Some choices are hard to live with.
But some choices will kill you.
When seventeen-year-old Anna first meets Rakan in her hometown north of the Arctic Circle, she is attracted to his pulsing energy. Unaware that he is a shapeshifting dragon, Anna is drawn into a murderous cycle of revenge that pits Rakan and his clan against her best friend June.
Torn between his forbidden relationship with Anna, punishable by death, and restoring his family’s honor by killing June, Rakan must decide what is right. And what is worth living – or dying – for.
Title: Dragon Fire
Genre: YA Fantasy
Author: Dina von Lowenkraft
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
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In the Arctic winter, the sun never rises.
In the Arctic summer, the sun never sets.
In the Arctic, the world is at your feet.
Chapter 1 The Circle Tightens
The candle flickered in the subzero wind but Anna made no move to protect it. She stopped on the hill in front of Tromso’s three-year high school and watched the water of the fjord shimmer below. Even though it was mid-afternoon there was no sun, just the luminous reflection of the moon. The procession of students continued on without her, leaving only the fading sound of crunching snow in their wake.
“You seem as eager to go to Fritjof’s memorial vigil as I am,” June said, startling Anna with her sudden appearance.
Anna fingered the oval piece of bright orange coral that she had carried around like a talisman since she was a child. She usually kept it in her pocket, but today she wanted to feel its soothing energy closer and had it in her glove. She had never liked Fritjof, and even though she wasn’t glad he had died, she wouldn’t miss him.
She turned to face June whose cobalt blue eyes were at odds with her otherwise Asian features. June and her boyfriend had also been out on the mountain when the avalanche claimed Fritjof. “I’m glad it’s not yours too,” Anna said. “I’d really miss you.”
“It would take more than an avalanche to kill me,” June said, trying to smile. But Anna could feel her friend’s pain lurking under the surface.
“Hey.” She wrapped an arm around June to comfort her. But as soon as her hand touched June’s shoulder, a burst of energy exploded from her stone. Anna ripped off her glove and the piece of coral went flying. “What the—”
June spun around, pushing Anna behind her as if to protect her from an attack. She scanned the area, her body tensed for a fight.
“Who are you looking for?” Anna pressed her palm to dull the pain as she glanced around the deserted hilltop. “Whatever it was, it came from my stone.”
June relaxed her stance. “Are you okay?”
“I think so.” Anna gestured towards the coral-colored sparks that crackled in the darkness of the Norwegian winter. “What do you think it’s doing?”
“Don’t know.” June crouched down to get a better look. Her hand hovered as a bright green light flashed around the stone.
“Don’t touch it,” Anna said sharply. Her stone had always had a special energy, but never coral-colored sparks. Or green flashes of light.
“It’s okay now.” June pulled her hand back. “Look for yourself.”
Anna knelt next to June. The stone was dark and lifeless and she felt a sudden pang of loss. She prodded it gingerly with her good hand, but felt nothing. She picked it up. It was just a pretty bit of coral. The gentle pulsing energy that she had liked so much was gone.
“Can I see it?” June asked.
Anna nodded, her throat constricted. The stone had always reminded her of her father. Its energy was something he would have been able to feel too. The only person she had met so far who seemed open to accepting that kind of thing was June. Everyone else got freaked out, or thought she was crazy. So she had learned not to talk about it.
June closed her fist around the stone. “Where did you get this?” Her voice wavered.
Anna’s attention flicked back to June. She never wavered. “I found it in the mountains. Years ago. Why? What is it?”
“A trigger for what?”
June returned Anna’s searching look. “I have no idea.” She handed the stone back.
“So how do you know it’s a trigger?”
“I just feel it.” June picked up the candles that lay forgotten in the snow. “If you’re okay, we should go.”
Anna picked up her discarded glove and froze. In the middle of her left palm was a star-shaped scar. She stretched her hand to get a better look. It was about the size of a dime. She touched it. Like an echo under the fading pain, she could feel the energy of her stone pulsing faintly in her palm.
“Here,” June said, offering Anna a candle. She stopped mid-motion. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. The stone…” She held out her palm. “Look.”
