Excerpt: Scorched

The Dragon Brides:  Fire

 Part One:  Scorched

 

Scorched, Final Cover

It’s the first bonding ceremony between dragon and dragon bride in hundreds of years and Serafina, a future dragon bride, decides to secretly observe the ritual, despite her presence being forbidden by law. Instead of a romantic marriage, she is confronted with the fiery death of her best friend. Barely escaping with her life, Serafina realizes she is destined to meet the same hideous fate, unless she does something drastic to prevent it.  And so, she joins the Malesium invaders, determined to help them rid Elusia of all dragons.

T’Kai is desperate. After witnessing the living death of his brother in a bonding ceremony gone hideously awry, he is charged with finding an Evermate for his dragon. Even more urgent, T’Kai must figure out what went wrong before the bonding ceremony, which must be completed during the next blue moon. If he fails he, too, will experience the shadow death.

Prince Heir Sedir Dulenti d’Malesium is determined to turn the tide of the Malesium’s ongoing dragon war by killing the next generation of dragons before they have an opportunity to attain their full power and abilities. He traps them on the backwater world of Elusia, but fails to anticipate the presence of dragon brides, the source of a dragon’s transition from “Riven” to “Bounden,” from immature to mature dragon. But a secret weapon falls into his hands, a dragon bride who knows far more about the dragons and their secret ceremonies than any other living outsider.

Serafina becomes a pawn, forced against her will to give herself to the dragons as an Evermate in order to uncover that which the dragons will do anything to keep hidden. Sedir wants her for his spy, as a means to discover the dragons’ vulnerabilities and, through her, destroy them. The fire dragon wants her for his Evermate. And the Bondservant, T’Kai, simply wants her. Serafina never anticipated she’d want him just as desperately. Or how badly her allegiances would be torn.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER 1

Dragon Haitus Break

 A soft pre-morn mist cloaked the cobbled road exiting Hayden.  It swirled around the milling villagers, muting the ebb and flow of eager voices and excited laughter.  The sun had not yet broken the horizon, the darkness punctured by the light of numerous torches.

From Serafina’s position in line, she could barely see her soul sister, Vale, at the head of the procession, the first dragon bride to grace their small community—though not the last. The breeze lifted the delicate lace of her elaborate headdress, sending it fluttering toward the flame of a nearby torch. Instantly, the masked man towering at her side caught the veil in his huge hand, preventing the leaping flames from consuming it.

Serafina shivered, unable to conceal her nervousness of the Torquis, men who’d bound themselves in service to their dragon masters.  Rumors about them were rife, the suppositions endless and varied. Some contended the dragons imbued their servants with special powers during their Binding ceremony, while others swore each dragon created his or her own Torq from droplets of their magic-infused blood.

Either explanation would certainly explain the servant’s ferocious appearance, powerful physique, and breathtaking arrogance.  And those eyes!  Each possessed odd, glowing eyes that glittered from behind their dragon headdresses and pierced mere flesh to see straight through to a woman’s soul.  Or so claimed the dragon brides the Torquis chose as mates for their masters.

How did Vale stand them?  Serafina had dared to ask at her best friend’s Collection ceremony. Her Torq had left her side—a rare occurrence—and Serafina had taken the opportunity to approach.  Since they’d been as close as sisters since the age of wrappers, despite the two turn difference in their ages, Vale had been unexpectedly frank in her response.

“You would have to be a dragon bride to fully understand. The desire you feel is overwhelming,” she explained in low tones, casting a heated gaze toward the massive Torq. “It is painful to remain even this far apart.”

It took a moment for Serafina to understand.  The instant she did, she drew back in horror.  “You desire the Torq?”  Disbelief welled upward and she stared at the man, assuming he truly was a man and not some bit of dragon magic.  He stood to one side talking to another of his kind, his massive arms folded across his chest, his leathers outlining impressive shoulders, a heavily muscled chest, and long, powerful legs.  Dark eyes glittered from within the depths of his elaborate headdress and she fought the urge to hide like some superstitious child.  “You have . . . feelings for him?”

Vale hesitated, and then pitched her voice to a mere whisper.  “It’s part of the Becoming.  All dragon brides go through it.”

The Becoming?  Serafina shook her head in confusion. So much dragon lore had been lost during the hundreds of turns their world had been bereft of the creatures. All of Alusia had celebrated their unexpected return mere cycles before. The small village of Hayden felt especially honored since a Torq chose Vale to become the very first dragon bride since that long-ago time. “What is the Becoming?”

“There are four stages, but we aren’t allowed to speak of them.  They are kept secret.”

“I don’t understand.  Why?”

“It is to protect us.”

Serafina’s brows drew together.  “From what?”

