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BRAXTON

 

They say there is no power like that of Dragon Fire…

They are wrong.

Hatred is stronger.

* * *

“…He will never stop. Not until he kills you all or Caelisium is destroyed. That is why I must now do something I wish I never had to do.

I beg you to kill the Warlock King, Braxton.

You have to kill my father.”

Slipping from my trembling hands, the last page of my mother’s letter hit the ground. Both horror and anger like I had never experienced coursed through my veins, until a storm of emotions formed inside me. I slowly rose to my feet while my wild eyes glanced all around, processing her words.

“The Princess of Caelisium…

…Kill my father.”

And yet, I couldn’t focus on the grass, or the trees, or even the moonlight beams that graced the earth before me. All my eyes saw were the images projected in their stead. The death of my dad. The agonizing physical, emotional, and mental pain with which my mother was forced to live. The death of Evie’s parents as well as her aunt’s, and the killing of Willow’s family played before my eyes as though I had witnessed them myself. As did every story of loss the people of the Hidden Kingdom had shared with me.

So much loss. So many innocent people taken from their loved ones. So much terror inflicted by a single man. An evil man… and I carried his blood inside of me.

My grandfather.

My hands fisted as my body shook, simmering rage rushing through my being at the impossible, yet dark reality of my life. At the collective horrors this world had been forced to suffer.

The red glow of Tharion’s lava fire rushing under his scales illuminated the night around me, and my mouth opened, devastating rage exploding from my core in a scream. Tharion’s roar echoed mine, both thundering through the forest like a deathly warning.

His fire breath caught the trees around us, making the entire area glow as it burned. I didn’t care. I roared again, and again, until my voice was nothing but a raspy whisper of sorrow. Eyes finally focusing on the swaying flames before me, I fell to my knees on the ground, fists still shaking, chest harshly rising and falling with every breath.

“Ah, yes… the sweet taste of unabashed hate. Delicious.”

With the unexpected voice, my surroundings instantly changed. I found myself in the tower of the Crimson Fortress, on my knees, in front of the Warlock King.

A part of me wasn’t surprised to see we had somehow connected, and I’d ended up once more in his mindscape. Holding his gaze, I rose to my feet, not wanting to give him any reverence.

“Raithian…” I spat like his name was venom on my tongue.

His lips tilted into a pleased grin, like my ire was giving him life. He walked towards the corner where his elaborate wooden bar sat—its built-in structure almost reaching the ceiling in its magnificence. The embroidered black cape of the royal dress he wore dragged behind him, but his outfit tonight was a rich emerald-green.

Just like the last time he brought me here, the outside was reflected through the tower’s windows, showing Tharion frozen in place on the other side. His mouth was wide open as he roared with my ire, embers floating over his tongue. The entire room was illuminated by the red glow of his blazing lava fire.

When my attention returned to Raithian, I found him pouring a brown liquid, like bourbon, into two glass chalices, a large cube of ice in each of them as he stirred them, that smug smile still on his half-disfigured face. It struck me then that he wasn’t wearing his demon mask. I once thought the sight of him like that would never leave me, and although the burned side of his face was still startling, he looked so relaxed and so… normal.

Why was he showing himself to me?

“You will forgive my manners,” he offered, turning around, and walking towards me with one chalice in each hand. “My glee is not meant to mock you. I’m simply delighted by the ire coursing through you. A delicacy one must always savor. It seems we have something in common after all.”

Anger stirred within me, simmering and blazing, but I contained myself. My gaze briefly fell to his hand when he stopped before me, handing me one of the drinks he’d prepared.

“Do not worry. It is not poisoned…” He smirked, laughter glimmering in his grey eyes. “Now, there, I was mocking you. If I had any mind to kill you, I would have done it the first time I took control of you.”

To my dismay, I saw my mother’s eyes in his, and I hated him for that.

A new surge of fiery fury rushed through my being, and the urge to take the drink just to throw it at his face, glass and all, gripped me. However, I had bigger things to worry about—like how to break his illusion again and the hold he somehow had on my mind. Taking the chalice from him, I noticed two chairs slide towards us, placing themselves behind us for us to sit. Raithian hadn’t even lifted a finger.

Correction, one was a throne and the other a chair.

“What the hell do you want? I was kind of busy,” I snapped.

“Oh, yes. Destroying my forest. I saw that. Very impressive.”

