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Dragonstone Dance by Linda Winstead Jones (1)

Chapter 1

The twentieth year of the reign of Emperor Nechtyn Jahn Calcus Sadwyn Beckyt

Demons came and demons went. Linara, sitting with her back to the wall, watched the crowd in the tavern. Lately, more demons – half demons like her – had come. The war was hurtling toward an end and they all felt it. A few had run away from the fight, but more wanted to be a part of it.

None of them could feel what the final outcome would be, and still they came.

No men were in the tavern tonight. While they had joined the demon side of the fight, they were naturally nervous when such a large crowd gathered together. The energy was like lightning. Even a human could feel it.

A newcomer, a pretty girl of twenty years – as they all were – approached Linara with a smug smile. A nervous redhead trailed behind her. “So you are the great Ksana,” the new girl said.

“I prefer to be called Linara.” Neither her voice nor her face revealed any emotion. To be honest, she preferred not to be called at all, not by her sisters or the soldiers who had aligned themselves with this dark side, but it was impossible to be invisible in such a crowded place.

The newly arrived demon tossed a glance over her shoulder to look at her companion. “She does not look at all powerful.”

Linara stood slowly. All the women in her vicinity instinctively backed away. She had found no extraordinary powers, nothing to live up to her reputation as the first born and most powerful. But they did not know with certainty what she could do. Her reputation, as well as her close relationship with Stasio, the dark wizard who commanded them all, protected her.

Without a word, Linara made her way through the crowd. It parted for her.

What would they do if they knew the only power she’d discovered within herself was a bit of telepathy?

She stepped into the cool night and rounded the noisy building. Laughter and voices were muted, and for that she was thankful.

Alone at last, Linara stood well back from the tavern, looking over the rooftop and toward the mountains in the distance. The full moon was just a few days past, and generous moonlight lit the alternating harsh stone and lush green of the mountaintop. It was a soothing sight, promising a kind of paradise close and yet not close enough. Each night for the past year, since she’d come to this village in the Northern Province of Columbyana, she’d stepped outside soon after dark and waited. Some nights she only had to wait minutes. Other nights she waited for hours.

She didn’t mind waiting; she had all the time in the world.

Linara Varden, daughter of a demon and adopted daughter of Sophie and Kane Varden, was a small part of a powerful army that had been four years in the making. A year ago, this village had been deemed an appropriate plot of land to claim as their own. It was isolated, well away from the larger towns and the capital city of Arthes. The former inhabitants had fled, unable to stand against the dangerous invaders.

Stasio — the dark wizard who had appointed himself leader of the daughters of the Isen Demon — wanted control of Columbyana handed to the half-demons, and to himself as their proxy, of course. He believed that by virtue of their power alone, they deserved it. The emperor, his soldiers, and his people thought otherwise. The emperor’s forces hadn’t yet amassed their full might on this village. Linara knew it wouldn’t be long. She felt it.

There were moments, days even, when she considered leaving this place for good. Her mother — the woman who had adopted her soon after birth — would welcome her home. Of that, she had no doubt. At the thought of Sophie Fyne Varden, Linara touched the small pink stone that hung around her neck. She caressed the stone, gave thanks for it, and cursed it at the same time. The amulet, blessed by Sophie and her sisters, made Linara different from others of her kind. It had thus far kept her from becoming a killer who drained lives to feed her own.

She suspected the amulet which made it possible for her to survive without killing also muted any powers she might possess.

And still, she did not remove it. Not yet.

Linara had always felt apart from her demon sisters, and the reason was no secret. She was both demon and beloved daughter. She hated and she loved.

On this night, she didn’t have to wait long for that which she most desired to see. Above the eastward mountain peak, far in the distance, it appeared. There wasn’t much more than a speck at first, but then a flickering tendril of flame turned into an impressive inferno that illuminated, too briefly, the dragon who had spit that fire into the night sky.

One born, one hatched, one created. Fourteen years ago, it had been prophesied that those three would be required to defeat the daughters of the Isen Demon.

Stasio claimed that the dragon was the “one hatched.” While there were other shifters who had the ability to fly, they had been born. They were humans who could take a form not their own, not a true beast of the air. If the humans ever brought the dragon to their side of this war, the effects would be devastating. Linara and her sisters were hard to kill, but they could – and did – die. Beheading or fire, those were certain methods of death, even for a half-demon. A dragon’s flame would do nicely, she imagined.

Stasio also said General Merin’s daughter was the one born. That made no sense to Linara, though she did accept it as truth. She’d learned not to disregard Stasio’s knowledge and wishes. The wizard had impressive powers. Still, she could not be afraid of a human child. Who would be?

