Dragon Hunter Wanted: Sword supplied. No experience necessary.
One moment, I was a normal (if somewhat germaphobic) math teacher getting ready for summer vacation. Then my sister died in a pile of black ash, leaving me with a sword ... and her destiny as dragon hunter. It turns out there's a whole other world out there filled with demons, dragons, and spirits. Now my job is to protect mortals - and I haven't got a clue what I'm doing. Then there's tattooed hotness Ian Iskander. Part dragon hunter and part demon, Ian's got some seriously creepy business associates and keeps trying to steal my sword. So why do we keep getting lost in hungry, crazy-hot kisses? Ian is the only person who can help me figure out who-and what-I am. But trusting a half-demon is dangerous ... because when you play with dragon fire, someone always gets burned.
Release date: August 28, 2018
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 368
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Memoirs of a Dragon Hunter
“AH, IAN, THERE YOU ARE. I WAS WONDERING IF I should tackle that demon myself, but now you’re here.”
Ian Iskandar studied the man seated on a tall metal stool behind a bunch of expensive medical equipment. “Do we have to have this argument again?”
“We wouldn’t have to if you’d simply see reason and stop denying who you are.”
Ian shook his head. “I came because you said you needed my help. I assumed it was for your research. If you need someone to tackle a demon, you’ll have to ask your daughter for aid.”
“You were the best dragon hunter in North America for centuries.”
“I was the only dragon hunter in North America for centuries,” he countered, and shook his head a second time. “No. I’m not discussing this. I made my decision, and I am standing by it. If you don’t need me for your research—”
“Oh, but I do.” Adam bustled over to a table and picked up a battered leather notebook. “It’s because of my research that I called you. My esprit is gone. I’m positive a demon has her.”
Ignoring the stirring of his own demon self, Ian glanced toward the wall where a sword in a leather scabbard hung from a hook. That never failed to come alive at the most inopportune moment. “How did a demon get the esprit out of your sword?”
Adam Larson looked chagrined. “Well, as to that…she might have wanted a little time off, and since I knew I’d be working here, I told her she could go to the zoo. But a demon must have gotten her, or she’d be back by now.”
“No,” Ian said simply, and turned to the door, intending to walk out of the room. He’d go back to his bleak, colorless life, his soul as cold as an arctic night.
“This is important, Ian,” Adam called after him. “I’m close. Very close. But I need my esprit returned. I’m vulnerable without her. Please. I need you.”
Ian debated the wisdom of standing there, of considering Adam’s request. Pain lashed him, but he drove the memories down, deciding quickly. He would do this one thing. He would find the esprit, and then return to the gray misery of his life. Surely no one could be harmed in the act of locating one small spirit. “Since you are my mother’s favorite cousin, I will find your esprit. Do you know for certain that a demon has her?”
“No, although there’s one who’s been skulking around. Its name is Dorito. No, that’s not right. Schwarma? Whatever its name, I want my esprit back. Now, please hurry. Helen will—”
The fine hairs on the back of Ian’s neck stood on end just a fraction of a second before the air behind him swirled. He turned to confront whoever entered, but a flash of blinding light sent him flying backward, slamming him against the wall with enough force to make him see red and yellow splotches.
Sound was dulled, with only the wild beat of his heart audible until he managed to regain awareness, and with that came the roar of dragon fire from deep within him. He leaped to his feet, intending on attacking, but stopped immediately when he saw a small girl of about eight years old, her skin the color of polished ebony, her big eyes turning to him in obvious supplication.
That gaze pierced Ian like nothing had in all the long years of his life. He started to move forward, pausing when a woman sidled through the doorway, a long black sword held easily in her hand.
“The spirit says you are close to making dragon hunters stronger,” the woman said, addressing Adam with a voice as rough as sandpaper on gravel. She was a demon, of that Ian had no doubt. “I can’t have that. In fact, the less of you there are, the happier I’ll be, and since Anzo loves finding slaves, I’ll simply solve the problem of what to do with you by letting her have you.”
To Ian’s horror, the demon reached out and tore open the fabric of space, leaving a gaping, inky rent in the air itself.
“Come along,” the demon said, gesturing toward the blackness. “It’ll go easier for you if you don’t make me escort you there myself. I have plans for this little spirit.”
“No,” Adam protested, backing away, clutching his notebook. “I have work to do. Important work. I just need a little more time.”
“Time’s up,” the demon said with a sickly sweetness that seemed to slide across Ian’s skin like acid. “I guess you want to do this the hard way.”
The little girl, Adam’s esprit in human form, continued to gaze at Ian with liquid brown eyes, as soft as a still pond in shadows. Those eyes pulled at him, speaking volumes without a single word being uttered.
The demon inside him struggled to gain the upper hand. Ian gritted his teeth, dreading the familiarity of the scene. It was like a nightmare come to life—his dragon side and his demon side fighting for control, a relative in peril, the helpless knowledge that he couldn’t be what he needed to be.
“Do not make me repeat myself!” the demon snarled, gesturing with her sword.
Adam cast a horrified look at Ian. “I…I…can’t…”
Sweat beaded on Ian’s brow as he slowly, painfully wrestled control from his inner darkness. His skin crawled when the demon stepped forward, one hand reaching out toward Adam. His mind screamed a hundred warnings, mingling with the memories that he kept locked away within himself.
Ian closed his eyes for a moment, sick with the knowledge that he couldn’t live with himself if he failed again. “I’ll go.”
The words hit the air with a finality that seemed to reverberate in his bones.
The demon paused and slid a questioning glance his way. “You? Who are you?”
He met her gaze. “I am a dragon hunter. If your master wants a sacrifice, then I will go in Adam’s place.”
