A woman who has lost too much.
“Call this number before you call the police.”
Natalie Thomas never thought she would have to follow the cryptic instructions, but she’s forced to obey when her best friend Thea goes missing. Her day only gets weirder as she files a police report, meets Thea’s unreasonably gorgeous “cousin,” and gets attacked by a dragon in her own house. Now Natalie is entangled in Thea’s secret world of dragons and shapeshifters.
A dragon determined to avoid love.
Since his heart was shattered by his one true love, Erevan Skyblaze has been determined to avoid all attachments. He’s content to fill his days with his work and his evenings with meaningless flings. But when he is called to investigate the disappearance of a young dragon woman, he meets the beguiling and stubborn Natalie Thomas. Not only does she defy his dragon compulsion, she doesn’t seem to know that she’s not entirely human.
They’ll have to trust each other, or they could lose everything.
Together, Erevan and Natalie begin an investigation that veers into dangerous territory as they find evidence of a dragon-slaying cult and its deadly weapons. Long thought dead, these mysterious enemies pose a grave threat to the dragon world. And the fiery attraction between Erevan and Natalie may prove to be the one thing that can protect them.
The brawny man unleashed an explosive barrage of punches on a collision course with Natalie’s face. Adrenaline surged through her as she dodged and parried, each time just fast enough to avoid disaster. He lunged, exposing an unguarded side and giving her an opening. She dropped into a low stance and slammed her shoulder into his belly. As he doubled over, Natalie followed with a hard punch into his side. Muscle shifted against her as he wound up for an elbow strike. Before he could land the devastating blow, she spun away from him, putting herself at arm’s length.
Perry grinned as he wiped sweat from his tanned face. “That was good,” he said, breathing heavily. “Great, actually.”
Pride swelled in her chest at the compliment. “Thanks.” She breathed hard from the exertion of the fight, filling her nostrils with the sharp smell of rubber and stale sweat.
Sinew shifted on Perry’s muscular forearms as he removed his gloves and wrist wraps. Standing six foot four and built like a tank, Perry looked like an NFL coach’s dream.
And a single twenty-something’s dream, for that matter.
His shoulder-length dark hair was pulled into a stubby ponytail. Natalie had long been a fervent protestor of long hair on men, but she’d had to reconsider her stance when she met Perry. He was one of the elite few who could pull it off.
Natalie caught herself staring as Perry peeled off his sweat-soaked shirt to reveal a set of abs that were as good as a full-page ad for the gym he co-owned. She averted her eyes before he noticed and jogged to the corner of the mat to check her phone. As she took a sip from her water bottle, she checked her notifications. There was an alert from Groupon, but nothing from her roommate Thea.
“Did you hear from her?” Perry asked.
“Not yet.” She opened the messages again to see if Thea had gotten her text that morning. The status still read Delivered.
Natalie had sent the message about an hour ago, when she arrived at the gym to find Thea conspicuously absent. Thea and Perry co-owned Steelforged Fitness, a specialized gym. While Thea was occasionally a few minutes late because of a long drive-thru line for coffee, she would never miss an appointment entirely. When Natalie arrived that morning, she’d found two of Thea’s personal training clients standing at the locked front doors looking irritated. She had let them in and assured them Thea would be there any minute.
But after thirty minutes of awkward reassurances, there was still no sign of her roommate. Natalie had texted Thea to check on her. Half a dozen scenarios had flashed through her head as she composed the text. Some were mundane, like a flat tire or a traffic jam. Some made Natalie sick to her stomach, like the gruesome image of Thea’s car crushed in a fiery heap on the side of the road.
Then Perry had arrived. When he confirmed he hadn’t heard from her either, that hadn’t alleviated her concerns. He’d assured her everything would be fine and suggested a workout to distract them.
Almost an hour after Thea was supposed to arrive, Perry no longer seemed so sure. After putting on a fresh shirt, he called her. His eyebrows arched as he spoke. “Hey, Thea.” Natalie’s heart leaped with hope. “It’s Perry. Me and Natalie were just wondering where you are. Call me and let me know what’s going on.” He shook his head. “Straight to voicemail.” He stuck the phone into the pocket of his loose gym shorts. “For now, pull a list of her appointments and I’ll cover them. Can you call the first few and tell them she’s sick? I’ll train them if they come in but if they’d prefer her, they can reschedule. If anyone gets mad, I’ll talk to them.”
“Sure,” Natalie said. She grabbed her gym bag and retreated to their shared office at the front corner of the gym. As she passed the office windows, she groaned at her reflection. A halo of sweaty fly-aways surrounded her flushed face. Not that Perry was checking her out, but no straight woman wanted to look like hell in front of a guy that attractive. Natalie smoothed her hair back and made a mental note to visit the locker room and freshen up after making her calls.
Humming to herself, she opened the gym management software and ran a report of the day’s personal training clients. Natalie had begun working for the gym before it even opened. She’d taken a boxing class from Thea at the Y a few years earlier, and they’d struck up a friendship as Natalie became a regular. Their friendship had blossomed over Thursday night smoothies. As Thea’s dream of opening her own gym became reality, she’d asked Natalie if she was interested in using her graphic design background to create a logo for the gym. After that, Thea had asked her to design the website, and then to set up the billing software. Before she realized it was happening, Natalie was running the administrative side of Thea’s brand-new business.
The steady pay from the gym was nice after the uncertainty of freelance design work, and she was in the best shape of her life. She also enjoyed spending her days with Thea and Perry. When Thea purchased a house six months ago, she’d offered to rent a room to Natalie. It was a hell of a lot better than the outrageously overpriced apartment she’d been renting for almost two years. Some of her friends had warned her against living with a coworker, but it had gone well so far.
It took her twenty minutes to call all of Thea’s clients scheduled until three in the afternoon. She cross-checked it against Perry’s list and canceled anyone who was scheduled for the same time, offering a gracious apology. Two of Thea’s clients declined the offer to work with Perry, which was too bad for them. Then again, Natalie was still intimidated after six months of working with him. Perry was one of the nicest people she’d ever met, but it was hard not to feel self-conscious and ugly when you were sweating and straining in front of a guy like that.
