Flame Sneak Peek
Leaves whipped past Sanna Spence's face.
She hurtled through the forest, clinging to a thick vine. The bright, lush canopy of Letum Wood flew past her and pulled strands of strawberry-blonde hair from her braid. Flames flickered ahead of her near the forest floor.
Sanna grinned. Right where she expected them.
A childhood of swinging through the trees had given her an instinct for gauging how long she could hold on, and this vine's arc would end on a sprawling branch twice as thick as she was tall.
Again—just as expected.
Sanna unwound her foot from the vine, transferring all her weight to her hands, and braced herself. Seconds later, she landed on the mossy branch without falling off the other side—which had happened often enough in the past.
For a moment, she stood on the branch, gazing down at the intermittent bursts of fire below. Witches weren't supposed to cross the dragons’ border without a trained Servant unless absolutely necessary. She'd promised Daid years ago to obey the rule after she'd nearly dropped onto old Helis, a grumpy gray dragon who blew fire in defiance of the rule.
Then again, she wasn't exactly on dragon territory. In it, sure. If she never set foot on the ground, she'd never break her promise.
Because they didn't own the trees.
A high-pitched shriek echoed from nearby, followed by another snort of flame.
“Don’t fight over me,” she called, looping the vine around a smaller branch to use later. She used natural handholds in the trunk to work her way farther down. This tree, like most trees in this part of Letum Wood, was wide enough to fit at least two houses inside the trunk with room to spare.
The bright spurts of fire calmed. Two young dragon heads popped around either side of a younger tree—its span as thick as only one house. Hints of color glimmered in the dragon hatchlings’ ebony scales. Sanna stopped and crouched when she reached two tangled branches. The youngest hatchling, Rosy, spread her wings and bent all four legs, readying herself to fly toward Sanna.
Sanna threw out a hand. "No! Rosy, you know the rules."
Rosy paused, then relaxed her wings with a little huff. A flying dragon was a dead dragon. Rosy knew that but constantly tested the rules.
"Jump," Sanna said. "You can make it."
Rosy snorted smoke. At ten years old, hatchlings could only breathe about thirty seconds of fire in a day. Rosy always used hers up by mid-morning. She was the smaller of the two, but feisty, with rose-pink threads twisting through her black scales. Rosy hopped across the space between the trees, snapping her baby teeth, which spanned the length of a hand, at Sanna's bag. Sanna didn't have to dodge—Rosy never actually bit her.
Sanna held up a finger.
“Ah, ah. You have to ask nicely.”
Rosy's older brother, Junis, sidled up next to his sister. At twelve years old, Junis was still considered a hatchling, though both of them already loomed over Sanna. Rosy roared, exhaling another flash of smoke, then nudged Sanna with the end of her snout.
Sanna yanked a toad from her bag and tossed it to the right. Rosy flailed to the side to catch it, slipped on a pillow of moss, and slid off the branch. With a quick movement, Sanna grabbed Rosy's foreleg and yanked her back. The scales sizzled against Sanna’s palm until she released her.
“Sorry.” She shook her hand out. "That was my fault."
Junis purred, ears lowered as he gently pressed his nose into Sanna's leg. Slivers of charcoal gray wound through his ebony scales. She set a dead toad at his feet.
“Always so polite, Junis. Thank you.”
Bones crunched as the dragons chewed, squelching blood through their teeth. A low, barking sound came from below. They peered over the branch. Cara, their mother, and Viridis, a lithe dragon with emerald in his black scales, circled each other. Viridis was the sneakiest dragon that Daid fed. She’d only glimpsed him a few times in the last two years.
"Ah," Sanna murmured. "Viridis wants a hatchling."
The timing made sense. Dragons never mated for life—just for a hatchling—and the end of summer rapidly approached. A tug on Sanna's shoulder drew her gaze away. Rosy had Sanna's lion-skin bag in her teeth in a not-so-stealthy attempt to steal the final toad.
Sanna wrenched it back. “Hey! This toad’s for your mam.”
Rosy purred, lowered her head, and inched closer. Sanna grabbed another vine and slid down to the last branch before Rosy could take it.
When she landed, Cara’s and Viridis's heads were level with her perch. Viridis loomed more than four times taller than Sanna, his body hot as hellfire. Hints of emerald cascaded down his regal neck like fog. Two thick horns stuck out from the top of his head—bigger than the horns of any other male in the brood. The air shimmered against the dragons’ heat. Sanna pressed a hand to her heart and bowed her head.
