I was completely alone.
I didn’t know where Dristan was, where Warrick, Torryn and Marrok were. I didn’t know if the wards had been dropped yet, or if the human soldiers had already breached our perimeters.
All I knew was that I was alone, and that I had to hurry.
And gods above, I hurried. I shot like an arrow through the trees. I moved faster than I’d ever moved in my life. I used my power over the wind to lift my feet off the ground, but I didn’t dare move above the treeline. I could’t risk giving away my position in case the soldiers were already near.
I skated through the air, pushing my legs, using the wind to propel me at maximum speed. Sharp branches, thorns and leaves smacked against my forearms, my cheeks, my ears... But I could hardly feel the sting of them.
All I could think about was what Ronan’s impersonator had whispered to me. That one, eerie, terrifying word bombarded my mind, again and again, as I flew through the trees.
Hurry, hurry, hurry...
I could’ve easily said to hell with it and ignored the impersonator’s request to place the rune’s where he’d wanted them. But I was wary of what he might do if I didn’t acquiesce to his request. We knew nothing about this person, who he was, or how powerful he might be. He had already nearly killed Dristan, and had been possessing Ronan without our knowledge for quite some time. He’d set us up.
He’d tricked the human king into following him, so he was obviously good at deceiving others. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to know what else this mysterious person was capable of. Whatever his reasons were for opening the portal here, he had gone through great lengths to make sure it happened. I didn’t know why, but I did know that if he didn’t get what he wanted, we would likely have more dangerous issues to worry about other than the human soldiers.
For now, I would play along. As long as the humans and the king were disposed of, the rest didn’t matter. Not right now, anyway... I would deal with the impersonator later. I could only deal with one problem at a time...
A shrill, piercing sound echoed through the skies above me. An unmistakable sound.
My eyes shot toward the sky as I continued to skate on the wind, but the canopies were too thick to be able to see anything. I growled with frustration, my worry for Dristan taking over, and I inched closer to the treetops.
Pausing for just a moment, I poked my head out from between the canopies and searched the skies. I didn’t have to look for very long. I gasped out loud as my gaze zeroed in on the enormous, black and silvered colored Dragon.
The sight of his beauty momentarily stunned me as I gaped at the enormous, almighty creature. I watched in awe as he made a circle in the sky, gliding through the wind with impossible grace. He banked left, and the sunlight lit up the details of his wings as it illuminated them from the opposite side.
Even from this distance, I could see the intricate details of deep purple swirls and dark red veins that spider webbed throughout the thin membranes. He was so beautiful. So impossibly beautiful.
He leveled out and began to hover above the clearing where our soldiers were stationed. He let out a deafening roar as his wings began beating fast and powerfully. I glanced to the left, and then to the right, ahead and behind me, studying the vast land surrounding the Aviary. Some part were covered with trees, others were sparse, and others were wide fields littered with lush grass and wildflowers.
But all of the varying parts of the forest had something in common. They were all being slowly invaded by a dangerous threat. I could see the haze of the violet colored night-bane gas surrounding the entire boarder of our land. It billowed inward in a circular shape, inching closer and closer to where our soldiers waited.
But as Dristan continued to beat his mighty wings, the creeping clouds of gas began to move in the opposite direction. The force of wind created by his wings was literally pushing the gas away. It was working! A brief wave of relief washed over me.
But when a sudden barrage of arrows flew toward Dristan’s dragon, that quickly relief turned to panic.
It took every ounce of effort in my body to hold back the blood curdling scream that had become lodged in my throat. I covered my mouth with my hands as I watched the Dragon catch sight of the arrows and let out a roar of fury.
Instead of dodging the arrows, or fleeing in the opposite direction, he turned toward the danger that flew straight for him. He seemed to welcome the several arrows that were spearing straight toward his chest.
I wanted to scream “What the hell are you doing?!” But I held my tongue.
The arrows collided with his chest, breaking into several pieces upon impact. The broken arrows bounced off of Dristan’s armor harmlessly and then tumbled down through the air like useless twigs.