He took a sip as he sat on his throne, motioning for me to do the same. When I refused, the chair slammed against the back of my knees, making me fall into it. The mead spilled onto my pants from the movement.

“Tell me, Braxton. How exactly do you make the Dragon respond to your feelings?”

“There is nothing yours about that forest,” I spat instead. “This world stopped being yours when you turned evil instead of upholding your oath to protect its people.”

“You see, it’s been a while since I have witnessed that,” he continued as though I hadn’t even spoken, admiring the liquor in his glass. “The thing is, it only happens when a Dragon bonds with someone. The bond of soulmates. And there hasn’t been a bond like that since…”

“Since your own Dragon abandoned you?” It was a dangerous assumption to make, but I knew for a fact he had stolen Azazel from my father, and the Dragons had forsaken his cause the day of the Uprising. It made sense that his own soulmate had been one of them.

Raithian’s gaze sharply cut to me, and his nostrils flared with the rage my words caused.

Bingo.

“Is that why your face never healed? Because he wasn’t there to help you?” I doubled down, taking a sip of the mead, because apparently, I had a death wish.

I guess now we are two pissed off assholes.

In all honesty, I had no idea if every Dragon bond with Devenish blood worked like mine and Tharion’s did, but now that I knew it made me different, it explained a few things. I was part of the family the Dragon Gods themselves chose as rulers and protectors of the people of Caelisium, that had to give us some extra perks when it came to soulmates.

Power surged through the room, and wisps of green energy coiled around the Warlock King’s wrists, ready for him to fire. His grey eyes glowed green.

Shit.

My gaze shifted to the way his muscles trembled as he tried to contain the anger, and he closed his eyes, taking a settling breath. A feeling coming from the window made me turn, and I found Tharion’s eyes snapping towards me, even when the rest of his body was frozen.

Our gazes connected and it was my turn to smirk. Getting pissed off was making Raithian lose control of the mindscape. Either that, or my Dragon was even more badass than I thought, and his need to protect me was making him break through Raithian’s hold. I had a way out of here after all. I just needed to enrage the shit out of this asshole.

When my attention returned to him, I found the energy wisps around his hands dispersing while he rubbed his palms over his bald head indulgently. Once his eyes opened again, the glow was gone. His left hand lingered over his disfigured cheek as his gaze focused on me.

“Hmm, my scar. You noticed that. Did you?” he mocked.

“Kind of hard not to,” I snorted, making his eyes narrow on me.

With a wave of his finger, the shirt was ripped from my body, and my chair turned slightly, letting him brazenly glance at my scars. “So are yours. Tell me, Braxton. How did you get those?”

Hand fisting, I rose from the chair, pushing it back harshly until the screech of the metal claw feet over stone echoed in the room. I was so close to punching the shit out of him. “I’m not your toy, so if you want to see something, ask.”

Amusement returned to him, and he stood as well, leaving his chalice on the armrest of the throne—mine remained in my grasp.

“My apologies, I am so used to getting my way that it seems I have forgotten my manners.” He stepped closer. “There is also the matter of not having anyone intelligent enough around to have a decent conversation with.” He openly gazed at my scars, the similarity between them not lost on him, or me. “How did you get those?”

“I’ll tell you my story when you tell me yours.”

He nodded as though it was a fair trade. “My Dragon shot his fire breath at me when he betrayed me and left me for dead.”

Holy shit. I hadn’t actually expected him to answer. “A Dragon attacked me too. Wrong place, wrong time.”

“And this was before Tharion claimed you as his own, I take it. Otherwise, he would have protected you, destroying the other beast.”

My eyes narrowed on him. “They are not beasts. And yes, it was before I met him… How do you know his name?”

That infuriating smile returned. “I know everything there is to know about this world, which is why I’m intrigued by you, Braxton. You are nothing like those miserably boring slaves I used to own. There is something different about you… Who are you?”

“I was your slave until I escaped. Now I’m the princess’ warrior.”

“So you say…” He began to walk again, gliding around me so smoothly that it seemed his feet weren’t even touching the floor. It was as though he was floating with power. “But here is the flaw in that answer. It doesn’t seem feasible. You see, those who now serve Princess Evanna still fear me. If they ever knew me as their master, I can still sense the fear in their hearts with my presence. Even under the layers of righteousness and disdain they…”

I tuned out his words as he walked behind me, and my attention discretely went to Tharion, who was now slowly moving his head towards the window. I wasn’t sure how he could see into the mindscape. Maybe it was our blood/soul connection, but his head was tilting, and the glint in his eye said he was about to light this motherfucker’s throne room with lava fire.

