Authors: Crymsyn Hart
Copyright © February 2011, Crymsyn Hart
Cover art by Amanda Kesley © February 2011
Charlotte, NC 28227
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Dragons mate for life. The connections they form are beyond the physical. The only thing to rival this bond is the one between sorcerer and dragon. They, too, mate for life. No one knows how deep that union can run.
They were flying. Below them were rolling emerald hills that blended into jade forests. Beyond the woods were the steep mountains where the dragons made their aeries. Further than that were the Northern Mountains, where the legends alleged that the most ancient of dragons dwelled. Among the peaks was Blaze Mountain, only a dot on the horizon, the most treacherous and the highest mount in the range. It was said to house the dragon king. No dragon or spellcaster had ventured there in ages.
Kestrel leaned farther over Castigan, letting his strength and power flow through her. She patted his scales. His contented growl shook her legs and eased her heart. Together they were content. Their shared power made them one of the most powerful teams the Athenaeum had. They had bonded when she was four, extremely young for any human. And he was over a thousand years old, tremendously old for a dragon to bond with a mortal. They were called into service twice before she was a fully-fledged spellcaster to help defeat the rogues.
Castigan flew lower and banked over the lake below. She stretched out her fingers and skimmed the surface of the cool water. The light spray settled upon her face. The wind tugged on the strands of her hair held back in a braid. The day had been hot, and they had been working hard. Her bones and mind were weary from all the spells she had woven. The opportunity to slip away for a quick ride was a luxury. If the others knew, they would call her reckless. She shouldn’t be risking herself or her dragon during wartime.
War. Who needs it? I’m so tired of fighting a two-hundred-year battle. We keep warring over a strip of territory that’s been so torn up that it’s nearly uninhabitable.
The feuding started with two families who wanted to pull away from the Athenaeum. They were two of the oldest and most powerful families who continually had members in the spellcaster ranks. The Athenaeum Council took the separation for an act of war. The conflict had ripped the spellcasters apart as each chose a side. Families were split apart. She was enlisted against her will, but to be a spellcaster and bonded with a dragon, you had to do things you didn’t like. The best payoff of all was being with a dragon. The bond between them was indescribable. They knew one another’s thoughts. They shared their emotions. It got a little more complicated when dragons were mated. Sometimes the mates didn’t get along with the spellcaster. Luckily, she didn’t have that problem.
“Thinking about me trying to find a mate again?”
Cas joked. He turned around the lake and dipped unexpectedly, trying to throw her off balance.
Kestrel hugged his haunches with her knees and leaned farther over his neck. She stroked the underside of his wing where it joined his body. He uttered a small growl from between his sharp teeth. The more she tickled him, the more small bursts of fire flared from his jaws. The fire was a dragon’s most powerful weapon. It could melt armor on contact unless the plating wasn’t enchanted properly. The fire could kill another dragon if hit in the right spot. It was also the stuff of legends. They could lend their fire to the ones they were bonded with.
“I wasn’t thinking about you and a potential mate. It would do you good to settle down and have hatchlings. Although, you’d have to be away from me to do that.”
“Why would I want that? There are no dragons I’m compatible with. I’ve tried. I find you dramatically more interesting than others of my species.”
Castigan started to climb higher.
Kestrel shivered and wrapped her cloak around her to ward off the cooler air. Large clouds gathered above them. A storm brewed around them. A shudder ran over her back. She gazed down at the landscape, and something glinted among the trees along the shore of the lake. Castigan struggled to beat through a gale that blew up. The tingles along her skin grew worse. At the last second before they turned, she saw a yellow glowing orb heading for them. Once she sensed it, her dragon swerved to avoid the blast. A massive fireball whizzed past them, brushing the fringe of Castigan’s wings. He bellowed from the flames. Her left fingers echoed the pain he was in, but he blocked most of it from her.
We’re under attack.”
I noticed. Let’s head back to camp. The others will want to know about this.”
“No. I want to investigate more.”
She gripped her knees hard against his flanks and tried to get him to turn, but he wasn’t listening.
“Stubborn as always. Cas, come on. That was dragon fire. It wasn’t a catapult with a fireball. That could hurt the both of us. Let’s go.”
“I’m going to see who it is. This is supposed to be neutral ground. Hold on.”
Before she could argue, the dragon pulled his wings closer to his body. His speed increased while he dove. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hung on. When he had made up his mind, there wasn’t anything she could do. No matter how much she kicked him, chided him, tickled him, or tried to woo him, he wouldn’t give in to her demands.
I bet that’s the reason he’s never been able to mate with anyone, because he’s too damn obstinate.
“I heard that.”
“Pay attention to where you’re flying. I can only keep shields around you if you don’t bug me.”
She closed her eyes and focused inward on her magic. If there were other dragons aiming for them, then she could provide some protection. It took total concentration, so she gave up all control and let Castigan be their eyes and ears. Even if he was pigheaded, she trusted his judgment. Kestrel envisioned a large bubble encompassing them. Long ago she’d had learned how to formulate spells and let her dragon fly without the worry of falling off. The air ballooned around them and pressed on the shield. She melded her vision with Castigan’s and saw the landscape in vibrant colors. The heat signature of another dragon blared in his field of vision.
Another magical blast hit her shields. She came back to herself with a jolt and barely had enough time to reinforce the shields before an explosion of dragon fire hit them head-on.
