This page is for those who have already read the first two chapters of Torn in Flames and wish to continue with the next three. Enjoy!
It was hot, with the sun’s heat scorching Aidan’s red scales. Dragons didn’t sweat easily, but he’d been flying non-stop for hours, and it had reached the warmest part of the day. He’d followed a path along a long stretch of highway with rolling plains on either side, scanning the western border closely as his job dictated. A body of water appeared up ahead that the humans called Lake Murray. Desperate to cool off, he headed toward it.
Nanoq, the Taugud pendragon, had him conducting patrols along the remotest part of their territory where nothing ever occurred. Only a few shifters even lived this far from their fortress and jakhal. Also, Aidan had to pull an extra long shift between noon and midnight. It exhausted him, so he barely had the energy to hunt for food afterward. This stretch of land had been his to protect and reside on for the last year, with only a few days off during that time. Before then, he’d had another dull stretch near the southeast border of their territory where he rarely saw his own kind and few humans. At least there, he’d occasionally spotted Bogaran dragons flying patrols on the other side. They’d spit fire at each other once in a while to break the monotony, but none of them wished to start a war.
Since Bailey left a little over five years ago, he’d received the worst duties for helping her escape. It had been back-breaking labor for a long time, and then later, he’d been reassigned to patrols that kept him far from their jakhal and pendragon. Only in a couple of instances had he been pulled off border security. Those brief reprieves occurred after Hildegard, the Faegud pendragon for the territory to their south, insisted that she see Aidan about a vital matter between clans. Someone else could have gone, but she stood her ground that she’d only talk to him.
At least she tried to help. At one point, she even offered to let him join her toriq—clan—but he hadn’t been ready to resort to such extreme measures. Doing that could cause a rift between their people. Not to mention he needed to be nearby for whenever Bailey returned. His mate wouldn’t know to go to Texas instead. Her life would be at dire risk once she entered Oklahoma, considering Nanoq made it clear he planned to have her executed if she returned.
The Taugud pendragon had only worsened over the years, ruling their people with an extremely heavy hand. He’d even resorted to executing shifters if he had indisputable proof that they’d planned or acted to betray him. Aidan had been away too long to know how many had been charged for those matters.
Landing next to the lake, he stepped into the water and found it cool and refreshing. He kept going further until submerging his body. If a dragon kept their wings tight to their back, they could easily swim. The tension in his muscles relaxed as he finally freed himself of the sweat and grime he’d accumulated. The water ran between his scales while he moved across the lake, using his arms and legs to glide across the surface. He could have stayed there for hours if he’d dared. While shifting to human form would have also cleaned his body, it wouldn’t have been as relaxing.
Ten minutes later, he forced himself to exit the water and shake himself dry. He’d had to fly fast and hard for the first few hours of his patrol to gain the brief respite. One of the other guards would expect him at a particular time where their territories met.
Nanoq had grown paranoid and wanted to ensure Aidan didn’t have the time or opportunity to plot against him. It was pathetic because the methods the pendragon employed only made it easier to hate him and consider betrayal. One could hardly believe their leader had once been reasonable and fair.
Aidan prepared to take off into the air and resume his patrol when a wave of dizziness hit him. His vision swam before his eyes. He saw his home in Norman and then faces appeared. Bailey came first with a smaller person he couldn’t quite see, followed by his sister and others from the group assigned to protect the sorcerer’s orb. Finally, he saw the young woman from the cave who’d given them their sacred mission. She whispered that the time to come together drew near.
He sunk onto the earth, realizing his mate would receive the same summons, and she’d return to Oklahoma soon. Bailey would bring their son, a boy Aidan loved with all his heart despite having never met him. It was finally time to decide what he’d do to keep them safe—no matter what it took. Before he could form another thought, his vision turned black.
Someone tapped my shoulder hard. My head pounded, and it felt like needles stabbing behind my eyes. The last thing I wanted was to open my lids, but the person was insistent and started shaking me.
“Bailey, wake up,” the commander said urgently.
I finally recognized his voice, which helped bring me out of my stupor. It was rather embarrassing to be lying on his office floor. My last memories were visions of home and Aidan, followed by that guide girl whispering warnings. Now, a very insistent feeling pulsed in my chest that I needed to head west as soon as possible.
Bracing myself, I opened my eyes. The sunlight streaming from the window behind the commander’s desk nearly blinded me, and it took a moment to adjust my vision. Conrad lay still next to me, his chest rising and falling with each breath.
“We were called,” I said, voice coming out a croaked whisper.
The commander frowned. “Called?”
