May in Mystery, Alaska…
“I smell you, reptile,” Owen Di’Brahth growled, sinking his ax into another log and splitting it cleanly in half. A gust of icy wind kicked up loose snow and sent it swirling past his face, filling the air with the scent of fir trees and dragon—a unique combination of sweet and sharp nature mixed with smoke and sulfur. “Might as well come out and speak your piece.”
Col stepped from behind the thicket of evergreen and lasered his gaze. “I told you to stay away from her, aonkan.” His voice cut through the crisp morning air like a sharp claw through hide, slicing exactly where he wanted it too—Owen’s soul.
Owen’s blood heated and his stomach churned. He hated that word. Aonkan. Outcast. He grimaced and held back the angry retort hanging on the edge of his tongue like a blade ready to drop. Col didn’t have to call him that word. But Owen didn’t have to call Col a reptile either.
Turnabout was fair play.
Owen pushed the two split pieces of wood off the stump and placed a fresh log in its place. Of course, Col was here to warn him away from Tara. Again. Why else would a royal from the House of Li’Vhram deign him with his presence?
No one would’ve guessed the man standing no more than ten feet away could shift into a dragon bigger than a Mack truck and trailer, but he could. Col Li’Vhram was big in human form too. As tall as Owen. Just as broad. And those fiery eyes of Col’s when the magick surfaced were scary as fuck. No one survived dragon fire. Not that Owen wasn’t willing to go down in a blaze of glory, if that’s what it took to keep Tara safe.
“I haven’t spoken with her. I haven’t touched her.” He swung the ax and the crack of the wood echoed through the air hanging between them like the warning break of lightning before a horrible storm.
“Kann has seen you near the Jenkins store on numerous occasions.” The dragon male stepped closer, his boots crunching in the freshly fallen snow.
Owen scoffed and kicked the two newly split logs off the stump and replaced them with yet another log. Damned fire-breather. The only thing bigger than Col’s over-inflated ego was the actual size of his damned dragon.
Why did a dragon have to make it through the portal?
The Li’Vhrams had ruled the N’ra Lowlands in Reylea for centuries. Hell, dragons ruled the entire world of Reylea alongside the Magick-Benders. And now they would rule again here.
“She is mine,” he growled. He would never leave Tara. Even if he had to watch her grow old and marry and bear another’s young. He would never be able to leave his shuarra—his mate.
“You are forbidden.” The rumble of Col’s voice shook the air. The man’s dark brown eyes danced with the flames within. “You know what I will do if you break our laws. Your punishment for failing your tribe is a life lived alone. No mate. No children. You are fortunate I allow your sister to remain with you.”
Wasn’t for a lack of trying though. Col himself had invited Ava to stay with the Tribe in Mystery multiple times. As had the others.
Every. Single. Time.
He and Ava had been so close before… before he’d been exiled. Then after the Exodus, it’d just been them on Earth and she’d stayed with him, even though he was aonkan. He’d told her she should go make a life with the tribe, but it was like trying to convince a fish to walk on land or a bird not to use their wings. Ava was pissed on Owen’s behalf that Col was taking the opportunity not to let Owen start fresh as well.
“Ava makes her own choices. You would never hurt a female,” Owen growled out and swung his ax again. Not like I did. Maybe he deserved to be an outcast for losing his tribe. Maybe not. But for killing a female, even though the she-wolf had attacked Ava. Owen should have pulled back. He should’ve recognized that she was female quicker. He wouldn’t have hit the she-wolf so hard. Wouldn’t have killed her.
But he had. And it was shameful. Worse than losing his tribe to a usurper. Their entire planet had gone up in flames, and he’d killed a surviving female.
He knew why the wolves were really circling Mystery.
And he would kill every last one of them to protect Tara if that’s what it took. He wouldn’t like it, but he would do it, dishonorable or not. He wouldn’t let his careless mistake cost Tara or his sister or anyone else in town.
“It’s my fault the wolves are here and I won’t abandon Tara. Even if I can never claim her.”
Col’s gaze softened just a fraction. Females were so special in their world. Treasured. Protected. But Owen swore he saw guilt or shame flash in the dragon’s eyes. “Many things happened during the Exodus that we all wish had not transpired. Sometimes death is inevitable.”
The dragon wasn’t making sense, unless…No…Col couldn’t know about the she-wolf. Ava wouldn’t have told the dragon, would she? It didn’t’ matter.
Owen just wanted peace and quiet. Or death. “If you have to kill me for protecting, Tara, then so be it. Just know I won’t go down without a fight.”
