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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!



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.

“Don’t do it,” Shaleigh breathed, and rolled onto her stomach to push herself up. Bits of black ash stuck to her dress and arm. It smelled like sulfur, and she winced as she pushed her face away from it. If the dragon continued to torture him, continued to push him, Shaleigh wasn’t sure if he would last. If the Madness took Talek completely, it meant they all died, including Mawr and Colin. She couldn’t let that happen.

“Talek, hold on!” she called as she tried to stand despite her injury. Every flex of her foot sent pain up and down her leg. Then an arm wrapped around her waist, and another folded in her knees with great care to avoid her hurt ankle: It was Colin, picking her up like he had when he kidnapped her in the Tree House. She winced at the pain that throbbed through her leg.

“What are you doing?” she cried. “We have to help him!”

“Keeping you from getting yourself killed,” Colin grunted as he carried her over to Mawr, who was prancing his paws in the ash.

“I don’t need your help! Talek does!” she argued after he placed her down on one leg.

Talek cried out again, and Shaleigh’s chest tightened as she looked to where he lay at the dragon’s feet.

“I’m sorry, Shaleigh. I know you don’t like it, but I don’t think we have a choice,” Colin said.

The dragon loomed over Talek, her hair falling down around her shoulders as she stared into his eyes. Tiny little flames sprouted up within her hair before snuffing out again—Shaleigh worried that the flames would drop down onto Talek’s face, but they didn’t.

“Please, his mind can’t take it. The Madness has eaten it away,” she cried to Tanwen, and tried to step forward but the pain on her left leg seared as she put pressure on it. Mawr pushed up next to her when she stumbled, and she gratefully leaned against him.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“She could have killed you,” Mawr whispered back. “You can’t go over there!”

Colin put a clawed hand on her shoulder. “Mawr’s right. I won’t let you kill yourself trying to help him. He got himself into this mess. You can’t save him now, only he can. And you’ve already angered Tanwen once. I believe her when she threatened to take your head next. I won’t…” He paused, taking a deep breath. “I can’t let that happen to you.” There were tears in his eyes, and he clutched at her shoulder with desperation.

“I’m sorry.” She put a hand on his arm, gently urging him to relax and release his hold. Then she reached out a hand to Mawr, petting him reassuringly. “I can’t sit by, waiting and hoping. I have to try to help.” She shook her head, feeling her heart ache. “I can’t bear to watch anyone else get killed.”

Colin’s voice was small and pleading. “If you try again, she’s going to kill you.” His voice broke. “And I can’t watch you die either. Please.” Talek screamed again, and Shaleigh winced.

“Maybe we could go together?” They both turned to Mawr, who trembled from his nose to his tail. “She won’t listen to you, Shaleigh, but maybe she would if we all tried to help.”

Shaleigh nodded and turned to lock eyes with Colin. “Do you think there’s a chance she’ll listen?”

He glanced to the dragon, to Teagan’s body, to a distant lava flow, and sighed. “She didn’t kill you the first time, did she? Maybe Mawr’s got a point.”

Shaleigh let out a slow breath. She knew it was the right thing to do, but she was still terrified to do it. “Together, then.” Her voice was hoarse.

Colin gave a weak nod as fresh tears fell down his cheeks. “That’s the only way, isn’t it?”

“It’s always best to work together,” Mawr agreed, his deep baritone making Shaleigh’s hand vibrate on his flank. He was watching Tanwen and Talek in the distance with his ears flattened back, looking like he wanted to flatten himself to the ground again.

“Mawr,” she whispered, wishing she could get closer to his face, but unable to use her injured leg. “Do you really think this is a good idea?”

He shuffled his paws in the ash. “I’m scared too, but I don’t think I can stand here either. If it was up to me, I’d be on the ground with my eyes closed, but maybe together, maybe then I’d be strong enough to try.”

She reached over and rubbed above his shoulder.

“Promise you won’t run in again?” Colin’s voice was high-pitched like he might break down bawling at any minute. “Promise you won’t try to be a hero without us?”

“I promise,” she said, and took his hand in hers, giving it a squeeze. He was trembling—they all were. Her left leg throbbed. The pain made it hard to think.

Around her tears, Shaleigh looked back to Talek. The dragon was still boring into his mind, but Teagan was also there. He was crouched down beside Talek, holding his hand and stroking it.

It was as if he was alive, but he wasn’t.

