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BREATH OF FIRE

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Breath of Fire  - Liliana  Hart

Breath of Fire

Rena Drake is descended from a society that was created 500,000 years before Atlantis—the Drakán. Since their Banishment to the human world, Rena has become an Enforcer for her people, keeping the peace among her dragon brethren and making sure their identities stay a secret.  

When a group of rogue Drakán begins killing others of their race who refuse to join the army of The Destroyer—the man from Prophecy they believe will finally be the true king—Rena has no choice but to take action. Killing others of their kind is an automatic death sentence, and Rena’s job demands that she draw up a warrant of execution before they kill again. Every clue leads Rena to believe that Julian, leader of one of the five clans, is The Destroyer. But when Rena confronts Julian to kill him, she discovers that he is her lifemate, deemed so by the gods from the blue mating fire that engulfs them—a power thought lost since the Banishment.

Matters are further complicated by Noah Ford, a psychic who works for the FBI. Rena knows he’s keeping his true identity a secret from her, but she’s drawn to him just as she’s drawn to Julian. Noah vows to become her protector against The Destroyer, but it’s going to be difficult for Noah to keep his promise when her life force is tied to the man she’s destined to kill.

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excerpt

Chapter One

Winter was a cruel bitch of a woman, scraping her icy fingernails over New England. She pummeled, battered and decimated—plants and creatures alike—happily destroying those who wouldn’t bend to her will.

Despite the chilled temperature of my room, my body was slicked with sweat, and the last dregs of a nightmare filled my belly with a heat so intense I curled up in a ball on my damp mattress to protect myself against the pain. The stench of smoke and burning flesh was trapped in the back of my throat, and every breath was a struggle.

I was used to death. Between my family and my job, I came in contact with it much too often—often enough where the sight of wasted life didn’t bother me as much as it used to. As much as it should have.

Icy rain pelted against my windows and the wind howled into the straining glass. I looked at the glowing red numbers of the clock on my bedside table and saw it was just after midnight. I’d barely had more than an hour of sleep. It was all I was likely to get for the foreseeable future.

I was too late to save her—the woman from my dream. By the time the visions came, I was always too late. But I got out of bed anyway and headed into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and dried off quickly without looking at myself in the mirror. I was afraid to face the terror I was sure would be looking back at me.

I grabbed a pair of worn jeans and a black sweatshirt from my closet and slipped them on before using the house intercom to wake my assistant.

“Rise and shine, Cal,” I said. “We’ve got a body. Meet me at the car in five, and don’t forget my bag.”

Cal mumbled something unintelligible, and I clicked off. I pulled on thick socks and my old black boots. The ground was muddy where we were going. I brushed my long black hair into a tail at the base of my neck. I didn’t bother with a coat. The nightmare I’d just witnessed was enough to keep me warm for a while.

They’d killed close this time. Practically in my own back yard. But I couldn’t think about that now—about what it meant for me.

My name is Rena Drake, and I’m the closest thing to a cop the Drakán has. They call me an Enforcer. I keep law and order, and right the wrongs of any crimes my people commit—meaning I bury the bodies and erase the evidence. I’ll occasionally accept a job from a human just to keep things interesting. But humans are easy.

For the past two months I’ve been hunting one of my own. The problem is, dragons are really good at not being found. And they’re even better at killing. In all honesty, it isn’t the killing that bothers me so much. Killing is in our nature, and it certainly doesn’t violate any of our laws.

The hardest part of my job is being the one responsible for keeping our people a secret, making sure we blend in with the human world. But this rogue group was making it very, very difficult to fulfill my duties.

They’d become unnecessarily violent, and the feedings were happening more frequently. Feeding wasn’t even the right word. We were all meat eaters, and some of our kind only preferred human flesh. But this group of Drakán wasn’t eating for survival. They were simply out to destroy. And now here they were, less than a twenty-minute drive from my house. They were running out of chances. I was going to have to draw up a contract to execute if they didn’t lay low for a while. They were putting our entire race in danger.

Cal was already seated in the passenger seat of my dark green Land Rover by the time I made it to the garage. The heat was on full blast and the windows were fogged over with the humidity. I shot out of the garage, barely clearing the still opening garage door, Muse blaring from the speakers.

