To help tide everyone over until the next book in the Dragon’s Breath Series releases, I have provided the first two chapters of Torn in Flames below. I didn’t want anyone to accidentally stumble onto this page who wasn’t prepared to read it, hence the title above. While this excerpt has undergone multiple revisions and several beta readers have checked it over, there may be some minor changes to the final version during the editing process. Hope you enjoy!
It would have been a beautiful afternoon in June if not for the dangerous creatures trying to kill my comrades and me. My body had countless cuts and scrapes, and I’d sprained my ankle when I dove away from razor-sharp teeth trying to extract my head from my body. Instead of enjoying the scent of flowers and pine trees, scorched earth and blood filled my nose.
The day had started great. I’d had a big bowl of cereal topped with fresh milk and sliced bananas, along with upbeat music on the radio. Then I got a knock on my front door, summoning me to work. My boss wouldn’t have believed me if I’d said I felt sick since I had never caught so much as a cold—not after becoming more than human, anyway. Now it was my job to protect life, liberty, and property with my enhanced skills, no matter the cost. At least they kept me fed rather well, along with a few other perks like electricity and running water, which I hadn’t had since the apocalypse happened a little over six years ago.
The dragon before me had breath like a mix of kerosene and rotting onions, turning my stomach every time he roared his flames. This was the fifth time he’d tried to burn my body to a crisp. One would have thought he’d have given up since it only made slayers feel a bit warm and blinded us for a moment. Also, it stung the gash on my forehead. I wiped the blood and sweat from my face with my free hand, keeping my sword up with the other. For the last four hours, I’d been fighting without a break, and it had taken its toll. All I wanted was for it to be over so I could rest and take a shower. This was the twentieth beast I’d faced, with the other nineteen green dragons littering the battlefield around me in various states of dead repose. A few had big tongues hanging from their mouths, which always amused me.
The Tarogan clan didn’t hold back this time when they tried to attack the New American Coalition’s most precious resource—an oil refinery in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. The government had spent a lot of time modifying it to fit their needs and couldn’t lose it. I didn’t live in the area, but they activated a squad of slayers from Asheville, North Carolina to bolster the standing defenses. A Black Hawk helicopter had gotten us on the ground just over an hour after it started. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I’d come to protect the place, and probably not the last.
“Bailey, watch your back!” Brody shouted.
As a whooshing sound ripped the air, I dove to the ground and narrowly missed a giant spiked tail hitting me. I glanced between the green beast to my front and the one behind. It was annoying when they ganged up like that, but I’d figure out a way to kill them both soon enough. I’d faced greater odds. At the beginning of the battle, there had been eight slayers and nearly a hundred dragons. We handled the killing, but a contingent of human troops in nearby trenches used machine guns and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) to knock the beasts out of the sky so we could reach them. They also had two sorcerers shielding the vulnerable people from fire. No one on our side had died yet, although I’d noted a few severely wounded—at least two slayers—who got rushed from the battlefield.
Only ten of our enemies remained, and I had two of them.
“Thanks,” I said to my fighting partner as I rose to my feet, favoring my right ankle.
Policy dictated us pairing for battles so we could watch each other’s backs, which increased our chances of survival. Brody was a big, muscular guy who could use a lot of power with his preferred weapon—the mace. His weakness was that he lacked agility. I had that in spades, so we complimented each other.
Wanting to end things with the green dragon at my front, I swiped my blade at its face. The beast swung its head to the right as I’d hoped, and I dashed past it to jump on its big, scaly back. My boots had sharp metal tips on the toes that I’d had customized years ago. I could climb my oversized opponents easier and faster—necessary when you’re short and small. The dragon was at least ten times bigger than me and could crush me if I slipped off. I dug my steel tips into its sides, gritting my teeth at the pain in my ankle, and grabbed the spikes along the creature’s spine with my free hand. With a large heave, I pulled myself to the top and straddled my oversized enemy.
The beast started bucking and swinging like a bull, only with much more force. I held my blade high, and when the dragon paused to switch tactics, I stabbed it in the neck. That didn’t kill it, but it did make the bastard stop jerking all over the place. Instead, it tried to use its short, stubby arms to get my weapon out while choking on blood. I pulled my dagger from a sheath on my leg harness. Eyeing the soft spot on the back of the dragon’s skull, I stabbed with all my strength. The blade sunk to the hilt.
The dragon shuddered for a second before dropping heavily to the ground. Like us, they couldn’t survive major brain damage, and that spot proved their greatest weakness if one could reach it. I barely hung on from the fall, catching movement from the corner of my eye. The other beast’s big green head appeared a few feet away, and its jaws opened wide, revealing dozens of sharp teeth.
I jerked my dagger free and rolled off the dead dragon, slamming my shoulder into the ground. It hurt, but I had so many injuries at this point the newest pain didn’t rate very high. If only I could reach my sword before something happened that I couldn’t survive. Still stuck in the neck of my last opponent, it was on the opposite side of where I lay. The dragon stuck a paw on its fallen brethren’s back and leaned over to look at me. I lay there—far too vulnerable for my liking—with a small dagger in hand, trying to catch my breath and consider my next move.
“Bailey, finish it!” Brody said, sliding a sword across the ground toward me. He had one as a backup since sometimes his mace got stuck in dragon scales.
