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READ THE FIRST CHAPTER: Chosen (The Stolen Series, #3) by Marlena Frank




Can she stop what she unleashed?


How in the world did Shaleigh Mallett find herself standing on a volcanic mountain facing the fire dragon, Tanwen?


She isn't supposed to be here. She's supposed to be in high school, studying for classes and exploring abandoned buildings with her best friend. But no, she's stuck on the Peak of Gwern, hoping that the dragon will somehow show mercy and stop the Madness that plagues them.


There is still so much to do, so many wrongs to right. She can't abandon her friends after she's come so far. She won't abandon them. Not even Talek, who is all but consumed by the Madness. She must take down Keriam the Magician, she must face the Bloody Forest, and she must lead if she ever wants to see home again.


Follow Shaleigh into the Bloody Forest in CHOSEN, by Marlena Frank—out next Tuesday, March twenty-third. Pre-order your copy NOW!


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CHAPTER ONE: TO BE LOVED


It was difficult to breathe. The sky was filled with smoke and the waves of heat made Shaleigh sweat through her clothes.


She didn’t belong on top of an active volcano near rivers of lava. She shouldn’t have come to the Peak of Gwern with her friends. She shouldn’t have pretended to be a warrior when she knew very well that she wasn’t.


And she certainly had no business trying to talk to a fire dragon.


She could have gone home when Queen Mab offered it back in the City of the Faeries, but she thought she could help. She should have accepted it and gone back to her schoolwork, to her best friend Kaeja, and to her father. Had they forgotten her completely by now? Would she live long enough to see them again?


Shaleigh licked at her parched lips as her eyes began to water from the heat. At least back home there were problems she could fix; there was no fixing a dragon.


The ground shook and she took a step back, dipping her foot into a thick mound of volcanic ash that covered her ankles. She knew what that meant: Tanwen was emerging.


Instinctively, she reached for Mawr, placing a hand on his flank even as he flattened himself to the ground and covered his eyes. She stroked his mane in a feeble attempt to calm him, despite her own heart thudding in her chest. A hand clasped hers, clad in fur, and she turned to see Colin staring at her with absolute terror. She squeezed his hand, staring into his eyes. Beads of sweat dripped off the black fur of his cheeks.


“I wish you had left!” she cried to him, tears streaking down her cheeks. “You both could have been long gone by now.”


He shook his head. “I couldn’t leave you any more than Mawr could. We’re both going to stand with you, whether you like it or not—it’s too late to leave now.” The ground quaked beneath them again, and Colin moved closer to her side; they put an arm around each other to stay steady. “I’m so sorry for all this,” he said.


“Me too.”


A loud crack tore through the air, and all three of them jumped. The ground close to where Talek stood tore apart, creating a great chasm, and ash fell into the gap that highlighted red from an inner light. He wasn’t far from where they huddled to the ground. Talek put one arm up to shield his face while his other hand gripped Teagan’s, backing away from the heat toward Shaleigh.


Teagan stared with unblinking eyes at the chasm, his skin horribly pale against the smoky sky. He had been stabbed through the heart with a ball of hot lava, thrown by a magician who was controlled by Keriam. Talek had used his magic to close his wound, but he couldn’t bring Teagan’s life back: Despite Talek’s Madness and despite the powers he had been given from his pact with Keriam, even he couldn’t overcome death.


Flames licked upward from within the giant crack, growing higher. Two wisps of flame crept forward along the ground, white in color like kindling caught ablaze. But there was nothing there to burn besides ash. There was nothing alive up here except for them.


At the base of the white flames, Shaleigh realized that it wasn’t just flame; it was a glob of volcanic rock that she knew hadn’t been there before. It was crusted black, as though cooled in places, but it was also veined with white molten lava within. The pair of rocks seemed to shift left and right, though it was hard to tell if they were really moving or if it was from the heat waves coming off of them. That was when she realized that they weren’t merely rock— they were claws.