When she finished her list, Perry was writing a workout routine on the whiteboard at the opposite side of the gym for the lunchtime class. She and Thea had come up with the Lunchtime Quickie, a short but intense workout that had brought in a spike of new clients from the nearby office parks.
Natalie brought Perry the list and explained her color coding. “Thanks,” he said. He tilted his head. “You okay? You look really worried.”
“I am,” Natalie said. “I feel like a horrible friend. She went out last night, but I’m not sure she came home. My allergies were going nuts, so I took a Benadryl and practically went into a coma. I would have slept through a tornado.” He laughed. “So, if she came in, I didn’t wake up. And she wasn’t there when I got up.”
“She told me she was going out last night. Maybe she met someone.”
Natalie frowned. “That’s not her style.”
Perry raised an eyebrow. “People can surprise you.”
She scowled. “Not Thea. I know her better than that.”
“If you say so.” He glanced at his watch, dismissing her concerns. “Well, we’ve got to work today, even if she’s playing hooky. Can you put those drinks in the fridge and hit the music?”
With a motto of Fight for your best life, Steelforged Fitness combined martial arts training with functional movements and strength training. Free weights lined one of the mirrored walls, but most of the floor space was occupied with sparring mats and boxing gear. A row of heavy punching bags hung along another wall, swaying slowly. Both Thea and Perry offered personal training, in addition to teaching group classes.
After cranking up the sound system, Natalie got to work restocking the cooler with drinks from Perry’s early morning Costco run. The repetitive work of slicing open plastic-wrapped cases let her mind drift to Thea.
Perry’s comment about people surprising her didn’t sit well. In the time they’d lived together, Thea had only stayed out all night a few times and had always texted to let her know. As far as Natalie knew, they’d all been with Perry, supposedly because she’d fallen asleep watching a movie at his place. Natalie wouldn’t call her out for it, but by some miraculous coincidence, they were both in exceptionally good spirits after one of those all-nighters. Must have been some great movies. They had a weird relationship; both of them insisted it wasn’t a romantic thing, but to Natalie’s knowledge, neither of them dated.
As she placed a final red drink in the cooler to create a viscerally satisfying rainbow, her phone buzzed on the counter. She grabbed it. The notification was an Amber Alert. “Dammit,” she muttered. A pang of guilt prodded her for being annoyed about a missing kid. She checked her message again, but her last text to Thea still read delivered.
With the Amber Alert on her brain, Natalie hurried to the computer and searched how long to wait before filing a missing person report. The first result said, “You do not have to wait 24 hours.” But if she called the police only to have Thea waltz in the door with a reasonable explanation for her absence, she was going to feel stupid. Natalie sighed and poked her head out of the office. Across the gym, Perry was spotting a client on the bench press. Interrupting him now would be a terrible idea.
When they’d first moved in together, Thea had shown her a sealed envelope and a small notebook that she kept in her nightstand. “I’m sorry. This is morbid, I know,” Thea had said in her melodious voice, clipped by an unfamiliar accent. She opened the leather notebook. There was a name with several phone numbers on the first page. “This is my cousin. If something ever happens to me, I want you to call him. If I’m in the hospital, or…well, you know what I mean. Call this number before you do anything else.”
Natalie had protested, but Thea was adamant. Not for the first time, she’d wondered if Thea had some kind of sketchy crime connections that made her want to avoid the police. Was there drug money stashed in their attic, or a mobster uncle financing the gym from the shadows? But Thea hadn’t elaborated, repeating the request to call her cousin. After she’d spoken to this cousin, then they would tell Natalie what to do next.
Was this incident worthy of calling the mysterious cousin? If this was some misunderstanding, then Natalie didn’t want to provoke a storm of family drama for Thea. But if something bad had happened, time was critical. She gritted her teeth and called Thea.
The phone rang four times before going to the automated voicemail. “Thea, it’s Natalie. Please call me back. I’m really worried about you and I’m about to call the cops. So, call me right now. Please.” She followed it up with a similar text, then stared at the phone.
Come on. Ring.
By the time Perry’s last training appointment of the afternoon ended, she still hadn’t heard from Thea. Natalie had made up her mind. She sent an email to the gym’s members to cancel Thea’s evening class with a profuse apology for the short notice. She gathered her things and hurried out to meet Perry on the gym floor. “I’m going home to see if she’s there, and then I’m calling the cops.”
He left the row of kettlebells he was straightening and repeated the process Natalie had, first calling, and then texting. “Nothing,” he said. “Do you want me to come over?”
“Not yet,” she said. “Stay here and I’ll keep you updated.”
She left him fretting over his phone and hurried out to her car. The small parking lot was filling with early arrivals for Perry’s cardio boxing class. Women in spandex pants and pink boxing gloves gathered in pairs, chatting as they walked in. For obvious reasons, Perry’s classes were very popular with the ladies. Natalie and Thea had figured out early on that sending him to community events to advertise in a strategically small Steelforged shirt was the best advertising money could buy.
But today her mind was on Thea, not Perry’s ridiculous physique. Natalie tossed her bag into the back of her car and eased into traffic. It was just before four, so rush hour hadn’t started yet. Even so, the traffic felt unbearably slow as she headed home.
Despite knowing each other for several years, Natalie didn’t know much about Thea’s history. When they were first getting acquainted, Thea had explained she was from a small country in Eastern Europe. “One of those former Soviet ones,” she’d said with a forced laugh. “Things were not good there. I like it here.” A shadow passed over her face when it came up, so Natalie hadn’t brought it up since. She didn’t have enough friends to take the risk of endangering a good friendship over her curiosity.
Hope swelled in Natalie’s chest as she turned into their neighborhood. Maybe Thea would be home, with a logical explanation for being out of touch all day.
Their neighborhood was small and a bit dated, with most of its houses pushing thirty. Unlike the new, cookie-cutter neighborhoods further into the suburbs, the trees had grown high and created a cozy patchwork of shade and sunlight across the twisting streets.
