[SPOILERS for those who have not read the previous books in the series. Proceed with caution!]
. . .
The drive lasted for hours. I avoided looking at the Ash Bringer for fear of giving him an unguarded glimpse into the ashen fields that was my mind. He didn’t pry, which surprised me. I would have known if he took a peek. I always knew. I recognized the feeling of someone in my thoughts better than anyone. If he wasn’t asking me questions and he wasn’t trying to look in my head, what did he want? I knew what I was. I was aiding his enemy, so sine I wasn’t dead, I had to assume he needed me to answer questions, but he hadn’t given any.
After a few hours, I found that I was the one eager to ask questions. Once my unpleasant visual exchange with the store clerk had riled me up a little, I felt more inclined to voice my concerns. I turned to look at the Draak, catching the side of his face washed in the blue light of the dashboard. I was a little taken by him for a second, but those thoughts were cast aside faster than they came up.
“He’s going to pry as soon as we get to wherever he’s taking us,” I thought to myself.
Well...I thought I did. When the Red turned his eyes on me, I realized the words had come out of my mouth. Though under my breath, I’d said them aloud and even if he were human he would have picked up on it. I screwed my eyes shut and hissed at myself.
“I said that out loud,” I said, pressing my head to the cold window.
“Are you alright?” he asked, his voice unexpectedly soothing in its deep pitch.
“One hundred percent,” I muttered.
As I breathed out, a large circle of steam clouded the cold glass. I raised a hand and drew a spiral with a vertical line going through it with my index finger, staring at the design until it faded away. Every time I breathed, the design would return and for some reason it calmed me down.
“Where did you learn that symbol?” the Draak asked.
I shrugged. “I didn’t.” Realizing my answer was annoyingly vague, I lifted my head to look at the Red, catching a glimpse of his glowing gaze.
“It’s a Pyrea. It was the sigil for one of the largest Zephyre clans on Draakon. A very old one.”
I looked back at the window and breathed over the symbol, watching it appear again and then slowly fade. Pulling my sleeve over my hand, I wiped the thing away, ridding the glass of the symbol.
“Well, that ruins it,” I said. “I thought it was something from my memories.”
“It is beautiful. The clan it came from was unique.” He paused for a moment, his eyes narrowing on the road ahead. The headlights lit up a narrow path, which seemed to be in a state of constant motion as the rain fell. “Why is it in your head?”
“It’s not mine,” I said.
“I know. Haera was connected to you for a long time. It has to be one of her memories. It would be difficult to believe she was part of that clan, though.”
“Because the Pyreans were against what the Zephyre did on Draakon. They were against the war and the experiments and the extermination of so many Draak. They were against breeding with Draak in the first place, to be honest. Haera’s behavior is quite the opposite. She seems hungry for conflict and unafraid to experiment in order to gain power.”
“She’s not,” I said, my mouth speaking before my brain could catch up.
He gave me that look again, like he was surprised I was even talking.
“She’s not what?” he asked.
“She hungers for the end result. What happens in between is just the threshold she needs to cross.”
“That’s a problem,” he sighed.
“Don’t try to understand her. You don’t have the capacity.”
I wasn’t surprised by the things I was saying, but the Draak clearly was. I saw him turn to look at me in my peripheral, his eyes lingering as if he was expecting me to elaborate. I shifted my gaze in his direction, meeting his eyes and letting my honestly shape my expression so he knew. Perhaps he was surprised that I was so straight forward? Was that not normal?
“What?” I asked. “Did you think I’d tell you something else?”
“Haera hijacked your mind. You don’t seem angry about it.”
“That’s because I’m not. I see change in the future because of her. A world where monsters don’t exist. That warms me.”
“Haera is a monster.”
“We all think the things more powerful than us are monsters. It’s why humans kill Pikes. Why Draak cast them out. It’s been easy for Draak in the past, thinking you’re at the top of the ladder watching everyone else try to climb it while you burn the rungs. You’ve killed plenty of Pikes, haven’t you? Because we frightened you? Whether it’s the power we have or the genetic stain we represent, we terrify you. So, is that why I’m here, Ash Bringer? To be killed?”
“No,” he said, watching the road again with a focused stare, his jaw muscles clenching.
“You’re not very convincing.” I glanced down at my feet, which were now covered in brand new white sneakers. Good for running. “By the way,” I said, my hand sliding over the door handle. “Thanks for the shoes.”
I swung the door open, rolling out onto the street. Jumping from a moving car wasn’t exactly comfortable nor was it planned. I tumbled over the wet blacktop half a dozen times before catching myself in a backward somersault and bouncing to my feet. I headed off the road and into the woods, listening as the tires of the car screeched to a halt.
