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Authors: Caitlyn McFarland

soul of smoke

Soul of Smoke
By Caitlyn McFarland

On a hike deep in the Rocky Mountains, Kai Monahan watches as a dozen dragons—actual freaking
dragons
—battle beneath a fat white moon. When one crashes nearly dead at her feet and transforms into a man, Kai does the only thing a decent person could: she grabs the nearest sword and saves his life.

As the dragon/man, Rhys, recovers from the attack, a chance brush of skin against skin binds him inextricably to Kai. Becoming heartsworn to a human—especially such a compelling one—is the last thing Rhys wants. But with an ancient enemy gathering to pit dragons against humanity and his strength nearly depleted, Kai has just become the one thing Rhys needs. A complete bond will give him the strength to fight; a denied bond means certain death.

Kai is terrified at the thought of allowing any dragon into her mind...or her heart. Accepting the heartswearing and staying with the dragons means sacrificing everything, and Kai must decide if her freedom is worth risking Rhys’s life—a life more crucial to the fate of humanity than she could possibly know.

Book One of the Dragonsworn trilogy

95,000 words

Dear Reader,

I’ve been hearing the term
brand promise
a lot
recently in business articles. This is something we talk about behind-the-scenes
at Carina Press quite often, because we know there’s a trend right now to call
something romance but not deliver on a happily-ever-after or even a
happily-for-now. But those of us at Carina Press are longtime romance readers
and fans, and we know how important that brand promise of a HEA is to romance
readers, so we want to assure you that if we call something romance, we’ll
deliver a story with strong characters, a wonderful relationship and,
eventually, an emotionally satisfying ending at the conclusion of the story
(even if that conclusion comes after two, three or four books, not just one!)
You can trust us to want that romance ending just as much as you do!

This month, we have seven romances in a variety of subgenres
I’m happy to be sharing with you, including one by a debut author.

Christi Barth wraps up her contemporary romance Shore Secrets
trilogy with the stand-alone novel
Back to Us
. When her ex-boyfriend
refuses to sell her his land unless she dates him for a month, an uncompromising
winemaker learns that some bargains are worth making for a second chance at
love.

Joining Christi in the contemporary romance category, with
one of a male/male nature, is A.M. Arthur and her Restoration Series. In
Finding Their Way
, Boxer thought he was done with relationships,
but deepening his new and evolving friendship with Riley could be worth the risk
of another heartbreak.

And in the erotic contemporary romance subgenre, a
financially destitute and desperate woman agrees to a shocking contract—engaging
in BDSM sex with a man who has a dark and mysterious past—in exchange for all
the money she could ever wish for. Check out
Under Contract
, part of
Jeffe Kennedy’s Falling Under series, which also includes her previous two
novels
Going Under
and
Under His Touch
.

Fan-favorite Cindy Spencer Pape is back with a new steampunk
romance in the Gaslight Chronicles. In
Ether & Elephants
,
Tom and Nell have loved one another since they were children, but one
cataclysmic mistake destroyed their chances. Now they are forced to work
together to save a missing child and all the old sparks have returned, igniting
fires that may burn out of control.

If you’re looking for a bit more of a traditional historical
romance, Alyssa Everett delivers a fantastic one with
The Marriage Act
.
Though bitterly estranged since their wedding night, warring husband and wife
John and Caro must mask their hostility to play a devoted couple for Caro’s
unsuspecting family in a second-chance-at-love regency romance.

Taking a less traditional historical romance route is Kari
Edgren. Defying her goddess-born family, Selah Kilbrid joins with a mortal enemy
in
An Immortal Descent
to save the two people she loves most as they
race toward a long-forgotten nightmare that awaits them in Ireland.

And this month we’re proud to present debut author Caitlyn
McFarland and her Dragonsworn trilogy. In book one,
Soul of Smoke
, Kai
Monahan’s uneventful hike in the Rocky Mountains ends with a dragon shapeshifter
named Rhys magically bound to her—now she must complete the bond and give up her
freedom or risk unleashing dragons on humanity in a war that will decimate
both.

Escape into fun (and a happy ending!) with a Carina Press
romance this month by picking up one of these novels or one of our more than a
thousand backlist titles.

Until next time, here’s wishing you a wonderful month of
books you love, remember and recommend.

Happy reading!

Angela James

Editorial Director, Carina Press

Dedication

For Chaela, Joci and Kairi.

You are princesses, and you are dragons.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Author Note

Acknowledgments

Also by Caitlyn McFarland

About the Author

About the Never Deal with Dragons series

Chapter One

The Precipice

Kai stood at the brink of the precipice, the toes of her worn hiking boots hanging over the edge. One wrong move would plunge her down the sheer cliff face to the rock-strewn valley two hundred feet below. A shiver of adrenaline thrilled from the bottom of her feet to the base of her neck.

She threw out her arms and inhaled the pine-spiked autumn air. It was late September, and the higher elevations of the Rockies were a motley mix of yellow, orange and deep, dusty green. Snow capped the high peaks in the distance. Not far off, a stream laughed in its rocky bed.

Freedom.

Grinning, Kai stepped back from the view and sauntered to a boulder ten feet from the drop-off. She shed her pack and leaned against the sun-warmed surface of the stone. Haphazard flyaways the color of soot had escaped her messy bun, and she smoothed them down with callused fingers.

Gravel crunched behind her. Kai turned. “About time.”

Juli emerged from behind the tall, tumbled boulders that hid the path, looking cool and composed. Her pink jacket, which precisely matched the accents on her black pants, was worn but obviously cared-for. She eyed the cliff, then Kai, brushing an escaped strand of short, white-blond hair behind one ear. “We’ve talked about this.”