“On my signal…” I sent to him.

“And so, no matter how much they hate me, they are always frightened,” Raithian continued, reaching the front again, and our gazes held the other’s. “Nevertheless, there is no true fear in you. It is almost as though you aren’t truly aware of what I’m capable of. There is defiance in you, just like there is in the others, but—”

“Damn, you really do like the sound of your own voice, don’t you?”

Ire returned to his grey eyes. “I beg your pardon?!”

“You have that right. You are going to be begging for your life by the time Princess Evanna and I are done with you.”

Laughter escaped him, but it was derisive and filled with contempt. “Your bravery borders on stupidity, child,” he sneered, revealing how little patience he really had left for me. “Nevertheless, I didn’t bring you here to quarrel, I have a proposition for you.”

It was my turn to laugh at him, which only enraged him more. “It seems to me that if you think I would ever agree to a deal with you, then you are the stupid one.”

The green glow illuminated his irises a second before his hand smacked into my chest. The surge of power blew me back to crash against the ceiling. The mindscape was terrifyingly real; I felt every inch of the massive carved molding digging into my back when I hit it, then banged onto a desk, breaking it, and bounced to the floor… but I never let go of the glass chalice.

He materialized in a cloud of green smoke, crouching before me. “You fool!” The Warlock King raged like a mad man. His wild gaze focused on me. “Bow to me!”

“I’m going to end you, Raithian!” I vowed instead. “I will watch the life slowly escape through your eyes, but not before I take from you what you cherish the most. The one thing you live for… Power.”

“You insignificant—!"

His words cut off when I smashed the chalice against his head, dragging the broken pieces down his skin and slicing it open from his temple to his mouth. Sweet satisfaction swirled in my chest when his blood spilled, feeding my hatred for him.

I despised him even more now than I had before reading my mother’s letter.

“Now!” I shouted at Tharion, and the windows exploded with his fire breath.

The Warlock King’s head snapped up to see the fire lava shooting straight for him, and I must have hallucinated, because I saw true fear capture his face. He disappeared into green smoke before the fire got to him though.

Pity.

The instant he vanished, I dropped to the ground, crashing over a pile of rocks in the forest just as Tharion shot at the throne room again. Except, it no longer existed. His fire breath reached the trees instead, igniting them.

“He’s gone! It’s gone,” I grunted, pushing myself up to realize all the injuries inflicted in the mindscape were actually on me. My shirt was gone, my hand bled from the broken glass I dragged over Raithian’s face, and I was sure one of my ribs was at least dislocated, if not broken, because it hurt like a bitch.

Tharion grunted too, like he was disappointed he hadn’t burned Raithian to death, and lowered his head to me, rubbing his nose against my back. He, too, could feel my injuries. Grabbing onto his jaw, I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against his skin, instantly feeling the energy exchange between us as he healed me.

Maybe it was my pride, but I loved seeing Tharion’s eyes glow gold as we connected. It never lasted long, but I realized that it was my energy within him that made it happen. My Dragon Eye glowed gold when I used my power, and through that power, so did my Dragons’. It was reassuring to visually see our connection.

Sighing in relief, I placed a thankful kiss on his nose and stood to see him huff, wiping the back of his hand over it to erase my gesture of affection. Chuckling, I glanced down to realize there was blood all over my chest, not only mine but Raithian’s too.

“Is there a lake or river close?” I asked, wanting to wash the blood off me as soon as possible.

The image of a small lake nearby appeared in my mind, and I knew Tharion had sent it.

“Lead the way.”

Turning around, he began to walk through the trees, I followed. We came out to a prettier landscape than what he had originally shown me, or perhaps, it was the way the moonlight shimmered over the water that made it prettier. Honestly, it was kind of romantic.

I should bring Evie here…

The thought awoke the ache in my heart, and my chest constricted, remembering how bad I had left things with her. This whole thing was messed up beyond belief, something our parents had inadvertently started, and life made it even worse for us.

