Authors: Joely Sue Burkhart
“The White knows the mate of her heart as you do.”
“I’m not leaving you again.”
Unsaid, our doom hung between us in the cave, slamming into my heart as surely as the coming dragon. We would battle his enemy in hours, and the last night of the full moon approached. Either he would die in the battle against the Mambas or he would dry trying to break my curse or he would kill me for his Black God. I would be imprisoned for all eternity in this cursed rising dragon, or he would successfully sacrifice me. Either way, I would lose him. That hurt more than the thought of living another thousand years as the White Dragon.
“My heart beats for you, Chanda.”
The dragon swelled inside me, stretching the fragile cage of skin. I fought her—myself—and tried to break the curse. Fighting to stay with Jalan. Struggling to remain human. Cursing my Riven heart, my spiteful pride.
He stood silent and unmoving in the mouth of my cave. I screamed at him to flee, to save himself, as my back ripped open.
Wings unfurled, talons unsheathed, tail thrashed, scaled muscle, massive and strong, flexed. Mighty chest heaving, I lay on the gravel and stared at the warrior in my lair. He smelled familiar and right, all roasted spices and rich sage oil.
Oil I also scented on my scales.
The scent of a strange dragon made me snarl. A male, several males, their scents rubbed into me. I even tasted it in my mouth, fouling my tongue. This wasn’t the scent I wanted on me. This wasn’t the taste I wanted between my jaws.
Jalan came closer, ignoring my hiss of warning. The stone warrior sat before me, no weapons drawn, his face calm. Peaceful. I smelled myself on him, mixed with that other hateful dragon scent. More, I felt Fire burning in him. My Fire responded, dancing in my heart, and it felt... different.
Cocking my head, I tried to discern what had changed. I stared at the warrior and tried to remember the rage that drove me to kill and feast. My hatred that drove me to curse the moon and She Who Hung it. How could I feel such rage when this warrior sat before me so trustingly?
He smiled to rival the noonday sun.
Rumbling a half-hearted growl, I gripped his shoulder in my jaws. Hard enough to feel his flesh giving beneath my teeth, but I didn’t break the skin. I didn’t rip away his tidy cloth. The feel of him in my mouth relaxed my last hesitation.
As the heat of the day blazed to life, I stretched out my head on the sand, curled my wings and tail around my stone warrior, and slept with him against my heart.
Crouching down beside the sleeping dragon, Jalan nudged her gently. The heat outside was still oppressive, but the afternoon hours were precious. They must reach Krait land in time for the battle. They must kill the Red before moonrise.
He took his own advice and refused to think of it. When the time came, he must do his duty. He would follow her quickly in death.
He didn’t know if her dragon would be able to hear his words through the bond, let alone understand him, but he must wake her, sluggish or no. Her instincts would leave her sleeping for hours yet. Hours he couldn’t afford.
:Wake, my love.
We must fly to battle.:
Steam puffed from her nostrils, her tail twitching.
, Chanda. Blood. Meat. Aren’t you hungry?:
She sniffed deeply, bumping his chest with her spined muzzle, but then curled her nose back beneath her wing. Evidently, she had no wish to feast on him. As much as the thought warmed his heart, he must rouse her. Perhaps his dragon within could awaken her.
Closing his eyes, he relaxed his fierce control just a bit. He uncurled one tiny chain he maintained around the vicious black beast pacing and roaring inside him. Fire washed over him. His skin itched, heated, stretched to the point of splitting wide open. The dragon bulged inside him with fierce joy.
Feast. Blood. Mate.
Breathing hard, he forced the raging beast back down. He unsheathed his scimitar and made a small cut on the palm of his left hand. Blood would have to do, although the rich scent brought his dragon thrashing closer to the surface.
Pain seared him, talons shredding his gut.
He reached down and smeared blood on her nose. Her jaws opened, her forked tongue snaking out to taste his offering. And then those mighty jaws snapped shut around his wrist. Rumbling, but not fully awake, she tugged, jerked, jaws working. So hard, Jalan feared she might actually take his hand. At least he would have his right for fighting.
Her golden eyes flew open and she spat his hand out. Scrambling backward, hissing, she pressed her bulk into the narrowing tunnel. She glared at him with such reproach, such horror, he easily discerned her feelings even in her dragon face.
He didn’t even glance down at his hand. He could move his fingers, his wrist, despite the ragged bite. “We need to go.”
Shaking her head, blowing hard, she backed tighter into the darkness.
:Chanda, I must go to battle.:
She flinched at his mental touch, smoke billowing about her with a hint of flames. Images flew into his mind, sharp painful color and whirling emotions.
Shredded meat, snap of bone, blood hot in her mouth, and then an image of him.
Her muzzle buried in his stomach. And such howling grief.
“I’m sorry, but I couldn’t think of any other way to wake you. We must go.”
Crawling toward him with head down, tail and wings curled tight to her body, she made a low apologetic sound that made him smile.
“It’s nothing, sleepy head. A small price to pay.”
Still, she hung her head, her neck arched, tight, her tail lashing. He touched her mind again and felt her hunger as red, her shame as black, and such longing, such desperation. Silently, he offered his bleeding arm, holding it beneath her mouth until she carefully licked the blood from his skin. Her tongue rasped the ragged bites, but the pain didn’t matter. She was so careful, so hesitant, so tender.
His fierce White gently licked his arm. It made his heart swell and ache in his chest.