“Mawr…” Shaleigh crouched down beside the stone lion, moving her hand from his flank to his cheek. He didn’t say anything, but she could feel him trembling under her palm, his stone body almost painfully hot to the touch. Colin took her lead and crouched down beside her. Only Talek remained standing, still holding Teagan at his side. They were close enough she could make out their faces now.


“Please,” Talek said, tears marking streaks down his soot covered face. “I merely want council with you. That’s all!”


The molten claws dug into the earth, and the ground shook again. Shaleigh heard another crack and wondered if they were all going to be sent tumbling down into a fiery abyss.


She looked up and watched as the dragon pulled herself up out of the chasm.


First came her head, surrounded with long, floating tendrils of flame, and then came her serpentine neck and body. She was black like a cooling lava flow from head to toe, and occasionally bits of her body crumbled and fell to the ground, adding to the mounds of ash all around them. The cracks exposed her true, molten essence. Much of her body was still on fire, lit from the pit from which she emerged. She snorted steam into the air and took a deep breath. As her chest expanded, Shaleigh could see the cracks of her body expand and begin to cool as well. It was as if she wasn’t used to breathing air from aboveground.


Slowly Mawr got to his feet, much to the shock of Shaleigh and Colin.


“What are you doing?” Colin asked, as though staying on the ground would somehow avoid getting her attention.


“It’s her,” Mawr whispered, clearly in awe despite still trembling. “It’s really her. I never thought I would actually get to see her. I’ve read about her for so many years, studied so many of the books. She’s beautiful. They never said she was beautiful.”


Despite the heat that was building and her own heart thundering away in her chest, Shaleigh had to agree with him. Tanwen was beautiful in the way encountering a big cat in the wild would be beautiful, but then it would also lead to death. Every fiber of her being wanted to run away as fast as she could down the mountain, but Shaleigh couldn’t look away.


Tanwen was graceful but terrible, a presence so raw and powerful that she seared onto the mind. Shaleigh knew that nothing she could photograph would ever live up to her.


The dragon craned her neck back and surveyed her guests, settling her white-hot gaze on each of them, her eyes burning with an unending flame. Shaleigh heard Talek cry out as Tanwen’s gaze fell upon him. It sounded like he was physically in pain and it made her want to bury her head down against Mawr’s side, but she couldn’t do it.


Then Tanwen turned to Mawr, and the poor lion just yelped and began shaking again. Shaleigh patted his side, trying to calm him, but she couldn’t bring herself to speak. She couldn’t even think of any words to say.


When Tanwen’s gaze fell on her next, the weight of it made her stomach drop. A bizarre chill went through her even though she was still sweating like crazy from the heat. Shaleigh couldn’t turn her head or glance aside, all she could do was stare even though it hurt. It was as though the dragon saw everything within her, knew every‐ thing she had done, and lifted up every flaw from within to examine and explore.


A sob escaped her lips. Her own thoughts dimmed and suddenly she knew with certainty that she was a trespasser. She was an intruder, a disease, a parasite that had no inkling of where it landed. Shaleigh wanted to apologize, to say something to explain, to help the dragon understand why she was here and why she wanted to help her friends, but words didn’t come.


A high-pitched hissing sound assaulted her ears, like the whistling of a teapot about to explode with steam. Absently Shaleigh put her hands up to her ears to block out the noise, but it didn’t even muffle it. The sound came full force still, and it took a moment for her to recognize that there were words in the sound.


“Yes, this must be your language. You have something that belongs to me, Shaleigh Mallett.” The ground shook, and Shaleigh fell forward, but Colin caught her before she hit the ground.


“What was that?” Colin screamed, his breath warm against her neck as he pulled her upright. “Was that her?”


“She speaks in a fury of scream and flame!” Mawr cried, clearly quoting some kind of book he had read. He was crouching down again. “All who hear her will regret their ears!”


