Lydia Stone with Atlanta New Millennium News stared at something she never thought she’d see in Atlanta. She whispered to Al, her cameraman, “You getting this?” When Al nodded, she said, “No editing. We run it raw or no one will believe we filmed a ... what are we calling that yellow thing?”
“Hell if I know. Let the viewers tell us. Looks like a demon ...” Al’s calm demeaner went ballistic. “Call the cops. It’s chasing a human being.”
“It’s a little girl!” Lydia called Atlanta PD on her mobile phone as she started running and screaming, “Stop, you monster!”
“I believed I was family! I did everythin’ you asked of me and you used me like a lamb staked for a wolf. I will not be punished for anyone’s mistakes and never for yours.”
Herrick’s eyes bulged, staring at Casidhe as if she’d turned into a demon. “Do not think to condemn me when you brought the red dragon here to my home. You lost Skarde! You failed the only task I gave you.”
Fury flooded her and raced beneath her skin, a wildfire rage. She held his crazed gaze with her determined one. “I am ashamed to have had a role, even unintentionally, in your unforgivable deceit. You imprisoned a woman for thousands of years and kept her from bein’ at her dyin’ father’s bed to barter for your selfish wants. You should be ashamed to face your people.”
All around, she heard gasps and prayers.
Herrick’s face distorted, warping his head. Eyes glowing hot as blue flames held no humanity. He lifted massive hands above his head as his body twisted into an unnatural shape. Tremors shook his arms and chest, then ran down legs thick as tree stumps now ripping out of his leather pants.
He roared a prehistoric sound, rocking the castle.
Casidhe held her sword up, preparing for whatever he did.
Herrick flung a hand at her, but no energy flew from him. He shouted, “I am only ashamed of you and the danger you have brought to the clan.”
His words cut and her heart bled, but Casidhe would grow a thicker shield for her heart and new emotional muscles to protect her from ever blindly trusting again.
Her voice took an edge capable of slashing through his lies. “You said the clan. Not our clan. You only confirm every word I’ve spoken here today.”
She’d struggled and fought for the life she’d built, having foolishly believed this man had cared for her.
Lowering her free hand, she lifted the backpack, but it would not fit across her back with the shoulder pads of her new armor.
Herrick took a step toward her, but it landed as a heavy thud. She’d never seen him in a half shift. His eyes glittered with predatory intent. Sharp fangs of his dragon struggled to break free of his misshapen mouth.
His voice couldn’t sound any more inhuman. “What do you think you are doing?”
She steeled her voice to come out strong. “I am done with all of this. Do not try to stop me from leavin’.”
“Take a step toward that door and you shall regret it!”
Sliding her sword back into the sheath inside her pack, she slung a strap over her shoulder. Without another word, she headed for the door.
A loud growling noise from a creature who had ruled the skies long ago blasted the air.
She had no idea how she knew, but she realized the second he lunged at her from behind.
Energy rolled down her arm as she spun and shoved a hand at him. Power crackled then punched him square in the chest.
Herrick’s big body flew backward, hit the floor, and slid against the wall knocking over a candlestand. Stones cracked and buckled, debris raining down on him. His body returned to a fully human shape, but he didn’t move.
Kleio hurried over and dropped to one knee. The seer checked for a pulse then turned to Casidhe. “He’ll live.”
Good. Casidhe felt sick and frozen. She hadn’t intended to kill Herrick, but he had better never try to put a hand on her again.
When Kleio stood, she gave Casidhe a deep bow of her head and lifted upright again. The woman’s eyes gleamed with something Casidhe wanted to call admiration.
Giving the seer a brief nod, she turned again to leave. When she reached the door, she grabbed the thick metal handhold and whipped the massive entrance door so hard it slammed the wall.
She looked at her hand. Huh.
Stepping forward, she continued out into the cool night and drew in a deep breath of freedom that cleansed her soul.
One of Herrick’s men still tended the fire. He watched her intently as she took the steps down.
This was no time to crumble or show weakness.
Herrick had crushed her heart, but he no longer held her every thought in his grip. She now knew the truth of her position here.
She had no position.
Her eyes burned with tears she refused to give into. Not here. Her chest physically hurt as if she’d been clawed open.
Crackling fire off to her side tossed shadows in the dark night.
One foot in front of the other. Keep doing that and she’d cross two hundred yards to make it out of here.
Look at the positive. No more questioning where she stood with Herrick or what action she could take without upsetting him or the fear of failing at her duty.
She’d spent her life trying to be worthy of Herrick. She’d never questioned if Herrick had been worthy of her.
Had it all been a sham?
Pain burst behind her eyes, turning her vision red as she grimly forced her feet to move faster.
Who was she? Where had she come from?
She had vague memories of her time as a small child before a man snatched her up, covered her head, and delivered her to Herrick’s castle. She only knew what the castle lord had told her along with the MacConnaugh squire family.
Was it all lies? Had any of it been true?
For the first time in many years, she tried to reach back in time before her arrival at the castle, searching for something she could cling to, and found ... nothing. Just blurred memories.
Herrick lied to her.