Natalie’s hope lasted until she turned onto their street. Their two-story blue house in the middle of the cul-de-sac was dark, with its driveway conspicuously empty.
After pulling up the driveway, Natalie called Thea one last time. “Okay, this is it. I’m really worried about you, and I’m about to call the cops,” she said. She sent one more text to drive home the point with an excessive number of exclamation points.
The house was dark and cool. It was still in a way that only came from being empty for hours. There was no white noise like running water or a rumbling dryer to indicate someone had been here recently. She dropped her keys on the coffee table in the living room, still clutching her phone. “Thea?” she called. “Thea!” The silence almost had a sound of its own, a pressure that pushed back on her.
She headed to the master bedroom. Thea’s bed was still pristine from the day before. As she surveyed the quiet room, a cold chill washed over her. If something had happened to Thea, then she could be in danger, too.
Heart thumping, she backpedaled out of the room and ran upstairs to her own bedroom. She knelt and pulled a small gun safe from under the bed. Pressing her thumb into the sensor, she opened the lockbox and took out the small handgun. Natalie was born and raised in Texas, and she’d been shooting since she was twelve. The gun had been a gift for her eighteenth birthday from her late mother, who’d said she felt a lot safer with Smith and Wesson as her guardian angels when she wasn’t around.
Natalie held the gun at her side and hurried back downstairs to Thea’s room. She called for Thea again. It would be just her luck that her roommate would come in now and startle her. God, she must look crazy creeping down the hall with a gun like she was playing cops and robbers.
But there was still no response. Natalie placed the gun on Thea’s neat white bedspread, then inched toward the nightstand like it was a rattlesnake. Until now, she’d been able to convince herself nothing was really wrong. Once she made that call, she had to accept that things were not okay.
Natalie took a deep breath and opened the drawer. The notebook was a gorgeous leather-bound book tooled with angular symbols. She untied the leather laces around the cover and opened it to the middle. Both pages were filled with notes written in the same symbols engraved on the cover.
“Huh?” She was no linguistic expert, but she recognized a few other alphabets like Arabic, Thai, and Korean. This was nothing she’d ever seen. She flipped back to the front. The first page was written in English.
Call first: Erevan Sulkas — 555-981-2348
“Erevan,” she said aloud. That sounded like it could be Eastern European. Her heart thumped harder as she dialed the number.
A chirpy female voice answered. “Asora vel?”
“Um, hello?” Natalie said.
“Oh! Hello,” the woman said in English. “Can I help you?”
“Hi, I’m trying to reach Erevan.”
The woman paused. “May I ask why you’re calling?”
“Um…” She sighed and stared down at her hands. There was no turning back once she said it aloud. “My name is Natalie Thomas, and my friend Thea Leska is missing. She has this list of people to call if something ever happened to her.”
“Thea Leska. Ah, yes. My apologies. Erevan is out of the office at the moment.” She spoke flawless English, but it was tinged with the same accent she’d heard in Thea’s voice.
“It’s an emergency, and I’m really—”
“But I will let him know you called,” the woman interrupted. “Is this a good number to reach you?”
“And you’re at 435 Willow Blossom Road?”
“How do you know that?” Natalie asked as a knot of fear formed in her stomach.
“We keep records of Mr. Sulkas’ contacts. What was your name again?”
“That’s a lovely name,” the woman said. “Natalie, Erevan will be in touch soon. Please try not to worry in the meantime. We’ll help you figure this out. Is there anything else?”
“Yeah, are you going to call the cops?” Natalie said, more heated than she intended.
The woman paused. “Erevan will determine if that is necessary. Is there anything else?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s necessary—”
“If there’s nothing else, we’ll be in touch. Thank you for calling.” The woman hung up.
Natalie stared in shock at her phone.
What the hell was Thea into?
The pinched look on his partner’s pretty face was an ominous portent of the kind of day Erevan Skyblaze was about to have.
He hadn’t even made it to the office kitchen for his first cup of coffee before Ruana intercepted him and thrust a gleaming black tablet in his face. Her desk was on the opposite side of the bullpen, with her back to the door. That meant she’d been watching for him to come in the door, maybe even watching at the window for his car. When he was within arm’s reach, she hammered a nail into the coffin containing his hopes for a normal day.
“Some of your Wanderers apparently had quite a time last night,” she said. She propped one hand on her hip and gave him a disapproving look, as if he was the guilty party. All around them, the Skywatch bullpen buzzed with activity as the small night crew passed the reins to the day shift.
Erevan ignored the proffered tablet and made a beeline for the coffee maker in the kitchenette. He’d had a late night downtown, celebrating a junior Skywatch agent’s birthday at a shapeshifter bar. His flirtatious advances on a gorgeous hybrid girl had been amusing, but he’d declined the offer to go home with her after she practically pounced him outside the bar. “My Wanderers? When they’re in trouble, they’re mine, huh?”
The glass carafe was still half full, though the glass was cool to the touch. After filling a mug, he released a small burst of elemental energy to reheat the liquid. A plume of steam rose from the cup. The constant heat was a pain in the summer but being a fire dragon did have advantages.
“Really? We have a microwave,” Ruana said.
“I’m being energy efficient,” he said. “Besides, someone cooked fish in there at lunch yesterday and it still reeks.” He dumped in a chocolate-flavored creamer, stirred it with his finger, then took a satisfying sip. “Now you may speak.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Oh, I have your permission now, sir?” He smiled and waited for her to continue. “As I was saying, some of your Wanderers got into trouble.”
He sighed. One of these days, he was going to get promoted to a position that didn’t involve babysitting a bunch of babe-in-the-woods dragons who couldn’t follow simple rules. How hard was it to keep a low profile? This job had been much easier twenty years ago, when everyone wasn’t walking around with supercomputers in their pockets ready to record the next viral video. “How bad?”
Ruana handed him the tablet, which had a Facebook video cued up and ready to play. Erevan steeled himself and pressed Play. The camera was filming an open field at night, the image little more than faint outlines against a moonlit sky. The angle and background noise sounded like footage from a hobbyist’s drone. “What am I watching?”
“Give it a minute,” Ruana replied.
