Zak waited for me by the door. He’d put on a black sweater, the hood drawn up and his face in shadow.
He pushed the door open. “Get some real clothes on. I’ll meet you outside.”
Some of my usual defiance awoke at his commanding tone, and I sneered as I started down the stairs. After shutting the door, he followed me to the bottom, then headed straight for the front porch. I jogged down the hall to the room I shared with the other girls.
Afternoon sunlight beamed through the window, and I puffed a relieved sigh to discover the bunk beds empty. Yanking open the third dresser drawer, I pulled out my original thrift-store outfit. Stripping off Zak’s shirt, I put mine on, then shimmied into the jeans. The Queen of Spades went in one pocket and the crystals went in another. It took an annoying fifteen seconds to stuff the long leather ties out of sight.
Only when I reached the front entryway did I realize my shoes were still upstairs in his bathroom—and covered in dragon blood. Only two pairs of shoes sat in the entryway, both way too small for me. I walked outside barefoot.
A hundred yards away, Zak leaned against the pasture fence, waiting. Panting from the jog, I joined him, the grass cool but prickly under my feet.
“Well?” I demanded. “Take me back.”
“I’m not taking you home. I’m sending you home. Just wait.”
“Sending me? What does that mean?”
His hood twitched as he moved his head, and I gritted my teeth. I wanted to see his face. I wanted to read those green eyes to determine how nasty he was feeling toward me. My neck prickled and I spotted various mythics watching us: Morgan and Miesha in the garden; Omar and Kayden standing by the open barn doors; and Terrance, Jasper, and Shanice walking back from the orchard.
“By the way, Tori.” A shiver ran down my spine at the sweet malice in Zak’s voice. “The interrogation spell you stole is a dark arts artifact. Don’t use it in front of anyone with a moral conscience.”
I sucked in a sharp breath.
“It lasts twenty minutes and takes a day to recharge. The fall spell lasts an hour and takes about eight hours to recharge. They need to be touching the target’s bare skin before they’re triggered.”
My hand went to my pocket where I’d stashed the crystals. “You … you’re letting me take them?”
“Do you remember the incantations?”
“Pretty sure I do.”
He studied me—at least, I thought he did—then patted his pockets, searching. He pulled out a pen. “You’re going to forget them. Give me your hand.”
“I won’t forget.” Despite my protest, I extended my hand. Better safe than sorry, I supposed.
He took my wrist and wrote across my palm. Still holding my arm, he used the pen to push his hood back enough that sunlight hit his green eyes. “If you get Nadine back, I’ll take her. This time I’ll keep her safe.”
Looking into his eyes, I knew that though he was a threat to me, to Nadine he was a guardian. He would protect her.
“If that’s what she wants,” I murmured, “I’ll get her back to you.”
He nodded and glanced skyward. “He’s here.”
I squinted into the sun—and all hell broke loose.
The sunlight darkened. Animals squealed and bolted. Humans screamed. With the air shimmering and rippling around it, a monstrous dragon glided out of the clear blue sky. I reflexively grabbed Zak’s arm, my fingers digging into his sleeve as the super-sized reptile landed in front of us, its wings booming from the air pressure.
I gawked at its dark, sleek body lined with those swirling galaxy patterns. Its head, framed by elegantly curving horns, dipped down until the giant nose hovered at chest height, nostrils flaring.
Zak pried my hands off his arm. “Echo owes you a favor for helping treat his nephew. He’s agreed to take you home.”
“But—but—how did you—so fast?”
“I’m a druid,” he replied like that explained everything.
I fought the urge to touch the dragon’s muzzle, only a few feet in front of me. “His nephew? I thought he was the father.”
“No, Tempest is his sister.”
My brow furrowed. “Tempest and Echo?”
“If you call their names silly, he’ll probably eat you.”
“Their names are lovely. Very majestic.”
A quiet sound of amusement slipped from the shadows of his hood. “Their real names are unpronounceable with a human tongue. Those are approximate translations.”
My eyes narrowed. Was he making fun of me? Before I could complain, he took my elbow. “Ready?”
