My hands tightened on the saddle horn. “Is something wr—”
The horse reared. I held on for one terrifying second, then pitched backward.
The Ghost dove for me and I fell against him. With a terrified squeal, the horse bolted. Its hooves thundered as it ran full tilt into the pasture, the reins flying behind it. The Ghost had caught me with one arm under my side and his other elbow hooked under my knee, and I hung awkwardly in his grip, one leg dangling in the air.
“I’m good,” I gasped. “You can put me down.”
He tipped me onto my feet, more focused on surveying the valley. Ahead of the galloping horse, all the livestock were fleeing to the farthest end of the pasture.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“I don’t know yet.” His jaw tightened. “Lallakai.”
At the strange word, the feather tattoos running down his arms blurred. Phantom wings lifted away from his skin, then a shadowy form rose off his back. A huge black eagle pulled out of his torso, its wings rippling and dancing like black smoke. As it solidified, its sharp emerald eyes, almost identical to the druid’s except they lacked pupils, glittered like gemstones, then it swept its wings down and shot into the sky.
“Did that—did that just come out of your body?” I pointed at him with a shaking hand. The feather tattoos had vanished from his skin, leaving only the elaborate rune circles on his inner forearms and the hexes on his palms.
“Lallakai is my familiar.” His gaze skimmed the tree line, and I realized his eyes weren’t as unnaturally vibrant as before. Still beautiful green, but not otherworldly.
The brightness of his irises had been caused by the fae inside his body. Holy f—
“Something is coming,” he growled.
Lallakai wheeled through the sky, then flared her spectral wings. A dark ripple disturbed the air around her, speeding outward—then all the air was rippling. Shadows deepened, and the sunlight disappeared as a shadow fell across the valley.
One moment, the blue sky was empty but for the black eagle. The next moment, it was blotted out by monstrous wings. Not Lallakai’s wings.
Two gigantic beasts filled the sky, their ribbed wings stretched wide. Swirling patterns in blues and purples ran in lines down their dark, sleek bodies. Lallakai hovered nearby, dwarfed by their immense size. The dragons descended, growing larger by the second.
The Ghost launched into a sprint—but he wasn’t running away from the dragons. He was running toward them. Why wasn’t he running away!
Hyperventilating, my knees threatening to buckle, I couldn’t move as the dragon pair dropped out of the sky and landed in the pasture. One touched down with flowing grace, wings sweeping in, as soft as a butterfly landing on a flower petal. The other stretched its back legs out, front limbs clamped to its chest, and slammed into the grass like a rockslide off a cliff.
The earth shook under my feet.
I sucked in air. Gulped down my terror. Unclenched my hands. Then, with unsteady legs, I pushed into a wobbly jog—following the Ghost. Was I crazy? Probably, yeah. I should have fled in the opposite direction, but I couldn’t. There were literal dragons right before my eyes, and I was not missing this once in a lifetime chance—even if I got toasted by fiery dragon breath.
As the Ghost reached the beasts, his head barely clearing the larger one’s underbelly, their huge muzzles dipped toward him. One bite would engulf his entire upper body. The monstrous reptiles circled him, the ground vibrating with their every movement.
An animal shriek of pain and terror pierced my eardrums like red-hot pokers. I gasped and stumbled, almost falling to my knees.
The dragon pair shifted, wings twitching and tails snapping with agitation, and as they moved, I saw what they were circling. A dark lump the size of a small car lay across the grass, the Ghost kneeling in front of it. Wings, tail, neck, head, limbs—it was a third dragon, much smaller than the humungous pair.
A baby dragon?
Cautiously, I drew closer. The baby dragon—well, probably not a baby; an adolescent?—lay on its side, chest heaving. With each billow of its lungs, the shining piece of metal sticking out of its ribcage shifted. A steel spear was embedded in its body.
At the Ghost’s urgent call, I shot forward. The parent dragons’ heads swung in my direction, and I hoped he’d considered the risk of my becoming a reptile snack. He didn’t look up as I stopped behind him, the dragons towering over us. Dark blood drenched the grass and ran down the young one’s side.
“In the barn,” the Ghost said, focused on the spear. Runes etched in the metal glowed faintly. “In the tack room, under the table. There’s a hatch in the floor. In it is a tote. I need it. Quickly!”
