Sitting by the campfire, Val looked at her father and then at Cyrus, and then back again. For hours she’d been trying to determine which was genuine and which was Uryen in another’s form. She should be sleeping, she should rest for the day ahead, but how could she sleep knowing one of her companions was an impostor but not being able to tell which one?
Her father acted like her father. He was angry that she’d run away and determined to protect her. It didn’t help that he had always been stoic. Perhaps if he’d been a talkative man she’d have been able to catch him in a mistake. Instead, he mostly glared and scowled. And occasionally growled. Typical. She tried to think of a question that might trip up a phony, but nothing seemed quite right. General Tearlach Merin was well known in Columbyana. It would not have been difficult for Uryen to study the details of his life, both public and private.
Cyrus was, well, Cyrus. He was sheepish on occasion, and was openly intimidated by the great General Merin. He seemed genuine enough, but Uryen had fooled her before where the farmer’s son was concerned.
When the demon took on the form of another, did she take on anything more than simple form? Perhaps she knew their thoughts, or took on their true personalities. How was she to know?
Kitty was no help at all. She could sense Uryen was present, but could not tell which man was the demon in disguise. They were all under some spell of confusion, cast by the demon.
Why had Uryen not attacked yet? The demon wanted the sword, that much was clear, and she had powers of some sort that might help her when it came time to attack two humans, whether those two were a young warrior and her much more experienced father, or a young warrior and a farmer’s son. So, why the delay?
“Afraid of what?” Val whispered.
Afraid of you. And me.
“Well, what’s she waiting for?”
The right time.
“There have been opportunities for her to…you know.”
She doesn’t just want to kill you; she wants to be you. She wants to control me, wear your face, and lead the men you are destined to command into a war they cannot win.
Val’s heart almost stopped. She could see that scenario too well, and it was a horror. “I can’t allow that to happen.”
Val pursed her lips when both her father and Cyrus looked at her as if she might be talking to them, even though she kept her voice very low. They didn’t ask for clarification, though. If her father was her father, he would know of all the sword’s powers. She hadn’t told Cyrus the sword spoke to her and she talked back, but he’d probably figured it out by now. He was, on occasion, astute.
Again she asked, “What’s she waiting for?”
Kitty was silent for a moment, as if searching for the answer. Finally, she said, her voice trembling, She waits for her demon sisters. I do not know why.
Val was exhausted, and dawn would be here soon. How could she sleep when a demon who wanted her dead was in her camp?
I do not sleep. I will wake you if you are needed.
Great. The only being in her camp she could trust was a thing.
Not just a thing, Kitty responded, even though Val had not spoken aloud. I am more than a thing. I have a soul. I have a purpose. I was created for you.
A chill walked up Val’s spine.
She did not want to say the words aloud, so again she thought, Are you the promised one created?
Kitty did not answer, not as she had in the past, but she did vibrate at a new level. She hummed. She sang.
* * *
Pax soared over the mountain, staying closer to the ground than he normally did. He moved fast; his long body slithered and his tail whipped. Over trees, around ridges, he flew. He’d slept too long, then he’d lingered at the campsite a while, pondering what he’d do when he found Linara. There was no rush to begin his search. He would find her, no matter where she tried to hide.
He’d not been looking for her long, even though it was well past midnight. He could smell Linara on the path, in the trees, in the very stone. He smelled her so keenly he had no doubt that he could find her in any corner of the world.
She’d come to his home to kill him, but she had not. Not yet. She had the blood of a demon inside her, could kill an ordinary man with a kiss, could manipulate water and stone and gods only knew what else. If anyone could take his life, it was she.
She had stolen his sword. Had she known that would send him after her? Was that part of her plan?
Demon. Assassin. Thief.
And his. To the pit of his soul, Linara was his.
He could sense that the single surviving Caradon he also sought had been along this trail hours earlier. In search of Linara? Perhaps. His first thought was that she could defend herself since she had his sword. His second was that she did not need his sword to kill.
The path he followed in his search skirted the edge of the mountain. He flew dangerously close to two tall and jagged rock walls where there was a cave too small for him when he was in his natural state. He’d slept there a time or two as a man. He knew every crevice, every cranny of these mountains.
There was no place to hide from him.
Suddenly he smelled Linara more sharply than before.
She wasn’t running away from him, but toward him. She grew closer; he heard her breath come hard and when he listened to it, he heard her heart pounding. She was in a hurry. Why was she rushing up the mountain?
He was about to find out.
She ran around the corner, saw him, and stopped. He flapped his wings once, beginning his ascent. It was a natural reaction, to move away from her sword, to place himself into an optimal position to rain fire upon her. With a sudden and powerful burst, Linara ran toward him, shouting. Screaming, “No!”
He no longer wondered why she’d come back. His stolen sword was raised against him as she rushed directly into his path, as she ran beneath his left wing and swung wildly.
The agony was intense, the weakness immediate. How had she known he was vulnerable there? No one knew. No one could know. Once the dragon hunters had discovered their weakness, it had signaled the end of his kind. How had she found…?