“Not what.  Who.”  Vale’s voice dropped lower still.  “I wish I could tell you, Sera, truly I do.  You’re the sister of my heart.  My soul sister.  I’ve never kept secrets from you before.  But I must not reveal anything about the Becoming.  We keep it from all others, though mostly from the Malesium and the dissenters they’ve attracted.  They would do anything to uncover our secrets and find a way to destroy the dragons.”

“And if they knew about this Becoming, they could destroy them?”  She couldn’t believe it.  “How is that even possible?  I thought dragons were indestructible.”

Vale pressed her lips together and Serafina realized her friend would say no more—had probably said too much.  Her Torq returned, accompanied by his companion.  The second Torq crossed to stand in front of her, studying her through the eye slits of his leather helm. For a brief moment, Serafina couldn’t move, though every instinct urged her to flee.

“Not that little one, T’Kai,” Vale’s Torq murmured.  “She is not the bride.”

Torq Kai ignored his friend and stared at her from his impressive height.  He was even more massive than the other, his face half masked with a helm that boasted wide horns wrapped in chains and studded with dragon spikes and scales.  Red, black, and green paint covered the visible portion of his face, along with a fiery gold sun symbol.  His eyes glittered from within the darkness of his mask, flashing oddly from jet to gold.

“Are you sure?” His accented voice sounded like gravel.  He leaned closer and seemed to breathe her in.  “Young.  Too young.  But there is something . . .”

Serafina trembled, fighting to maintain her composure.  A sharp, almost painful tingling exploded just beneath her left breast.  She wanted to cover the spot and somehow hide the pain from his keen gaze.  Her hand crept upward, freezing in place at the last possible instant.

She shot a panicked look in Vale’s direction before surrendering to the desperate compulsion to flee.  She thought she heard a low growl rumbling from T’Kai, could practically feel his predatory impulse to give chase.  The tingling in her breast increased, becoming a stabbing pain.  With a final burst of speed, she leaped into the surrounding woods and hid behind the broad trunk of an everwood tree.

She huddled against the soft, velvety bark and gulped air, dragging in long, shuddering breaths.  It took ages for her heartrate to slow and return to something approaching normal.  When it finally did, she peeked around the tree trunk.  To her intense relief, Vale and the Torquis had vanished. Serafina slid down into the protective embrace of a circle of fairy ferns.  Moonlight washed through the canopy of leaves and managed to slip through the dainty fingers of the ferns.  Cautiously, she unlaced her vest and pulled aside her underblouse, attempting to find the source of her pain.

And that’s when she saw it . . .  A bleached white mark curled there, nearly hidden beneath the tender curve of her ripening breast.  A dragon claw—the mark of a dragon bride.

Dragon Haitus Break

A group of excited children bumped Serafina from behind, returning her to the present.  Her hand slipped upward to cover the dragon mark resting beneath the modest drape of her blouse.  Later today she would celebrate her sixteenth birthday and planned to show her mother the mark.  How thrilled her family would be!  How proud.

If only she felt the same way.

It was considered a true honor to bear the dragon’s mark and become a dragon bride.  Not only did it give the bride’s village unassailable protection from marauders and vagabonds, but good fortune always surrounded dragons and their kin.

Unfortunately, it also meant leaving home so she could be schooled at the Aerie, taught to be a proper wife to her dragon and learn how to care for him.  Somehow, she’d have to overcome her nervousness of the Torquis so one might choose her to wed his master.  Vale had taken to it so naturally.  Serafina doubted she’d feel the same.  Where Vale exulted in her prized duty, Serafina considered it an intimidating task.

Toward the front of the procession, the crowd parted long enough to reveal her friend’s radiant expression, framed by lustrous dark blonde curls.  Vale had always been a study in contrasts.  She possessed delicate, deceptively innocent features, while her hazel eyes contained a shrewd, willful awareness. Her narrow, dainty nose vied with full, lush lips.  Even her nature fought against itself, her calm logic at odds with a sweet, romantic streak.

In comparison, Serafina faded into the background, her straight brown hair and dark eyes unremarkable.  She tended to be shy and reserved and nowhere near as feminine in nature as her soul sister.  She considered her intelligence and curiosity her best qualities and possessed a thirst for knowledge her parents indulged.  But, she doubted a dragon—or its Torq—would find her very interesting.

Which would be worse?  To attract the attention of a Torq or be too uninteresting to win one?

At long last, the procession wound its way to the altar where the wedding ceremony would take place.  Called the Bonding, only the dragons, Torquis, and the dragon bride witnessed the actual ceremony.  All others were forbidden.  The bride would be symbolically tied to the altar with garlands and the wedding procession would retreat and return to the village.  It would be the last anyone saw of Vale, unless her dragon lord deemed otherwise.