A few seconds later, he got his wish, at least if his wish was for a monster headache and the irritation to match. A rumbling roar drowned out the drone as a massive shadow darted across the sky. His stomach sank. That could have been anything. A freakishly large bird, perhaps.
The drone followed, the camera jerking as it tried to follow the shadow’s movement. For a moment, there was only empty sky and the silver coin of the moon against black. A few seconds later, the unmistakable silhouette of a dragon zoomed across the field of view. Glorious wingspan, spiked tail, the whole deal.
“Son of a….” Some people were too stupid to be dragons. He handed the tablet back to Ruana, but she didn’t take it. “Okay, we can pitch it as some late-night kite flying.”
“It’s worked before,” he snapped. He had bookmarked multiple websites that sold enormous dragon kites, along with a few videos of them flying. It was pretty unbelievable to suggest a twenty-five-foot-long dragon was a flimsy silk kite, but he and Ruana had their ways of helping that pill of incredulity go down smoother.
“Just wait.” She pointed to the tablet.
Erevan looked down as a flash of forked lightning crackled across the dragon’s wings. “I hate teenagers.”
“What’s your spin now, Kite Boy?”
“Fireworks?” Erevan said. Ruana rolled her eyes. “I know. Let’s go.”
They hurried to Erevan’s desk, where Ruana began talking before he’d even found his seat. “I’ve already tracked the location and reported the video as offensive from a dummy account. Hopefully, it’ll be removed.” She perched on the edge of his desk.
“How many shares has it gotten?”
“None yet, but it’s gotten about a hundred views.”
“That’s a break,” Erevan said. This wouldn’t be the first time a reckless dragon ended up on the Internet. He’d learned that the key was to get in front of it before it reached the tipping point. In addition to investigators like Erevan, the Skywatch had a whole team of techies monitoring the news for suspicious behavior or keywords that might correspond to a misbehaving dragon. They’d been able to head off several situations with their rowdy charges before they ballooned into front page news. “Have you got an address for the poster?”
“Got it,” she said. “You want to find our culprits?”
“Let’s put out the fire first.”
The morning commute into Asheville made Erevan wish for the freedom to fly in the open. Inching along in traffic was probably annoying for humans, but it was doubly frustrating for a dragon that had been constricted into human form for far too long.
Despite its name, the Skywatch didn’t fly. They watched the metaphorical skies, the domain of the dragon queen as it were. Here in the human world, they had little need to watch for enemy attacks from the sky. Still, he sometimes wished for the raw simplicity of battle and a chance to let the dragon in him free. There was nothing that matched the primal joy of flying with fire burning in his chest and the wind under his wings.
“You look tired,” Ruana said. She liked to drive and unless he protested, always took the wheel if they worked together. Erevan didn’t mind, especially with fatigue trying its best to seal his eyelids shut. “Long night?”
“Was she cute?”
“You’re making assumptions.”
“I’m making an inference. Not the same. Besides, you still have lipstick on your neck.”
He groaned and yanked down the visor to scrub at his neck. There was nothing there. He glared at Ruana, whose red lips were pulled into a satisfied smirk. “It was just a little fun. Nothing happened.”
“You don’t have to justify it to me,” she said. “I know how you are.”
“Well, that’s loaded.”
He and Ruana had slept together a few times, though it had never been more than a physical thing. They’d been partners for years, and the inevitable attraction had led them into bed. Things had been a little awkward after they slept together but they’d both moved on. Even with their history, Ruana was easy to get along with, which was a nice change after butting heads constantly with his last partner, Kelzahn, who’d been determined to use Erevan as a stepstool to the elite Tempest division in Skyward Rest.
With morning traffic, it took them almost forty-five minutes to reach the unassuming row of identical townhouses in a neighborhood on the other side of town. The narrow houses and tiny driveways said small families, maybe single residents.
“Cute places,” she said.
“Too close together,” he replied.
She parked in front of number one twenty-five. When they got out, Erevan inhaled deeply, taking in the scent of fresh-cut grass and burning fuel from a lawnmower a few houses down. Even in human form, his sense of smell was powerful. He exhaled the warm air, then took another deep breath, this time checking for anything non-human. If there was anything other than a hapless human with an incriminating video recording waiting for him, he wanted to know. He caught the familiar, earthy scent of Ruana’s presence and nothing more. She tilted her head and regarded him. “What are you looking for?”
“It’s all clear. Only humans.”
“Good. Let me do the talking.” Her wide hips swished in an intoxicating rhythm as she sauntered up the driveway. Since they were immersed in the human world, they wore casual clothes instead of the more traditional garb and ornamental armor their kin wore in Skyward Rest. Ruana would have looked stunning wrapped in a garbage bag, but she favored snug jeans that showed off her curves.
Ruana knocked on the door. A few seconds later, the door swung open to a confused-looking man clutching a cup of coffee. He was dressed for work in a button-down shirt and a tie. His brow furrowed in confusion. It wasn’t every day that a gorgeous, six-foot tall woman appeared unannounced on your doorstep.
“Hi! Are you Dave?” she chirped. The guy nodded slowly, still gaping at her. “Can I come in?”
“It’ll only take a minute,” she said. A subtle wave of energy radiated from her. Though it had no psychic effect on him, Erevan felt it, like someone blowing on the back of his neck. Their kind could compel humans, and Ruana was the best he’d ever seen.
Dave nodded, his confusion evaporating into an easy smile. “Sure, come on in.”
“Listen, Dave, this won’t take long,” Ruana said as they followed him into the house. The interior was sparse and neat. Out of habit, Erevan sniffed the air. He only found the mundane smells of coffee and laundry detergent. “You took a video last night. I need to know exactly where you were.”
“Oh shit, the dragons.” His eyes widened. “Wait…are you with the government?”
“No. We’re not from the government,” Ruana said. “Look, I need you to delete the video from your social media and from your devices.”
He frowned. “But—”
Ruana gently gripped his forearm, amplifying her ability by making physical contact. “Dave, can I be honest with you? You saw something you shouldn’t have seen. And there are people who don’t want that kind of evidence out there.”