June dropped the candles and took Anna’s hand in hers. Gently, she ran her fingers over the slightly raised ridges of the scar. “A Firemark,” June said as if talking to herself. “But how…?”
“What’s a Firemark?” Anna examined the scar. It was almost silvery in the moonlight.
June looked up, her fingers still on Anna’s palm. “It’s like a living connection between two people. But… there was only the stone.”
“It always felt alive,” Anna said, sure that June would understand. She touched the Firemark one last time before putting her glove back on. It was warm and smooth.
June shook her head. “But even if it felt alive, it shouldn’t have left a Firemark.”
Anna shrugged. “Maybe. But I like it.” Anna closed her hand around the Firemark. It felt like she was holding her stone. She smiled. She’d never lose it now.
June re-lit the candles again and handed one to Anna. “Ready?”
Anna hooked her arm through June’s. “I think so.” They walked silently through town and across the bridge that straddled the green-black fjord.
“Do you think it’s over?” Anna eyed the Arctic Cathedral that sprawled like slabs of a fallen glacier on the other side of the fjord. It was lit up like a temple of light.
June shook her head. “It’s only just begun.”
“That’s enough.” Khotan’s voice snapped like a whip across the barren land of Ngari in western Tibet. “You’re not going to kill her. I will.”
The wind howled in agreement. Rakan bit back the urge to argue with his father whose shaved head and barrel chest marked him as an Old Dragon. But Khotan’s massive physique belied his diminishing power and Rakan knew that his father wouldn’t survive a fight with the female dragon they had finally located. He had felt her power when she had set off his trigger just a few hours before. And she was more powerful than any other dragon he had ever met. Rakan clenched his fists. Blood for blood. It was the Dragon Code. And he would be the one to honor it.
“You need to start a new life here,” Khotan said, his hand like a claw of ice on Rakan’s bare shoulder. “I will end the old.”
His tone of voice, more than his touch, sent shivers down Rakan’s spine. But before he could question his father, a flicker of red caught his attention and his older half-sister, Dvara, materialized on the sparring field. Except she wasn’t dressed to fight. She was wearing a shimmering red gown that matched the color of her eyes and her black hair was arranged in an intricate mass of twisted strands.
“It’s too late to teach Rakan anything.” She made an unhurried motion towards the targets at the other end of the field. One by one, they exploded with her passing hand.
“We weren’t practicing,” Rakan said calmly. “Although if we had been, you’d need to start again. You used a trigger. You didn’t manipulate their structure on a molecular level.”
“Who cares?” Her Maii-a, the pear-shaped stone that every dragon wore to practice manipulating matter with, sparkled like an angry flame at her throat. “They’ve been demolished. And that’s all that counts in a fight.”
Rakan slid his long black braid over his shoulder. “How you fight is just as important as how you win.”
“I’d rather stay alive,” Dvara said. “But you can die honorably if you want.”
“Neither one of you will fight anyone,” Khotan said. “Remember that.”
Rakan bowed his head. There was no point arguing about it now. But Dvara lifted her chin defiantly. “Kraal was my father. I will avenge his death.”
Khotan growled and stepped towards Dvara, dwarfing her with his size. He held her gaze until she dropped her eyes. Rakan shook his head, wondering why Dvara always tried to challenge Khotan’s authority in an open confrontation that she was sure to lose. Khotan was the guardian of her rök, her dragon heart and the seat of her power, and she had no choice but to abide by his will.
Their mother, Yarlung, appeared without warning. “I will speak with Rakan’dzor.” She crossed her arms over her white gown that sparkled with flashes of turquoise. “Alone.”
She waited, immobile, until Khotan and Dvara bowed and dematerialized, shifting elsewhere. As soon as they were gone, her face relaxed and she turned to Rakan, her nearly blind eyes not quite finding his. “I always knew you would be the one to find her,” she purred. “You have the strength and the will of my bloodline. And the time has come for you to use it.” Yarlung tilted her face to the wind. “Kraal gifted me his poison before he died. Neutralized, of course.”