I grabbed the blade like a lifeline when it skidded within reach, never taking my eyes off the beast above me. Its jaws had opened wide, and its teeth dripped sticky saliva onto my face. I waited for it to strike, certain it intended to eat me. Fear gripped my heart as I recalled watching that happen to a slayer once. It had been gruesome. The only difference was I’d landed on my back dozens of times and knew exactly what to do to save myself now that I had a proper weapon.
As the dragon’s head came down, I shoved the sword straight into its mouth and toward the back of its throat until it lodged in the spine. The beast choked—unable to chomp on me now. With the dagger in my other hand, I stabbed my attacker’s left eye and then the right in quick succession. It gurgled in an attempt to roar and tried to twist away, now blinded.
Noting the creature’s head was as big as my body, an idea formed in my mind. I let go of my sword and scrambled to my feet. As the dragon snorted angrily, unable to see me with mutilated eyes, I grabbed the spikes at the top of its skull and pushed off the ground to straddle its nose between my thighs. The beast weakly clawed at my legs, unable to break through my highly durable uniform. I aimed my dagger at the soft spot at the back of its head and struck hard. As the big monster fell on top of its dead comrade, I slid away and planted my feet firmly on the ground. Despite the sore ankle, that was one of my better landings of the day.
Laughter arose behind me. I turned to find Brody and a couple of other slayers standing together and grinning at me. A quick survey told me I’d killed the last dragon. We’d littered the field with their hulking green bodies, and the surrounding vegetation had either been scorched or trampled and covered in blood. One tree lost exactly half its branches. The beasts’ fire only burned what it touched and didn’t spread like normal flames. It couldn’t burn dirt or certain types of stone, though I had no idea why. There were several natural elements it didn’t affect.
Ignoring the other slayers’ amusement, I limped around my fallen enemies to retrieve my blades. They pulled free easily enough. As I grabbed a rag from the pouch on my leg harness, the others joined me. I kept my gaze focused on the weapons and wiped them clean.
“Every time we go out to fight, you have to pull some crazy acrobatic move at least once, don’t you?” Brody asked.
Every slayer had their style, and mine had gotten a lot of attention. I met his blue gaze, noting blood in his scruffy brown hair where he’d gotten a gash just above his left ear. At least it didn’t appear too deep. I flipped his sword around and handed it to him, hilt first. “I do whatever it takes to win.”
“No kidding,” Jana said, shaking her head. She had her fair share of wounds, with a deep cut in her forearm being the worst. It must have been in the last fifteen to twenty minutes since it still seeped blood. Despite the severity, it would heal without a trace in a few days. “You’re not as fast as me, but you got us all beat when it comes to climbing and jumping.”
She had also ridden with us from North Carolina, and I considered her among the best of us. We went on missions together as a squad at least a few times a month. Jana stood five inches taller than me with long legs and a well-toned frame, hugged by her black camrium pants and halter top. We wore the same outfit as part of our uniform, but she filled hers out more. Not much about us was similar aside from being female slayers. I had long black hair that went halfway down my back, currently in a tight braid for battle, whereas she preferred her brown locks cut short to stay out of the way. It worked nicely since it drew attention to her striking brown eyes and thick lashes.
“I guess we each get different advantages,” I replied with a shrug.
The rest of the defense forces gathered nearby, chatting and tending their wounds. It still amazed me how the New American Coalition had acquired over one hundred and fifty of us since its establishment. Who knew that many existed with a silent gene passing down countless generations before activating at the return of the dragons? The number had been closer to sixty when I first arrived nearly five years ago but more showed up over time. It was rough going it alone, and the allure of food, safety, shelter, and civilization called to many.
Our captain strode up to us, tall and lanky with cuts and gashes all over him like the rest of us. Although he didn’t look like much, the man could fight better than anyone in our group. He was also an excellent strategist and likely the reason we’d only had a few losses over the years. Even in those cases, the slayer had made a fatal mistake he couldn’t have prevented. I liked and trusted him.
“Get yourselves cleaned up as best you can,” he ordered, checking us over with a critical eye. “They’re gonna serve us chow in half an hour, and then we head back home.”
Since we were all standing, he didn’t bother to ask if we needed our wounds tended. Unless a slayer lay knocked out on the ground bleeding profusely, they’d likely be fine with a little rest. We might have the curse of needing to kill dragons as often as possible to quell our fighting urges, but at least we got the perks of quick healing and extra strength.
“It’s not going to be powdered eggs again, is it?” I asked. The meal had barely been edible the last time we came to Catlettsburg to save them. They took it for granted that we’d always risk our lives for them no matter what, but we ate much better back home.
“No,” the captain said, smiling. “They just got some fresh supplies yesterday, so we’re getting steak and potatoes.”
Brody raised a fist in the air. “Hell, yeah!”
“Good.” I rubbed my stomach. “I’m hungry.”
“We all are,” Jana said.
It was a slayer thing that we needed to eat extra food after a long battle.
“You’re going to have to clean up later.” The captain gestured at me to follow him. “Guests just arrived who want to talk to you.”
“What? Who?” I asked.
I scanned the area, my gaze stopping at the far side of the battlefield. Through a break in the trees, two men stood waiting. My slayer instincts pulled on me as soon as I sighted them. Some deep part of my mind recognized them as dragons even if they appeared human at the moment. I wanted to attack, but I quickly quelled the urge.
