Authors: Joely Sue Burkhart
:Chanda, are you well?:
Immediately, I jerked my head up to scan the battle. I couldn’t see anything but dust and black
everywhere. I sent Jalan an image of the Red on his back, bellowing in pain, his intestines tangled around his own legs.
Aren’t you hungry?
We could use some help.:
Actually, I was famished. After flying through the afternoon in the horrid heat and fighting the Red, I was more than ready to feast on a few Mambas. Not bothering to take to the air, I trotted into the fray, jaws gaping, and snagged myself a snack.
Hearing her fight—the screaming roars, the clash of mighty dragons, the thundering flames—was torture. Jalan wrapped his left arm around his midsection in an effort to keep his own dragon caged. His beast thrashed, wings stretching, Fire blasting his ribcage, furious that his mate battled another male.
In his mind, he knew Chanda would win. Her proud dragon heart would accept nothing less. But his beast refused to lie down while she was threatened.
off to the right wasn’t able to control his rising dragon.
Howling, he thrashed on the ground, wreathed in Fire. His body split open, folded, and crumpled away, leaving a red and black mottled dragon mewling on the ground. A Krait tried to behead him before he took to the sky, and even his own tribesmen struck, a scimitar curving a gaping red slice in his side.
A dragon wasn’t safe, wasn’t trustworthy. He’d kill his own tribe as quickly as his enemy. He’d kill his own chained Red in a frenzy and turn on the White, too.
The White, Chanda, who fought for Jalan. A fierce smile flickered across his face, but he quickly smoothed it. She was trustworthy. She loved him enough to control her fearsome instincts and kill for him.
Through her bond, he felt her dark pleasure as she fed on some hapless Mamba.
Best he provide more bodies for her to feast upon.
He pushed forward, twisting the enemy’s scimitar aside. A quick thrust with his short sword into the Mamba’s side, and the
fell back. Another slash and he sliced open a Mamba’s throat. Too many, surely. He barely made a dent in the robed warriors surrounding the Well. A woman screamed far behind him and his blood boiled higher. These were his people, his kin, and he would not let them be slaughtered!
Two Mambas came at him, blades snaking high and low. Rage boiled in him, his skin burning with Fire. One of them managed to cut his thigh, but he didn’t even feel it. With his dragon riding so close to the surface, nothing could touch him.
A child wailed to his right. Sparing a glance, he could only watch helplessly as a Mamba warrior raised his scimitar.
“No!” His gut twisted, bile rising in his throat. The boy was his nephew, the only child he would ever be able to claim. His younger brothers had been lost to the Fire. His mother, dead of suffering and heartache. And Chanda, his fierce, lovely mate who would never bear his children. Who would never have her own tent in his
Chanda touched his mind, flooding him with concern. Chains, dragon wings clipped, savage fighting, killing.
He knew the risk. But it was too late.
:Forgive me, my love.:
Skin tore open down his back. Fire raged. And wings exploded about him.
Roaring a warning, I scrambled toward Jalan, but it was too late. Black leather wings flapped and Fire overwhelmed his control. His calm acceptance disappeared in a raging flood of flames.
Agony, oh Somma, such agony.
My stone warrior was gone. Forever.
After so many disappointments, all the betrayals and heartaches in my accursed life, it shouldn’t have surprised me that I would lose him, too, that the Gods would ruin such a magnificent warrior.
Rage—my oldest and dearest friend—ate my heart, burned my gut, until I launched at the Mamba dragon. I wanted to kill. I needed to kill. Maybe, then, my heart would stop hurting.
Young in the ways of dragons, though, the fledgling male proved poor sport.
Even the chained Red had fought better. I seized the Mamba’s throat and threw him onto his back. He clawed at my underbelly, barely scoring me, but I clamped my jaws tighter and growled.
I remembered holding Jalan. His slight human shoulder in my jaws, his skin fragile on my teeth, and I wanted to throw my head up and curse the moon all over again.
A heavy weight slammed into me, pinning me against the Mamba. With a hateful urge to kill as fierce as mine, the eviscerated Red could not simply lie down and bleed out his life on the poisoned sands. His black spiraled horn slid over my shoulder and plunged into the other male. Screaming with rage, the mottled dragon thrashed beneath me, his claws gripping me close as though I could somehow save him.
Not with a vicious horn in his heart.
The Red rumbled a low purr against my back. His jaws worked on my shoulder, not biting, exactly, but letting me know he was there. He touched Jalan’s mark, and my stomach clutched with revulsion. I should have ripped the Red’s heart out and eaten it.
With a slam of my shoulder, I broke his horn off. Bellowing, the Red tried to crush me, dropping all his impressive weight on me. I called forth my rage, my hatred, the blazing power of the Fire I carried in my heart. I glowed as brightly as the moon above.
The full moon...
Writhing, I fought the curse. I needed to be a dragon to fight for Jalan. I wouldn’t let his sacrifice be in vain.
As always, though, I was powerless against the Gods. Very human, very weak compared to the monster mauling me, I yanked the black horn out of the dead dragon cooling beneath me. The Red closed his jaws on my shoulder again, shredding my skin. His claws dug into me as he flipped me over. He sniffed at my chest, my stomach, evidently surprised at the change in me. I still smelled like a female dragon, but I certainly didn’t look like one.
Sorrow choked me and tears leaked from my eyes. Jalan, my stone warrior, a beast now like this one. Moonlight flooded my veins in a raging flood of grief. I shoved that magic into the Red, and he reared back in shock. I plunged his own horn into his wide red-scaled chest, driving deep, using all my strength to search for his heart.