Serafina reached the altar and embraced her soul sister, a little tearful knowing they might never see one another again.  “Are you afraid?” she couldn’t help asking.

Vale shook her head.  “Not afraid, exactly.”  She shivered in the chilly pre-dawn air, while warm laughter bubbled free.  “I’m nervous and excited and . . . well, nervous.  But I’m also happy.”

Serafina caught her lower lip between her teeth.  Should she mention the dragon mark?  She glanced at the people waiting in line behind her.  They weren’t paying any attention, too caught up in admiring the floral decorations and gifts that had been left for the bridal couple.

Satisfied they wouldn’t be overheard, she leaned in and whispered, “I have a dragon mark, too.”

“What?” Vale’s eyes widened with excitement and she threw her arms around Serafina’s neck, bruising the flower garlands attached to her wrists.  A heady floral scent perfumed the air, the lush red symmona, a symbol of everlasting love, competing with the earthy green and yellow stripped gaylock, representing fertility.  “This is perfect!  If you become a dragon bride, then we’ll see each other whenever we want.  We’ll always be together.”

For some reason, Serafina hadn’t thought of that and for the first time since discovering her mark, she relaxed, a hint of happiness unfurling within.  “Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes.  I’m positive.”  Utter confidence underscored her words.  “In two more turns, when you turn the Age of Collection, the Torquis will take you to the Aerie and instruct you on the ways of the dragons.  They’re still fixing it up, but when it’s done . . . Oh, Sera, it’s going to be such a wonderful life!  You have no idea—”

She broke off abruptly, her gaze shifting upward to the protective ring of cliffs surrounding the altar.  “What?” Serafina demanded.  “What are you thinking?”

“Sera, go up to the cave,” she instructed swiftly.  “You remember it?  The one where we’d hide as children?  It’s vital you not let anyone see you.”

Serafina shook her head.  “Why?  What do you want me to do there?”

An impish grin spread across Vale’s delicate features.  “You can watch my wedding ceremony, of course.”

“But . . . but it’s forbidden.”  Horror filled her and she lowered her voice to a mere whisper.  “The dragons, they could put me to death for defying their most sacred law.  No outsider is allowed to witness their ceremonies.”

Vale simply laughed.  “You’re not an outsider.  You’re a future dragon bride.  They’re not going to harm you, even if someone discovers you.  Just be certain you’re not.”  She flashed a quick smile toward the small gaggle of villagers waiting to approach.  “It’s up to you, Sera.  Watch or not.  But, just think.  If you watch, you’ll know what to expect when it’s your turn.  You’ll know something none of the other girls at the Aerie do.  Isn’t that worth a little risk?”

As much as Serafina longed to resist temptation, she couldn’t.  She’d never been able to, even as a child.  She and Vale were forever finding trouble and going places they shouldn’t or attempting the forbidden.  This would be a final bit of shared mischief until they were together again.

The sun hadn’t yet risen, though a lightening of the shadows heralded its approach.  After giving Vale a final hug, Serafina slipped away and drifted toward the outskirts of the crowd near the surrounding forest.  With all eyes on the bride, no one paid her the least attention, and she took the final half dozen steps necessary to slip into the woods unseen.  Though she hadn’t been to the caves in several turns, she knew the path by heart.  Too bad she’d make the climb in her best dress.  Her mother would have something to say about the dirty hem and endless brambles catching in the skirt.  She could only hope to win a reprieve from the anticipated scolding because it was both her birthday and Vale’s wedding day.

The burgeoning sun scorched through the final layer of mist just as Serafina pulled herself over the lip of the cave.  Her sleeve caught on a sharp outcropping and tore.  “Grackle sludge,” she muttered.  “Birthday or no, I’ll be doing Kitlyn’s chores as well as my own for the next cycle over this bit of foolishness.”

A trumpeting roar reverberated off the hills, repeated in sequence by a half dozen different dragon bellows.  Far below, she realized the villagers were no longer within view and Vale stood alone.  The ceremony was about to begin.  Just in time, Serafina ducked into the deepest recesses of the cave, praying no creatures had chosen this particular hollow for their home.  A black shadow skated across the entryway, plunging the interior into momentary darkness.  The next instant, the rising sun threw its light within feet of where she crouched, threatening to blind her with its radiance.

Dragon calls continued to echo all around her and Serafina glanced around the interior of her childhood haunt and spied an old, buff colored blanket that she and Vale used to conceal the entrance of the cave.  It blended perfectly with the surrounding rocks.  She wrapped the dusty covering around herself and crept toward the overhang.

Far below, she saw Vale, still tethered to the altar with her flower garlands.  She jumped up and down in her exuberance, waving her arms at the circling dragons.  The sunlight flashed across their scales, turning them into a multitude of colors that flashed by too fast to track.