Shaleigh blinked and shook her head, finally free of whatever the dragon had done to her.


Tanwen looked out over the chasm, staring directly at her, patient and threatening without making a move. Shaleigh wracked her mind. What did they have that belonged to a dragon? They barely had anything with them as it was.


She glanced to her friends, surely, Tanwen didn’t mean them. Even if Talek was near to losing himself to the Madness and taking them all with him, she would still never let a dragon take him—take any of them.


“I don’t know what I have,” she confessed. “If we have anything of yours, we don’t know it.”


Tanwen dipped her head and gave a slow nod, the wisps of flame behind her rippled as though from wind. Then the jar that Shaleigh still had tucked under her arm, the one she had forgotten about and had almost left at the edge of the Dark Lands, felt very cold. She reached for it, surprised that she even still had it. The sweat from her fingers left marks on the glass. Inside looked empty except for maybe a cobweb or two, but she knew for certain that it hadn’t felt that cold before.


When they had left the Dark Lands, Shaleigh had nearly tripped on it. She wasn’t sure where it came from, but she was certain they didn’t just happen to come across it. Now here Tanwen asked for it, as though she had left it there and had them fetch it for her. Shaleigh held the jar up for the dragon to see; Tanwen nodded again, her flaming white eyes never leaving Shaleigh.


She must have seen Shaleigh’s confusion. “It’s only empty if you look through your eyes,” Tanwen said simply. The steam whistle shriek of her voice made Shaleigh’s head pound. “Give it here.”


Shaleigh froze, not even sure how to do that. She couldn’t just hand it over; she was barely able to keep from backing away as it was. She thought of just lobbing it at her, but that would probably end with it breaking, and with Shaleigh in an even worse situation. Even if she could get the jar close, wouldn’t it just shatter from the heat, especially with how cold it felt?


Tanwen rose up, the length of her lava cracked, blackened body coming out farther from the ground. Two black shapes tore loose from her body, throwing ash into the air, and unfurled. Her wings were enormous, like bat wings, and ribbed with shifting lava beneath the skin. The heat they gave off was unbearable.


“Give it here!” Tanwen shrieked again, opening her jaws and revealing rows of sharp teeth and a white light inside her mouth and throat. It was blinding, and Shaleigh winced as she held up a hand to shield her eyes.


“Do as she asks!” Talek called to her, acknowledging that she existed for the first time since they landed on the Peak of Gwern. “She’ll kill us all if you refuse!” He was walking toward her with Teagan following at his side.


“How?” Shaleigh swallowed down the dryness of her throat. “I can’t get close to her, and I’m afraid it’ll shatter!”


Mawr stood up suddenly and wrapped his teeth around the jar as gently as he had when he helped her onto the sled by the lake in Aife. He picked it up then nuzzled her with his stone whiskers.


“Mawr, what are you doing?”


He muttered something unintelligible.


“Be careful!” Colin cried in understanding. “Don’t get too close! She can melt you too, you know.”


Mawr nodded and then inched forward a little, then inched a little more. His tail was tucked so far between his legs that Shaleigh was afraid it might trip him. He only got a foot or so in before he laid the jar gingerly onto the ground and hurried away again.


“I can’t believe you did that!” Shaleigh wrapped her arms around him. He was shaking, but his face wasn’t charred or worn from the heat. She rubbed behind his ears.


In the distance above the crack, Tanwen settled back down, her fury now focused on the jar that was clearly still out of her reach. She cocked her head to the side and a small blue flame licked up out of the ground at the jar, cracking it into a dozen pieces.


Shaleigh gasped.


At first it looked like the jar was empty, but then she caught the strong smell of dust and the undeniable stench of decay that she recognized from the Masked King. A thick fog emerged from the shards and floated up to form a humanoid shape.


“Mighty Tanwen, I beseech you.”