Catlettsburg, Kentucky resided along a tri-state border. Across a nearby river, lay Ohio and West Virginia, though the woods currently blocked our view of them. The only shifter clan on the east coast held territory in both those states as well as part of Maryland and half of Pennsylvania. They had hundreds more members than the Taugud in Oklahoma, which allowed them to hold additional ground. It had something to do with them enacting a treaty several centuries ago with their northern neighbors where they cross-bred with pure dragons to increase their population. The deal only lasted about fifty years, but the new blood infusion drastically improved their fertility rates. I’d found them a wise and shrewd clan with excellent survival instincts, keeping to themselves most of the time yet willing to fight when necessary.
The New American Coalition didn’t like shifters all that much. I’d discovered that soon after my arrival, but with persistence, I’d gotten the human government to enact a truce with the Straegud. Having one less enemy at our border saved lives and provided useful trade. It was better to focus our attention on keeping the pure dragon clans at bay.
Before I’d arrived, most slayers didn’t have black camrium battle gear like mine and constantly got their clothes burned off during battle. That made it awkward, to say the least. I’d worked out a deal so we could have the fireproof wardrobe we needed. Also, before I came, the weapons that could effectively kill dragons were limited. They’d been using steel alloy blades that sorcerers spelled to keep them from melting when hit with flames, but shifters could make zaphiriam metal weapons that proved more durable and effective.
Unfortunately, few slayers could tolerate being near the shifters without succumbing to the urge to attack them—dragon blood called us to fight no matter the being’s form—so I often got drafted to talk to the Straegud. I didn’t mind. Aidan, the love of my life and my mate was a shifter. I missed him terribly, and being near his kind made me feel marginally better during our long separation.
Once we reached fifty feet of our visitors, the captain stopped walking. “You got it from here?”
“Yep, I’ll be fine.”
He nodded. “Don’t take long. Chow will be ready soon, and I know you don’t want to miss it.”
“Definitely not.” I grinned. “But save me some if I don’t make it back in time.”
“Will do,” he replied, glancing at the shifters with a grimace before rushing back.
He’d gone as close as he could as a courtesy to me. No one in the New American Coalition outside of a few close friends knew the full truth of how I could stand to be around shifters. They thought it was because I’d worked with them in my early days as a slayer and had developed some sort of immunity. Little did they know how I’d fallen for one, or my other little secret back home in North Carolina. I avoided socializing outside of work because my personal life could cause problems if I didn’t play it safe.
I followed a path toward the shifters, glad to see them. It had been a few months since our last meeting. Both had short brown hair, golden tans, and muscular bodies, but the leader stood a few inches taller than the other guy and had a rigid, square face. Like all of his kind, he had golden eyes with black slits in the middle. Unlike Aidan’s pendragon back in Oklahoma, this one actually liked me.
“It’s good to see you, Bailey,” Syrus said, extending his hand.
I clasped forearms with him, following their custom.
I smiled. “Good to see you too.”
“Your child is well?” he asked, arching a thick brow.
The first time we’d met almost four years ago, he’d known I’d birthed a shifter. Apparently, I carried the scent quite strongly. Being astute, he’d waited until he caught me alone to ask about it. That had been a long and complicated story, but I’d given him the gist. I’d explained how I’d had to flee Oklahoma while pregnant with a shifter’s baby because of a sorcerer who compelled me with a magical orb to attack my mate’s clan. His pendragon had been irate yet glad for an excuse to get rid of me. It didn’t matter that I’d managed to hold back and avoid killing anyone with my strikes despite being spelled or that his own people had also been under the same control. At least I tried to fight the strong mental commands no slayer or dragon could resist.
Syrus had heard about the orb and its capabilities, so he understood it wasn’t my fault. If only Nanoq had seen it that way. Instead, I had to raise my child without Aidan, always wondering when we could return home and reunite our family.
“My little mess maker is doing well, thanks,” I said, cocking my head. “And your mate?”
“She is busy as always.”
His mate was a head-strong female who coordinated their border security. She’d done a fantastic job at keeping pure dragons out of their lands and anticipating where they might attack next. While she took her work seriously, she could also be a lot of fun. The few times I’d visited their jakhal—the clan fortress—she’d made sure I had a good time. We might have gotten a little too drunk as well.
“So what is going on?” I asked.
The shifters hadn’t been part of the battle since it only took place in human territory, though they couldn’t have missed the commotion from across the river. There had to be some other reason for the pendragon to make the trip. As much as he liked and respected me, he had a lot of stuff to do aside from hanging around here for a chat.
Syrus scanned the area and cocked an ear, as if making certain no one could overhear us. After a minute, he relaxed. “Weeks ago, I finally convinced your leaders to send one of their airplanes to survey the territory out west.”
“What? Really?” My eyes widened. “After years of us asking, they actually agreed?”
Aside from wanting to return to Aidan, my next biggest concern back home was the mysterious threat from a pure dragon clan—the Kandoran—who held territory in New Mexico and parts of Texas. They’d been attacking their neighbors with a vengeance years ago and edging closer to us. The last I heard before leaving for North Carolina was that all attempts to spy on the enemy territory had failed. No one could get close, or if they did, they didn’t live to tell anyone what they found. Multiple sorcerers predicted danger would come for us in the future from that clan, and it would be unimaginably dreadful. After arriving on the east coast, I was surprised to discover that the Straegud knew about the problem and shared the same concern.
“Yes, your people agreed after we introduced them to Yoel. Her latest prediction foretold of the Kandoran eventually taking most of this continent over the next twenty years. With each conquest, they become stronger. There will be a point when we can’t stop them, and that time is drawing closer,” Syrus said, golden eyes filled with unease.
“Did they say when they’d send the plane?” I asked, trying to take in everything he’d told me.