Undressing, I stepped into the surprisingly warm water, and heard the lake sizzle when Tharion followed. His form curled fully around me, like he wanted to make sure nothing else would get to me. His tail created almost a hot tub for me, so after scrubbing myself, I rested against his scales, enjoying the way they glistened, almost resembling smoked steel under the moon.

The more I thought about my father, the sacrifices he and my mother made, and how his own people treated his memory after what happened, the worse I felt. The whole thing made me not want to go back. The truth was, Asher was right. Conjecture, pain, and needing to fill the holes of what we didn’t know, usually made us believe the worst.

What made the most sense to them was that my father had fled, like a coward, and not knowing his secrets, my secrets actually, didn’t help. They saw the man they admired lose hold of the fiercest weapon they ever had against the Warlock King, and then leave. There was only one logical explanation… I supposed I couldn’t blame them for assuming that, though I would have appreciated for them to at least give him the benefit of the doubt. Especially after everything he had done for them out of pure love for his people.

It hurt that Evanna didn’t tell me herself, and then it was too late, but I would be lying if I said that if the situation were reversed, I wouldn’t have tried to protect the memory of her father for her. Keep the awful truth from her. Or in this case, what she believed to be the truth—white lies and all that.

If I tried really hard, I could even put myself in her parents’ shoes. Perhaps, allowing people to believe my dad had betrayed them, assured no one would ever go looking for him and inadvertently guide Raithian straight to us. It assured my parents would be—that I would be safe until it was my time to return.

This whole mess was on me.

No.

This was Raithian’s fault.

Everything was on him. All the hurt. All the lives lost. All the innocence stolen from those children who saw their parents, sisters, brothers, and grandparents murdered before their eyes, just to grow up and fight for a cause that got them killed too. How many warriors had we fucking lost? How many families destroyed because of the greed and inferiority complex of one powerful man?

Ire coursed through me once more, and I knew I shouldn’t be focusing on that, but I was so freaking pissed that it had all begun with someone I could have called family. Family was what I wanted and needed the most right now… but everyone was gone.

“Fuck you, Xavier Devenish!!” I screamed at the four winds, and Tharion’s roar accompanied my own.

Weirdly, the rumbling sound was followed by the sizzling of water, and I glanced at his body to see the red embers twinkling along his dark scales. Steam rose from all around him, except, that was not the only place sizzling. Tharion nodded towards my arms, and my gaze fell to fill me with both shock and wonder.

The skin along my lower arms had been replaced by scales. The same scales that saved me during the duel with Lachlan, but they now shimmered with the red embers of Tharion’s fire lava. Slowly, I turned my hands, noticing the heat radiating off them and to my skin. It was intense but not uncomfortable or sweltering. Somehow, it seemed part of me, as it was part of him.

“Same…”

My attention shifted to the water to find the reflection Tharion had just referenced. Both our scales mixed in the swaying surface of the lake.

“Yes, Tharion. We are the same.”

Unclenching my fists, the scales vanished, and I lifted my hands to stroke his side. A wave of love swept through me, and his affection for me made me realize I had been wrong. He was my family too, and he had done so much to protect me, even, somehow, sharing his scales.

“I’m not as alone as I thought, huh? I have you…”

“Don’t forget you have me too, Son.”

I whirled around to find the sight of my lake merging into my mother’s Lake of Tranquility, with her standing on its shore.

CHAPTER 2

 

 

“Mom…” Without thinking, I walked through the water, wanting to rush towards her. There was so much we needed to talk about now that I had found out the truth.

“Wait!” she warned, lifting a hand to stop me as she averted her eyes. “The last time I saw you buck naked, you were only a child. I love you and want to hug the hell out of you right now, but believe me when I say, I have no desire to see your wee-wee now that you are all grown up.”

“Oh, shit.” My hands flew to my crotch, only then remembering I had fully undressed to wash the blood off me. “Sorry!”

Her chuckles reached me while she turned around, walking deeper into the sandy beach. Jumping through the water, I hurried out of the lake to put my pants and boots on again. I found out the hard way that putting on leather pants while being completely wet was a HUSTLE. I had to jump, and wiggle, and then other things wiggled… It was uncomfortable.

My attention finally returned to her side of the beach, noticing the swaying magic that touched the edges of the entrance to her Heaven. The transition was smooth as I walked through it, yet the abundant peace and the tingling of magic on my body was overwhelming. Nothing like when she first called me here.

