a fight. More than once, the warrior garb had saved my life.

I looked to the left and right, confused. Since the dragon cold had started spreading, I’d been bathing at our home before he returned at night from patrols. This problem hadn’t come up before.  “There’s not exactly a shower around here for me to use, or even a pond for that matter.”

 “Stay close as I shift, and the flames will burn you clean,” he instructed.

“Wow.” I cocked my head. “Why have you not mentioned this nifty trick before?”

Every night this week, I’d had to station myself at a wash basin in the cold outdoors and scrub myself for an hour to get all the snot and gunk off my clothes, hair, and body. Never mind collecting the ton of water I’d needed for that. And all along, there’d been a faster way that would have left me totally sterilized of germs.

“The opportunity didn’t present itself until now.”

Oh, right. Our schedules weren’t really in alignment. “Good point.”

He moved closer until we almost touched and shifted from a human to a dragon. The first time I saw him transform, I was terrified, but I’d grown used to the process. Flames licked up his body, fanning against me as I turned in a circle to get fully covered. I could just make out a shadowy figure within as it stretched and grew into beast form. After a minute, the fire subsided, and a red dragon emerged. It was still a bit frightening to see him this way, but I’d learned to love the man and the beast.

I dropped my gaze to inspect myself and couldn’t find a speck of snot on me, and even my hair felt soft and clean. That was one impressive sterilization process. I smiled at Aidan and wagged a finger. “I won’t forget you can do this.”

He opened his arms, covered in rough, red scales, and I let him wrap them around me. The urge to attack niggled at the back of my mind, but I quelled it with little effort. When he took off into the air, I let myself relish flying through the sky. No human could do this—at least not without a protective blanket—but a dragon’s hot touch didn’t burn me any more than their fire, so I was safe.

Aidan took us over the south end of Oklahoma City, across Moore, and finally into Norman. Damage from the dragon invasion was far easier to see from above, and it was numerous. So many wrecked cars, burned houses, and debris cluttering the roads that I thought it would take forever to clean up if we ever reached a stage where we could get the city back in order. That certainly wouldn’t be anytime soon, maybe not ever. I tried to forget the world as it once was because whenever I did think of things like pizza, ice cream, movies, computers, and all the other joys of modern life, it was like a black hole would try to swallow me up. The only way to survive and thrive now was to face the fact the world would never be the same.

The shifter fortress was southeast of town near Lake Thunderbird in a valley. When it came into view, I let out a gasp. I hadn’t visited the place recently and hadn’t realized how beautiful the landscape was in the spring.

The fields surrounding it were green—except for a scorched area where the shifters landed and changed forms. Trees were growing new leaves and flowers. The mountains beyond the fortress rose to soaring heights and gave the place a magnificent backdrop. Those craggy peaks hadn’t been there until the dimensions collided and caused extreme Earth terrain changes.

I also spotted a new village near the high walls. Aidan had told me about it, but this was my first time seeing it. After last Christmas, when the shifters started to win over the local populations, humans had begun seeking refuge at the fortress. Many were starving and had heard they could get food, shelter, and safety if they asked for it. The keep was overflowing, so the pendragon ordered a village built outside the walls. Progress had been slow at first due to freezing temperatures, but they must have picked up the pace during the last few weeks since I last visited. I was impressed with how far they’d come and counted at least twenty houses, plus a few shops already open for business. There were even some small gardens behind a few homes, which would help people gain a semblance of self-sufficiency.

As for the fortress itself, it could be somewhat intimidating. It had been constructed with dark gray stone. The outer wall rose to thirty feet high, and there were four guard towers—one at each corner. Along the ramparts, there were a series of jagged spikes designed to tear into a dragon’s wings if they came too close. These same spikes were on roofs and anywhere else that stood tall. Those protections ensured nothing except small birds could fly into the keep without getting severely injured.

The castle in the middle took center stage. It was huge, also made of dark gray stone, and stood higher than everything else. The windows were tall and narrow, but walkways were at the top of the third level where the pendragon and his family lived. They could sit out there to enjoy the view if they liked, though I’d never seen them do it. Most of my visits included the dungeons where I was out of sight from the shifters, many of whom feared or hated me.

