A rattling inhalation was all the warning Karn received before fire rained from the skies. He raised his bronze shield with a warning to his men, his shout swiftly drowned out by the rushing of flames. His arm ached as he pressed against the blaze. Sweat poured from his body, sticking ash and dirt to his tanned features and plastering his fiery red warrior’s braids to his neck.
His men were tired. He was tired. After nearly six hours hiking and climbing this mountain, they now faced hours of battle ahead. But one glance into any of his warriors’ eyes would confirm their resolve. They fought for their families and for the physical and spiritual good of the country of Arran. They would return victorious, or not at all.
Against the evil of the dragons, there was no other option.
As soon as the flames ceased, Karn lowered his shield and watched his attacker fly high into the sky. He leaned on the shaft of his spear as he took quick stock of his slayers—thirty-one able men hiking the rocky incline, each cloaked in armor of dragon scales and bronze. Each wore war-paint in the color and symbol of his station, though status meant nothing in the heat of battle. All that mattered was who bore the responsibility of bringing them home, and the red across Karn’s own brow declared it his.
Five scaly beasts flew over them, each taller than a man at its withers—two of them twice that. Their flames could incinerate a man in seconds; a slap of a tail could break him; each tooth, talon, and spine could tear him to pieces; yet his slayers pressed forward.
Karn locked his eyes on the largest of the beasts, its scales the dull green of cloud-shaded hills. He reached out with his mind and prodded against the dragon’s psychic defenses.
Hard as the mountain. This one would have to be killed by spear or sword.
At the rush of flight behind him, Karn raised his shield and ducked low. The flames lasted only a moment, yet his heart pounded into his throat. An overwhelming terror sank deep into his stomach and sent his thoughts into a jumble.
That was too close!
This mission would be his last.
He would never see his wife and daughter again.
The dragons would destroy the village they were protecting.
Burn his wayfarers’ tents to the ground!
Karn shook his head hard, gritting his teeth against the fear forced upon him. He focused on rebuilding his telepathic shield. He had let it down while prodding the green dragon, and this second dragon had taken advantage of it, sending a cloud of terror over him. The fear lifted as his psychic energies sealed over his mind.
This shield was the only reason he and his men had a fighting chance on this dragon-infested mountain. Without it, the beasts would either drive him mad with forced emotions or take his mind in full possession. Normals couldn’t do this job, nor could the women left behind at camp. Though slayer women, too, held a psychic gift, they were merely empaths. They could sense and project emotions, but were unable to focus their powers into blasts or shields. Those without such protection could only last so long in a battle against dragons.
Karn glared after his empathic attacker as he rose back to his feet, a new hatred coursing through his veins. The dragon would pay for this violation of his mind. It would suffer for all the times its kind had infiltrated his daughter’s mind. She couldn’t stop it, couldn’t protect herself, couldn’t help but feel the emotions of even the weakest of dragons. He would snuff out every dragon in the world to make sure their evil couldn’t affect her anymore.
His rage became a psychic spear—emotion focused to a point, then launched from his mind to the dragon’s. The beast screamed as Karn’s mind tore past its defenses, and its flight faltered, dipping closer to his men. The slayers had been waiting for such an opening, and three of them launched their spears into the air, one finding a lethal hold in the dragon’s soft underbelly.
The creature’s brethren roared in outrage and dove at Karn’s men. Another spear found its mark in a dragon’s heart. Warriors dove to escape flames. Karn kept moving, his boots gripping the dirt and gravel. He changed his grip on the spear in his right hand as a dragon dove for him, thrusting up as the creature flew overhead and drawing a pained roar from its throat. Not a fatal wound, but it would slow the monster down.
Six dragons flew above them now, new beasts replacing the slain. They were drawing the monsters from their caves. If Toronn’s information was correct, this dragon clan had twenty-some adults. His slayers would have to take them down quickly before the dragons overwhelmed them.