I sagged with relief.
Dristan turned, snorting angrily before ascending into the skies,. He continued to beat his membranous wings and dispel the gas away from his men. I lowered my trembling hands from my mouth and let out a sigh of emotional exhaustion.
The soldiers were already here. They were already firing arrows at Dristan, and would probably be upon our soldiers at any moment. I had to get the runes placed before our soldiers began luring the humans closer to the Aviary.
If I didn’t have the portal spell ready before then, the humans would be able to storm the entrance and get inside.
Time was running out.
Hurry, hurry, hurry....
“Dristan! They’re here! They’re here!”
Even through the roaring sound of the wind, and the growing commotion beneath me, my sensitive ears picked up on the voice of my first in command.
With my dragon’s wings still beating fiercely, my eyes snapped downwards and zeroed in on Warrick. He stood at the front of the army, beside Torryn, their shields raised and their swords drawn.
“Prepare yourselves!” Torryn bellowed to the army. The Dragons and Fae behind them followed suit, not an ounce of fear hinted within their eyes.
To the far left, I spotted Marrok and his wolf soldiers. Marrok gave me a pointed look of determination before he turned toward the group of wolves behind him, shouting orders.
A dull roar began to fill the trees before us. With each moment that passed, the sound grew louder. And soon, the war cries of the human soldiers barreling towards us became unmistakable. The ground trembled as the thousands upon thousands of them drew closer.
This was it.
I glanced around the borders of the aviary, looking for any hint of gas that still remained. But the beating of my wings seemed to have dispelled nearly all of the poisonous substance.
Threat, threat, threat...
Coming, coming, coming...
Must, must, must...
Protect, protect, protect...
I circled my soldiers again, letting out a warning cry. As the piercing sound left my mouth, the Fae and Dragons below lowered into their fighting stances. They let out three, loud whooping sounds in answer, thumping their shields and weapons on the ground rhythmically. The sound was much more daunting than the pathetic, unorganized shouting of the humans that drew closer.
Warm pride swelled within my chest.
I glanced toward Marrok and the wolves when I heard the Alpha’s voice ring out over the growing noise.
“Shift!” Marrok ordered.
His form blurred, his skin stretching grotesquely, as he began to change to his wolf form. His joints began to bend at odd angles as his frame lengthened. He grew taller, a pained cry leaving his lips, and tufts of fur began to sprout along his arms. His snout lengthened, and as his voice deepened, the wolf inside of him roared.
His leather armor, though stretched and torn in some parts due to his change in size, was still in tact. It covered his chest, back, stomach, and upper legs. He held his shield high, though it looked much smaller now, compared to his wolfs massive stature.
The crowd of wolves behind him followed his lead, the group of them growing, twisting, snapping, and shifting into huge, deadly beasts.
The roaring of the approaching human army continued to grow louder, and louder...
I dove through the air, spinning and tucking my wings in tight to increase my speed, until I was about fifty feet from the ground. I needed to speak, and I couldn’t do that in my dragon form. So, when my wings stretched out again, catching the wind, I shifted in mid air. I kept my wings out, deciding to stay in the air as a vantage point, as I called out to the soldiers below me.
“Move backward as you hold them off, do what you must, but get them to the mark as quickly as you can!” I bellowed, my eyes on the treeline.
Louder, louder, and louder the shouting became.
Closer, closer and closer the inevitable crept.
Where, where, where...
Is, is, is...
Brenya, Brenya, Brenya...
Anxiety and dread spread from my heels to the back of my head. I didn’t know where she was. But I could feel her. I could feel her sense of fear, of uncertainty, just as strongly as I could feel my own. Wherever she was, she was scared, but determined. I could sense that she was safe.
My jaw set painfully at the roaring crescendo of the approaching army. And when the hoard of human soldiers broke the tree line, like a tsunami of shimmering blades and heated animosity, my worried mind instantly shifted into a purely instinctual one.