“Seriously?” he murmured.
“Seriously.” It was disconcerting to see how easily she spun a story. It was why Erevan always let her take the lead in these situations. “You seem like a nice guy. I stumbled on your video, and I want you to take it down before something bad happens to you. Others have just…disappeared.”
“Shit.” Dave’s pupils were wide, nearly blotting out his brown irises. Erevan could feel her power in the air, like pinpricks on his skin. Ruana was pushing him hard. “Yeah, okay.”
“Good,” she said. “Let’s take care of that.”
“Get a location,” Erevan said quietly as Ruana followed Dave upstairs.
They returned a few minutes later with Dave still looking dazed. Ruana had a bright blue sticky note in one hand. “Be careful,” she reminded him. “Don’t tell anyone about this. For your own good.”
“Yeah,” he breathed. “Definitely.”
“Good boy?” Erevan asked incredulously as they walked back to the car. Though it was still early, the heat was already sweltering, raising beads of sweat on the back of his neck. With an affinity for fire, Erevan already ran warm. Summers in North Carolina were akin to torture.
Ruana rolled her eyes at him. “Whatever.” As they plopped into the car, she handed over the sticky note. An address was written in a neat hand. “Put that in my phone.”
“Yes, my queen.” After setting the navigation system, he took out his own phone and swiped through his contacts until he reached Lilya. He called, waiting patiently through the first two rings.
A raspy female voice answered. “Erevan, it’s a bit early for a social call.”
“Did I wake you?”
“Please,” she said. “I’m up at dawn. What do you need?”
“I need your wings. And your nose. Are you busy?”
“All business, huh?” She sighed and cleared her throat. “I can make a little time. The queen is in a meeting and doesn’t need me. Where?”
“I’ll text you the address.” After he hung up, he felt the weight of Ruana’s eyes on him. He glanced over at her. “What?”
“Lilya?” she said, eyebrow arched.
“This is official business. It concerns our community.” The way she leaned on our made it clear she didn’t consider Lilya a part of the community. Kadirai, or dragon shifters, weren’t the only non-humans in town. There was also an increasing presence of the Edra, the other animal shifters from their world. Lilya al-Kahrin was one of them. Some, like Ruana, insisted on maintaining the sharp divide between them, much the way things were in their home world of Ascavar. But things were changing. They had more in common with the Edra than they did with humans, with many of the same concerns and interests here in a strange world that wasn’t ready to know of their existence.
“They are part of our community.” He held up a hand to silence her protest. “Come up with a better solution and I’ll listen. Until then, I don’t want to hear it.”
It took another twenty minutes to drive to the address Dave had given them. Their route ended at a community park complex in the suburbs. Marked with gleaming new signs, the park contained half a dozen athletic fields and a walking track. Mid-summer meant a busy day, with a group of kids in orange shirts playing soccer on one of the fields and dozens of older couples and mothers with strollers on the walking track.
Erevan peeled off the jacket that was baking him to a crisp and left it the car. With a deep inhalation, a mélange of earthy smells filled his nose. There was growing grass, damp earth under the ratcheting sprinklers, even the distant funk of spoiled food in a trash can somewhere down the trail.
Under it all was the unmistakable smell of dragon magic. When his kind, the Kadirai, transformed into their dragon form, it released a shockwave of energy into the atmosphere and left a trail, like the puffy white plumes behind airplanes. It smelled pleasantly smoky, like burning wood on a fall day.
Tuning out the competing scents, Erevan focused on the smoky scent. If there weren’t dozens of humans around, he would have transformed himself to take advantage of his heightened senses. While there were many rules that governed the Kadirai who lived here in the human world, the most important was takara vhan—keep the secret. It really was a simple rule, but clearly some dragons found it impossible or Erevan wouldn’t have a job.
“You have something?” Ruana asked, breaking his concentration. She gave a perfunctory sniff but from experience he knew she wouldn’t pick up what he did.
“Yes.” In his dragon form, he would detect a shimmering afterglow in the other dragon’s wake. In human form, he had to rely on outside help to follow the aerial trail.
Wings flapped overhead. His heart pounded as the wide wingspan of a hawk threw a shadow over him. After recognizing the white spots on the feathers and the leather harness on its back, Erevan put his arm out for Lilya to land. She let out a quiet sound and tilted her head. While her coloring was normal for a hawk, her eyes were an unsettling blue that glowed against her golden-brown feathers. The harness on her back was of Kadirai make, the leather enchanted to expand and shrink with her transformation and protect its contents. “Kadirai transformed here,” he said. “I need to know where they are. Text me when you have something.”
She squeezed her claws into his arm gently, then launched into the air. After circling overhead several times, Lilya zeroed in on the trail and flew away. While the good citizens of Asheville would certainly take note of a giant red dragon flying across the sky during their morning commute, no one would think twice about a hawk soaring overhead.
“I don’t like involving the Edra,” Ruana said.
While they waited for Lilya’s report, they returned to the car and turned the air conditioning up to full blast. Both of them checked in with the Skywatch office for updates on other cases. After ten minutes, Erevan received a message from Lilya. The text consisted of an address and a bird emoji. “Got a location.”
While his partner drove, Erevan used his tablet to search his database of known Kadirai in the area. Lilya’s powerful nose had led her to an apartment complex a few miles from the park, which was enough to narrow down Erevan’s search. The street address brought up two hits for recent arrivals in the human world. One was an Ashflight dragon named Kalera. The other was a Stormflight male named Varghev. They had both been here less than six months.
While Erevan had grown up surrounded by his own kind, he had also been accustomed to this world from a young age. All the shifters traced their roots to Ascavar, another realm that was connected to this one by mysterious portals called Gates. The Gates were protected, so there was little traffic between worlds. However, certain nations in Ascavar permitted their young to venture into the human world for a sort of trial period. They called it the khalle t’aradan, or the Wandering. It was a time for young dragons to explore and decide if they wanted to return to their homeland, or if they wished to stay here. Part of the Wandering was accepting the laws of the realm and submitting to the authority of the Skywatch. And these two clearly hadn’t grasped that flying and throwing lightning in populated areas was certainly against those laws.