“How am I seeing you right now? I didn’t get dizzy or pass out like last time.”

A soft smile curved her lips. “That is because, the first time, I had to pull you from the world of the living into a window of my lake. You accepted my invitation then, so now I can reach you whenever necessary, without having to force you to my side.”

“Oh.”

The instant I reached her, she tugged me into her arms and hugged me tightly. So fiercely that it made my eyes sting, a wave of emotion resurfacing. God, how I missed her.

“What’s happened?” she whispered, pulling away and placing her palm above my heart. “There is such a profound heaviness in your soul. I can feel it as though it was my own.”

Releasing a burdened sigh, I shook my head. “So much, Mom, I don’t even know where to start.”

“Then, I’ll start. I’m so sorry this was the way you learned the truth, my dear boy. This is not what I wanted for you.” A tear escaped her lashes and my chest constricted.

I hugged her again. “This is not your fault, Mom. None of it,” I assured, squeezing the life out of her. She had been a victim her entire life. A victim of destiny, who dealt her such a cruel hand. A victim of her father’s greed and full-on psychosis. Of misguided magic, hatred, and loss. It was no wonder her mind let go of the present while she was alive. It was the only way to protect her from the pain she carried in her memories.

“I never wanted any of this,” she continued. “I wanted to hold you in my arms as a baby and never let go. Protect you from everything and everyone. Give you only happiness and see you achieve your dreams. That’s all a mother ever wants for their child, but you were never truly mine… Destiny claimed you, and it had other plans. You were born for greatness, Brax.”

Her words brought truth, heaviness, and pain into my being, and I didn’t know what to say. Cradling my cheeks, she glanced deeply into my eyes for what felt like several moments but was only seconds, and then placed a kiss on my forehead. Pulling my hand, she guided me to a fallen log on the sand to sit with her.

“Tell me everything.”

So, I did.

I unloaded everything that had happened since we last spoke, including the duel with Lachlan, how I had actually found out the truth about my dad, and the fight with Evie afterwards. I decided to leave out the way Raithian seemed to pull me into his mind every time he felt like it, because there was already a lot to process, and I didn’t want to freak her out.

A tear fell from her eyes as I spoke, sharing the burden with all of those involved, and learning of the losses she missed after she and Dad left to the Mirror World. I also told her about my argument with Willow when she said my dad was a coward.

I regretted that too.

Not the fact that I defended my father, because I knew who he was regardless of what they thought of him, but that it caused her so much pain to have lost her family that day, and that her loss would forever be associated with my father.

“My heart hurts for her… Those innocent lives are too high a price to pay for the salvation of this world… and yet, we must pay it.” Mom wiped another tear, taking a settling breath. “Willow was always such a strong and willful child. Unstoppable, just like her parents—Rowan and Jade. It’s a shame they never got to see her grow up. We all thought she’d be an Elevated Warrior one day.” She shook her head, new tears shining in her eyes. “I can’t believe the twins, Logan and Levi, are gone too.”

“You knew her family well?” I asked, not really knowing what life had been like back then for them.

Mom’s sleek hair glimmered under the moonlight as she nodded, almost as brightly as the water did. “Jade became a sister to me after we left the palace.” Clearing the emotion from her throat, she lifted her gaze to me. “Once we found our first refuge after the Uprising, people were weary of me.”

“They rejected you?” I asked, surprised to hear that the same people who had been so welcoming of me, a complete stranger, had once been hostile towards my mother.

Her hand rested on mine gently. “Honey, you have to understand that I was the princess, after all. Raithian’s daughter. There was no way for them to know my father’s malice had scarred my life too. Everything was so fresh for them—for us—the torture, the injustice, they didn’t really know what to think of me. If it weren’t for your father and Jade, I would have been truly alone. Actually, if it hadn’t been for Khayden, Raithian would have stolen my magic and killed me too.”

“I’m so sorry, Mom.”

“I know, Baby. I know.” Sighing, she squeezed my hand and glanced towards the water.

My gaze followed her when she smiled, and it was only then that I realized Tharion had followed me into the Lake of Tranquility. He was in the water, playing?? Another Dragon lay next to him. His entire form was a greyish white, almost as large as Tharion, and equally parts gorgeous and terrifying.

“How?”