Kai shrugged away a buzz of annoyance. “I promised, didn’t I? No more almost falling off cliffs.” And she hadn’t. She’d been careful. “Where’s Charlotte?”

Juli jerked her head over her shoulder as their roommate trudged into sight.

“I hate you, Monahan,” Charlotte wheezed, scraping trendy brunette bangs off her damp forehead. “I can’t believe you talked me into coming all the way out here.”

Kai grinned. “You’re the one who wouldn’t stop raving about that hot tub in your parents’ cabin.”

“This—” Charlotte swept her arm out to indicate the wilderness surrounding them, “—is
not
the hot tub.”

Kai swung her pack back onto her shoulders, looking up at Charlotte. Of course, being five foot two meant looking up at most people. “We couldn’t stay in it all weekend. We would’ve gotten pruney. Besides, if I wanted to sit around, I could have stayed back at the apartment watching
MonsterChase
with Pan.” Kai wiggled her fingers, mimicking the voice of the British voiceover guy on their fourth roommate’s favorite cryptozoology show. “Bigfoot! The Wyvern of McCauley Peak!” She laughed. “Dragons and deadly cryptids, they’re out there!”

Charlotte was not moved. “My feet hurt.”

Juli raised one perfect eyebrow. “I warned you about wearing new shoes.”

“But they’re so
super
.” Charlotte put her best French accent into the last word and stuck out her leg to admire the shoes in question. “Outdoorsy girls are hot, right? You never know when you might need to impress a man, Juliet.”

Juli made a disgusted sound. “I have more important things going on in my life than impressing men.” She stowed her water bottle and tightened her pale blond nub of a ponytail.

Kai leaned the side of her face against the sun-warmed stone. “
I
love you for you, Char.”

Charlotte snorted. “Obviously. I’m fabulous.” She wandered to the lookout where Kai had stood a moment before, though Charlotte stayed a solid five feet from the brink. Pushing her sunglasses onto the top of her head, she looked to the color-splashed world beyond, where the snowy tops of distant peaks tangled in hazy clouds. After a minute, she let out a resigned sigh. “It
is
beautiful. Do you teach next week, Kai? It could be fun. Convince me rock climbing isn’t just for skinny tomboys like you.”

“I teach a beginner’s class every Wednesday.” Kai exchanged glances with Juli. Charlotte would never actually ruin her manicure.

Kai rubbed a thumb over the pads of her fingers, feeling the short, rough fingernails, hard-won calluses and mostly healed splits. A lifetime of competitive gymnastics hadn’t been nearly as hard on her skin as two years of rock climbing.

“It’s getting late.” Charlotte collapsed in the shade of a boulder. “I want the hot tub!”

Kai twisted a carabiner on her belt and shot Juli a pleading look. They’d been climbing steadily all day. Now the summit loomed above them, so close she felt she could reach out and slip her fingers along the jagged contours of its crest. They couldn’t go back to the cabin yet. Hiking with Charlotte had meant Kai left her climbing gear at home, but this path was supposed to lead all the way to the top. After the week she’d had—two O-Chem midterms, a research paper turned in two days past due, and another blowout argument with her mother—she
needed
to summit this mountain.

Juli hauled a groaning Charlotte to her feet and frowned. “Half an hour. That’s it. I won’t be caught out here after dark.”

“Perfect.” Kai shouldered her pack, grinning again, and led them farther up. It was narrow going for a little as the path snaked between the cliff’s edge and a sharp slope of rocky scree. Charlotte clenched her teeth and scooted along sideways, and even Juli slowed to a careful, measured walk.

Kai laughed, sucking it all in, holding it inside. The air, the song of birds and rustle of small animals, the green valley rolling away below with a lake at its center reflecting the sky. The time to do anything or go anywhere. Today was free. Today was perfect.

After a few minutes the path turned away from the edge of the cliff. Open ground sloped gently downward, the scree becoming a sheer rock wall that loomed high above, casting sections of the path into shadow. Kai trailed her fingers along the rough gray stone, humming. Juli and Charlotte fell behind.

The path followed the rock wall around a bend. A dozen yards ahead, a flash of blue caught Kai’s eye. She stopped. Something human-shaped sprawled in the shade at the base of the cliff. “Hey, Juli, you’d better get up here... I...” She swallowed, her throat bone dry. “There’s a girl on the ground. I think she fell from the top of the cliff.”

Footsteps pounded as Juli raced up the path. “Where? Never mind. I see her.”

The girl, probably eighteen or nineteen, was lying face-up. She wore a high-necked black shirt and loose, charcoal-gray pants tucked into black, thick-soled, utilitarian boots that laced to above the ankle and looked as if they’d seen a lot of wear.

In sharp contrast to the military-like garb, the girl was draped in a ridiculous amount of jewelry. Gold armbands, rings, multiple earrings, and no less than three necklaces, all hung with crystal or polished slices of colorful stone. Her hair looked as if it had once been arranged in an ornate, braided updo.

Juli reached the girl and knelt by her side. Charlotte squealed, took a breath, and squealed again. “Is she dead? Oh em gee, she’s
totally
dead!” She seized Kai’s hand and dragged her forward, but Kai resisted. Death was not her kind of thrill.

Long auburn hair straggled across the fallen girl’s face, which was ghost-white except for the blood. It caked crimson in her hair and streaked her cheek and neck, blending with a mottled mix of purple and black bruises. The left leg of her pants was torn to the knee, exposing the girl’s calf, which was so bruised and swollen the bone had to be broken.