It took only a few minutes to reach the apartment complex, where they parked in a visitor spot close to Varghev’s apartment. “I’ll get the girl and come to you,” Ruana said. “Be careful.”
“Hmph,” he grunted. As if some teenaged spark-thrower was going to challenge him. Erevan walked up the flight of stairs to the second floor, scanning the numbers for 1801. As he passed 1811, then 1809, the smoky smell of magic intensified. By the time he reached 1801, the scent was almost on his tongue.
He banged on the black door. Feet pounded across the floor. There was a pause, then a murmured, “vazredakh,” as Varghev cursed.
“Varghev, open the door,” Erevan said in Kadirai. “It’s Erevan Skyblaze from the Skywatch.”
The young man who opened the door was small and wiry for a Kadirai. His head drooped, his gaze fixed on the floor. As if he’d realized he was wearing his guilt like a heavy cloak, Varghev’s head popped up. “Yes?” he replied in Kadirai, pasting a fake smile across his face.
“Did you enjoy your flight last night?” Erevan asked. Varghev’s smile faltered. “You’re not fooling me. Don’t waste my time.”
Erevan pushed past him and walked into the apartment. It was sparsely decorated with the generic furniture that came with a pre-furnished apartment. Wanderers came into the human world with little more than a bag of clothing, a few personal items, and wild dreams about what pleasures and possibilities lay here. Most of them were disappointed, but they all had the same wide-eyed wonder that Varghev had when he first walked through the Gate.
“Sir, I didn’t mean to,” Varghev said. “I just…please don’t send me back.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here to decide,” Erevan said sharply. Varghev’s brown eyes went wide as he paced across the front hallway. Unless Varghev had a dead body in the closet, this would be no more than a stern talking-to, but the younger dragon didn’t need to know that.
He let the younger man pace until the door flew open again. Ruana had a young woman in tow, her eyes puffy and swollen. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she staggered after Ruana. “What did you tell them?” the girl spluttered in Kadirai. He wasn’t sure if the choice of language was habit or a failed attempt to conceal the conversation from Ruana and Erevan.
“Sit,” Erevan barked in Kadirai, pointing to the leather couch. Both of the younger dragons snapped to attention and hurried to the couch, staring up at him. There was a warm brush against his arm as Ruana joined him. “Were you flying over Applewood Community Park last night?”
They looked at each other. “I mean, I wasn’t—” Varghev started.
“We already know you were,” Ruana snapped. “Don’t waste our time by lying.”
Kalera nodded. “There were a bunch of big fields,” she said. “We didn’t think anyone would see with all the woods.”
Erevan pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know the rules. Or at least, I thought you did, because both of you signed documents saying you understood. One of those rules is that you never change within the city limits, let alone fly in populated areas. And even if you’re stupid enough to forget those rules, you certainly don’t channel lightning anywhere near a residential area.”
Varghev’s cheeks flushed and he dropped his head. “I didn’t think anyone would see.”
“There are at least fourteen fast food restaurants in a mile radius of that park. It’s not exactly secluded,” Ruana said.
“It’s so hard being like this all the time,” Kalera said, flinging up her hands. “I used to be able to change whenever I wanted. It’s like being a prisoner.”
“Prison? You chose to come here, an-kadi,” Ruana said, loading the childish nickname with disdain. “You come here, you follow our rules.”
“It’s not fair,” Varghev said. “We have to cover up who we are because of them?” The disdainful note on the word them sent a shiver of irritation through Erevan. That was a common attitude from those who had just arrived from Ascavar. Back in Ascavar, humans were considered inferior to the Kadirai, so it was a rude awakening for many of their Wanderers. In an instant, they went from a position of unquestioned power and elevated status to being forced to blend in with the lowly humans.
“Little dragon, you’re welcome to go back to Ascavar whenever you wish,” Erevan said, injecting a sharper note into his voice. Varghev’s lips clamped together as his eyes widened. “Until then, you follow my rules. Do you understand?”
“But…” Kalera looked up, then froze with her mouth open. “Yes, I understand.”
“And you?” Ruana said.
Varghev nodded. “I understand.”
“If you’re confused about where you may fly, contact us,” Erevan said, softening. Despite his frustration, he sympathized. It was maddening to feel the itch of wings beneath his skin, to gaze at an open sky that was denied. “We can—” He paused as another text vibrated his phone. He pulled it out to see a message from Lilya.
Lilya: Looks like you can pay me back sooner than I thought. Need you over at Hideaway. Some of your scaly friends showed their ass last night. Thosrin is ready to take it to the queen. Think you can calm her down?
Erevan suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. He pointed at Varghev. “Don’t make us come out here again.”
As Erevan and Ruana left the apartment, a second text from Lilya arrived, this one with a picture of a smashed plasma screen and an assortment of broken liquor bottles at Thosrin’s club, Hideaway. Lilya’s caption read what a waste of good Scotch. Thosrin, the club’s owner, was the queen of the local Edra community, and she would demand an answer if the Kadirai were responsible for the destruction.
Erevan officially regretted getting out of bed that morning. If it wasn’t idiot Wanderers, it was drunken dragons.
They hadn’t even gotten back to the car when his phone rang. Surely Lilya wasn’t so impatient that she would call after two texts. He pulled it out to see the home office number. “This is Erevan,” he said.
“It’s Elfeli, sir,” she said. The young woman handled communications with Wanderers and kept the office running with brutal efficiency. “I got a call from someone about Thea Leska.” Before he could ask, she continued, “Ashflight Wanderer. She’s been here about eight years and lives in the Asheville area.”
“She’s missing,” Elfeli said. “Her human friend called, so I need you to look into it.”
“I’m on it.”
Exactly twenty-one hours and thirty-seven minutes had passed since Natalie had last seen Thea, heading to the ladies’ locker room to clean up for an evening out. Now Natalie was kicking herself. Had Thea said where she was going? She’d been focused on setting up a new membership and barely looked up when Thea passed, unaware it was the last time she’d see her. Twenty-one hours and thirty-seven minutes was a long stretch of time for the worst to happen.
