HIDDEN dragons

Prologue: The Last Dragon

THE great bronze dragon circled the red desert, leathery wings spread to block the stars. Her name was T’Fain, and her sinuous, whipping tail was longer than her body—though that was long enough. Twenty grown men could stand on her dorsal ridge, assuming they had the stones. Black spines as sharp as razors thrust from her supple back, each worth more than a king’s ransom to poachers. No armor known could withstand the piercing power of these spikes. When crushed to powder for a tincture, they counteracted illness and poisons. The dragon’s tail was another marvel. If severed, it—and all its limbs—would regenerate.

Then there was the fiery breath draconem magister could produce. Water could not quench these flames, only magic of equal strength. What they touched would burn up in instants or smolder on for days—a gruesome passing, by all reports. Though dragons didn’t possess the level of sentience of man or fae, their minds were wonders too, capable of executing complex strategies without oversight. Understandably, the beasts had played a role in all the realm of Faerie’s important wars.

What few understood was that draconem’s greatest value lay in its loyalty. The phrase “faithful as a dragon” was not empty. Where dragons loved, they loved with all their hearts. They would not betray their masters or let them come to harm. Many dragon keepers claimed to love their beasts better than their wives.

Despite being a woman, this was a sentiment Queen Joscela understood perfectly.
At a signal from its trainer, the dragon she watched tonight dropped silently to the arid plain. The fact that T’Fain was the last of her kind lent her grace poignancy. Puffs of dry dust burst up—first from the deadly back claws and then the front. The huge scaled body dwarfed the man who’d called her, but the fae was in no danger. The beast hunkered before him as obediently as a puppy, glowing ruby eyes fixed lovingly on the being who’d imprinted her as a hatchling. She lowered her scaly head to bring her gaze level with the man’s.

The dragon could not anticipate the sacrifice that would be asked of her.

The dragon master was aware. As a member of the secretive Dragon Guild, his family’s bloodline was as pure—if not as royal—as Joscela’s. At the moment, his face was masklike, his movements stiff and self-conscious. Dressed in fireproof leather from hood to breastplate to hip-high boots, he stretched a gloved hand to rub the dragon between her eyes. T’Fain let out a chirr of pleasure, wisps of steam trailing from her nostrils. The trainer stepped back, his attention shifting toward the king to whom his family owed allegiance.

King Manfred was the fae of the hour—of the century, to hear him. Hundreds stood behind him in quiet ranks, soldiers for the most part. As if these troops weren’t enough for his dignity, a traveling throne splendorously supported his royal butt. Elevated on a platform set on the sand, the seat glistered with electrum and precious jewels. For five decades, ever since this last dragon had been hatched, Manfred had badgered the High Fae Council over how he thought the precious resource should be employed. Finally he’d won his way. As regally as if he’d trained the dragon, Manfred nodded toward his sworn man.

Queen Joscela watched all this from above, from the deck of her floating ship. Magic and not hot air buoyed the vehicle’s black and tan striped balloon. Keeping her company at the rail were her personal guards, her hand servants, and her most trusted advisers. Though this was an important night, no wine casks had been opened. She most definitely hadn’t triumphed in the long debate with the High Council. This, however, didn’t mean she was willing to miss the show.

Those royals who felt a similar reluctance bobbed in the airspace above the plain, each elaborate vessel declaring the uniqueness of its sponsor. Here was a ship that resembled a daffodil, there one entirely formed of gears. All were lit by torches or faerie lights, but not all were festive. Some of Joscela’s peers had sided with Manfred and some with her. She consoled herself that few would actually delight in the pompous bastard’s ascendency.

Of course they’d abandon her quick enough, now that his star had eclipsed hers.

“If Manfred’s head swells any bigger, it will explode.”

This comment came from her Minister of Plots. Ceallach stood closest to her shoulder, a smooth and handsome male who’d been her lover for many years. He served in both capacities very well.

“We should be so lucky,” she murmured back.