His men followed the command, gathering together in predetermined groups of three and four. A seventeen-year-old slayer on only his third battlefield ran to Karn, carrying a long, broad shield. Of Karn’s group of three, this young man was the weakest psychic and so would defend his elders as they attempted to choke dragons out of the sky.
Karn opened his mind once more and prodded another dragon, a black one. Its defense was weaker than the last, giving way under Karn’s telepathy. Karn pointed out the dragon to L’non—his brother and third partner—and they attacked, focusing their powers into bolts of energy that speared through the dragon’s psychic shield.
The creature roared in pain as the slayers’ combined energies spread over its mind like oil. They squeezed the dragon’s mind, cutting it off from its body and making it impossible for the dragon to control itself. It fell, its mind squirming against their hold as it neared the mountainside.
Karn and L’non dropped low at the call of their young defender, making it under the shield just as flames splashed over it, spewed from the maw of another dragon.
Karn cursed as the fire and shield cut off his sightline to the black dragon, ending his psychic hold. As the flames ended, a black shape climbed back into the sky, confirming their target had regained control before crashing to the rocks.
“Seems we’ll have to try again,” L’non said, the epitome of calm as always. Karn tried hard not to check him over for wounds or study whether the red tint in his brown hair was blood or merely the sun catching in it. Though Karn was the older of them, L’non was a more than capable warrior.
A scream of agony came from down the mountain, sending a bolt of lightning to Karn’s heart. The cry lasted only a moment—one of his slayers claimed by dragon-fire.
Another cry drew Karn’s eyes just in time to see one of his men hit the ground hard, his shield slapped by a red dragon’s tail. The dragon trumpeted its victory. Karn gritted his teeth and pointed to it.
Together, he and his brother wrestled with the dragon’s mind until they brought it crashing to the ground. But now there were eight dragons in the sky, all of them staying far out of reach of their spears except to dive-bomb the men. There were too many to take psychically, and they just kept coming.
A shout of rage echoed from further up the mountain, ripping from the mouth of Karn’s apprentice, Kallar. His blue eyes shown in bright contrast to his black hair, and as soon as those eyes locked with Karn’s, a firm prodding pressed against Karn’s mental shield.
Kallar had always been more at-ease than other slayers when it came to using telepathy to communicate. The rest of humankind, slayer and normal alike, balked at such an invasion of privacy; but Kallar knew that, and he wouldn’t address his chief in this way unless it was urgent. Karn relaxed his shield.
“We need to take the cave, Karn. Cover us.”
Kallar pulled away before Karn could respond, shouted something to the men nearby, and bolted up the mountain. Six slayers followed in his wake, holding their shields over their heads and charging after him without hesitation.
It was foolishly brave—the dragons would see their direction and know their intent. But if they didn’t stop the flow of dragons into the sky, they might not make it home.
A sapphire dragon dove at Kallar’s troop, its eyes brightening as the fire within it brewed. Karn speared it telepathically and L’non followed suit, choking its mind just in time to stop the flames. The fall was too short for the dragon to die on impact, but another group of his men were nearby. They would end the brute.
“Forward!” Karn barked as he ran. The closer they got to Kallar, the better they would be able to defend him and his men.
Karn raised his shield and ducked as intense heat surrounded him. The fire lasted only a moment before it was cut off by a screech of pain and an earth-rattling thud. Karn stood to see the dull-green dragon on its side, L’non’s spear protruding from its underbelly.
The dragon shook its head hard and stood with a moaning growl. Not a fatal wound. Karn raised his own spear and ran at the beast. The dragon coughed smoke, apparently out of firepower, then struck with teeth.
Karn dodged, then hit the dragon in the side of the head with his shield. The dragon curled its neck back like a serpent and struck again. Karn dove to the ground and pushed his spear up, aiming for the dragon’s eye and just missing it.
A roar of pain ripped from the creature’s throat and it stumbled. At its belly were Karn’s partners, the young man’s sword in the dragon’s soft flesh. L’non jerked his spear out of the dragon and jammed it into the beast’s heart, silencing it forever.
