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Anastasia paused, as if she was choosing her response carefully. When she finally spoke it was just to say a simple, “Thank you, Bryan.” And she bowed her head slightly, respectfully, to him.

“Call me Dragon,” he said, trying not to show how much that one small sign of respect had affected him.

“Dragon,” she repeated. “I’m sorry. I keep forgetting. It’s just that ‘Bryan’ seems to suit you.”

“You would know that ‘Dragon’ suits me were you on the other side of my sword,” he said. And then realizing how arrogant that must have sounded he added hastily, “Not that I would ever attack a priestess. I just meant that if you saw me during a swordfight you would understand my nickname. When I fight I become the dragon.”

“That probably won’t happen any time soon,” she said.

“You truly dislike me.”

“No! It has nothing to do with you. I dislike violence. I was raised—” Anastasia broke off, shaking her head. “That has nothing to do with the drawing spell, and we need to keep focused. Let’s begin. Take three deep, slow breaths with me and clear your mind, please.”

Dragon didn’t want to. He wanted to ask her about how she’d been raised—about what had happened to her that had made her dislike violence so much—but the three years of spells and rituals training had him automatically following her lead and breathing along with her.

“The circle is already cast; we won’t need to redo that,” she said, taking a thick braid of half-burned grass from the altar. Anastasia glanced at him. “Do you know what this is?”

“Sweetgrass,” he said.

“Good,” she said. “Do you know what it’s used for in spellwork?”

He made himself hesitate, as if he had to think hard to remember the answer. “Clearing negative energy?” Bryan purposefully made the answer into a question.

“Yes. That’s correct. Very good.” Anastasia spoke to him like he was a first-year fledgling. He hid his smile from her while she held the braided grass over the green earth candle. It relit easily. Then, wafting it clockwise around them, she turned to him and said, “I begin with sweetgrass to cleanse this space…” She paused, giving him an expectant look.

“Any negative energy must leave this place.” With no hesitation, he said the rest of the opening spellwork line that completed the sweetgrass cleansing.

She beamed her pleasure in a sweet smile that made his breath catch in his throat, and Dragon was suddenly very, very glad he’d always been especially good at spells and rituals.

Anastasia placed the smoking braid back on the altar and then she took a pinch of herbs from the first velvet bag. She walked to him and he held his hand up for her, palm cupped, as she’d shown him. Anastasia sprinkled the bits of dried leaves, whose smell was familiar to him not just because he’d recently had the things blown in his face but also because he actually had spent the past three years paying attention in class. So when the priestess said, “Awareness and clarity come with these leaves of bay…,” paused, and glanced at him it was an automatic, easy response for him to complete the line with, “Through earth we call their power today.”

She rewarded him with another sweet smile before going to the second velvet bag. She returned to sprinkle dried needles over the bay leaves. “Cedar, from you it is courage, protection, and self-control I seek.”

“Lend us your strength so that this spell shall not be weak,” he recited quickly, not waiting for her pause.

This time Anastasia’s smile seemed thoughtful, which made Dragon feel self-satisfied. More than a little smug, he was sitting there, smiling, knowing that the last ingredient of the spell would be salt to bind it, when the priestess shocked him completely by reaching forward and resting her hand softly on his head. He felt a jolt at her touch and his gaze went to hers. Her eyes widened and her voice definitely sounded breathless as she said, “A part of this spell should come from you…”

She paused and this time all he could do was sit there, silent, with his pulse pounding as her hand slid down toward his cheek. “So that it is cast straight, strong, and true.” Her slim white fingers wrapped around several strands of hair that had escaped from the piece of leather that held the rest of it back, out of his way. Then she tugged. Hard. And plucked several strands from his head, which she dropped into his waiting palm.

Dragon resisted the urge to yelp and rub his scalp.