Her chest felt the strike of the blow where it was aimed for her dragon.
“Yeah. Just get us out of here. I’m not at full strength. All the fighting these past few days. We weren’t supposed to run into anyone.”
He opened his wings and dodged another fireball. This time flames hit him in the stomach. He roared from the burn but kept on going.
The dragon fire seared through her shields and sapped her strength. She couldn’t pull on his strength when he was tired, too, from all their fighting. He rose higher. She flattened herself against his neck to not impede him. Before he could rise any higher, another dragon appeared from behind one of the ominous clouds. His sapphire scales blended in with the darkness of the cloud. She didn’t see a spellcaster on his back.
“I bet they were hiding all along. This was an ambush. I wonder if they’ve been watching us all along.”
The other dragon swiped at Castigan in midair. He swooped out of the way, but she felt the claw rake her arm. They began to spin downward. Kestrel willed all of her energy into helping to heal the dragon. The pain lessened some in her arm. The magic helped, but he wasn’t able to regain his balance. The ground came faster and faster. She examined the three large tears on his wing, with red blood that marred the thin membrane and golden scales. A jet of fire passed over her shoulder. It singed her neck and the upper part of her shoulder. She screamed from the sudden wound.
Castigan yowled. Their link was broken.
She hugged his neck with her good arm and buried her head into his scales. The tops of the foliage brushed her feet. Another blast of dragon fire came from the woods. It hit her dragon square in the belly. He bellowed again. It had hit one of the soft spots in his armor. His healing powers were slow to kick in. The agony radiated through her and him. She tried to breathe, but was unable to. They hit the trees hard, clearing branches and a path on the way down. They impacted the ground, leaving a trail in their wake. Castigan let out a loud roar. He lifted his wings, shivered, and tried to move, but was unable to. Kestrel raised her head. The wound on her shoulder stung. She gazed at the burn and saw the top of her shoulder, upper part of her arm, and the base of her neck, where the scar would be permanent.
She slid off the dragon and found her footing. The growing stain of crimson on the grass showed how truly hurt he was. She glanced behind her and saw the path behind them was hundreds of feet long. Above them hovered black and sapphire dragons. She held her hand to her eyes and stared at the dragons above her. The sun glinted off their scales and nearly blinded her. Kestrel squinted and thought she saw the blue one flash her a dark sneer. She tore her eyes from them and walked around to Castigan’s front. His emerald eyes were half open. Kestrel took off her cloak and pressed it against the burn on his belly. The injury from the dragon fire had caught the soft patch at the center of his stomach. His pain tore through their bond. She pushed more of her magic along the connection to help heal him.
You can’t do anything to heal me. The damage is too great. The wound has reached my heart.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her face into his smooth scales.
“I have to try. I won’t let you down. This was my fault. I was the one who wanted to go for a ride. I should’ve known better.”
He purred low and shook his head.
“No. We both wanted to. All that war can be heartbreaking. We needed a break.”
A loud roar reverberated above them. The blue dragon drew closer. She didn’t recognize the other dragons from the ones they had been fighting against. Castigan tried to move and look up. He made a low moan. Kestrel sensed his life force leaving him. He was dying. And soon she would, too. Every spellcaster who had lost a dragon had died within a few hours or days of the dragon’s death. It was such a shock to the system, no one ever survived it. It was inevitable.
“I won’t let them get you.”
Castigan tried to lift his paw and draw her into the crook of his leg, but he couldn’t. She settled next to him, and he lowered his head into her lap.
“With the wind under my wings, we’ll fly away. My fire burns hot and bright only to warm you in the night
. . .
Kestrel began to sing in a low voice. The song was one he had sung to her as a child to calm her. His contentment filled her. He was trying to block her from his suffering, but it was slowly seeping in and stealing her breath away. She focused her remaining energy and created the strongest shield she could manage around them.
“You shouldn’t waste your strength. We both know what’s going to happen.”
She ignored her tears and pushed her power into him, willing Castigan to live. His voice had weakened.
“How could I do that? You’re in no position to be so obstinate.”
He chuckled and coughed.
“Funny. Can I tell you something?”
“Do you know why I never found a mate?”
“Because a female wouldn’t be able to put up with you.”
“No. Even though it’s impossible, you were the only one I’ve ever wanted for a mate. It’s something I’ve dreamed of for years. I’ve felt out of place with the others of my kind. With you, I’ve always felt complete. Sometimes I wondered if I was really supposed to be among the other dragons. I never knew my parents. We’ve only had a century and a half together. It’s been the best time of my life. You can’t die with me. I won’t allow it.”
She hugged him and experienced his deep love. It radiated in her soul so brightly it nearly blinded her. Kestrel had never guessed the depth of his feelings, nor had he ever told her he felt out of place or didn’t know about his past. It made his leaving her so much harder to bear.
“There’s nothing you can do. You know how this works. We bond together, and then we both die. I’ll ride with you wherever you go.”
He lifted his head. The thunder of dragon footsteps shook the woods. Soon the others would be on them. They would finish the job and use whatever parts from Castigan they could. Even if dragons were dead, their scales and claws made for weapons and armor. Everything was used, even the bones. Normally when a dragon died, they were laid to rest in a protected graveyard next to their chosen spellcasters.