Beyond them, a cheer rose from the slayers. Karn pushed off the ground and rounded the dead dragon to see Kallar and his men at the cave entrance. The men stood side-by-side, their shields locked against each other like interlocking scales, and their heads low, ducking under a flash of fire. As soon as the flames ended, Kallar charged with a battle cry, his men echoing him as they followed.
Pride swelled in Karn’s heart. Cave-storming was the most dangerous part of dragon-slaying, a job typically reserved for the more experienced slayers—those used to the danger, who could keep a cool head under pressure.
Kallar was anything but cool-headed, but what he lacked in calm he made up for in passion. He had soaked up Karn’s teachings ever since his first day of apprenticeship, learning all he could about a dragon’s strengths and weaknesses, studying battle-tactics, practicing telepathic shields and attacks. Even when Kallar’s first cave-storming ended in disaster, leaving him with a burn scar that covered his left arm, he hadn’t slowed in his training.
He would make a fine chief one day, a righter of wrongs and protector of Karn’s daughter. If anyone could save her from the evil of the dragons, it was him.
A pained trumpet brought Karn out of his thoughts and back to the battle. There were only five dragons left in the sky, and so far no more had made it past Kallar and his men. Karn pointed to the dragon highest in the sky and combined his attack with L’non, choking it down to its death against the mountainside.
Victory was theirs.
CHAPTER 1 — DEADLY CEREMONY
Alísa lifted her eyes toward the mournful trumpeting. It settled in her heart like mountain stone, weighing down each step around the ceremony circle with its harsh reality. She forced a pleasant smile to her face, as she had for every ceremony since she was thirteen and her problem first manifested.
Tonight, she would suffer alongside the evil her clan fought, and she would do so in silence.
She ran her fingers over the ends of her frizzy mahogany curls, her fingers stopping at the sapphire dragon-scale necklace from her father. She fingered the scale’s tiny ridges, her heart trembling. A wistful hope cast her eyes out over the verdant grasses. Just beyond that hill lay camp—empty, quiet, and devoid of anyone’s emotions except her own. If only she could hide there in her family’s tent for the evening. Surely after seventeen years she could miss one ceremony.
But no—tonight would honor her clan of wayfaring slayers, especially her father. His former chief and trainers dwelt in this village, and now that Karn was a chief in his own right, his clan and family must prove him worthy of his position.
Honor and duty came before comfort. The pleasant smile stayed.
Alísa glanced out over the crowd gathered in the circle. Most were slayers, all either of her father’s clan or bound to protect this single village of Azron. Many of the wayfarers wore their dragon-scale armor, freshly cleaned of the blood and grime of battle. They gleamed in the sunlight in jewel-tones dulled with use. Some of the village men wore similar garb, but most wore the gold-and-green colors of Azron on kilts and sashes over their clean white shirts.
It would be hard for Kallar to hold back his derision tonight. ‘No true dragon-slayer would own something so clean,’ or some nonsense like that.
The women, wayfaring and village-bound alike, wore their best dresses, some with tight corsets over their tops, others allowing the light fabric to flow more freely in the wind. Alísa herself had chosen a deep green dress with a gold-and-white sash over her sword-belt. She always chose the dress for ceremonies. The shade matched the astral color of peace and calm—hopefully it would stir some of the same feelings inside of her.
Only a few normals walked among the slayers today. The village chief made his rounds, clasping the arms of each of the wayfaring warriors, his wizened face creased with laugh lines. Songweaver Farren was somewhere in the throng, or perhaps was taking a moment of quiet before singing in honor of Garrett, a slayer who had fallen this last battle. Three or four holders walked among them, carrying trays of food and jugs of mead with their exaggerated smiles.
Holders were the darlings of every village, held in high esteem and honor for their generosity and hospitality. They manned the Hold, a community hall as well as a place for travelers to spend a night or two before heading on their way.
Holders also tended to be chatty and nosy, drawing people into long conversations. Alísa did her best to avoid them.
