I closed my eyes, trying to shut down my reaction, and a vision of fair features and waist-length silver hair floated in front of me. He'd been the youngest of the delegation to Father, or so I'd thought. The seemingly teenaged face probably hid hundreds of years of experience, but I hadn't known enough about the Fey at the time to realize it. I could still recall every one of his mocking words when I'd tenuously responded to the heat in his eyes. I really didn't want to see that expression on Heidar's face.
"I'm sorry." I tried to move away, but strong fingers laced with mine.
"I know how you Fey think of us, of humans." I tugged backward, but Heidar held on.
"And how is that?"
I opened my eyes to glare at him. "We're disgusting to you," I said, echoing that long-ago, contemptuous voice. "Nauseating, untouchable."
Heidar's free hand deliberately skimmed down my side.
The play of light and shadow over the muscles in his arm was mesmerizing. "Who told you that?"
"One of the group who tried to buy me."
"Svarestri." The way he said it, the name sounded almost obscene. The glow of the fire bathed his face in flickering vermilion shadows, making him look dangerous. My body liked that; lately, it seemed to like everthing.
"I suppose. He said – "
"Forget what he said." Heidar pulled me onto his lap, those large hands encircling my waist as warm lips ghosted against my hair. "I've heard it all before. They despise anyone of thin blood, as they call it. It's caused them to miss out on wonders before this."
"I'm not a wonder."
A warm finger traced the line of my cheek. "Could have fooled me."
I leaned in to kiss him but he pulled back. "What's wrong?" I demanded. He'd just finished telling me how he didn't think like the Svarestri, and now he didn't want to touch me?
"Claire, have you ever been with one of us?"
I suddenly found it impossible to focus on what those perfect lips were saying – I was too busy thinking of things I would like to have them do. I dragged him into a desperate kiss, hands sliding everywhere, finally running my fingers through that beautiful hair. For a moment, he was right there with me, his passion matching my own, then he was grasping my shoulders, holding us apart.
"Claire, listen to me!" He was talking, saying my name, but he may as well have been speaking whatever language the Fey used, because I couldn't understand him. I felt horribly tangled up inside, and the pressure that had been building in my chest since I first caught sight of him threatened to smother me. I thought I was going to choke, to die; not from lack of air but from lack of him, something I seemed to heed almost as badly. Heidar remained where he was, conflict clear on his face as he searched mine. Then, finally, he gave a rueful smile. "I should never have said I like to live dangerously," he commented. I had no idea what he was talking about, but then he was kissing me and it didn't seem to matter.
Warm, agile fingertips brushed all of the sensitive spots along my ribs as his hands smoothed up my body, caressing my skin through the thin silk of my dress. A tongue ran hot and rough along my throat, reducing me to a delirious, aching, raw nerve. I shivered as he brushed aside the straps of my gown, and when his lips found a nipple the explosion of sensation caused me to jerk violently. He lost his balance and we tumbled off the chair, but I kept contact, riding him to the floor.
I started out on top, trapping his body beneath me, leaning forward to suck hard at his lips and tongue, claiming him with a passion that was almost rage. It should have scared me, to feel anything that strong, but I couldn't think and didn't care. For awhile, I almost forgot where I was, even who I was, as a dark tide swept me to a place beyond thought, where worry and apprehension melted into liquid pulsing need.
The hunger I felt was matched in Heidar's kiss, hot and bruising and violently satisfying. He met me with the same level of passion I gave, one hand sliding to my waist, pressing me against him, the other behind my neck to hold me in place while hard lips crushed mine. His tongue in my mouth was possessive and demanding, matching my almost anguished desire. Burning, braising kisses continued, tongues dueling, thighs intertwined, until I was breathless.
Somehow I ended up on my back, a strong, warm body pressing me down, being kissed with a desire that still matched my own, but was suddenly more tender. His hands glided down my sides, sliding the gown the rest of the way off my body. An alarm was blaring somewhere in my mind, but he had paused to kiss my throat and I couldn't concentrate with his breath on my skin.
His tongue found the edge of a nipple and he traced it lightly, delicately, the strokes barely there, yet sparking down every nerve. He pulled the tight little nub he'd created into his mouth and caught it between his teeth, sharp enough to make me gasp. It was almost a bite, almost pain, but stopped just short. He flicked it with his tongue, swept around the areola, and captured it again. Then he drew that tender flesh completely into his mouth and began to suck.