Yoel wasn’t a shifter, but rather a powerful sorceress who worked for the Straegud clan. I’d only met her once. The frail, dark-skinned woman had appeared in her fifties, proving polite yet distant during our two-minute conversation. Most of what she’d said didn’t make sense. The last thing she’d whispered before walking away was “beware his potent gases” without elaborating further. Syrus swore she had a sense of humor, but I still didn’t get it.
“The aircraft left two days ago, but we’ve heard nothing since then from your government.”
The plane should have been back by now. “I’ll check on it.”
While I conducted some negotiations between the American Coalition and the Straegud, others higher up the chain usually handled the sensitive stuff. This would have fallen under that category—even if I had been pushing for the same thing for years. It was annoying they’d cut me out of the loop even if I didn’t have the proper clearance. I’d known we had the resources to fly reconnaissance missions across the country from altitudes where dragons couldn’t reach us, but they’d argued they didn’t want to expend the resources. That took precious fuel we needed for our other aircraft defending the borders.
My battle today had been to protect a refinery modified to fit our tactical needs and fuel consumption. Losing it would cripple us. The only other working plant we could access was in Straegud territory, but we had limited operations there due to logistics.
“Hope I see you again soon,” I said, ready to head back to my group.
Though I enjoyed seeing them, exhaustion and hunger had weakened me. My ankle also needed me to sit soon so it could start its rapid healing process. As long as I kept putting weight on it, that wouldn’t happen.
Syrus dipped his chin. “Take care, Bailey.”
His voice sounded sad. If my stomach hadn’t let out an embarrassing growl right then, I might have asked about his mood. “You, too.”
I returned to the battlefield and found a truck waiting to take me to the dining facility. The driver took off as soon as I hopped inside. They’d built a post near the refinery to house and support the defense forces. Instead of transporting me there, we took a detour to a waiting Blackhawk helicopter sitting in an open field. I gritted my teeth, annoyed. The captain stood by the open side door with the other two slayers sitting inside, and no one appeared happy.
“What the hell?” I asked as I limped to him.
He handed me a warm brown box with a greasy underside. “I got recalled, which means we all have to return. You’ll find your steak dinner in there.”
“Seriously?” I grimaced. “What is so important they can’t spare us a few more minutes?”
“I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough.”
We hurried to climb into the helicopter. I strapped into my seat and opened the box, sighing at my lack of cutlery. Ah well, it wasn’t the first time I’d eaten with my fingers. Taking the steak in hand, I found it tough and not as delicious as I’d hoped, but it settled my empty stomach right away. Everyone else was quiet, with Brody and Jana having closed their eyes to catch catnaps. That wasn’t unusual after a long battle and would help them heal faster. I inhaled my meal without tasting much and stretched my legs in front of me. As the miles flew by, the sharper aches and pains dulled. A good night of rest would almost have me back to normal.
Just as I started to nod off, we landed in Asheville, where I’d been living for over five years. North Carolina was beautiful in this part of the state and nothing like Oklahoma or Texas. It had mountains and tall trees everywhere. I wouldn’t have minded staying in this place forever if I didn’t have Aidan and other people I missed so much.
After a final briefing from the captain, we went our separate ways. It was a fifteen-minute walk to my cozy house on the base, but it felt much longer. We tried to conserve fuel whenever possible, so we usually had to travel on foot or take a bike everywhere, except for critical missions. Despite my injuries, I shuffled along as fast as I could. Family waited for me, and I missed them even if I’d only been gone for about seven hours.
Relief washed over me as soon as I saw my home up the street. It was a one-story house with white siding, two windows on either side of the front door, and a small covered porch. The yard was bare due to a large pine tree that constantly shed needles, but a red tricycle sat next to the sidewalk to give the place a little color. We only had three bedrooms and one bathroom. It wasn’t fancy, but we had it better than many others. If I hadn’t been a slayer with several family members living with me, I would have likely gotten a tiny apartment that I’d have to share with a stranger. Many factors were involved when deciding which home everyone got, but my job played an important part. The more value a person added to society, the better their accommodations and pay.
I made my way up the cement steps and opened the door. No one was in the living room, but my gaze narrowed on a scorched section of the wood floor near the coffee table. What the hell? That had definitely not been there when I left.
“Mom?” I called out.
“In here!” she said, strain in her voice.
I found her in the kitchen at the back of the house, sitting at our small round table. The sight of her made me gasp. Her gray hair was frazzled, deep lines knit her brows, and her blue dress appeared slightly singed on the left sleeve where it almost reached her elbow. Danae kneeled next to her, rubbing ointment on my mother’s arm. Her skin was raw and red with tiny bubbles across the top. My gut churned at the possibilities.
Danae, my sorceress friend and healer, looked up at me with anxiety in her green eyes. “Orion shifted for the first time. Imee was a little too close when it happened and got burned.”
“Oh, God.” I knelt next to my mother. “Are you okay?”
She gave me a reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine. The ointment is already helping.”
“I’m so sorry.” I worried my lip. “They’d told me children usually do their first shift around five years old, but since he’s not full-blooded, I’d thought it would be later. This is…I don’t know what to say.”
Danae finished with my mother’s arm and moved toward the sink to wash her hands. “I was thinking about that, but you’re not actually a full human. You were born with an element of dragon blood in you to give you the slayer gene, and your rite of passage required you to eat a dragon heart. It adds up. Who knows what abilities your son will develop over time?”