“Dragons are the guardians of Caelisium, and this place, although in another plane of existence, is still part of this realm. You need to be summoned by me to enter the Lake of Tranquility, but they can roam free between the plane of the living and that of the ascended.”

Part of me was impressed by that. The other was glad she hadn’t said “dead” but the ascended. It had a nice ring to it. “So Jade was the only one to welcome you?”

The smile spread over her lips and her attention returned to me. “Yes, she had been close to your dad before the Uprising, so she knew the feelings he held for me. She knew everything we had been through—”

“What did you and my dad go through?” I couldn’t help but interrupt.

“A sucker for romance now, are you?”

Chuckling, I rolled my eyes. “It’s just, you are my parents. I’d like to know.”

“Someday, honey. I promise that after all of this is over, I will tell you everything there is to know about how Khayden and I fell in love in the Crimson Fortress of all places. There are just more important things to address now.”

“I know.”

“Jade accepted me instantly and became my best friend. She, Rowan, Khayden, Ezra, Sienna, and I formed something of a rebel group.” She chuckled. “We became so close, the six of us. Your father dubbed Willow’s parents Elevated Warriors, but they declined. Jade had already given birth to the twins, and though they fought with us and never wavered, they wanted to have a better chance to survive the battles for their children.”

“And Elevated Warriors are at the forefront of the battle,” I added knowingly, seeing her nod. “I don’t blame them.”

“We didn’t either. Once Evie was born, Sienna retreated a bit from the fight too, to be there for her daughter. But when she was fighting, Willow babysat her.” Her lips trembled briefly, yet my mom took a deep breath, willing her emotions to settle. “It just hurts to know they are all gone, and Willow is the only one who remains of her family.”

“She is not alone,” I assured. “She has Evie, and Kingston, who is madly in love with her but won’t dare to say a word to her.” I chuckled when Mom’s eyes grew wide with shock.

“Kiki is in love with Willow?!”

“Yep. The tough giant becomes a puddle in front of her. It’s cute, actually. I think she loves him too but might think her affection is not reciprocated. It’s a mess, but I’m determined to help get them together. They deserve to be happy, and I think that, together, they would truly be.”

A glimmer of happiness engulfed my mother’s eyes. “He is such a good man, with an honest and humble heart. He’d be good to her… And she might just be his chance at real happiness. He still blames himself, you know…” She nodded to herself, sadness briefly grazing her features. “Willow is the peace he needs… I approve.” Her smile returned, and I mirrored it.

“Me too. She also has all the Elevated Warriors who adore her. And me, if she ever forgives me after learning the truth.” My gaze dropped from hers and I glanced at the water, only to glare at the situation I found Tharion in. “What the hell are they doing? Wrestling?”

Mom’s laughter danced in the wind, and I was so happy to hear it. “Leave them be. Storm missed him, and from what I can see, Tharion missed her too.”

“Her? The white Dragon is a female?”

She nodded. “They were mates, way back when.”

Holy cow. Another Dragon actually mated with Fire Fury? My eyes widened even more when I recognized the name. “Storm… She was in your letter. She was one of the Dragons that gave their loyalty to my father even though they weren’t soulmates.”

“Yes… She didn’t survive the fight against Azazel, so she’s here. Permanently.”

Sadness returned to my heart. Tharion had not only lost my father, his soulmate. That day, he lost his mate too.

“Okay, stop deflecting,” my mother chided. “We need to talk about my letter and what all of it means for you.”

Making a face, a deep sigh left me. “I know, but one more question. Are Evie’s parents here? And Willow’s family?”

“They most likely are. All good souls come here. But we all have a different journey towards peace and forgiveness in the Lake of Tranquility. We can only meet with others after we have attained that and crossed the bridge.”

Her attention shifted to the other side of the lake, where what seemed like a bridge of pure light extended towards the mountains. “You are still on your journey?” I asked, finally realizing why she was on this side.

“Yes. I have unfinished business. You need my guidance now more than ever, and I cannot rest until I know that the Warlock King has been defeated. I will not rest until Caelisium is freed once and for all.”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I want you to find peace. I—”

“I have peace,” she assured, cupping my face. “Your father is here with me.” The most breath-taking smile I had ever seen on her curved her lips, and the troubling emotion that had fallen over me swiftly lifted.

“He is?” I jumped to my feet and my head whipped all around, desperately trying to find him while my heart slammed against my chest in anticipation.