The icy rain turned into sluggish drops, then nothing at all, so I flicked the windshield wipers off. I drove fast, and I didn’t take it personally when Cal cringed in the corner of the passenger seat as I hit a patch of ice and slid close to the ditch.

“Maybe you should slow down a little,” Cal said, eyes still closed.

“Relax, Cal. A car crash won’t kill you.”

“That doesn’t mean it won’t hurt.”

“You should have a little faith. I’m an excellent driver.”

“You’ve wrecked three cars in the two months I’ve been working for you. That doesn’t qualify you as an excellent driver.”

“The last one doesn’t count. I was in Mexico. Everybody drives like they’re insane in Mexico. And I had the right-of-way.”

Calvin Rutledge was a distant cousin of some sort on my father’s side. I liked Cal. He was young—still less than a century old—but he had a sharp mind and knew how to follow orders, which was more than I could say for my last assistant, whose ashes resided on the fireplace mantel in my formal dining room.

The threat of more rain concealed the moon, and the night was completely black except for the beams of my headlights against the asphalt. But my vision was perfect. I watched a wolf chase a small rabbit through the adjacent forest, and it made my pulse jump in anticipation and my mouth water with need. There was nothing like the hunt, but I reeled myself back in. Now wasn’t the time.

I pressed the pedal to the floor and sped along the winding road. A thick copse of trees stripped of all its leaves hunched over the road like bony arms, and the weight of ice on the breaking limbs echoed like gunshots.

I heard the crime scene before I saw it—the slurp of boots as they sucked against the mud, the murmur of voices, coffee being poured into Styrofoam cups. My senses were primed as I stopped the car at the edge of the road and turned off the ignition.

“There are more than a dozen cops,” I told Cal. “You take half.”

“But what if I don’t get them all?” He chewed on his bottom lip nervously. “I don’t want it to be like the last time.”

There was a small part of me that felt somewhat maternal toward Cal. Maybe it was the smattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose, or the mop of curly white hair. His eyes were guileless and pure onyx—so dark his diamond shaped pupils were barely visible. He was naïve despite his age, and he lacked the instinct that was needed for this line of work. In all actuality, I was scared to death I was going to get him killed.

I put the sympathy away and answered him like I would have anyone in my employ. “Speak with confidence. Don’t break eye contact. Don’t second-guess yourself. And don’t screw up.” I gave him a hard smile and got out of the car. He followed behind me, lugging my equipment, and I relaxed a little. He wouldn’t screw up this time.

Wet leaves squished beneath my feet as I made my way down a steep incline thick with trees and fallen branches. I wasn’t visible yet, the trees still hiding us from view. When I stepped into the clearing, no one even gave me a second glance.

The problem was we were exactly on the border between Canada and Maine, and there was a pissing match going on between the Maine State Police and the Canadian Border Patrol. The air was filled with the scent of burnt meat and blood. It was a nasty scene, and the cops had at least taken the time to cordon off the area with yellow crime scene tape before arguing. What was left of the body was being ignored.

I was almost on top of the crowd before two cops noticed me and veered away from the excitement to cut me off. The one on my left opened his mouth to speak, but I didn’t let him get any words out. A cold numbness grew inside me as I easily breached the walls of his mind, and I watched in satisfaction as he grabbed his throat and his eyes widened with fear. His partner reached for his weapon, but he wasn’t able to get it from his holster in time.

“Follow me,” I said to them. And they did. Powerless as marionettes on a string. I turned to Cal. “Go herd the stragglers and wipe their memories. I’ll take care of the big boys.”

The big boys were currently acting like children. A circle of cops had gathered around the two men who headed each unit, and the argument over jurisdiction quickly escalated with raised voices. I understood the need to fight for territory. It was a natural instinct for any creature. But enough was enough.

“Stop,” I breathed out softly, the single word floating across the air like mist. The circle of men froze in place, but the two in the center of the ring were stronger—truly alpha—and tried to fight my orders. “Look at me,” I commanded. They had no choice but to obey.