He’d had her captured just to twist and use for his own purposes. Where had she been? Who had birthed her?
Pain built inside, gnawing at her with jagged teeth until she burst forward, running and screaming at the heavens over a life that had never been hers. Power churned and rolled through her until she felt like a fireball about to explode.
Energy raked over her skin, jarring her. Then she was through the barrier and gone from Herrick’s land.
She slowed, gasping for breath.
Tears dampened her lashes. She wiped a hand over her eyes. If she gave into the ache clawing her chest, she’d crumble to the ground. She stumbled away from the ward.
Don’t look back. Ever.
This was her moment to stand on her own, find a way home without any support.
What home? Wrapping her arms around her middle, she shoved the pain behind walls. After all she’d survived, she would worry about all the unanswered questions once she found a way out of these mountains.
Still, home had no meaning.
There would be no Daegan waiting for her.
His words had hurt, too. He’d shredded her heart as if it had been made of paper. How could he believe so easily that she’d hide his sister from him?
Maybe because you hid your entire life from him.
“Shut up,” she muttered, in no mood for a noisy conscience. Sure, the circumstances were damning, but hey, he clearly hadn’t cared enough to ask questions or give her a chance to explain.
He obviously didn’t care for her as much as he said.
How could he make a vow and walk away that easily?
So many questions, but for once she had no other duty but to herself. She’d find answers.
At least the ones she could research, but where had that blast of power come from within her to send a dragon shifter flying backward? And what about this armor covering her body? That showed up when she’d grasped her sword.
Even Lann an Cheartais knew more than she did. She’d feared not being able to pull the sword from its sheath and facing Herrick’s wrath.
She’d had no lifeline to hold onto in that turbulent moment where she’d lost all, then a female voice spoke in her head. Honor my sword. It will honor you.
A calm settled over Casidhe. She called the sword to her with reverence and confidence. Lann an Cheartaiscame to her aid immediately.
She hadn’t paused to question anything. She simply went on instinct she’d never experienced so deeply until the moment when she truly took possession of this weapon.
With the journey ahead of her, she hoped the sword did not forget they were now besties.
She had to cover as much ground as possible, to get as far from here as she could before her legs would carry her no more.
A dark valley between towering mountains lay ahead with the western ridge clinging to a thin line of light. She dug out her trusty LED flashlight key ring and managed not to fall in a hole as she covered the first quarter of a mile from the castle.
The backpack strap on her shoulder wouldn’t slide off the ornate armor made of something that felt like flexible steel, but she had to change shoulders. Maybe by dawn she’d have an idea of how to remove the armor. That was a long eight or nine hours away.
Wind barely moved through the canyon, but she caught an out-of-place whooshing sound.
Wings flapping behind her.
Had Herrick sent Stian, that damned vulture?
Herrick would not think her worth the effort to come himself. She’d be damned if a griffon vulture thought to drag her back to its master.
As the sky lost all light save for a partial moon, she looked around to find the ghostly dark shape of the griffon vulture flying toward her. No other bird out here should be that large, not even another griffon vulture.
It flew too high to be attacking. She arched her head, dropping it back as she watched the bird race past without stopping.
Guess she scared the vulture, too.
A second later, the louder sound of a large creature flying in from behind yanked her chin down.
“I’ll be damned.”
Herrick’s dragon bore down on her with claws extended.
She waited as air rushed around her. No power climbed her arm. Uh-oh.
No, no, no! She flipped to her right at the last second, hitting the rocky ground hard and rolling. She caught the strap of her backpack at the last second, dragging it with her. Pain stabbed her shoulder.
That hadn’t been her best idea.
Still, she was alive. She stood and rubbed her aching shoulder muscles.
His dragon flew over the empty spot she’d left, roaring in anger and blowing out ice.
Her power growled and rumbled in her chest.
Lowering her hand, she pulled her sword out. Energy sizzled up her arm to her fingers around the hilt. The silver blade flashed as if a powerful beam of light had struck it.
Herrick’s dragon banked around hard and came back at her.
Grasping the hilt with both hands, she lifted the blade vertically in front of her. She’d been torn about harming Herrick when he threatened her.
Anyone who attacked her from now on was not her friend. That made for a simple rule to follow when deciding who faced her sword.
She’d never faced down a dragon and never this dragon.
Angry tears streamed down her cheeks.
He intended to blast her with frozen water. She couldn’t avoid the ice and falling down would end with her being buried alive.
The closer his dragon came to her, the tighter she gripped the hilt. Her arms quivered.
His dragon opened wide jaws with gleaming fangs hanging down.
She stood her ground with the razor-sharp blade pointed forward.
Glowing blue reptilian eyes narrowed on her and a thunderous load of ice gushed out of that dark maw.
He was going to kill her.
The freezing water blasted at her full force, then split apart on each side of her blade. Goosebumps lifted over her skin from the freezing air as his dragon flew past again.
Shocked out of her skull, she couldn’t move.
Ice piles surrounded her with one way out. Her knees threatened to buckle from surviving that attack. How had she not been buried? Turning the sword, she watched energy race up and down the blade, sizzling.
