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Charlotte's screams burst through the castle walls and straight into David's nightmare.
His eyes popped open. The scream came again. He bounded from his bed with no thought to his nakedness and tore through the doorway connecting their rooms. Charlotte lay on the floor beside her bed enveloped in a mass of plum-colored hair so long and thick it almost devoured her. Her gossamer shift was hiked to her thighs, the delicate fabric clutched to her breasts in her right hand. Threads of lightning sparked and danced over her skin as her body heaved with sobs.
His heart unraveled. She'd done nothing to deserve ... torture. He'd said as much to Slavandria and Lily as they trekked from the battlefield in the pouring rain four days ago. They'd refused to speak of it. Said there would be a time and a place to explain. Yeah. Right. How many times had he heard that one? He'd tried to pursue the matter over the course of the journey back to Gyllen Castle, but Charlotte begged him to stop, citing mental exhaustion as her ally, so he kept his mouth shut and spent the rest of the sojourn in silent resentment and fury.
He dropped to her side with a painful groan, the bruises on his body a sore reminder of the brutality of war, and scooped her in his arms. Hot sparks needled his flesh. He bit back their bites and kissed her temple, stroking her new, silky, purple tresses. "Shh," he said, rocking her. "It's okay. You're safe. I've got you."
She curled up in his arms and buried her face in his chest, her tears warm on his skin. "Make it stop," she whimpered. "Please make it stop."
"I wish I could," he said, kissing her forehead. "I wish I could."
He shut his eyes and clutched her tighter to him. She felt so small, so vulnerable, but he knew she was anything but. He'd watched only days before in fascination and horror as she confronted Einar as if he were nothing more than a pesky fly at a picnic. In an instant, she'd turned from victim to predator, from saint to badass with magical powers that defied the imaginable.
She'd stood on the hilltop, surveying the death and destruction ...
Purple vapor swirled around her fists. David spoke to her at the time, but she didn't look at him. He pressed a fist to his mouth, his insides screaming. Panic lunged into his throat. He knew by the squint of her eyes and the set line of her lips, whatever was coming was terrible and there was no way he could stop it.
Her fingers flew open, thrusting the mist from her hand. With the blink of an eye, she'd controlled the skies, and with a swipe of her hand, she'd brought the rains. The weather only intensified with her mood. Thunder boomed, and lightning filled the sky. The blinding rain fell cold and relentless as violent winds howled and swirled. Branches snapped. Trees upended and sailed through the air. David crouched to the ground, his feet sinking in the rising, blood-stained waters.
"Please," Lily pleaded, "you must calm your emotions. You're going to kill everyone here."
Charlotte replied with a vicious snarl, and with a snap of her fingers, she summoned a barrage of lightning strikes that struck so close, David's insides jolted and the hair on his arms curled and singed.
He reached for Charlotte's hand, his pulse thrumming in time with the pounding in his head, but she reeled on him, and the swirling power in her eyes snatched the air from his lungs. He gasped for breath, his hand at his throat. "Char, stop," he croaked. "It's me. David."
Her expression remained blank. He searched her face. How could she not recognize him? Slowly she turned away, and air flooded into David's lungs, which he drank in by the gulp load. What the heck had happened to her?
A whispered I'm sorry brushed his mind, and his insides trembled. Now she was a mind speaker? What the ...? Trog approached from behind, squeezing David's shoulder as he passed. He placed a horse blanket and his strong arms around Charlotte while muttering words David couldn't hear.
In time, her shoulders and head dropped, and the storm quelled. They remained together, walking in stoic silence beside the wagon where Eric lay beneath the blue and gold banner of Hirth. David glanced between the knight and his best friend, swallowed by his own crippling sense of shame for not being able to help her. He knew then he would never be strong enough. Never be good enough. She needed someone like Eric, someone with confidence. Brawn. Humor tinged with a healthy dose of arrogance. In short, she needed a hero.
But Eric was dead, and David's guilt churned. If only he'd made a dash for Beggar's Field to collect the Vila lilies. If only he'd been the paladin he was destined to be. If only he'd saved Eric and Mirith. If only ...
If only he'd been more than a nobody.
Upon reaching Gyllen, Trog took his leave and escorted his son to wherever they prepared the dead for burial. David watched, his insides ripping apart as they moved away. The man was broken. His son's death had wounded him more than if a thousand swords had run him through. A cloak of sorrow lined in unthinkable pain and misery clung to him, weighing him down, dragging his every step. David shut his eyes tight, his stomach knotted at the thought of what was going through Trog's mind. It was too much to bear. Too much to conceive. He followed Charlotte to their suites, both silent, both living in their own hell.
David hated hell.