While she’d been a bit wild when I first met her, Danae had matured over the years as she grew into her healer magic and settled down with the love of her life. She worked at the local hospital and must have come straight from there since she still wore her blue scrubs and hadn’t loosened her blonde hair from its bun. The sorceress was pretty, but not like the runway models of old times. She had a large frame with muscles from keeping fit over the years, dating back to her time in the U.S. Army as a medic. Like me, she hadn’t known about her powers until the dragons returned and brought back magic.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, sighing. Until now, Orion had developed normally for the most part. Nothing made him stand out and the one time another slayer stopped by my house without warning, they hadn’t shown any signs of recognition.
I studied my mother’s wound, noting the bubbled flesh had already started to smooth and looked less red. Thanks to Danae, there’d be no trace of it by tomorrow. We were lucky the fire didn’t obliterate Mom’s skin as it would have with a full shifter’s flames. Did that mean my son’s fire was weaker, or was it normal for shifter children to be less damaging? I had no idea and no way to find out at the moment.
I glanced back at the living room and the scorch marks on the floor. We could cover that with a rug so no one would notice the damage for now. It would be okay. Except, I’d missed my son’s first shift, which felt worse than missing his first steps—I’d also been away in a battle that time. If only his father were here to help, it wouldn’t seem as bad. At least then, I’d know Orion had someone capable of watching and helping him. Those who knew about him would have to stay extra vigilant now. He didn’t run as hot as a shifter, so his skin couldn’t burn anything by touch, but accidents would happen now that he could shift. One thing I did know was that children couldn’t control it very well in the beginning.
“Mommy!” Orion came running into the kitchen and threw his arms around my waist, almost knocking me over with his enthusiasm. When I’d arrived, I had heard him playing in the room I shared with him, but I’d wanted to talk to the adults alone first.
While he was big for his age, and very strong, he still seemed small to me. He had wavy black hair he liked keeping a few inches long, light olive skin, and hazel eyes. No one could tell he was part dragon by his appearance.
My little four-year-old looked happy to see me, yet a sheen of tears shone in his gaze. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt Granma.”
God, he was so precious, it tore at my heart to see him upset about something he couldn’t control. How was I supposed to be a good mother when I didn’t know how to help him and wasn’t around half the time to do anything anyway? He deserved better.
“How did it feel? Did it hurt?” I asked, hugging him close. All that mattered was his safety, and I’d do whatever it took to keep anyone from finding out about him. Until now, that hadn’t been quite as hard, but we’d always known this day might come.
He shook his head. “It only hurt at first when I tried to fight it, and my skin got really itchy. After that, it wasn’t bad. I can feel this other person inside me now, and he’s really nice. He helped me figure out how to change back so I could help Granma.”
He’d met the dragon beast soul each shifter carried inside them. Mostly, it stayed quiet and subtly controlled the human side. Orion would have to learn how to live with that other creature. I couldn’t do much to help with that, and I doubted I’d ever have an opportunity to take him to the shifter clan up north for guidance. We were on our own.
“You’re gonna have to be careful from now on, okay? We talked about this.”
In fact, we’d had many conversations about it since he’d gotten old enough to understand.
He nodded slowly. “Will I get to meet my daddy soon? I love you, Mommy, but I really want him. He could help me.”
I’d told him everything I could about Aidan. Poor Orion had noticed most of the other children had fathers and wanted to see his so badly. He always asked questions about him, along with shifters in general. Unfortunately, I hadn’t even been able to reach his dad since just before our son was born when he helped me choose our child’s name. We’d used a star constellation we could both see in the night sky. Something must have happened to Earl’s satellite phone because it stopped receiving calls, and the old family friend was the only one in Oklahoma who could have connected us. I’d passed messages for Aidan through my brothers in Texas, whose satellite phone still worked, but they had only seen him once a couple of months after I gave birth. Mom and I checked in with them every few weeks, but they hadn’t seen him again.
“Hopefully, you’ll meet him soon, sweetie.” I rubbed his cheek with my thumb. “You just have to be patient for a while longer.”
His gaze dropped to the floor. “Okay.”
God knew I needed to take my own advice. It felt like we’d been gone way too long, but I had to wait until it was safe. The last time I’d talked to Aidan, he’d told me not to come back until I felt “the call.” It was a magical summoning that let our group—chosen years ago during a quest—know we were needed again to protect a mystical orb and stop impending disaster from striking. Unfortunately, none of us had any idea when the call would come or how we’d know when it happened. Orion’s father would ensure that nothing threatened us from his clan upon our return. I trusted him to keep his word, though it was getting harder to wait.
They’d given me the day off to recover from the battle. The gash on my forehead had closed, along with the other cuts and scrapes, but my ankle continued aching. It had been quite swollen when I took my boots off last night. I’d kept it elevated and put ice on it until bedtime. That had helped, so it didn’t look as bad when I woke, but exhaustion still pulled at me from my rapid healing. Spending the morning with family and friends made a difference.
I sat relaxing in my living room watching Orion play with Alyssa, Danae and Miles’ daughter. The couple had gotten married soon after we arrived in North Carolina, and it wasn’t long before Danae found out she was pregnant. Their little girl had just turned three the previous month and got along great with my son. In fact, they’d become best friends.
Alyssa sat on the floor pushing a monster truck that had a Barbie sitting on top of it. She had sparkling green eyes and long, blond curls framing her round face. Orion sat across from her on our new burgundy rug with his monster truck. He had Superman riding on top.
“Let’s push them across the room and see which one crashes the best,” my son suggested.
Alyssa grinned. “Okay.”
