Serpent’s Kiss

One spark can banish every shadow in his heart.

The dragon shape shifter Thorolf is known for an impressive lineage, raw power in battle, and the impulsive indulgence of his appetites. The last has made him an outcast from his fellow Pyr, and even his hunt for their dangerous opponent, the Slayer Chen, hasn’t helped. Seduced by Chen’s ally Viv Jason, Thorolf finds himself drawn into a trap, as bait to lure his fellow Pyr to extinction. The only one to come to his aid is a woman he already knows to be a thief—does he dare to trust her with not just his own life but the survival of his kind?

Chandra has planned for centuries for a battle against evil that she knows will determine the world’s future. She’s never wasted time on the pleasures of the physical realm, much less experienced passion—until the firestorm sparks between herself and Thorolf, demanding more from her than she ever expected to give. Will the firestorm provide new power, or be a dangerous distraction that gives Chen the chance to triumph over the Pyr forever?

Here’s a blog post on my blog about the eclipse that sparks Thorolf’s firestorm.

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An excerpt from Serpent’s Kiss:
Erik checked the perimeter of his lair, ensuring that his dragonsmoke barrier was woven thick and deep. It was late at night, or early in the morning, depending upon how he looked at it. Zöe had been put to bed hours before and even Eileen had fallen asleep. Drake had departed with the new Pyr a week before, revitalized by the opportunity to train a new company of dragon shifters.

Erik had spent the week trying to avoid a sense of pending doom. He couldn’t scry the future or see anything beyond the present moment, but he’d had a persistent sense of trouble brewing.

Maybe it was that footage of Jorge appearing, then disappearing, in Seattle. What had the Slayer been carrying? It had looked like a severed arm, one that was still bleeding. Erik hadn’t thought much of Jorge shaking blood over the gathering crowd, not then, but today’s news had changed that.

People were becoming sick in Seattle. Very sick. There was a hum of panic building as doctors and hospitals noticed the connections between sudden illnesses and deaths. They hadn’t used the word epidemic yet, but the first hospital had put itself into quarantine. They’d already realized that most of the victims had been at the scene of Jorge’s appearance.

It was only a matter of time before dragons were blamed.

Erik shivered, remembering the old hunts that had driven his kind into hiding and claimed so many Pyr he’d known and loved. Surely it couldn’t happen again.

Surely his suspicions were unfounded.

The loft was still, despite Erik’s restlessness. He stood at the window and watched the moon ride high overhead, listening to the pulses and breathing of his partner and child. He heard the resonance of his dragonsmoke and felt its icy glitter. The blaze in his mind had quieted, perhaps because he no longer feared it.

The numbers of the Pyr had swollen, virtually overnight, thanks to the darkfire crystal and its ability to make reality out of possibilities. The stone itself remained dark—he had checked it again after Drake’s departure—and he sensed that it would always be so. Its task was completed.

His, unfortunately, was not.

Erik knew he should feel optimistic instead of worried. What could he do? If Jorge had a plan, was it possible that the other Slayers knew of it? He’d never been able to determine how much they communicated with each other, and their alliances shifted like the wind.

Confident that his barriers were robust and his family safe, Erik left the loft and went to the apartment he’d acquired directly below. There the Slayer JP was imprisoned, confined by a barrier of dragonsmoke breathed by Erik and buttressed by every Pyr who had come to visit since JP’s capture.

Erik felt a little bit sorry for the other dragon shifter. JP had been branded by Chen, claimed by that old Slayer and held captive by his more ancient magic. JP had raved and fought when he’d first been captured by the Pyr, venting about injustice and plots. Erik had hoped to learn something about Chen from JP, but the Slayer was too incoherent to provide any information of use. Then he’d collapsed into a deep slumber, dozing in his dragon form and seldom awakening.

Chen’s sorcery seemed to be killing him. JP’s scales were thinner each time Erik visited him. He wasn’t sure when the other dragon shifter ate, but he didn’t consume much. JP’s breathing was becoming shallower and his pulse slower. Worse, the fight had gone out of him. It was such an unnatural state for a dragon shifter that Erik assumed JP would soon die.

It was such a waste. He could never understand why a Pyr would turn Slayer in the first place, never mind why Chen would enchant another Slayer just to let him fade away.

Erik unlocked the door to the apartment where JP was captive, fearing as he did each time that he would make a gruesome discovery. He passed through the cold shimmer of the dragonsmoke, only to find the apartment in darkness. The drapes were drawn but the apartment was unnaturally dark, given the brightness of the full moon. The light should have crept into the room somehow, as well as the illumination from the city itself.

Erik smelled brimstone.

It was a warning.

He slammed the door and shifted shape immediately, but even at his fastest speed, he was too slow. A plume of flame lit the middle of the main room. It was breathed by a young Asian man dressed in leather, a man with malice and violence in his eyes.