Shaleigh’s jaw dropped as the voice of the Masked King hovered in the air from the haze before them. The fog shifted until it made a vague replica of the Masked King himself. It reminded her of something her imagination might have dreamed up staring at her through a window at home on a foggy morning. Only it wasn’t that; it was him. Somehow, he had found a way to join them, and Shaleigh didn’t know what kind of message he had to deliver.


“You have guided me for decades, dear Mother. When I had no understanding of what I was, you showed me. When I couldn’t grasp what had happened to me, you guided me. I beseech you to help this pathetic group on my behalf.”


Shaleigh’s eyes went wide. He was helping them? She had expected him to try to sabotage them somehow, not to help. That high-pitched steam whistle sounded again and Shaleigh looked to Tanwen. The dragon was laughing.


“The Madness is present here, you see,” the Masked King continued. “It has nearly taken the white-haired Faerie and it has already led to the death of the other. I understand if you, Mother, wish to kill them all, it is entirely in your right.”


“Can you believe this guy?” Colin asked. “I can’t tell if he’s trying to help or turn us into barbeque.”


“However, I hope you will show mercy,” the mist replica said. “Not for them, but for me. I wish not for another Dark Land to form upon our land. If he must be destroyed, let him destroy the Human World, but not here. I do not wish for another such as myself, Mother. I would not wish that upon anyone. Act in the wisdom that you know so well, Mother, but please, forget me not in your decision.” As his voice faded, so did the misty visage of him. It dissipated along with the heat waves and soon they were back to facing Tanwen alone.


“I never would have thought that guy was friendly, but apparently he was,” Colin admitted quietly with a lopsided smile.


“Talek scared him,” Shaleigh said with a glance to the two Faeries who stood nearby. “He got to see what it would be like to have two Masked Kings and he didn’t like it. He helped us, but only to help himself.”


Tanwen didn’t look at any of them. Instead, she stared at the broken jar that lay in a bed of ash. “Perhaps Fineen is right,” her voice shrieked and Shaleigh winced involuntarily. “I ought to at least listen to what you have to say before I devour you.”


Her claws dug deeper into the earth, causing the ground to quake as she pulled the full length of her body up out of the chasm. It was like watching a coil of rope get pulled out of the sea—more and more of her just kept appearing. Finally, her back claws emerged and landed on the earth as well. The ground shook so hard that Shaleigh fell into Mawr’s side.


“It’s too hot!” Mawr cried. “You all will get hurt! We need to pull back.”


He was right, the heat was starting to singe her skin. Together the three of them backed away, but it was difficult because Tanwen was drawing closer, her body impossibly long and her heat enormous.


Then her features began to change. Her eyes became smaller as she shut them tight and the length of her body shrank inward. It was crazy to see the full length of her body shrink down, looping in on itself, until she looked more like a lizard with wings than a dragon. She stretched out her wings, peeling them off her body again, and the bat-like membrane shrank inward into long, spindly arms. Her bulky back legs pulled forward. As she transformed, the heat seemed to dissipate until finally Shaleigh could look at her without backing away.


A woman stood before her, her skin as black as the volcanic ash at their feet. Her body was still cracked in places and Shaleigh could see the lava that flowed in those cracks, bright and hot and dangerous. Tanwen shook herself and tensed, knitting the cracks closed. When she opened her eyes, they were human looking, except for the pupils which still shone that white fire within. She tensed again and bright hair in shades of crimson, amber, and ocher emerged from her head and toppled down her shoulders to the middle of her back like water.


She squared her shoulders and walked toward them.

***

“Is that easier for your frail bodies?” Tanwen smiled, revealing pointed teeth.


Shaleigh just stared at her. She was still a dragon—she had to be—but for several long moments, Shaleigh’s mind was too frozen in shock to respond. She was trying to wrap her brain around the ridiculous concept of that enormous fiery dragon fitting into the body of the woman before her.