“Um,” I said, grabbing their attention. “Push them toward the recliner, so you don’t accidentally damage the wall.”
Danae snickered. “Wouldn’t want any more holes…that’s for sure.”
Partly because I didn’t like to spend much, and partly because I had an energetic son, my home only had basic furnishings. We didn’t need to decorate much anyway, considering we would have to leave it all behind eventually. The living room was small with only a matching brown couch and recliner, plus a bookshelf and wooden chair at the far wall next to the hallway entrance. One cheap landscape print hung next to the entryway to the kitchen. We used to have a couple of lamps and a vase for flowers, but Orion broke those long ago.
I liked that the minimal furnishings provided more room for kids to play. These days, they had to use their imaginations a lot. No one had TVs anymore since that ate electricity, so the government didn’t run a station. Instead, we used radio broadcasts for news and entertainment. The simplicity worked for me.
“I’m definitely not getting my deposit back,” I said. If I’d paid one, anyway. When I’d last counted, we had almost a dozen holes of various sizes and shapes throughout the house. The tall shelf in the living room, filled with books and a radio, hid the toddler-size one.
Orion had inherited above-average strength, and we were still working on teaching him to control himself. There’d been a few accidents right after he’d started learning to walk. On a bright note, Alyssa had gotten her mother’s fireproof skin, so at least my son wouldn’t accidentally burn her if he shifted. We’d been shocked when the little girl touched an open flame for the first time and didn’t scream in pain. That was almost a year ago at a 4th of July celebration—we still did those—in a nearby park. We’d been roasting some marshmallows over the grill and preparing to make smores. It never occurred to us to check if fire would hurt her, not that there was a safe way to do that.
“Look what I’ve got,” Paul said, coming out of his bedroom with two sets of paint and some construction paper.
Both kids jumped up in glee, monster trucks forgotten. “Yay!”
My little brother might have grown up on a ranch, but he had a creative side and loved to help the children develop their skills. In fact, he taught art at the local elementary school. They’d offered him a one-bedroom apartment as part of the package, but he chose to stay with us and take slightly higher pay instead. He turned out to be the best uncle one could imagine and spoiled my son.
“You’re cleaning the mess with the paint,” I warned.
He grinned. “Sure, I will.”
Paul led the kids to the kitchen, setting them up at the table. On days like today, I still couldn’t believe I was a mom and doing all the things that came with that job. It was hard, especially when I had to be away fighting dragons often, but I loved having a child. I only wished Aidan could share all the precious moments with me. Our son grew to look more and more like his father every day.
“You’re lucky to have such an awesome brother,” Danae said, sighing. “My sister is alright with Alyssa but nowhere near as enthusiastic about entertaining her.”
She’d found Candace among some new refugees only a month after we arrived. The two siblings had a tough time with each other at first since they weren’t very close growing up, but they got along well now. Her sister had a lot of trauma from what she’d gone through to reach our safe territory, and it caused her to be reclusive. She didn’t like to socialize much. Danae did what she could for Candace, but she understood her sibling needed space to heal.
I nodded. “No kidding. It makes it easier when I’m gone knowing Mom and Paul are watching out for Orion.”
“They’ve been a big help with Alyssa too.”
A knock sounded at the door.
I glanced at the clock. It was almost two in the afternoon, and I wasn’t expecting anyone. I hurried to answer it, jaw dropping at the dark-skinned man on my porch. “Conrad!”
“The one and only,” he said, pulling me into a bear hug.
We hadn’t seen each other in almost six months. He’d stayed in Asheville for the first year after we arrived, but once they let him transfer to his parents place in Wilmington, he’d left. I understood. For one, he needed time with them. For two, he got a great security job near the beach after proving he could fight nearly as well as a slayer.
I waved him into the house. “How’s it going with the water dragons?”
“I’ve nearly drowned twice in the last month fightin’ those bastards.” He plopped down on the couch next to Danae. “They ain’t easy to kill.”
“Still eating their hearts?” I asked. It was something he’d started a few years ago, theorizing that if humans evolved to dragon slayers that way, he could also become one using that method. I’d had my fill eating a heart once for my rite of passage and refused to repeat it.
“I’m up to ninety-six of them,” he said, flashing his white teeth.
Danae made a disgusted face. “That’s gross.”
“Hey, I’ve gotten stronger and started healin’ faster too.” He lifted a brow. “It’s workin’ and you’re missin’ out.”
I was surprised to hear his progress. The last time we’d seen each other, he’d been at sixty hearts and hadn’t noticed much difference yet. Conrad had been a busy guy since then. One thing that hadn’t changed was his need to dress nice and look clean. As usual, he wore pressed khaki pants and a button-up shirt—a blue one today. His dark hair was neatly trimmed, and his face was freshly shaven. Years ago, he’d still been relatively lean, but he’d bulked up and now had a nice set of biceps protruding from his short sleeves. Settling down with a woman hadn’t made him lazy about his appearance, maybe even more fastidious.
“How is Rosalie?” I asked, referring to his girlfriend of three years. He’d found a tough yet sweet girl who had no problem with his fighting dragons, unlike the last woman he’d seriously dated in Oklahoma. Still, she liked to keep him in line, which he sometimes needed.
He grimaced. “Annoyed with me for leavin’ her to come here. She wanted to make the trip too, but it was a last-minute thing for my job, and they didn’t have space on the plane.”