“It’s not too late to arrange for a hell dimension door to open and swallow him.”

The plain below was dotted with portals, this being the best place in Faerie for forming them. Most were invisible, created too long ago and used to seldom to be active. Others were so popular they had duplicates throughout the realms. These glimmered on the edge of vision, ghost doors to alien existences. Despite their proximity, it was too late to shove Manfred through one—as they both were aware. Joscela’s opposition to her rival’s plan had been too public and impassioned. Should any ill befall the ruler, suspicion would fall on her.

She touched Ceallach’s hand in thanks for his support. “With the way my luck’s run lately, we’d send him to a bunny realm.”

She sounded bitter. Ceallach squeezed her fingers.

She appreciated that, though her hatred for the puffed-up sovereign knotted darkly inside of her. I won’t let resentment consume me, she swore. Manfred didn’t deserve any more victories.

A stir rippled through the crowd at her vessel’s rail.

“Oh joy,” Ceallach said. “The idiot is rising to make his speech.”

Manfred was a handsome faerie: black-haired, black-garbed, with flashing silver eyes and a sensual mouth. His greater than normal height—further raised by the throne’s platform—commanded attention. Then again, if he hadn’t known how to present himself, he couldn’t have triumphed over her.

“Countrymen,” he began in a resonant spell-enhanced voice. “Neighbors and fellow fae. Tonight is a momentous occasion, one many of us fought long and hard to bring about. Tonight we undo the narrow-mindedness of our forefathers, who saw only the backwardness of the human realm and not its value. They closed the door between our worlds, but tonight we re-open it. Those who were stranded among the humans can now come home. Those who wish to visit the human world will have that option. The reason for this is simple. Tonight we do more than our ancestors ever could. Tonight we create a Pocket behind the portal, half fae and half mortal—a place of stability, immune to the magical anarchy that threatens our less fortunate regions. Plodding though they are, humans anchor reality, a service the wise among us know we can no longer live without. I do not exaggerate when I say the Pocket is our future.”

“Well, it’s certainly his future,” Ceallach observed dryly. “And that of anyone who likes conditions exactly as they are.”

Joscela pressed her lips together but did not speak. They’d talked of this before. Ceallach knew she agreed with him. The dragon master must have believed Manfred’s argument. No matter if he were Manfred’s vassal, she couldn’t see him going along with this otherwise.

A gust of wind buffeted her ship, forcing her to grip the rail or be knocked off balance. Ceallach’s arm came protectively around her back. Because flashing one’s wings in public was bad form, hers were flawlessly spell-folded beneath her gown. Ceallach knew they were there. His bicep tightened, reminding her of the pleasure of having him stroke them. His fingers were capable of great delicacy, his tall body fair and hard. Joscela shuddered at the memory of many intimacies.

“Cease,” she whispered as his hand squeezed her waist. She didn’t need the distraction. Events were progressing down on the plain. Manfred’s cupbearer jogged across the sand toward the dragon master, a ceremonial chest tucked beneath his arm like a suckling pig. Going down on one knee, the youth extended it toward the man.

Not wanting to miss a detail, Joscela whispered an invocation to extend the focus of her vision. The magic snapped into place with spyglass clarity, bringing the scene closer. A muscle ticked in the keeper’s jaw as he stared at the cupbearer’s offering. The chest was electrum and heavily enchanted, the alloy of gold and silver good for retaining spells. When the keeper opened the flowery lid, slender beams of light spoked out.

Involuntary gasps broke out as people identified the object the beams came from. Nestled within the padded red velvet was a quartz crystal sphere. Joscela would have given her right arm—at least temporarily—for ten minutes alone with it. That clear orb contained the blueprint for the proposed Pocket: the magical rules by which it would be governed, its capacity for expansion. As Manfred’s staunchest opposition, Joscela hadn’t been invited to participate in planning. He and his cronies wanted to stack the new territory’s deck in their own favor, to suit their own agendas. Though this was to be expected, the exclusion offended her more than any of Manfred’s slights.