“But no one can neutralize dragon poison.”
“Kairök Kraal was a great Master. His death is a loss for us all.”
Rakan struck his chest with his fist. “Paaliaq will pay for his death with her own.”
“Yes. She will. And you will help me.” A faint smile played on her usually austere face. “I will mark you with his poison so that we can communicate when necessary.”
“Khotan and Dvara have a full link, isn’t that enough?”
“You don’t expect me to rely on second hand information, do you?” snapped Yarlung. She paused and spoke more gently. “Or are you scared to carry Kraal’s poison?”
Rakan knelt down in front of Yarlung. “I will do whatever it takes to kill Paaliaq.” His voice cut through the arid cold of the Tibetan plateau.
Yarlung’s eyes flashed momentarily turquoise and Rakan stepped back as she morphed into her dragon form. She was a long, undulating water dragon and the scales around her head and down her throat glistened like wet opals. Without warning, a bluish-white fire crackled around him like an electric storm. His mother’s turquoise claws sank into his arms and pain sizzled through his flesh. The fire disappeared and Rakan collapsed to the ground, grinding his teeth to keep from screaming in agony.
He would not dishonor his family.
“No, you won’t,” Yarlung said in his mind.
Rakan’s head jerked up in surprise.
“You have just become my most precious tool.” Her voice hummed with pleasure. “You will not fail me.”
As suddenly as the contact had come, it was gone. And so was his mother. Rakan didn’t like it. Not her disappearance. That was normal. Yarlung had always been abrupt. But he didn’t like hearing her in his mind. It was something only dragons who were joined under a Kairök, a Master Dragon, could do. Few dragons were able to survive the rush of power that happened when their röks awakened without the help of a Kairök. But Rakan had.
He gritted his teeth and stood up. If sharing a mind-link with Yarlung was necessary to kill Paaliaq, then he would learn to accept it.
He held his arms out to examine the dragons that had appeared where his mother’s claws had dug into his biceps. They were long, sinuous water dragons like Yarlung. But they were black, the color of purity, the color of Kraal. Rakan watched the miniature turquoise-eyed dragons dance on his arms until they penetrated under his skin. He felt a cold metallic shiver deep inside as they faded from view.
A rush of pride exploded in Rakan and he raised his arms to the frozen winter sky, the pain like a blood pact marking his words. “I will avenge your death, Kairök Kraal. The Earth will become our new home and your Cairn will once again prosper.”
“You can drop me here.” Anna glared at her mother’s boyfriend who reminded her of his namesake: a wolf.
Ulf turned the car into Siri’s driveway and flashed his all too perfect smile. “Not unless you want me to carry you in. Your shoes aren’t practical for walking in the snow.”
Anna snorted. “You’re one to talk. You’re the one driving a sports car in the winter.” And she didn’t feel like having her teammates from the handball team see it.
Ulf threw his head back and laughed. “I only take it out for special occasions. Like New Year’s.” He leaned towards her. “Especially when I have the honor of accompanying a lovely lady.”
“You’re not accompanying me. You’re dropping me off.”
“Precisely.” He pulled up in front of the house that pulsed with music, revving his engine one last time. He jumped out of the car and got to her side just as she was opening her door. He offered her his arm. “And since I’m a gentleman, I’ll accompany you to the door.”
Anna ignored Ulf and struggled to get up while the dress she had decided to wear did its best to slide all the way up her thighs. Ulf moved to steady her as she wobbled in the high heels she wasn’t used to wearing but she pushed him away. Her shoes slipped on the icy snow and she grabbed the railing, wondering why she had decided to wear them.
“It would be easier if you’d accept my help.”
“I don’t need your help,” she said, walking up the stairs. When he followed anyway, she turned to face him. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
“As a matter of fact… no,” said Ulf. He straightened his white silk scarf that didn’t need straightening. “Ingrid won’t be off work until eleven.”
The evening was cold and Anna regretted wearing a dress. “You’re not coming in.”
“We can stand out here, if that’s what you prefer,” said Ulf, looking up at the sky.
