As the dragon/man, Rhys, recovers from the attack, a chance brush of skin against skin binds him inextricably to Kai. Becoming heartsworn to a human—especially such a compelling one—is the last thing Rhys wants. But with an ancient enemy gathering to pit dragons against humanity and his strength nearly depleted, Kai has just become the one thing Rhys needs. A complete bond will give him the strength to fight; a denied bond means certain death.
Kai is terrified at the thought of allowing any dragon into her mind…or her heart. Accepting the heartswearing and staying with the dragons means sacrificing everything, and Kai must decide if her freedom is worth risking Rhys's life—a life more crucial to the fate of humanity than she could possibly know.
Book One of the Dragonsworn trilogy
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The Precipice Kai stood at the brink of the precipice, the toes of her worn hiking boots hanging over the edge. One wrong move would plunge her down the sheer cliff face to the rock-strewn valley two hundred feet below. A shiver of adrenaline thrilled from the bottom of her feet to the base of her neck.
She threw out her arms and inhaled the pine-spiked autumn air. It was late September, and the higher elevations of the Rockies were a motley mix of yellow, orange and deep, dusty green. Snowcapped the high peaks in the distance. Not far off, a stream laughed in its rocky bed.
Grinning, Kai stepped back from the view and sauntered to a boulder ten feet from the drop-off. She shed her pack and leaned against the sun-warmed surface of the stone. Haphazard flyaways the color of soot had escaped her messy bun, and she smoothed them down with callused fingers.
Gravel crunched behind her. Kai turned. "About time."
Juli emerged from behind the tall, tumbled boulders that hid the path, looking cool and composed. Her pink jacket, which precisely matched the accents on her black pants, was worn but obviously cared-for. She eyed the cliff, then Kai, brushing an escaped strand of short, white-blond hair behind one ear. "We've talked about this."
Kai shrugged away a buzz of annoyance. "I promised, didn't I? No more almost falling off cliffs." And she hadn't. She'd been careful. "Where's Charlotte?"
Juli jerked her head over her shoulder as their roommate trudged into sight.
"I hate you, Monahan," Charlotte wheezed, scraping trendy brunette bangs off her damp forehead. "I can't believe you talked me into coming all the way out here."
Kai grinned. "You're the one who wouldn't stop raving about that hot tub in your parents' cabin."
"This" Charlotte swept her arm out to indicate the wilderness surrounding them "is not the hot tub."
Kai swung her pack back onto her shoulders, looking up at Charlotte. Of course, being five foot two meant looking up at most people. "We couldn't stay in it all weekend. We would've gotten pruney. Besides, if I wanted to sit around, I could have stayed back at the apartment watching MonsterChase with Pan." Kai wiggled her fingers, mimicking the voice of the British voice-over guy on their fourth roommate's favorite cryptozoology show. "Bigfoot! The Wyvern of McCauley Peak!" She laughed. "Dragons and deadly cryptids, they're out there!"
Charlotte was not moved. "My feet hurt."
Juli raised one perfect eyebrow. "I warned you about wearing new shoes."
"But they're so super'" Charlotte put her best French accent into the last word and stuck out her leg to admire the shoes in question. "Outdoorsy girls are hot, right? You never know when you might need to impress a man, Juliet."
Juli made a disgusted sound. "I have more important things going on in my life than impressing men." She stowed her water bottle and tightened her pale blond nub of a ponytail.
Kai leaned the side of her face against the sun-warmed stone. "I love you for you, Char."
Charlotte snorted. "Obviously. I'm fabulous." She wandered to the lookout where Kai had stood a moment before, though Charlotte stayed a solid five feet from the brink. Pushing her sunglasses onto the top of her head, she looked to the color-splashed world beyond, where the snowy tops of distant peaks tangled in hazy clouds. After a minute, she let out a resigned sigh. "It is beautiful. Do you teach next week, Kai? It could be fun. Convince me rock climbing isn't just for skinny tomboys like you."
"I teach a beginner's class every Wednesday." Kai exchanged glances with Juli. Charlotte would never actually ruin her manicure.
Kai rubbed a thumb over the pads of her fingers, feeling the short, rough fingernails, hard-won calluses and mostly healed splits. A lifetime of competitive gymnastics hadn't been nearly as hard on her skin as two years of rock climbing.
"It's getting late." Charlotte collapsed in the shade of a boulder. "I want the hot tub!"
Kai twisted a carabiner on her belt and shot Juli a pleading look. They'd been climbing steadily all day. Now the summit loomed above them, so close she felt she could reach out and slip her fingers along the jagged contours of its crest. They couldn't go back to the cabin yet. Hiking with Charlotte had meant Kai left her climbing gear at home, but this path was supposed to lead all the way to the top. After the week she'd hadtwo O-Chem midterms, a research paper turned in two days past due, and another blowout argument with her mothershe needed to summit this mountain.
