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Mirabilus KeepIsle of MirabilusCurrent Year
Dragons don't exist.
Ariel Johnson reassured herself of that simple fact for the hundredth time as she tossed the wire cutters back into the duffel bag.
It didn't matter that for all her childhood she'd dreamed of dragons. Those dreams had been nothing more than the wild imaginings of a child. In reality there were no dragons.
They just simply don't exist.
She slid a charged stun gun into the holster beneath her vest then shimmied through the hole she'd cut in the chain-link fence. Her watch vibrated against her wrist and she ducked, hiding her face in the ground. She would wait until the timed spotlight swept the area before quickly racing for the shed off the west wing of Mirabilus Castle.
Nine days ago, she'd stood at her younger brother Carl's hospital bed. She'd stared at his numerous injuries and the bullet wound. Guilt left her with one question at the forefront of her shocked mindhow could she have let this happen to him?
Even now, after she'd had several days to digest what had happened and why, her head still pounded with worry and she was sick to her stomach with the knowledge that it all could have been avoided.
And while mothering a nineteen-year-old was nearly impossible to do, especially when he no longer wanted a mother, she should have kept a closer eye on himpaid closer attention.
Since their parents' untimely deaths five years ago, Carl had become her responsibility. His welfare and safety were in her hands. Seeing him so helpless, so vulnerable, was tangible proof of her failure.
Ariel's watch vibrated again, startling her out of her painful misgivings. She ignored the throbbing of her head to rush across the darkened open space of ground and then ducked behind the far side of the shed to wait for another pass of the spotlight.
She wiped beads of sweat from her forehead. Her heart beat frantically with fear at what she was about to do. Her stomach churned harder than it had these last several days.
When their parents had died, Carl had just turned fourteen. He'd been frantic about their future in the way only a teenager coulddramatic and highly emotional. She'd promised over and over that they would be fine. She'd sworn to take care of him no matter what.
Through the years there'd been a few problems, but nothing the two of them couldn't solve with a conversation over pizza.
During those talks, when night sometimes turned into day, they'd shared so many dreams and plans for their futures. After finishing college she was going to spend a few years working, gaining experience, and then open her own software company. Carl was going to use his inborn ability working with machines and electronics to open a repair shop next door to her. They were going to succeed together.
But dreams sometimes had a way of fading beyond reach. She had finished college with a degree in systems and landed a job as a project manager in a computer department at a local manufacturing plant.
Lately, however, she'd been so busy workingjust trying to make ends meet, that she hadn't paid much attention to what Carl had been doing.
She'd soothed her guilt by telling herself that he'd graduated from high school and for the most part was capable of caring for himself.
She hadn't realized that he'd fallen in with the wrong group of people. Now, because of her inattention, his life was in grave danger.
There was no one else to blamethis was all her fault. No matter how many hours she'd had to work, or how adult he thought he'd become, she never should have let those Thursday-night pizza sessions lapse.
Upon learning about what had happened to Carl, she'd been, and still was, determined to do anything to make it all up to him. She'd quit her job to fulfill her responsibilities to her brother. Once this was over and Carl was safe, she'd find another one.
While she had never counted on risking her life for him, she would. She had toit meant saving his life and having the opportunity to make things right.
Ariel took a deep steadying breath, before moving to the front of the shed. She pressed the door latch, thankful that it was unlocked. Once inside, she reached out in the dark, located the shelving unit and pulled it away from the back wall.
Her hands shaking with fear and frustration, Ariel grazed the damp wall, feeling for a horizontal crack in the stone. Unable to locate the crack, she nearly cried from the overwhelming failure.
She paused for a moment to shake off the gathering coldness of doom. Fighting to regain a sense of purpose, Ariel straightened her spine and slowly inhaled a long, deep breath and then traced the width of the wall again. Finally, after the third pass, she detected the barely perceptible gap. Just as she'd been instructed, she followed the fissure with a fingertip until it made a ninety-degree bend.