“Avay, Viridis. Cara.”
Cara released a warm breath. Viridis slipped away with a growl, his slitted eyes like yellow moons. A forked tongue flickered between his black lips just before he snapped in her direction and disappeared.
She relaxed. Only forest dragons could move with such strange stealth despite their massive bodies. And only forest dragons hated witches with such a passion.
Well . . . some of them.
Sanna pulled out her final toad. “I’d never forget you, Cara."
Before Cara could take the treat, a shriek shattered the calm air. Both Sanna and Cara whipped around to find a mangy forest lion clinging to Junis's back. Junis whipped back and forth in an attempt to throw the lion off, but it had sunk its talons into his scales, drawing ribbons of blue blood. Rosy screamed.
Junis rolled off the tree branch, plummeting to the ground. At the last second, he spread his wings, slowing his fall. Rosy leapt down the tree, landing with a thud on the ground. A second lion dropped from the canopy, toppling her before she could reach Junis. It pinned her left wing and snarled.
“Hey!” Sanna cried, shucking her bag off. “Get away from them!”
Cara screamed as she raced toward Junis. A third lion sank its teeth into Rosy's right shoulder. She threw her head back and yelped. Three more lions waited in the branches above while two descended the tree trunks using their razor-sharp claws. Forest lions always hunted in packs—there could be as many as ten.
Sanna sprinted down the branch and launched herself off with a battle cry, landing on the back of one of the lions attacking Rosy. She tangled her fingers in its mane and jerked. The lion roared and sprang onto his hind feet. Sanna leaned back, and they both fell. Air rushed out of her lungs when the lion landed on top of her.
Pain spiraled through her ribs with a crack.
The lion scrambled free, scratching her leg. Sanna rolled onto her hands and knees. Black dots clouded her vision as she gasped, ribs paralyzed. Just as a tingling sensation swept over her body, her paralysis broke. She sucked in a deep breath, clearing her sight. To the left, Cara whipped her tail, knocking four lions away from Junis, who dodged beneath his mother. Rosy flopped into the bushes with a scream as a lion charged her.
Sanna scrambled back to her feet, cursing. She snatched the lion’s coiling tail as it ran by and pulled. The beast spun away from Rosy, snapping its pearly fangs. Sanna ducked as she released it. The lion's teeth bit the air a breath shy of her arm. She clawed through the undergrowth, seeking a rock just as another lion dropped onto the ground next to her.
"Mori!" she cried and slammed a rock into the lion's jaw. It yelped and darted away. Then a lion feinted toward Rosy, and Sanna threw the rock at it. "Fire, Cara! Use your demmed fire."
Cara threw her head back and roared but issued no flames. The furious beasts swarmed her, biting at her wings and feet—and Junis. They yowled when they felt Cara’s heat and jumped away from her roasting scales and swinging tail.
Sapphire blood bubbled from Rosy's shoulder as she cowered in the crevice of two roots, crying.
A lion barreled into Sanna. She wrapped her arm around it, bringing it to the ground with her. The lion smacked his head on a tree root. He stilled, draped across her like a hot blanket. Pain shot through her side again, zipping all the way into her toes. Her right arm was pinned. At least six lions swarmed Cara now, not to mention those attacking the hatchlings. There was no way to win. Sanna gritted her teeth. No hatchlings would die unless the lions killed her first. She scrambled for a dangling gorseberry bush with her left hand. Her fingers brushed it once, twice, a third time. If she could just grab it . . .
“Oh come on!” she cried. "Just . . . a little . . ."
A vine fell from the trees, smacking her in the face. Sanna blinked. Where had that come from? Setting her confusion aside, she grabbed the vine with her left hand, wriggled free, and threw herself between Rosy and three approaching lions. Sanna bared her teeth in a snarl. “You don’t scare me.”
She picked up a handful of dirt and threw it at the big cats. A cloud of yellow fumes formed, smelling like rotten eggs and salt. Sanna recoiled.
"What the . . ."
The lions yipped, circled behind the cloud, and hung back, hissing.