I felt like I was drowning. There was just too much stimulus – the pull of his lips on my body, the sounds he made deep in his throat, the decadent feeling of his hair falling over my bare skin. The contrast of those silken strands with the hardness suddenly pressing against me made my breath catch. I wanted to wrap all that softness around me while that firmness thrust into me. I wanted to see those intent eyes grow unfocused with pleasure. I wanted to make him scream.
His hands caressed down my sides, while his mouth explored me. I shivered as that tongue swept lower, teasing around my navel and then at the fragile silk barrier that was all that remained of my clothes. Then he paused, looking up at me along the length of my body. "There is something I need to be certain you understand."
His voice poured over me, the words indistinct and meaningless. My brain didn't seem to be working and my eyes kept closing in pleasure. And why bother with words? The raw sensuality in his voice and the glazed eyes behind his lashes spoke a lot clearer. I pulled him up to me, and when he was close enough, I kissed him long and slow. My thumb stroked his lower lip as we broke apart, while my other hand slid through soft curls to warm satin, loving the deep shudder that racked him as I stroked.
"You've convinced me," he gasped. I arched up, relishing the heaviness, and the sheer, wonderful solidity of him. I lost myself for a moment in the rushing bliss of skin on skin. I realized that my hands were digging into the hard muscles of Heidar's back as I tried to meld our bodies even closer, but he didn't seem to mind. He pulled down my remaining scrap of clothing, then he was burying himself in me, his rich-blue eyes closed in bliss.
The feeling was so perfect that I almost passed out, and when he began to move, pleasure blossomed in nerve endings I hadn't even known I had. I wrapped my legs around him, holding him with my entire body as we found a rhythm. The sensations that followed were mindless, exquisite joy. My nerves all seemed to melt and run together, my veins pulsing with heat, and for a moment, it was absolutely glorious.
And then the pain began.
Without warning, the seductive warmth of his touch changed to blazing heat. A scorching tide rolled up my body, sizzling along every nerve, an electric pulse that had nothing to do with pleasure. White-hot fire erupted behind my eyes, and I stiffened, shocked by pain as sudden and intense as the pleasure had been. Blistering, incandescent waves of agony flooded my mind until I knew nothing else, saw it as an almost living thing, possessing me, consuming me. My blood felt like fire in my veins, searing the living tissue around it into dying, charred cinders. I tried to scream, but couldn't.
Every nerve was flame, every breath agony, but worst of all, another presence was suddenly inside my mind, alien and familiar all at once. It was as if someone, or something, long imprisoned had been set free. And it was angry.
I stared at Heidar, but he had rolled off me to crouch a few feet away, looking wary. He said something, but I couldn't hear him over the rushing in my ears; it sounded like the violent windstorm outside was suddenly in my head. I reached out to him, and when I caught sight of my arm, I was finally able to scream.
It wasn't my arm anymore. In place of my pale, freckled skin was a thick crust of blue-gray scales glittering dully in the firelight, and over the top of that, a grayish membrane was unfurling, translucent except for a network of fine azure veins. It took my frozen brain a few seconds to realize that it was a wing, and that it was protruding from my shoulder.
I simply lay there, not able to process what I was seeing. "What's happening?" I finally managed to whisper, and my voice sounded all wrong, lower and gravelly, like I had a mouth full of rocks. I realized a moment later that the rocks were teeth, big ones, that were starting to grow from my suddenly elongated jaw. I yelped, and it took the form of a tortured scream of burning air that hit the Fey, lifting him off his feet and tossing him completely through one wall of the shed.
Rain blew in, dousing the fire and wetting my face, but suddenly I could see everything perfectly. The horse bucked and whinnied, its eyes showing white all around. I tried to yell at it to shut up, to let me think, but instead of words, a cloud of pure fire erupted all around me. It turned half of the shed into a burgeoning hell of midnight flame and ruby luminescence, and baked the poor creature alive.
A bitter taste flooded my mouth, as I scrambled to my feet. But I kept it closed, staring at the smoking remains in disbelief. Blood was pounding in my ears, my heart was beating far too quickly and I was fast reaching a whole new level of horror. I raised my eyes to meet Heidar's shining blue ones. He was peering over the remains of the wall, his tousled hair sticking out wildly in every direction.
"Well, that didn't go so badly," he said, his voice unsteady.
I stared at him, wanting to tell him to run, to get as far away as possible from whatever was happening to me. But I didn't dare open my mouth, and he slowly climbed into the room, past charred bricks and falling timbers.
He picked up the bucket carefully, letting me see every move as he made it as if I was a wild animal he didn't want to spook. He held the reflective surface in front of me, at eye level. For a moment, all I could see was the reflection of the flames, then I realized what else I was looking at.
