Copyright Debbie Mumford 2006
Publisher Freya's Bower
Pain accompanied Sorcha’s return to consciousness. Muscles she didn’t know she possessed screamed their displeasure. Sand grated against the soft skin of cheek and neck, urging her to rise, but lethargy kept her grounded. The slightest movement caused a cascade of agony throughout her system. She’d never been beaten, but she couldn’t imagine that a victim of mob violence would ache more than she did. She should open her eyes and orient herself in time and space, but the task felt too strenuous to attempt. She’d find a less active way to gather information.
Allowing her eyes to remain safely closed, Sorcha turned her attention from her body’s tortured protests to the world surrounding her. She heard the roar of distant breakers and the soft susurrus of the breeze on the lagoon’s sheltered beach. Yes, the lagoon, the beach. That explained the sand under her cheek. Above those soothing natural sounds, she heard an insistent thrumming, the deepened and magnified purring of a thousand cats. The dragon maintained his vigil.
Gods and goddesses, the dragon!
She focused her attention on her enemy’s terrifying presence and discovered a strand of unknown power brushing the edge of her mind. Cat-like, it twisted and slipped away when she tried to grab it, but came willingly when she quieted her mind and ignored it. The connection it formed expanded her mind, altering its landscape forever.
Dragons whispered through this tunnel. She heard them—and understood. What’s more, she felt their pain and embarrassment as her thoughts exploded into the conversational stream.
“Softly, little one,” Caedyrn whispered. “Restrain yourself.”
Sorcha pulled back, away from the vile, alien presence. She huddled on the sand, feeling violated beyond her ability to endure. Her body ached in a thousand places, and her mind… The sanctity of her mind had been breached. Her thoughts were no longer her own. An alien species, hostile and unknown, prowled in the depths. She couldn’t live this way.
She wouldn’t live this way!
With grim determination, Sorcha put aside her fear and confusion and searched her memory for an appropriate spell. An incantation bubbled to the surface of her mind and she tested its suitability for ousting the alien presence. She’d never attempted a working of this magnitude on herself before. Yes, she’d healed minor cuts and abrasions, but this problem required an application of magic she’d never studied. No matter; she had no choice.
“Perhaps you were right, Mother,” she thought, examining each element of the spell one more time. “The price may have been too high, especially if I don’t live to use the Heart of Fire.” She sought her well of magic, always so comforting in its accessibility.
“No!” Caedyrn cried, distress tingeing his thoughts. “You must not use human magic against the flight.” His thoughts echoed through every recess of her mind. “You’ll destroy yourself and the Heart of Fire with you!”
She struggled to shield her thoughts from this unwelcome intruder, but a new terror sapped her remaining strength and caused her to ignore the dragon’s presence—she couldn’t touch her reserve of power! She could feel it, resting languidly just below the surface of her mind, but she couldn’t reach it. Never before had her magic failed her, not since its awakening in early childhood. She retreated to a corner of her mind to search for nonexistent options.
The dragon called to her, quietly, soothingly. “You’ve nothing to fear,” he crooned, directing her attention to the bright, pulsing strand that warmed the edges of her mind. “You’re linked to the flight now. Push right there to broadcast to our species as a whole. Pull back here and touch an individual, or blank out all intrusions like this, for privacy and peaceful meditation.”
When he finished, he nudged her toward the strand. “Try, little one,” he cajoled. “I’ll withdraw. Call me back.”
Sorcha, bereft of her gift and unable to think of another option, gingerly checked the limits of her mind. The connection pulsed with eager vibration, but it awaited her touch. She exhaled a long groaning sigh, savored the privacy she’d always assumed inviolate, and remembered the overtone of concern she’d detected in Caedyrn’s thoughts.
Could the dragon be worried about her? Ridiculous. If she’d detected concern, it had been for the Heart of Fire, not for her. Still, he offered assistance that she sorely needed.
The link responded to her tentative touch. His presence bloomed in her mind; calm, reassuring, protective.
“I am here, little one.”
“How do I know your name?” Her mind-voice felt brittle, fragile as the sea-mist bubble that had surrounded the Heart of Fire.
“I sang it into the link as you slept. Your courage demanded my respect.”
“Courage? I don’t understand.”
His mind-voice rang through her very soul. “Open your eyes, little one. Raise your head and accept your destiny.”
Caedyrn’s words bewildered and annoyed Sorcha. What did this dragon know about her, or her destiny? She tried to push her annoyance away; clear thinking was required. Everything had changed. Her adversary seemed to admire her and now offered support. She needed to throw off her lassitude, face the physical pain and discover what had transformed her enemy into a would-be guardian.
Consciously holding her pain in check, Sorcha opened her eyes. The world looked wrong. Details too distant for human sight snapped into focus, while items close by dissolved in red haze. She lifted her head and swung it around, searching for Caedyrn. Her first glimpse of him wavered in that bloody fog, then her head came into alignment and his features snapped into precise focus. She wanted to shake her head. Instead, she blinked several times in rapid succession. Halfway through pushing herself up—hands planted in the sand, head oriented on Caedyrn—she froze. Information assailed her: focused sight required her snout be pointed forward; her lower lid flew up when she blinked; claws flexed in the sand at the end of her arms…
She opened her maw and screamed at Caedyrn, “What am I?”
Her words rumbled in an avalanche whose overtones assaulted her sensitive ears. Worst of all, the act of speaking agitated a strange little lump on the roof of her mouth and flame scorched the air as her scream hiccupped into silence. Cautiously, she explored the bump with her tongue, amazed that the flame hadn’t burned her mouth. A slightly acrid taste remained, but seemed to be the only after-effect. She sniffed delicately, and detected a faint sulfur odor. Her human intellect catalogued the smell, but her dragon senses found it comforting rather than frightening.
A thought intruded on her inner confusion. “Speak to me here, little one. Human speech, as we produce it, pains our ears, and as you’ve seen, it can trigger fire if not carefully controlled.” Caedyrn’s words poured across her fear in soothing waves. “But to answer your question, you are a dragon. The Heart of Fire transformed you.”
His words snapped her attention back to the larger issue. “That’s impossible,” she cried, forcing herself to use the link instead of her voice. “I can’t be a dragon!”
“Rise, little one. Unfurl your wings. Feel the power at your command.”
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