Only then did she turn to the third velvet pouch and come back with the crystals of salt, but she didn’t sprinkle them over the mixture in his hand. Instead she took his other hand and led him from where he was sitting on the altar rock. Slowly, as she still held his hand in hers, the two of them began to walk clockwise around the glowing candles. Anastasia’s voice changed as she got to the heart of the spell. Dragon couldn’t complete the lines for her because he’d never heard this particular casting, but as she spoke and they moved around the stone he could feel the power of the spell wash over them. He became caught in her words, drawn to them as if they had texture and touch.

“A drawing spell is what we work tonight.

Our wish is to cast clarity of sight.

With leaves of bay we will reveal the truth

Love should not be based on arrogant youth.

Cedar strength protects from the boy’s misdeeds,

Lends courage and control to fulfill their needs.”

Dragon was so caught up in the sound of her voice that it took him a moment to process what she was actually saying. By the time he understood she was probably calling him an arrogant miscreant, they’d come to a halt before the red fire candle and she turned to face him. Cradling his hand that cupped the herbs, she added the salt to the mixture, intoning, “Salt is the key to bind this spell to me.”

Then she guided their joined hands over the red candle and, as she scooped out the mixture and fed it to the flame, said, “In this flame the magick cuts like a sword drawing only the truth of Bryan Dragon Lankford!”

With a whoosh! the flame ate the mixture, blazing up so high that Dragon had to pull his hand back to avoid being scorched.

At the Tower Grove House of Night, fifteen young fledglings paused. It was near enough to dawn that seven of them were already asleep, and in their dreams drifted a suggestion, scented with bay and cedar.

This then is true:

Dragon Lankford’s future will not touch you …

* * *

Sally McKenzie was giggling with her roommate, Isis, and talking about how handsome Dragon was when suddenly she cocked her head and told Isis, “I—I think we should change our minds.

“He is brave—he is strong—

but for both of us Dragon Lankford is wrong.”

Isis, her giggles stilled, shrugged and nodded in agreement. Both girls blew out their bedside lights and went to sleep feeling more than slightly uneasy.

* * *

Into the two infatuated boys’ minds came the clear thought:

You will never know Dragon Lankford’s touch;

his desires are not as such.

One fledgling wept quietly into his pillow. The other stared at the full moon and wondered if he would ever be loved.

* * *

Four of the six fledglings who were finishing their turn at kitchen duty hesitated at their work. Camellia looked at Anna, Anya, and Beatrice and said:

“I am too smart

to believe Dragon would ever give me his heart.”

Anna gasped and dropped the porcelain cup she was holding. It shattered into the stunned silence.

“I would believe I found love in his bed,

but he would use and discard me instead.”

Then Anya spoke, bending to help Anna clean up the shattered cup:

“His sword is his life;

I care not for such strife.”

Next, Beatrice’s face lost all of its color as she whispered:

“A human consort is my fate.

With a vampyre I will never find my true mate.”

* * *

In the sumptuous living quarters of the Tower Grove House of Night’s High Priestess, Pandeia was welcoming her mate into their bed when Diana’s beautiful face registered surprise and she said:

“The Lankford fledgling’s fate will be

beyond what you or I could possibly see.”

“Diana? Are you well?” Pandeia touched her mate’s cheek and looked deep within her eyes.

Diana shook her head like a cat ridding itself of water. “I am. I–that was odd. Those words were not mine.”

“What were you thinking of before you spoke?”

She shrugged. “I suppose I was wondering if all the Warriors had returned from the games yet, and was thinking that Dragon has done our House proud.”

The High Priestess nodded, suddenly understanding. “It is Anastasia’s spell. It has drawn the truth about Dragon to those who were thinking of him at its casting.”

Diana snorted. “I am hardly a besotted fledgling.”

Pandeia smiled. “Of course you are not, my love. This demonstrates the strength of young Anastasia’s spell. We can rest assured there will be no obsessed fledglings trailing about after him tomorrow.”

“I almost feel sorry for the boy.”

