Alexander knew he had to fulfill his duty to his kind, the dragon shape shifters called the Pyr, even at the price of abandoning his new wife and young son. After he and his fellows were enchanted for centuries, then finally set free in a future long after their own time, Alexander feared he would never return to his love. Against all odds, the darkfire crystal makes his dream come true, flinging him across the centuries to the world he left behind. Is this his chance to regain the life he lost? Has Katina waited for him? Or has the darkfire crystal sent him back in time for some mysterious purpose of its own?
An excerpt from Kiss of Danger:
Alexander winced when he smelled the darkfire crystal heating.
As the Dragon’s Tooth Warrior with the keenest sense of smell, he always knew the stone was warming, even before the strange light within it began to flicker. Sure enough, his leader Drake lifted the crystal and held it aloft.
That blue-green light flashed within the stone, like lightning trapped in a bottle.
“Yet again,” Drake said beneath his breath. If Alexander hadn’t been Pyr, he would not have heard the softly uttered words. “It’s relentless.”
Alexander could only agree. He was exhausted, like all of the others, terrified to wander away or risk sleep so long as they kept guard over the unpredictable stone.
Drake gave Alexander, his second in command, a sharp look. “Find the others.” His eyes filled with a panic that Alexander shared. “Now!”
There was no telling how long it would take the stone to work its strange sorcery. Sometimes it shone for hours before anything changed. Sometimes it lit to brilliance in seconds.
But when it flared its most brilliant light, the one that nearly blinded them all, the Dragon’s Tooth Warriors were hurled through space and time.
They would feel the rushing of the wind and feel the sensation of being transported.
And when they opened their eyes, their location would be changed.
It was a strange and unsettling sorcery.
And these warriors had seen their share of sorcery. They’d been beguiled by an ancient viper, enchanted to take the form of dragon’s teeth, trapped for millennia until they’d been set free in a future that defied expectation. Their leader, Drake, had changed his name, perhaps to indicate that he was no longer the Pyr he once had been. It was so apt that Alexander didn’t even think of Drake as Stephanos any more.
In contrast, Alexander felt he continued to survive an ordeal, one that only made him yearn more strongly for the wife and son he’d left behind, one that made him more of what he had always been.
The first time the darkfire had worked its magic had been immediately after Drake closed his hand over the stone, at Lorenzo’s home. Since then, it had occurred three more times. Alexander was not even certain where they had been.
The group of Pyr had almost immediately realized that only those within some measure of proximity to the crystal were carried along with the company, and this was the cause of their concern. Who knew what had become of the others? Alexander doubted he was the only one haunted by the uncertainty.
With a single shout from Alexander, the other warriors raced closer. Alexander saw his own distrust of the crystal echoed in the wary expressions of his companions.
“Wonder where we’re going this time,” Peter muttered in his usual grim tone. Peter was the oldest of all of them, a ferocious warrior independent of his age. He tended to expect the worst, a perspective the darkfire crystal was unlikely to change.
His view, however, did little to bolster the confidence of the team and Alexander wished he would be more optimistic.
“It’s not as if we have time to look around,” Iggy complained.
“Just make sure everyone is here,” Alexander commanded tersely.
Drake was regarding the stone with undisguised horror. Alexander knew it was because they’d lost five men already, thanks to the darkfire’s unpredictability. It was shocking that there were only twelve of them left, when their original company had numbered in the hundreds. Each curse upon them had taken its toll, but with fewer men, each new loss sickened Alexander. He and Drake had concluded that those men who hadn’t been in the immediate vicinity of the crystal when the light flared had been left behind.
Wherever they had been.
Could they ever be retrieved? Would the stone continue to flash until they were all dispersed? The last transition they’d managed to remain together, but Alexander couldn’t help wondering how long that would last. They were tired and becoming irritable. It was only a matter of time until one fell asleep, or wandered away to relieve himself at the wrong moment.
Alexander swallowed as the light within the crystal pulsed with greater speed, growing brighter with every beat. He felt his pulse accelerate and sensed the heightened awareness of his fellows. He could hear hearts racing, feel perspiration gathering, feel breathing quicken. They all stared fixedly at the stone.
“Here we go again,” Damien muttered. The most handsome of all the soldiers spoke lightly, in his usual manner, but Alexander noted how he licked his lips with trepidation. It was unlike Damien to show any emotion, so Alexander knew he was terrified.
“You just want to find more hearts to break,” Iggy said in a teasing tone. Tall, young and lanky, Iggy was often underestimated in battle, but he was of a lean build with fierce power. Alexander always thought of Iggy as a finely honed steel blade. His manner was playful and he would even banter in battle, which also encouraged opponents to miscalculate his abilities.