Conrad groaned, and his dark brows knitted together as he shifted on the floor.
I cleared my throat. “Called home. My sorceress friend, Danae, should have felt it too.”
After arriving, we’d warned our leaders we would have to return to Oklahoma eventually, but we didn’t know how seriously they took it. The commander apparently forgot all about us telling him. To be fair, it had been a long time, and he had other things on his mind.
He shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Five and a half years ago, we were entrusted with a mission to protect a magical orb. It couldn’t be destroyed, but it couldn’t be allowed into the wrong hands either.” I paused to help Conrad sit up. “A guide told us when grave danger approached our home that we’d have to return to protect and use the orb to defend ourselves.”
How we’d do that, I still didn’t know.
The commander helped us settle into chairs before returning to his desk. “Tell me more about the device.”
I went on to explain everything I knew, including the incident with the orb that forced me to flee Oklahoma. Even with the satellite and drone imagery he’d shown us, I still had no idea how it would come into play, but it didn’t matter until we got back to Norman.
“There is no way you can stay here?” he asked, frowning. “As I recall, you have a child, and that’s a long journey. Not to mention, you’ve all become integral members of our community.”
I shook my head. “We don’t have a choice. It’s a life or death matter, and we took a vow.”
“How soon would you leave?”
“The sooner, the better,” I replied.
His lips thinned. “That’s not much notice.”
“Sir, we can’t wait long.” Conrad came out of his stupor. “We gotta get back to Oklahoma and start planning how to stop that army. You ain’t gonna want that on your doorstep.”
“No, I won’t. An estimated departure date would help if I’m going to explain this to my superiors,” the commander said, drumming his fingers on his desk. “It can’t be tomorrow.”
We’d been told that the call would happen with enough time to travel back safely. I had to hope that was true. “I’d say we need to head out in the next four or five days.”
We were too entrenched to leave immediately, and a few days of gathering supplies would make a huge difference in how long it took to get back. We’d cut time by being prepared, which brought me to my next topic. “I don’t suppose we could get food, vehicles, and enough fuel to make the trip?”
I knew it was a lot to ask, but I had to try. At least I wasn’t asking for a plane.
The commander stared at me for a full minute before answering. “I’ll need to make a few calls, but the more I consider it, the more I think it might be best that you go. We’ll need trusted allies on the front lines. Assuming my superiors agree, I’ll also give you satellite phones so we can stay in touch.”
“And weapons?” Conrad asked, lifting his brows. “We’re gonna have to go through some rough territory.”
“I’ll see about that, too,” the commander agreed.
I stood and shook his hand. “Thanks for everything. Sorry about us passing out on your floor, but we appreciate your understanding. Anything you can do to help us will make our lives much easier.”
“Magic can be rough in my experience—I’ve had a few incidents myself. Check back tomorrow, and I’ll let you know what I can get for you,” he said, dismissing us with a gesture of his hand.
I wondered what he meant about his magical incidents, but we didn’t have time to ask. Conrad and I left, hurrying out of the building and grabbing our bikes outside. Neither of us said anything until we’d gotten on the road.
He glanced over at me. “Rosalie is coming with me. I warned her about all this when we started dating, and she’s cool with it. Just gotta break the news that the time is now and see about getting her up here as soon as possible.”
“Good. I’m glad she’ll be with us,” I said, happy for him.
I was still shocked about getting the call, but growing excitement bubbled inside me. We’d be going home, and Aidan could finally meet his son. It was going to be a whirlwind of organizing and packing, but the timing couldn’t have been better. Orion needed to get away from here before he caused an incident with his shifting or fire. It would be good for him to be around others of his kind and to learn things I couldn’t teach him.
“Think Danae’s sister will come?” I asked.
Conrad shook his head. “That girl don’t make no sense to me. She might, but I doubt it.”
We made it back to the house and found my mom had returned. Miles was there, too, sitting next to Danae. Paul must have gone to his work to get him after she woke up from the calling.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She shook her head. “That was rough. I hit my head on a monster truck when I fell on the floor.”
That explained the odd mark on her cheek. “Sorry.”
Toys were a hazard around my house under the best of circumstances.
“So we’re going home?” Miles asked. The big, muscular guy had an arm around his wife, but he pulled her closer at the news. Like the women in his family, he had blond hair and fair skin.
“Looks like it,” I said, then told them about our conversation with the commander. I left out the part about the surveillance photos since that was sensitive, but once we left the coalition’s territory, they’d hear all about it. For now, I only mentioned how we might be getting assistance.