All night, he'd tossed and turned. Images of slaughtered men, blood, and death haunted his dreams. Even in his sleep, he cringed and froze, unable to save his friends. He retreated to the black corners of his mind and prayed to whatever god existed to take him and spare those he cared for.
It was then an ethereal figure swathed in darkness appeared in the recesses of his mind. David shuddered.
Death. There was no mistaking the empty sockets and skeletal face.
Regret and relief stood side by side as David held his arms out in surrender to the black robes of hollowness and despair billowing to the ground. But the reaper cackled and swooped away. Seconds later, Charlotte screamed, and terror ripped through David's soul. A chill, colder than what Death had left behind, plunged into him. No. That wasn't the deal he'd made!
He rushed to her, prepared to lay down his life to protect her, but Death was nowhere to be seen, only the girl he loved consumed by a fate she didn't ask for. Now, as she lay in his arms, he understood his purpose: protect, honor, and love. He relished the unspoiled moment with her in his arms. Right then, right there, she needed him, and it was beautiful, peaceful, and perfect.
Until a cool waft of air brushed across his naked butt.
He pressed the back of his head against the bed and shut his eyes. Really, David? You freaking moron!
Charlotte shifted in his lap, then became still. She opened her eyes and sat up, her brow pinched in confusion. "Umm, David?" She ran her fingers through her hair. "Is there a reason you're not wearing any clothes?"
David jerked a sheet from the bed and jammed it between them. What he would give for a pair of jeans to miraculously appear on his body.
"No. Not really."
She rolled off his lap and stood with her back to him, her hair billowing to the floor.
He grappled to his feet, wrapping the fabric around his torso until all that remained visible below his waist was a pair of bruised, blistered feet complete with a few broken toenails.
"You screamed and I — I came. And then I saw you on the floor and ... and ..." He wadded the sheet tighter in his fist. "I was an idiot, Charlotte. I'm sorry. Really, I am. I just needed to know you were okay."
Outside, a gentle rain pecked at the windows.
Charlotte faced him and placed a finger on his lips. The chaotic sparks on her body calmed and flickered out one by one. He gulped at the vitreous, translucent luster of her eyes. The energy! Good God, how it flowed in magnificent swirls and eddies of violet, lavender, and purple. He tried to look away, to not be devoured by the power that lived within them, but the tug sucked him into an abyss ringed in a maelstrom of sparks and fury.
Moving pictures emerged within the chaos, the images mingling, overlapping. Mrs. Stine baking cookies. Mr. Stine standing on a tarmac. Charlotte's brother dressed in his flight uniform, waving goodbye, a duffle bag slung over one shoulder. David swallowed hard. He knew what these were. Memories. Flashbacks. But how? They weren't his recollections, which meant they had to be ...
His heart thudded against his ribcage.
Oh, dear God, I'm inside her head!
The images vaporized, and he tumbled from the abyss as if she'd tossed him out a door.
"Jesus! How did you do that?" His gut coiled around his heart, his pulse racing to escape. "Why did you do that?" He could almost handle Charlotte summoning storms, even speaking to his brain, but to drag him into her mind? What kind of freaking powers did she have that she could suffocate him with a look one minute and force him into submission with another?
Charlotte's words shattered his stupor.
"I don't know." She hugged herself, refusing to look at him. "You better go. Get dressed. Lily and Slavandria are on their way to come get us."
"How do you know that?" He blinked, trying hard to understand.
"I don't know. I just do." She stared at a wall. "You'd better hurry. If they find us like this, I'm sure they'll have their own set of questions. I'd rather them focus on answering mine, not the other way around."
David nodded in complete agreement and shuffled from the room, closing the door behind him. He needed time — time to absorb everything that was happening, but when in the hell had Fallhollow ever provided him with what he needed? It was exceptional, however, at dishing out all the crap he didn't want — death, destruction, war. A warped sense of mortality. What made him think he'd be given time to sort out anything?
It seemed only yesterday he was back in Havendale, safe and sound with Charlotte, but it was an illusion, and for a second time, the real world collided with a fantasy world that, by all logic, shouldn't exist but did, and life effed up again. Who was he kidding? There was no such thing as safe and sound. There was only survive or don't survive. Do or don't do. Live or die.
Charlotte was right. Lily and Slavandria had a lot of explaining to do, and this time there wasn't going to be an "I'll explain later" from either one of them. Enough was enough. He could be the fish or the eagle that ate the fish. It was time to sprout wings.
He dropped his sheet and slipped into a pair of braies he found in his armoire, followed by black breeches and a forest green shirt. He'd just completed the ensemble with suede shoes when he heard Slavandria's voice in Charlotte's room. He stood straight, preened his figurative feathers, and strutted through the connecting door.
"Good morning," he said.