Not even Stasio knew who or what the one created might be.

As if he had known she was thinking of him — and perhaps he had — Stasio rounded the building, his eyes on her. He was old enough to be her father, but there was nothing fatherly about him. She knew what a real father was like. Kane Varden had shown her, all the days of her life. Dark haired with even features and a slender body, the wizard might be viewed as ordinary enough if not for his eyes, which were dark as a moonless night and swimming with evil. He possessed magic, as Sophie had, but his magic was dark. Stasio had the power to look into Linara’s head, to rummage through her thoughts, to visit her in her dreams and in her waking hours.

More than anything, he wished for her to find and embrace whatever demonic powers she possessed. He insisted they were within her, waiting to be awakened and released. He had been oddly patient with her. What did he know that he had not told her?

The amulet she wore made it possible for Linara to survive without taking the lives of others, but it did nothing to take away the poison. She would never lie with a man, never have a child, never know what it was like to love as her parents had. Never.

So why did she pretend that she was different from the others?

Looking squarely at Stasio, she caressed the amulet, held on tight, and then yanked hard. The thin chain bit into her neck and then snapped. Without a second thought, she tossed it away into the brush at the edge of this cursed village.

“I’m ready to play my part.”

The relief on Stasio’s face was evident. “I knew you would feel it when the time was right.”

A part of her, a small part, wanted to rush into the dark brush and find the stone she’d tossed away so impulsively. Unless she retrieved the amulet and returned it to its place around her neck, she would soon need to kill to survive. Perhaps tomorrow the hunger would come. Perhaps it would not come for a week or even a month. The Ksana demons were all different in that regard, and she did not know what her requirements would be.

“You will kill the dragon,” Stasio said. “That is your destiny. I have seen it in my dreams.”

Linara had the fleeting thought that it would be wrong to kill such a magnificent creature. Were there more of its kind in the world, or was it the only one? She had no way of knowing, but at the very least it was a rare creature. She had never seen or heard of another.

When she stood here and watched the dragon each night, she was not only studying flight and flame patterns and trying to discern which mountain the beast called home, she was admiring the strength and beauty of him. Her. It. Who could know?

Stasio reached out and grabbed her upper arm, holding on too tight. Linara glared at that hand with disdain, then looked up and into those evil eyes. He might try to scare her, but she knew no fear. She never had.

“I did not give you permission to touch me, wizard.”

He didn’t drop his hand as he should’ve. “I did not give you permission to look upon the dragon with anything other than ill intent.”

She could block Stasio from her mind, but it had taken years of practice and still required effort. Whether he was near or far, he slipped in too easily as if he belonged there, as if he had a right to pry. Linara did not block him now. Instead, she thought of kissing him, of laying her mouth on his and draining the life from him. She thought of holding him to her until there was nothing left. Nothing but skin and bones and an empty pile of clothing. She made a point to think of the black glove that touched her laying atop the gray clothing he now wore.

He wanted her to embrace her demon side. Why not show it to him?

He released her as if he had been burned. It was difficult to tell in this light, but she was almost positive he paled.

Stasio had lured her from home, and then he had nurtured the monster in her. He did not wish to be her first victim.

“You’ve always said slaying the dragon was my destiny, but you have never said how I might accomplish such a task. How do you expect me to kill such a beast?”

“You will find a way,” he said.

“Do you expect me to walk into those mountains without a plan?” Without an army?

“I do. I can send a hired swordsman with you, if you’d like. You might have need of one before you reach your destination.”

Not for his sword, she realized, but for his essence. Someone to serve as her first victim.

“I can only spare one,” Stasio added. “The emperor’s army grows closer.”

It was entirely possible — no, it was almost certain — that she had cousins in that army. Perhaps even a brother or a nephew. None of them would be blood relatives, of course. Only her demon sisters could be considered related by blood. Still, for sixteen of her twenty years, the children and grandchildren of the Fyne sisters had been her family.

Linara accepted who she was; she would learn to embrace her true nature, but if she came face to face with someone she had once considered family…

They were not her family, not anymore.

“I’ll go alone, and I leave tonight.” Again, she considered taking a detour through the brush to collect her amulet, but she did not.

The witch who had taken her in as a baby might’ve loved her as a child, but no one who embraced light and goodness and life could truly love the demon inside her. Yes, it was past time to put Linara behind her and become Ksana.

It was past time to kill the dragon.

* * *

Many women were considered fully grown at thirteen. Thirteen and a half, to be precise. In a couple of years, she might legally marry, not that she had any intention of doing so. Ever.