Miles’ eyes widened. “That’s awfully generous. When I’m pulling guard duty at the gate, I never see anyone leave with that much stuff—not that many people choose to go for good.”
That had been his main job for the last few years, protecting the entrance where we first arrived. I suspected he would have tried climbing higher up the ranks, but he didn’t want to get tied down to the place. It had surprised me Conrad had bothered, but his goals had always been different.
“We’re gonna spend a few days getting everything together before we go—five at the most.” I stopped when my mom and the children walked into the living room from the hallway. “Is that enough time for everyone?”
“So we are leaving?” Mom asked. Danae would have told her about the call before I got home.
I nodded. “It’s time.”
Orion jumped in the air. “Yay, I’m going to see my dad!”
His joy squeezed at my heart.
“Where are we going?” Alyssa asked. At three years old, this was going to be confusing for her.
Miles moved to kneel in front of her. “On a fun and adventurous journey to the town where your mother and I came from before.”
“But aren’t there dragons out there?” she asked, frowning.
Despite the relative safety of coalition territory, we had regular drills in case of an invasion. Every child understood the danger no matter how much we tried to shield them. It probably didn’t help when she overheard aspects of some of our jobs, either.
Conrad crossed his arms. “If we find any, I’ll kill them and eat them. Don’t you worry.”
She looked him up and down. “No way. In the pictures, dragons are like giants! How are you gonna eat one?”
He’d built up some muscles over the last few years, but the girl had a point. It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. Instead, I covered my mouth, noticing Danae doing the same thing.
“Well, I’ll only eat the good parts,” he told her with a wink.
Alyssa crinkled her little nose. “What do they taste like?”
“Chicken, of course.”
I didn’t call him out for being a liar.
“What is wrong with you? Wake up!” someone said, speaking in the dragon tongue.
The voice was familiar and irksome, drawing him out of the fog clouding his mind.
Aidan squinted against the bright sunlight and pressed a hand to his throbbing head. “What happened?”
“You tell me.” Donar, his favorite cousin, crossed his meaty arms. “The pendragon sent me to find you, and then I see you lying on the ground like this. And why are you in human form—naked?”
He slowly sat up, noting the burned grass around him from when he must have transitioned. Since he hadn’t been conscious, he hadn’t thought to pull his clothes from shiggara—the mystical storage place where he kept them when in dragon form. “I got the call, and it hit me harder than expected. That’s all I remember.”
Well, except for seeing his mate’s beloved face. His heart ached at the memory of her and all the time they’d lost together. If only he’d been strong enough to keep her close.
“The call?” Donar asked.
Unlike him, his cousin had his black warrior garb covering his large frame. They shared no physical attributes aside from the same tone of olive skin and dark hair. Whereas Aidan was leaner with a more chiseled face, the other male had a square visage and bulky muscles. Being near the same age in their two-hundred-and-twenties, they’d grown up together and had always been close. Both knew the other’s darkest secrets, and they trusted each other completely.
Aidan focused for a moment on drawing clothes to his body. With a little magical push all shifters could execute, his black camrium pants and tunic appeared on him, along with his boots. He stretched his legs and wiggled his toes, noting he still felt a bit numb.
“Yes. The call that brings the protectors of the orb back together,” Aidan said. He noted he was still near the lake and desperately wanted to jump back into the water. The weather had not grown any cooler while he’d been unconscious. “We’ve discussed it enough times over the years, and you know that’s what will bring Bailey and my son back.”
“Yes, I remember, but the timing isn’t good.” His cousin shook his head. “And my news may make it even worse.”
It was then that Aidan remembered he was late for his check-in with the other guard. The pendragon would have sent someone, but why Donar? Nanoq had hardly let them see each other over the last few years to prevent them from plotting against him, or at least, that’s what he’d implied.
He replayed his cousin’s words in his head. “What news?”
“There was an attack just north of here beyond your patrol area. The Thamaran or Kandoran—who knows at this point—took one guard and injured another before he escaped. That isn’t the worst part—for you, anyway,” Donar said, anxiety in his yellow gaze.
Aidan frowned. “What could be worse?”
“The Shadow tried to intervene during the attack, but they took him as well.”
“Bailey’s father?” Aidan asked, stunned. The slayer was a legend among their kind for his battle skills and prowess. He couldn’t imagine how they could have gotten him alive. Perhaps dead with enough powerful dragons attacking at once, but not while he still breathed.