To ignore the genius of a mind like hers was criminal.

Manfred was too enamored with his grand experiment to consider how dangerous humans were. The race seemed weak and easily dazzled compared to fae, but their very susceptibility to fae glamour seduced their superiors. Mixed blood children brought shame to proud families—nor were Joscela’s concerns theoretical. Just as fae had been trapped beyond the Veil when it dropped, humans had been trapped here. Her sensibilities rebelled at the results. Pure humans could be useful, but halves? And quarters? They were a mockery of what fae were supposed to be, always causing trouble or getting into it.

As a wise fae once said, a little power is a dangerous thing.

The dragon master removed the crystal from its nest of velvet.

The dragon nosed it, smart enough to be curious. Joscela wondered how the keeper felt to stand so close to the ancient beast. She’d never had a dragon. Once every queen possessed one, but their number had dwindled by the era in which she’d assumed the throne. Some compared the creatures to dolphins in intelligence, others to small children. Though they couldn’t speak, they understood commands. Crucial to tonight’s proceedings was the magic that packed each cell of their huge bodies. Pure magic. Old magic. The very magic the one-time gods used to form fae reality. Never mind combatting poison or piercing good armor, the spell power within one dragon could create or destroy worlds.

Compared to that, burning enemy villages couldn’t measure up. Every hatchling was a weapon someone, someday wouldn’t be able to resist deploying.

Though the dragon’s playful nudge nearly pushed him over, the dragon master didn’t scold or shove her off. Perhaps he couldn’t bear to with so little time remaining. He braced his back leg instead, closed his eyes, and composed himself.

As if sensing the seriousness of the situation, T’Fain settled back onto her forelimbs. Her keeper held the sphere between them. As he connected his mind to it, the crystal began to glow. The detail Manfred and his cohorts had encoded into the quartz soon poured into him. The keeper’s eyes moved behind their lids. Unlike inferior races, pureblood fae could grasp immense amounts of knowledge, each bit as clear and accurate as the rest. This dragon master’s lineage endowed him with yet another skill: the ability to communicate with his charge telepathically.

The dragon’s wings twitched as the river of information hit her awareness. Fortunately, like her keeper, she could hold it. Comprehension wasn’t needed, only accepting what was sent. The beast seemed to be doing exactly that. Her upper and lower lids closed over her ruby eyes.

At last the transfer was complete. The keeper set the empty crystal on the cracked sand, then gently clasped the dragon’s cart-size muzzle. The creature blinked as if emerging from a dream.

“Be,” the keeper said softly in High Fae. “Be what I have shown you.”

He let go and stepped back. T’Fain shook her body and raised her wings, not for flight but in display. The keeper retreated faster. Despite her misgivings, Joscela couldn’t deny a thrill. It wasn’t every day one witnessed new realities being born. The dragon tilted her great bronze head as if listening to faint music. Joscela’s heart thumped behind her ribs. If she’d been in the beast’s position, she’d have been screaming or belching flame. The dragon didn’t seem upset, merely attentive. The keeper turned and ran.
Joscela wasn’t prepared. Possibly no one was.

Like a star exploding, a blinding brilliance replaced the bronze dragon. The power blasted Joscela’s hair back, and her ship jerked to the end of its anchor line. She couldn’t tell if the tether snapped, because her senses were overwhelmed. Lightning swallowed the world around her, rainbow sparks dancing in the white. Her ears rang with alien chords. The air was so thick with power it felt like feathers against her skin.
He’s killed us, she thought. The dragon keeper wanted us all to die.

Even as this possibility arose, the sight-stealing radiance ebbed. Her vessel was still aloft, still anchored, though she’d been knocked onto her ass on the wooden deck. Everyone around her had, from what she could see through her watering eyes.
Ignoring the disarray of her long silk gown, she stumbled to the railing to see what had transpired below. The scene she discovered made her smile unexpectedly. Manfred’s fancy throne had toppled over with him in it. He didn’t appear hurt, but half a dozen shaky soldiers vied comically with each other to help him up. Everywhere she looked, fae pushed dazedly to their feet. The dragon was gone. Her death had produced that great white light.