He gripped the center spine on her head and drew her into his chest, hugging her. She rumbled against him, purring, and happily followed him out into the miserable heat of afternoon. Picking up speed, he trotted down the slope of her cliff, around the Well of Tears, and out into the baked plain beyond. He regretted letting his horse loose, but he had feared the White might eat it, and his tribe’s horseflesh were just as precious to them as oil and water.
She caught him, a vicious gleam in her eye as she passed. He felt a tickle in his mind and a glorious image filled his thoughts. Dry air rushing past him, wings catching the air, the land stretched out beneath him. Up here, it didn’t look so barren, so devastated. There was a harsh beauty in the myriad of browns and reds,
curling into the distance, harsh buttes rising and falling.
The image was so real that he stumbled when it ended and felt a sense of loss. Chanda turned her head back, her triangular snout open slightly. He swore she smiled at him, teasing. In challenge, she ran beside him with her left wing raised invitingly, giving him easy access to her haunches.
He gripped a handful of spined mane and swung up on her back, tucking his knees up under her gorgeous white wings. Her wings unfurled, beating whirlwinds into the dust, her haunches straining, lifting, until they were airborne. His stomach dipped sickeningly a moment but quickly adjusted. It was just as beautiful as she’d pictured in his mind.
Jalan tal’Krait laughed out loud.
Coiling to the heavens like a massive black dragon, the forbidding spire seized my heart with dread. Dull shadowed rock rooted as deeply into the ground, spoiling and raping the earth. Belching black fumes, the
This mountain spewed Despair.
Encircling the black mountain was a spreading
As I watched, a large slice of land broke off and slipped into the boiling acid. Literally, the
The black hide tents of Jalan’s
huddled together a frighteningly short distance from the crumbling shore about the Well. The last precious Krait water. Usually fertile enough to support vegetable gardens and livestock grazing areas, this Well boasted only withered stalks and thin, wasted goats and horses. Yet it was the Kraits’ last Well, and so they would fight to keep it.
After soaring for Jalan, I’d followed a dry, narrow
all the way from the Well of Tears, using the gorge walls to hide our passage from prying eyes. Now I flew to the Well, skimming lower so Jalan could see the battle. Women, children, and the elderly ringed the Well, armed with knives. Then the black-robed Krait warriors, side by side in a circle, scimitars ringing. They were entirely surrounded by Mamba warriors and outnumbered at least ten to one.
Every Krait would die by sunset.
A shrill roar drew my attention. The Red Dragon struggled and bellowed off by the tents. Ten warriors gripped his chains in an attempt to control him. They even placed a metal ring about his muzzle to prevent him from blazing fire, his mighty wings were pinned to his sides, and his legs were hobbled. They might as well have castrated him, too, and chopped his wings off entirely. How they thought to use him in battle—when he would rather kill them—I had no idea.
:Can you drop me inside by the Well?:
Circling back around, I flew lower, barely skimming the dunes toward the Well. Jalan tried to slide down my side, but he hampered my wing and I flapped awkwardly.
Fighting back up to regain altitude, I tried to tell him to jump, and I would clutch him—
Immediately, he dropped off my back like a stone, slipping cleanly past my wing. I snatched him in my front claws, trying not to injure him too badly. I circled again, swooping low. Warriors screamed, jumping aside, and I neatly dropped him with his warriors. He saluted me with his scimitar as I flew toward the Red.
I was ashamed for him, the once proud
now chained by his own tribe.
Feral dragons died quickly in the desert, murdered in dominance or mating fights. Very few lived to successfully mate with the few female dragons not killed by crazed males. The Trinity gave us Their daughters in the beginning, but there were precious few left alive. Even in my day, very few Keldari women surrendered to the Fire within.
Just me, in fact.
The Red deserved to die free. I was more than happy to oblige him.
He was a big beast, much larger than me. Unrestrained, his wingspan would nearly double mine. His head was huge and wide with a vicious-looking black horn sprouting from the center. Most of his scales were blood red, but he carried black markings about his eyes and on his legs. His wings were leather instead of feathers as mine, inherited from his own bloodlines, and he had no spines down his neck. As much of Agni’s blood as he carried, I had best mind his Fire.
I roared at him in challenge and blasted his handlers with flames. The Mambas shouted, flapping about like black birds with feathers on fire. Slinging his head side to side, the Red jerked chains free and lunged toward me. Jaws straining, he tried to break the ring holding his teeth clamped shut. He clawed at his own face, shredding his cheeks, but he worked the ring off just as I slammed into him.
Biting him was not nearly as enjoyable as biting my stone warrior.
I ripped a hunk of hide off his flank and scored his chest down to his breastbone. Bellowing flames, he crashed into me, using his larger weight to throw me off balance. I was lighter, true, but faster, and I’d had much longer to fight and kill as a dragon than he. He jerked his head at me, trying to spear me with that cruel horn, but I slapped him with my tail so hard he stumbled and fell to his knees.
I didn’t give him any mercy. Not Chanda the White who cursed the Gods. Who loved Jalan tal’Krait with all the Fire in my dragon heart. I leaped on the Red’s wide back, gripped his spine in my jaws, and sliced with all four feet as fast and hard as I could.
Bellowing in pain, he reared upward, trying to shake me off. When that failed, he threw his weight backward to crush me beneath him. Heaving my wings, I soared off, hovering, and tore into his soft underbelly. Gutted, he thrashed on his back, breaking his own wing. He roared flames at me, but for an effective burst of Fire, we dragons need air. Wounded as he was, he couldn’t haul in enough air to blast me.