The Rookie (Fire’s Edge #2) – Chapter 1 Excerpt
“Watch your six, rookie.”
His Alpha’s voice sounded in Aidan’s head through the telepathic link all dragon shifters shared. Urgency cut through the words like shattered glass.
“Bank left,” Finn yelled before Aidan could check over his shoulder for what could be coming at him.
Training, instinct, and total trust kicked in. Without a blink of hesitation, Aidan dropped one wing, wheeling hard enough that air and gravity pushed against his massive body in opposing forces. Halfway into the turn, he craned his long neck to see if whatever was behind him was still there.
The moonless night cast the earth in darkness broken only by the myriad of stars overhead and the orange glow of the wildland fire raging thousands of feet below. Dark smoke billowed around him, obscuring his vision. This fire was yet another that had been caused by rogue dragon shifters. Aidan and the crew needed to get it contained. Fast. Before humans discovered it and them.
But first, what the hell was behind him?
There. The firelight glinted off diamond-bright scales. A white dragon tailed him, wobbling as he struggled with the force of the turn Aidan had put them in. More the shade of pure starlight, the fucker was easy to locate against the dark sky and smoke. At least he wasn’t a black dragon who would’ve disappeared in this kind of cover.
How’d I miss this asshole?
Silently beating himself up over that slip and determined to make up for it, Aidan pushed harder, increasing his speed and pulling away. White dragons tended to be longer and leaner than those from other clans, making them better long distance flyers and more graceful in the air than blue dragons, like Aidan, who were the sprinters, known more for their speed.
Gaining distance, but not too much, Aidan suddenly threw his wings wide and slammed his momentum to a halt. He flipped in the air, talons outstretched, and braced for impact.
The white dragon, already forcing himself faster than he naturally flew, and unable to turn his long form quickly, careened right into him.
Satisfaction spiked Aidan’s blood faster than a shot of alcohol. Gotcha.
Grappling—both trying to take a chunk out of the other—they dropped like a sack of boulders right toward the flaming granite mountain peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains below. Meanwhile the guy in Aidan’s grasp thrashed and fought as though demons had possessed him.
What’s wrong with this fucker?
The other dragon snapped his jaws around Aidan’s wrist, and jagged pain ripped through him. Those massive, cutting teeth penetrated, ripping sky-blue scales out of the way to expose the more vulnerable flesh beneath.
Before Aidan could pull free, the rumble of gathering fire, an inferno being stoked deep inside a dragon’s belly, sounded beneath him. Not letting go of his bite, the dragon blew white-tipped flames from his maw, pouring them over the open wound he’d slashed into Aidan’s body.
The minor pain from the bite bloomed into something the minions of hell would love to use as a form of torture on poor souls. In this form, his scales protected him from dragon fire, which burned hotter and harder than any other kind of fire. Once those scales were breached, however, direct fire could do serious damage. If Aidan couldn’t get free, the guy could pour enough flame into that small puncture to consume him from the inside out.
But Aidan had trained for this.
Fought for this.
Put every fucking ounce of his heart and soul into proving himself worthy of his Huracán Enforcer team.
Hell, growing up an orphan dragon shifter, at the hairy edge of rogue, the way he had, fighting for his very existence when many of his people would have seen him dead, had prepared him for this moment.
He’d been ready for a long time, and now he’d finally get to prove it.
Divorcing his mind from the screaming pain, Aidan quieted his body. He couldn’t wait for any of the other members of the team to intervene.
With a twisting move he’d learned wrestling with the other shifters at the home for orphans where he’d grown up, Aidan not only yanked his arm free, but took one of the dragon’s teeth with him in the move. The other shifter yowled his pain. Aidan slithered around, finding purchase on the curved spikes protruding along his opponent’s spine, and climbed onto the guy’s back, riding him bucking-bronco style. The ground rushed up at him, and he knew exactly how long he had before he needed to let go.
Sinking his talons deep into the other shifter’s bony shoulder, Aidan lunged over his attacker. Striking like a cobra, he managed to get his own piercing teeth between steel-hard scales, right at the base of the shifter’s neck.
The white dragon, even as crazy as he’d been acting, froze in his grip, survival instinct kicking in hard. Aidan hadn’t bitten with enough force to snap his neck. Yet. He applied pressure so the shifter knew he was screwed.
“I’m going to flare my wings and slow us down. You are going to stay very, very still. Got it?”
“Dah,” came the resentful response, along with a low rumble of a growl.