Around and around they swirled, like a rainbow whirlwind, enacting some sort of ritualistic aerial dance.  Faster and faster they circled, until one broke formation and arrowed straight through the vortex of dragons.  Sunlight struck him full on, rebounding off his scales like a hammer off an anvil, turning him a molten gold.  Downward he drove, straight at Vale, his scales no longer a flaming gold, but now a frightening black shadow.

At the last possible instant, he reared back, his powerful wings striking at the air and sending it billowing toward Vale.  Her headdress tore loose, swirling and fluttering above her like a giant mesa bird, and her pale hair spilled across her shoulders and back, lifting and waving in carefree jubilation.

Serafina leaned forward, forgetting to breathe in her excitement to see what the dragon would do next.  He trumpeted once more, the sound causing a physical jolt even as far away as the cavern, and drew in a deep, powerful breath. The next instant, he loosened a dark green blaze of fire at Vale.  She shrieked the instant the flames reached her, her screams becoming Serafina’s.

And then the world exploded, decimating the altar and rocking the very foundations of the surrounding hills.  The cave around her shook, the ceiling cracking and shattering as though made of spun glass.  The floor beneath her lifted and dropped, wagging about like a giant’s tongue.  Serafina scrambled for purchase, teetering on the edge of the cave’s lip.  For an instant, she thought it would settle and she’d be safe.

At the last instant, it heaved upward and coughed, spitting her out into midair and sending her plummeting to her death.

Dragon Haitus Break

The portal is ready, Your Highness.”

Prince Sedir Dulenti d’ Malesium dismissed his military commander with an impatient wave of his hand.  Finally.  Finally, after decades of court intrigue, endless turns of military service, and the cautiously orchestrated removal of several key siblings—curse the procreative excesses of his sire—Sedir’s plans to cement his path to the throne were coming to fruition.

Locating the dragon hatchery on Aeryyon had taken a heavy toll on his magicks, taxing even his impressive strength and ability.  Even so, he’d succeeded.  And once discovered, he’d led his army on a devastating attack.  With no Bounden to protect the newborn Fletchen, he’d succeeded in slaughtering most of the helpless, mewling creatures and had driven the rest through the portal into the world of Elusia.

As soon as he sealed the portal between Elusia and the dragon home world of Aeryyon, he could take his time annihilating the remaining dragons one by one by one, before returning home in triumph.  There he would receive the accolades he so richly deserved, along with the coveted designation of prince heir.  His men were already using the title, an impudence he did nothing to curb, but one that could bring dire consequences on all their heads if he failed the final part of his assignment.

He turned to face the portal, gently touching the surface with his magick, searching for any weakness, testing the strength and potential resistance to his abilities.  Portals contained their own sort of power.  They were tricky objects, old and immutable.  It took skill to find a way to seal them.  Skill, power, and patience.

Cautiously, he funneled his magick into the portal, easing the doorway closed.  For some reason it fought him and he poured more power into his spell.  But the harder he pushed, the more it resisted, wrestling for control like a living entity.

Something was wrong, seriously wrong.  At the last possible instant, he realized he needed to back away and release his spell.  To his horror, he couldn’t.  Something tethered him, sucking at his magick like a babe at its mother’s teat, drawing more and more of his power, draining him.  He fought with every ounce of cunning and ability, using every bit of trickery he possessed to free himself.  And still it wasn’t enough.

This couldn’t be happening!  After all he’d accomplished, after all the carefully crafted schemes and intrigues, after coming so close to the throne, he refused to die like this.

At the last instant, just as the final bit of essence poured out of him, his world exploded.

 Dragon Haitus Break

The ground rushed toward Serafina and she closed her eyes, covering her face with her hands in a futile attempt to hide from the inevitable.  Her heart hammered wildly and for some reason the sound grew louder and louder until it threatened to deafen her.  Only, it wasn’t her heartbeat.  To her shock, something snagged her around the waist and flipped her upward before trapping her in a bizarre cage of thick, callused leathery bars.

She didn’t understand what was happening to her or how she’d avoided splattering against the rocks beneath the cave, any more than she understood what caged her.  She flew through the air, skimming above the valley floor.  Below she could see utter desolation.  Trees lay broken like a pile of discarded kindling and it looked as though a giant had kicked over a pile of fire-blasted stone blocks, scattering them in haphazard disarray.

The altar!  Serafina stared in disbelief.  She was looking at the remains of the altar where Vale had been.  Hot tears overflowed her eyes and streaked her cheeks.  Vale had died.  The dragon had killed her.  And that’s when she knew what caged her.