Then the glow died and she had a normal sword once more.
She lowered the tip to the ground and turned, walking through a narrow path in the ice mountain. She searched for Herrick’s dragon.
A giant black silhouette flew high then slowed and angled back her way.
Her arms had turned to jelly, but she picked the sword up again. No glow this time. She murmured, “Come on, Lann an Cheartais. It’s not time to quit.”
Evidently, her sword was done.
She still held the blade in front of her, feet apart, ready for whatever Herrick’s dragon did next. If he blasted her again, the sword would be only as good as a giant ice pick to chip a way out. She wouldn’t survive that long.
The dragon swooped low and landed a hundred feet away. Herrick shifted into his human form, complete with furs, boots, and a billowy white shirt.
He stalked over to her.
She had no idea if the power she’d wielded would return or not, but when he reached twenty feet from her, anger gripped her hard. She ordered, “Stop right there.”
He halted with eyes churning blue flames.
“What do you want, Herrick?”
“I want you to find Jennyver!”
The sound of her jaw dropping could probably be heard two mountains away. “Are you mad? Why in the world would you think I’d help you find her?”
“I do not wish to capture her.”
“Oh, sure.” She screamed, “You just tried to kill me! Why should I believe anythin’ you say?”
He sighed a rumbling sound. “I was angry.”
“That’s it? You were angry. Well, here’s a news blast. I am furious and I will never trust you again.”
“I speak the truth,” he argued, seeming unbothered by her words. Thick-headed, self-serving man. “I only want Skarde back. I ask you to help me find the woman to offer the red dragon for my brother.”
Unbelievable gall. Even now he came to drop a duty at her feet.
Taking a deep breath, Casidhe forced her shoulders down. It would feel so good to throw all he’d done to Jennyver, and to her, in his face, then walk away. But he had knowledge she needed. For that reason, she took a moment to think.
He needed her, again.
If she did anything for him, this time it would be on her terms, but she would not hand an innocent woman to Herrick.
That also meant she was unwilling to offer any deal yet. “I will consider this, but only if you give me somethin’ right now.”
He snarled and his chest rumbled.
“Screw this,” she snapped and headed for her backpack.
“What do you want to know?” he growled.
Her pulse pounded and questions flew through her mind. She angled around, eyeing him with suspicion. “Does this mean you’re not goin’ to continue tryin’ to kill me?”
“Had I wanted you dead, you would not be uttering any questions.”
She might have believed that at one time, but not after just surviving a deluge of ice from his dragon.
She let his boast go for now, opting for the more important win. “I no longer believe you just happened to choose me off the streets to have brought to your castle. You don’t operate that way, Herrick. How did you find me?”
He crossed his arms and stared over her head for so long she considered walking away again. “I had scouts in Pakistan watching for someone with unnatural gifts.”
She’d never believed in coincidences and this confirmed he knew exactly where she came from or had enough information she could use to find out everything. “Why me?”
It dawned on her she probably hadn’t been the first person taken. He might have done this over and over for centuries. How many other people had he hunted who had possessed her skills or some other unusual abilities?
A tiny jaw muscle pumped in and out as he studied her. “I give my word I will tell you all if you find Jennyver and help me gain Skarde. Do not dare to insult my word.” He turned his back on her, took two steps, and shifted. His dragon pushed up and flew away.
At that same moment, her armor withdrew, slowly disappearing until leaving her in the loose shirt and jeans she’d worn for two days now.
Her stomach growled and ached.
She hefted the backpack into place across her shoulders, latching the straps, then pulled out a half-bottle of water she had left. With another search, her fingers landed on a pack of peanut butter crackers. Her mouth actually watered in response.
After being drugged, then driven cross-country in a food truck, she’d had no chance to eat last night before Herrick showed up to fly her to the castle.
Her anger dissolved into a drive to eat, stay strong, and reach safety. Then she’d figure out her next move.
Moonlight fought its way through clouds to float free. Long shadows played over the rugged canyon floor as she picked her way up and down the uneven ground.
What felt like two miles in, adrenaline had worn off, leaving her body drained. She nodded off while walking and had to give herself a break.
Just a quick power nap would do a lot right now.
Scoping out the area with her LED light, she hiked over to where she could sit with her back to boulders piled higher than she stood. Dropping the backpack to the ground, she sat down with her knees pulled up, then moved the pack between them. That provided a place to lay her head over her crossed arms.
She had almost fallen asleep when a tingle across her neck woke her. She sensed someone watching her.
Moving carefully, she lifted her head until she stared at the intruder twenty feet away.
Stian stood tall, larger than any natural vulture she’d ever seen. The bird’s black eyes shined with intelligence that creeped her out.
How long had Stian been there?
How long would Stian stay?
The bird opened its vicious beak and let out a hiss, then lowered its head with black eyes still locked on her.
She didn’t dare fall asleep with that demonic vulture watching her. She barely moved her hand toward the sword.
Stian took a step forward.
Even if the sword flew to her again, it would not reach her hand before that beak ripped her neck open.