Russian. Some dragons adopted the native language of the home-base country of their clan, but not as much here in the States where most spoke English. Interesting.
Throwing his wings out wide, Aidan clenched against the force of the wind dragging at him, straining the wound still raging on his wrist, not to mention his wings. Dragon’s wings were designed to carry one, not two.
They were going to hit. Hard.
Bracing himself for impact, Aidan had to clamp down as the creature in his grasp started to struggle, thrashing his tail around, making it even more difficult to stop this runaway train.
“Hold still,” Aidan growled, biting harder.
The white dragon stilled, though his entire body vibrated in Aidan’s grasp, like his nerves were live wires. “Vill to kill us.”
The odd response could’ve been a lack of English, but the phrasing still triggered a series of memories for Aidan. Was this a new dragon, shifting for the first time? “Calm down.”
“Hey there, rookie.” Rivin’s voice pinged through his mind.
“Need some help?” came Keighan’s lower pitched tones.
Both his teammates’ amusement grated, but they didn’t wait for him to answer. The two white dragons on his team appeared on either side of him and latched onto the dragon he held. Together, the three of them not only landed, but managed to avoid the fire ravaging the mountains all around.
Not that fire would harm them.
Seconds after landing, a sapphire-blue dragon, scales like living water in the shimmering light of the fire raging nearby, landed beside them. His Alpha’s claws scraped with a curdling screech as Finn found purchase on a large swatch of exposed granite.
“Thanks for the warning,” Aidan shot the thought at his leader. “I wouldn’t have seen him otherwise.”
Finn had led their team of dragon shifter enforcers for hundreds of years, a position of honor, appointed by the kings themselves. Until recently, Finn had led with his brother, Fallon, at his side. But Fallon was in Europe now, mated and the healer for the king of the Blue Clan. His vacancy on the team had opened up a spot for another blue dragon.
The chance Aidan had been waiting for.
Finn nodded an acknowledgment, then turned to the captive and bared his teeth, a low rumble of warning vibrating from him like the sound of an earthquake. He kept his wings flared wide, ready to pounce or drop away at any second. “What do we have here?”
Given how the young dragon was trembling, not in fear, but as though he couldn’t control his body, combined with the glimmer of mirage-like waves that faded in and out around him—signs Aidan had seen before—he had a fair idea.
“All I know is he speaks Russian,” Aidan reported. “I think he might be in his first shift.”
A glance passed between the four of them, acknowledging the significance of that fact.
Confident his captive wouldn’t run, Aidan unhooked his claws to climb off and stalked around to stare down the white dragon head on. Sure enough, the lack of fully developed spikes, and no callusing of the scales around his claws and spine indicated a younger dragon. The kid was still lucid, though, and smart enough to remain quiet and not even think about running.
At least he hadn’t gone fully feral as could happen to a young dragon without a member of his family there to anchor him and mentor him through it. If he had gone savage, no way could Aidan have subdued him, and that fight would’ve gone to shit fast.
Finn lowered his head, sniffing at the wound on Aidan’s arm. “Definitely the one responsible for this fire.”
Aidan already determined that the second the guy had spewed fire over him. Every dragon’s fire had a different scent to it, marking the flames as their own.
Keighan leaned in closer, muscles bunching, setting his scales to rippling. With a hiss, he opened his maw ready to blast their captive. Rivin mimicked his stance, prepared to rend their captive’s flesh and let Keighan’s fire work faster. However, neither moved to finish him.
“What do you want to do, boss?” Keighan demanded.
Usually the goofy pair of their team, never taking anything seriously, they looked more than serious now. An almost bloodthirsty light reflected in their glacial eyes. An attack directly against a team member was something guaranteed to piss off all of them. Including Rivin and Keighan.
“Wait,” Aidan snapped.
It said a lot about the respect he’d earned in the group when Finn held his order and instead cocked his head in question.
“He’s not with Rune.” Aidan directed the comment to Finn alone.
Rune didn’t use kids for his attacks. Only fully grown rogues, dissenters from the kings, but adult and in control, making them deliberately dangerous, rather than ruled by the creature within.
Finn’s glare went dark at the mention of his former Beta. These days, they had to worry that every fire had to do with their old teammate. Rune had turned traitor and gone rogue with two goals: first, to find and abduct mates before the Mating Council could get ahold of them, and second, to put an end to the current mating process.