My vision was surprisingly clear, but my mind was uncomprehending. The reflection showed me a short gray snout studded with gleaming teeth. Above it rose eyes with evil-looking, slitted pupils, but of a ridiculous pale lavender color. My eyes filled with tears, and so did those staring at me from the side of the bucket. The horrible realization hit home, and I batted the thing away with a hand that had sprouted inch-long talons.
The bucket ricocheted off the wall and landed back at Heidar's feet. He bent to pick it up, and a hiss, low and menacing, issued from between my tightly clenched teeth. Once was enough. I didn't need to see it again.
He let it go, but straightened with a frown on his face. "I think I would like some answers," he announced.
He would like some answers?
He moved forward and I tried to shuffle back, but something stopped me. I looked behind me to see huge, scale-covered haunches and a fat tail, wedged in between the remaining shed walls. Grayish-black wings, like a bat's if they were blown up about a hundred times in size, moved with me, and the sound of them scraping over the scales made me shudder.
"Claire." I whipped around at Heidar's voice and found him within a few feet of me. Had he somehow missed the charred body of the horse? It was slowly crumbling to dust under the driving pressure of the rain, but was still recognizable. Did he want to join it? "This is... a little unexpected," he said, putting out a hand to take hold of my clawed paw. He patted it gently. "But we'll get through it."
Get through it? I stared at him, completely at a loss. He was crazier than I was.
"I know it's likely difficult to concentrate right now," he said, then stopped. His face contorted, and he began making a low, strangled sound. After a minute, I realized that he was trying not to laugh. He finally swallowed it back down. "But you need to, ah, try to visualize your old form."
I glared at him, and my newly acquired tail began whipping back and forth. It hit the side of the shed with a crack, knocking most of it out and sending the door spinning away into the night. Without that support, the rest of the building gave way and, with a groan of splintering wood, caved in around us.
Several large roof beams hit the top of my head and bounced off. They hurt, but not badly, which probably explained why Heidar had burrowed beneath my front paws, using my new, huge belly as shelter. I roared in confusion, pain and sheer disbelief, and set a nearby tree on fire. Beyond it, I saw lights flicker on in what my improved vision told me was a farmhouse. Oh, shit.
The farmer must have been having a sleepover, because within seconds, four or five well-armed figures were running toward us, yelling something that didn't sound friendly. Heidar looked up at me, his eyes serious for once. "You have to fly us out of here."
Even if I'd been able to talk, I would probably have been speechless. After a minute, he nodded, swallowing hard. "Okay, plan B." He started pushing at me, and actually succeeded in making me waddle a few steps back. "The tree line," he panted, "run for it!"
I barely heard him. I'd just caught sight of my toes, which were peeking out from under the giant swell of my belly, their two-inch-long talons ripping up the ground as I moved. For some reason, that small detail suddenly overwhelmed me. I'd been treated like a monster all my life, but I'd never looked the part before, and it filled me with shame, deep and bitter and smothering, to the point that it was a straggle just to breathe.
My head started to pound, a vivid, furious pain behind the temples. I raised a hand to my face, but only succeeded in jabbing myself in the snout with a claw. I felt around more carefully after that, and discovered an arrow that had lodged itself between two of my scales that didn't overlap perfectly. I could feel sticky blood leaking down the side of what had once been my face, and it brought me back to my surroundings.
Two Fey were lying on the ground nearby, their long silver hair bright against the black soil. Heidar was battling another, and seemed to be holding his own, as the remainder were content to hide behind the smoldering remains of the shed, lobbing arrows at me. Heidar looked up after knocking out his opponent, a fierce triumph on his features. But in this form, my height was greater than his and I could see the village guards hotfooting it toward us down the road. There had to be fifty of them, and judging by the amount of weapons they carried, they hadn't come to let bygones be bygones. Heidar saw them a second later, after they rounded the bend leading up to the house, and his face lost its happy glow.
They showed none of the caution they'd used before, but ran right at us. "They're thinking of the podium in the alley. They don't think you're real!" Heidar whispered. "Let them get a little closer, then take them out."
I blinked at him in slow horror. He couldn't be serious. He'd seen the horse – did he actually expect me to do that to people? I opened my mouth to tell him off, but instead of words, the air erupted in another cloud of gold and ruby fire. Several arrows incinerated mid-air, and a nearby tree exploded in a hail of burning bark and wet leaves. I snapped my mouth shut, horrified, but none of the Fey had been close enough to get charred. They dove for cover in ditches beside the road, sinking beneath the flood that had almost filled them until only the tops of their heads showed.