“Not a lot of time to break hearts with this stone around,” Ashe said grimly, folding his arms across his chest. Ashe was stocky and practical, the son of a blacksmith.
“That’s why it has to be Damien to do it,” Tyrone retorted. “The rest of us don’t have a chance.” Tyrone was youngest of them all, an orphan who had virtually raised himself. He wasn’t one for emotion or undue optimism—and virtually any optimism was undeserved in his thinking.
Teasing Damien about his succession of romantic conquests was a familiar ploy used by them all to defuse a tight situation. Alexander was certain that the joking of more than one of the men—particularly the younger ones—was tinged with both jealousy and respect. Damien was nearly legendary for his successes with women.
“We should challenge him to make a conquest wherever the stone takes us, without being left behind,” Iggy said.
Damien snorted. “No woman could be worth that risk.”
They were all trying to make light of their situation, but Alexander could smell their fear and uncertainty.
All twelve of them were present and accounted for. Alexander refused to think of them as survivors. The important thing was that the light was flickering more quickly. He doubted he was the only one afraid to breathe.
“We need a new name,” Alexander said, hoping to distract his companions from their situation and the fear it created in them.
“The Survivors,” Ty suggested.
“The Last Pyr Standing,” Iggy replied.
“Careful what ideas you put into the world,” Peter advised grimly. “There might only be one of us left at the end.”
They collectively stifled a shudder. “The Dragon Legion,” Alexander suggested and felt them consider it.
“A Roman legion had more than three thousand warriors,” Damien noted.
“We are older than the Roman legions,” Drake said tightly. “And we are the best of the best. The last of an elite corps, tested by the challenge of men and of magic.”
The men nodded, and Alexander liked how Drake’s assertion made them stand straighter.
“The Dragon Legion it shall be,” Drake said with authority.
The light flared brighter and pulsed more quickly, silencing them all.
Thaddeus swore softly under his breath, then began to pray. Thad was both the most likely to find a practical solution to a problem and the most likely to invoke divine assistance. Alexander wondered, not for the first time, whether the combination was responsible for his consistent success.
“Any chance we can control it?” Orion asked. Orion preferred to take action, and was inclined to be impulsive and outspoken. “Maybe direct ourselves back to the others?”
Drake shook his head. “Any key lies in understanding what the darkfire is doing.”
“And maybe why,” Alexander added.
“It’s a primal force,” Peter complained. “It has no logic or reason.”
“Then maybe we should toss it away,” Orion suggested. “We could set ourselves free of its power.”
“And be trapped wherever it left us,” Ashe retorted. “Where are we even now?”
No one knew the answer to that.
“It is our responsibility to bear the darkfire crystal!” Drake said, his tone imperious. “That we do not know the detail of our mission is no reason to abandon it.”
“How do we know it is a mission?” Peter asked, and Alexander wished the other man would leave it be. Sowing dissent never aided a cause or a company of warriors.
The light flashed with sudden brilliance, and Alexander gritted his teeth as he was momentarily blinded. He felt the shift in the air around him and guessed it was happening again. Thad swore once more, then prayed with greater fervor.
Abruptly Alexander was swept up by a warm wind, one that swirled around him with savage force. As had happened three other times, he was filled with terror at his powerlessness. He reached out and snatched at Thad, who had been beside him, but his hand closed on empty air. He didn’t dare to breathe, for he didn’t know what surrounded him. It seemed that he was swept in a whirlwind and buffeted by changing winds for an eternity. He couldn’t hear or sense the others and the sense of solitude was even more frightening than having no control.
Just when Alexander was certain he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he was flung downward. He felt discarded by some superior force, though he shared Peter’s doubt that there was intelligence behind the mystery of the darkfire. He landed with a thud on his hands and knees, then greedily took a gulp of hot, dry air. He knew he’d have bruises on his knees, but the dirt beneath his hands was sandy and arid, with no vegetation. He opened his eyes warily, then quickly counted his companions.
Still twelve. They’d mastered that detail, at least.
Then Alexander glanced around to see where they were. He couldn’t believe that he recognized the hills.
“Merciful Zeus,” he whispered, easing to his feet to stare.
“Zeus is anything but merciful,” Drake muttered, but Alexander ignored him.
It couldn’t be.
He knew this village, knew it as surely as he knew the lines on his own palm. He knew the hills of Boeotia, the curve of the road, the fact that that the sea was just beyond the lip of that hill. He knew the village spread at his feet, the names of the occupants of each house, that a potter’s wheel stood in the courtyard of the one house that drew his eye.
Maybe there was intelligence guiding the sorcery of the darkfire crystal. Alexander had yearned to return to this place almost since his departure, all those years before, and here it was before his very eyes.
He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but the sight before him didn’t change.