As it stood, members of the Mating Council were tasked with helping human women who showed dragon sign—smelling of smoke, setting off small fires, or shifting small parts of their bodies—to find their destined mates. A process that Rune believed to be so wrong, he’d been willing to turn against the men who’d once been close as brothers because they were sworn to protect and uphold the rules of the clans and kings.
Rune made a big damn noise about it every time he stole a mate from under the Council’s nose. He seemed to think if he turned it into a problem the kings couldn’t ignore or sweep under the rug, they’d be forced to change the mating process.
Many of the fires they dealt with lately were thanks to Rune. But not this time.
Aidan faced the young dragon. “First shift?”
Eerie white eyes jerked back and forth between him and the two white dragons ready to flay his scales and char his bones inside his skin. “Dah.”
“Where’s your family?” Finn demanded.
Aidan angled his head to glance at Rivin. Most dragons from the White Clan hailed from mountain strongholds in and around Russia.
“Dead,” Rivin translated.
This youngster was lucky, though. He was in the colonies, even if he hadn’t started that way. At least here, dragons lived in smaller groups less prone to kick out young, orphaned dragons if they remained in control.
Not like the clans.
Although that fact hadn’t helped Aidan when he’d been shunned after his own parents’ deaths. Sure, the group he lived with had let him stay, but he’d been more isolated than if they’d kicked him out. If it hadn’t been for Drake’s sister, Lyndi, taking him in, he’d probably be dead by now.
But rogue—choosing to leave the protection of your group or the clans, or, worse, being kicked out for a reason—was a different animal altogether. He had to know.
“Are you rogue?” Aidan asked the kid.
Shit. Aidan snaked his head around to give his boss a significant look. Finn knew what he was asking without words. Orphaned dragons were dangerous because of their lack of control, but rogues had no loyalty. While the clans considered orphans a liability, like a limb with gangrene that needed to be cut off, rogues were to be killed on sight.
“My parents made choice to leave with no permission. I come back?”
Damn. The kid had guts. He wanted to return to the fold? Was it even possible? An orphan whose parents went rogue and who’d never shifted before? Maybe with some guidance—
“He’s accountable for this fire,” Finn pointed out, to Aidan only, as if reading his thoughts. A deliberate fire was punishable by death. But this obviously wasn’t deliberate. Attacking Aidan, on the other hand, fell under the same consequence.
“I know.” That didn’t mean the kid didn’t deserve a second chance.
“The Alliance Council is on my ass like wet toilet paper,” Finn said.
Aidan knew that, too. Their Alpha was already under the microscope. Last year Finn had claimed his mate, Delaney, without informing the Alliance Council—the representatives from each clan who governed the colonies and whom the Huracán Enforcers reported to directly—of her existence or getting permission from the Mating Council, who presided over all dragon shifter matings worldwide.
Not to mention, Finn had a new king. A king who’d recently taken the throne of the Blue Clan by force, which heaped a whole other layer of complication and suspicion on every blue dragon—including Aidan—until things settled between the blue king and the kings of the other five clans—black, white, red, green, and gold.
“Let’s talk to him first. Then figure it out,” Aidan suggested.
Finn considered that before turning his focus to the young dragon. “Can you shift?”
No response for a long moment. Then he grunted, as if in pain. That grunt grew to a full-blown roar, including a few yelps, as the dragon tried, for the first time, to force the beast to bow to the man. Mirage-like waves appeared then disappeared, as if he couldn’t hold the magic.
“Take a deep breath,” Aidan instructed. He’d done this with so many younger dragons at Lyndi’s. At least his parents had still been alive to help him and steady him, when his first time had come. “Hold it, and picture what the world appears like when you’re human. What you feel like in that form. What you look like.”
The young dragon’s rib cage heaved then held. After several more tries, those waves appeared and stayed, hovering about his body. With excruciating slowness, and in total silence, the dragon forced his body to shrink. Not a smooth motion like the shifters around them would show, but in jerks and fits, bones and muscles realigning themselves, scales disappearing as skin and hair took their place. Along with clothing, magically absorbed into his form during the shift. Clothing that hadn’t seen a washer in months. The stench hit Aidan a second later.
“Fuck,” Keighan exclaimed. “He’s just a kid.”
Couldn’t be more than his early teens, given the way dragon shifters aged, making the kid around twenty to thirty years in human time. Living a millennium or more, dragons physically aged much slower than humans.
Sure enough, the flesh on the back of his hand between his thumb and forefinger was bare, the brand of his king—Volos for white dragons—conspicuously absent, marking him for all to see as a rogue. Rogue and orphan. This kid needed help.