He met Slavandria's gaze, and his resolve teetered on collapse. Her turquoise eyes glistened with unshed tears, her irises reflecting grief and sorrow. David had to look away. He'd never seen her so pale, her spirit so drained, and he wondered what demons she wrestled with in the night.
She blinked a couple of times and lowered her head. She wiped a tear as another dripped and splattered on the floor. "Good morning." Her soft, gentle voice rattled with trapped emotion ready to burst. "I am glad to see you both up and dressed." She blew her nose on a handkerchief wadded in her hand. "I'm sorry you have to see me in such a state. I've been with Trog most of the night, and it's been difficult to say the least." She tossed her head back, shook it ever so slightly, and wiped her cheeks once more.
There was the Slavandria he knew. Always proper, always in control, as if letting anyone see her broken and vulnerable would be a sin. In all honesty, he liked the broken, cracked version. It made her seem more ... human.
"How is Trog doing?" Charlotte asked.
"He's miserable, lost, and angry. Everything a father should be over losing his son."
"Perhaps I should go to him. Maybe I could be of some help."
Slavandria nodded. "That is kind of you, Charlotte, but perhaps you should wait a day or two. His mind and body need time to heal. It will also give us time to sort some things out and take care of a few important matters." She flicked her wrist and the door to the room opened. "Would you follow me, please?"
"Where are we going?" David asked.
"A place where all answers to your questions lie."
Off in the distance a rooster crowed, announcing the coming of a new day. David's heartbeat drummed in his ears, keeping time with his steps as he pondered their destination. How awesome would it be if Slavandria announced their stay in the fabulous wonderland of Fallhollow had all been a huge mistake, and she was sending them home with his parents with no recollection of anything that had happened? Somehow, he knew that wasn't going to happen. He curled his fingers into fists.
Damn this place. Damn it all.CHAPTER 2
Charlotte held fast to one of the cloister's columns, the heady floral scents of the cathedral gardens strangulating her airways.
She doubled over, clutching her throat, gasping. A caterpillar inched its way across the walkway and its every step — all one hundred of them — grated in her ears.
Her pulse ran circles around her heart. No. Something's wrong. This can't be happening!
A hand, soft and tender, stroked the hair from her face, and a shiver ran out of her. She glanced up into Slavandria's eyes.
"Shh," the sorceress said. "You're okay. Listen to my voice. Focus on my words."
Charlotte nodded, her bottom lip quivering. A rustle in the hedgerow snapped her gaze to an array of blossoms, a kaleidoscope of color so crisp and clear, it was as if layers of plastic film had been peeled from her sight, exposing a vibrant, high-def world she never knew existed.
She didn't want it. She didn't want any of it. It was too much. Her face snapped back to Slavandria.
"You have to make this stop, these superhuman powers. Zap them. Tie me down, douse me in kryptonite if you have to, but make them go away."
Slavandria cupped Charlotte's face, her expression tender. "It isn't that easy. Trust me. I can promise you it won't always be like this. You will get used to it, learn to control it."
"I don't WANT to get used to it! I don't WANT to control it! I want it gone!"
Slavandria nodded, her eyes far too understanding. Sympathetic. "Okay." She ran a thumb across Charlotte's cheek. "Okay. Let's get you inside where your senses aren't overwhelmed. We'll try to figure out what to do." She stood, her silver bangles clinking as they slid down her forearm, gathering at her wrist.
Charlotte cringed as the sound plucked every nerve in her body. She leaned on David, thankful for his strength, and followed Slavandria down the walkway past two doorways to a third at the rear of the building. Once inside, she led them down a narrow passageway, passing multiple rooms on their left and tables set with books, goblets, candles, and various thuribles on their right.
"This is the West wing," Slavandria said. "It is where the clergy live and study." She motioned to her right. "Down those hallways, you'll find the East wing and beyond it, the chancel and the heart of the cathedral. After we are done here, please feel free to look around at your leisure. The architecture is exquisite."
Slavandria opened a door on their left, and they entered a large room swathed in so much unrestrained opulence it was almost sinful. Refracted sunlight broke through the arched, stain-glass windows and shattered across the blood-red carpet, casting shards of prismatic brilliance at Charlotte's feet. Two large wood desks in the rear of the room stood at angles toward a seating area in the center dotted with plush chairs dressed in decadent, vibrant brocades. Charlotte turned around, taking in the enormous oil paintings, the gold candelabras, the books, and fresco ceiling. It was so gaudy, yet beautiful.
Safe and serene. Calm.
A door opened at the back of the room and King Gildore and Queen Mysterie entered, their fingers entwined. Both appeared battered and worn. The queen's hair was mussed, her eyes red and swollen. A shadow of a beard grew on the king's drawn and weathered face. His hair was also mussed, and neither looked as if they'd slept in months.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bane of the Dragon King"
Copyright © 2018 J. Keller Ford.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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