He couldn’t be.

“What—?” She gasped, trying to find the right words.

Staring at the two of them, with Colin’s warm hand in hers and Mawr’s stone fur in the other, her mind felt empty, numb. All she could do was stare as Teagan stroked Talek’s hand. She sniffled and blinked, trying to see around her tears. Teagan’s gaze was still flat, still just as empty as the day he died, but there was care between them that she’d only seen in the drawings she had found strewn about their home in the City of the Faeries. This was different though. Teagan was doing it out of his own volition.

Shaleigh turned to Tanwen, watching her white eyes burn. “Stop,” she called. “Leave him alone. He doesn’t deserve to be destroyed. He deserves to live.”

Tanwen looked up and Shaleigh felt her stomach drop. For a brief moment, she wondered if she was going to tumble to the ground, but Mawr and Colin held her steady.

“I have seen what he has done. I have seen the fires that drive him. You suffered at his hands. He betrayed you.” Tanwen took a deep breath and stepped around Talek to approach them. Her bare feet seemed to rock the earth as she strode closer.

“Shaleigh,” Mawr whispered. She didn’t have to look to know that he was fighting his own terror to stay by her side. Yet, even with all he had read, even with all the warnings, he still stayed with her. He still supported her. She smiled, feeling a flicker of confidence.

“I have seen some of what he’s done. I know he’s hurt people.” Shaleigh thought of the piles of minotaur corpses in the woods and the magicians from the Sanctuary. “I know he’s probably killed people, too, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to die.”

Tanwen glanced to Colin and Mawr, who despite flinching, stayed on either side of her. They stayed because they believed in Shaleigh. They stayed because they trusted her. A fiery resolve formed within her, not for herself, but to protect those she loved. She glanced to Talek— his eyes were closed, and he was far too pale. And Teagan was still beside him, stroking his hand as though a dragon hadn’t just passed beside him.

“You wear your fears on your skin,” Tanwen said as though it were an insult. “He is not dead, but his mind…that was quite enlightening.” Her tone was different from before. The hot rage and fierce warning that had led to Shaleigh’s leg being injured was gone. Now it was replaced with a more somber, more subdued tone. “You don’t want him dead. You don’t want your captor who forced you up this mountain to be killed.” She pointed to Colin next. “And I assume you don’t even want your kidnapper dead either.”

Colin gasped and Shaleigh pulled him closer to reassure him. “It’s okay,” she said, and turned to him. “Calm down.”

“She knows,” Colin whimpered, biting his lip. “She knows what I am.”

“I know all, Colin Cawley, Human child of The Garden, once beggar, once soldier, and now…” Tanwen smiled. “Professional lackey, it seems.”

Colin’s voice trembled. “No! I—I mean, I try to help people. That’s all I do is try to help.”

“That’s not true at all!” Mawr pleaded. “He’s my friend, and he saved my life! If he’s a lackey, then so am I.”

Colin glanced to him. “Mawr…”

Mawr was no longer hunkered down but standing up straight. He was still trembling, but Shaleigh hadn’t seen so much confidence in him since they reached the Peak of Gwern. “If being friends and caring about each other makes us lackies, then I guess that’s what we all are.”

Tanwen laughed, and the ground shook beneath them. Shaleigh and Colin both had to lean on Mawr to keep from falling, and the stone lion had to drop his belly to the ground to stay stable.

“What did I say?” Mawr asked. “Did I say something wrong?”

“No,” Shaleigh reassured, stroking his mane. “I think you said exactly what you should have.”

Finally, Tanwen’s laughter ended and she crossed her arms. “I don’t plan to kill you all at the moment—you are more entertaining than I anticipated.”

She stared up at the dark skies and dragged her hands through her hair, dropping ash and flames to the ground as she paced. She looked sad, Shaleigh realized. She looked like she was trying to solve something, and Shaleigh stood up again on her good leg, one hand against Mawr’s flank.

“Thank you,” Shaleigh stated awkwardly. “For not wanting to kill us.” It seemed like the right thing to say when a dragon showed mercy.

“There was so much pain,” Tanwen muttered as though speaking to herself. “I’ve seen true misery, true misfortune, and this is probably one of the more heart-wrenching tragedies I’ve encountered in many millennia.” She turned to them, and the white-hot flame in her eyes had burned down to red embers. “As you know, Shaleigh of the Human World, Queen Mab has brought many unfortunate Faeries here—their minds fractured, much as your friend’s is; their magic overwhelmed by their emotions.”

