Heart of the Dragon

By: Gena Showalter
PROLOGUE


Atlantis

"Do you feel it, boy? Do you feel the mist preparing?"

Darius en Kragin squeezed his eyes tightly closed, his tutor's words echoing in his mind. Did he feel it? Gods, yes. Even though he was only eight seasons, he felt it. Felt his skin prickle with cold, felt the sickening wave of acid in his throat as the mist enveloped him. He even felt his veins quicken with a deceptively sweet, swirling essence that was not his own.

Fighting the urge to bolt up the cavern steps and into the palace above, he tensed his muscles and fisted his hands at his sides.

I must stay. I must do this.

Slowly Darius forced his eyelids to open. He released a pent-up breath as his gaze locked with Javar's. His tutor stood shrouded by the thickening, ghostlike haze, the bleak walls of the cave at his back.

"This is what you will feel each time the mist summons you, for this means a traveler is nearby," Javar said. "Never stray far from this place. You may live above with the others, but you must always return here when called."

"I do not like it here." His voice shook. "The cold weakens me."

"Other dragons are weakened by cold, but not you. Not any longer. The mist will become a part of you, the coldness your most beloved companion. Now listen," he commanded softly. "Listen closely."

At first Darius heard nothing. Then he began to register the sound of a low, tapering whistle-a sound that reverberated in his ears like the moans of the dying. Wind , he assured himself. Merely wind . The turbulent breeze rounded every corner of the doomed enclosure, drawing closer. Closer still. His nostrils filled with the scent of desperation, destruction and loneliness as he braced himself for impact.

When it finally came upon him, it was not the battering force he expected, but a mockingly gentle caress against his body. The jeweled medallion at his neck hummed to life, burning the dragon tattoo etched into his flesh only that morning.

He crushed his lips together to silence a deep groan of uncertainty.

His tutor sucked in a reverent breath and splayed his arms wide. "This is what you will live for, boy. This will be your purpose. You will kill for this."

"I do not want my purpose to stem from the deaths of others," Darius said, the words tumbling from his mouth unbidden.

Javar stilled, a fiery anger kindling in the depths of his ice-blue eyes, eyes so unlike Darius's own-unlike every dragon's. All dragons but Javar possessed golden eyes. "You are to be a Guardian of the Mist, a king to the warriors here," Javar said. "You should be grateful I chose you among all the others for this task."

Darius swallowed. Grateful? Yes, he should have been grateful. Instead he felt oddly… lost. Alone. So alone and unsure. Was this what he truly wanted? Was this the life he craved for himself? His gaze skimmed his surroundings. A few broken chairs were scattered across the dirt and twig-laden ground. The walls were black and bare. There was no warmth, only cold, biting reality and the lingering shadow of hopelessness. To become Guardian meant pledging his existence, his very soul to this cave.

Gaze narrowed, Javar closed the distance between them, his boots harmonizing with the drip, drip of water. His lips pulled in a tight scowl, and he gripped Darius's shoulders painfully. "Your mother and father were slaughtered. Your sisters were raped and their throats slit. Had the last Guardian done his duty, your family would still be with you."

Pain cut through Darius so intensely he nearly clawed out his eyes to blacken the hated images hovering before them. His graceful mother twisted and bent, lying in a crimson river of her own blood. The bone-deep gashes in his father's back. His three sisters… His chin trembled, and he blinked away the stinging tears in his eyes. He would not cry. Not now. Not ever.


Mere days ago, he had returned from hunting and found his family dead. He had not cried then. Nor had he shed a tear when the invaders who plundered his family were slaughtered in retribution. To cry was to show weakness. He squared his shoulders and raised his chin.

"That's right," Javar said, watching him with a glint of pride. "Deny your tears and keep the hurt inside you. Use it against those who hope to enter our land. Kill them with it, for they only mean us harm."

"I want to do as you say. I do." He glanced away. "But-"

"Killing travelers is your obligation," Javar interrupted. "Killing them is your privilege."

"What of innocent women and children who mistakenly stumble through?" The thought of destroying such purity, like that of his sisters, made him loathe the monster Javar was asking him to become-though not enough to halt this course he had set for himself. To protect his friends, he would do whatever was asked of him. "May I set them free on the surface?"

"You may not."

"What harm can children do our people?"

"They will carry the knowledge of the mist with them, ever able to lead an army through." Javar shook him once, twice. "Do you understand now? Do you understand what you must do and why you must do it?"

"Yes," he replied softly. He stared down at a thin, cerulean rivulet that trickled past his boots, his gaze following the gentleness and serenity of the water. Oh, that he possessed the same serenity inside himself. "I understand."