That was another development. Whereas I was happy to stay a plain-old dragon slayer, Conrad had gotten promoted a couple of times. He continued to fight as often as possible, but he also helped coordinate sensitive operations and do other stuff he couldn’t share with me. Rosalie had helped tame him a bit—though not totally—and he’d become more ambitious.
“Tell her I miss her too,” I said, meaning it. She was fun to be around, even if we’d only gotten to see each other a handful of times over the years.
“Conrad!” Orion screamed as he came running into the room, covered in paint.
My old friend grabbed a green throw pillow and blocked my son before the collision. “Gotta wash up first, little man. Can’t be ruinin’ my clothes.”
Too bad my pillow didn’t fare as well. Orion had smeared it with yellow and red paint. I’d learned to live with these problems, especially since my mother would be home later to deal with the cleanup since she was the expert on stain removal. She was out meeting friends while she had some free time for herself.
Orion gave him a hurt look. “It’s good to get dirty sometimes.”
“Oh, I agree, but there’s a time and place for that.” Conrad patted his head. “Today, I gotta work, and your mom is comin’ with me.”
“But it’s her day off!” my son pouted.
My eyes rounded. “What are you talking about? Why do I need to come with you?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” he replied, then returned his gaze to my son and kneeled. “But I’ll be here a couple of days. The forecast says rain tomorrow, so we’ll go out and make some mud pies and then give your mom a facial. She needs one, by the looks of it.”
I shook my head. “Oh, no, you won’t.”
Alyssa jumped up and down. “Me, too. Me, too. I want to help!”
“Of course, you can,” Conrad said, patting her head. “It wouldn’t be the same without you and someone has to do her makeup afterwards.”
I wagged a finger at him. “Stop encouraging them. I will not be involved in this no matter what you say.”
“Yes, you will.” Orion grinned. “Because even you said you need to relax more and we’re trying to help.”
“That is not relaxing.”
A twinkle entered Conrad’s eyes. “There might be margaritas involved.” He turned his gaze to Danae and gave her a pointed look. “She’ll get the full treatment as well.”
“Wait, what?” the sorceress said, having enjoyed the exchange until that moment. “Don’t drag me into this.”
“Oh, you need to relax too, and we ain’t takin’ no for an answer.”
Despite her protests, Danae would go along with it for the kids’ sake, same as me. I gritted my teeth. “You’re evil, Conrad.”
“Gotta get my kicks somehow.” He shrugged. “Now, it’s time to go. Work before play and all that, you know?”
“Alright. Let me change clothes first.” This didn’t sound like an occasion for yoga pants and tank tops. I turned to Danae. “Will you stay here?”
She nodded. “Miles is working until late tonight, and it gets boring at my house without him. We’ll have dinner ready when you get back and everything cleaned up.”
Conrad grabbed the front door handle. “Make it something good. I told them I’d be crashin’ on Bailey’s couch and eaten’ her food while I’m here.”
“You didn’t think to ask me about that first?” The man had no boundaries.
He snorted. “Even you don’t want me stayin’ at that roach motel.”
I couldn’t argue with him on that. The temporary living quarters building was the worst place in Asheville with plumbing issues, bugs, and who knew what else. They didn’t put much work into it since no one stayed there for more than a few nights.
“Yeah, fine. My place it is, but those drinks you have planned better be good.”
He led me down the porch steps. “Oh, they will be. You’ll need them for what the kids and I are gonna do to you two ladies.”
I really hoped it wasn’t as painful as his last visit with the lemons and hot sauce treatment. That had been awful. I still had nightmares and couldn’t stand the sight of either one.
The headquarters building was located a little over two miles from my house. Conrad and I rode a couple of 10-speed bikes I kept in my shed to save time. My ankle ached a little while peddling up the hills, but it had already begun to feel better. We passed a few vehicles along the way that must have had a high priority, but most people either used transportation like ours or rode horses and mules. Mom used a carriage taxi to get around, which was free for those who had disabilities or were over a certain age. While they still had room for improvement, the government had done a lot to make things comfortable for its citizens.
“Are you going to tell me what is going on now?” I asked Conrad. We could see the three-story brick building ahead, and it seemed pointless to keep the secret any longer.
He veered his bicycle toward the parking lot. “Nope.”
“You’re an ass.”
Conrad snickered. “But you’re still friends with me anyway, girl.”
“Only because you amuse me sometimes,” I replied, following him toward the bike racks. “Otherwise, I would have ditched you long ago.”
“Keep tellin’ yourself that.”
We chained and padlocked the bikes to secure them. While thefts were few, they still happened. A decent used bicycle cost a week of my pay, so I couldn’t afford to lose one. While I had a mid-range salary that kept my family and me reasonably comfortable, some people barely earned enough to eat and keep a roof over their heads. A small number of those chose a life of crime to maintain their preferred lifestyle. Our police force was small, and they couldn’t spend much time on minor thefts. The base only used a limited number of security cameras for the most sensitive locations. Bike racks weren’t a high priority.
“Let’s go,” I said, heading toward the entrance.
Conrad leaped ahead and pulled one of the doors open, waving me inside. “We’re going to the commander’s office on the second floor.”
I’d only met the big guy twice. The first time was when he interviewed me for the slayer position in his company six months after Orion was born. Technically, I didn’t count as a military member, but I fell under their jurisdiction for work purposes as a sort of contractor.