“It’s all right,” Sanna murmured to Rosy, reaching toward her. Blood pooled beneath her in a puddle of sapphire. Sanna cursed under her breath. Dragons didn’t have healing properties in their blood until they reached adolescence at twenty years old. A lion crept forward, and she grabbed a rock and lobbed it. It struck the lion in the mouth, drawing blood. He snarled.
A roar shook the ground.
The lions silenced, heads craned back. One crouched and slid backward, its ears flat against its head.
A shadow passed by. A second roar answered. Another shadow. Flashes of gold and sapphire, not far away.
Sanna let out a relieved breath.
Two dragons barreled out of the trees. Talis, the brood sire, sprawled his leathery wings and lashed his teeth. A latticed, sapphire design shone on his cavernous chest. Thyris, his second-in-command, followed. Glinting gold reflected off Thyris's scales like rivers of sunlight against a pitch-black night. Sanna shrank back, dazzled.
Talis snatched the closest lion and snapped its spine with a single shake of his head. He pitched it to the side and crushed another beast with his foreleg. His tail whacked a third into a tree. When it slumped to the ground, Thyris snapped it in half. The pack scattered away from Cara, clawing up the trees. Thyris sliced at another lion, sending it flying through the air. Blood spurted in a crimson arc behind the lion as it fell.
For a second, silence overtook the forest.
Rosy let out a cry. Thyris whipped around, his pupils shrunk to pinpricks. He focused on Sanna, snarled, and lunged. Sanna held up two hands and dropped to her knees.
He paused an arm’s-length away, teeth bared, his heat rolling over her palms in scalding waves. She swallowed, heart pounding.
"I am daughter of Drago’s Servant and servant to the dragons.”
Cara made a sound in her throat. Thyris backed away—his bloodlust dissipated—snorted, and turned his back to Sanna. Sanna relaxed.
Talis stared at her with a queer gaze—no doubt because she was here of all places, breaking the agreement. Blood dripped from his mouth and hit the forest floor in steaming beads. He loomed taller than any of the twenty-six dragons in the brood—at least six times her height—cowing her with his terrible majesty. She diverted her gaze and stepped away from Rosy.
In a swift movement, he scored his foreleg with a claw. Thick cerulean blood rose from beneath his scales and dribbled down. He lifted it over Rosy, allowing the blood to run onto her wounded shoulder. Rosy cowered, trembling. The blood hit her scales and sizzled, smoking in great plumes. Bubbles frothed from her shoulder. Once they stilled, Talis stepped back. Rosy calmed. Then Talis moved to Junis, who trembled beneath Cara. A massive rent marred Junis’s left wing, and scratches covered his forelegs and belly.
Talis used his blood to heal Junis, just as he had Rosy, and then he turned to Cara. Though they remained silent, the three seemed to converse as they regarded one another. Dragons understood witches when they spoke but couldn't speak back. At least, not audibly. Talis communicated with Daid through his mind. Daid had bonded with him years before, when he became Drago's Servant.
With Talis standing there, Sanna hardly dared to breathe. She’d never been alone with the brood sire, let alone the brood sire and his apprentice. Being near Talis felt like standing next to something too bright. Uncomfortable, though fascinating.
She kept her eyes down.
The moments passed in near-silence. A forest as ancient and expansive as Letum Wood was never quiet. As her body calmed, a sweeping agony overcame her. Her ribs ached. Every breath sent shooting pain through her core. Blood dribbled down her leg from the wound in her thigh. An easy price to pay for the hatchlings’ safety.
Thyris and Talis ignored her as they gathered up the dead forest lions in their teeth and left with a flick of their tails. The leaves barely rustled in their wake. She hung her head in relief. Talis had been merciful. No doubt he’d ignored her presence because she'd helped save the hatchlings.
Cara leaned down, pressed her snout against Sanna, and blew a warm breath on her feet. The grasses stirred. Sanna reached out, touching Cara's scales briefly. She thought of the vine that had fallen at the perfect moment. The mustard yellow smoke that emerged from the dirt.
Magic. It had to be.
A cold shiver rushed through her. Magic was expressly forbidden—just like dragons were prohibited from flying or using fire. But it had been magic. There was no other explanation. Where had it come from? Had she somehow conjured it herself? Impossible. She hated magic.
Sanna pressed her hand to Cara's warm snout when she nuzzled back. “You’re welcome,” he murmured. "Let's just hope Daid doesn't find out."