Juli had two fingers on the girl’s neck and an intent expression on her face. “She’s not dead. And don’t say oh em gee, Charlotte. You’re twenty, not thirteen.” Juli whipped off her pack and dug for the first aid kit. “Her injuries have started to heal, but the blood looks fresh. That doesn’t make sense.” Frowning, she trickled a few drops from her water bottle into the girl’s slightly open mouth. No reaction.

Kai twined her fingers in the carabiners on her belt, clicking one open and shut, open and shut. Her eyes fixed on the neck and left sleeve of the girl’s shirt, which had been covered in myriad pentagons cut from thin black leather and layered over each other in rows, making them look like scales. “What do we do?”

Juli’s brow furrowed. “We can’t carry her.”

“She definitely wasn’t robbed.” Charlotte indicated the girl’s jewelry. “Oooh, druzy! I
love
the uncut-stone thing.
So
natural, you know?”

“We’ve got to get help.” Kai ignored Charlotte’s commentary on the unconscious girl’s fashion choices and looked helplessly at the empty mountains tumbling away beyond the slope. They hadn’t seen any other hikers all day, and there was no sign anyone else had been there recently.

Juli stood and pulled out her phone. “I don’t have any reception.”

Kai tugged her own phone from the pocket of her hoodie. “Me, neither.”

“We have to go back to the cabin and use the radio.” Face troubled, Juli stuck her phone back in her jacket.

“It’s a three-hour hike!” Kai protested. It had taken them twice that long to get this far, but going downhill would be faster. “Someone has to stay.”

“We need to report her location to the rangers.” Juli dug through her pack. With the squeaky rustle of cellophane candy wrappers, she shook out a silver space blanket.

Kai couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “We can’t leave her alone!”

Juli tucked the blanket around the girl’s body. “There are only three of us.” She straightened. “Two stay and one goes for help, or one stays and two go for help. Either way, someone gets left alone. It’s not safe.”

“I’m not staying,” Charlotte added.

Kai folded her arms. “I’ll stay.”

“I’m not leaving you.” Juli’s face was closed, her tone final.

Kai glared. She and Juli had been best friends since they were five, and Juli could be more dictatorial than both of Kai’s older brothers combined. It had never bothered Kai until she’d
finally
freed herself from her mother’s tyranny and quit competitive gymnastics two years ago. Since then, even Juli’s well-intentioned bossiness got under her skin. “I’m staying.”

Juli let out her breath in a frustrated hiss, glaring at Kai. “No one will be able to get here until after dark. Maybe two of us should stay.”

“No. I still have food in my bag and my own blanket. Besides...” Kai tipped her head toward Charlotte, who had all the survival skills of an ice cube on a summer sidewalk.

“If you’re sure...” Charlotte trailed off, unaware of the silent exchange.

Juli glanced at Charlotte. “Fine.” Her voice was frosty. “But you had better stay away from cliffs.”

Recognizing victory, the tension between Kai’s shoulders eased. She laughed. “Come on, Jules. I promise I’ll be here when you get back.”

Juli’s nostrils flared. “Fine. The sooner we go the sooner we’ll be back. Let’s go, Charlotte.”

Kai waved as they walked away. With a final glance from Juli, her roommates disappeared around the curve of the mountain. Kai dropped her pack, stretched and paced, keeping an eye on the girl.

Hours ticked by. The sun inched toward the western horizon, and Kai got bored. The girl remained unconscious, getting neither better nor worse. Though Kai had meant to sit by her the whole time, she walked to the grassy, flattish slope and amused herself by stretching and doing back handsprings. But gymnastics always left a bitter taste in her mouth, so after a few minutes she moved back to the cliff, evaluating the rock. It looked solid, so she traversed the bottom, moving back and forth no more than a few feet off the ground.

Evening hovered closer, the warm fall day ebbing into chill twilight. Juli and Charlotte had to be back at the cabin.

Kai checked the girl again. No change. She hugged herself, chaffing her arms for warmth, and thought about getting her blanket out of her pack. First, she decided to walk back along the trail and see if she could find fuel for a fire.

A ragged moan shredded the gathering dusk.

Kai whirled. The girl on the rocks was awake and moving feebly in the fading light. She touched the bandaged wound behind her ear and fixed a confused gaze on her blood-smeared fingers.

Kai sprinted back up the path and crouched at the girl’s side, trying not to look at the nausea-inducing angle of her leg. “Don’t move. You’re hurt.”

The girl muttered something in a language that was definitely not English, sounding dazed. Her glass-like turquoise eyes drifted to Kai, who blinked at their saturated color.

She spoke, but not words Kai understood. “Um... Do you speak English?”

The girl groaned and clutched her broken leg, inhaling sharply through her teeth. When she spoke again, her voice was distracted. “English...yes. Who are you?” She had an accent, musical and difficult to place.

“I’m Kai.” Kai turned to dig in her pack for her water bottle. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

“Remember...” The girl’s eyes widened, depth and clarity returning. She pressed one hand to her mouth and whispered something in the unfamiliar language, then surged upright. Her leg collapsed under her, and she gasped, her face contorted in pain. She spoke through gritted teeth. “Kavar is
here
! I have to warn them. Where’s my bag?”

“Whoa.” Startled and unsure whether she should try to restrain the girl, Kai tried to keep her voice soothing. “You didn’t have a bag. Listen, my roommates will be back with rangers soon. Just relax.”

“Ow. Ancients, I can’t even see straight. I can’t fly like this.” The girl groaned and pressed a hand against her forehead.

“You can’t what?”

Abruptly, the girl seized Kai, fingers digging into Kai’s shoulders like claws. “Help me!” She leveraged herself up, nearly knocking Kai to the ground. “My brother is in trouble!”

