Archer Andras was not having a day that would be awarded any gold stars for excellence.
It started off bad and gradually went downhill from there.
“Who is it?” Miles asked that morning when, squatting next to a shallow tide pool, Archer turned over a waterlogged body and looked down into a face he knew.
“Davide.” His lips tightened as he touched the gray powder that ringed the man’s eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. He didn’t have to smell the residue to know what it was.
“Christus Rex,” Miles said softly. “Has he been—”
“Yes.” Archer stood up and gestured to the other four storm dragons who stood awkwardly holding a canvas stretcher. “Someone blasted dark power through him.”
“Someone?” Miles’s jaw worked for a few seconds while the four men laid a blanket over their dead tribemate, then lifted him onto the stretcher. “I think we all know who is responsible for this, just as he’s been responsible for the others. The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
“The same thing I’ve been doing,” Archer said, the grimness in his voice originating from the cold fury that gripped his soul. Not even his fire warmed him—he felt as icy as the gray-green water that lapped at the tide pool. “Try to protect my tribe. Find those who attack us. Build more defenses.” He gestured toward the house that sat on a slight rise above the narrow strip of beach. “Take him to the basement,” he told the men. “We’ll hold the pyre after his family has been contacted.”
“The shadow dragons have much to answer for.” Ioan, one of the stretcher bearers, watched Archer, his eyes filled with anger. “They must pay for this murder.”
“They must pay for all the murders,” Miles responded automatically. He waited until Ioan followed the men to the basement before grabbing Archer’s arm as he headed toward the house. “How many more members are we going to lose before you get off your ass to do something?”
Archer’s dragon fire rose, but he kept it leashed, simply pausing to give the man next to him a long look. “You forget yourself, cousin.”
Miles’s jaw worked again. They were alone now, the other members out of earshot. “You have to do something,” he said at last, his voice gritty. “You have to draw him out. This is intolerable.”
“Do you think I’m not aware that my own tribe is being decimated, slowly but surely, one dragon at a time?” Archer snarled, slamming his cousin up against the white stone wall of the house. “They are my family, Miles, as surely as you are. It is my family that is being killed, my family’s homes that are being destroyed, their businesses ruined, their protections smashed. I feel every indignation suffered by all the members of my tribe, from you, my oldest friend, on down to the newest dragon to find solace in our numbers. I am doing everything I can to keep them safe and happy, but I can’t work miracles.”
“If you can just lure him out—”
“How?” Archer released Miles, frustration heightening the sense of impotence that followed such attacks. “I have tried for over a hundred years, and to what end? I can’t fight someone who hides in the shadows.”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t be master of the tribe.” Miles spat the words out, giving Archer a hard shove on the shoulder, making him stagger back a couple of feet.
Heat flashed through Archer, and for a moment he considered teaching his cousin a lesson, but he ended up shaking his head to himself, feeling that there had been enough death. Miles was obviously just as frustrated as he was.
“You have done little enough to stop the wholesale slaughter of our tribe. If I were master of the storm dragons—”
“But you are not,” Archer said slowly, the note of warning clearly evident in his voice. His eyes were narrowed, the icy cold of grief not even touching the dragon fire that always burned inside him. “Do you lodge a formal protest against me?”
He held Miles’s gaze until the younger man dropped his eyes in an act of submission. He knew just how much it cost Miles, but he had little choice. The storm dragons had been together for a relatively short time, only slightly over a hundred years, and as its first master, Archer had to be firm to those who would gainsay him. Without a strong hand to lead the often fractious dragons, they would devolve to a lawless band who scraped by on the fringes of both the mortal and immortal worlds.
He’d be damned if they returned to that.
“No, I do not wish to protest against you,” Miles said, holding the subservient demeanor for the required length of time before looking Archer in the eyes. “I don’t have designs on your job.”
“Good.” Archer smiled suddenly and punched Miles lightly on the arm. “Because it’s a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and certainly not on a cousin of my blood.”
The corner of Miles’s mouth curled, acknowledging the affection in Archer’s voice. “There has to be something else we can do. Someone, somewhere must have a way we can defeat him. Maybe if we parlay again?”
Archer walked toward the house, feeling unusually defeated. “We can try setting up another parlay with Hunter, although I don’t expect it to go any different than the past ones.”
“Perhaps this time—”
Two dragon patrols approached.
“It will be no different than before,” Archer said, his eyes on the dragons. “The shadow dragons will profess innocence in the deaths of our members. Hunter will deny any charge I level against him. We will go away from the parlay dissatisfied and frustrated, with no resolution.”