“Rivin, Keighan, watch him,” Finn instructed.
His teammates both eased their stances, sitting back, relaxed even. “You got it, boss.”
“Can we at least mess with him while we wait?” Rivin asked.
Even in dragon form, Aidan could see Rivin’s twinkle of mischief. Now that the threat to the team had been minimized, they were back to the nut jobs he expected them to be.
“No playing,” Finn rumbled. “You two hold him here while we get this fire under control.”
Both dragons, opalescent scales shimmering with a rainbow of colors, seemed to grin at that, fearsome teeth offset by lolling forked tongues. No doubt they’d fuck with the kid while no one was watching. Just for the hell of it.
But they wouldn’t hurt him. Not without orders.
Aidan wouldn’t leave the kid alone otherwise. Another unwanted, abandoned, wasted dragon with no future.
Not if I have anything to say about it.
“You okay to work?” Finn bobbed his head in a dragon version of a head nod at Aidan’s wound.
“I’m fine.” No way in hell was he claiming injury. Not his first time officially out with the team, and not just as backup, a liaison with humans, or an afterthought, but as a critical member. He’d been waiting for this, working his ass off for this night. He’d still fly even if he’d been gutted. He couldn’t help that kid if he wasn’t earning his place with the Huracán Enforcers.
“Let’s go,” Finn said.
With fluid motions, they launched back into the air, side by side, wings extended with a span of roughly forty feet, tipped as they spiraled up to get a bird’s eye view. “Take back over on that eastern edge,” Finn directed.
Already the rest of the team had reduced the size of the blaze by at least half, despite four of them being temporarily unavailable.
“Yes, sir.” Aidan dove toward that area, preparing to do his part.
All dragons could draw fire into themselves through their maws, pulling it down the same track of pipes into their belly where their own fire was stored. Enforcers were trained in a different method. A faster method that consumed more of the fire. They could drag the flames into their body, absorbing it through their scales.
With sweeping passes over the fire, he pulled the flames into himself, absorbing them faster than they could burn more fuel on the ground. The rest of his team attacked it from other angles, working together.
An hour later, the fire was out.
This job had been large enough to require the entire crew, but small enough that they could contain it in one night, and far enough out in the wilderness that humans probably wouldn’t find out about it unless a ranger or hikers stumbled across the burned area.
All the team, except Rivin and Keighan, flew up to meet Finn, circling overhead.
Hall, neon green even in the dark, swiped past Aidan, giving him a friendly bump on the way by. “I assume Aidan found the shifter responsible? First kill, rookie. Way to go.”
Aidan growled. “I didn’t kill him.”
“What happened?” Hall didn’t get the clue to shut up. “Couldn’t get it up?”
Drake buzzed by overhead, low enough to make Hall duck. “You know Aidan’s bigger than you, right?”
“Nah. He wouldn’t hurt me.”
“I might,” Drake snarled. He must be more irritated than usual to bother using so many words. Drake generally preferred to be the silent, brooding fucker of the bunch. Hall had better watch it.
Instead of backing down, though, Hall stepped it up a level or ten. “You know what’s worse than waking up after a party and finding a penis drawn on your face?”
Drake whipped around, and, for a second, appeared to bobble awkwardly in the air, which he never did. But he recovered so fast, Aidan wasn’t sure he saw what he thought he did.
Except Drake seemed to do that more often lately. Little things that would be nothing in someone else, but Drake was one of the best. A warrior from his clan, he’d once served on his king’s guard.
Was he sick?
Aidan shook off the thought. Dragons only got sick if they were aging without a mate, and the red dragon shifter was too young for that.
“What?” Drake snapped.
Hall dropped low as Drake swiped at him with his tail, his chuckle following him through the air. “Finding out it was traced.”
The hacking and rumbling sound Hall made came off more eerie than amused, until he snorted green-tipped flames from his nose. Why the green dragon insisted on fucking with Drake—his comments were rarely aimed at anyone else—Aidan had no idea. But it’d definitely bite him in the ass one day.
“Aidan had reason for holding off,” Finn said when Hall finally quit. “Let’s get back. We’ll talk it out there.”
Exhausted, the team turned for home, situated relatively close, north of their current position.
Aidan clenched his teeth as that thought snuck into his head. Immediately, an image of her appeared in his mind, as though conjured. Petite and light to his dark with hair that curled around her chin and turquoise eyes that drew him like gravity. His own secret fantasy who entered his dreams, did things to his body, shared whispered conversations, then disappeared when he woke. A woman who, in reality, he could never let himself want.