Joscela focused on the spot where T'Fain had been standing. Beside her, Ceallach pulled himself up as well.

“Look,” he said, a note of grudging awe in his voice. “The new portal is forming.”

She’d already seen what caught his attention. The opening was round or would be when it finished coalescing. Years might pass before the doorway was mature enough to use. For now, streaks of green and brown and blue swirled like clouds within the aperture. Though she’d had no part in its design, she understood what was happening. The essence of the realm of Faerie was outfolding into the human world, blending with it to form a combined reality bubble. Silver glimmered and then disappeared at the top of the portal’s ring—a pair of dragon wings taking shape, she thought.

“The sacrifice succeeded,” she observed, though this was obvious.

“The dragon master should find that some comfort.”

“That presumes comfort matters. The last living reason for his bloodline’s existence was just wiped out. The protectors among the Guild can hire out as mercenaries. Gods know what purpose he and his kin will find.”

Ceallach put his hand on her arm, and they gazed at the man together. The dragon’s trainer had run as far as he could from the explosion. Now he stood on the sand, a solitary figure looking grimly back toward the forming door. Char marks streaked his face and leathers, as if he alone had passed through real fire. The soot obscured his expression, but still . . .

“Shouldn’t he be more devastated?” she asked Ceallach quietly.

When she glanced at her companion, one corner of his mouth tugged up. His nearly white eyes met hers, and the grin deepened. “I believe he should, my queen.”

Joscela’s heart skipped a beat. “Perhaps the rumors are true.”

“Perhaps they are.”

Though willing to believe almost anything of her kind, Joscela had discounted the whispers as wishful conspiracy theories. If they were true, however . . . If more dragon eggs existed, hidden away by the fae whose calling it had always been to train them . . .
If that were true, all might not be lost. Joscela could transform her present disgrace into victory. She could undo everything Manfred had accomplished. As to that, she could undo him.

The increasing warmth at her side told her Ceallach had shifted closer. Unwilling to risk any associate but him hearing, she spoke in a spell-hushed voice.

“We must discover everything we can about this dragon master.”

“Yes, my queen,” Ceallach agreed in the same fashion.

He laid his hand over hers on the silver rail. They were royals—cool thinking and strategic. It wasn’t their way to let their emotions run rampant. Nonetheless, both their palms were damp with excitement.

“We’ll have our work cut out for us,” she said, meaning the caution for herself as much as her confidante. “The Dragon Guild is as good at keeping secrets as the nobility.”

“Better.” Ceallach flashed a wolfish grin. “Nobles come and go. Dragon masters have survived whoever sat on the high throne. If someone held back a clutch, it won’t be easily discovered.”

Joscela longed to grin in return. She could always count on Ceallach relishing a challenge. Instead, she returned her gaze to the chaotic scene below, her expression carefully composed to queenly placidity.

“Good thing we have forever to rewrite destiny,” she observed.

© 2013 by Emma Holly. It is illegal to reproduce or distribute this work in any manner or medium without written permission of the author.

 

Do you believe in dragons? Werewolf cop Rick Lupone would say no . . . until a dying faerie tells him the fate of his city depends on him. If he can’t protect a mysterious woman in peril, everything may be lost. The only discovery more shocking is that the woman he’s meant to save is his high school crush, Cass Maycee.

Half fae Cass didn’t earn her Snow White nickname by chance. All her life, her refusal to abuse fae glamour kept men like Rick at arm’s length. Now something new is waking up inside her, a secret heritage her pureblood father kept her in the dark about. Letting it out might kill her, but keeping it hidden is no longer an option. The dragons’ ancient enemies are moving. If they find the prize before Rick and Cass, the supe-friendly city of Resurrection just might cease to exist.

“I have fallen in love with Emma Holly’s Hidden series and all its characters.”—Joyfully Reviewed

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