She grasped the leathery bars and peered upward at a ceiling of gold scales mottled with streaks of red and umber.  Somehow, the dragon that had killed Vale now imprisoned her.  It continued to fly, this time toward the forest, dropping low so it skimmed along the top of the tree line.  If she reached out, she could brush the leafy tops.  The dragon slowed, spiraling downward toward a meadow where it deposited her in the tall grass.  She hit with a thud hard enough to knock the breath from her lungs and rolled over and over through the grass.  She felt the dragon land nearby, more than heard him.  For such a large creature, he was surprisingly swift and silent.

For a long moment, she didn’t move, not sure what to expect.  Her twisted dress trapped her legs, trussing her tight, while her loosened hair wrapped around her face, blinding her.  Pain tore through her thigh where she’d hit the sharp edge of a rock. Shoving her hair out of her way, she glanced down, seeing a long tear in her skirt that bared the upper curve of her leg and revealed an angry, bleeding cut.

A loud huff drove her to her feet and she spun around to face a huge golden dragon.  Even its eyes flashed gold, though they flamed with fire in some peculiar fashion.  It approached, its rapid stride surprisingly soundless, only a faint reverberation trembling beneath her feet giving away its position.  Unable to help herself, she backed up.  Pointless, since she didn’t have a hope of outrunning a dragon.

Gathering what little courage she possessed, she stumbled to a halt and confronted the creature, allowing fury to overcome common sense.  After all, what did it matter?  She’d witnessed one of their secret ceremonies.  Worse, she now knew the fate of their dragon brides. No doubt, death would swiftly follow and she refused to meet it cowering.

“You killed her!” she shouted at the beast.  “You killed Vale.  She was supposed to be your bride and instead you set her on fire.  Why?  Why would you do that?  Or is that what you do to all your dragon brides?”

Not surprising, the dragon didn’t respond, though he did lower his massive head toward her.  Great horns curled backward on either side of its head, studs as long as her hand marching up its forehead toward the back of its skull.  He thrust his golden muzzle toward her and drew in a deep breath, much as he had before blasting Vale with his flames.  She closed her eyes, trembling, waiting for a similar death.

It never came.

He pressed his nostrils against her breast, close to the dragon mark hidden beneath her blouse, and sniffed again.

She shuddered at the touch, repulsed.  “You know it’s there, don’t you?”

He pulled back and to her utter astonishment, dipped his huge head.

She struggled to gather her wits enough to respond.  “You understand me?”

Again, he gave that odd nod.

“You know I’m a dragon bride, don’t you?  Somehow you can smell it.”  She glared at him.  “Well, what are you waiting for?  Why don’t you just get it over with?”

The beast tilted his head to one side in an almost human expression of puzzlement.

Rage burned within, even while tears fell as thick as rain.  “You’re going to kill me eventually.  You might as well do it now.”  It continued to stare at her, almost mournful in its regard.  Did it feel bad about Vale?  She didn’t believe it, not for one little moment.  “It’s why no one is allowed to watch one of your weddings.  If we did, no one would give you any more brides.”

It held out one of its front feet, claws retracted. A gesture of peace?

Serafina slapped at its forefoot and then she totally lost all semblance of control.  She smacked its huge maw, then hit it again and again, bruising her hand against its steely scales.  “Do it, you horrible lizard.  Get it over with.”

Its lip quivered and lifted, baring a row of sharp teeth and a soft, warning growl rumbled deep in its chest.

She should have been terrified.  But she’d clearly lost her mind.  It was the only explanation for why she continued to attack the beast.  “Kill me and be done with it,” she screamed.  “Better now than having to wait two whole turns for my Age of Collection.  Marking each day’s passage, cycle after cycle, turn by turn, all the while knowing I’ll be killed by you is beyond cruel.  So, just get it over with!”

In the distance, a great bellow caught in the breeze and rattled through the meadow.  The gold’s head jerked upward.  More trumpeting roars followed immediately afterward.  He lifted his head and bugled in reply, practically deafening Serafina, before returning his attention to her.

He nudged her with his muzzle, knocking her flat. Hovering over her, he seemed to debate what to do with her.  A quick, impatient blast of acrid smoke issued from his nostrils.  She sneezed repeatedly, the noise better suited to a dragon than a young woman. The dragon stared openmouthed, and then released a deep barking sound.  She stared in disbelief.  Had he just laughed at her?  By the Elements, he had.  For some reason, that seemed to settle the issue of her fate, at least for him.  To her eternal disgust, the beast stuck out his tongue and licked her before clearing her in a single bound and taking to the air.  In mere moments, he disappeared from view.

Serafina lay in the grass for a long instant.  What should she do now?  More than anything, she wanted to run home and hide in her parents’ protective embrace.  To confess what she’d done, what she’d seen, and unburden herself.  She closed her eyes, indulging the fantasy until reality set in.