Sprinting into the dark night over uneven ground was familiar to me. I’d fled countless situations in countless conditions. I found my footing and passed through the trees as fast as my body could carry me, but the Draak was close behind. His boots crushed the ground beneath him as he entered the woods in my wake. The rain beat down on me, cutting through the fabric of my clothes and chilling my skin. The run would warm me. The fire in my blood. I picked up pace, getting more used to the patterns of the forest, but the Draak was gaining. He was fast. So was I. I pushed hard, branches snagging my hair as I passed them. My eyes adjusted as well as they could. It was enough to spot logs and rocks in my path so I could bound over them without stopping.
“Stop!” the Draak shouted.
His voice only made me run faster. Up ahead, there was a gorge. I could hear the fast-running water beneath the drop that was coming. I could make it across. Hopefully. The ground declined into a hill and I used it to propel me as I reached the ledge. I launched myself into the air, uncertain I’d reach the other side. It was at least fifteen feet across with raging waters flooding beneath me. When my feet hit the ground on the other side, I rolled into a landing, sloshing in leaves and mud, and kept running. I got about two steps before something crashed into me, knocking the wind from my lungs.
The Draak’s arms were around me, crushing my hands against my body. We both fell to the ground, our momentum throwing us into a barrel roll across the soft earth. I yelled out in retaliation and was met by angry growls as he wrestled his way on top of me. Somehow, I was on my back, the rain flooding my eyes. I threw up my arms to push him away, but he grabbed both of my wrists, pinning them on either side of my head. He straddled me as I kicked and bucked to get free, but it wasn’t long before I realized my strength was no match for his. How could I have thought otherwise? He was a Red. I could overpower younger, smaller dragons without a problem, but this one? There was no way.
I looked up at the Draak’s burning eyes and felt the heat of his flame bleeding from his skin. His lips peeled back, showing his fangs. I had fangs, too, and I displayed them with an angry hiss.
“Kill me, then!” I roared. “It’s what you do.”
“Shut up!” he yelled back at me.
“Make me. I’m not afraid of you. You can set this whole forest on fire and I’ll walk right out of it.”
“I’m not here to kill you.”
“Lies! You lie. It’s all you do! You’re not Draven Tempest and you’re not here to protect me. The only thing I need protecting from is you.”
Bucking my hips upward, I knocked the Draak’s body forward just enough to thrust my head into his nose. His grip loosened a fraction and I lifted myself on my legs, rolling him onto his back while he was disoriented. I pulled one wrist from his grasp, drawing back for a right hook. I landed it straight across his jaw, but he barely flinched. I hit him again and that time he released my other wrist.
I began throwing punches with both fists, one after the other. I could go at it for days and not make that much progress, so once I’d thrown five or six punches, I tried to flee. I stood, but my ankle collided with the Draak’s hand in the middle of my first step. My leg was swept out from under me and once more I was on the ground. I rolled onto my back in an attempt to defend myself, but he was there, towering over me.
The Draak’s eyes sparked with aggression, orange veins reaching out to frame them in fire. He scowled, reaching down and clamping a hand around my throat. I clutched his wrist, digging my nails into his skin as he lifted me out of the mud. I wasn’t small. I wasn’t some petite, lightweight woman. I was heavy and he hoisted me up with one hand without trouble until my toes were just skimming the soil. I felt heat searing my skin from beneath his palm. He stepped forward, pushing my back up against a tree, and held me there, glowering.
I flailed my legs, kicking at him. When that didn’t work, I reached for his face, but I could barely graze him. I was helpless, a feeling I despised more than anything in the world.
"Stop. Hitting. Me,” he growled through his teeth. “I am not here to kill you.” My vision doubled, everything fading in and out of focus as I tried to suck air through my crushed esophagus. “Do not run again.”
He released me from his grip. I fell to the ground, my legs collapsing beneath me. I wheezed. Then my wheezing became coughs and my coughs became snarls as I climbed to my feet again to face my captor. He stepped in close, staring me down with the eyes of a demon. I massaged my throat, water turning to steam when it hit my skin, just as it was doing on the Draak. My lips twitched with anger, but I did nothing. I was outmatched. For the moment.
“Tell me something that isn’t a lie,” I said through my bruised throat. “Who are you?”
“My name is Valerio,” he said.
Not surprised, I stepped into him, my breasts pressing against his chest, but he remained planted in place.
“I knew it,” I hissed. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“So are you,” he said, locking his hand around my arm in a vice grip. “Come on.”
Valerio started leading me back to the edge of the gorge and an idea struck. We were heading back to the road and I couldn’t have that. He would peel my brain apart and he would find out everything. If he did that, she’d punish me. I will have failed her and I couldn’t face that possibility. I listened to the rushing water below and decided I needed to do something stupid. So... I ripped from his grip, spinning to slap Valerio across the face, and leapt.