"Fight or run," Heidar told me urgently. "There are no other choices!" I stood there, looking back and forth from him to the Fey. "This isn't New York," he said, his hands gripping me hard enough that I could feel it even through the scales. "Understand me, Claire. They will kill us if they can."
Almost as if to underscore his point, we were suddenly inundated with a whole swarm of arrows. It seemed wet ones could still fly. Too bad I couldn't. I might have wings, but I didn't know how to use them. I wasn't even sure which muscles to flex to unfurl them, but I had to try.
I managed to get one wing off my back, mostly by luck, but as soon as I tried to raise it, arrows rained down on me from two directions at once. The archers behind the shed had decided to combine their force with those in the ditches, and every single one of them was aiming for me. Pain tore at me as several projectiles ripped through the thin membrane of the wing. It didn't bleed much, but it also didn't look like it was going to fly full of holes.
Most of the other arrows were bouncing harmlessly off my scales, but a few here and there were finding chinks in my armor. Black blood spattered onto Heidar's face from a wound in my shoulder. He wiped it off with his hand and stared at it, his face furious. I wondered in a detached sort of way how long it would take before the blood loss killed me.
Then things managed to get even worse. An inhuman screech echoed across the forest like thunder. For a moment, I thought that's what it was, but all the Fey suddenly stopped firing and looked up. I did the same, but although the rain had finally slowed, I couldn't see anything but angry dark clouds with a sliver of moon behind them.
Then, out of a cloud bank burst a sight from a fairy tale, with glowing, torchlit eyes, leathery wings and scales that glittered like diamonds in the starlight. It swooped down over us and the next second, the road, the shed and the nearby trees erupted in a rush of sound and strange, crimson flame. The Fey scattered, some on fire, for the shelter of the forest. I stayed put with Heidar crouched beneath me, relieved to find that my scales didn't burn.
The person who seemed to be in charge of the guards regrouped them after a few moments, but before they could do more than release a few arrows, there was an ear-shattering boom and a flash of painfully bright light, and a fireball barreled right for them. It was beautiful, red and orange, with little tongues of green flame lapping at the edges. But the Fey didn't seem to appreciate the sight. There was a lot of screaming and running and what little cohesion they'd had broke apart. Then the dragon landed and went on a rampage, devouring the closest guards in a few gulps before beginning to pursue the ones that darted in and out and up the trees in a vain attempt to escape. A few got away, haring back down the road, running past the burning hole in the ground where the fireball had struck. But most remained, either seared alive or serving as dragon-food.
"Claire, listen to me," Heidar said in a furious whisper. "The Dark Fey have a very low birth rate – even worse than ours. Most of them can't interbreed with humans and that, plus losses against the Alorestri, have seriously reduced their numbers."
I looked at him blankly. Why the hell was he telling me this now! I could smell the burning flesh on the wind, and hear the sounds of carnage from within the trees. I felt sick.
"He probably won't kill you," Heidar continued, "as long as you show the proper respect. When he emerges, don't challenge him. Just stay perfectly still as he looks you over, wings folded, head down."
I vaguely wondered what else he thought I was going to do. My head was killing me from the arrow still sticking out of it, and my wings were useless. Not to mention that this body I'd somehow acquired looked nothing like the dragon's streamlined, lithe form. I doubted if those little wings could lift my bulk even if I figured out how they worked.
The scene wavered in front of me as the dragon emerged from the woods. He stepped on the body of a fallen Fey, grinding it into the mud. Then he just stood there, looking at me for a long moment. Despite the horrific things I'd seen him do, I couldn't help but be awed. He was a terrible, but strangely beautiful, sight. His golden scales had a reflective quality that mine lacked. Flames from the burning trees reflected off them, painting him dark orange and red in places. His wings, which he didn't seem to have any trouble controlling, were huge, black things that made mine look almost vestigial. As I watched, they folded neatly over his back.
He moved closer, not the clumsy waddle I'd been doing, but with almost snakelike fluidity. His large golden eyes looked me over, taking his time. His long snout nudged Heidar, who I was proud to see didn't go screaming after the other Fey, although he looked like he was thinking about it. Then the snout brushed against my tattered wing and a whimper slipped out between my lips. It was half pain, half knowledge that I was no more match for him than I had been for the guards. His talons were fully six inches long, and glittered like daggers at the end of his paws.
He paused, and reared back at my small cry. He said something, actually spoke, but it was in a language I didn't know. It had a liquid undercurrent that washed over me almost like a caress. Then his form wavered like it was melting. But there was no residue on the ground, nothing to show he'd been there except a tall man with dark red hair and a tender expression.
"You have your mother's eyes," he told me, right before I passed out.