Besides, she wasn’t merely a woman. Valora Belia Merin was a soldier. A warrior. She was tall and strong, trained from the age of five to wield a sword and a spear as well as any soldier. Better than most, her father said. She also handled a bow and arrow with uncanny expertise. When she fought, her eyes took on the many hues of a vivid rainbow, or so she had been told. It wasn’t as if she could watch herself fight in a mirror. She was cursed with her father’s curly dark hair, but her face was shaped much like her mother’s, and when she was not fighting her eyes were Bela green.

According to the mystics who’d foretold of her coming, she was nearly indestructible. That nearly had given her mother, Bela Merin, fits for the past thirteen years. She mentioned the annoying word often.

One born, one hatched, one created. Val Merin was the one born. Her father was curious about who the others were and where they might be, but Val was not. She might never know them, might never see them. Her part of the war might be fought in a different part of the country than the others so vaguely named in the prophecy. The “one hatched” was curious, she would admit, and the “one created” was too vague. Everything and everyone were created, in one way or another. She could not concern herself with either of them.

The prophecy was old, older than she was. It had been delivered by a wizard to Val’s parents months before her birth, but she got the feeling that it was even older than that. Much older. Not that it mattered.

She was ready. The war had been going on for years, and still she had simply trained for battle. When she wasn’t engaged in training, she waited impatiently, twiddling her thumbs, helping to care for her brothers and sisters, learning to cook…as if she would ever be called upon to prepare a meal. Food was merely for survival. Give her roasted meat and oatcakes and figs, and she could happily live on them forever. She needed nothing more complicated or time-consuming to assuage her hunger.

Val was ready, but the sword she had been hearing about all her life had not appeared. Her mother insisted that it would not be time for her to fight until Kitty showed up.

Kitty. What a ridiculous name for a sword! Of course, to hear Bela Merin tell it, the sword had named herself.

It was time. Val knew it to the depths of her soul. If Kitty wouldn’t come to her, then she’d have to fetch the sword herself.

Her mother would be so annoyed when she woke in the morning and found that her eldest daughter had left during the night. Her father…she didn’t know if her father would be proud or furious. Probably both. They thought she was meant to lead an army, and perhaps that was true. But this first mission, this first fight, was for her alone.

One thing she knew without a doubt. Her father would follow. It was for that reason that Val could not stop. Not to sleep, not to eat. She would only stop to rest her sturdy and steadfast mare. Snowflake should not suffer for Val’s decisions.

It was possible that if her father caught up with her, he would offer to assist. It was also possible that he would order her home.

A destined warrior should not have to follow the commands of an overprotective father.

Val looked toward Forbidden Mountain from her place on the road. It was the easternmost mountain in a vast range that seemed to go on forever. Well to the west the Mountains of the North, where Anwyn and Caradon made their homes, rose much higher than the mountain ahead of her.

She was well-armed and had packed enough provisions for several days, and so far her journey was off to a good start. The bright moon lit her way. She’d enjoy riding while she could, as she’d have to leave Snowflake behind before starting her trek up the mountainside. Not even a horse as surefooted as the beloved mare could handle those twists and turns. Val had many cousins in the Turi village at the foot of the mountain. One or more of them would care for her horse while she collected Kitty. They would keep her secret.

They would keep her secret because she was older than they were. She was a leader; they looked up to her. Truth be told, they were also a little scared of her. It was the legend, her demeanor, the wild hair she could not tame, the way her eyes flickered…and an impressive stare she had worked to hone. A death stare, her youngest brother called it.

A stare could not possibly be of any help in the situations that awaited her.

Somewhere in those mountains there waited a daughter of the Isen Demon named Uryen. As a child, Uryen had plotted to stop Val’s conception. That was a story she had heard too many times, and ewww, she did not want to think about her own conception. Not that she was ignorant of how it had taken place. She had two brothers and two sisters, so she also knew that her parents had not been chaste since her birth. That didn’t mean she wanted to imagine the two of them…again, ewww.

Best to think of Uryen, a child of the Isen Demon, who wanted her dead. A supposedly powerful child of the demon who stood between Val and Kitty. Uryen would be a fully grown woman now. Did she still wait there in the mountains? Was a girl not yet old enough to marry still the focus of a demon’s anger?

Val shook off the unexpected tickle of fear that ran along her spine. “I am not afraid,” she whispered to the moon above. She squared her shoulders and kept her eyes on the mountain top that was her destination. She would not be afraid of what waited there.

She was powerful, too.