“The guard who witnessed it says magic was involved. If the attackers hadn’t been busy fighting the slayer, we wouldn’t have a witness to tell us what happened. He was badly wounded when he arrived at the fortress.” Donar rubbed his short, black hair. “That’s all we could find out until he wakes again.”
The guard’s injuries must have been severe enough to use the standing stones for their increased healing power. Unfortunately, they had the side effect of sending people into a deep sleep soon afterward to recover. Most of their people had used the mystical place at one time or another, but a few humans had been allowed to use them, such as Bailey’s mother.
“I’m surprised the pendragon wants me involved in this,” Aidan said, drawing his knees toward his chest. His strength was slowly returning.
Donar cleared his throat. “He’s pulling you off guard duty to investigate the attack. Phoebe and I must join you.”
While Aidan’s cousin hadn’t directly involved himself in Bailey’s escape, Nanoq still didn’t trust him because of their affiliation. He’d ensured the three of them received unpleasant duties that kept them separated and too busy to think, much less sneak visits to each other.
“He’s bringing us back as a group for this?” Aidan asked.
“I didn’t expect it either, but he made it clear we’d be doing most of our investigation in Thamaran territory.” Donar grimaced as he turned his gaze to the west across the border. “We’re supposed to figure out where they took the missing guard and slayer.”
“He’s given us a suicide mission.” A clever yet terrible way to get rid of them without using execution, but why now? He’d let them live this long. Had Phoebe given away that she’d gotten the call, and Nanoq wanted them dead before Bailey returned? Or had the pendragon lost what little sense he had left?
Donar nodded. “My thoughts as well. We should have known it would happen sooner or later since the pendragon has been getting increasingly extreme and paranoid every year.”
Aidan hated that it had come to this, and he worried for their safety, but perhaps it was time to stop playing the passive role he’d resumed after Bailey’s departure. It didn’t have to be dire that they’d gotten this mission. He only needed to meet with his sister and a few others before enacting a plan. They had to take action yet avoid raising suspicions.
“Where is Phoebe?” he asked.
“Saying goodbye to Ozara and Leilany.”
Ozara was his sister’s mate—or they would be officially mated someday after both had children—and Leilany was Ozara’s two-year-old daughter. They’d both started trying to get pregnant around the same time, using his friend Lorcan from the Faegud toriq as the sire, but the clan’s best spy proved the most fertile. She’d taken eighteen months off to care for her hatchling, but after that, she’d begun accepting the odd job when necessary. Her parents watched her daughter when neither she nor Phoebe could be there. Their people couldn’t afford to keep her out of work for too long since no one came close to her espionage skills.
“Where are we supposed to meet my sister?” Aidan asked.
Donar glanced to the north. “At the attack site. She should be arriving soon since it took me a while to find you, and we still have to fly about an hour to get there.”
“That’s rather close to the fortress.”
“Yes,” his cousin agreed. “About a forty-five-minute flight and only half a mile from the border.”
Aidan stood, finding his legs steady. “Let’s get going. We’ve got a lot to do and not much time.”
Donar frowned at him. “Why do you seem excited about a mission that will most likely kill us?”
“I have a plan,” he said, reaching out to squeeze his cousin’s shoulder. “At least, I have the beginning of one, but we’ll work out the rest soon. This mission might actually be a good thing—a very good thing.”
“Would it mean I no longer have to work in the rock quarries?” Donar asked, his skin had grown several shades darker due to laboring outside full time.
“If everything goes the way I hope.”
Donar huffed. “As long as it doesn’t involve dying, I’m willing to follow your lead.”
They began the shift into their dragon forms, sending their clothes away and letting their flames overtake them. Once complete, Donar led the way. It allowed Aidan to rest in his back stream as he continued to recover. They maintained a brisk pace toward the attack site, making good time and arriving in a little less than an hour.
Normally, shifters avoided crossing the border. It constituted a treaty violation, but the Thamaran had stopped patrolling their side years ago. The real problem came because of the random attacks. Six months or more could pass without incident, and then one of their people would be killed or taken. They’d yet to determine the culprits besides being either Thamaran or Kandoran. Nanoq had sent a few teams over the years, but they never returned or failed to find anything. Aidan suspected the ones who made it back did not go far, not that he could blame them. Ozara might have gotten more answers, but even the pendragon refused to risk a new mother on a mission that dangerous.
They began their descent toward the attack site. The area was primarily open pasturelands, but Donar led him to a spot near a small copse of trees. As they landed, the odors of blood and burned vegetation assailed his senses. Signs of the battle started about fifty feet past the trees. Aidan lowered his snout to the ground, tracking the scents and disturbed earth. It took him about a minute to find charred grass soaked in sticky red that smelled like Bailey’s father, Wayne. The one called “The Shadow.”