Everyone, slayer and normal alike, laughed and chatted like they didn’t have a care in the world. For them, it was true. The dragon clan festering in the nearby mountain was ended at the wayfarers’ hands—all but two hatchlings saved for tonight’s festivities—and now Azron could rest easy. Tomorrow the village-bound could still rest easy, but the wayfarers would be on their way to the next mountain, always moving, never stopping until death took them or the war ended.
Another cry from the hatchlings brought her back to the present, and she shivered under the weight of her secrets. Each ceremony held the potential for their discovery, but to stay away would also raise questions. She had become quite good at hiding her shame these last few years; good enough that her parents didn’t know just how bad it had become. As long as she was able, she would keep that secret. Her father had enough to worry about without adding her mounting problems to the list. She could handle it.
Would handle it.
Alísa loosened the reins on her empathy, allowing her powers to flow out from her and catch some of the positive emotions wafting from the clan. She rejected excitement’s pounding and joy’s tickling flight for the steady flow of relief. That emotion was one she could match to her own, one that could overcome the dread settling in her heart. Her father had returned safely, the clan was whole again, and this beautiful village where she had grown up was at peace.
This was reality, the deepest truth she had to cling to in the face of the coming onslaught. But it would only last for so long.
She twisted to meet a silvery-blue gaze that nearly matched her own. Her mother Hanah’s twisting laurel of auburn braids caught the evening sunlight, its gentle waves settling over the shoulders of a finely-embroidered blue dress. A petite woman, only an inch taller than Alísa, but one others noticed when she stood before a crowd. She had an air of authority about her that showed through even in her softest moments—a necessary quality for the lady of a wayfaring clan.
Will I ever have even that?
“You look lost, love,” she said, worry creasing her brow. “Will you be all right tonight?”
Alísa nodded once as she found an acceptable lie. “I was j—just thinking about you and P-P-P-Papá—”
She fought not to wince at her stammer. ‘Confidence covers weakness,’ her father had told her countless times. But confidence and the mask she now wore were two completely different things. She knew what she was—the peoples’ reactions told her every day. The eyes of pity, the impatient toe-tapping, the interruptions and guessing of the words she couldn’t spit out. She was an annoyance in conversation and a hindrance on the battlefield.
Her mother gave a prodding nod, and Alísa breathed low and deep, allowing her throat muscles to loosen.
“—about how well you lead the c-c-clan. That’s all.”
Hanah gave a knowing half-smile. “Don’t worry. Maker-willing, it won’t be your turn for a long time, and you won’t be alone.”
Alísa followed Hanah’s eyes to the chief’s table, where Kallar and the village-bound slayers’ chief, Toronn, spoke together. As always, Kallar stood tall, confident in his position as Karn’s apprentice and the future chief of the wayfaring clan.
His raven-black hair flowed free of his warrior’s braids, reaching to his shoulder on one side and shaved within an inch of his scalp on the other. His weathered blue scale armor accentuated steely blue eyes that gave her chills when he stared at her—not of fear or desire, but uncertainty. He unsettled her, trying to woo her with charm one moment, then turning into something cold and distant the next.
He and Alísa weren’t betrothed, but the official declaration wasn’t needed. Marriage was expected of them, and though she didn’t love Kallar, she had mostly come to grips with that reality. He could command armies, slay dragons, and make the world a safer place. She couldn’t even say her father’s name without stammering or sit through a dragon-killing without choking back sobs. Many warriors had given their lives in this war—surely she could give her love-life.
Her mother took her hand and led her to the table next to Toronn’s. They slid into their seats of honor, and Alísa inhaled the warm, savory smells of the roasted beef and sliced potatoes. Her stomach ached with both hunger and anxiety, twisting her up inside.
Soon. Soon they would eat, the younger teens would train against the hatchlings, and it would be over.
A burst of laughter came from her right, and she glanced at Chief Toronn and Kallar. The great chief’s auburn beard had gained some gray in the two years since Alísa last saw him, but he seemed as sharp and strong as ever.