Chen, in one of his human guises. He could breathe fire in human form. It was remarkable how easily Chen seemed to do it, but Erik would save his admiration for another time.

Erik leapt at Chen, talons bared, but the Slayer laughed. He grabbed the inert JP by the scruff of his neck, waved to Erik, then they both disappeared before Erik reached them.

Erik landed hard on the bare floor, but his prey was gone. Chen had used his power to spontaneously manifest in another location to bypass the dragonsmoke barrier and collect his prey.

Why did he want JP?

What would he do to him?

What else had the darkfire changed? Erik closed his eyes and checked the connections in his mind, following each conduit to one of the Pyr. It took him longer, with the influx of new dragon shifters, but he soon realized that one was missing.

Erik had been angry with Thorolf for revealing himself to humans. There was even a YouTube video of Thorolf shifting shape in Washington, one that was impressive in its popularity. Thorolf was all impulse and powerful energy, but he spent himself in indulgence. That he made such foolish choices was in direct contrast to his impressive lineage. If Thorolf focused, or even tried to hone his skills, he could have become one of Erik’s most reliable Pyr. He could have replaced Erik as leader. But he didn’t try and he didn’t seem to care, and when he had vowed to go to Asia to hunt down Chen, Erik had let him go in disgust. He’d been sure that it would be good for Thorolf—maybe a rude awakening—to be ostracized by his fellow Pyr. He’d been sure nothing would come of the entire quest, that Thorolf would find a woman somewhere and spend a few months exploring her charms.

That had been exactly what had happened. Erik had checked and checked again just the day before.

But now Thorolf was gone. There was no glowing conduit to him from Erik’s mind. There was no link to his spirit, either. He wasn’t dead, just missing.

Erik shifted back to human form, impatient with his own failing in this. He should have kept a closer eye upon Thorolf, and he knew it. His frustration with Thorolf had driven his choices, and that had been a mistake.

He turned on the lights, intent upon checking the apartment, on the outside chance that Chen or JP had left some clue.

Chen had. There was a spiral burned into the hardwood floor, a spiral exactly like the mark branded on JP’s neck. It was about fifteen feet across and had been the source of that smell. Erik stepped into it and knew too late that he shouldn’t have done so. The spiral drew him forward with relentless force. He was pulled against his will to the very core of the spiral, fighting it even as he saw it begin to burn again. First the mark glowed, like embers, then it was coaxed to a small fire by a wind Erik couldn’t feel. In a heartbeat, the flames were burning as high as his knees. He couldn’t stop himself from moving closer, even when he heard Chen’s laughter echo through the empty apartment.

“I could take you now,” Chen whispered in old-speak. His claim echoed in Erik’s mind and fed his fear. It was terrifying because it was true. Erik couldn’t break free of the spiral. “All I need, after all, is the element of air.”

Erik had an affinity to the element of air, which wasn’t the most reassuring realization he could have had in that moment. The last thing he wanted to do was provide the final key to Chen’s spell, giving that Slayer the ability to triumph over the Pyr and destroy the Pyr forever.

It didn’t seem he had a lot of choice, though. Erik fought hard against the invisible force that was pulling him closer to the center of the burning spiral, but his efforts made no difference. He refused to summon anyone to help him, because he wouldn’t lead another Pyr into such danger.

“I could snatch you from your own lair and make my spell complete,” Chen continued, a trace of amusement in his voice.

There was a sudden crack like lightning.

The fire disappeared. The spiral on the floor was black for a heartbeat, and then it disappeared completely.

Erik was standing in an empty apartment, one tinged with the frost of his own dragonsmoke barrier. His heart was pounding and there was a trickle of sweat running down the middle of his back. He blinked and looked around, startled by the change.

There was a red salamander in the farthest corner, its tongue flicking.

Chen, in another guise.

Erik didn’t know what he could do to stop the Slayer, but he had to do something.

As soon as he took a step, the salamander began to shimmer with a pale blue light.

“But I’d rather let you watch,” Chen murmured in old-speak, the darkness of his threat making Erik shiver. The blue light brightened, then the salamander disappeared.

Erik was completely alone.

He stood for a moment and listened, knowing in his heart that the Slayer wouldn’t be back. Chen’s plans had been defeated several times by the Pyr, yet he was so confident this time of his success that he’d let Erik go.

That couldn’t be a good sign.

But without knowing Chen’s plan, Erik didn’t know what he could do to stop him. Thorolf was gone. JP had been collected. Pieces were moving into place.

Chen needed the element of air to complete his spell. Unfortunately, Erik and Thorolf shared the same affinity. Would Thorolf’s disappearance make Chen’s spell complete?

Erik felt sick at his own unwitting involvement. There had to be something he could do to save Thorolf.

Erik owed Thorolf’s father no less.

* * *

Thorolf awakened with a familiar sense of having over-indulged the night before. His head was pounding and his tongue was thick. Although he knew he’d been sleeping hard, he was as exhausted as if he’d run a marathon.