Tanwen sat down on a stone and stretched out her long legs. “I’m tired of seeing it. I’m tired of devouring their grief and their sorrow. They should sort out their own problems instead of throwing them into my volcano, my home. I see their lives in my dreams, their despair, their hatred. Sometimes it takes centuries for that chaos to dissipate, yet I must live with it for all that time.” She looked up and met Shaleigh’s gaze with a pleading expression. Shaleigh felt her pain, her guilt, and her disgust.

Shaleigh thought back to the burned ruins they had passed on their way up the mountain. She thought of all the Faeries that must have come up here to be consumed by the dragon, at Queen Mab’s insistence. She had always considered what the Faeries felt, not what it did to the dragon. The Madness itself was clearly volatile. What did it do to someone to consume that much negativity all the time? Her heart pounded in her chest as she considered this as Tanwen continued.

“Perhaps it’s time I take away the magic I gave to this world. Perhaps they would be better off without it.”

“Take away the magic?” Mawr asked, his voice barely a whisper. “All of it?”

Tanwen nodded.

“But that would mean… me…” Mawr trailed off, and Shaleigh glanced to him with terror.

“No,” she whispered. “You can’t do that! Mawr’s better than anyone I’ve ever met! He’s too good to be killed like that. Besides, you said you wouldn’t kill us!”

“It wouldn’t be killing; it would be removal. An unmaking.”

“I won’t let you!” Shaleigh wrapped her arms around Mawr’s neck. In her fear, she fell to the ground on her hurt leg and cried out, shifting her weight quickly to her good leg and trying to get the pain under control. She glanced down to see bits of ash were now stuck to the wound.

“Shaleigh, be careful. Don’t hurt yourself.” Mawr licked at her arm to gain her attention.

Tanwen shook her head, completely oblivious to Shaleigh’s pain. “He is but a statue, nothing more.”

“He’s my friend!” Shaleigh shouted. “He’s my stars! I won’t let you take him away from me.”

Shaleigh’s whole body was shaking as she hung onto Mawr. She waited, watching the dragon sit on her stone that was like a makeshift throne, surrounded with the ash of destruction and the rivers of lava and death.

“How can you possibly understand the emotions you see?” Shaleigh asked in the silence. “You don’t love or hate anything. You just sit here in your mountain and live through others. You’re annoyed by the lives you devour, but those lives were all they knew!” Hot tears rolled down her cheeks, but Shaleigh couldn’t stop. The words were flowing freely now, as though she had known what to say all along. “You don’t understand what it’s like to lose someone you care about. You don’t care about anyone.”

“I care,” Tanwen replied, but there was no truth in her words. It was an empty phrase, and even as she said it, she blinked, as if she too realized the hollowness of her words.

“I know you don’t see me as anything other than the beggar I once was,” Colin said, his voice thick. “I’ve loved, I’ve lost, and I don’t want to lose my only friends. I’ve been alone before, and I know what that feels like. It hurts. I’d rather be dead than be alone again.”

Shaleigh reached over to put a hand on his arm as Mawr nuzzled him. Colin stared at the dragon in defiance.

“Stop that,” Tanwen hissed. “I don’t care what you think about loneliness. I don’t care who your friends are or what you’ve experienced.”

“Of course you do,” Mawr added. “All you’ve ever known are the lives of others. You do care, and that’s why it bothers you so much.”

Tanwen was on her feet in a flash of heat and fire that made Shaleigh wince. Before them stood the fire dragon once again and Shaleigh knew they were dead. She knew it in her bones as Colin rushed over to wrap his arm around her waist and put an arm around Mawr.

“I’m so very sorry, you two,” she whispered.

“It’s okay, Shaleigh, at least we’re together,” Colin added.

“I love you both,” Mawr squeaked.

“Love,” Tanwen hissed. “You all have so much love for each other. You care so much for one another. I wish…”

“What?” Shaleigh looked up at the dragon hovering above them. Her head was still covered in black stone, but it was cracking and chipping away, releasing more heat. Her tail snaked around behind her, dipping into the mouth of a lava river in the distance. “Everyone brings their problems here. Everyone makes demands of you, but what do you wish for, Tanwen?”