Toronn caught Alísa staring at him, and she looked away quickly. His cold black eyes made her feel weak and small—a mere sparrow in the presence of a war-hawk. She couldn’t remember a time he had ever smiled at her. She was a disappointment to him—the only child of his apprentice, a stammerer, and a slayer who balked at killing hatchlings.
She fingered her necklace. At least he doesn’t know why I hate it. If he did, I could be ostracized, or worse. Toronn was known and respected enough in the area to have that kind of influence, despite her position as a chief’s daughter.
A hand found her shoulder, and she twisted to see her father’s soft brown eyes smiling down at her. His copper curls were a couple shades brighter than hers, the top pulled back and bound away from his face. His hair and beard clashed beautifully with the dulled rubies of his dragon-scale armor, his deep brown fur-lined cloak acting as a barrier between the two warring colors.
Her heart swelled. Shame never clouded her father’s eyes when he looked at her. In the light of his love, what did it matter what Toronn thought?
He bent low and whispered. “I know you don’t like being here. Thank you for facing it.”
He kissed her forehead and his beard tickled her nose.
“I love you, my Lísa.”
She smiled back at him, trying to convey the strength she wanted so desperately to have. Everything she faced tonight would be for him, just as he faced the monsters for her. It was the least she could do.
Karn took his place next to Toronn, and Kallar slid into his seat beside Alísa. He took her hand and lifted it to the tabletop, holding it there as if to claim her in the eyes of all. He leaned in and whispered.
“Anyone give you trouble while I was away?”
She shook her head without meeting his gaze. He didn’t mean trouble like looking down their nose at her or talking behind her back. He meant the young men of the village—did anyone make moves on her? He should know by now that wasn’t going to happen.
Songweaver Farren, a tall, older man with deep inner strength, strode into the center of the ceremony circle. He had left Azron alongside Alísa’s family nearly nine years ago. He was always kind, soft-spoken, and generous with his time, especially with young people who loved music, and his songweaving had inspired her own.
Farren raised his arms above his graying head, and Alísa stood with everyone else, village-bound and wayfarer alike. He lifted his baritone voice in prayer to the Maker—an honoring of the fallen and comfort to the living:
Why must the good die before their time,
And flames devour their prey?
When will our mourning be made right,
And smoke break for the day?
But in this world of suffering
The Maker holds us all.
His blessings follow those who stand,
Though some to home He calls.
Alísa joined quietly, hiding her voice under the others’ as the people repeated the last lines.
His blessings follow those who stand,
Though some to home He calls.
All fell silent in a final honoring of those killed by the dragons, and she noted that Kallar had once again stayed silent. He had never forgiven the Maker for the loss of his mother at the flames of the dragons. He had only been a boy, nine or ten, but he carried the scars as he did the one covering his left arm—a mixture of pride and hatred.
Still, none of that should keep him from blessing Garrett’s sacrifice.
She sighed softly. How many more of these songs would she have to hear in her lifetime? While the anam—the soul—lived on forever in the Maker’s halls, why should His people be killed by the soulless? Why did the Maker allow dragons to live on when they obeyed the bidding of the Nameless, those Eldír who had turned away from Him and now sought to destroy His humans?
His iompróir anam. His soul-bearers.
Chief Toronn broke the silence with his deep, booming voice. “Now we must honor these brave men by living the lives they died to grant us. Please, be seated, enjoy your food, and live!”
Kallar released her hand, and Alísa sat slowly, staring at the food in front of her. She had to eat something, and it would be easier now, before the dragon-training began. She chewed a bite of the savory beef slowly, praying she wouldn’t lose it later.
“Karn, my friend.” Toronn leaned over to her father, a wineskin in hand. “Pour out your water and try some of this—the finest mead this side of the Prilunes!”
Her father shook his head. “One never knows when a dragon attack will come. Best to be unhindered, though I thank you for your offer.”
Toronn looked to Hanah. “I see you’ve failed to loosen him up, dear lady. Do try harder.”