“You’re… human…” she finally forced out. Full sentences were not an option right now. Her brain could barely come up with single words, let alone a fully-formed sentence.


Tanwen laughed, and Shaleigh could see the fiery white flame at the back of her throat. It made sense somehow that she should be made of fire. She had always read that dragons were hungry, perhaps they were just as hungry as fire.


Shaleigh took a deep breath, trying to ignore that her skin still hurt in places, mostly her hand from touching Mawr’s back. She tried to ignore that Colin had hold of her other hand again and was half-heartedly trying to pull her backward, away from the dragon. She glanced to Talek, who stood in awe and confusion, both of his eyes swirling with the violet of Madness. She only hoped the shock of all this didn’t cause an explosion like Queen Mab said happened before with the Masked King.


“You bring me a corpse that’s been forced to walk, a Faerie on the brim of destruction, a statue that’s been taught to speak, a ferret as big as a man”—the amusement bubbled through her words—“and a shrimp of a girl from the Human World.” She laughed, and the wind picked up slightly with her humor.


Pieces of ash and dirt flew into their faces and Shaleigh had to squint to be able to see through it.


“I’ve eaten entire armies, crumpled villages in minutes, and devoured more Mad Faeries than I can count. My dear friend the Masked King may want me to spare you for his own devices, but I don’t see why I should. This is the biggest disappointment I’ve had since Flidais came to build a castle on my home.” She laughed again, and this time the wind was so strong that Shaleigh fell to the ground.


“You have to help me,” Talek urged as her laughter finally died. “Teagan, he should not be dead! I need him at my side, and you’re the only one who can—”


“Another Faerie heartbroken, why am I not surprised? Your kind’s affection leads to more Madness than any other magical being in my land.” She swished her hair to the side, and Shaleigh saw a flame emerge between the strands for a brief moment before being snuffed out.


She could kill them with a glance.


She was humoring them.


Shaleigh thought of how the Masked King was excited to have visitors who actually wanted to speak with him. She thought of Queen Mab and how so many Faeries chose to leave her city even though she worked so hard to keep it protected. Finally, she thought of Madam Cloom forcing the bloodshed at the Games in the hot air balloons in the Garden.


Boredom, she realized, was probably the only reason Tanwen hadn’t already destroyed them.


Although Shaleigh’s memory of the Memorial Chamber in the High Castle of the Garden felt like a lifetime ago, she remembered passing many statues in that room. One was a woman sitting in a chair with her head thrown back laughing. It was an odd pose, very different from all the other statues in that room, and that was what made her remember the name she had seen there: Flidais. She must have been a friend of Master Cathal, and if that was the last visitor Tanwen had gotten, then that had been centuries ago. Despite living in a volcano, she doubted even a dragon was immune to boredom. If she could prove they shouldn’t be dismissed, maybe they had a chance.


“Please hear us out!” Shaleigh urged, and she couldn’t help but wince as the dragon aimed her gaze at her. She might be in a human form, but there was still a weight with that gaze that made her body quake. “Talek was forced into a pact with a cruel magician known as Keriam. The magician was the one that killed Teagan and turned the magicians in the Sanctuary against us. We’re Teagan’s friends.” She glanced to Talek, his eyes were wide as he watched her, clearly shocked that she was speaking up for them. “We’re Talek’s friends, too.”


“Shaleigh…” Talek whispered.


She turned back to Tanwen, “Please, we’ve come very far. I could have gone home, but I chose to help my friends instead. I chose to… speak with you rather than leave.”


Tanwen smiled and Shaleigh squeezed Colin’s hand. “Do you regret that decision?”


Shaleigh studied her, trying to decide what was the right answer, trying to figure out what she wanted to hear, but there was no telling. She took a deep breath and nodded. “Yes.”


“So, you do value your life then?” Tanwen approached her, bare feet leaving deep impressions in the volcanic ash on the ground.


“Yes,” Shaleigh choked. “I value all our lives, even Teagan though we lost him.”


