Something about this isn’t right, Zinc thought as he watched the fight breaking out in front of him.
A loud crack pierced through the sounds of combat as he watched Lead’s fist connect with a wolf’s jaw.
Nearby, others in the dragon guard dispatched enemies left and right as more emerged from the shadows of the woods surrounding the clearing where they fought.
The pale sliver of Earth’s moon was barely enough to illuminate the dark figures of his comrades and their foes as they moved back and forth at incredible speeds, clashes and clangs and thuds punctuating the eerie silence of this unknown place.
Every time a sword fell or a blow was struck, something stirred inside Zinc. But he had to hold back, observing, watching.
He couldn’t be allowed to fight. Not with his control over the metal within him slipping more with each day. Even with help from Cadmium and, more recently, his old friend Mercury, Zinc had been getting weaker and weaker. If he lost control, it could lead to disastrous consequences for himself and the other dragons.
The ground rumbled beneath Zinc’s feet, and he watched as an especially large wyvern burst through the tree line at the other end of the clearing, sending broken branches flying in its path. With practiced agility and grace, Chromium leapt onto it, driving his sword into its side and riding it as it writhed in agony, toppling onto the ground in a heap.
Zinc hated that he used to have so much more energy, so much more power. Nothing bothered him more than watching as others did the work he was born to do for them. As future king of Drakkaris, it was his duty to protect his countrymen, to watch out for their well-being and safety, not to stand back and just be an observer as everything unfolded.
Still, nothing about the situation he and his brothers were in made sense. The blue portal they’d come through remained open to his left, Cobalt and Cadmium standing near it to ensure nothing foul on this end made it through.
Zinc and the dragon guard had been informed that there was likely a kidnapped dragon heart through the portal. And their instructions, like before, had been to go through it, find her, and bring her back safely.
But as Zinc surveyed the surrounding landscape, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about the whole thing.
The noise was starting to dull. There was a final loud thump as Arsenic head-butted the last remaining wolf in the face, sending it flat onto its back, then complete silence as quiet settled over the small, circular clearing where they stood.
“That was interesting,” Cobalt exclaimed as they grouped up in front of the portal. Thankfully, nobody was harmed, but Zinc wasn’t surprised. The dragon guard of Drakkaris was the best of the best.
“A minor workout at most,” Arsenic said dryly. It was clear he was eager to get back to his mate, Farrah, waiting at home.
“No sign of a dragon heart anywhere, though,” Cadmium remarked, looking at the unconscious bodies strewn on the ground about them.
“And I don’t see any buildings or anywhere they might be keeping someone imprisoned, either,” Cobalt said thoughtfully.
Chromium nodded in assent.
Yet when they’d come through the portal, the wolves had been here, ready to face them. In the past, they’d been able to catch the enemy off guard, use the element of surprise as they stormed whatever castle or structure where the woman in need of their help had been. But this time, everything was entirely different.
Almost as if it were… a trap.
“Get back in the portal!” Zinc shouted, the sharp realization of their situation forcing him to act quickly.
Lead tried to protest. “But shouldn’t you—”
“Now,” Zinc commanded. “That’s an order.”
At that, the dragons began to go through, unable to disobey their prince and future king. He could tell they wanted him to go first, but he wanted to make sure everyone was back in the mansion, safe and sound, before he went in. Hopefully, he wasn’t too late.
Zinc felt a low thrumming behind him, followed by a pale purple glow, and whirled around to see a bright vortex opening just as the last of his comrades disappeared into the portal. A second later, wolves and wyverns came rushing at him, materializing from the purple mass in droves.
Instinctively, he stepped in front of the doorway, blocking their path to his friends and their home far away. His long, silver-and-gray blade appeared in his hands, and he raised it to defend himself.
“Zinc, it’s closing. Get in!” he could hear one of his friends shouting to him from the other side.
But Zinc didn’t have time to think as a wolf leapt at him, slashing its gigantic claws. Centuries of training kicked in as he sliced the beast across the shoulder and immediately turned to face a wyvern as it snapped at him with razor-sharp fangs.
Second by second, the swirling blueness behind him was getting smaller. If Zinc didn’t go through now, it would close behind him, leaving him stranded. But he couldn’t risk letting these creatures follow him through. And if any of the dragons came back out to help, they too would become stranded out here.
Zinc refused to put his brothers or their mates in danger.
He drove his sword into the wyvern’s heart, ignoring its cries as he ducked to avoid a wolf shifter attempting to grab Zinc from the side. A swift punch to the face knocked the man back, but with every enemy he defeated, it seemed two more were there to take its place.
With slight horror, Zinc noticed grayness on the back of his hand, cracking and breaking into a shimmering, dusty-silver metallic mass. On his shoulder, he felt it cutting through his shirt and revealing more of the multilayered, burnished material taking over him from the inside out.
Zinc. Pure and toxic. His strength and his poison.
There was a whoosh of air as the blue portal closed, disappearing completely from sight and revealing nothing but dark, black forest beyond. But Zinc didn’t have time to rejoice in the victory of it as several wolves surrounded him from each side, ready to pounce. The veins in his arms and neck were starting to throb, and the metal on his hands and shoulders was growing more prominent with each passing second.