Never mind how sore he was. His entire body ached. In fact, he hurt in places he hadn’t felt in years. What had he done the night before?

What exactly had he drunk?

He had a vague memory of taking a dare from Viv to drink some combination of the bartender’s own devising. It was the kind of dare he always took, laughing, when he was drunk enough. His constitution was sufficiently strong that he could sleep off pretty much anything.

But that drink had been fierce. He knew he’d only had a sip, and he didn’t remember one thing after that. Maybe he was getting old. After nine and a half centuries, he supposed it was reasonable to expect some loss of vigor. He was starving, too, hungry enough to eat at least three big steaks.

Or pie. He’d kill for an apple pie.

Not a slice: the whole damn thing.

With ice cream.

He really hoped he didn’t have any new tattoos. The ones he chose when he was wasted were never the right ones, and he didn’t have Rox protecting him from his impulsiveness with ink anymore.

Thorolf wondered when he’d see Rox and Niall, and all the other Pyr again, and felt even worse. He’d never succeeded in his self-appointed quest to destroy Chen, because he’d never done more than get to Bangkok. He hadn’t hunted Chen down and fought the old Slayer to the death, because he’d gotten involved with Viv.

How had Viv gotten him back to their apartment? For a small woman, she really got things done. He was impressed by her resourcefulness all over again.

It was more reason to make a fresh start on this day. He owed her better than what he’d been, and he owed more to the Pyr than he’d delivered. If he wasn’t going to be a fuck-up forever, the time to change was now.

Thorolf braced himself for the worst and opened one eye warily.

Evidently he wasn’t really ready for the worst, because the sight shocked him wide awake. There was a huge green snake curled up on the bed beside him, its eyes glittering and its tail flicking. It seemed to be waiting for him to show signs of wakefulness because as soon as his eyes opened, it reared up and bared its fangs.

It was huge, the biggest snake he’d ever seen. It might have weighed as much as Thorolf did, which was impressive. As its eyes glinted with malice, he knew he’d seen a snake this big only once before.

In this very apartment.

When Chen had attacked him.

He’d never been able to find it later, much less ensure it was evicted or dead. Viv had said that Thailand’s jungles were thick with snakes and told him not to worry about it. Thorolf hadn’t liked that reasoning one bit, and now he liked it less. The snake was back, or maybe it had never left.

And it was after him.

He cast a quick glance over the apartment and was somewhat relieved. There was no sign of Viv, which was good. Thorolf would have a hard enough time defending himself in his current state.

He scrambled backward, only realizing then that the snake had already wrapped itself around his leg. The snake’s coils tightened, squeezing his calf and holding him captive. It opened its mouth, as if to laugh at him.

Thorolf tumbled out of the bed and fell on his butt, knocking over Viv’s cute little nightstand from the flea market. The table and lamp crashed to the floor, and he dreaded that she’d cry. He hated when she cried. The snake dove for him even as Thorolf tried to crawl away and its weight landed on his chest.

It was incredibly heavy, heavy enough to knock the breath out of him. Thorolf grabbed it and flung its head against the wall. The snake hit the plaster and hissed in fury. Thorolf reached to free himself from the snake’s coils with both hands, blood running from one. He caught one coil and ripped it away, but the snake launched itself toward him again.

Its weight knocked him off balance, but Thorolf kept fighting against its grip on his leg. Looking away was his mistake: the snake struck in that instant. He winced as its fangs sank deeply into his arm. He saw the cold glitter of its eyes but reached for its head again, determined to get it off him.

No sooner had his hand closed over its cold skin than he felt a strange languor steal through his body. A chill was emanating from the bite, spreading over his skin, so he knew the serpent’s toxin was paralyzing him. Even the bite looked wrong, because it was turning his skin dark. Thorolf had time to open his mouth, but he never made a scream. Numbness claimed his body and began to seep into his thoughts. He only managed to make a choking sound before he couldn’t make any noise at all. His eyes closed despite his efforts and he felt himself fall limply to the floor. The snake’s weight left him, its coils releasing his leg, but it was impossible to escape.

Chen’s familiar laugh echoed in Thorolf’s ears, a sound of triumph that didn’t bode well. It would have been bad enough if the old Slayer had killed him, but Thorolf knew Chen would have more devious plans for him than that. He remembered the brand that Chen had burned against the neck of the shadow dragons he’d enslaved, remembered how the old Slayer had tried to brand him, too, and felt sick with dread. It wasn’t as if he could defend himself, not like the last time, not when he was like this. The brand had been shattered, but Thorolf wouldn’t have put it past Chen to have forged it new.

He was in very deep trouble, and outcast from his fellow Pyr, the only ones who could have helped him.

It appeared that Thorolf had made his last mistake.

Excerpt from Serpent’s Kiss ©2013 Deborah A. Cooke.