Kai grabbed the girl’s elbow, nervous. Talking sense to crazy people had always been Juli’s thing. Kai had no idea what to do. “Help is coming! If your brother is close, they can help him, too.”

The girl’s eyes seemed to become luminescent, like tropical water lit from below. “Help me or let me go. I’m leaving
now
. Rhys—how did Kavar know?”

The girl tried to walk away, but Kai still had her elbow. They spun, and Kai squinted against the orange glare of the setting sun. “I can’t leave. My roommates are coming back for me.”

The girl made a sound remarkably like a growl. “Then let go.”

“You won’t make it five feet.”

With astonishing strength, the girl wrenched free. She hopped a few steps then turned her ankle on a stone and went down hard. She let out an anguished cry and started to crawl, dragging her broken leg behind her.

“Holy crap, are you serious?” Kai swung her pack onto her back.

The girl kept crawling uphill, involuntary sounds of pain escaping her tightly clenched jaw. Indecision wracked Kai. She watched for another minute, expecting the girl to stop or collapse. But she didn’t; she just kept crawling and sobbing. It was both horrifying and pitiful. Coming to a sudden decision, Kai kicked some stones into a rough arrow pointing up the path. She caught up to the girl and hoisted her to her feet. Uncertainty gnawed at her, but she couldn’t sit and watch
that
. If the camp was close, maybe she could take the girl there, then come back and meet Juli and the rangers and take them to the camp to help carry the girl off the mountain.

The girl, now standing, looked down at Kai in consternation, her face bone-white and drawn, her voice hoarse with pain. “I thought you had people to wait for.”

Kai shrugged, pretending a nonchalance she didn’t feel. “You need me more.”

Panting, the girl nodded. They set off, managing a hobbling gait.

“So,” Kai huffed after a few minutes of awkward silence, “what’s your name?”

There was a long moment of hesitation. Then, the word bitten off quickly, “Deryn.”

Too curious to be tactful, Kai asked, “Deryn? Isn’t that a guy’s name?”

Deryn glared. “Isn’t Kai?”

Didn’t think that one through
,
did you
,
Monahan?
“No. Maybe. It’s Hawaiian for ‘ocean.’”

“Or Cornish for ‘dog.’ If you ever go to the south of England, don’t be surprised if they ask if you were a terribly ugly baby.”

Kai snorted. “As my roommate Charlotte would say:
touché
.”

Deryn fell silent, and Kai didn’t restart the conversation. She tended to say odd, awkward things when she found herself in odd, awkward situations, and she didn’t think Deryn was in the right mindset to appreciate her humor. Or any humor.

They followed the path upward along the base of the cliff. It was slow going. Kai was strong, but Deryn’s weight made her shoulders ache. “How much farther?”

“Not far,” Deryn grunted. Her face, if possible, was paler than before, her breath coming in painful, ragged gasps. Though Kai’s brain burned with unasked questions, she decided Deryn needed whatever strength she had to keep moving forward.

Kai tried to burn their path into her memory. The heart-shaped boulder here, the tiny, freezing stream they splashed through a little farther along—all of them would help her come back and find Juli later.

Eventually, however, their slow, rhythmic plod and the pain in Kai’s shoulders combined, lulling her into an uncomfortable trance. It started to feel as if she were walking against wind. Fog clouded her mind. Abruptly, she
knew
she was going the wrong way.

She stopped.

“Oi!” Deryn snapped her fingers in front of Kai’s face.

Kai turned dreamily toward her. “I have to go back, now. Also, you’re
real
heavy for such a skinny person.”

Deryn made a noise of disgust. “I forgot. The barrier. Oi! Human girl, I need you to keep walking! This is more important than you can possibly comprehend and we are almost there!” Deryn put her weight on her good leg and pushed.

Kai took an unwilling step and then stopped, dazed. “No, this is the wrong way.”

“It isn’t. Keep going.”

Kai’s brain drifted. “Look at that tree. That’s weird. This is a weird place. Everything is weird...”

Deryn hopped and pushed again, making Kai stumble. “Walk, don’t speak.”

“No.” Kai resisted.

Deryn pinched her hard.

“Ow!”

“Keep. Walking.”

“Fine!” Kai squinted at Deryn. It
was
the wrong way, but she didn’t want to be pinched again. It felt like trying to wade through waist-deep mud. Then, after a few minutes, thigh-deep. Then knee-deep. Slowly, the feeling faded altogether. Kai blinked, shaking the last of the fog from her mind. It was as if she’d passed through a force field determined to keep her out. Now that she was through, she felt fine, and that gave her the creeps. She looked around, trying to remember the landmarks from a few minutes ago. But she couldn’t. Only the fog.

Kai shivered.

Behind them, there was nothing to see except stars rising over the sharp, black silhouettes of the mountains.
Weird.

“Here, stop.” Deryn halted, panting and paler than ever. They’d come to a crack in the cliff barely wide enough for one person. “Our camp is through here.”

“Through that?” Kai shifted sore shoulders. The crag itself wouldn’t be a problem. At least, not for her. In fact, if it were daylight, Kai would love to scramble around inside. But Deryn had a broken leg. Plus, there had been that weird resistance, that feeling in her gut that she was headed in the wrong direction. And though the crevasse was climbable, it would have been near-impossible to get a bunch of camping gear up there.

Her skin prickled with goose bumps and she considered turning around.
Strange crap is going down.

“Please.” Instead of demanding, Deryn’s eyes were pleading. “Please, it could already be too late. Help me.”