“Do not. If any of the fledglings were meant to love him, a splash of reality wouldn’t wash true love away. And anyway, what was revealed to you shows that Dragon does, indeed, have a bright future.”

Diana returned her mate’s embrace, saying, “Or, at the very least, he’ll have an interesting one.”

* * *

At the Chicago House of Night, where the Vampyre Games had recently concluded, Aurora, a beautiful young vampyre, paused mid-word in the letter she was composing to the fledgling who had warmed her bed and her heart after he had defeated every swordsman who came against him. Dragon Lankford had claimed the title of Sword Master, along with Aurora’s affection. Yet now she found herself putting aside her quill and lifting the thin paper sheet to touch the flame of the closest candle to her as she realized the truthfulness of the words that flitted through her mind whispering:

It was but a fling.

Another vampyre will truly make my heart sing.

What had she been thinking? Dragon had been a lovely diversion and no more.

* * *

And, finally, inside the forbidding brick building that served as jailhouse for St. Louis, Missouri, the whispers on the wind drifted down … down … down … to the bowels of the place and the hidden room in which Sherriff Jesse Biddle paced back and forth in front of the creature he held his captive in a cage of silver. He didn’t actually talk to it so much as talk at it. “I have to learn how to use more of your power. I need to be able to stand against the vampyres. They’re too blatant. It’s like they think they’re normal—that they have a right to be here!” he shouted. “I hate ’em. I hate ’em all! Especially that snot-nosed brat of a fledgling. You shoulda seen him get off the boat tonight. All big chested with his victory. Do you know what he calls himself? Dragon Lankford! He ain’t no dragon. He’s the same little bastard who’s been struttin’ round here for three years with that bright, shiny sword actin’ like he’s better then everyone—every human. What an arrogant little son-of-a—”

The keening from the creature was eerie. It made Biddle’s skin crawl.

“Shut up or I’ll throw some of that salt water on you again. That’ll burn you up good like the proper chicken you are!”

Eyes that looked disturbingly human in the face of the enormous raven met his. Though the creature was only semi-substantial, its eyes glowed a strong, steady red.

“Through your obsesssssion with Dragon Lankford hissss future I ssssee.

He will change hisssstory.”

Biddle looked at the thing with disgust. “Why would I care about that?”

“His love issss the key

to defeat the likessss of you and me.”

“What are you talking ’bout, foul beast?”

“If Dragon is allowed to burn bright

he will extinguish the Dark light.”

That caused Biddle to pause. He’d trapped this semi-substantial manbeast as it absorbed the last bits of strength from a dying Indian Shaman. The old redskin had managed to throw this strange cage of silver around the creature, but the Shaman had been too weak—too near death—to recover from the creature’s attack when Biddle had happened by the old man’s shack. The old man’s last words had been: “Burn sweetgrass to ward it off. Weight the cage with turquoise stones. Throw it in a barrel of salt water so that it can never take another’s power…”

Biddle had quickly decided he’d be damned if he’d waste his time following an old, dead Injun’s orders. He started to go, leaving the body and the thing in the cage for the next passerby to clean up.

Then the creature had turned its red eyes on him.

Human eyes.

Almost as repulsed as he was fascinated, Biddle had moved closer to try to see exactly what the thing was.

It was then that Biddle saw them. The moving darkness within the shadows surrounding the thing.

He’d come closer to the cage.

It was then that Biddle felt it. The power that slithered from the creature, through the cage, and along the floor to the dead man, and there it paused and hovered and then descended into the blood that had pooled on the ground around his mouth.

Something about that wriggling, shadowy darkness had goaded Biddle to move, to get closer, to touch. Acting on an impulse from the basest part of his mind, Biddle stepped between the cage and the dead man, wading into the strands of darkness.

Remembering, Sherriff Biddle closed his eyes in ecstasy. The pain had been cold and sharp and immediate, but so had been the power and pleasure that had swelled though him as some of the darkness had been absorbed through his skin and into his soul.

***

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