I didn’t waste time on questions. Whirling on my heel, I sprinted across the pasture and jumped the fence. I flew through the big barn doors, barely registering the panicked squeals from the pig pen as I wheeled into the tack room. Under the table, I flipped open the hatch and heaved a large blue tote out of the hidden compartment. The damn thing was heavy and I wheezed as I half jogged out of the barn.
The larger dragon stood at the fence line.
I had a moment to panic, then the dragon stretched a clawed front foot over the fence. Thick digits curled around me, crushing the tote against my chest. Lungs compressed, I couldn’t even scream as the dragon lifted me over the fence and loped across the pasture on three legs. My stomach leaped and dropped like I was on the most terrifying amusement park ride ever.
Returning to its injured offspring, daddy dragon opened its foot and dropped me onto the grass. Heaving the tote up, I staggered the last few feet to the Ghost and set it beside him.
He popped the top off, revealing jumbled alchemy paraphernalia—jars and vials, bundles of herbs, cloths, poultice and bandage rolls, and other healing supplies. He dug into it and pulled items out, piling them in my arms. I clutched everything, my eyes darting from him to the bleeding, impaled dragon. It wheezed with each heavy breath.
He withdrew a roll of parchment paper and spread it on the tote lid, then whipped out a fat black marker. He drew an alchemy circle with swift, confident strokes. A large bowl went in the center, then he picked items out of the pile in my arms. He sped through the preparation, concentration tightening his face.
When he began to chant in an archaic language, the circle glowed and the ingredients on the outer edges turned to colored smoke. The rainbow of mist swirled over the bowl, then the transformation from random components to magical potion finished with a puff.
He picked up the bowl and pushed it into my hands. It contained half a cup of grayish liquid. “Hold that. Be ready.”
Ready for what? I didn’t ask as he returned to the young dragon and grasped the spear’s steel haft. The parents drew closer.
“Echo,” he said gruffly. “Can you hold him?”
The largest dragon lay down and placed its front limbs over the young dragon’s shoulders and rump, pinning it to the ground. The Ghost adjusted his grip on the spear, then pulled sharply.
The dragon screamed. Its head reared up and it almost got its teeth into the Ghost before the other adult dragon restrained its neck. The baby writhed madly as the Ghost drew the spear up. A foot of blood-coated steel pulled free, then the spearhead stuck in place.
“Damn them,” he growled. “Hold him, Echo.”
Shifting closer, he slid his hand down the haft and pushed his fingers into the dragon’s wound. As the creature shrieked, bucking against the ground, the Ghost’s forearm disappeared into its body. The haft turned, then he yanked it out, the hooked end tearing the injury wider. He threw the harpoon aside as blood gushed, cascading over his arm.
“Victoria.” He pressed both hands to the dragon’s side, opening the puncture. “Pour the potion into the wound. Slow and steady.”
Leaning over the dragon, I drizzled gray potion into the bloody hole. It was so little liquid compared to the gaping wound. I shook the last few drops out of the bowl, then stepped back. Blood continued to gush from the injury.
The Ghost pulled out suture thread and a big, curved needle. Following his instructions, I brought over another potion, this one in a large black bottle. He sewed the wound in three layers, one deep inside, one midway down the puncture, and then just below the hard scales that covered the dragon’s body. As he completed each line, I poured the potion over it. Each time the liquid touched the injury, steam reeking of sulfur billowed up and the creature howled and writhed.
Finally, the Ghost sat back on his heels. I thumped down on my butt beside him, holding the half-empty bottle. The whimpering dragon curled into a ball as mama dragon licked it soothingly.
Catching my breath, I took in the majestic parents. Their elegant necks curved as they leaned over their offspring, their scaled bodies as sleek and dark as midnight. The blueish-purple markings that ran in swirling lines down their sides and backs shimmered and sparkled, the patterns shifting like entire galaxies contained within their huge forms.
The father dragon lowered its nose and nudged the druid gently in the chest. The Ghost placed his blood-coated hands on the dragon’s dark scales.
“Yeah,” he murmured, responding to something I hadn’t heard. “Keep him quiet and come get me if he hasn’t improved in three days.” A pause. “I’ll find the hunters. They’ll regret this, I promise.”