“You are finished here,” I told them. “There is no body. No crime scene. All paperwork on this incident will be destroyed. You were never here. I was never here. Go home.”

The men turned and started back up the hill, disappearing one by one into the trees. All except one—one of the alphas. He was tall and muscled. Anger vibrated off his body in waves. The hair at his temples was matted and his street clothes were damp with perspiration. He was strong, much stronger than any of the others, and he probably had the blood of a Drakán somewhere in his family tree.

“What are you doing to me?” he asked, his jaw clenched with pain.

He wasn’t aware of his power or he wouldn’t have asked. I decided to look a little deeper and find something that would send him on his way without a fight. I focused on the pulse pounding in the side of his neck and felt the rush of liquid just under the surface, masked by the sickly smell of fear. And I saw.

“Go home, Lieutenant,” I said softly. “Take something for your headache. Make love to your wife. If you stay here you’ll be hurt. Don’t try to fight me. Be afraid of me. And when you wake up in the morning you’ll barely recall the nightmare. Be afraid. Run.”

I picked him up by the front of his shirt and threw him in the direction the others had gone. He hit the ground hard and stumbled to his knees. Even from that distance I could hear his whimpers. He looked back at me once, got to his feet and ran. Smart man.

I heard Cal approaching and gave him my attention, the Lieutenant already forgotten. “Any problems?” I asked.

“No,” Cal said, unable to keep the grin from his face. “They didn’t have any will at all.”

“Well our victim sure as hell didn’t,” I said, turning to the remains on the ground behind the yellow police tape. “Let’s take a look.”

I sucked air in through my mouth and held it—tasting the particles of death and rolling them across my tongue as if they were a fine wine before squatting next to the body. I knew from my vision the kill was recent, but the taste of death lingered and I was able to narrow the time down to the minute.

Don’t let your guard down, I whispered in Cal’s mind. They could be close. Watching.

He paled visibly, but nodded his head.

Dragons don’t have fingerprints, so I didn’t bother to put on gloves before touching her. We’re also a very clean race, which is what made this particular case so difficult. There were no pieces of skin to gather and analyze. No hangnails, no strands of hair. And no visible footprints. There were no fucking clues at any of the scenes. I had nothing, and it was beyond frustrating.

I was an expert tracker, my senses keen, and my mental capabilities greater than almost all others of my kind. The job of Enforcer was a hereditary trait passed only through those of my grandfather’s blood. A dragon’s mental powers were strong. We could all read minds with ease, except those of the most ancient Drakán. But an Enforcer was the only one gifted with the ability to control minds. With the centuries of human blood diluting our race, I was the only one who’d gained the power in several thousand years. Someday Cal would get there, but not yet.

Whoever I was hunting knew me, knew my abilities, so each kill was always made by someone different—someone whose scent I wasn’t already looking for. This was a sport to them—an initiation of some kind. My fists clenched against my thighs, and the bite of my nails against skin brought my rage under control. They were playing with me, but they’d made a mistake this time.

Someone had torched the body after killing her. Despite the fairytales, not all dragons could breathe fire, so my list of suspects decreased from a few thousand to less than a few hundred. I was among the many who’d never been blessed with the skill. Human blood diluted our Drakán powers, and many of us were missing the genes to carry on the magics of our ancestors to the next generation.

“None of the other victims were burned like this,” Cal said. He held a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, and he was ghostly white under his freckles.

“No,” I agreed. “And it was stupid of them to start now. There has to be a reason they torched this one. At least it’ll make them easier to find.”

“How do you know they didn’t just douse her in gasoline and light a match?”

“The smell, first of all. Torch fuel makes my throat raw. Besides, look at her body closely. She’s still burning.” The embers of the inside of her body glowed red as she burned from the inside out. “If we had shown up two hours from now there would be nothing left of her. Only dragon fire can burn that hot. Once the fire starts it can’t be extinguished.”

“What do we do?” Cal whispered.

“I can slow the deterioration enough so we can get her home to Erik. He’ll want to take a look at her.” I dug through the black bag at my side until I came up with a can of cooling spray—a special formula my brother had come up with. But despite Erik’s best efforts, he’d never been able to invent anything that could stop dragon fire completely.