The patrols bowed and moved on, leaving the two men to enter Archer’s house. They strode along the stone tile until Archer reached the second-floor room he called his office. The entire side of the house facing the ocean was made up of floor-to-ceiling retractable glass doors, allowing him to drink in both the light and the salty tang of the sea air. He loved this house, loved the view, loved the way the light seemed to lift everything to a brightness that filled him with joy. That was his blue dragon sire’s blood in him, making him crave days spent surrounded by glorious sunshine, while the heritage of his green dragon mother ensured that he loved the endlessly restless sea just as much.
Miles’s phone gave a chirp when Archer sat down at his laptop, pulling up the tribe records to locate Davide’s family so that he could tell them of the tragic loss, noting Davide had been a member for only two years. His heart was sick with the knowledge that there was little he could do to avenge the death, at least nothing that he could do that would not bring more heartache and death to the tribe.
“This is interesting,” Miles said slowly, looking at something on his phone. “And it might be just what we’re looking for. You remember that manuscript that surfaced in Venice late last year?”
“No.” Archer pulled up Davide’s record and was relieved to see he had listed no family members, not that he believed Davide was truly without kin. So many ouroboros dragons had cut ties with families when they went outlaw and were removed from the family records and shunned by all.
Except the tribes. Archer glanced at the database count and took a small amount of pride that seventy-eight lost dragons had found their way to him.
“I told you about it around Christmas. A parchment had been slipped into the lining of an old sixteenth-century grimoire. It’s mostly indecipherable, but a note at the top of the manuscript leaf was written in Latin, claiming it was the true telling of the Raisa Medallion.” Miles’s gaze was full of unspoken comments as he looked pointedly at Archer.
“There is no Raisa Medallion,” Archer said, turning back to his laptop. “The manuscript is either a recent fake or an antique fake.”
“You don’t know that for certain,” Miles pointed out.
“I’d know if my mother created a dragon artifact imbued with unimaginable powers and bestowed it upon me, making me the first dragon hunter,” Archer said. “In case it escaped your notice, I am not a dragon hunter. I am a dragon. Nothing more.”
“Your mother gave only half of the artifact to you,” Miles said, still reading his phone. “According to lore—”
“I don’t need to hear fairy tales, thank you,” Archer said, trying to forestall the inevitable, but once Miles got a bit in his teeth, he didn’t let go.
“Raisa, daughter of the green wyvern, was cast out from the sept when she declared she was mated to a blue dragon. Namely, your father.”
Archer flipped browser windows to check on some of the tribe-held businesses. “I know who my parents are. You don’t need to remind me of that.”
“You may know who they are, but you weren’t raised by them, and you refuse to even look at any of the mentions I’ve found about the Raisa Medallion.”
“I have no need to concern myself with something so distant in the past. The present is what matters.”
“And yet the past is what drives the present. If your father hadn’t been cursed at the behest of the green wyvern, he wouldn’t have become part demon. And, of course, you wouldn’t be what you are without him being what he was…”
Archer tried to stop listening. “How the sire came to be has nothing to do with it.”
“He was a brilliant alchemist,” Miles pointed out. “If he hadn’t been, he couldn’t have made the Raisa Medallion, which is what we’re talking about. I don’t argue with you simply to hear my own voice, Archer—this history is important to us. Not just the dragon hunters that your father created, but also us. Storm dragons.”
Archer sighed before saying, “The difference between us is that you believe the tales about the medallion, whereas I know they are nothing but vague references to events that never happened.”
“You’re just being stubborn,” Miles answered, clearly annoyed that Archer wasn’t rising to his bait.
“No, I’m being realistic. This is a fantasy, Miles, nothing more than the imaginings of a deranged maniac’s mind, one determined to rewrite history to satisfy his ego. I am not a dragon hunter!”
“You’re awfully good with a sword,” Miles said with a smile.
“My father was an insane, homicidal blue dragon who stole my mother from her family, impregnated her, and then slaughtered her when she swore she’d take her own life before submitting to him again. Those are the only important facts about my parents,” Archer said, pushing down deep the little kernel of pain that never failed to manifest when he thought of his blood family.
Much better to focus on the one he had made.
Miles continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Well, that and the fact that your mom gave you and your brother pieces of the medallion.”
“And then promptly abandoned those sons while they were still babes, leaving them without protection, family, or anyone who gave a damn about them.” Archer closed the lid of the laptop, stood up, and gazed out the retractable door, now open so that the room seemed to extend seamlessly onto a wide balcony. He wriggled his shoulders to loosen them up and thought briefly of taking a swim in the infinity pool before he had to deliver tribe justice to two newer members who didn’t understand that his word was now their law. He sighed, wondering if the day would come when the tribe members would settle down into a peaceful existence. He had a horrible premonition it wouldn’t be in his lifetime. “There were no medallion pieces, Miles. Whatever you think you’ve learned is just a story, nothing more.”