A gentle hand on my arm brought my search to a stop. “I’m sorry, Baby, you can’t see him. Only I have the power to soul walk between the plane of the living and the ascended. You will only be able to see me.”

Disappointment crashed into me, but I nodded. “I understand.”

“But he is here, though.” She grinned as the hope returned to my eyes. “Standing next to you.” Her gaze went to a spot to my right, and my heart jumped to my throat.

Swallowing, I faced the spot she had shown me. “Dad?” My voice was barely audible, anxiety and uncertainty clinging to my throat. “Are you there?”

His answer was most unexpected. A gentle breeze swept through me, warm and… emotional? I didn’t know how to describe the feeling, it was too brief to define, but I felt it as strongly and as real as anything I had ever felt in my life.

“He’s hugging you,” Mom added, her eyes shimmering with tears once more.

Like an idiot, I wrapped my arms around the air where he would be, wanting to hug him too, only to see my mom cringe.

“He already let go.”

“Oh.”

Laughter burst from us, and an air of amusement reached me, somehow letting me know Dad was laughing too.

“Really, dude?! You haven’t seen me in years and a two second hug is all I get?” I joked, wiping the couple of tears that escaped me—whether from crying or laughing I had no idea.

The warm and comforting breeze returned to me, more powerful, and I hugged the air again, imagining him there. Several seconds passed before it disappeared this time, and I lowered my arms as it did, stepping back with a sense of contentment I didn’t think I’d ever feel again. I could feel him close, and that was all I needed.

“Your father wants to thank you for defending his honor.” Mom rolled her eyes, and I couldn’t help but do it too, even though a full grin captured my lips.

Dad was the goofiest person ever, and I could just imagine him saying that over-dramatically.

“But he also urges you to understand why Evie, Willow, and the others feel the way they do about him. He says you need to make things right with them because they are your family now, and you need each other now more than ever.”

“I know, Dad. I will. I feel terrible about our argument, but it also hurt me to see them treat your memory like that.”

“We know, Son.” Grabbing my hand, Mom guided me to the beach log again and we sat on it. “Khayden also says to focus on looking for the accord Evie’s parents made us sign. That will explain everything to them and reveal the truth. Your father’s name will be restored after that.”

“I will.”

“He says you need to hone your skills with the Dragons more. You have been paying too much attention to warrior training. Your true place is in the sky, with the Sky Legion.” She sighed. “And that his journal has everything he learned about them. He hopes that will help you. To continue reading and double—no—triple your training with Tharion and the others. Also, he wants to know how many rides you have so far.”

“Um, well. I have Tharion, Venom, Vyper, and Draco—I assume… So four, I guess?”

“That won’t do. He says you are going to need many more to defeat Raithian.”

“Okay,” I whispered, trying to think of what else I could do to get more Dragons. “I guess I could scout for them. And I can also go visit the ones in the honeycombs who are not bonded.”

“Yes, you must. You need—will you wait a moment?!” she suddenly squealed at the space next to her, eyes wide. “Let me at least finish what I’m saying before you throw something else at me. You’ve given me five things to say in the last two seconds, Khayden! Yes, I know this is serious. I-Yes, I know that too. Of course I know he needs help to make this happen, but you are going to overwhelm him—” She stopped talking, clearly exasperated, and glared at me. “Did I say I was at peace here with your father? Because I obviously misspoke.”

Laughter escaped me again, and a ray of joy coursed through me. I missed this. All of this. Their arguments, their playfulness. Their love for each other. Just having them near me again as a family.

“Sky Gods, give me patience for this stubborn man.” Her lips twitched the next moment, and she tilted her cheek in the air as though he was kissing it. “Yes, I forgive you. Now, will you let me speak?” Giving me a dubious glance as though she didn’t believe his promise to behave for a second, she sighed. “He says you need to hone your abilities so that—”

Her head whipped around, eyes throwing daggers at him, and I tried my best not to laugh.

“I will ask him that too, now let me finish!” Glancing at me again, she shook her head knowingly. “You need to hone your abilities so that they will follow your commands. You were born of Dragon blood, Son. You are as much a part of them as you are a part of us.”

Her hands held mine tightly, both love and urgency filling her gaze.

“You are the last Prince of Caelisium, Braxton, and the true heir to the Dragon Throne.”

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