The wave of bellowing soldiers poured out of the forest, their swords raised, their countless archers already forming a line behind the trees and knocking their arrows into their bows. They wasted no time. A human soldier bellowed, “Loose!”
They pulled their bow strings taught and then released the arrows in perfect synchronicity. I growled as the silver tipped arrows arched through the sky, gleaming maliciously under the midday sun.
“Shield dome!” I roared.
The several, synchronized rectangles of soldiers below me moved immediately, rushing inward toward each other to form a circular shape instead of a rectangle. Several identical round shields lifted as the soldiers took a knee, forming a perfect dome of protection around themselves.
I soared higher, avoiding the barrage of arrows just in time, my eyes glued to the shield barrier beneath me. The arrows sailed downward, arching gracefully through the air, and rained down upon my men. Thousands of arrows slammed into the shields. The lodged weapons now stuck out of them in all directions, like spines.
My eyes darted away from the dome and toward the armed men rushing forward at an alarming rate. They’d reach them in less than five seconds, now.
“Shift to shield wall!” I ordered.
The dome moved, shifting forward and into a perfect wall. Every one of our swords and spears were shoved through the spaces in between the shields, ready to slice through flesh and bone once the powerful wave of human soldiers reached them.
I prepared myself for the carnage. There was no way we could avoid spilling blood today. I’d told Brenya we would try not to kill, to uphold out promises to Aella and to spare Brenya the harsh reality of what I knew was going to happen today.
Brenya meant well. Her heart was golden. She was good, and kind, and still so very young and inexperienced. I wished I could’ve changed the way things were, for her sake.
But this was war.
Death was not optional. It was mandatory.
And the even harsher truth was that we were devastatingly outnumbered, at least fifty to one. So many of our kind had been slaughtered. We were all that was left. And we would lose even more today... I’d been preparing myself for that difficult truth.
But what could we do? Even if we tried to do away with the portal spell and simply attempt to kill them all, we very likely wouldn’t be able to. We were too outnumbered. They had too many silver weapons. And even if we somehow managed to win, there wouldn’t be many of us left to celebrate the victory. I was certain of that.
The portal was the only way to win this war without losing most of our small population. We just had to hold them off long enough to lure them into place...
“Brace!” I roared.
The tidal wave of human soldiers collided with my men. Bodies were pierced through like kebabs and the sound of tearing flesh and agonized cries filled the air. I was soon overwhelmed with the heavy scent of blood.
“Back up!” I shouted over the roaring chaos below me. “Back!”
The lines of men moved backward, guiding the shield wall and beginning the slow one hundred and twenty yard journey toward the mark.
I gritted my teeth as the front line struggled to hold. Human soldiers climbed over each other, over their dead comrades, as they attempted to climb over the shields. Dragon, Fae and Wolves continued to walk backward, jamming their weapons through the holes and over the shields, slaying who they could.
But this was not a one sided strategy.
I snarled as I watched the humans stab their silver filled weapons through the holes, some making contact with their targets. Our armor was strong, but our wounds didn’t need to be deep to be lethal... Not if the silver got into our bloodstreams.
Several Fae and Dragons cried out as the chaos grew. Dread seized me by the throat as my men began to slowly fall, one by one. My eyes drifted toward Warrick, and my scalp prickled as I watched him struggle to defend the men at his sides, along with himself.
My hands fisted at my sides as fury grew hot and heavy in my chest. A feral sound left my lips as I tucked my wings and dove toward the front lines.
As I neared the humans, I threw out my hands. A blast of energy exploded out of my palms, hitting a large group of them like a grenade. The ground beneath them shuddered before exploding outward, sending several of the vile humans flying in all directions.
Clumps of dirt, grass, blood, and severed body parts rained down on the shield wall. Several of the humans nearby who had not been hit glanced up at me with fury. I circled the group before repeating the action, setting off another explosion that sent soldiers flying in pieces.
“Keep moving!” I ordered.