If she returned to the village and told everyone what had happened, would they believe her?  What would happen to them if they did?  Would the dragons destroy them in order to hide the truth from the rest of Elusia?  Even if they didn’t believe her, she didn’t have a single doubt the gold would track her down, the predator giving chase to its prey.  And when he found her, he would take her to the Aerie to prepare her for her “wedding,” regardless of whether she’d reached the Age of Collection or not.

No.  She didn’t dare risk the village and all those she loved.  Only one option remained—to flee.  And there was only one place that offered the possibility of sanctuary . . . the Malesiums, along with the Elusian rebels they’d enlisted to their cause.

She scrubbed her face where the dragon had licked her and glared in the direction he’d flown.  He’d made a mistake by allowing her to live, one he would forever regret.  She knew the truth about the dragons now.  She’d seen with her own eyes what happened to their brides.  The Malesium were right, as were the rebels.

Dragons weren’t protectors, but evil beasts.  They weren’t saviors, but destroyers.  Their advent didn’t herald a return to a golden renaissance, but the arrival of a dark age.

And no matter what happened to her or what the cost, she’d find a way to avenge Vale’s death and rid Elusia of its dragon scourge.

Dragon Haitus Break

Sedir didn’t know how long he remained unconscious.  When he came to, he realized two frightening facts.  First, his magick was gone, rendering him a mote and no longer eligible to take his father’s place as ruler.  Second, during the struggle with the portal, he’d somehow created a portal guardian.

He slowly gained his feet, weak and damaged and bleeding from numerous cuts.  He pressed a hand to his side to stem the worst of them and assessed the creature.  Borne of the earth and roughly female, its flesh consisted of a variety of the metals found deep within the Goddess’s womb.  Precious stones studded the guardian—emerald eyes, ruby lips, and a slender body cloaked with diamonds interspersed with stone, grass, and even flowers.  Its fingers and toes appeared wooden, the nails bits of moss, while leaves curled across what passed for its breasts and sex.

He managed to speak through the pain. “What is your name?” he asked the guardian.

“It is what you say it is.”  The thick, heavy voice struggled to articulate the words.

“Very well.  You are Creature.”

The eyes glittered, showing a hint of nascent life.  “I am Creature.”

“Do you contain magic?”  It was his only hope, the only thing that might save his life.

“Yes.”

Relief flowed through him, sharp and bittersweet.  “You will address me as master, for that is what I am.”  He spoke harshly so the guardian wouldn’t question who was in charge.  “Your master.”

“Yes, master.”

“I order you to transfer your magick to me immediately.”

“It cannot be transferred in this manner.”

Sedir thought fast.  If those under his command ever suspected he’d lost his magick, they’d mutiny.  He didn’t doubt for a minute his second would take control by killing him.  Though Lytar wasn’t in line for the throne, he did possess his own magick.  It was nowhere near as strong as Sedir’s—or as strong as Sedir’s once was—but he had more than enough to destroy a mote.  His only hope was the portal guardian.

“How much magick do you possess?” he demanded.

Creature paused a beat before responding.  “I do not know how to quantify such a thing.”

“You do not know how to quantify such a thing, master.”

“I do not know how to quantify such a thing, master.”

“Can you heal my wounds?”

“Yes.”  Another pause.  “Master.”

“Do so.”

It approached and reached for him.  He fought to control his apprehension, refusing to allow any weakness to show, though the thought of this thing touching him filled him with disgust.  The guardian’s wooden fingers sank into his flesh, causing him to cry out.  Almost instantly, energy poured from Creature to Sedir.  Pain flared briefly as his wounds knit together.  A deep itching followed, subsiding into a dull ache.  All the while, he weighed his options.

More than anything, he wanted to recover his abilities.  To do that, he needed to figure out what had gone wrong and how to reverse it—assuming he could reverse it.  For that, he needed Creature, both to study and to perform magick on his behalf, with no one the wiser.

Sedir’s hands closed into fists. The road to the throne now stretched far into the horizon out of reach.

Dragon Haitus Break

Two turns later . . .

They’re coming! Take the brides!”

Serafina signaled the nine other men in her deca.  Happó, the group leader nodded and held up his hand, fingers spread wide.  Instantly, half the men converged on the girls gathered in a loose circle and swiftly ushered them through the forest away from the oncoming threat.  That left the other five to find a way to slow the intruders until everyone escaped.

She took her position, crouching behind a bounty bush, its broad, colorful leaves helping to conceal her.  She used the few moments available to center herself the way she’d been taught during the two turns she’d been with the Malesium.  Of course, they thought her a boy and had laughed at her initial request to join them.  But she’d been persistent, training within sight of them and copying their moves.  Eventually, her stubbornness paid off and they allowed her to train with them.

