Authors: Lynda Aicher
To Jennifer Malone, Paula Gill, and Susan Liwanag, whose excellent critiques and constant support have pushed me forward. To my editor, Bethany Morgan, for giving me a chance. And to my husband, Chris, for his unconditional love and full-hearted support of my dreams.
The flames burned hot, scorching, searing. Caressing the bars. Hissing enchantments, taunts, lures. Circling the cage. Entrapping the occupant.
Captive. Prisoner. Hostage.
Kept in slumber for over a thousand years. Held in restriction for the good of the world. Retained in secret to all but a few.
The few who remember. The few who wait in silence. The few who know the time will end.
One day, the beast will awaken. One day, the bars will weaken, the hold will crumble and the beast will be free.
Some wait in expectation. Some wait in dread.
For on that day, the veil will lift and the world will change. On that day, the Apocalypse will occur. On that day the beast will rise, and the battle will unfold.
But for now, he sleeps. For now the world remains in blissful oblivion. For now the balance holds.
Soon, too soon, that will change.
Soon, too soon, the beast will stir.
The icy wind gusted across the barren plain. Harsh. Brutal. Punishing in its attack. Mercy was given to nothing and no one in its path. It whipped around the few clusters of trees that stood empty and isolated amidst the rolling hills and snow covered fields.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing existed out there.
Or so it appeared.
Airiana Draco shook her head in disgust and hunched her shoulders against another affront of the menacing elements. Who in their right mind would choose to establish a community in the desolate plains of North Dakota? Especially when they had the choice of anywhere on earth?
“Idiots, that’s who,” she mumbled to herself and bit off a curse as the wind changed course to pummel her face and chest with the force of a solid left-jab. She stumbled back a step before she got her footing and forced her weight into the assault. “Why in the hell did I ever volunteer for this job?”
Because she wanted to prove herself. Or so her family thought.
A dangerous reconnaissance mission that brought her to the enemies’ proverbial front door. Deep into their territory, she was on her own and likely dead if captured. But it was the opportunity she’d sought. The one she needed to quell her treacherous thoughts.
Settling, she opened herself to the energy as it rippled over her skin in a gentle caress, calming her agitation and centering her mind. Refocused, Airiana reached out across the open space. There, no more than fifty feet away, she felt it
with ancient power. Strong. Solid.
The wall that was invisible to the naked eye. The barrier that kept out everyone who didn’t belong. Who wasn’t one of them.
Her lip curled in habitual aversion. The enemy. The race of beings she’d been raised to hate. To loath. To defeat.
Two hundred years of incessant hounding hammered into every fiber of her being. Brainwashed since birth to hate, without question. Or simply raised to believe in the Shifter way, if she listened to her mother.
She snorted and smirked at the thought. Yeah, believe that death, war and destruction were the right way. The way to achieve all that they wanted regardless of who was hurt—the Shifters would prevail.
It was propaganda Airiana found hard to believe. That, for some unknown reason, she resisted.
.” She pushed at the wisps of hair that had escaped the tight ponytail and now stroked across her cheek and over her eyes. She paced, again, the nervous agitation returning. The frozen ground beneath her boots was worn bare by her repeated passes.
The dragon circled, stretched, then settled, apparently annoyed with her restless state. She rubbed at the mark etched into the back of her hand and the dragon arched its back in contentment. A light blue dragon. Everyone in her race was born with a dragon mark on their hand. A sign of the Shifter. A mark of belonging. A statement of power.
The tattoo appeared to all as a two-dimensional, unchanging image on the back of the hand. But it was actually as much a part of them as the hand it resided on. The marks were deceptively stagnant, but had minds of their own.
To her, the mark of the dragon was a living, breathing creature that moved and communicated with her over the energy. Like her, it listened and responded to the energy, both within her and around them. It was her friend, her anchor—a sort of energy barometer that lived beneath her skin.
The marks were, in fact, an internal presence that guided every being of the energy races, Shifter and Energen alike.
Energy. The power that ruled the world. Silent, invisible, intangible. But, unquestionably the most devastating force on earth.
Which is why the two sides had battled over it since life began. Long before the humans even realized what it was, Energens and Shifters had struggled to gain control of the energy.
To own it all, with the ultimate goal to control them all. Or, at least, that was the goal of the Shifters. Her family. Her world.
It made no sense that she questioned that belief. But the doubt itched through her and nagged at her relentlessly. For years she’d tried to repress the questions, to push aside and ignore her insistent uncertainty in the Shifter’s mission. She kept her reservations, kept her shame, a secret until it isolated her from everyone and left her alone in a world filled with hatred and single-mind intent.
But the energy whispered to her of rightness. Of balance.
Nagged at her until she had to know why. Pushed her until she fought to get this mission, the one that would bring her closer to the enemy. Closer to answers for questions she didn’t completely understand.
“Damn it,” she huffed in frustration, a cloud of vapor appearing in front of her face before it disintegrated and mingled into nothing. She rubbed a hand over her aching forehead in an attempt to dispel the pressure that throbbed behind it. Why was she worrying about it? If her family caught even an inkling of her doubt, of her questions, they would kill her. Immediately.
And death was not on her agenda.
The energy behind her folded and rippled. Airiana sucked in a breath and turned sharply in defense. Her muscles tense, prepared, ready for battle.
But, it was already too late. The icy cold metal slipped around her neck and snapped into place before she could react. Before she could use the energy and teleport to safety.