“Hold up!” I dug in my heels. “That’s a dragon. Is it safe for him to fly over a city when—”
“He’s a wyldfae, Tori.” Zak pushed me toward the huge beast. “Don’t underestimate him. Just picture where you want to go in your head, and he’ll get you there.”
“That—that’s it? Are you sure this will work?”
“Yes.” He stepped back. “Trust me.”
I didn’t trust him, except … maybe I did. Under specific circumstances only. He was a cold-hearted creep but also a surprisingly noble, baby-dragon-saving warrior. In other words, a big walking contradiction, and I had no clue how to feel about him.
The dragon stretched one enormous front foot out and gently wrapped its claws around me. I grabbed its scaled toes—fingers?—and held on tightly as the creature lifted me into the air. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shiiiit. I was being carried by a dragon and it took all my concentration not to hyperventilate.
Zak tipped his head back, sunlight catching on his face. Our eyes met.
The dragon’s wings opened with a boom. Echo leaped into the sky and my stomach stayed on the ground. I clung to the dragon’s foot as his wings propelled us upward. Zak shrank to a black dot by the line of the fence, and for a brief moment, I was hanging in the air a mile above the valley, staring down at the rolling green fields, wooden barn, and rustic cabin, bordered on all sides by forested mountain peaks.
Then the air rippled. Hot, electric magic rushed over me, and with a soft hiss, the world disappeared into shimmering distortions.
My weightless stomach informed me I was falling. Or at least descending. Plunging to my death?
Wind whipped across my face and my vision blurred in and out, colors rippling all around me. The feeling of movement and the blurry swirls had been going on for a while, but I’d lost all sense of time. Only the dragon’s claws around my middle felt real. Scrunching my eyes shut, I focused as hard as I could on the Crow and Hammer. My bar. My guild.
Our movement slowed and I pried my eyes open. Everything was still rippling, but now I could make out boxy gray shapes dotted with green. Wait. That was a city. I was looking at a city!
Wings spread wide, Echo spiraled down. The closer we got, the more the weird ripples dissipated until I could make out the familiar skyscrapers, the long piers of the marina, the deep blue ocean. Afternoon traffic zoomed along the streets and pedestrians swarmed the sidewalk in ant-like droves.
How would all those people react to a dragon in the sky? Could they see us?
Echo drifted into another wide spiral, moving away from the skyscrapers as his head swung to one side then the other. With a quiet rumble, he pulled his wings in. We plummeted, hitting terminal velocity in seconds. I choked on a scream as he stretched his neck out, nose pointed into the dive. Buildings rushed toward us.
Way too close to imminent death, he snapped his wings open. My stomach kept falling at full speed as I felt like I was pulled upward. His wings shimmered, then his whole form blurred. The pressure of the dragon foot around my middle disappeared.
For a terrifying second, I was falling. Then something else closed tightly around me.
Strong human arms held me around the waist as I floated toward the street below. Gasping soundlessly, I turned my head and met a pair of almost-human, midnight-blue eyes.
My bare feet lightly touched the ground, then the hands released me, sliding along my arm and gently grasping my fingers instead. A fae hovered beside me, dark wings arching out from a humanlike body. His face was beautifully androgynous, his eyes huge and bottomless, his skin like flawless porcelain. His black hair with shimmering streaks of blue and purple was pulled into a loose plait that hung past his waist.
“Echo?” I whispered.
The dragon’s wings, the dragon’s tail, the dragon’s claws—they adorned his new shape. Delicate horns poked out of his hair and his ears were sharply pointed. Draping garments more exotic than anything I’d ever seen clothed his lean body in shades of blue.
He smiled, revealing carnivorous teeth. “You are home?”
I shivered. His rolling, lilting accent didn’t hide the otherworldly quality of his voice. Dragging my stare away from him, I looked around. I was standing in the middle of a quiet street, and across from me was an unassuming three-story cube of a building, its black door beckoning. The Crow and Hammer. I was back.
Okay then. That had been way too easy.
“This seems too little,” Echo murmured, mirroring my thoughts and drawing my wide eyes back to his alien features. Human-ish, but obviously not human at the same time. “For the blood of my blood’s life, I will aid you again—but only once.”
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