Randi opened the door. “Anna! Finally,” she squealed. She threw herself at Anna. “I didn’t know you were bringing someone.”
“I’m not,” Anna said. “He’s leaving. Now.”
Randi glanced at Ulf who was leaning elegantly against the railing in what could have passed for a golden boy fashion shot. “Is that your boyfriend?” Randi asked hanging onto Anna. She looked Ulf up and down. “Is that why you didn’t come earlier?”
“Let’s go in,” Anna said, trying to get Randi back in the house.
Ulf slid an arm around Randi’s waist. “Perhaps I can help.”
“Oh sure,” Randi said. She giggled as she leaned into Ulf. “You have a nice… car.”
“Leave her alone.” Anna pried Ulf’s wandering hands away from Randi who was happily wrapping her arms around Ulf’s neck. “Randi, knock it off.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Randi pushed away from Ulf. “He’s yours. I forgot.”
“I’ll take her,” said Siri, steadying Randi. “That way you guys can come in and take your coats off.”
“Ulf has a date,” Anna said. She blocked the door after Siri and Randi disappeared inside. “With my mom. Or have you forgotten?”
“Sweet little Anna.” Ulf reached out to touch her cheek with his leather gloved hand.
Anna slapped it away. “Get away from me.”
“You’re so adorable when you’re angry,” he said with a laugh. “Call me when you want me to come for you.”
Anna resisted the impulse to slam the door and closed it calmly instead. The living room was packed with people dancing. She rubbed her forehead and walked over to the dining room table that was laden with food and drinks instead. She’d never understand her mom’s taste in men.
Siri came and nudged her shoulder. “Where’s the guy you came with?””
“Gone,” she answered, rolling her eyes. “Finally.”
“He didn’t look your type,” Siri said with a shrug. “But you never know.”
“He’s not. He’s my mom’s boyfriend. And he’s a jerk.”
Siri’s hand hovered over the massacred chocolate cake. “That’s a mess.”
“Tell me about it.” Ulf was by far the worst of her mom’s recent boyfriends. He was a liar and a manipulator. But her mom never saw beyond a pretty face.
Siri dropped her voice. “Have you seen June? Is she coming?”
“No. She went away with her boyfriend and his family for the vacation. Why?” Anna asked sharply, not liking Siri’s look of relief.
“I was worried that maybe she didn’t feel welcome. And I felt guilty. I mean… I’m really sorry about Fritjof.” Siri paused. “But I’m starting to wonder why I thought some of his ideas were good. I know you never liked him. But… I thought he was right. About June being different and the need to keep our race pure and all that.” Siri looked away. “I’m embarrassed I let myself believe any of it.”
“He was persuasive, I guess.” Anna tried not to rub it in, but she was happy that at least one friend was coming back around.
“Maybe. But I really am sorry.”
“Tell June after the break.” Anna put her glass up to Siri’s. “She’ll understand.”
“Why are you girls being so serious?” boomed Anna’s cousin, Red. He put an arm around each of them. “There’s music. You should be dancing. Or aren’t there any nice guys?”
“Anna never thinks there are any nice guys. But I see a few.” Siri raised her glass and headed across the room that had started to get crowded now that a slow song was playing.
“What are you doing here?” Anna playfully punched her cousin who was built like a rugby player. “You graduated last year. You’re not part of the team anymore.”
“We told the guys that we’d be back,” said Red, nodding to where his best friend, Haakon, was surrounded by half the boys’ team. “But we can’t stay – we promised the girls we’d go to a dinner party. And they’ll kill us if we’re late.” Red and Haakon had dominated the court with their size and skill for the past three years, but neither of their girlfriends played.
“I’m surprised they even let you out of their sight.” Anna waved a finger at her cousin who had the same ultra blond hair and pale blue eyes as she did. “I’ve hardly seen you at all this vacation.”
“I know. We’ve been busy. But I’m here now.” The music picked up again. “Dance?” He took her hand and then dropped it as if he had been stung. He grabbed her wrist and turned her palm up, revealing the star-shaped Firemark. “Who did this?” he growled, his face turning the telltale shade of red that had earned him his nickname.
