Breath of Dragons (A Pandoran Novel) (3 page)

We sat in a somewhat comfortable silence, listening to the fire crackle and wood snap and pop while the wind whispered through the trees. It was a lonely sound, a cold and melancholy sound, and it made me think of my father.

Nothing would ever fill the void his absence had left, nor did I want it to. And not a day had passed that I didn't think about him. But he was no longer there. Not anymore. I couldn't run to him for comfort or find security in his strong embrace.

I couldn't tell him how much I loved him.

I could wait as long as I wanted, but he would never come back. For the very first time in my life, he had traveled to a place so far it was completely beyond my reach.

Alex glanced back at me. The look in his eyes was tender, comforting and loving. I smiled at him and he smiled back, and it helped me deal with the pain. I didn't think a person could ever be the same after losing a parent. I was who I was because of my father, because of his unconditional love and support and faith. From the day I had come into this world, he'd helped mold me and shape me into the person that I had become, and in me, he lived. He would always live.

The shadows were dark now, and Vera still hadn't returned. I glanced over at our horses idly standing nearby.

"What is it?" Alex asked.

"Vera's not back." I scooped up the bindingbooks and stood.

He looked up at me. "Where are you going?"

"To find her."

Alex grabbed my ankle. "I'm sure she's fine. Vera knows what she's doing."

That comment hurt a little, though I didn't want it to. He hadn't in any way intended for his words to make me feel a sense of inferiority, but they did. I snatched up my canteen as well, forcing a smile. "Good, then she can show me where to fill this."

He started to get up. "I'll do it—"

"No." I cut him off, placing my hand on his shoulder and holding him down. "I need to move anyway. I'm not used to being in the saddle all day, and my legs are stiff."

He studied me a moment, and then his eyes trailed to my leg where my dagger rested in its decorative sheath—a sheath that had been ornamented by an obsidian rook. The rook had been a gift, but I refused to let my mind wander anywhere near the giver.

Alex released my ankle with a sigh. "Hurry back, all right?"

I rolled my eyes then asked, "Want me to fill yours, too?"

He shook his head. "I'm good, thanks."

I shoved the bindingbooks back in my pack, stroked Calyx's nose, and headed into the trees. The minute I left our sphere of warmth, I felt an overwhelming sense of cold. It went beyond the cold of winter and the chill of impending night. Except for the wind howling through the treetops, the forest was quiet, and the deepening shadows made it difficult to see.

I didn't care how capable Alex thought Vera was; it was unlike her to be out like this. I made my way around an outcropping of giant rocks and reached a narrow stream. Clear water bubbled over smooth stones gathered in a shallow crevice in the earth.

But there was no sign of Vera.

"Vera?" I called out.

Nothing.

The wind howled again, and the trees around me creaked as they bent and swayed. My heart beat a little bit faster. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

"Vera?" I tried again.

"Yes?"

I jumped and spun around, my heart pounding. Vera stood right behind me with her brow arched like a gull in flight, and she had her canteen in her hand.

"Is everything all right?" she asked.

Adrenaline flooded my body while I tried calming myself. "Yes. I'm fine, I was just… I thought something…"

"Worried?" Her smile was wry. "It's not
me
we need to worry about, princess."

I filled my canteen and my heart steadily calmed. The water was so cold I was surprised it hadn't frozen over yet. Perhaps tonight it would. Once my canteen was full, the two of us headed back to Alex and the horses.

Vera still wore a smirk upon her face, like the thought of anything bad happening to her was the most preposterous thing she'd ever heard. But I still felt unsettled. Maybe it was because she'd scared the living daylights out of me. Or maybe it was because there really was something out there.

We reached the glow of the fire just as the last bit of daylight disappeared. Alex looked between us, and when his eyes settled on me, he looked very relieved. Vera said something, but I didn't hear what. My focus had been stolen from me and redirected toward movement in forest. The faintest patches of cold, sliding through the night like ghosts.

"Guys…"

"—brought an extra blanket," Alex was saying.

"I'm fine, Alexander." Vera rolled her eyes. "Give it to the princess. She's delicate."

"Guys!"

Both of them looked up at me.