Stifling her uneasiness, Kai nodded. She climbed into the crack and helped Deryn up. The ravine was twisted, narrow, and filled with stones and debris. When they came across a pile of waist-high boulders, Kai thought they’d have to turn back. But Deryn gritted her teeth and hoisted herself over the rocks.

After twenty minutes, Kai tumbled out of the rocky crevasse with Deryn close behind. It was dark, now. The moon now hung full and fat in the sky, edging everything in silver. A hilly meadow in a mini valley stretched in front of them. Tall grass and wildflowers rolled in shimmering waves beneath the chill breeze, the whole thing cupped in a bowl of stone.

As soon as Deryn caught her breath, she shouted, “Rhys! Ashem!”

A muffled shout answered from beyond the hill. Seconds later, a guy jogged over the top of a small rise a little to their right.

“Deryn?” He shouted over his shoulder in the same language Deryn had used when she first woke up, then jogged toward them. Like Deryn, he wore dark, practical clothes. Pants, long-sleeved shirt, military-style boots. But as he approached, Kai noticed that the scale details on his shirt were on the right sleeve, not the left.

The tension drained out of Deryn. “Rhys. Thank the Ancients. He’s alive.”

So this was the brother. Kai buckled a little as Deryn sagged. “Seriously. How much do you weigh?”

As Rhys approached, an electric heaviness settled over Kai, like the world drawing breath before a storm.

“Where have you been?” He shared Deryn’s accent, his voice a smooth, rich tenor. Tall, with pale skin and hair that glinted red in the moonlight, he moved with the easy grace of a leopard. He looked at Kai, and for an instant she swore his eyes sparked like blue fire.

Deryn shot off a rapid succession of words in the mystery language. Rhys went tense then, before Kai knew what was happening, scooped Deryn into his arms.

Kai staggered under the sudden lightness, but then arched her back and stretched, glad to be free. Rhys only spared her a brief glance before turning to jog back the way he’d come.

Bemused and slightly offended at being left behind, Kai followed. The camp came into view on the other side of the hill. A handful of domed tents sat in a circle, the worn paths between them giving the area a lived-in feel, as did the sturdily built stone fire pit, where a large fire blazed like a beacon in the twilight. Kai’s steps faltered as she counted the tents. Seven. Apparently, there were more people here than Deryn and her brother.

“Ashem!” Rhys called.

A man threw back one of the tent flaps. He caught sight of Rhys and Deryn and strode toward them. Nearly as tall as Rhys and broadly built, he looked older, maybe in his midtwenties. Instead of Rhys and Deryn’s European pallor, his strong, handsome features and thick, dark hair put Kai in mind of a young desert sheikh. He was dressed like Rhys, with the scale details of his shirt down his right arm.

If Charlotte were here
,
she would faint.

Ashem asked a question in the mystery language, though his accent was a shade different from the others. His voice was a velvety baritone.

“Nothing good.” Rhys responded in English. He carried Deryn to the campfire at the center of the tents. A stocky blond guy rose from his seat on a nearby log, as if he would offer to help. Ashem gave an annoyed grunt and made a shooing motion, and the blond guy sat.

Kai took a seat on the next log over, close enough to watch and eavesdrop. Bewilderingly, the people around the fire didn’t seem to notice or care that she was there.

Ashem said something commanding to Blond Guy, and Kai was pretty sure she caught the name “Evan.” Blond Guy/Evan stood and hurried toward the tents, calling out.

Deryn grimaced. She, at least, still spoke English. “I was hunting to the southeast. I thought I saw someone veiling, so I went to check it out. Demba came out of nowhere. I lost my bag, my communicator—”

“Demba?” Ashem, perhaps transitioning to English unconsciously, let loose an impressive string of obscenities. He still hadn’t even looked at Kai. “Where was he? Did you see Kavar?”

Deryn shook her head, clenching trembling hands. “I didn’t see Kavar, but he has to be close. I managed to lure Demba into a cloud bank and got away. He’d gotten my wing pretty good, though, and I couldn’t fly. I crashed and blacked out.”

Wing.
Fly.
Kai picked at the bark of the log, nervous, jangling energy pulsing through her. Deryn was either crazy or a pilot, and Kai hadn’t seen any planes. She thought of leaving, but didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Rhys stood and shot Kai a glance, his expression uncomfortable. “I’ll take Deryn and go. We can regroup at the rendezvous on the coast.”

A muscle jumped in Ashem’s jaw. “I
warned
you this would happen.”

Rhys’s face froze in a neutral mask. “It shouldn’t have. No one knew where we were going. There must be a spy—”

“Make ready to leave,” Ashem snapped. “This trip is cancelled.”

Baring his teeth, Rhys turned on his heel and headed for a tent.

Deryn didn’t watch her brother go. “They know we’re here.”

“That’s obvious.” Ashem stood. “Put out the fire. If they’re still in the area, they could see it. The barrier doesn’t make us invisible.”

Deryn rubbed her face, obviously exhausted. “There isn’t enough water in the air. I can’t—”

A lean man, taller even than Rhys, dropped a bundle next to the fire pit. It fell with the clang and clatter of metal, cutting Deryn off. Ashem growled something at the lean man and crouched to examine Deryn’s broken leg.

Kai edged forward to get a better look at the bundle then sat back in shock. It was full of weapons. Old ones: swords and knives with ornate hilts, their blades polished and glittering sharp. Her breath caught in her throat. Were they thieves? Had they robbed a museum?

And that’s it for me.
Before Kai could stand, the lean man noticed her.


Noswaith dda.
What’s your name?” He had unruly black hair and a voice like melted chocolate. In the unsteady flicker of the fire, humor danced in his clear, light eyes.