“Stop!” Zinc heard a woman’s voice call out.
Immediately, the wolves withdrew, bowing their heads toward the sound, and Zinc directed his gaze to see a tall woman who’d just emerged from the purple doorway.
The she-dragon. The one who’d nearly taken Lead’s mate and, more recently, had been seen by Arsenic and Farrah.
And if Zinc was right, the person behind all of this senseless violence.
“We have what we came here for,” the woman said, a cruel grin curling at the edges of her lips. In spite of her long, black hair and deep-purple eyes the color of Earth wine, Zinc could feel nothing but pure hatred and evil emanating from her.
“You’ll never find them,” Zinc said defiantly. He’d die before he ever let her.
She gave a sinister snicker and waved a hand. Around him, the wolves began to close in again, slowly.
“It wasn’t my intention to take them in the first place,” she said, coming forward ominously.
As a prince and as a guard to the throne of Drakkaris, Zinc had looked in the face of evil many times. But he’d never witnessed it in such pure, unfettered vileness.
She raised one hand before her and opened it, and in her palm, Zinc could see a small chain, a dark-gold color, that emanated energy unlike anything he’d ever encountered.
“Your oracle is full of delightful ideas, you know. Like collars,” she said, glancing down at the chain as she stretched it out into a long, thin line. Then, like a magnet, it flew through the air, reaching Zinc in an instant and snapping onto his neck like a vise.
Zinc tried desperately to hold back the rage burning inside him as the collar sapped at his strength, trying to restrain him. The audacity of such a device only made him angrier.
He knew he could defeat these enemies and break the collar’s spell on him. But if he did that, he might lose control of the poison inside him. Already, his hold over it was slipping, and such exertion could only quicken the process, killing him.
As much as he wanted to tear these monsters apart for having ever threatened the men and women he called family, as future king of Drakkaris, he had to hold on in case the others were able to come up with a plan for rescue.
Not that he was even sure he wanted them to come now that it might already be too late and put them all in danger.
Zinc let his sword fall to the ground as two burly wolf shifters seized his arms. The dragon woman smiled in satisfaction as they dragged him toward the purple portal.
Then he felt a sharp impact at the back of his head, and everything went black.
* * *
Leanne Ryer had almost drifted off when she heard loud noises erupting upstairs.
She rubbed her eyes as she sat up, wondering what they could possibly be doing at this time of night. She looked around the dark cell where she spent all her time and saw only a few streams of moonlight from the small window looking in at the top of the wall.
The basement dungeon where she was held was only partially under the ground, and as a result, each of the cells had just enough natural light to remember there was a world outside, without ever being bright enough to make one feel alive.
Footsteps echoed down the stairs, and Leanne quickly dove back onto her bed to feign sleep, rolling over so she could look through the slits in her eyelids to see what was happening without anyone taking notice of her.
They rarely bothered her except to bring food and water, or occasionally flirt, and she was beginning to think maybe they’d just stopped caring about her altogether.
She couldn’t tell if that was a good or bad thing.
The door to the basement burst open, and light streamed from the stairway as several wolves moved forward, holding some large object between them.
Looking as closely as she could in the darkness, she thought the object was actually a man. A large man.
The shifters opened a cell a few down from hers and threw the man in, where he landed unconscious on the bed. One of them cursed in his direction, and then they walked out, locking the cell behind them.
As they reached the door, one turned to send a glare in her direction, and she quickly closed her eyes, hoping with a pounding heart that they couldn’t tell she was awake.
Finally, she heard the door close and opened her eyes to see total darkness again, except for small streams of moonlight in every cell.
It was so empty down here. Where were the other prisoners they usually kept? Why else would they need so much room?
A part of her was a little excited about the prospect of having company, even if she felt bad for whomever had been unfortunate enough to be dumped in this hellhole.
She stared, trying to make out whatever she could about the new visitor, but his cot was in the shadows away from the window and he was merely a dark shape.
Squinting, she felt maybe there was something a little off about him. She could swear she saw some jagged shapes in the dark but shrugged it off as her imagination playing tricks on her in the shadows.
Then again, perhaps he wasn’t human.
She wondered if she should call out to him, try to make contact. But just because he was also captured by her enemy, that didn’t make him her friend.
Given her experience so far in the shifter world, she probably shouldn’t draw any more attention to herself than she had to.
Besides, with what had happened to him, he was probably in a foul mood. And there was nothing she could do for him anyway. A longing rose in her to at least check on him. To make sure he was okay. To have someone to talk to. She didn’t know what to make of it since she wasn’t always drawn to strangers.
She decided the best thing was to go to bed. In the silent stillness, she could hear his breathing, even and light, and she found it oddly soothing to know another living being was nearby.
Besides, there were cells between them and they were both locked in. He didn’t pose any danger to her, she thought, turning over with her blanket and getting comfortable.
It was all something she could deal with in the morning. Tonight, they should both get some sleep.