“We’re home,” Alexander said with awe, gesturing to the village. His voice rose higher in jubilation and his heart clenched with unexpected joy. Katina would be here! “We’re home!”
The rest of the men turned to look and Alexander saw wonder dawn in their expressions.
“It can’t be,” Iggy whispered.
“We should find out,” Orion declared.
Peter, predictably, was the first to doubt his eyes. “It must be a trick…”
Alexander didn’t care. He wasn’t waiting for any of them. This was his village. If he was home, there was only one detail of importance.
His heart thundered at the prospect of the reunion they would share. Their marriage had always been passionate, even after the spark of the firestorm had been satisfied.
Alexander started down the hill with purpose.
“Halt!” Drake shouted from behind him.
“I must know!” Alexander spun to declare with heat. “I must see her, regardless of the price. She’s my destined mate. We had a firestorm!”
“We mustn’t break rank!” Drake insisted. “It could be a trick, or a lure. I don’t want to lose another man, especially not my second in command.”
“Are you even sure she’s there?” Peter demanded. “Who knows how long we’ve been gone. She could have left.”
Alexander took a deep breath, focusing his attention on the house he knew so well. He inhaled slowly, dissecting and identifying the scents that were common to any village. When he identified his wife’s particular scent, the intoxicating mix of perfume and fired clay and her own body’s scent, his heart leapt. “She’s here!”
“No. I forbid you to break rank,” Drake commanded, his tone making Alexander pause. “All of you! Pledge!”
Drake put out his right hand, his fingers clenched in a fist and his palm down.
“The Dragon Legion stays together,” Damien said, placing his hand on top of Drake’s. The others followed suit, except for Alexander. He stood a dozen paces away and he felt a muscle tick in his jaw.
Everything he had ever desired was in that village.
He had left once to serve with his own kind.
Wasn’t his duty fulfilled?
“Together,” Drake repeated with force and Alexander felt his leader’s gaze upon him.
“I have served my obligation as a Pyr,” Alexander said with resolve. He held Drake’s gaze. “I left my wife and my destined mate to heed your summons, as I had pledged to do.” Alexander swallowed. “Don’t ask me to do as much again, I beg of you.”
Drake’s lips tightened even as his gaze filled with understanding.
“Maybe this is why we’re here,” Alexander suggested. “Maybe the crystal is letting us repair the wounds of the past. Maybe that’s the point.”
The others caught their breath and looked at Drake.
“No. You can’t know that,” Drake argued. “You can’t know what you’ll find in that village…”
“That’s why I have to go.”
The two men stared at each other.
Drake was the first to blink. “Go,” he commanded quietly. “But hurry back to tell us what you’ve found.”
Alexander laughed. He saluted Drake, then marched down the hill to the village.
“We will wait,” Drake called after him, his tone level.
This was a gift Alexander hadn’t anticipated. He surveyed the village, taking satisfaction in how similar it was to his memories. He found himself striding closer, anxious to be reunited with Katina again.
He hadn’t taken a dozen steps when Alexander smelled the stone heating again. He paused to glance back. He saw the dread in Drake’s expression as he opened his hand to display the stone. His commander’s features were illuminated by the flashing light of the darkfire crystal.
“Not again!” Peter said.
“Alexander!” Orion cried. “Come here!”
A new fear seized Alexander, a fear that this chance would be stolen from him forever. Maybe that was the trick of the stone. Maybe it would tantalize him with a possibility, then steal it away.
He wouldn’t be cheated. He had to see Katina, no matter what the price.
Alexander pivoted and ran down the hill, racing toward the village as quickly as he could. He had to be far enough away from the crystal to escape its pull.
He had to be left behind.
He heard his companions cry out, shouts of protest that had no hold over him. He felt rather than saw the bright light of the stone, as brilliant as an explosion behind him.
Alexander halted at the edge of the village and looked back, his chest heaving. He saw only a fading blue-green flash of light and no soldiers. His companions had disappeared, as surely as if they had never been.
Drake and the others were gone.
Alexander was shaken by his sense of solitude.
He was alone, for the first time in years. Only when it was too late did he realize how much he had come to rely upon the counsel and company of the other Dragon’s Tooth Warriors. They had shared the same strange experiences and understood each other. That camaraderie would no longer be part of his life.
Even though he’d achieved his purpose, Alexander was momentarily terrified. What if he was wrong? What if he’d sacrificed everything for nothing? What if he truly was lost from everyone and everything he’d ever known?
No. He checked his wild thoughts. Terror achieved nothing. Alexander exhaled and calmed himself. He’d made his choice, and now he’d make the most of his fate, whatever it was.
Katina held his fate in her hands.
Excerpt from Kiss of Danger ©2013 Deborah A. Cooke