Juli hauled a groaning Charlotte to her feet and frowned. "Half an hour. That's it. I won't be caught out here after dark."
"Perfect." Kai shouldered her pack, grinning again, and led them farther up. It was narrow going for a little as the path snaked between the cliff's edge and a sharp slope of rocky scree. Charlotte clenched her teeth and scooted along sideways, and even Juli slowed to a careful, measured walk.
Kai laughed, sucking it all in, holding it inside. The air, the song of birds and rustle of small animals, the green valley rolling away below with a lake at its center reflecting the sky. The time to do anything or go anywhere. Today was free. Today was perfect.
After a few minutes the path turned away from the edge of the cliff. Open ground sloped gently downward, the scree becoming a sheer rock wall that loomed high above, casting sections of the path into shadow. Kai trailed her fingers along the rough gray stone, humming. Juli and Charlotte fell behind.
The path followed the rock wall around a bend. A dozen yards ahead, a flash of blue caught Kai's eye. She stopped. Something human-shaped sprawled in the shade at the base of the cliff. "Hey, Juli, you'd better get up here I " She swallowed, her throat bone-dry. "There's a girl on the ground. I think she fell from the top of the cliff."
Footsteps pounded as Juli raced up the path. "Where? Never mind. I see her."
The girl, probably eighteen or nineteen, was lying faceup. She wore a high-necked black shirt and loose, charcoal-gray pants tucked into black, thick-soled, utilitarian boots that laced to above the ankle and looked as if they'd seen a lot of wear.
In sharp contrast to the military-like garb, the girl was draped in a ridiculous amount of jewelry. Gold armbands, rings, multiple earrings, and no less than three necklaces, all hung with crystal or polished slices of colorful stone. Her hair looked as if it had once been arranged in an ornate, braided updo.
Juli reached the girl and knelt by her side. Charlotte squealed, took a breath, and squealed again. "Is she dead? Oh em gee, she's totally dead!" She seized Kai's hand and dragged her forward, but Kai resisted. Death was not her kind of thrill.
Long auburn hair straggled across the fallen girl's face, which was ghost-white except for the blood. It caked crimson in her hair and streaked her cheek and neck, blending with a mottled mix of purple and black bruises. The left leg of her pants was torn to the knee, exposing the girl's calf, which was so bruised and swollen the bone had to be broken.
Juli had two fingers on the girl's neck and an intent expression on her face. "She's not dead. And don't say oh em gee, Charlotte. You're twenty, not thirteen." Juli whipped off her pack and dug for the first aid kit. "Her injuries have started to heal, but the blood looks fresh. That doesn't make sense." Frowning, she trickled a few drops from her water bottle into the girl's slightly open mouth. No reaction.
Kai twined her fingers in the carabiners on her belt, clicking one open and shut, open and shut. Her eyes fixed on the neck and left sleeve of the girl's shirt, which had been covered in myriad pentagons cut from thin black leather and layered over each other in rows, making them look like scales. "What do we do?"
Juli's brow furrowed. "We can't carry her."
"She definitely wasn't robbed." Charlotte indicated the girl's jewelry. "Oooh, druzy! I love the uncut-stone thing. So natural, you know?"
"We've got to get help." Kai ignored Charlotte's commentary on the unconscious girl's fashion choices and looked helplessly at the empty mountains tumbling away beyond the slope. They hadn't seen any other hikers all day, and there was no sign anyone else had been there recently.
Juli stood and pulled out her phone. "I don't have any reception."
Kai tugged her own phone from the pocket of her hoodie. "Me, neither."
"We have to go back to the cabin and use the radio." Face troubled, Juli stuck her phone back in her jacket.
"It's a three-hour hike!" Kai protested. It had taken them twice that long to get this far, but going downhill would be faster. "Someone has to stay."
"We need to report her location to the rangers." Juli dug through her pack. With the squeaky rustle of cellophane candy wrappers, she shook out a silver space blanket.
Kai couldn't believe what she was hearing. "We can't leave her alone!"
Juli tucked the blanket around the girl's body. "There are only three of us." She straightened. "Two stay and one goes for help, or one stays and two go for help. Either way, someone gets left alone. It's not safe."
"I'm not staying," Charlotte added.
Kai folded her arms. "I'll stay."
"I'm not leaving you." Juli's face was closed, her tone final.
Kai glared. She and Juli had been best friends since they were five, and Juli could be more dictatorial than both of Kai's older brothers combined. It had never bothered Kai until she'd finally freed herself from her mother's tyranny and quit competitive gymnastics two years ago. Since then, even Juli's well-intentioned bossiness got under her skin. "I'm staying."
Juli let out her breath in a frustrated hiss, glaring at Kai. "No one will be able to get here until after dark. Maybe two of us should stay."
"No. I still have food in my bag and my own blanket. Besides." Kai tipped her head toward Charlotte, who had all the survival skills of an ice cube on a summer sidewalk.
