Verdant Magic is almost here! I know I’ve been teasing you for weeks. But how about one last preview — the entirety of chapter 1? (Unedited, so please excuse any typos that might have slid past my radar.)
Partly cloudy with chance of dragons….
The chime on her enchanted weather vane gradually pulled Amber out of her intense gardening trance. She absently brushed a strand of mousy hair away from her face with the least grimy part of her palm, then jolted alert as she took in the forecast.
Momma’s weather vane has been wrong before, she wavered. At her feet, fifteenth generation experimental seedlings were just beginning to grow, plantlets sprouting quickly as filaments of magic streamed from fingertips into the dark, moist loam. The babies were doing great…for the moment.
On the other hand, if left alone in this condition, half would be dead by morning. Pointy cotyledons would dessicate in hours beneath the pounding summer sun and hungry slugs would move in to chew up sensitive stalks as soon as evening dew fell.
But furthering her dead parents’ experiments didn’t hold a candle to protecting present human life. Ten years earlier, the weather vane had been horrifyingly, life-alteringly right and Amber wasn’t willing to risk a repeat. After all, it was her job as Watcher to make sure the village continued to slide beneath dragons’ fire-spewing radar.
“Jasmine!” she called, jumping to her feet. Fingertips left inch-deep imprints in the earth, the brief touch sufficient to recharge her mild use of borrowed life force. But the energetic boost was momentary, her elevated mood quickly overshadowed by the first sign that her weather vane knew what it was talking about.
Because as she turned to take in the view, every tree ringing the garden began swaying gently to the tune of a sudden breeze. In any other location, the influx of cool air would have come as a welcome relief, too. After all, helpful tendrils of wind sipped sweat off the back of Amber’s neck and soothed her parched throat.
Still, she ignored momentary pleasure and broke into a run. “Jasmine!” she called again, trying not to think about the way encircling hillsides prevented even the mildest air flow from dipping down into her protected hollow.
Even the mildest natural air flow, that was. Dragons, on the other hand, flew where they willed.
The rustle of dancing leaves above her head built into a thrashing chatter of branches, prompting Amber to give up on catching the teenager’s attention the easy way. Jasmine’s tie to the earth tended to make her absent-minded when surrounded by the Green. And here in Amber’s garden, the wild magic of growing things thrummed through the air and tapped them both relentlessly on the shoulder. Her young apprentice’s walls wouldn’t have stood long against such a sustained assault.
So her third shout wasn’t for the girl. Instead, she shrieked the name of her goat at the top of her lungs. “Thea!” she hollered, barely able to make out her own words over the ever nearing roar of wings.
The blood-curdling scream of a terrified mini-Nubian pulled Amber up short and turned her in the opposite direction from the way she’d originally been traveling. Thea wouldn’t have strayed far from the girl’s side, which meant Jasmine was no longer potting up seedlings out of battered plastic flats back at her cabin. Instead, the goat’s voice pinpointed the duo’s location off to the southeast, where one tiny tributary of the River Wend stroked its path through the center of her hollow’s hunched shoulders. There, the encircling canopy opened up to expose objects on the ground to the eye of every passing bird…or to the much more dangerous eye of passing dragons.
“Jasmine!” she called again, hoping the goat’s cry had been sufficient to wake the girl out of whatever earthen daze he’d fallen into. And, to her relief, the teen replied at last, her shrill tones carrying easily above the throbbing beat of the dragon’s thunderous wings.
“Go home!” the latter ordered, stopping in her tracks so she’d possess sufficient air to broadcast her words a quarter of a mile mile to the girl’s youthful ears. The Green would help, she knew, vines twisting aside to let an earth witch’s orders carry. Still, she needed to holler and she couldn’t do that while running. “Tell your father to get everyone into the tunnels and to lie low until I call them.”
“But Thea won’t follow!”
Despite the danger that approached on massive wings, Amber couldn’t resist smiling at the girl’s care for her cherished goat. Of course Thea wouldn’t leave her mistress, even in the face of dragon fire. “She’ll come to me,” Amber yelled back. “Leave her and run like a rabbit. Go now.“
The girl would appear as a tiny spark of green to the dragon’s searching eyes, Amber knew. A largely untrained earth witch, Jasmine wouldn’t be able to shield her powers from aerial predators. She’d be easy pickings for anyone hunting magical prey.
Time to make a bigger spark so that little spark will have time to go to ground.
Abruptly, Amber sank down onto her haunches, pressing fingers into the leaf mold to join grubby toes that had long since burrowed into the musty, decomposing remnants of plant matter past. Immediately, microscopic fungal filaments latched onto her skin, the mycorrhizal hyphae slipping between cells of her cuticles to sip from her bloodstream.
The first invasion felt like the pinpricks of a thousand tiny needles. But then her flesh warmed and the pain faded.
When she’d been Jasmine’s age and first coming into her powers, Amber had deemed the symbiosis “gross.” Now, though, tapping into the underground network that connected trees and vines and toadstools felt like waking up from a long, deep sleep. After hours spent walking on two feet with only her human senses to guide her, she abruptly became the Green, thousands of miles long and aware of every fox and vole and turtle passing through her forest’s sheltered expanse.
As a result, she could sense the ache as dragon wings shook a faltering tree branch loose from the tall elm up on top of Cemetery Hill. And her teeth chattered at the crash of the sundered limb plummeting to land on a bed of clover inches away from her parents’ grave.
“You got them, but you won’t get Jasmine,” Amber muttered aloud. She’d thought she was talking to herself, but soft nostrils nuzzled at the scruff of her neck as Thea made her presence known. Crazy goat. Trust the food-obsessed ruminant to ignore dragons and instead search for treats down the back of her mistress’s shirt.