The lines of men continued to move backward, their boots squelching through the blood soaked mud. I glanced over my shoulder, my teeth and jaw aching with tension.
Not too much further...
‘Brenya, have you set the runes?’ I called down the bond.
Silence answered me. Anxiety grabbed my insides in its fist, squeezing and torturing me as I waited for her response. Three heartbeats later, her voice entered my head and I relaxed a fraction.
‘One more.’ She said.
‘Good. We’re almost there.’
‘Be careful.’ She whispered urgently.
‘Don’t worry about me. Focus on yourself, love.’
My ears suddenly twitched as a familiar sound came to my attention. It was distant, but coming closer fast. As soon as I realized what the sound was, Torryn’s voice shouted out to me from somewhere below.
“Dristan, Watch out!”
My head snapped toward the sound, just in time to see a large barrage of arrows flying toward us. I hissed with frustration and flexed my wings, pushing myself upward. I narrowly avoided being hit.
′What was that?” Brenya hissed. She must’ve felt my surprise as I’d dodged the arrows.
‘Nothing. Don’t worry.’ I lied.
“Heads up!” I bellowed down to my soldiers, my eyes wide, as I watched the arrows arch and then fall toward them.
Several faces lifted, their eyes flaring with panic. The soldiers near the back lines were able to lift their shields to protect themselves. But the soldiers near the front... They couldn’t move their shields, or the shield wall would collapse against the pressure of the humans on the other side.
I closed my eyes, my decision already made.
Without hesitation, I spread my fingers. Digging deep, I summoned enough power to manifest a ward above my men. The arrows collided with the invisible force field, instantly snapping into pieces before they could hit their marks.
I sagged as the magic seeped out of me.
Fuck. I was losing energy quickly. I turned toward the distant tree line, my fury peaking as I watched the archers stationed there already preparing to shoot another fleet of arrows at us.
I have to take out those archers...
“Keep moving!” I barked. “I’ll deal with the archers!”
I rocketed into the sky, shifting into my best form once more. My dragon was all to pleased to be released. Violence, destruction, carnage... These things were his specialty, and I had been holding him back for far too long. He ached to kill these humans, longed to burn our enemies, yearned to destroy all those who would threaten our kingdom, our people, and our mate.
And I wouldn’t stop him this time.
I let him take over as I sunk into the back of his consciousness, watching the events unfold through his eyes. He let out a deafening screech as he soared toward the treeline, his sharp line of sight trained directly on the archers that were pulling back the strings on their arrows and foolishly pointing them at us.
Time, time, time...
To, to, to...
Burn, burn, burn...
He dove, sucking a deep breath into his massive lungs. I could feel his excitement, could feel his elation as he readied for the release, and I allowed myself to enjoy it. The archers cried out in horror as we speared through the skies toward them.
Some fired their arrows, which bounced off of our armored skin harmlessly. They might as well have been throwing daises at us. Others stumbled backward, tripping over their own feet or the soldiers at their sides. Some turned and tried to flee, but there was no escape.
The delicious heat built within our chest, warming us from the inside. It crept up my dragon’s throat and I could taste the smoking flames that were desperate to escape. It tasted like vengeance.
Let’s give them a taste of hell.
Bright, red hot fire exploded out of my dragon’s open mouth.
The fire rained down in a constant, devastating stream of absolute destruction as we flew past the treeline. Screams were drowned out by the roaring sound of the heat. Everything in the flame’s path was demolished.
I could faintly hear shouts of victory from somewhere behind us, and I knew our men were urging us on. My dragon finally closed his mouth, dragging in a new, deep lungful of oxygen. Meeting the end of the treeline where the arches had stood only moments ago, we banked left and circled back again.
Now, the treeline was nothing more than a black, charred trail of lingering embers, smoke, and piles of black soot that had once been human soldiers. My dragons let out a whoop of happiness, pleased with what he had done.