"There's something out here."

Alex took a few steps forward, and his eyes narrowed as they fastened on the darkness behind me.

Vera grumbled, annoyed. "There's nothing—"

Calyx brayed as the other two horses shifted, jerking their heads up and down.

Air whizzed and I dodged just as something whirred past my ear, sinking in the tree beside me. There, protruding from the bark, was a black shaft with very familiar black feathers.

Shadowguard.

Chapter 2

A Different Path

 

 

S
hadows materialized in the darkness.

Black armor glinted as the shadowguard moved steadily and silently through the trees, pressing in toward us. There had to be at least of dozen of them, moving closer and closer. We were surrounded. In the firelight, I could see a few bows drawn, shining black arrowheads pointed at us, daring us to move.

"To the horses, on my mark," Alex said low enough for only Vera and me to hear.

The horses were shrieking now, raking at the ground. They wanted to run, but they were Gaian horses; they wouldn't leave us. Not that they could penetrate the approaching circle of shadowguard.

And they were pressing in. They were just a few yards from our horses now.

"
Alex
," I said through clenched teeth.

"Wait…" he said. Energy swelled from him, hotter and hotter until it exploded through me in a blast of sizzling air.

A wall of bright blue light stretched between the shadowguard and us, reining us in like the fence of a corral.

"Now!" Alex yelled.

We sprinted to the horses. Shadowguard loosed arrows, but when they hit the wall, they ricocheted back into the trees. The wall was already beginning to fade when we leapt into the saddles, and it vanished completely right as we kicked our horses into a run. And we ran them right through the enclosing circle of shadowguard.

We bounded into the woods, jerking around trees at speeds bordering suicidal. It took all my concentration to hang on to Calyx. I leaned into him, mirroring his movements while low branches ripped at my cloak and hair, slapping my face like tiny whips. I had no idea where we were headed, but we stuck together, hooves pounding in the night while we tried losing the shadowguard.

But apparently, they'd brought horses.

They rode steeds black as night, snorts and snarls audible amidst the thrum of beating hooves. It was as though a storm barreled through the forest, a black fog rolling in from behind and stretching deadly fingers on either side of us.

Another arrow whizzed.

I leaned left as a whoosh of air grazed my cheek, and the arrow vanished into the blur of trees on my left. Alex and Parsec were a few strides in front of us. He glanced back to make sure Vera and I followed, and then he and Parsec leapt over a fallen tree.

They landed fluidly upon an open road that cut perpendicular to the path we'd been running, and Alex veered Parsec left. Calyx leapt right after, and I braced myself for impact. A few seconds of flight, and we hit. We struck ground harder than I'd expected, and I slammed into the saddle as pain shot up my tailbone and spine. A soft thud sounded behind me as Nimarra landed.

The night erupted with "hyas" and the rolling thunder of horse hooves, and I looked back. Behind us, a little farther down the road from where we'd emerged from the trees, about a dozen more shadowguard galloped after us.

"Alex!" I yelled.

"I know!" he yelled back.

Fear clawed its way through me, but it wasn't just my fear. Vera's was there, too, swelling and twisting inside of me. We could not escape so many of them. Our only chance would be to outrun them, but at the moment, that wasn't looking so good.

Energy surged from Vera. A spark illuminated a few feet behind her, then arched through the air toward the pursuing shadowguard. The spark diffused as it soared, opening up like a net, stretching toward the shadowguard in front, who had an arrow nocked. The shadowguard's arrow loosed just as the net collapsed, encapsulating both he and his horse.

"Vera, down!" I yelled, and Vera ducked right as the stray arrow zipped over her head.

The shadowguard, whom Vera had wrapped in light, jerked and struggled to break free while his horse's high, keening scream tore through the darkness. And then both rider and horse exploded in a cloud of light and black shards.

They were gone as though they'd never existed.

But the rest of the shadowguard kept coming, and by the looks of it, they were gaining on us.

Out of nowhere, a black mass rammed into my side and Calyx brayed, jerking so hard to the right I almost slid out of the saddle. I cinched my legs down and gripped the reins as though they alone were my string of fate. Calyx struggled against our attacker, pushing back against the shadowguard's horse with my leg jammed between their saddles. My fingers ached and my arms felt like they were about to rip from their sockets. I wouldn't be able to hold on much longer.