“Ah yes,” the dragon said, stopping only a foot in front of her. “The dead one.”


Shaleigh nodded again. She could feel the heat emanating off of the dragon, and there was steam rising from her freshly cooled skin.


There was a pressing feeling, and suddenly a hot spark in her head that made Shaleigh cry out and fling her hands to her skull. Distantly, she heard her friends call out to her, but Shaleigh couldn’t hear the words. Her brain was on fire. Her mind went blank, because all she could feel was the pain shooting around her head as though she put her finger into an outlet.


Then the pain was gone, and she realized she was on the ground, staring into the ash. Mawr was beside her, nuzzling her with his sharp whiskers, and Colin was keeping her from falling face-forward. She sniffed and wiped at her nose to find wetness and pulled her hand away to see blood. A funny thought ran through her head that if she hadn’t had the sickness from overexposure to magic before in the City of the Fae, she would be dead.


She swallowed down the taste of copper in her throat and stared up at Tanwen to find that Talek was on his knees in front of her, begging.


“She’s an innocent in all of this. You and I both know she doesn’t belong in this world.” Fresh tears streaked down his cheeks as his voice cracked. “All I want is to have Teagan back! All I want is for him to be happy. Whatever you wish, I will grant if it is within my power. Please spare them. Take me instead if you wish!” He reached out to her as though to take Tanwen’s hand, but she slapped it away and Talek cried out. His hand was bright red where she had touched him, leaving a nasty burn.


“Don’t insult me. I’ve eaten far too many Faeries infected with Madness. I will not be your executioner. I’m fed up with your addled minds being sent to me to incinerate.” She turned to Shaleigh and that familiar adrenaline rush made her dizzy for a moment. “This Keriam. I saw that he was immortal in your mind, but he is a magician. How is that possible?”


“I don’t know,” Shaleigh admitted, her throat dry and her tongue too thick and slow.


“Stand aside,” Tanwen commanded at her friends. Colin glanced down to Shaleigh once with apology before scurrying away, but Mawr stood fast.


“No,” he squeaked. “I won’t let you hurt her.”


Tanwen stopped and stared at him. “You are excellent at your work, Mawr the Guardian, but I need you to stand aside for me.”


Mawr began shaking. “I won’t let you,” he muttered.


Shaleigh reached to stroke his mane. “It’s okay, Mawr. Don’t get yourself killed, okay?” He looked back to her, his glasses rattling on the bridge of his nose. “I don’t want to lose you!”


She leaned forward and hugged him tight. “I know, it’s okay,” she said, but she doubted it really would be. She couldn’t let him be harmed, though. He was made of stone, and Tanwen—lava.


“I won’t leave you,” he whispered.


“This is very touching, but I do need you to move aside, Guardian of Aife,” Tanwen growled.


“If you’re going to stay with me,” Shaleigh whispered to him. “Stay close, but stay out of her way, okay?”


He nodded, and his glasses fell askew. Shaleigh straightened them, then used him to climb to her feet. Mawr moved out of the way, but still stayed with her as she faced Tanwen once more.


“Tell me about this Keriam. Tell me about what he’s been doing to the Shadow Wolves.”


Shaleigh stared at her in confusion for a moment. “The Shadow Wolves? The ones from the Slumbering Forest?”


Tanwen nodded and glanced back to Talek, who crawled to his feet to take Teagan’s hand again.


“They may not belong to me like the others do, but I must know what he does with them.” She waved a hand, adding, “The others are all mine: the Faeries, the minotaurs, the magic of the magicians—they are all mine. Even the magic that was used to create your friend here,” she said and gestured to Mawr. “The magic they borrow is mine, and I give it freely. However, they must return it to me upon death. Which is why I must ask again”—she leveled another heartpounding gaze at Shaleigh—“tell me more about the immortality of Keriam the magician.”