After calling Erevan, she tried to pass the time by working from home. Her goal had been to set up a landing page for members to order their new Steelforged Fitness branded apparel, but she’d been staring at the same catalog of templates for an hour without seeing them. The handgun was locked up safely, but she’d brought the box out to the coffee table where she could get it if she needed. There was something reassuring about the hard lines of black metal within reach.
Her phone rang, startling her from her glazed inattention.
It was an unknown number. “Hello?”
“Hello?” His voice was deep, with a faint rasp like sandpaper on stone. “Is this Natalie?”
“Yes,” she said cautiously. “Who’s this?”
“This is Erevan Sulkas. You called about your friend. Eh…Thea Leska? You spoke to my colleague.”
Her stomach lurched into her throat and grabbed hold. “Yes. Look, I need to know what’s going on. I don’t know why she wanted me to call you first, but—”
“I don’t need an explanation on the phone,” he interrupted. “I will meet you at your house in thirty minutes.”
“No, I need you to—”
“Sooner is better, is it not? Thirty minutes.”
He hung up. Her face blazed with indignation at his brusque manner. What the hell was with Thea’s people?
Natalie surveyed the living room. She and Thea both liked things neat, though they were both prone to flurries of last minute cleaning if guests were coming. It was sheer instinct to grab a broom to sweep the hardwood floors before Erevan arrived. But halfway down the hall, she froze.
Her mother wasn’t around anymore to scold her, but she could hear her honey-sweet drawl with perfect clarity. “Natalie, don’t you dare let a strange man in your house while you’re there alone,” she would scold if she could. With Thea missing, she didn’t want to take any chances. The gun was a nice start, but she’d prefer not to find herself in a situation to need it.
Natalie grabbed her phone again and scrolled until she reached Perry. Of her few friends in Asheville, Perry was the most intimidating and the best potential protector. She wasn’t as close to him as Thea, but they often went out for lunch. She was also his official date for children’s movies so he wouldn’t attract too much attention as a grown man at a Disney princess movie. Would he think she was being a total weirdo? Her nerves jangled as the phone rang three times. His voice was breathless when he answered. “Hey! What did you find out?”
“Uh, long story,” she said. “Can you come over? A friend of Thea’s is supposed to come meet me and help find her. A cousin, or something. It’s really weird. He’s on his way now.”
“What? He? Did you call the cops?”
“Not yet,” she said. “But I will.”
“Shit,” Perry said. “Yeah, I’ll come. Don’t let anyone in until I get there.”
While she waited for Perry to arrive, Natalie began pacing again. “Where are you?” she murmured. Moving around kept her distracted, but her fear lingered like a storm cloud casting a gray pall over a summer afternoon. She could pace and straighten the kitchen and adjust the thermostat twelve times, but Thea was still gone. And maybe there was a perfectly normal explanation, but maybe there wasn’t.
Standing there in the doorway of her empty room brought the reality of it crashing back in. Natalie’s chest tightened. Flashes of Thea in an accident, Thea tied up somewhere, or Thea dead on the side of the road blasted through her brain. She squeezed her eyes shut. Hadn’t she lost enough in her lifetime?
With a deep breath, Natalie took a step into Thea’s room and tried to survey it with fresh eyes. The bedroom was neat and bright, with white décor and pale wood furniture. A small writing desk stood in one corner with a cup of pens and a basket of craft supplies. Seeing the rainbow array of pens struck Natalie with inspiration.
There it was.
After seeing it on Pinterest last year, Thea had become obsessed with bullet journaling. Her current journal, a smooth purple-covered book, sat in the middle of her writing desk. She spent part of each day making notes and documenting her day in the journal. Maybe she’d left a clue about where she went last night.
Natalie tiptoed toward the desk, as if she was afraid of startling the purple notebook. Her hand hovered over the embossed cover.
If Thea got mad at the invasion of privacy, Natalie would tell her not to disappear without notice again. She grabbed the journal and thumbed through it. The first third was filled with Thea’s neat handwriting in a rainbow of colors. The corners and margins were decorated with neat, geometric designs and colorful tape.
Most of the daily entries were written in English but scattered throughout the pages were strings of the same angular symbols from the other notebook. Natalie frowned. The others she might have assumed were just decorations, some of the geometric doodles Thea sometimes copied from YouTube videos. But the way these were aligned with the other text…it looked like language.
She shook her head and found the page for yesterday marked with a magnetic clip. It was all fairly mundane: a list of meals with a note to try her lunch recipe with chicken thighs instead of breasts, a personal best time at running a mile, and a note to call the accountant about quarterly taxes. At the bottom was a block of the strange angular symbols.
Holding the book closer to her face, Natalie peered at the symbols, as if proximity was the barrier to her comprehension. She’d always had her questions about Thea, but this had crossed the line from maybe she’s got a rough family history to who the hell knows?
Someone banged on the front door hard enough to rattle the house. Natalie yelped and dropped the journal, spilling the cup of pens onto the desk in a clatter. “Crap,” she muttered. She grabbed the journal and hurried to the front door. Perry’s pickup truck was parked at the front curb. She yanked the door open. “Come in.”
Perry was still sweaty and flushed from whatever class he’d been teaching. His ponytail stuck up comically at the back of his head. He gave her a strange look. “Nat, what’s going on? Who’s this guy?”
“I know it’s weird,” she said. “When we moved in together, Thea told me if something ever happened to her, like if she got hurt and couldn’t answer questions or something, that I should call this number.”
“But if she’s missing…”
“I know,” Natalie said. “But she said…”
“Yeah, well she’s not here, is she?” Perry said hotly. His harsh tone made her uneasy. “I think you need to call the cops. This is getting scary.”
Natalie nodded. What if something had already happened to Thea in the time since she’d called Erevan? What if she’d missed the window where someone could help her friend? “Let’s talk to this guy, and then I will.”
Perry positioned himself at the front window, surveying the front yard like a silent sentinel. Only a few minutes had passed when she heard the muffled thump of a car door closing. Perry jolted, rattling the blinds. “He’s here. Hmm. Big guy.” He turned to give her a stern look. “You got a gun?”