Despite the knots in her stomach, his grin was so open and contagious that she almost smiled back. She licked her lips. “Kai.”

“Cadoc!” Ashem barked. “Get moving.”

Cadoc gave Ashem an exaggerated salute, winked at Kai, and jogged back into a tent. Ashem’s gaze jumped to Kai. “Blood of the Ancients, what the hell is a
human
doing here?”

Kai bristled, choosing anger instead of fear, now that all their eyes were on her. “Sitting. And you’re welcome for bringing
her
back.” She jerked her head at Deryn. “It’s not like she weighed a freaking ton or had to be dragged up a mountain or anything.”

Two more women and a man came out of the tents and gathered by the fire, tossing huge duffel bags in a haphazard pile. Kai twisted her carabiners and edged away from the group. With the addition of these three, there were now eight strangers. Kai swallowed. She should have stayed by the cliff. Was Juli back already? If she was, and Kai wasn’t there, Juli would kill her.

“We need to start loading,” Ashem said, still glaring at Kai. “Griffith can shift and—” He broke off, his brow furrowing. His eyes lost focus. He rose, his jaw set in a hard line as he searched the sky. “Kavar. He’s close. Less than a mile—” He turned, his voice sharp. “Deryn! Why isn’t that fire out? They’ll see it!”

Deryn had both hands stretched toward the fire. Kai blinked. A fine mist seemed to gather in the space between Deryn’s palms, gleaming and changing shape like a golf-ball-size glob of water. Except it couldn’t be.

“I’m trying!” Deryn snapped. “There isn’t enough moisture in the air here!”

Ashem sat back on his heels and barked a few incomprehensible words at a tiny, curvy woman with a mane of bronze hair barely tamed by a handful of sparkling clips and combs.

Seeing her, Kai realized in surprise that all of these people wore an oddly large amount of jewelry, even the men. In addition to the usual rings, necklaces and bracelets, metal and precious stones glittered around biceps and forearms, sparkling in the women’s hair and all around their ears. Some was the cut, polished jewelry Kai was used to, but much of it looked to be raw crystal and uncut stone.

The woman gestured urgently to Kai. “Thank you for bringing Deryn back to us. If you’ll come with me, I can show you the way out.”

Kai stood, a weight lifting from her shoulders. Apparently, she wasn’t going to be abducted tonight. “I can find the ravine myself.”

The woman smiled tightly and said, “Nevertheless, I’ll walk with you.”

“Rhys,” Ashem snapped. “The fire.”

The fire, which had been crackling merrily, winked out. Suddenly blind, Kai stumbled, fell onto one of the logs and swore.

Everyone around the smoking remains of the fire seemed to relax except Kai. She squinted toward where the fire had been. It was there, and then it was just...gone. No sizzle or hiss. Nothing but a few glowing embers and the scent of smoke.

Nervous fear twisted in Kai’s stomach.

“Are we safe?” someone asked.

“No.” Ashem growled. “If I can sense Kavar, he can sense me. But not precisely. We may still be able to sneak away.”

“It’s too late.” Rhys growled. He stood opposite Kai, his gaze fixed on the sky over her head, his eyes glowing an eerie, electrifying blue. “They’re here.”

Slowly, Kai turned. For a long moment, her heart stopped. Everything was utterly still.

A weird shimmering in the air, like a heat mirage, resolved itself into a dozen huge, impossible shapes silhouetted against the moon. The earth seemed to tilt. Kai blinked, but the shapes only grew larger. She pressed her fingers into her eyes hard enough to see spots then looked again.

The vast serpentine shapes were still there. Some bat-winged, some feathered, and some wingless, undulating through the sky like enormous flying snakes.

Dragons. Freaking
dragons
. “Impossible,” she whispered.

As one, the people around the fire sprang into motion. Ashem leaped over a log and charged up the hill. Darkness deeper than night coalesced around him then burst forth like a negative image of the sun. Where there had been a man, a sixty-foot dragon, black as pitch, roared a challenge to the star-encrusted sky.

Chapter Two

Of Dreams and Nightmares

Rhys spared one glance for the human girl staring, mouth agape, into the sky. If she had sense, she would get down and be still.

He glanced at Deryn and fought down a surge of anger at himself. He’d been the one to insist Ashem let her come. It was his fault she was in danger. He crouched in the beaten-down grass, bringing his face level with hers. “Deryn, Kavar may not know you made it back to camp. They won’t be looking for you. Go hide.”

Her lip curled. “Get sundered!” She stood, wounded leg shaking. “I can still fight. I’ll transform and finish any of them that hit the ground.”

Rhys bared his teeth. She could never just
listen
. “You have to stay safe. If something happens to me—”

Her irises ignited, glowing turquoise. “
You
have to stay safe.”

Ancients, she was going to hate him for this, but she’d left him no choice. One of them had to survive. Rhys stood, as well, and glowered down at her. He pulled power inward, focusing it until his blood buzzed and hissed, boiling through his veins. “Deryn,
stay human
.”

“No!” Her injured leg buckled, though by now the bone should have healed nearly enough for her to walk alone. “Take it back!”

Ignoring his sister, Rhys sprinted after Ashem and the others. Deryn screamed obscenities at his back, but he didn’t care as long as she stayed out of the fight.

A tingle of magic and explosion of light signaled Cadoc’s transformation; a dragon the red-orange of flame clawed his way into the sky. Morwenna transformed next, then Griffith, Ffion, Evan. Six dragons ranging in color from mirror-like silver to midnight blue leaped from the hillside, beating the air with vast wings.