She was human. A single mother with a son to raise and a winery to run. Not to mention Finn’s mate’s best friend and boss. Off-limits.
With determination, Aidan pushed the image away.
For months, Aidan had resisted the draw the blonde held for him. He might not be able to control his dreams, but he could remain distant in real life.
You have one job, he reminded himself now.
Being an enforcer for the clans was the most important thing in his life. He had to prove himself every single day. Because clans rejected orphans, he’d met resistance to his ambitions at every fucking turn. A glass ceiling he intended to shatter, paving the way for the others like himself. Sera Morrison fell into the category of a distraction he couldn’t afford.
No matter how much he craved her.
Even so, he flew a little faster. He might not be able to want the real life version, but he wouldn’t mind another of those dreams involving her. That was the only weakness he could allow himself.
Finn had his Beta, Levi, carry the kid in one massive talon. The only gold dragon on the team, Levi, like most of his clan, was the largest and strongest among them. A brutal killing machine when he needed to be, even if the guy was a total teddy bear otherwise. With the white shifter in his more vulnerable human state, if he made any move Levi didn’t like, Levi would crush him in an instant.
The prisoner continued to show some level of intelligence, staying quiet and still the length of the long flight home. At least this fire hadn’t been a three-day flight away like the last one, which had been set on the northern edge of their territory. The Huracáns were assigned the west coast of North America, the largest of the various dragon colonies all over the world.
Dawn was breaking, pale pink fingers of light reaching over the mountain tops as they made it back to their home situated west of Lake Tahoe and over the pass. Finn landed first, flaring his deeply blue wings wide in the relatively open, flat space outside their headquarters.
He shifted quickly, efficient in the action as his body reformed—shrinking and altering to stand upright, scales turning to human flesh, the nasty-looking spikes along his spine pulling back into his body, talons and teeth both turning human, until a man stood on the ground where a forty-foot dragon had just been.
Levi followed, glittering in the sunlight like he’d been gilded. He gave up their prisoner to Finn before shifting as well.
Titus, black as an ink stain across the sky, was swiftly followed by Drake, blood red in contrast, right beside him. Hall and Kanta—one almost neon green and snakelike, the other the deep green of a forest—waited until the men had stepped aside before following suit. Rivin and Keighan jostled each other in an effort to race to the ground, and Aidan had to beat his wings to drift longer as he waited for them.
“Dudes. Clear the fuck out.”
“What’s wrong, rookie? Can’t maintain a hover?” Rivin shot back.
But they completed their shifts and moved out of the way nonetheless. As soon as they were done, Aidan brought up the rear. The shifting process was painless now, and second nature. With a mere thought, his perspective changed, rapidly dropping closer to the ground and adjusting as his sight became less pinpoint perfect, though still better than humans. Only this time, he hissed through his teeth as the wound on his wrist changed with him. A deep throbbing took up residence, shooting up his arm in angry spikes, originating from the nasty red slash, the skin seeming to bubble up before his eyes.
“You all right?” Drake asked.
Even through his own pain, Aidan didn’t miss how his friend gave his hand a shake, as though waking a sleeping limb. “You?”
Drake paused in what had to have been an unconscious action. He clenched his fist and dropped it to his side. “Fine.”
Everyone was fine. Terrific.
Finn opened a hidden panel on a tree that wasn’t a real tree but did a damn good job of acting like one. After scanning his palm on a high-tech device, a massive boulder nearby slid back, two double doors whooshing open. With their prisoner in tow, they’d chosen to come in one of the back entrances.
Despite his concern for the kid, exhaustion and the need to get to his bed dragged at Aidan as he followed everyone inside and down a long tunnel. Lights along the sides turned themselves on as the men passed, illuminating only a small section of the blackness at any given time until they eventually emerged in a small round room which sported five more tunnels branching off in different directions.
“Levi. Lock him up,” Finn directed. “Everyone get some rest. Meet in the war room at fourteen hundred to debrief. We’ll report to the Alliance then.”
Finn wanted to tell the Alliance about the kid? That was a guaranteed death sentence. But Aidan didn’t say anything. He’d do better to get some sleep first, be fresh to argue later. With feet that felt like cement blocks had wrapped around them, he managed to get to his room. He didn’t even bother to undress, falling face first on his bed.
In seconds he was out, and through the darkness, he heard Sera’s voice.