They’d mocked her puniness and her lack of muscle.  So, she’d worked hard to build that muscle, with only limited success.  Unfortunately, nothing would change her size.  She remained petite for a girl.  For a boy, she appeared downright scrawny, despite having achieved her eighteen birthday.  If she’d still been at home, she’d have reached her Age of Collection by now.  The Torquis would have already delivered her to the Aerie . . . and certain death.

She waited, her hand tightening on the hilt of her short sword, the largest weapon she could manage with any skill, which wasn’t saying much, her inadequacies far outweighing her strengths.  Now a bow, with that she could best most men, and she managed surprising accuracy with the dagger she kept concealed in her boot.

A shadow of movement caught her eye, close, so close and silent it snatched breath from her lungs. Somehow, a Torq had slipped through their guard and closed on her position.  A shaft of sunlight struck him, shimmering around his huge form like a fiery golden halo before he swiftly vanished into a patch of deep shadow.

Serafina recognized him instantly.  T’Kai.

Memories of Vale’s Collection ceremony came storming back, her grief over her friend’s death unmuted even by the distance of two turns.  T’Kai hadn’t changed a bit since then.  Bark brown leather clung to his massive form, outlining heavily muscled thighs and a broad, powerful chest.  He carried a broadsword in one hand as though it weighed no more than her dagger, and wore a battle axe in a sheath across his back.  No doubt, he kept other killing weapons about his person, daggers and throwing stars and the endless bits and deadly pieces men of war prized so highly.

He still wore the horned headdress that concealed so much she wanted to see—particularly his eyes.  She’d learned to weigh and judge men by the thoughts contained within their gaze.  Perhaps that explained why the Torquis wore such all-encompassing helms, so their duplicity remained hidden from the Elusians.

She watched the shadow where T’Kai had disappeared, alert for movement.  Was he still there?  Or had her bitter thoughts distracted her from her duty?  The dragon mark beneath her breast tingled.  Slow and silent, she drew her short sword.

Apparently, she hadn’t been silent enough.  A huge broadsword sang through the air with a power she didn’t have a hope of matching.  She threw herself to the ground just in time.  Even so, the blade stole a few stray hairs from her head.  Rolling, she allowed her momentum to carry her back to her feet.  She confronted T’Kai with her sword, an annoying needle against a mighty lance.

He must have thought the same for a grin slashed his face, baring even white teeth.  “Give up, boy.  You are outmatched.”  His voice ripped through her, oddly familiar and yet foreign, underlain with that gravel and heat she remembered so well.  Strange she would still find it so memorable.  “If you surrender now, I won’t harm you.  You have my word.”

“The word of a Torq?” she shot back, rolling onto the balls of her feet in anticipation of his next move.  “I don’t find that particularly reassuring.”

Fire flashed through his gaze, swiftly banked.  “I will give you one last chance to surrender.  Killing you serves no purpose, nor does it bring honor to the Torquis.”

“You worry about honor?” she jeered.  “What honor is there in taking innocent women from their homes and family?”

His smile faded and the heat in his voice burned like molten gold from behind his dragon mask.  “You have no right to interfere. They are dragon brides.  That makes them our women.”

“Grackle sludge.  They are mere fodder for your masters.”  She was insane to taunt him, but the longer she kept him talking, the better chance Happó’s men would have spiriting the girls to safety.  “What benefit do the dragons receive when they kill their brides?  Do they consume their souls?  Or are they simply a tasty meal?”

Instead of attacking as she’d anticipated, he froze.  He moved swifter than she thought possible, seizing hold of her vest and pulling her toward him, lifting her clear off her feet.  She attempted to swipe him with her sword, a blow he easily parried.  “How is it possible?” he whispered.  “And yet, I smell it on you.”

By the Great Creator and all his Elements, somehow he knew.  Instead of turning her sword on him, she turned it on herself, slashing her vest in order to wiggle free of his grasp.  She dropped to his feet and took off with all the speed of a jumper with a jungle cat on its tail.  She chose a direction that led away from the girls her deca had rescued, praying she’d find a bolthole small enough to hide her from the huge, angry Torq.

Her one, tiny advantage came from her knowledge of the surrounding forest.  With luck, he didn’t share that knowledge, which meant it came down to the unknowns.  If he could scent her dragon mark, what other dragon-imbued abilities did he possess that would enable him to track her?  She needed to stay ahead of him until she reached the mountain foothills. She’d find plenty of nooks and crannies in which to hide between the tumble of rocks, some quite narrow and deep where such a great brute couldn’t reach her.

She never even came close to the foothills.  In order to get there, she needed to cross a deep, swift stream at the one section where the steep embankments flattened. He caught her just as she splashed into the water, taking her down on the surrounding mudflat.  She attempted to squirm away, hoping the mud would prevent him from gaining a firm purchase.  As the Malesium would claim, the luck of the Goddess’s imp son was with T’Kai.