Aidan touched down on what I mentally referred to as the dragon landing pad. I waited until he changed back to human form, noting several sets of eyes on me. Some of the shifters were out training on the field. They’d noted my arrival and stopped what they were doing.

“So, where are we going today?” I asked.

Aidan nodded toward the front gate. “The pendragon’s office.”

“Really?” I lifted a brow. “He trusts me in the main castle?”

He quirked his lips. “Not entirely, but I told him you didn’t deserve any more visits to the dungeons.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that,” I said, taking his hand when he offered it. Their underground holding cells made me think of a medieval prison, except probably cleaner.

The gate guards in their form-fitting black camrium uniforms stiffened when we came close, but neither challenged us as we passed. Upon entering the keep, I found it packed with shifters and humans moving along the main stone path. There were shops and homes everywhere, often two stories high and looking like something out of an old-world village, except they used thinly cut stone shingles for their roofs rather than thatch. Dried vegetation definitely would have been a bad idea in a dragon village.

People stared at me, but at least no one attacked, snarled, or ran screaming. They did make a point of getting out of our way quickly. We made it to the castle, and Aidan picked up the pace as we moved through the great hall. Servants were setting up for the midday meal, which would have been dinner for humans, but dragons lived on a different schedule. Whatever they were cooking in the back kitchens, it smelled amazing. Even with all the stares, I would have been happy to stay and eat. Aidan and I often cooked pretty good meals, but we weren’t super chefs and kept it simple. That was usually enough for us.

Soon we came to a corridor and followed it for a minute before making a turn and then another prior to reaching a large, imposing door. Aidan knocked. We let go of each other’s hands and stood waiting, stiff and nervous. Nanoq wasn’t a bad leader, but he was strict and imposing.

“Enter,” he barked.

We opened the door and stepped inside, finding a room full of people. The pendragon sat behind his desk, large and daunting with an unyielding expression on his face. He had short black military-style cut hair, yellow shifter eyes with a black slit in the middle, and medium-olive skin. Nanoq was one of those men that, looking at him, you knew right away he was a leader. Before taking over the shifter clan, he’d been captain of the guard and stringent in his duties. Every time I was in his presence, I fought the urge to either attack or back away. He could be more than a little intimidating, even to a slayer. Despite our differences, though, we held a grudging respect for each other.

On the right side of the room, five men and women of advanced age stood in front of a weapons display. Their presence was noteworthy because shifters stayed looking young until around the last century of their life, when the gray hairs and wrinkles finally set into their features. I could only guess that Nanoq had called in the elders to witness our meeting.

Kade—Aidan’s uncle—was also there and stood on the left side of the room. Unlike the elders, he was only beginning to show signs of age. Most people would have estimated him to be about fifty, but I’d learned he was closer to nine hundred. His hair was black and wavy, reaching his shoulders and framing his narrow face. When I’d first met the man, he’d been a bit soft and out of shape from the tight restrictions on his movements, but he’d toned in recent months since being freed from the library. Aidan’s father, who was Kade’s brother, kept him confined there for centuries after becoming pendragon. He’d deemed him mad because of his behavior during his fugue states. He wasn’t genuinely crazy, but he did seem a bit “off” at times. Nanoq had freed him after taking over and trusted Kade’s predictions, especially after the first had proven true.

Aidan’s uncle gave me a wan smile that didn’t reach his eyes. The man had always been friendly with me in the past and usually greeted me with a grin. His weak reception made me extra nervous about this meeting.

I clenched my fists as the pendragon leveled his gaze on me. “Kade has brought it to my attention that you may be a threat to my people.”

Aidan and I exchanged grim looks. This was not good, not at all.

“I’m sorry, but…” I gaped at him. “What?”


If you enjoyed those chapters and wished I included more, comment below. I might post one or two more for you all if I get a strong response. Thanks for reading!

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