I moved forward into his consciousness, taking back the reins. He let out a small whine, but didn’t fight me. I steered us back toward the battle, my eyes assessing what I’d missed. There were far less Fae, Dragon and Wolves present than there had been when I’d gone to take care of the archers. A long, wide trail of blood, bodies and fallen weapons littered the land leading up to the raging soldiers.
I growled, shifting again in mid air. This constant shifting was draining, and my limbs felt heavy with fatigue. I flew low, soaring overhead, searching for Warrick, Torryn and Marrok. I couldn’t see them anywhere. The battle had moved substantially, and we were nearly to the mark, but the shield wall was falling apart.
With so many of my men slain, holes had formed, and human soldiers were pushing past the wall. I watched with dread as humans and magical beings clashed below me in a bloodstained dance of fists, steel, and silver. Blasts of light sparkled across the battlefield while magic was thrown around, and I knew it was draining them quickly.
“Rick!” I shouted. “Torryn!”
There was no answer.
A sudden howl of sorrow filled the air.
My head snapped toward the sound, my heart hammering in my chest. More howls joined in, the sound a haunting melody of pain.
The wolves were howling.
My sharp sight zeroed in on the area the cries were coming from. Air rushed out of my lungs and I couldn’t remember how to inhale again. My mind and body seemed to separate and my heart became a painful lump in my chest.
Marrok stood before a group of human soldiers as he held his arms out defensively in front of the several wolf soldiers behind him. There was a silver filled sword protruding from his chest, a silver tipped spear lodged in his thigh, and another one skewered through his forearm.
He had acted as a shield to protect his pack members... The wolves behind him wore expressions of shock and absolute devastation as they howled. Their ears were flattened against their skulls, their tails low and tucked between their legs.
Friend, friend, friend...
Dead, dead, dead...
Gone, gone, gone...
“Marrok!” I roared, surging forward.
He turned his head in my direction. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, but he coughed up a mess of ruby colored blood instead. I shouted his name once more, the sorrowful howling of the wolves growing louder as I neared.
Marrok’s Wolf gave me a sad, pained smile.
And then he collapsed.
Pain lashed at my heart like a whip.
The Alpha... My friend... My friend.
I bared my teeth, turning my attention to the humans in front of him. More were rushing up behind them, their weapons already aimed to kill the wolves that remained.
Bastards... Fucking bastards!
My hands stretched before me as I sped toward them. Burning tears of grief and rage blurred my vision as I shouted...
“POEN A MARWOLAETH!”
A shock wave of power left my palms. It shot toward the human soldiers, the blast more powerful than I’d meant for it to be, but my rage had taken over. Dozens upon dozens of humans were knocked backward off of their feet. Their bodies did not hit the ground, but instead, floated up and into the air.
And then they began to scream.
Piece by piece, my magic began to rip large chunks of flesh from their bodies. I wanted them to feel pain. I wanted them to suffer. I wanted them to feel the pain that the entire pack was feeling at the loss of their Alpha. I wanted them to feel the pain that I felt at the loss of my friend...
Bones began to snap. The screams grew desperate.
And it made me smile.
But the smile faded from my lips as the last bits of magic left my fingertips. A heaviness settled over me, and I teetered in the sky. My skin tingled with warning, my body screaming at me to stop. My magic was meeting its end, and I was pushing it.
I was the strongest one among us, second only to Brenya. But even I could not keep this up for much longer. I could kill myself if I kept using my power.
I squeezed my eyes shut for a brief moment, struggling to remain in flight. Everything felt so heavy. My movements felt sluggish, and time seemed to slow. The sounds of the battle below me seemed to fade, and come back, and fade, and come back...
Not yet... Not yet... We’re almost there.
My eyes snapped open.
I gave Marrok’s body a final glance as I banked to the right. “Goodbye, my friend.” I whispered.
Mournful howls stuck to my heels like shadows.
I turned, soaring toward the opposite end of the field, desperately searching for Warrick and Torryn. I didn’t make it very far before something caught my eye. A mess of blonde hair.