My attacker and his horse suddenly exploded into millions of black shards. The pressure on my leg evaporated as the shards fell like rain and vanished into the ground. Calyx steadied, and with gritted teeth, I pulled myself upright. My shoulders throbbed, and my leg felt like it had been flattened into a pancake.

It was in that moment I noticed our road forked.

"Left!" Vera yelled at Alex, who was still in the lead.

A burst of energy erupted behind me and I looked back. This time, an entire volley of shining black points was moving through the air toward us.

Not good.

"Arrows!" I yelled.

"Daria, take the lead!" Alex said, and without waiting for a response, he slowed Parsec so that they trailed behind us. The air around him warped like a thick haze, making him look like a mirage in the heat of summer. Energy pulsed from his body, and a wall of light diffused across the trail like some transparent veil strung between trees, separating us from the shadowguard once again. The first of the volley of arrows hit the wall and dissolved on impact. One by one, the veil of light absorbed their arrows, but once the shadowguard caught up to the wall, they easily ran through and the light dissipated like vapor.

In my distraction, I didn't catch the arrow in time.

I jerked Calyx, but not fast enough. Fire exploded in my left shoulder and I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from crying out. The fire didn't stop in my shoulder, though. It spread quickly down into my arm, searing through my veins, burning like fire.

I reached back to see if I could pull the arrow free, but all I did was manage to break the shaft. I hadn't tugged very hard; the shaft had been unusually brittle. As if it had been designed to break, leaving the arrowhead lodged inside of my shoulder.

That couldn't be good.

Hold on, Daria.

Alex and Vera were both right behind me and I had almost reached the fork. But as I looked at the two roads now, both swayed and superimposed on top of each other. I blinked and they settled back in their proper places.

The road toward the left was wide and open. I glanced right. That road rolled downward, ending in a wooden bridge that spanned what looked like a narrow canyon.

Vera had said to go left, but that wouldn't solve our problem. I jerked Calyx right.

"Daria—" Alex started.

"I know!" I yelled, sprinting hard down the wrong path.

Vera's frustration ignited behind me, but I didn't look back. I kept running. Horse hooves pounded behind, filling the night with their rhythmic pulsing.

I could now feel my heartbeat in the fingertips of my left hand, and I clenched my teeth to fight against the pain. "Alex, can you get us more distance?"

Vera grumbled something that I didn't hear, but I
did
hear Alex say, "You've got three seconds."

The bridge was just a few hundred yards away. Three seconds. I wasn't sure if that would be enough time, but if Alex could have gotten me more, he would've said so. Three seconds would have to work.

"Come on, boy," I pleaded to Calyx.

A sharp snap like the crackle of lightning split through the night, followed by a thud that made the ground tremble. I glanced over my shoulder; an enormous tree lay perpendicular to the road, and the shadowguard reared their horses back, their path momentarily obstructed. It took them a second to reassemble, and then they navigated around the fallen tree and were back on our trail.

Three seconds it was, then. Barely.

I reached the bridge. Calyx saw the drop-off and skidded to a halt, almost throwing me to my death. Fragments of earth and rock slid over the ledge and fell into a great canyon. A river raged deep at its core, and rising from the sheer rock wall on the other side of the canyon was a gentle slope that led back into forest. A bridge joined the two halves via wooden posts stationed at both sides, with a series of wooden planks and ropes strung in between. Definitely not built to code with modern safety requirements. It had looked rickety from a distance, but standing this close it looked like a death wish. But I didn't have time to consider that now.

The wood groaned and creaked as Calyx's first hoof landed on a plank. He whinnied, nodding against the reins, scared out of his wits.

"It's this or the shadowguard!" I yelled. For a split second, I thought he might choose the shadowguard, but then he took another step forward. And another, his hooves clip-clopping on the planks. The bridge swayed as we trotted across, and I made the mistake of looking down. The river blurred and divided below me, and if it hadn't been for Calyx, I probably would've toppled right over the edge.

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