“Yes, but I’m not going to lead with that.”
“Hmm,” Perry said again. “Keep it close.” The doorbell rang, and Perry intercepted her path, pulling the door open to reveal a tall man on the front porch. The sun at his back cast him in deep shadow. “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Natalie Thomas,” he said. “I spoke to her on the phone. Is she here?”
Natalie hurried up to stand next to Perry. “Hi, I’m…” she trailed off. Damn, he was a looker. He looked like he spent equal amounts of time soaking up Caribbean sunshine and putting bodybuilders to shame by warming up with their max weights. Dark stubble dusted his strong jaw. She gulped and said, “I’m Natalie.”
“You got some ID?” Perry said.
“I’m not a cop, but if you want to see my driver’s license, I’ll show you,” the man said. He put out his hand. “Erevan Sulkas.”
Perry took it reluctantly and shook it. “Perry.”
“And you’re Natalie?” Erevan asked. She nodded. “Can I come in?”
She stepped back, tapping Perry on the shoulder. He was puffed up, still staring at Erevan. Erevan was relaxed, clearly unbothered by the tension in Perry’s massive frame. Finally, he stepped back enough to let Erevan in.
Erevan surveyed the living room. His dark brown eyes flitted about as he did a slow turn.
Natalie took a tentative step toward him. “Her room is—”
As if she hadn’t spoken, Erevan sauntered down the hallway. He skipped the guest room and walked into Thea’s room like he’d been there before.
“Thea said you’re her cousin. Is that right?” Natalie asked, hurrying after him. Perry’s footfalls were heavy behind her as he followed.
“Distant cousin,” he said. Running his hand across Thea’s comforter, he raised his head like he was trying to smell the air. What a weirdo. He opened the nightstand drawer.
“Wait,” Natalie said. Erevan took the leather-bound book from the drawer. “That’s Thea’s.”
“That’s why I’m looking at it,” he said. Natalie stepped toward him to take it, but the sharp expression on his face stopped her in her tracks. He tilted his head. “Why don’t you go into the other room while I look this over?”
“You got it,” Perry said. He turned around and retreated to the living room.
What the hell?
“You too. I’ll let you know what I find.” Erevan’s dark eyes narrowed.
Queasy warmth bubbled in her belly and she shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. “What’s going on? Who are you really?”
Erevan recoiled a little, his brows arching in confusion as if he couldn’t believe she’d refused to follow his instructions. “What has she told you?”
“About what?” He shrugged and thumbed through the pages without answering. “What language is that, anyway?”
“Tell me what you know about her last few days,” Erevan said. He had an impressive way of ignoring her questions. “Did she mention going anywhere?”
Natalie shook her head. “She’s been working at the gym like normal. Last night she told me she was going out, but she didn’t say where.”
He tilted his head. “What’s that?”
He darted toward her. Natalie instinctively backed away as he reached for her. His fingers grazed her arm. His touch was hot, like she’d bumped her arm against her curling iron. “The book.”
As he said the word, she realized she was still clutching Thea’s journal under her arm. “This is her journal.”
“Let me see it.”
“It’s personal.” Never mind that she’d been thumbing through it only minutes earlier.
“Do you want me to find Thea or not?”
“I want to call the police,” Natalie replied. He scowled. “What the hell is going on?”
He lunged and grabbed the book before she could react. The metallic magnet clip reflected a tiny bright spot onto his cheek as he skimmed the page Natalie had been reading earlier. “Interesting.”
“You can read it?”
“Yes,” he said. “I need to take this with me.”
“Can you read this?” he asked. She shook her head. “Then you don’t need it.”
He looked around the room again, then took a deep breath. His brow furrowed, and the pinched expression on his face reminded her of someone who’d caught a whiff of something rotten and was trying to find the source. Her heart thumped as she watched him. Nothing about Erevan alleviated the feeling that her world had turned upside down. He only seemed to confirm that something was amiss.
Then he shook himself from a daze. “I’ll be in touch,” he said, stacking the two notebooks together. “If you hear anything from her, call me immediately.”
He brushed past her. She chased him down the hallway. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” he said.
Perry was sitting on the couch checking his phone. Some protection he’d been. He looked up as Natalie walked in, hot on Erevan’s trail.
“Aren’t you going to answer my questions? What language is that? Why did Thea tell me to call you? What does that book say?”
He just raised his eyebrows, his mouth a grim line.
“Seriously?” He didn’t flinch. The long lashes framing his dark eyes—which she might have appreciated if she wasn’t so irritated—didn’t flutter. “You have to tell me something.”
“I am not obligated to you in any way.”
“Well, you were a lot of help,” she said. “I guess I’ll call the real police like I should have done to begin with.”
Erevan’s eyes narrowed as he took a step toward her. There was a palpable sense of menace around him, a physical heat that radiated off him. She had to look straight up to see his face. “You will not.” He touched her shoulder. “Do not call the police.”
“Hey!” Perry exclaimed. “Don’t touch her.” He lunged off the couch, folding his arms over his chest as he glared.
The churning feeling from before rolled through her gut like stormy waters rocking a tiny boat. “Don’t touch me,” she said, jerking away from his warm, familiar touch.
As his hand fell to his side, the corner of his mouth pulled up into a grimace. “I’m serious. You’ll only make things worse,” he said. “If you care about Thea’s safety, then don’t involve anyone else.” He pointed to Perry. “Please don’t call. Let me do my job.”
Perry’s aggressive stance relaxed, his big fists falling to his sides. His face was solemn as he nodded. “Okay. We won’t.”
And without another word, he let himself out and shut the front door behind him. He didn’t even look back on his way down the driveway. He climbed into a modest black car and drove off.
“I think he’ll handle it,” Perry said calmly.
She turned to gape at him. “Seriously? Thirty minutes ago, you were telling me to keep the gun close so I could shoot him.”
“I feel like you can trust him,” he said.
Had he been snorting protein powder? What the hell was wrong with him? “Well, I don’t. And I’m taking your earlier advice. I’m calling the police.”