Ariel traced the crack for two feet, pausing before she pressed her hand hard against the stone, to the left of the slight gap.
Her breath hitched with relief as the wall moved beneath her touch. The door swung slowly open. It scraped across the dirt floor and she paused, listening for any sign that someone had heard the sound.
She froze, barely breathing, certain she'd be discovered and hauled off to jail before she could complete her task.
When nothing but the steady lapping of water from the beach broke the silence of the night, she slipped through the narrow opening. Cold, damp, stale air brushed across her face. She held her breath and stepped into the corridor behind the hidden wall then flicked on her flashlight.
With a cursory glance at the inside of the movable wall, she made a mental note of the latch's locationshe didn't want to fumble for it on her way out. After sliding the wall closed, Ariel followed the corridor, brushing spiderwebs aside with a shudder as she made her way deeper inside this hidden maze.
Carl had been forced to share what little information he knew about this secret room with his new employer, Jeremy Renaldean extremely wealthy and powerful thief, from what Ariel could tell. Since Carl hadn't yet come out of his coma, the information about this chamber had been gained through a psychic.
At first, when Mr. Renalde had explained the process to her, she'd scoffed at the idea. She'd also scoffed at the idea of her breaking into Mirabilus. Yet here she was, looking for a puzzle box and jewelry, while staying on guard for dragons.
She didn't really believe in dragons. At least not the mythical, flying, fire-breathing kind. The beasts were nothing but folklore and dreamsan obsession she'd never been able to explain.
Her parents had indulged her when she'd been a small child by filling her bedroom with toys and posters of dragons. But when her fascination hadn't waned as she'd grown older, they'd insisted she set aside her childish fantasies and focus on things that truly existed.
It had been difficult, had felt as if she'd been cutting off a piece of herself, but to a point she had followed their orders. School, college, then work and Carl had left little time for feeding fantasies, and somewhere along the way her dreams of dragons had slipped into nothing more than childhood memories.
Mr. Renalde had only laughed at her disbelief. He had assured her that she would soon discover just how wrong her parents had been in their thinking.
So now, with less than sixty grueling hours of training, learning to use the stun gun, operate the one-person life raft and desperately trying not to scream as she jumped from a perfectly good helicopter into the water below, she had become a criminal.
The only thing that kept her from walking away was her certainty that Renalde would carry out his threat to kill Carl if she didn't bring him what he wanted. From the moment she had met the man, she'd been overwhelmed with a dire sense that he was more than a thief. She had little doubt that the man was a coldblooded killer who would snuff out her brother's life without an ounce of remorse.
Finally, the corridor opened into a round chamber. She panned the room with the flashlight. Beneath layers of dust, more spiderwebs and grime were assorted containers, manuscript pages and maps littering every available space.
How was she supposed to find anything in this mess?
A breeze ruffled some of the papers on the small writing table in the middle of the chamber. Ariel froze and feared she was no longer alone. A sudden whoosh of sound sent her ducking behind a large wooden chest as she turned off the flashlight.
She chanced a quick glance around the chest. The hair on the back of her neck rose and her heart slammed against her rib cage. It was too dark to see anything, but she heard the heavy ruffling of what sounded like wings and the scraping of talons on the stone floor.
Had Mr. Renalde been correct about this, too? Did a mythical beast truly exist?
The urge to shine her flashlight on whatever had entered the chamber was strong, but the will to stay alive kept her from flipping the light on.
A chandelier overhead suddenly illuminated the room. She slapped a hand over her mouth to mute a gasp, as candles flickered to life and the shadow of a beast fell across the floor.
Wings folded against the long, sleek body before it turned in her direction. In that split secondbefore terror numbed her mindshe swore the beast smiled at her.
She'd laughed at Renalde when he'd warned her of the beast's existence. She'd fully expected to find some oversize lizard. That would have been frightening enough.