“I’m not sure,” Shaleigh fumbled. “All I know is that the Masked King somehow made an arrangement with him.”


Her eyes blazed. “The Masked King, you say? Making such arrangements without my knowledge, oh no, we can’t have that. Who is this Keriam?”


She shook her head. “I don’t know him very well. I only know that he is in a Faerie pact with Talek.”


At mention of his name, Talek held a palm out to her. “I have left my master. He abandoned me and killed the only one dear to me in the world, great Tanwen.”


She swooped toward him. “But you know of the magician who dares defy death in my land, the one who defies the ultimate payment?”


“Yes,” he admitted, his voice wavering.


“Don’t hurt him!” Shaleigh called, rushing forward. Her legs didn’t want to work quite right, and she nearly tumbled over her own two feet, but she fell toward Talek and he caught her.


“Shaleigh,” he whispered, staring down at her. His white hair was peppered with ash and his eyes swirled with the iridescent violet of the Madness. She reached forward and hugged him, and he gasped. “What are you—”


“Stop trying to get yourself killed. You’re a good person! I don’t want any of you to die!”


He pushed her away gently, his hands still shaking. He glanced to Tanwen, then back to Shaleigh. “You can’t save everyone.”


“Don’t tell me that! I don’t care what you’ve done, I don’t want you to get killed like Teagan. I can’t stand to see someone else I care about die!”


“Calm down, little Human,” Tanwen cooed. “I merely want information. And since none of you seem willing to talk easily, I must reap it myself.”


As soon as Talek met the dragon’s eyes, his body went rigid.

***

The blood drained from Talek’s face. His mouth went slack; his eyes widened. Shaleigh fancied she could see the violet of his eyes pulse, but it was hard to tell. Then he whimpered.


“It’s okay, Talek, I’m here. You’re not alone.” She tried to ground him somehow like she had Teagan in the Dark Lands. She was afraid for him. He was the one who had dragged them up here, but he was also the most vulnerable.


He gave out a short scream that was quickly cut short and Shaleigh jumped. “What are you doing to him?”


Tanwen didn’t even glance to her. Whatever Talek was experiencing made his entire body tremble. His eyes were wide, as though being forced to watch something horrible. It was draining him, and the violet of his eyes grew brighter.


“No,” she muttered. Was this it? Was this what he looked like just before destroying and killing all of them? She couldn’t stand aside and watch; she couldn’t just sit and passively take in what was happening. That had never been Shaleigh’s way, and so she jumped at him with a snarl and knocked him to the ground, breaking Tanwen’s control over him.


They hit the ground hard, billowing ash up into the air like black snow.


“Don’t you think you’re clever?” Tanwen hissed from behind them.


Shaleigh ignored her and got onto her hands and knees to stare into Talek’s distant gaze. “Talek? Can you hear me?”


He gave a weak cry, but his eyes were moving again, and soon he pursed his lips together. Finally, he seemed to recognize her. “Shaleigh…”


“It’s okay, I—” The words caught in her throat as hot pain licked around her ankle. She jerked her left leg and screamed, scrambling away from Talek. He reached for her, saying something, but the pain bit deep into her skin and erased everything else in her mind. Something bright and thin flipped away from her like a whip. The pain was excruciating.


She panted, staring at her leg that looked like it belonged to someone else. The ringlet around her left ankle was dark red, and she could see the smoke rising up from the heat. It would turn into a terrible blister, if it healed at all.


Tanwen’s whip returned to a claw that was attached to a partially transformed fiery wing, then it pulled in completely to reform into a humanoid hand and arm. Shaleigh stared, her mind empty as she reeled from the pain, trying to make sense of what happened.


“Do that again, and I’ll take your head,” Tanwen said simply and stalked toward Talek again. He was still lying on his back but trying to push himself up into a seated position; he was weak. She knew why, too—she had seen how it drained him. Whatever the dragon did to him, whatever it made him experience, it had to have been terrible.