Anna pulled her hand out of his and closed her fist. “No one.”
“A mark like that can’t just appear.”
“Why do you care what did it?”
“What do you mean what did it?” Red gripped her shoulders. “You were the one…?” Red’s voice trailed off, but his eyes bore into hers as if he was trying to peer into her mind.
Anna pulled back, breaking the contact. “What are you talking about?” She hadn’t said anything about what had happened on the hill and June had left town right after the vigil.
Red laughed, but Anna could still feel his anger like a tightly coiled snake. “Nothing,” he said. “Let’s dance.”
Dvara paced around the massive table that filled the stone hall of Khotan’s lair. “Why are we waiting? Paaliaq has had more than enough time to hide again.”
“That is for Kairök Yarlung to decide,” Khotan said, using Yarlung’s official title as the head of their Cairn. As Kraal’s mate, she had taken over after his death.
“She’s too busy with her political games to think about it.” Dvara snorted. “She’s never had time for us anyhow.”
Rakan looked up from the intricate wire sculpture he was making. “Maybe she just wants to make sure you won’t throw yourself at Paaliaq in a hotheaded rage.”
“I’m no fool.” Dvara leaned over the table towards her half-brother. “I won’t attack until I’m certain to win. But I will attack. Unlike some I know.”
Rakan stood, towering over her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sit,” Khotan said from his high-backed burgundy chair at the head of the table. “Both of you.” He waited until they complied. “The only reason you’re going instead of one of us is because Paaliaq won’t recognize you. Unfortunately, neither one of you is experienced enough to trap Paaliaq on your own.” Khotan looked from one to the other. “You’ll have to work together. Remember that.”
“But why did she set off one of Rakan’s old triggers?” Dvara hit the table with her fist. “It makes no sense. Even a newborn whelp would have felt what it was before touching it.”
Khotan created a burgundy colored fireball that floated in front of him. “Either she isn’t Paaliaq, or she’s luring you into a trap.” The stone walls reflected the warm glow of the fireball. “This isn’t a game. And I wish we didn’t have to send you.” Khotan’s face went blank for a split second as it always did when he spoke mentally with another dragon. “Yarlung bids us come to Lhang-tso,” he said, standing up. “Now.” Khotan disappeared without a sound, the fireball still suspended in midair.
Dvara followed in her stepfather’s trail, leaving Rakan to arrive last on the silver shores of the intensely blue lake that was Kairök Yarlung’s home. They faced the lake in their dragon forms. Khotan, an air dragon, rose on his burgundy hind legs and bellowed their arrival.
The blue-white coils of Yarlung’s water dragon form undulated majestically in the center of the crescent shaped lake. Rakan had always felt a sense of awe in front of his mother’s abode. Something about its starkness, the pungent salty flavor of the wind that rolled off the lake, the beauty of the contrasting red hills that surrounded it in the thin air of its 4,500 meter high perch had always made him feel like he was in the presence of something profound. He smiled and rocked back onto his own hind legs, stretched his majestic coral wings and added his greetings to his father’s. Neither animal nor plant life ventured near the lake. They were refreshingly alone. And free.
Dvara, a compact fire dragon with only the shortest of wings, dug her claws into the ground. She raised her jewel-like vermillion head and joined her voice to the others’.
Yarlung approached the edge of the lake and morphed into her human form. She signaled for them to do the same. Flashes of turquoise glinted off her metallic white dress. Rakan knelt next to his father and Dvara, his right fist on the center of his chest where his rök pounded in excitement.
“Rise. It is time,” Yarlung said, her voice snapping like thunder. “If the dragon who set off Rakan’s trigger is Paaliaq, I will savor her death.” Yarlung paused and then spoke again, more quietly. “If not, I will bind her to me by taking her rök whether she wills it or not. But I believe she is Paaliaq. Too many things confirm it. Including the presence of a male dragon who can only be her mate, Haakaramanoth.”
The wind howled across the lake.