A massive black shadow snatched the Red away, rolling in a flurry of wings and scales, roaring in fury. Jalan, my Black. The Red was already dying, but Jalan tore at his throat savagely until he completely beheaded the opposing male.
Dripping blood, black eyes blazing with fury, the Black turned malicious eyes on me.
Did he recognize me at all? As the White, I knew him. I knew his scent, the taste of his skin in my mouth. My skin was already torn from the Red and my blood flavored the air. That could be a good thing—or a very bad thing. A dragon driven insane by blood hunger wouldn’t recognize his mate let alone in human form.
He shook his head hard, snarling at my human intrusion. Instead of sending him words, I concentrated on emotions. On images. Things we shared. I remembered flying with him this afternoon, the wind rushing beneath my wings, our devastated homeland spread out beneath us. His joy. His love. My regret.
His response stole my breath. All black wings, night sky, wind in our faces, soaring higher and higher until we nearly touched the moon, and then spinning toward the sands, clutched together, mating a death spiral until the last possible second.
“I can’t fly, Jalan. Not now.”
Did he even understand? The killing rage was gone from his glittering eyes. He came to me, towering over me like a fierce black mountain of flesh and claw. Stretching down his sinuous neck, he ran his rasping tongue over my flesh, cleaning the wounds and licking the blood from my skin.
He rumbled with pleasure. He knew my scent, the taste of my blood. The image he put into my mind was too complex and yet too simple to describe.
Mine. He knew I was his, and he planned to keep me until the sands blew away and the moon fell from the sky and the last Keldari died in a punishing blast of Fire.
“Mine, yes, forever.” I whispered, running my hands over his triangular head, down his sleek neck. His neck and his forehead, too, were smooth, but his jaw was lined with gorgeous feather plumes, a dark purplish ruff. The feathers relaxed under my tender strokes to lie smooth against his neck.
Tears trickled down my cheeks. “You did well, my fierce warrior. You killed many Mambas. Look, they retreat, and your people are spared. You saved them.”
Sorrow flooded our bond. He remembered the last Well, the spreading poison.
His people weren’t spared—they merely had longer to suffer before dying. Rage filled him, sparking in his black eyes. Pain and fury blazed together higher and higher. He raised his head and roared at the moon, blasting flames and thick smoke as if he could cloud Somma’s curse and bring me back to him.
I couldn’t bear to see him doomed as I. He loved his people, he loved his Gods, he lived to save as many as possible. My Riven heart welled with tears; my chest squeezed with grief. How could I save him from his beast? How could I bring him back?
Magic rippled inside me, rainbows I ignored for centuries with blind eyes, sweet melody I tuned out with deliberately deaf ears. Listening, now, to that music dancing in my blood, I knew only one hope. One way I might bring him back.
I called more power, blazing like the full moon above. I filled my heart with all the emotion he fought so hard to make me feel. The tenderness of his rough hands. His calm, strong acceptance. I felt his Fire respond to mine, braiding together down that blood bond we formed, the memory of sweat and blood, wild love and tender, oil and tears and no promise of the morrow. Not for us. Not for any of us.
“You took my blood. You took my Fire. You took my body. Now take my Riven heart and make me whole once more.”
Magic pulsed inside me, burning my skin, liquefying my bones. I felt his heart pounding in answer and I called him as hard as I could. I tugged on his bond, wrapping him in moonlight and hope where I’d only known hatred before.
“I am Given to you, Jalan tal’Krait. My heart beats for you.”
Our hearts thundered louder. He seized me in razor talons and clutched me to his chest. His wings fought to lift us airborne, but I wrapped him up in my magic, chained him with my heart, my love. “Come back to me, Jalan.”
He didn’t fight me. Sinking to his knees, he curled wings around me. Once again, he accepted me. He accepted my love. And I drew him back. I stifled his Fire, I willed his scales, his wings, his claws to recede.
Until I held my stone warrior in my arms once more.
Jalan stumbled into his tent with Chanda clutched in his arms and lay her down on the carpets and cushions. Smoothing her dark hair out of her eyes, he caught her tears on his fingers so he could drink her offering.
Laughing softly, she reached up to wipe his, too. Tears he didn’t even know he shed.
“Chanda, my love, what you did... No one has ever been able to bring a
back once he succumbs to the beast within. It’s a —”
“Miracle,” she breathed against his lips. “Magic.”
He spread her hair out like a fan on the cushion and buried his face in the silken tresses. Her scent rolled over him, so warm and lush and wild. Yet her heart beat in tandem with his. Her thoughts were his. Her mind and heart were completely open to him, singing with love where only rage had dwelled before.
For a while, he simply held her, listening to her heart, drinking in her scent.
He never dreamed to hold her in his tent. The
bustled with dinner preparations, warriors drinking and laughing about the fire, relieved that they lived to face another day. They didn’t know that this courageous, magnificent woman wouldn’t have another day. Unless— “Have we broken your curse?”
“No,” she whispered, her voice breaking.
“I hoped if I could earn the fierce White’s love that would be enough.”
She tightened her arms around him, drawing his face closer and rolling on her side so she could stare into his eyes. “I love you. That’s miracle enough.”
“But how can I—”
“You can’t, Jalan. Only I can break this curse.”
“Then break it, my love.”
She smiled, a sad, broken smile that sliced his heart in half. “I can’t. Besides, you still plan to sacrifice me to save your people. Don’t you?”
He squeezed his eyes shut, his heart stuttering with horror and dread. How could he even think to kill her? He would rather wade into the