“You will die regardless.” Col turned and walked back toward the tree line. He paused at the edge. “Crossing me, aonkan, will only speed up your demise.” The threat was a clearly drawn line in the proverbial snow.
A moment later Owen was again alone in the clearing with only his ax and logs for company.
He turned back to the pile of chopped firewood. Almost enough. Chopping firewood for Tara—for his shuarra—was a way he could serve her, take care of her, without making himself known. Without breaking the command Col had clearly laid out as punishable by death.
Owen could never have Tara. Never claim her. He was unworthy of Fate’s choice. Tara was kind and good and innocent and human. He refused to drag her into his darkness. Into his shame. Into a life of running and looking over their shoulders for the judgmental hand of a dragon.
His pocket buzzed, distracting him from his haunting thoughts.
Owen ran his gloved hands through his long shoulder-length brown hair, pushing it out of his face. His sister was always telling him he should pull it back, but he liked it loose. It was warmer that way too. Snow and cold temperatures in this place were no joke, not that it mattered to him. His bear could survive in any climate, but his human body wasn’t fond of the violently cold weather this place offered up nine months out of the year—according to his sister’s research on something she called the internet.
The May Alaskan sky was clear overhead today, strange after three months of almost solid snow and storms. Blue and beautiful and wide open. Owen could say the openness and view of the mountains reminded him of home—of Reylea. But it didn’t. The cold was opposite Ryelea’s warmth. The blue was opposite Reylea’s orange sky. Everything was different. And he liked it better that way.
He pulled the black square of glass and metal from his pocket—a cell phone.
His sister’s picture popped up on the screen and made him smile and forget about the annoyance of being interrupted.
When the Exodus had been announced in the trading places, his sister had been secretly meeting him like they always did every few months. The rumbles from the volcanos started while they were there. The ground had split open and poured out liquid fire, blocking the way down into the valley where the tribe was living. It devoured everything and everyone in its path. He and Ava had tried all the trails out of the trading village to get back. To save their family. But everything had been blocked. The smoke and fumes from the lava choked the air.
A decision had to be made and he’d made it, difficult as it was. He’d taken Ava and run. They were among the last to cross through the portal before the mountain below their feet began to break and crumble.
His sister was the only speck of goodness in his world. Well, her and Tara. Just being within proximity to his shuarra settled his bear. Kept the darkness of survivors guilt at bay. Which reminded him that he still needed to make rounds of the Jenkins store today.
Owen’s phone buzzed again. Another message popped up on the screen. He scrolled down to read the messages.
Ava: Are you still chopping logs?
Ava: Can you stop destroying the forest and come inside please?
He fumbled with the screen and texted her back.
Owen: The forest needed a trim. On my way.
Owen pulled the ax from the stump in front of him and turned to survey the destruction. He hadn’t chopped a whole cord yet this morning, but it was close. He’d come back later and finish, then stack it up. Some would be saved to use in their fire pit in the back yard, but most he’d take to Tara’s house under the cover of darkness.
His mate should never have to chop or haul her own wood. He kept it neatly stacked for her just outside the back door of her house. Of course, she had no idea it was him. She was always asleep when he brought it.
Even though it was May and the snows were starting to release the land, fires at night were still a must. And for people in cabins and homes with woodstoves, which was almost everyone, firewood was a necessity year around.
He laid the heavy ax on his broad shoulder and started up the hill to the rental property he and Ava had secured not too long after they’d come through the portal and found themselves in the town of Mystery.
It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was safe and secure, and the rent was cheap. They were on the edge of town, next to Leif’s Gas & Go where Owen worked most days. No neighbors. Nobody to bother them. But close enough to get into the small town within minutes.
Twenty minutes later he stomped up the wooden steps of their place. It wasn’t as grand as the tents and lush carpets and furs he’d grown up with, but it was home. Even bare, like the temporary lean-tos he’d built during his time with the outcast. It was four walls and a roof, as their landlord had so eloquently pointed out. Safety from the cold.
The house was about four miles outside of a small town in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. Native locals called it Tukisinangitok (Too-kee-see-nahn-gee-tock), which translated in English to Mystery.
Owen opened the front door and stepped into the semi-warmth of the singlewide home. A fire blazed in the woodstove. A sugary scent filled the air. Something was cooking in the oven.
“Ava?” He hung the ax on its hook on the wall by the door, pulled off his gloves and coat, and put them on the bench at the end of the entry way.
“Took you long enough.” Her teasing voice broke the silence from the hallway to his right.
She gave him a smile he was familiar with. A smile that said she was planning something he wouldn’t like. Right now, he didn’t care. He just wanted to eat and head into town. His soul burned with a need to see Tara. After the wolves had broken into the Jenkins’ grocery store back in February, he’d made it his business to patrol the place every single day.