Rhys fought through the buffeting winds of their takeoff. Reaching the top of the rise, he flung himself open, pushing himself higher and wider and
more
until he touched the fires that burned along the borders of his being. Flame erupted, consuming, reforming and expanding. The transition jarred, as always.

Dragon.

He opened his jaws wide, roaring, digging talons into the ground. Bunching his haunches, he spread his wings and leaped after the others.

Less than five hundred yards away, a dozen enemy dragons swooped toward the meadow. Rhys strained his wings, pulling for as much altitude, as much advantage, as he could get. As the enemy formation approached, Rhys identified Kavar flying out ahead of the others. He should get close to Kavar and force him to turn home the way he’d forced Deryn to stay human. If Kavar abandoned the fight, the others might follow.

But Demba, the dragon who had attacked Deryn earlier that day, flew just behind Kavar. Rhys’s lips pulled back from his long, needle-sharp teeth, anger burning all sense to ash.

He would send Kavar flying with his tail between his legs. But first, he would char the dragon who had tried to kill his sister.

The two lines of dragons collided. Ashem and Kavar crashed together in the center, clawing, biting and writhing until it was impossible to tell which was which. Cadoc twisted, spiraling below an oncoming Elemental and searing the blue dragon’s unprotected belly with flame. Ffion and Griffith raked past huge, bronze Demba, who snapped, nearly taking off the end of Ffion’s silver tail.

Thought flew from Rhys’s mind until there was nothing but the night wind and the enemy and the fire scorching his gut. He roared, and the bronze dragon turned toward him. Demba roared a challenge in return.

The enemy had engaged.

* * *

Kai shoved the heels of her hands into her eyes and rubbed hard.

Again, the dragons didn’t go away.

She let out a breath, her body so packed with adrenaline it felt like she might ignite. It couldn’t be real. None of this could be real.

Wind from dragon wings struck her hard, and she staggered to one side. She couldn’t blink; couldn’t take her eyes from the scene from dreams and nightmares come to life. The full moon appeared from behind a cloud, and Kai stretched up on tiptoe. She spun, trying to see them all at once, straining toward the beasts that wheeled, swooped and roared over her head.

It was terrifying, yes, but exhilarating. The most incredible, beautiful thing she’d ever seen: dragons blazing through a star-dusted sky.

They battled over the meadow with noise like the heart of a storm, all roars and shrieking wind.
Someone is going to hear this!
Juli would, or the rangers, or random campers. The guys at
MonsterChase
would have enough to do a month’s worth of shows. Pan would go nuts.

Metal crashed behind her, and Kai whirled to see Deryn clutching a sword. The girl limp-hopped her way up the hill like she was trying use the blade as a crutch—so much for a broken leg. Her hair flew every which way, and she shrieked words Kai couldn’t understand.

An ear-splitting bellow from above dropped Kai to her knees. Fear wormed cold through her stomach. One of the dragons buzzed feet over her head, and Kai threw herself into the dirt. A gust of whistling wind flattened the grass all around.
Holy hell
, is
this real?

Terror replaced wonder. She needed to escape. She raised her head, then pushed herself onto hands and knees to see above the madly waving grass. Dragons were everywhere. There was no way to reach the ravine now.

Kai scanned the field, looking for another way out, but her gaze caught on Deryn instead. The idiot was limping right into the middle of the fight.

“Deryn!” Kai stood. Unable to take her eyes from the sky, she stumbled up the hill. “What are you doing? You’re going to get killed!” She caught up to the taller girl and tried to yank the sword from Deryn’s hand. Deryn snarled and shoved her back.

“Run!” Deryn’s shout was barely audible above the noise. Her turquoise eyes pulsed with light. “There’s nothing you can do here but die. Go, before they notice you!”

Kai hesitated, staring at Deryn’s brilliantly glowing eyes before glancing in the direction of the ravine. She should run. Or at least hide. Instead, she looked up at the massive beasts that roared and battled above, her heart jamming her throat. Feeling exposed and insignificant, she ran back to the fire.

The swords Cadoc had dropped were still there, gleaming in the dim light. Kai bent and hefted one, surprised by its weight. The sheathed blade lay heavy in her hand, its hilt winking with rubies and milky white stones. Standing there with dragons in the sky and a sword in her hand, Kai nearly laughed.

I
must be insane.

Dragon roars deafened her, the snap of jaws and
whoosh
of wings thrummed through her skull. Around her, long grass undulated like a mad ocean. The air was bitter with lightning and burnt with fire. The damp scent of earth slammed into her nostrils as two dragons crashed screeching to the ground, their talons gashing deep, soil-bleeding gouges into the meadow.

Reality broke over Kai in a wave as she watched a blue dragon rake its claws across a green dragon’s hide not fifty feet away. The green dragon roared, blood spurting from half a dozen long gashes in its flank. A tiny silver dragon zoomed past, unleashing a spear of lightning from delicate jaws and scoring a direct hit on the blue, which jerked and fell twitching to the ground. The crackle of electricity made the hair on Kai’s arms stand on end.

This is real.
The thought sank in for a long moment, only to be interrupted by an angry shriek. Deryn had reached the top of the hill.

I
can’t just let her die.
Kai sprinted after Deryn, the unfamiliar weight of the sword pulling her to one side. Still, she reached Deryn in less than a minute.

“Turn around!” Kai grabbed for Deryn’s arm, but the tall girl shrugged away. Frustrated, Kai slammed her sheathed blade between Deryn’s shuffling feet, putting the girl’s life above her injured leg. Deryn went down with a shout of pain.