Ah, yes. Demon.
A sharp pain seared through him as he dropped down so hard the mountain shuddered, as what felt like his own fire whipped down his side, through his entire body. The dragon could not fly, not like this. He looked at Linara, prepared to breathe fire upon her, and then he saw her face. Through a dragon’s eyes, she was sharply in focus, the colors of the rainbow in and around her, the tears in her eyes and on her face sparkling like diamonds. He held the flame and turned away from her. Was this a demon’s trick? A woman’s trick?
Her words reached him through a fog of pain. “Do not fly. Do not breathe fire into the night sky. He thinks you’re dead.” Linara dropped his sword and reached out her hands to touch his wing, to caress near to where she’d cut him. “I’m sorry. So sorry, but…”
He turned his head and she looked directly, without fear or hate, into his eye.
“I can’t let him kill you. He sent me; he sent the Caradon. He will send someone else if he thinks I failed.”
Pax dropped down, resting his wounded wing on the ground, laying his head on the stony path. Any sane woman would run. Linara had accomplished what she’d set out to do. He was grounded until his wing could heal. He was not dead, but he was worthless. She could finish him in short order, and with his own sword. The sword she’d discarded.
Instead of running away, as any right-thinking human would have, Linara sat beside him, leaning into him. Her hands caressed his neck. “You are so beautiful,” she whispered. “As a man, as a dragon…you are magnificent. It would be beyond evil to remove you from this world.” She kissed him, placed her soft lips against his scaly neck. He had not thought he’d ever feel such a gentle touch there, but he did. “Let me protect you. Let me keep you safe.”
Pax closed his eyes. He would heal quicker in his natural form. He wasn’t sure how bad the wound would be if he shifted into his human body now. Linara rested against him. She had wounded him, and for that he should cook her. But she had apparently done so in a foolish attempt to save him.
When he was human again, they would talk. There had been far too much unsaid between them.
The sky began to lighten, a dull gray that signaled morning was coming. Linara held on, and soon she slept. Eventually, so did he.
* * *
Linara dreamed of killing Naal, and woke shivering even though the sun was high in the sky and the air was mild, almost warm. Still, she shivered.
The pack of Caradon had been sent to kill Pax. Naal would have murdered her without regret. He’d deserved nothing but death, and yet she did regret taking his life. In spite of who she was, despite the demon blood within her, she had never before killed anyone or anything. Was her aura darker now? Was she unredeemable?
She curled into a ball against Pax’s neck. When she had seen him spread his wings to rise she’d acted on instinct, bringing him down. It would not do for anyone to see the dragon in the night sky. If Stasio realized that the images she had shared with him were false, not only would he send someone — or something — else for Pax, Sophie Fyne Varden and everyone else Linara loved would be in danger.
Yes, loved. The circumstances of her conception and birth should have made it impossible for her, but she did love. Her mother, her father, her entire family. She loved and was loved. She had been surrounded by love all her life. There had been times when her jealousy had overwhelmed that love, but she could no longer deny the power of it.
Pax, the dragon and the man, she loved him, too.
She would never tell. What man or beast could love what she was? Maybe one day, if the witch Lyssa could truly remove the darkness of the demon from her as she had done for others, love might be possible for her. Maybe one day, if she could be certain the poison within her was gone, a man might wish to claim her as his own. She wanted to be cherished, the way Kane Varden cherished Sophie Fyne. She wanted a love for the ages.
Was such a miracle even possible for her? Was being the first, the most powerful, the one for whom an entire class of demon was named…could that be stripped away?
Most powerful. Ha. She did not feel powerful, she never had.
Pax opened his eyes. Well, he opened the one she could see from her vantage point, at least. She could not be sure about the other. It was a beautiful eye, dark like those of the man she knew, but also alive with red and orange and yellow, as if his fire somehow lived there.
She stroked his neck with one hand. Heavens, she liked the feel of him. Man or dragon, she could not get enough of touching him. The colors of his scales were much like the mountain pond where they had made love. Blue and green, sparkling in a way nothing else could. “If I knew with any certainty that you understood, I would leave now. I have a job to do. Kill Stasio. Make sure my family is safe. Perhaps find the witch who might…” Fix her? Cure her? She wasn’t sure. “Then, if you will have me, I can return. You asked me to stay with you, once. Knowing what you know now, would you ask again?”
She could read no answer in his eye.
“I will die if he kills you.”
It was the truth, a hard admission to make.
Could she leave him here? Could she protect him at all costs? If the prophecies were correct, if Stasio had been right, Pax was necessary for the end of the war, for the defeat of the daughters of the Isen Demon like her.
“I have much to tell you when you are a man again, and I’m certain you understand.” Maybe he could understand her now. Maybe not. “Heal, Pax. Heal, and then we will decide what to do. Together.”
The rain promised by last night’s clouds began to fall. Pax’s wounded wing fluttered up and down again, sheltering her from the cold, gentle drops. Raindrops rolled off his wing and dropped to the ground, but she remained dry.
She still did not know with certainty how he felt about her, but his protection from the elements was a good sign.