He followed the trail, finding the slayer had been all over the place, but he must have sustained severe injuries. Pools of his blood marked the ground. His nose picked up at least half a dozen pure dragons who’d participated in the attack. The taint of dark magic also clung to the air, but Aidan had no idea how to identify the spells, only that he’d never encountered them before. Something else underneath it all made him want to back away—a sick odor almost like death, yet not quite. It twisted his stomach and raised the spikes on his neck.
He forced himself to keep moving to gain more information. He surveyed the whole field, finding signs of the other two shifters and the story their tracks told. Their blood soaked the ground in a separate location from the slayer, as if he’d tried drawing the enemies to him when he’d arrived. Clumps of dirt and grass rendered the ground uneven, and scorch marks marred the area. Whether Nanoq acknowledged it or not, Wayne had become their ally and tried to protect their people during his daughter’s absence.
They fought hard, Donar said telepathically.
Yes, the evidence points that way. If not for the strong magic permeating this place, they might have won. I am certain the Kandoran are behind this, but they are using the Thamaran for their dirty work. From what little I’ve gathered over the last few years, they have taken up with magic users—though how or why I have no idea.
Aidan had investigated the pure dragon’s blood that drenched the ground during his search. He’d narrowly missed stepping on it, wanting to avoid the tainted fluid with a strange sickly odor. Sitting in a clean spot, he mulled the scene before him and all the possibilities. He’d never encountered anything like this, and stories would have been told if there’d been precedent. Dragons loved to tell tales—good and bad—of past times.
Donar cocked his head, yellow eyes filled with unease. Something unnatural was done to the Thamaran dragons. There are hints of insanity and rot in their scent.
It reminds me of something Bailey once talked about—rabies. It infects the animal and makes them mad. Except, in this case, I think someone must have control over them.
We’ve had contact with such infected animals in the mountains, Donar said, referring to the ones south of the fortress where he worked in the quarry. The disease kills them eventually if nothing else does first.
It wouldn’t do the Kandoran any good to spread a disease that kills the host quickly. Perhaps their version weakens the mind and makes it easier to manipulate the target with magic. How else would they control such a large number at this distance?
He hadn’t found signs of a sorcerer near the battle sight. If the attackers were ill with a disease, they should have been weak and unable to strategize well enough to win the battle. Yet the pure dragons had moved with purpose and likely took their prey alive. Perhaps they served as agents for someone higher?
From the corner of Aidan’s eye, he caught sight of a red dragon flying toward them. As she got close, he recognized his sister. She landed just outside the battle zone. Setting her nose to the ground, she started the same investigation he and Donar did upon arrival. They waited for her. The sights and scents here painted a picture that words could not fully describe. It was best if she learned for herself.
Twenty minutes later, she joined them at the far edge of the scene. This is bad, very bad. And poor Bailey—she will be devastated if we can’t get her father back.
I’m not sure it’s possible. The thought of it twisted his gut and filled him with dread. Aidan turned his gaze to the west. He hadn’t detected a trail, indicating the attackers flew away and would be more challenging to track. But with the right resources, we can try.
Right resources? Phoebe let out a snort. It’s only us!
Aidan returned his gaze to her. We can’t simply leave from here and go out looking for them. There isn’t even a way to know which direction to head, and we need supplies.
Well, of course. Phoebe rubbed her snout, trying to clear her nostrils of the pungent odors. Nanoq wants us to report what we’ve found here and provide a plan before going further.
Donar swished his red tail, eyeing Aidan. And what of the plan you mentioned earlier?
Plan? Phoebe asked.
He stiffened, not quite ready to voice his intentions yet. It’s best not to say until after we’ve met with the pendragon. The less you know now, the better. Let’s follow Nanoq’s orders for the moment, and we’ll figure out the rest after we’re away from the fortress.
Since Donar found him by the lake and broke the news, various ideas and strategies Aidan that had formed in his head over the years came to the surface. He knew the day would come when he and his family would be in danger. Now, he could start putting elements of his plans into motion, but they wouldn’t be easy. The things he planned went against his nature, they were dangerous, and there would be sacrifices. At best guess, they had a month to make it safe for Bailey and Orion to return. He would have to be careful every step of the way and make no mistakes. With luck, they could also track down Wayne and rescue him, but his mate and son’s safety took priority. There was nothing Aidan wouldn’t do for them.
Hope you enjoyed the extra chapters! This novel will be available for pre-order soon.