“To be loved,” the dragon hissed, and the light of her body grew too bright and Shaleigh had to close her eyes against it. The heat hit her in waves. “I wish to be loved.”


The light diminished slowly. Shaleigh gasped as the heat dwindled along with it. She opened her eyes, feeling how raw the skin felt around her eyelids. Though her skin didn’t sting, she felt like she had fallen asleep in front of a space heater for too many hours.

Turning, she found Tanwen sitting on her stone once more in her human form. She was hunched forward, her hands clasped before her and her eyes downcast. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I lost control for a moment.”

Shaleigh looked at Mawr and Colin, asking, “Are you both okay?”

Mawr nodded with wide, fearful eyes, and Colin rubbed at the fur on his arms.

“I think so,” Colin whispered. “Just slightly singed.” He whispered to her, “That was a close call.”

She gave him a nod. It was closer than she liked, but they were still alive, and that had to count for something.

She looked across at Talek to see that Teagan had thrown his body over him, possibly to shield him from harm. There was no way that Teagan wasn’t somewhere in that body, hidden deep down. She wondered if he’d been there the whole time and she just hadn’t noticed.

Shaleigh focused on calming her rampaging heartbeat as she turned back to Tanwen. That was the second time the dragon had refrained from killing them, even though she clearly wanted to. Shaleigh couldn’t risk losing this connection, even if it was tenuous. She only hoped Tanwen wouldn’t lose control…again.

“You’ve never known love, have you?” she asked once she had her voice under control.

“No,” Tanwen stated simply, as though she hadn’t come close to boiling them alive a moment ago. “I’ve been reviled, ignored, or used, but never loved. Certainly, never appreciated.”

It was odd for a dragon not to feel appreciated, and Shaleigh had to stare at her for a long moment, trying to figure out what she meant. She thought of the books that Mawr had read, but her friend was too frightened to say anything. The display of power had taken away the brief bout of courage he had. Surely having books written about her was appreciation. Surely having everyone terrified of her was appreciation in a strange way.

Tanwen had said that she could take the magic out of the world, but did that mean she could put magic into it again? She needed to learn more, but this time she needed to be careful how she asked questions.

“You’re linked to the magic here, aren’t you? How?” Shaleigh asked.

“I gave myself to this land, buried myself deep in the soil, and allowed the earth to soak up the magic I emit. I allowed it freely, wanting others to experi‐ ence the joy it gives, the power.” Tanwen took a deep breath, and Shaleigh could see the cracks in her dark skin from the lava beneath. She wasn’t as put together as before. She wasn’t as in control.

Shaleigh swallowed down the lump in her throat, determined to take cautious steps.

“They don’t see the magic I give as a gift, from a mother to a child, they see it as a birthright, as a tool. They use it for such hateful, disgusting acts. I’m tired of giving so much of myself and seeing so little good done with it.”

“Sometimes doing good is hard,” Shaleigh said. “It’s tempting to take the easier path instead of doing the hard work it takes to be good. I’ve tried doing what I thought was right before, but I hurt so many.” A hollowness filled her chest and she thought inexplicably of Madam Cloom, but she pushed through it. “I made mistakes in trying to do right. I didn’t know any better, but I also didn’t really want to know better. I assumed I was right, even though I wasn’t.”

“You’re saying I’m being too hard on them,” the dragon said with a snarl.

“No, I’m saying that they’re trying their best, but it’s difficult. You’ve had centuries to see what’s right or wrong, but we don’t get that luxury. We don’t live that long.” Shaleigh tried to hop forward on one leg. She wanted to get closer to Tanwen, she felt like she needed to, but Tanwen’s outburst had made her leg flare up, and it was throbbing like crazy. There was no way she could chance putting weight onto it, and it was difficult trying to concentrate through the pain.

Then Mawr leaned against her hand.

“It’s okay, you can lean on me.” He smiled, and his voice was warm. “I’m here to help.”

An arm looped around her and Colin drew up beside her. “We do this together, remember?” he whispered with a half-hearted smile, his eyes red. “One way or another.”

She smiled at them both. “Thank you. I couldn’t do anything without you two.”

“I think you could,” Mawr added. “I believe in you.”

A warmth filled her, and a stability that she hadn’t expected. Step by slow step, with both her friends’ help, they approached Tanwen. The dragon was watching them with unshielded curiosity this time. She was studying their friendship, their affection, their love. Shaleigh realized in that moment that she was being fully honest with them when she said that no one loved her, and in that moment Shaleigh pitied her.