“Why do you say ‘she’? Cal asked.

“Really, Cal? I’d figured you’d be able to tell the difference between a man and a woman at this point in your life.”

Cal flushed red, and I took pity on him. Surely I hadn’t managed to hire the only hundred year-old virgin in our society. And maybe the charred meat in front of us did look rather androgynous.

“Look at the shape of the pelvis,” I told him, blanking my mind as I pointed to the charred areas that identified her as woman. “Definitely female. And the size of her in general is consistent with that of a female.”

“Right,” Cal muttered. “I knew that.”

I opened her thighs and the burnt skin crackled. There were several tears in the flesh. Made from teeth sharp enough to leave nothing but ragged pieces behind. They hadn’t killed her for food, but for fun. There was too much meat left on the lower half of her body, and dragons never wasted a meal. If they’d meant to use her for food they would have taken the body back to their lair with them.

“They always travel in a pack,” Cal said. “But I don’t understand why they tried to cover their tracks with this one. They didn’t burn the others.”

“Maybe there wasn’t a member of the pack who could breathe fire before. Maybe they’re traveling with someone new.” I moved to the head and picked up the skull gently, just in case there was anything I missed. Her hair had been dark and probably long, but it was now melted against the bone like plastic. Where a nose had once been was now an empty cavity and the mouth was drawn and open in the parody of a scream.

“Let’s get her bagged and back home so we can dispose of her properly,” I said. “I’ve found all traces of the different scents of her killers I’m going to find. None of them are familiar to me. I’ll start hunting as soon as we get back. We’ll have to dig up all the ground underneath her and bring it with us. You know the drill. I don’t want any sign that she was ever here.”

“You got it,” Cal said. He’d already taken a shovel out of the bag.

I laid the skull back down and moved to stand up, but as I did her eyelids crackled open and immediately sloughed away like dust, leaving her eyes big and round in their sockets.

“Kill me,” she wheezed.

Cal dropped the shovel and jumped straight up into the tree above us—more than fifty feet.

“Shit,” I said. It was the only thing I could think of as I stared into a pair of pale yellow eyes with pupils in the shape of diamonds.

She was Drakán—one of us. And it was now glaringly obvious why they’d chosen to burn this woman. There was no other way to get rid of the body. All of their other kills had been human, so the last thing I’d expected to find was that the victim was one of us.

I moved down to her calves where the fire hadn’t spread yet and inhaled deeply. Her scent was faint, but it was there. And it wasn’t the scent of my clan. What I had to figure out was what the hell she was doing in our territory. I opened my mind and let my power flow, trying to read the last images she’d seen, but she was already too far gone, and I saw nothing but the blackness of impending death.

“Kill me,” she said again.

“Who did this to you?” I asked. I knew I didn’t have a lot of time to question her. She had no chance for survival, and I winced at the pain she must be suffering. I couldn’t even fathom the torture of burning to death slowly.

Cal jumped back down, and took the recorder from the bag to start documenting.

The woman tried to answer, but she was turning to ash in front of my eyes, little bits of her blowing into the wind with every small movement she made.

“What’s your name? What clan are you?”

“Jillian.” Her voice was no more than a whisper.

I wasn’t going to get anything helpful out of her, and I couldn’t stand to see her suffering any longer. “Be at peace, sister.” I took her head in my hands and twisted hard and fast so the break was clean. I held the skull between my hands and crushed it so the only thing left was a fine bone dust that fell in grey flecks to the frozen ground. She wasn’t in pain any longer. “Let’s get her home to my brother,” I said when it was done. “Maybe he’ll be able to tell us something that will help us catch them.”

Dragons were hard to kill. The head could be separated from the body to slow us down, but the skin would re-knit itself if the two pieces were brought back together. The heart could be taken and crushed, rendering us unconscious for a day or two, but eventually the organ would regenerate itself. Ashes to ashes was the only way to truly kill a dragon, but killing one of our own was an automatic death sentence by the High Council.

The tortures that Jillian had just experienced were nothing compared to what would happen to her killers.

I just had to find them first.

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