Archer closed his mind to the sorrow that was his family. He’d worked hard over the centuries to reach the point where he could think about his twin without raging, although the fact that just as soon as he had started the storm tribe, Hunter had started a tribe of shadow dragons—and quickly became the most feared of all the ouroboros dragons—still rankled.
“It’s time you opened yourself to the truth about your parents,” Miles said, glancing over to where Archer stood, arms crossed, leaning against the edge of the open door while looking out to sea. “You may not believe any of this is real, but the facts speak for themselves. You and Hunter should be the first dragon hunters, but you’re not. There’s a reason for that, and this Venetian manuscript could tell us what happened all those centuries ago. Why you and Hunter were separated. What happened to your parents. We need the manuscript so we can have it translated. It might give us the edge we need.”
“Even if it did contain a true history, it can be of no use to me. The medallion wouldn’t have any power over our enemies,” Archer said, rubbing the tension in the back of his neck before turning to go down the hall his bedroom. If he had to mete out justice, he’d do it in something other than jeans and a T-shirt that had seen better days. “It’s all just history of long-dead dragons.”
“Ah, but you don’t know that for sure, and that’s where things get interesting,” Miles said, still reading from the phone as he followed his cousin. “The manuscript is here. In California, Santa Mar to be exact. A local bookseller bought it at auction and smuggled it out of Italy and into the U.S. last week.”
“And what do you expect me to do?” Archer asked, peeling off his grubby clothes and marching nude into the bathroom to shave the day’s stubble from his face. “Buy the damned thing? I told you that it’s fiction. Not real.”
“You don’t know what it says.” Miles smiled. “And, yes, I thought you could buy it. Then we’d have it translated, and we’d be able to find the Raisa Medallion.”
Archer didn’t like to roll his eyes when faced with things he thought unworthy of attention, but he did so this time, lifting his chin so he could shave around his Adam’s apple. “What the hell would we do with the medallion even if it was real?”
Miles was silent for so long that Archer lowered his chin and caught his cousin’s gaze in the mirror. “Can you think of a better way to bring him to heel? To make him pay for the deaths?”
Archer considered that for a moment but shook his head and rinsed off the wickedly sharp straight-edge razor. “You forget one important point.”
Miles made an annoyed gesture. “I know, I know, there’s no proof it’s real, but if we can just get our hands on it and translate it—”
“No.” Archer finished shaving, then wiped his face clean of any errant bits of shaving cream. “You forget that if it is real, and if it has as much power as you believe, then nothing in this world or the next will stop every dragon in existence from trying to get their hands on it.”
“It has importance only to dragon hunters,” Miles said, dismissing Archer’s comment. “Hunter will lust for it, to be sure, but others? I don’t see what good it would do them.”
Archer’s shoulders twitched as he donned clean clothing. “Do you really think that the Raisa Medallion, if such a thing exists, will be allowed to remain untainted by those who would use it for dark purposes?”
“Only a demon hunter could wield it,” Miles objected.
“Or a demon.”
Their gazes met.
“Then we have to be the ones to acquire it,” Miles said, his eyes somber.
Archer hesitated, wondering if it was worth the effort to continue fighting the idea. What was the worst thing that could happen if he agreed to Miles’s suggestion to buy the manuscript? He would be removing it from the grasp of those who might seek to abuse it. There was also a certain amount of satisfaction to be drawn from the knowledge that he was keeping for himself an item Hunter was sure to covet. “Very well. I’ll buy the damned thing.”
“As a matter of fact, you already have,” Miles replied, grinning. “I came to an agreement in your name a few minutes ago, while you were waffling over the idea. I expect a call from the bookseller about when we can collect it. Are you free this evening? We could run into Santa Mar and pick it up.”
“I suppose, although I ought to be working on rebuilding some of the tribe businesses that are failing—”
“You know how the saying goes: all work and no play makes the dragon as dull as a mortal. We’ll have dinner, find a few females, and let them feel the beast inside of us.”
Archer came perilously close to rolling his eyes again, but agreed to meet his cousin in town later in the day. After all, he mused to himself as he took his seat in the living room, now used to hold tribal meetings, it wasn’t as if anything was going to come of Miles’s grand plans.
The Raisa Medallion was a piece of fiction. It was just that simple.
Anything else would be unthinkable.