The next time I met the commander was after we lost a slayer, and they had to do an investigation. It wasn’t the person who had gotten eaten—that death was pretty cut and dry—but another where we lost sight of the slayer and only found her sword and a big pool of blood in an otherwise empty field. To this day, we had no idea what happened, but she’d bled enough no one thought she could have survived without immediate medical intervention. We concluded a dragon must have flown off with her. If she’d been eaten there, the beast would have spit out her clothes and boots. I’d heard camrium tasted terrible and didn’t digest well. She’d never been good at working with us as a group or socializing, so I hadn’t known her well, but she’d been a great fighter. It had been a significant loss for us.
“Am I in trouble?” I asked, pausing at the top of the stairs.
“You? Not exactly.” Conrad shook his head as we walked down the hallway to a door at the end. “But there’s definitely trouble on a bigger scale comin’ our way.”
I sighed. “That sounds wonderful.”
“Well, life was startin’ to get a little boring.” He knocked on the commander’s door, opening it after the man inside responded. “I’ve got Bailey Monzac, Sir.”
A large man with military-cut gray hair and weathered skin sat at his desk. He wore a camouflage uniform and a pair of thin-rimmed black glasses. Other than a glass of water and a pen, nothing else sat on his desk. The only computers in the building stayed in a room on the third floor where security was tight, and their use was closely regulated—partly to restrict electricity use and also because they were for classified purposes only.
“Good.” Colonel Melvin nodded. “Shut the door.”
Conrad did as he ordered.
“What’s this about?” I asked, growing more curious by the minute.
“There’s no easy way to explain it without letting you see for yourself, but let’s just say it’s bad—very bad.” He gestured at the wall to my right, where a projector screen covered it. “Lift that up.”
I slowly walked across the fifteen by twenty-foot room, the thin gray carpet silencing my steps. Trepidation filled me as I grabbed the handle and pulled the screen up to the ceiling. On the left side, I studied a large map of New Mexico and the Texas panhandle with green pins covering the region in unusual patterns. It was the area I’d wanted them to investigate since arriving and the shifter pendragon had mentioned the day before. At least I wouldn’t have to hunt for answers about that now—I’d walked straight into them.
On the right side, my heart stuttered at the photos. Several aerial shots showed thousands of green dragons—more than I could count—encircling three human figures. They couldn’t even capture the whole army because it was so vast. Another picture revealed hints of their faces, depicting two men and a woman I’d never seen before. These weren’t at an angle a reconnaissance plane could have captured.
“How did you get these?”
He worked his jaw as if considering how much to tell me. “We have allies on the west coast. After our pilot and team realized what they’d observed, they decided to land in California and send in drones. It required them to stay longer than preferable, but they acquired important evidence we needed and returned yesterday afternoon. We’ve been pouring over the data ever since then.”
That must have been why my captain had to rush back after the battle. It almost made me feel better about having to eat room-temperature steak on a helictopter with no utensils. “Do we have any kind of estimate on the number of dragons?”
“Fifty-thousand is our best approximation, but our sources tell us the army grows with every clan they conquer. They kill who they must and assimilate the rest.” He hesitated before unlocking a drawer and pulling out a tablet. “You should see for yourself.”
He’d already pulled the video up on the screen. I pressed play, skin turning cold as I watched despite the heat in the room. They’d caught the faces of the army up close, and the dragons’ expressions were blank like robots with no signs of life or personality. Even their movements appeared mechanical. The drone flew over the assembly for what seemed like an eternity before coming to a human contingent that looked just as devoid of emotion. There were at least as many of them as the green beasts, maybe more.
“What the fuck?” I covered my mouth and glanced at the commander. “Sorry, sir.”
He shook his head. “The few of us who have seen this all had the same reaction.”
Finally, the drone came upon the three humans I’d seen on the wall, staying a healthy distance away and zooming to focus. The triad had to be sorcerers, but I saw nothing like an orb in their hands. It wouldn’t have worked on regular people even if they’d had one.
“How are they doing it?”
The commander took the tablet from me. “We don’t know. Our allies in the west tried warning us a few times, and you had also mentioned the threat, but no one thought it was our problem. It’s been in our best interest to keep our territory stable and safe without interfering in faraway places. But this…” He stared at the screen for a moment before turning it off. “It will reach us eventually like a plague.”
“A plague?” I asked, confused.
“I’m told everyone you see—dragon and human—has been infected with something.”
I frowned, mulling that over. “It’s gotta be a spell.”
“Like a magical sickness that can spread,” Conrad said, scratching his chin. “That makes sense—in a nasty, zombie kind of way.”
I turned my attention back to Colonel Melvin. “So what do we do about it?”
“The Straegud say if we wait until the army gets too close, it will be too late, but it’s still going to take time before we can mount an effective defense.” His face hardened. “Also, it will need approval through the chain of command up to the president.”
“Did you show this to the Straegud yet? They were asking about it yesterday.”
He shook his head. “Not yet. I’d wanted to talk to the two of you first and get a sense of your thoughts.”
“They need to know immediately—all of it,” I said, hoping he understood this wasn’t the time for secrets with our allies.
Conrad crossed his arms. “To stand a chance, we have to build a coalition with everyone we can reasonably trust—including the shifters.”
“It’s going to be difficult to get approval from the president and his staff on that, but I agree with you both,” the commander said, returning to his desk to lock up the tablet. “I’ll push it as hard as I can.” Suddenly, I felt light-headed, and the room began to spin. I reached for Conrad, but he swayed on his feet as well. Visions swam before me of my home in Oklahoma, Aidan, and the faces of my friends. I suddenly felt the urgent need to return as soon as possible. But before I could speak my thoughts, everything went black.