"If you're sure." Charlotte trailed off, unaware of the silent exchange.
Juli glanced at Charlotte. "Fine." Her voice was frosty. "But you had better stay away from cliffs."
Recognizing victory, the tension between Kai's shoulders eased. She laughed. "Come on, Jules. I promise I'll be here when you get back."
Juli's nostrils flared. "Fine. The sooner we go the sooner we'll be back. Let's go, Charlotte."
Kai waved as they walked away. With a final glance from Juli, her roommates disappeared around the curve of the mountain. Kai dropped her pack, stretched and paced, keeping an eye on the girl.
Hours ticked by. The sun inched toward the western horizon, and Kai got bored. The girl remained unconscious, getting neither better nor worse. Though Kai had meant to sit by her the whole time, she walked to the grassy, flattish slope and amused herself by stretching and doing back handsprings. But gymnastics always left a bitter taste in her mouth, so after a few minutes she moved back to the cliff, evaluating the rock. It looked solid, so she traversed the bottom, moving back and forth no more than a few feet off the ground.
Evening hovered closer, the warm fall day ebbing into chill twilight. Juli and Charlotte had to be back at the cabin.
Kai checked the girl again. No change. She hugged herself, chaffing her arms for warmth, and thought about getting her blanket out of her pack. First, she decided to walk back along the trail and see if she could find fuel for a fire.
A ragged moan shredded the gathering dusk.
Kai whirled. The girl on the rocks was awake and moving feebly in the fading light. She touched the bandaged wound behind her ear and fixed a confused gaze on her blood-smeared fingers.
Kai sprinted back up the path and crouched at the girl's side, trying not to look at the nausea-inducing angle of her leg. "Don't move. You're hurt."
The girl muttered something in a language that was definitely not English, sounding dazed. Her glass-like turquoise eyes drifted to Kai, who blinked at their saturated color.
She spoke, but not words Kai understood. "Um Do you speak English?"
The girl groaned and clutched her broken leg, inhaling sharply through her teeth. When she spoke again, her voice was distracted. "English yes. Who are you?" She had an accent, musical and difficult to place.
"I'm Kai." Kai turned to dig in her pack for her water bottle. "Do you remember what happened to you?"
"Remember " The girl's eyes widened, depth and clarity returning. She pressed one hand to her mouth and whispered something in the unfamiliar language, then surged upright. Her leg collapsed under her, and she gasped, her face contorted in pain. She spoke through gritted teeth. "Kavar is here! I have to warn them. Where's my bag?"
"Whoa." Startled and unsure whether she should try to restrain the girl, Kai tried to keep her voice soothing. "You didn't have a bag. Listen, my roommates will be back with rangers soon. Just relax."
"Ow. Ancients, I can't even see straight. I can't fly like this." The girl groaned and pressed a hand against her forehead.
"You can't what?"
Abruptly, the girl seized Kai, fingers digging into Kai's shoulders like claws. "Help me!" She leveraged herself up, nearly knocking Kai to the ground. "My brother is in trouble!"
Kai grabbed the girl's elbow, nervous. Talking sense to crazy people had always been Juli's thing. Kai had no idea what to do. "Help is coming! If your brother is close, they can help him, too."
The girl's eyes seemed to become luminescent, like tropical water lit from below. "Help me or let me go. I'm leaving now. Rhyshow did Kavar know?"
The girl tried to walk away, but Kai still had her elbow. They spun, and Kai squinted against the orange glare of the setting sun. "I can't leave. My roommates are coming back for me."
The girl made a sound remarkably like a growl.
"Then let go."
"You won't make it five feet."
With astonishing strength, the girl wrenched free. She hopped a few steps, then turned her ankle on a stone and went down hard. She let out an anguished cry and started to crawl, dragging her broken leg behind her.
"Holy crap, are you serious?" Kai swung her pack onto her back.
The girl kept crawling uphill, involuntary sounds of pain escaping her tightly clenched jaw. Indecision wracked Kai. She watched for another minute, expecting the girl to stop or collapse. But she didn't; she just kept crawling and sobbing. It was both horrifying and pitiful. Coming to a sudden decision, Kai kicked some stones into a rough arrow pointing up the path. She caught up to the girl and hoisted her to her feet. Uncertainty gnawed at her, but she couldn't sit and watch that. If the camp was close, maybe she could take the girl there, then come back and meet Juli and the rangers and take them to the camp to help carry the girl off the mountain.
The girl, now standing, looked down at Kai in consternation, her face bone-white and drawn, her voice hoarse with pain. "I thought you had people to wait for."
Kai shrugged, pretending a nonchalance she didn't feel. "You need me more."
Panting, the girl nodded. They set off, managing a hobbling gait.
"So," Kai huffed after a few minutes of awkward silence, "what's your name?"