Hanah looped her arm through her husband’s with a smile. “I wouldn’t change him for anything.”
Toronn huffed, shaking his head. “Couldn’t change him is more likely.” He looked to Kallar next. “I don’t suppose he’s gotten to you too?”
Kallar stole a glance at Alísa. “I’m afraid it makes my lady uncomfortable—but thank you.”
Alísa looked down as Toronn raised an eyebrow at her, her cheeks warming under his scrutiny. Even when Kallar attempted to be considerate, he ended up making things worse.
Shadows against the setting sun drew Alísa’s eyes from her half-finished supper. Seven silhouettes approached the circle—a man and four boys striding purposefully, dragging two hatchlings in their midst. Conversation faded to silence as the trainees approached. The boys, each between twelve and sixteen years, worked together to hold the hatchlings in a light mind-choke, keeping them weak, but still allowing movement.
Alísa’s heart clenched. If only one of the boys would draw their sword now and end the hatchlings’ suffering quickly. End her suffering before it began.
A young child called out one of the trainee’s names in recognition, breaking the boy’s concentration. The larger of the two dragons jolted up and trumpeted, pulling against the ropes around its neck. Alísa winced as its emotions broke through the trainees’ psychic hold.
Fear and anger. A small taste of what was to come.
The trainer at the back of the group placed a hand to his temple and sealed the gap in the mind-choke. The hatchling slumped again as it lost control, and the young slayers forced it to march into the circle once more.
Alísa closed her eyes and breathed, their emotions contained once more by the mind-choke. That was fine. I can do this.
Her heart and stomach ignored her self-talk. The next wave would be worse.
She opened her eyes again, staring at the sagging creatures as they entered the circle. Though evil, they were fascinating—caught somewhere between animal and iompróir anam. The race had given up their souls to the Nameless centuries ago in exchange for greater psychic power. The few slayers she knew who had heard a dragon’s voice told of demonic jumbles of words and images that threatened to steal a person’s sanity.
Would a young dragon’s be the same? What might it say?
She shook her head hard. No. Don’t go there. It’s thoughts like this that add to your empathy.
The dragons’ gem-like scales shimmered in the sunlight, one like the sapphire ripples of a lake, the other like gleaming bronze shields. The only spots their natural armor didn’t cover were their muzzles and underbellies, which displayed tough skin a shade lighter than their scales.
They were beautiful creatures in their own way, though Alísa could never admit that thought to her clansmen.
She shuddered at the razor-sharp talons curving on the end of each toe, the pointed spines protruding along their necks and backs, the horns growing just above their ears, the sharp teeth peeking out from their lips.
Beautiful, but fearsome.
In sharp contrast to the armor, the wings were large, graceful, and smooth but for the slashes that kept the hatchlings from escaping.
What I wouldn’t give to have the freedom of flight, to become the wind and leave fear and doubt anchored to the ground.
The larger of the two, a blue hatchling about three-and-a-half feet at the withers, was built lean and strong like one of the clan’s horses. The bronze hatchling was stockier than the blue—it would have grown to be a muscular brute, perhaps ten or eleven feet at the withers.
Both were far too young to breathe fire or take someone’s mind.
Far too young to die like this.
Every muscle in Alísa’s body tensed as the boys and hatchlings faced each other in the center of the circle. Kallar leaned forward at her elbow, his eyes fixed on the spectacle. He enjoyed the sport of it all, something she would never understand.
The young slayers drew their swords, while their enemies could only slouch low to the ground. In a moment, all of the boys would end the mind-choke and allow the dragons to move freely. The trainer would only intervene if the hatchlings threatened the onlookers.
Once the dragons’ minds were freed, the suffering would begin.
Sweat covered Alísa’s palms, and her heartbeat sped as terror gripped her, fear overtaking all other emotions. It was worse than the last ceremony; it had been a year since she had to fight emotions from two dragons. She would have to work much harder now to keep people from noticing.