There wasn’t time to send Thea to safety, though. Not when Amber’s magical billboard was attracting the dragon like soft baby flesh drew mosquitoes.
Sure enough, the beast soared into view directly above their heads at that very moment. And for an instant, Amber forgot that dragons were terrible, the born enemies of earth witches. Instead, she momentarily lost her train of thought in breathless wonder.
This specimen was beautiful. Gleaming ebony in the sunlight, each scale was as large as the palm of her hand. A twenty-foot tail whipped through the air like a rudder, slicing leaves from the crown of a towering sycamore as he relentlessly honed in on his prey. Meanwhile, his slitted eyes gleamed with intelligence.
“Come and get me, you bastard,” Amber muttered under her breath. Not that she thought her words would carry above the roar of manufactured wind, but she had a hard time keeping the sentiment to herself.
Then, to her dismay, a second dragon appeared, golden-scaled and even more awe-inspiring than the first. This beast was nearly twice as large as the leader, and he seemed to vibrate with a barely repressed power that clutched at Amber’s chest with fiery claws.
Shaking her head to dismiss the strange sensation, Amber reminded herself that she had a job to do. She was the Watcher. And whether the invaders consisted of one dragon or a dozen, she was bound and determined to keep the predators away from Greenwich. Like her parents, she would protect the hidden village until her dying breath.
Zane had never felt so constrained by the shape of a dragon. Held aloft on fiery wings, he could chase and hunt the lost twin who stubbornly refused to recognize their bond. But his lungs could only roar wordless complaints as he flew. His usual weapon of choice — a silver tongue — was grounded by the same shape that carried him so effortlessly on his way.
All told, the golden dragon felt like he’d spent an eon tracking this brother who thought him an enemy rather than a friend. Years ago, he’d hunted lackadaisically, flying out on short jaunts that never turned up a sign of his absent twin….
Well, that wasn’t quite true. Once, Zane thought he saw a black speck of fleeing dragon off in the distance. But warm bed and welcoming foster family had beckoned after he swooped up over the top of the mountain and found nothing but blue sky waiting on the other side. He’d chosen to assume that his twin, if living, didn’t want to be found.
Then, last winter, everything had changed.
“Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
Jerking away from the painful memory, Zane eyed the snake-like body of the beast cutting through the air before him. His twin’s scales were rough around the edges, the ebony coloration a bit dusky and dingy with wear. Was scuffing a normal reaction to substandard food and shelter, or was his brother already succumbing to the first symptoms of the much-feared Fade?
“Dragons rise from ashes. And unto ash they all return.” Sarah’s voice quavered in Zane’s memory, his foster mother’s grief painfully apparent as she stepped across the gray line that marked the passing of a twinless dragon very much like Zane himself.
Then, later: “Promise me you won’t sit idly by, waiting for the Fade to hit.”
“There’s nothing I can do,” Zane had protested.
I promise, Zane repeated now, pushing an extra iota of fire out of his belly and into his wings. The warmth flooded through his system, expanding his torso and broadening the sail-like membranes that stretched out on either side of his sinuous length. Above his head, sun struck the larger surface, replacing the fire he’d consumed and providing an extra burst of solar-powered speed. Then, taking full advantage of the boost, Zane soared above his brother’s head and swiped one long-clawed hand toward his sibling’s throat.
It could have been a killing stroke. But the gesture was only intended to delay his twin’s headlong flight, not to end his life. Well, that…and to give the golden dragon a chance to deploy the ace in the hole clenched in his other draconic fist.
Unfortunately, his twin’s reaction times were better than his own. Twisting almost faster than the eye could follow, the black dragon turned belly-up, claws raking across Zane’s scaly skin until the golden dragon heard himself roar out a protest.
Icy agony ran down Zane’s neck as life-giving fire oozed out of the open wound. But for a dragon, no injury lasted long. Now, as always, magical fire healed as it fled.
Skin melded back onto skin and scales popped forth to replace the ones so recently sent plummeting to the ground. Within seconds the heartening burn of inner fire had replaced the searing agony of claw tracks.
Zane was now a few inches shorter than he had been a moment before, his body contracting as energy was lost through the rent of the open wound. But he was still more than a match for his scrawny sibling, who’d likely grown up eating rabbits and field mice instead of the five-course dinners that Sarah liked to whip up for her six little dragonets.
Well, four dragonets now. And we’re certainly no longer little.
Once again, ashes floated out of recent memories, clogging Zane’s nostrils and making it difficult to breathe. His quest had begun with ashes. And if he didn’t pick up the pace, it would end with ashes as well…for him and his brother both.
Worse, if the Fade struck many more times, the Green would overcome the towers that he and his foster siblings — and hundreds of defenseless humans — called home. I won’t let the Aerie succumb, Zane resolved. I’ll find a way to beat this disease if it’s the last thing I do.
No, he couldn’t risk falling to the Fade. And that meant his blood brother was going to have to toe the line and bloody well listen to what he had to say.
Still, it was hard to even consider shifting and speaking when locked into a twisting, plummeting mass of fire, scales, and claws with his brother. They were falling quickly now, neither able to beat his wings properly while latched onto his opponent’s skin. Soon, the grasping trees would stretch up onto their tiptoes and reach for the most hated enemy most of all — dragons, the sworn adversary of the Green.
But despite the approaching danger, Zane wasn’t willing to relinquish his grip. He had to force his brother to shift. He had to make him listen. There were hundreds of people depending on dragon-kind back at the Aerie. And without his twin, Zane would Fade away until he was no use to anyone.
Like his recently Faded foster brother, Zane might soon become nothing more than a puddle of ash.