Kai wrenched the sword free and pointed it at the sky, where black dragons spewed clouds of yellow vapor. “Freaking
dragons
!” she shouted.

One of the dragons bellowed, and Kai clamped her fists to her ears, knocking herself on the head with the pommel of the sword and swearing.

Deryn tried to stand, but another dragon swooped low overhead and Kai threw herself on top of the other girl, sending Deryn’s sword flying. Luckily, none of the dragons seemed interested in them. Not at the moment, anyway.

“What is going on?” Kai yelled.

“They’re trying to kill us!” Deryn shrieked back.

“They’re
dragons
!”

“Yes, they are!
Get off me
!”

Kai rolled off, stunned at the confirmation that someone else was seeing what she was seeing. Deryn scrambled to her feet, digging her nails hard into Kai’s shoulder for leverage. A thunderous roar of pain sounded from above. Kai looked up only to be blinded by a column of fire.

“Stop!” Kai blinked the afterimage from her eyes in time to see Deryn reach toward her sword. “They’ll kill you!”

Deryn ignored her.

Kai lunged. She reached the weapon first and threw it back toward the fire pit, still clutching her own.

“I have to help them!” Deryn shouted, stumbling after the weapon.

“They’re
freaking dragons
!” Kai shouted back, clamping a hand around Deryn’s arm. “They don’t need you!”


I’m
a dragon! I have to help!”

“You look pretty human to me!”

“Thanks to Rhys,” Deryn growled. Her eyes flicked across the sky then widened. Kai followed her gaze.

One of the dragons had spotted them. At first, Kai thought it was Ashem. He had turned into a black dragon. But then she heard Deryn’s strangled whisper.

“Kavar!”

Kavar, the black dragon, dove straight for them, silver eyes flashing. Deryn stiffened, her mouth wide in wordless terror. Kai’s entire body went numb, freezing her to the spot.

With an audible
thud
, a dragon whose scales glittered like blood slammed into the black dragon, knocking it off course. Kavar recovered, twisting in the air like a cat. The crimson dragon swiped at the other with wickedly long claws, but missed and overbalanced.

Seeing an opening, Kavar darted forward and buried his teeth in the red dragon’s shoulder.

“No,” Deryn whispered. The fear and pain in that single syllable filled Kai with dread. “Rhys!
No
!”

Rhys, the crimson dragon, let out a howl of agony. He convulsed and plunged earthward like a dropped stone.

Deryn screamed.

Instinct took over. Kai seized Deryn’s arm. With strength born of adrenaline, she hauled the taller, heavier girl out of the way. They made it several yards before an earth-shaking crash sent both of them flying. Kai lost her grip on Deryn and landed on the sword, the hilt driving into her stomach and knocking the wind out of her.

“Rhys! Rhys!” From the volume of Deryn’s cries,
she
was having no trouble breathing.

Kai coughed and gasped, seconds ticking away while she tried to catch her breath. The earth shook as the black dragon landed between them and Rhys, the vast nothingness of his inky hide not a dozen feet from where Kai gulped for oxygen like a landed trout. He was so close she could hear the sibilant hiss of scales when he moved.

Air trickled into Kai’s lungs, dry and slightly musky, a scent that could only be dragon. She scrambled to her feet, dragging the sword with her.

Deryn hobbled toward Kavar, screaming a war cry. Exasperation warring with paralyzing fear, Kai yanked the sword from its sheath and ran after her, expecting at any second to see Rhys’s red scales on the other side of the black dragon’s bulk.

She caught up to Deryn and skidded to a stop. There was no red dragon, only Rhys the man, unconscious. His shoulder was a blood-covered mass that looked nauseatingly like raw hamburger. Kavar was curling one clawed foot carefully around him.

“Rhys, wake up!” Deryn screamed. “Make Kavar go!”

With a brain-rattling roar, another red dragon swooped from the sky, aiming for Kavar. Kai felt a moment of relief. This dragon would save Rhys; she wouldn’t have to do anything.

Then an emerald beast with rainbow-feathered wings slammed into their would-be savior in mid-air. Both spun out of control, crashing into the ground a hundred yards away. The red dragon struggled, but the feathered dragon had him pinned.

Kai’s heartbeat boomed in her ears.

Thump-thump.
The red wouldn’t get to Rhys in time to stop the black dragon.

Thump-thump.
Unarmed, Deryn wouldn’t be any help.

Thump-thump.
None of the other dragons had noticed Rhys, outnumbered and too caught up in their own survival.

Thump-thump.

Time slowed; sounds fell to silence. The sword’s jewel-studded hilt was slick in Kai’s sweaty hand. Helpless tears streaked Deryn’s face as Rhys lay motionless on the churned earth, trapped in a constricting cage of two-foot talons.

Help was not coming. It had to be her.

Kai charged, leaping through the clinging grass before her brain registered she was moving. She tightened her slippery hands and raised the sword high, praying one of the “good” dragons would notice what was happening and do
something
.

It occurred to her at the last instant that she didn’t even know if Deryn and the others were “good” at all. Then her blade flashed down, met resistance, and plunged through midnight flesh. It hit bone, and the impact reverberated through Kai’s shoulders. Then the blade slid to one side and sank to the hilt. The tip came out on the underside of the dragon’s clawed hand, gleaming dull and red in the moonlight. Everything around her blurred but the blood-stained blade. She let go and stumbled back.

Thump-thump.

Huh.
Dragons bleed red.

Kavar jerked his injured limb away, wrenching the sword out with his other claw and hurling it away. Sound came rushing back as he let out a grinding, shrieking roar. Kai threw herself to the ground, barely dodging a rake by the dragon’s good foreclaw.