She focused on the grooves in the stone table, grounding herself. This isn’t really happening. You’re fine. This is all in your head. Keep it together.
She clenched her teeth and fisted her skirt in clammy palms, fighting to suppress the fear and rage hitting her in alternating waves. Her mother placed a hand over hers and squeezed, trying to convey some comfort, but it couldn’t help her fight the barrage.
She grunted as she pressed her empathy against the feelings, trying to crowd them out with her own.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt rage at a hatchling-slaughter!
She shook her head. No. Ceremony. Don’t give in to the anger.
The blue hatchling flared its wings at the boys and hissed, shuffling in front of the smaller bronze hatchling. Protecting it.
Nobility in the face of death.
Honor. In an animal.
The blue’s stare lifted from the trainees until its gaze met Alísa’s. Its deep brown eyes communicated an emotion nearly drowned by the flood of fear and rage—sorrow.
Tears welled behind Alísa’s eyes. There was nothing she could do.
The blue broke eye-contact, fixated back on the boys, and charged, teeth bared and tail swinging. The oldest of the trainees raised his sword to strike.
Alísa’s stomach churned as the sword glanced off scales and cut deep into a wing. She bit the inside of her lips and shut her eyes tightly, fighting back a whimper.
Keep it together. Make Papá proud. He doesn’t have to know you feel their pain now too. No one can know.
Each cry barraged her with more pain and rage and fear. She hid her moans under the people’s cheers. Why didn’t anyone else feel it?
Because no one else is broken like I am. Defective. Weak.
A draconic cry crashed through her like it might crush her very soul. She whimpered, swallowing a scream. Two hatchlings were too much.
This isn’t your pain. This isn’t your pain! Eldra Branni, help me!
But no help came from the Eldra, no extra measure of strength, no passing of the pain. Alísa slapped a hand to her mouth just before a cry broke through her defenses—a trainee had just sliced through one of the hatchling’s limbs.
She couldn’t take it, not from two of them. She had to get away before she disgraced herself and her father.
Alísa stood on wobbly legs and staggered from the table. Eyes followed her retreat and shame mixed with her churning emotions. They couldn’t know the torment she felt—they would probably think she fled because she couldn’t stomach the violence. Either way, she had shown her weakness to her former village. To Toronn.
A hand took hers. “Sweetheart?”
Tears welled, and Alísa gritted her teeth against the cry threatening to breach her lips. She leaned into her mother’s strength, grateful that the person taking her hand wasn’t another slayer. Skin-contact with another psychic would transfer a part of the feelings. Though her mind begged for relief, she would never wish this pain on anyone.
They walked together to the Hold, slipping behind its walls. Alísa leaned back against the cool stone surface. Emotion still wafted to her like mists, unfazed by the physical barrier, but the distance dulled the feelings enough to keep her from screaming.
But the pain still throbbed in her skull, and the shrieking hatchlings battered her heart.
“What’s going on, Alísa? It’s never been this bad before—talk to me.”
Alísa shook her head, pressing her lips together. She slid down the wall until she reached the ground, breathing deeply and counting—in for three, out for five—trying to focus on something other than the pain.
Hanah sat next to her, wrapping an arm over her shoulders and pulling her close. “It’s okay. It’ll be over soon.”
Alísa’s blood boiled. “It’s not okay—I’ve brought Papá shame!” She winced at the tone her words took, influenced by the rage of the hatchlings.
“No, he’s not ashamed of you. He’s worried—he has been since this all started. He would have come too, but I told him to stay.”
A death cry came from the circle, and Alísa cried out in tandem. She ground her teeth against the final spear to the heart before the feelings dimmed. One of the dragons’ emotions could no longer affect her.
One to go. It should make the rest easier.
Another slice proved her wrong, the new pain still white-hot inside her skull. She leaned into her mother’s shoulder, pressing for whatever tiny piece of comfort she could find. A final draconic scream pierced her heart, and she cried out as the death-pangs took her.
Her world faded to black.