He might not be able to claim his mate, but he wasn’t about to let those asshole wolf shifters, royal bloodlines or not, hurt her or her family. They were coming around because of him, because of what he’d done on Exodus day.
Tara deserved peace and quiet. Her father was very sick and…it was the least he could do.
Plus, he needed to see her.
Not talk or touch. That would be too hard. He pacified his bear, telling him that it was better this way. Tara was human. She wouldn’t understand him being a shifter. And he was broken and angry and a worthless outcast and not good for anyone, even though his sister continued to claim otherwise.
And then there was Col. If he tried to claim Tara. Col would end his life.
Damned if he did. Damned if he didn’t.
But he couldn’t protect Tara and her family if he was dead. So on he trudged, being careful not to cross the line Col had once again promised to enforce.
“What’s in the oven?”
Ava flashed him a wide smile and grabbed his arm, tugging him toward the small rickety kitchen table that’d come with the place.
“Pie. I got some apples from the Jenkins store yesterday and a recipe. First time, so hopefully it comes out edible.” She plopped down in a chair and Owen sat in the one opposite her. “I was hoping to talk to you about—”
He shook his head, cutting her off. “They won’t allow it. They won’t ever look past my mark. Not like you.” He hadn’t told her Col had already threatened his life more than once.
“I was hoping this would be a peaceful-conversation-pie, but you turned it into a shut-up-I’m-a-horrible-person-pie. Which you’re not. You are amazing and brave and honorable. We just have to show them they are wrong.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and frowned. “You can’t make a dragon do anything.” Especially one who keeps reminding me that he’s going to kill me. The hair stood on the back of Owen’s neck and his bear growled enough to make Ava raise an eyebrow.
Still didn’t slow her roll though. She wasn’t going to give him pie without a talk.
He just wanted some damn pie.
“This is a new world. The old rules don’t apply.”
“Dragon. Ava.” He sighed. “Fire-breathing-royal-entitled-unforgiving-dragon.”
Pfshht. His sister brushed it off like he’d been talking about a squirrel. “Anyone’s mind can be changed. We just have to figure out how.”
“Or it could just be a fresh start for you with them, Ava.” His voice came out softer than normal. Quiet. Resigned. Col would never look past his mark. And the wolves would never forgive him for killing that female.
As much as it would tear his heart in half, Ava needed to leave him. She was flourishing in this new world. Her blue eyes were bright, and her long light brown hair was swept to the side into a braid. She’d tried to braid his yesterday and he’d said no, but she was happy. Or at least seemed happier. The trauma of being forced to leave Reylea without the rest of their family. Each day he saw more of the sister he remembered from…before.
Before the Exodus.
Before he lost his tribe and family to the cheating usurper.
Before everything had changed.
“I’m not leaving you.” Her voice came out like a whip lash, hard as the icicles hanging from the eves of the roof, reminding him of his mother when she got pissed.
It made him smile. No one ever dared tell his mother what to do…not even his father. He missed them all so much.
“You need to just stop trying to push me away. You may think you need to be alone. Some warped idea of self-punishment, but you’re wrong. You know some of the others suspected that he cheated. Not for a while. Not until it was too late to do anything about it. But some in the Tribe believed you were wrongly cast out, Owen. Our father was one of them.”
“What’s done cannot be undone.” He stood from the table, pushing down the emotion welling up and threatening to drown out everything else thundering in his heart. His father had believed in him. Ava had never shared that before.
Knowing his father wasn’t disappointed or shamed.
It was everything.
It put back a piece of his heart that had been stripped out years ago.
But it couldn’t rewrite history. And Col would never see beyond the brand on his neck.
“Don’t you see. Things can be different.” Ava’s voice was so filled with hope. Hope that Owen knew wouldn’t do a damn bit of good to change Col’s mind. He would never be part of the Tribe. This was the argument they’d been having for nearly a month. Ever since she’d found out the others were building cabins together across the river. Building a Tribe. Building a future.
He couldn’t blame her for wanting it. Hell, he wanted it too. The foundation of Reylean culture was family, pack, pride, tribe. It was everything.
But a true fresh start was out of his reach. Everyone near him was in danger. That was just how it was. How would continue to be.
Ava tipped her chin. Her blue eyes flashed with the steely determination he’d admired in her since she was a baby. “If you would have a little more positive attitude it would help.”
“Col just told me again to stay away from Tara. Pain of death, Ava. Nothing’s going to change.”
“I won’t quit.”
Owen sighed and shook his head. “I know you won’t. That’s what I love about you, but it’s also what worries me, sister.”