Ariel struggled desperately for breath against the hard beating of her heart. This was no lizard.
This this monster was not some frolicking imaginary friend that filled the dark, lonely hours of the night. It was not a dragon of her childhood dreams. Instead, with its great size, scales and lethal teeth, it was a creature right out of some late-night horror movie. One that usually killed the villagers before some reluctant warrior hero dispatched the brute.
But, there was no warrior hero at hand.
Ariel's shaking knees threatened to give out beneath her. She lunged from her squatting position to her hands and knees, quickly crawling backwardas fast and as far away from the beast as possible.
The pebbled, hard, dirt-packed floor bruised her knees and legs through the black military-style pants she wore. Her palms scraped across the floor, leaving trails of blood in their wake. Ignoring the self-imposed abuse, she scrambled to the far side of the chest.
Ariel silently cursed her trembling hands as she fumbled while trying to retrieve the stun gun from her holster. Unable to free the weapon, she swallowed a scream of desperation and closed her eyes.
Dragons don't exist, Ariel.
Her parents' words whispered in her mind. This wasn't happening. It was a dream. She tried to convince herself that when she opened her eyes, she would be back in London, sitting in a plush office. Better yet, she would be at home, still believing all was well and normal.
Hot, moist air brushed across her cheek, chasing away her last thread of hope.
Of all the gruesome deaths she could imagine, Ariel didn't want to die like this. She fell forward, her hands clasped together, facedown on the floor, begging, "Please. Please, don't kill me."
With her eyes still tightly closed, she heard the beast's scraping movement, then what sounded like the rustling of clothes and the metallic scratch of a zipper.
Confusion swirled into the fear. She raised her head and opened her eyes. Instead of a beast, she saw a man.
In that split second before cloth covered his muscular back, she swore she saw a glittering iridescent dragon etched along one shoulder blade that stretched before settling into place.
Frozen in place, Ariel blinked as the chamber was once again cloaked in darkness.
"You can come out."
His deep, raspy voice, an odd mixture of human and something not quite human, promised dangerand so much more.
"If I was going to kill you, I'd have done so by now." Something in his tone beckoned her to trust him.
Ariel shook her head, fighting to ward off the increasing urge to obey his summons.
She couldn't permit herself to be that foolish. Not if she wanted to live. She had to liveher brother's life depended on her. Instead, she once again reached toward her holster, hoping this time she'd be able to free the charged weapon. Before she could even touch the stun gun, strong fingers clamped around her wrist.
Ariel shivered. The saying that life passed before one's eyes at the moment of death was true. It didat a dizzying pace. Every mistake she'd made, each regret she carried close to her heart, flew through her mind in a flash.
As she drew in what would certainly be her last breath, the manthe creaturethe changeling pulled her to her feet. They were surrounded by a darkness so black she couldn't see the end of her nose, but she sensed his nearness.
The sensual warmth of his body next to hers meant he was far too close. The feel of his breath against her cheek made her fear he'd consume her in a blaze of fire.
But instead of breathing out fire, he inhaled slowly, as if taking in her scent. His lips brushed her temple, making her heart thud even harderfaster, as he suggested, "You might want to run before I change my mind."
Ariel clutched the flashlight to her chest, realizing in that moment that he had released her wrist. Without a second thought, she turned and in the dark, raced blindly down the corridor. She bounced off the damp walls, but didn't slow her pace until she reached the door.
His deep, husky laugh followed her. It seemed to rush against her ears as she fumbled with the latch and jerked the wall open wide enough to squeeze through.
Once outside, oblivious of the spotlight, Ariel kept running until she reached the hole she'd cut into the fence, then she dived through the opening to the other side. Renalde would have to find someone else to come back to Mirabilus, or devise a different plan.
Now that she knew dragons did indeed exist and they in no way resembled anything from her nearly forgotten dreams, there wasn't enough money in the world to convince her to return. She'd have to find another way to save her brother.