“I’m sorry that so many have disappointed you. I do think they try their hardest, and I can tell you for a fact that if the Faeries and the magicians I’ve met knew that they have you to thank for the magic they use for all aspects of life, they would love you.”

Tanwen scoffed, but the briefest pang of sorrow was clear across her face.

“If they knew what you gave them, that you were the mother of all the magic they know, they would love you and visit you. You wouldn’t have to be lonely anymore.”

“You speak of impossibilities. There is no love for a rampaging fire dragon.”

Shaleigh shook her head slowly, choosing her words carefully. “Perhaps you have to learn to control your temper more.” At the glare she received, she quickly added, “If you push them away, why should they risk their lives to understand you?”

“I’ve read many books about you,” Mawr said in a small voice, and Shaleigh felt her chest swell with pride for her friend’s bravery. “I’ve read many who would have loved to speak with you in their lifetimes. I think, if you gave them a chance, many would love to meet you and understand all the knowledge you have to give.”

Tanwen shook her head. “You give them too much credit. I’ve seen their ways. They try to build villages on my land just to spite me. They try to build castles on my home. They throw their unwanted into my flames, and they share stories of my ferocity. None truly know me. None want to know me. You say they would have loved to converse with me, Mawr, Guardian of Aife, but where are they?” She gestured to Talek and Teagan then. “Even you have come asking for favors.”

Colin shuffled with concern. “I mean, we have, it’s true. You’re not wrong there. They’re both good people though. They both love each other very much.”

The dragon scoffed again. “And you have proof, Colin Cawley? You’ve only seen their despair and their hatred for each other. I saw that in your mind. I saw Teagan mocking him in the jail cells beneath the High Castle of the lost Garden. I saw Talek crying over his bedsheets. You assume they love each other, but you have no proof. It’s merely speculation. They hated each other and that hatred, once sown, can never be cured.”

Colin pulled away from Shaleigh, letting her lean against Mawr.

“Are you okay?” Shaleigh asked, unable to keep the fear from tainting her voice.

He nodded and reached into one of his pockets. “I have proof. Teagan let me take it.” He pulled out a drawing, one that Shaleigh had actually seen before.

“You went there?” Shaleigh asked, and Colin nodded.

“Talek was a total wreck, too. Here, if you don’t believe me, maybe this will help.” He stepped up to Tanwen and placed a piece of paper on the ground. Tanwen flicked her hand and it flew up to her fingertips.

It was a small sketch of Teagan laughing, one of Talek’s more endearing drawings, and one where the artist’s love was clear and heart-wrenching knowing their history. Tanwen took it and stared at the ink scrawled across paper, her fingers singeing a corner. She gave a small smile, and a longing came to her gaze.

“Talek made this,” she said as though she could feel it through the paper. “It’s filled with his love.”

Colin nodded. “Yes, ma’am. There were a bunch more, but I really liked that one. I liked seeing Master Teagan—er, Teagan—happy. I never saw him that happy when he was working as the High Faerie at the Garden. I liked it.” Tanwen studied the drawing again then looked over to Talek still lying on the ground, eyes closed, with Teagan holding his hand. She took a deep breath, and this time Shaleigh could see that her skin was fully formed without cracks of lava beneath. Perhaps she had taken Shaleigh’s words to heart and was trying to control her anger. If that was the case, then already they had made some small victory.

“Your determination and affection for each other, their love for each other— all of it is so very different from what I’m used to experiencing. You didn’t come here with swords or try to make waterfalls to extinguish my flames. You didn’t come here as a last mercy to put someone out of their misery. You came here against your will, of course, but I think you could have left your captor if you truly wished it. I think you came here for your friends as well.” She leveled Colin with her heavy gaze. “Am I right?”

Colin stepped back to wrap his arm around Shaleigh’s arm again as though looking for something to distract himself for a moment longer to keep from answering. “Yeah, I could have probably gotten us away. I knew Shaleigh wanted to help them though, so I didn’t. I didn’t kidnap her again, though I was tempted to.”

Shaleigh laughed. “I know you were, and honestly I don’t blame you. If Tanwen has to work on her anger, you really have to work on this kidnapping problem.”

He gave a sheepish smile.

“I will help you,” Tanwen said suddenly, and Shaleigh felt the tension release from her shoulders.

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