Warrick and Torryn stood back to back in the middle of the battlefield. Several dead humans littered the ground surrounding them, as well as a few fellow Dragons and Fae. Warrick’s dark skin shimmered, drenched with blood. Torryn’s blue eyes stood out in a startling contrast to the red stains covering his face.
“Almost there!” I shouted down to them, stopping to hover.
A soldier ran up on Warrick’s left, unseen by him as he blocked a blow from his right. I snatched one of the small throwing knives strapped to my boot and hurled it at the human. It thunked into his adam’s apple, throwing his head backward, before he tumbled to the ground at Rick’s feet.
Warrick threw me a wry smile. “Thanks.”
I nodded, trying to grin back at him. But our smiles were short lived as an unexpected voice suddenly rang out from the charred treeline behind us.
My jaw flexed with instant animosity. I slowly turned, glaring toward the treeline over my shoulder. Marching toward the raging battle with a wide grin on his face, was Ronan. Or at least, the person possessing him.
He paused a moment to draw his sword from the hilt at his hip. He then threw it to the ground, as if it were a dirty lump of useless ore. His smile widened as I turned to face him fully, my nostrils flared in anger.
“I challenge you.” He dared, his unarmed hands lifting at his sides, his palms facing the sky.
The audacity of this rutting bastard. He’d brought this fight to my doorstep, endangered my people, endangered my mate. Hundreds of my men had died today because of him. He’d even had the nerve to defile Brenya with his eyes, right in front of my face. I would gladly kill him for that alone... I had plenty of reasons to end his life.
But most importantly... Marrok was dead. And it was his gods damned fault.
I roared with fury as Marrok’s blood stained smile flashed through my mind. This made the impostor smile even wider, and I wanted to cut it off of his face. I flexed my wings behind me, surging myself toward him. I wanted his blood.
I didn’t care if I killed Ronan in the process. I just didn’t fucking care.
It took only four seconds for me to reach him. I dove, snatching two silver throwing knives from my boot, and skillfully flung them toward his heart. But just before they could make contact, he disappeared.
Fuck, I forgot the bastard has a knack for teleportation.
I’d barely finished the thought when a sudden, unexpected weight against my back threw my off balance. My wings protested in pain as a pair of kneecaps dug into my shoulder blades, and rough hands suddenly wrapped around my throat from behind me.
"Surpriiiise.” The bastard sing-songed into my ear.
I snarled in outrage, stretching both arms out and then bringing my elbows backward with force in an attempt to jab him in the ribs, but he dodged the move. I veered toward the battlefield, tucking my wings in as best I could, and cork screwed as I dove.
The movement exhausted me, and I panted with the exertion. His grip tightened around my throat as the maneuver nearly threw him off of me, but he held tight. He chuckled into my ear and the heat of his breath brushed my neck.
“It looks like you’re source of power is all dried up, My Lord...”
I cork screwed again, this time bringing my right arm up behind my head and catching him in a headlock. He grunted as I flexed, choking him. His grip loosened on my neck, and for a moment I thought he was going to let go.
But he didn’t.
He flattened his hands against the sides of my neck and let out a stinging burst of magic through his palms. The sudden, electric surge of magic that seized me brought a level of pain with it that was so strong, it made me see spots of bright light behind my eyes.
I faltered in my flight, falling for a moment, before the painful sensation stopped. He chuckled. He was toying with me. I caught myself, leveling out and growling with frustration. I clawed at his sides, but his armor was too thick for my sharp nails to pierce.
He laughed even louder before repeating the powerful zap of energy, stronger this time. It seemed to lock up every muscle in my body, from the backs of my ears, down to the pads of my toes. Again, I fell through the air, my jaw tight with pain.
He stopped again, but this time it was not to toy with me...
It was because a loud, familiar, beautiful voice was echoing through the battlefield. It was Brenya. She had placed the runes. We had reached the mark.
It was time for the portal to be opened.
And I felt the impersonator smile against my ear as Brenya’s voice shouted...