Her heart raced on waves of adrenalin and suppressed fear as she stared into the deep blue eyes of the tall, blond and menacing man that stood before her.
The intruder huffed out short gulps of breath and yanked uselessly on the energy collar he’d just snapped around her neck. Loukianos Aeros smirked at the futility of her actions even as he unconsciously admired the creature he had captured.
Creature—because she was obviously a Shifter spy and they were all members of the lowest life form.
However, his gloating was cut short when she spun and took off sprinting over the snow-covered ground. Her arms pumped furiously and the silky black ponytail swayed in rhythm with her quick steps, bobbing behind her like a plumped-up horse tail. His gaze traveled up her long legs that led to a firm, round ass, which was nicely displayed in excellent fitting jeans. Definitely not the body of a horse.
Hell, it’d been so long since he’d had a woman that even a lowly Shifter got him excited. The deep rumbled laugh broke from his chest and echoed the derision he felt. Pathetic. But, that didn’t stop him from watching her a little longer. Running away was about as fruitless an effort as trying to pull off the energy collar. However, he gave her points for effort.
When he’d first spotted her hiding at the edge of the woods just outside the walls of the compound, Louk realized the universe had handed him the opportunity he’d been longing for. Finally, a chance to find out what really happened to his older brother, Damian. A brother he’d never known. Damian was accused of aiding the Shifters and killing their oldest brother in a bloody battle. Being born eight hundred years after the incident left Louk with a mix of broken stories and whispered condemnations.
Now, right before him, was his chance to question a source who would know the other side. Who could give him answers when no one else would. She was the enemy, a member of the Shifter slime that had destroyed his family.
And he would use the opportunity presented. Use her.
Tiring of the game of evasion, Louk used the energy and dissipated out. He solidified about five feet in front of her path, his legs braced and arms spread in preparation. She hit him in the chest at a full run, and he grunted at the impact even as his arms clamped tightly around his prize. He stumbled back a few steps, but held tight to the wiggling form firmly trapped against his chest.
“Let. Me. Go.” She bit out, full of righteous indignation and fight.
He laughed. Hell, it had been a long time since he’d had that much fun. “Yeah, not happening, sweet cheeks.” Unable to resist, he slid a hand down and squeezed the delicious little ass he’d admired moments ago.
A small sound of offense left her mouth, right before a hard, booted toe connected with his shin.
He grunted in response, all thoughts of fun draining from his mind. Louk tightened his hold and brought his boot around to trap her legs between his own. His height and weight gave him the advantage, but she didn’t give in easily. It was a full minute of continued squirming, pushing and swearing before the feisty woman finally stilled.
The heavy sound of gasping breaths punctuated the sudden silence, the small skirmish tasking them both. Her breath pushed hot and moist against the exposed skin of his neck. The sensation stroked over the sensitive area like a lover’s kiss and sent small shivers of desire racing down his spine.
And in that moment, the raven soared. The mark on the back of his hand took off in a flight of pure joy, high on an ecstasy of promise.
Louk sucked in a sharp breath, incredulous. She was a Shifter, his sworn enemy.
Abruptly, he shoved the woman away, swinging her arms around until he grasped her wrists tightly together before her.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
Her arched, black brows came down low and menacing over her chocolate colored eyes. Her face was a striking blend of Asian and Caucasian features. Slightly narrower eyes surrounded by long black lashes, high cheekbones that centered her round face and balanced the broad mouth and sculpted lips. Lips that were currently pulled tight and hard into a thin line of annoyance. Her rounded little chin came up in a move of defiance as she tugged on the grip he had around her slim wrists.
“Like I’d tell you,” she sneered between deep gulps of air.
“Oh, you’ll tell me.” He let a slow smile curl over his lips. “Eventually.”
“Is that an invitation?” He drew her closer, pulled on her arms until her chest was crushed to his once again. He lowered his face into hers, forcing her to arch back to keep her distance. Her breasts pressed invitingly up at him, offered like a gift under her tight, leather jacket and he slowly drew his gaze up over the display to meet her eyes. “Because I can accommodate that.”
It only took one small movement to bring his hips into intimate contact with the juncture of her thighs. Her position left her vulnerable and open, and he made damn sure she knew that.
Her eyes widened. Her breath hitched, and her pretty little mouth opened in surprise. Her lips were red and moist, and he suddenly wanted nothing more than to kiss them. The energy flowed between them, igniting a desire that threatened to scorch his nerve endings. It burned hot, insistent, immediate, and he felt his body responding as it pulsed to life against its resting spot at her thighs.
She froze in her struggles to escape, her eyes widening even more. She felt his desire. And the energy spoke to him; it vibrated through his mind whispering her need. Her sudden hunger, the raw desire.
And a confusion that matched his own.
Over the air he felt the approach of other members of the enclave Guard. The energy around them began to expand, and Louk suddenly knew he wasn’t ready to turn her over. This was the opportunity he had waited for, one that could allow him to learn about his brother. But even more than that, this woman called to him in a way that was stronger than his desire to please his enclave. His family. And he needed to understand why.
In that second, he made his decision. One that could cost him everything.
With the choice made, he teleported out, his captive in tow. His life permanently changed. Forever.
Her body prickled, tingled, then solidified. Airiana immediately began to fight against the man holding her hostage. She would not submit. She was raised better than that.