“From what our scouts have been able to gather these past three weeks,” Khotan said, “she has created the illusion of being an untrained whelp and goes by the name Jing Mei. But don’t be fooled by her innocent appearance.”
Yarlung’s nostrils flared. “If she even begins to suspect who you are, she’ll kill you. Pretend you’re untrained. Take your time and get close to her. But not too close. Only one member of her Cairn is left and she will want to possess you both. Starting with Rakan’dzor. She has always preferred males.”
“But the Code forbids blood relatives to have the same Kairök,” Rakan said.
Yarlung snorted. “Paaliaq has no honor. Never forget that.” She turned to Khotan. “Give Dvara back her rök. Paaliaq will be suspicious if she doesn’t have it.”
“But the risk…” stammered Khotan.
“Is of no consequence. Do it. Now. And then bind her to you as Kraal taught you.”
“No,” said Khotan. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Have you become so frail that you can no longer master even that?”
Khotan bowed his head. “May your will be done,” he said, saying the traditional formula of submission to a Kairök. But Rakan could feel his father’s anger.
Dvara tilted her chin and gave Rakan a look of triumph. She had wanted her rök back ever since Yarlung had declared that he would keep his and remain independent. But learning to control his rök had been harder than he had let on. Starting with when he had morphed for the first time not knowing which of the three dragon forms he would take. But even after he knew he was an air dragon, his rök’s wild power had nearly overwhelmed him. It wasn’t until Khotan had taught him to control his emotions that he could morph without fear of involuntarily killing himself or his family.
Khotan walked over to Dvara, his fluid black pants snapping in the wind. They stood still, facing each other as equals even though Khotan loomed over Dvara’s delicate figure. Khotan began a low chant in Draagsil, the ancient language of the dragon race. He lifted his arms to the sky, his bare chest glistening like armor. Energy crackled and began to circle him. It spun faster and faster until Khotan was nothing more than a shimmering mirage in front of Dvara. A faint drum-like beat began, steadily increasing in tempo as it grew louder. Suddenly, the wind died and the beating stopped. A mass of pure vermillion energy licked Khotan’s hands like the flames of a fire. The energy condensed in a flash of vermillion light, leaving a bright red stone in Khotan’s palm. Dvara’s dragon heart.
Khotan held the egg-shaped rök to the sky before releasing it to hover above Dvara’s head. It glittered like a crown jewel. “My will has been done. You are now your own master. May your will be one with your rök.”
A red flame moved up Dvara’s gown, circling her body until it reached her rök. The rök ignited in a ball of wild energy. It spun around her in an uncontrolled frenzy. It was going to kill her. Rakan sprang forward, desperate to catch Dvara’s rök before it was too late, but Khotan stopped him. “No. Their reunion can’t be interfered with. It must run its course. For better or for worse.”
The rök lurched. Rakan stood ready to intervene if things got worse. Whether he was supposed to or not, he wouldn’t stand by and watch her die. A brilliant flash of intense vermillion encompassed Dvara, knocking her to the ground.
Yarlung snorted in contempt. “Tend to her.”
Khotan knelt next to Dvara and touched a hand to her forehead, healing her with his energy. She latched onto Khotan, her red eyes echoing the wildness of her rök.
“Come,” Khotan said, helping her to stand. “Do you accept of your own free will that I mark you with Kraal’s neutralized poison and bind you to me in a partial link?”
“And do you understand the consequences of this act?”
Yarlung growled her impatience, but Dvara didn’t take her eyes from Khotan’s.
“I do,” Dvara said solemnly.
“What consequences?” thought Rakan, glancing at his mother. But she ignored him.
Khotan morphed and sank his claws into Dvara’s bare arms. Rakan watched, horrified, as Dvara writhed by the edge of the lake in a mixture of rapture and agony. A black winged air dragon with burgundy eyes danced on each arm before fading under her skin.
“Go now,” Yarlung said, her words lingering for just a moment after she disappeared.
“If you need to contact us, send a message through Dvara.”
Rakan nodded, confused. Didn’t his father know that Yarlung had marked him too?
Khotan disappeared. It was time.