Excerpt: Lukos Heat

Najlah grumbled and shifted restlessly on the campfire until he found a more comfortable position, thinking longingly of his homeland, Tahjil. He hated Restuel’s winters. It did not seem fair that the cold was so much worse in the mountains that formed the northern border. He had thought the city wretchedly cold. The mountains were unbearable, like he had died and gone to the deepest levels of Eternal Torment.

Back home, it was all hot sand, hot sun, hot stones. Only natives could endure the brutal heat. When foreigners had begun arriving in droves, the dragons had struggled to keep the idiots from getting themselves killed.

He shifted again, hissing his discontent. The men closest to the fire regarded him sympathetically, and a couple built the fire up higher for him. Najlah thanked them with a soft rumble. To distract himself, he flicked his tongue out, tasting the air, but came away with nothing more than wintry forest, fire, and his companions, the cat and bird shifters that comprised their small unit of the Restuel Royal Shifter Corps.

It was frustrating to be so close to their goal only to be thwarted by the mass and might of the Shide Mountains. They had hoped to catch Kay sooner, but he had proven to be slicker than a brown scale bitch on the prowl.

Najlah tasted the air again—and jerked his head up with a spitting growl, alerting the others, sending embers and sparks flying into the air and out across the snow. Uncoiling his sinuous body, Najlah flexed his claws and sought for stable footing in the snowy ground. His black scales glistened wetly where they were struck by moonlight and flickering flames. Spikes sprang up down the length of his spine to the tip of his tail, drops of poison gleaming at their ends.

He growled loudly, baring his teeth as seven figures came out of the shadows, their scent the most feral thing he’d caught since leaving home. It was similar to dog, but sharper, untamed, with the bitter tang that always accompanied shifters. They also carried the smell of predators: the hot bite of blood and lust for the hunt. Najlah’s battle brothers were by no means soft, but they did not compare to these interlopers. Similar to dog and dwelling in the Shide Mountains… these could only be the wolves he’d heard about.

Najlah growled again and dug his claws into the snow, firming his protective stance, ready to attack on a moment. His companions might not have been the equal of these wolves, but to Najlah they would be little more than sand sprites. He was intrigued enough to let them live for the moment, but if they so much as twitched wrong he would happily break their bones, drink their blood, and feast on their flesh. It would warm him better than conversation.

The wolves growled back at him, hackles rising, but Najlah held his ground. They were large, reaching as high as his brothers’ hips, and obviously built to thrive in the Shide, but Najlah doubted they knew how to fight a dragon. The foremost of them, a wolf of pure black with eyes the same silver-gold as the moon, stepped forward and barked, then let his tongue loll.

Unimpressed, Najlah turned to Fayth, the captain and his brother-in-law, for orders. “Stand down,” Fayth said, motioning to Najlah and the others before turning to the wolves. “You’re slow, Lukos. I expected you to find us hours ago.”

The lead wolf barked again, and the air grew thick with the tang of wild magic as the Lukos began to shift into their human forms.

Najlah huffed and began his own shift. He did not particularly care if everyone thought him rude if he did not shift, but he would not reflect poorly on his battle brothers. Not that shifting really made much difference in the end. Unlike most shifters, dragons did not have a completely human-looking form. Such a fragile form would get them killed in Tahjil.

Shifted, he stood about as tall as most of his brothers, shorter than the towering Fayth. He was slender, but well-muscled, and his skin was as black as the scales that still covered the majority of his body. His head was smooth, jaw shaped to accommodate his fangs. Even in his human-like form he could not speak because his forked tongue remained, and his teeth were too many, too long, too sharp, for him to speak Restuelen. He flexed his hands, examining his poisonous claws and retracting them when he was satisfied. He hated the softness of his human-like skin where the scales did not protect it, and he sorely missed having a tail.

Even with the heavy warming stone around his neck, Najlah could feel the cold biting. He wanted badly to crawl back into the campfire. Stupid wolves forcing him to abandon the only real warmth he had against the detestable cold. One of his battle brothers brought him a heavy cloak and Najlah rumbled in thanks. Wrapping himself in it, moving closer to the fire, he finally gave his full attention to the wolves.

Of all shifters, the Lukos were the most notorious; they stubbornly kept to themselves in the Shide Mountains, and very little was known about them. They were ferals—shifters with no close ties to humans or even other shifters. Dragons had been feral until a little less than a century ago; many still considered them feral. It troubled some of the other dragons, but Najlah had never cared. Why should the opinions of humans matter to him? He was a dragon, infinitely better.

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