He caught the back of her shirt in an unbreakable grip and anchored her hips beneath his.  No amount of twisting worked, and thick, peaty mud, smelling of rot and decay, painted her from head to toe.  She squirmed harder, which caused the buttons of her shirt to pop and the seams to rip.  Worst of all, it made her painfully aware of some of the more intimate parts of the Torq, something she preferred to avoid at all cost.

Serafina still remembered the passionate intensity with which Vale had regarded her Torq.  With the advantage of time and age, she’d come to realize they’d been lovers.  It only added fuel to her burning hatred.  The Torq stole Vale’s innocence, enjoying the sexual pleasures of the dragon’s bride-to-be.  Then, the dragon satisfied his other appetite by eating his bride.  How many brides did a dragon go through in its lifetime?

She wasn’t given time to calculate the possibilities.  T’Kai flipped her onto her back.  She scrambled to pull the remnants of her shirt together, but he stopped her, brushing the edges aside and baring her to his gaze.  He swept a finger along the underside of her left breast, pausing at the exact placement of her dragon mark even though mud hid it from view.  The dragon mark tingled in response.

“So, it is you,” he stated quietly.  “My senses told me it was, but I dismissed the possibility as absurd.  Your disguise is quite good.  I truly took you for a boy, not the shy, lovely girl I once met.”

She stared in disbelief.  “You remember me?”  From that one, brief meeting so long ago?

“From Vale’s Collection ceremony, yes.  She said you were called Serafina.” She could feel his deep voice reverberating straight through her, the sensation filling her with an odd feminine panic. “You ran from me then, too.”

“And I’ll keep running from you until the Malesium wipe you all from existence.”

He closed his eyes, as though in pain.  “A very real possibility.”

“Good!”

“Are you Claimed?”

She didn’t have a clue what he meant, so remained silent.

He swept his dragon mask from his head and for the first time she saw what he truly looked like.  Long, black hair, thick and arrow straight, fell past his shoulders and framed a face of such sheer, male beauty she could only stare in awe.  His eyes were a piercing gold and when he looked at her, she imagined she could see flames leaping within the irises.  High, sweeping cheekbones emphasized the hollows beneath, while a firm, square chin drew attention to a wide, sensuous mouth.  By all the Elements, he was far more dangerous than she’d imagined.  How could she possibly escape someone this powerful?

He stared at her, a hint of impatience drifting across his expression.  “Answer me, woman.  Are you Claimed?”

“I don’t know what that means.”  She hadn’t meant to answer, but for some reason she couldn’t help herself.

“If you had been Claimed, you would know.”  Anger flitted through his gaze.  “Malesium puuks!  They kill helpless Fletchen, drive our kindt through some long-forgotten portal into Elusia.  And now they steal our brides and force women to fight for them?”

“To be fair, they don’t know I’m a woman,” she confessed.

He stared, shocked and disapproving.  “By the Holy Fire!  Do you realize the risk if they do?  Or if they discover you are dragon marked?”

“Risk?  Risk!”  She shoved at his shoulders.  Not that it did anything.  He was as immoveable as the mountains looming above them.  “The only ones we’re at risk from is your kind.  The Malesium are rescuing us from death by dragon fire!”

“If they are taking our women, it is not to rescue them.  Of that, I am certain.  You have reached your Age of Collection, yes?”  Without waiting for her response, he levered back and stood, dragging her upward with him.  She sank calf deep into the sucking mud and he lifted her free, stepping clear of the mudflat onto solid ground. “You will come with me.”

“I have reached the Age of Collection, yes.  And I will come with you, no.”  This time she managed to wriggle free of his hold and put some breathing space between them.  She swept her shirt closed and tucked it into her trousers, praying it would remain shut.  “I am under Malesium protection.”

“You were under Malesium protection.  Now you are under mine.”  He leaned in, cupping her chin and lifting it until their gazes collided. “Do not think to escape me.  I have your scent.  I can track you wherever you go.  Until you’ve been Claimed, you belong to me.”

Oh!  The sheer arrogance of the Torq!  “I belong to no man.”

“True.  But soon you will belong to a beast.”

She felt the blood drain from her face and prayed her terror didn’t show.  She had to get away, no matter what it took.  She made a production of swiping some of the mud from her trousers, her hand dipping to her boot.  In a flash, she drew her dagger and launched it at T’Kai.  It caught him totally off guard, striking him in the shoulder and digging deep.  She didn’t know which of them was more surprised.

“Shite!” he roared and this time she couldn’t mistake the flames that flared in his golden eyes for anything else.

She didn’t wait to see what he’d do to her for her impudence. In one swift move, she kicked him as hard as she could in his precious manhood, and took off at a dead run.

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