“Ian, no! You would be putty in a demon lord’s hands without your élan vital,” Adam protested, looking as sick as Ian felt, but there was no other way. He would not fail again.
The little girl smiled, her eyes lighting with little golden sparkles. Then she was gone, a light bobbing for a moment on the hilt of Adam’s sword where it flared briefly before subsiding. “What? No!” The demon spun around, trying to find the girl.
“Take it!” Adam rushed past Ian, snatching up the sword and thrusting it at him. “I bequeath my élan vital to you. Take it and use it to protect yourself. Ian—I will not rest until—”
“Argh!” The demon lunged, but Ian was too quick. He swung the sword, but the demon bobbed, avoiding his attack. Her movement left her at a disadvantage, however, a fact that Ian used by grabbing her free arm and throwing her forward into the rent in space.
He glanced back, his soul singing a dirge of sorrow. “Finish your work,” he told an astonished Adam. “I’ll keep the demon off your neck for as long as possible.”
Before Adam could respond, Ian flung himself into the tear.
He hit the floor hard, flat on his face, his chin taking the brunt of it, the sword underneath him.
“—unexpected visit. What are you doing here?”
“Er…I…uh…I brought you a present, my lord. A dragon hunter.”
“Oooh, I’ve never had one of those. And such a handsome one. Goody.”
Through the pain and disorientation, Ian noted the glare the demon turned on him. He grabbed the sword, using it to get to his feet, his head spinning.
An elegant woman with a sensual voice and languid movements strolled toward him, her bright blue eyes drinking him in. “So very yummy.” She stopped before him, one finger tracing the line of his jaw. Ian fought to keep from stepping back, a dark, insidious pain seeping outward from his belly, gripping him with iron claws.
“And how delightfully horrified you look. My darling, what good times we shall have, you and I.” The woman…no, not woman, demon lord…smiled at him.
Ian was filled with dread at the sight of her.
What had he done? What the hell had he done?
“I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE TAKING THE WHOLE SUMMER off. Teachers are so lucky. You don’t have to work all year long like the rest of us.”
That’s how it started. Or at least, according to the writing class I took, it’s where the action started. And action, according to Manny Vanderbris, creative writing teacher extraordinaire, is the most important thing when writing.
So I’m starting my book with action—that of me setting up my laptop on a small writing desk, my next-door neighbor Teresita idly watching me arrange a tablet of paper, five freshly sharpened pencils, and a red pen in proper symmetrical order on the desk. “You’d be surprised how much work we do in the summer. We have classes to take, summer school to teach, side tutoring jobs, meetings and webinars and planning. It all has to be done before school starts again. Would you mind not doing that?”
“Sorry. You’ve been so normal lately, I forgot your OCD.”
I returned the five pencils she’d taken from the small vase that was set at two o’clock on the desk, at a perfect distance from the computer to avoid spilling onto it, and yet easily reachable by my right hand. I fought against the anxiety that suddenly swelled, reminding the small panicked animal that I imagined lived in my brain that everything was in its place, exactly where it needed to be, and moving the pencils into place again would serve no useful purpose. “If you were anyone but someone I’ve known since I was four years old, I’d take offense to that normal bit. OCD people are perfectly normal. We have issues that we have to cope with, just like everyone else. Ours simply get in the way sometimes.”
Teresita shifted away from the wall and wandered over to the mantelpiece. I bit my lip against the request that she not move my things around, telling the anxiety animal that it was okay if someone else touched my possessions. It was even bearable if they were moved out of place.
“Veronica James, did you just lecture me in your teacher voice? You did, didn’t you? I’m sorry about the ‘normal’ thing…You know I think you’re perfectly sane, even if you did have nutball parents. And your therapy has helped so much. I’m proud of you, girl! When I think about that year when you couldn’t leave your apartment because you couldn’t stop tidying and making sure everything was in its place; and then I see you now, it’s like you’re a whole new person. What’s your book going to be about?”
“I don’t know.” I glanced over the writing table, allowing the rightness of everything to fill me with a glow of happiness. Embracing that happiness went a long way to dealing with the anxious animal in my head. “I haven’t gotten that far. Mr. Manny says it’s best to meditate before writing because that lets your inner storyteller speak without fear of failure. I have a yoga DVD I’m going to use to do that.”
“Yoga in order to write?” She lifted, one by one, a series of seven small ceramic horses that galloped across my mantelpiece in a riot of white flashing manes and tiny pounding hooves. “That sounds like a load of bunkum. Shit, is that the time?” She dropped one of the horses and spun around, hurrying toward the door. “I told Dan I’d be gone for five minutes, and it’s been almost half an hour. He’ll think I’ve run off with that hot guy who moved in downstairs yesterday. Good luck with your book. See you later!”
“Bye,” I called after her, wincing only a little when she slammed my door shut. “And why people can’t close a door properly, let alone be in a room without touching other people’s personal things…”
I couldn’t stand it. I bustled over to the mantelpiece, arranging the horses the way they were meant to be, tsking over the chip on the hoof of the horse Teresita had dropped. The animal in my head shrieked that it was no longer perfect, but also, I couldn’t throw it away. That would leave only six horses, and six wasn’t right…
“Geez, Veronica,” I lectured myself. “And just when Teresita was praising you. Deep breaths, girl. It’s fine. A chip doesn’t matter. The little horses are all where they should be, and that chipped one is just fine.”
My phone chirped just as I forced the anxiety animal back into its cave, still thinking about the chipped hoof. I glanced at my phone but didn’t recognize the number. “It’s not like I can’t glue it together…Hello?”
“What are you trying to glue together?” The voice on the phone was female, slightly breathless, and familiar. “I’d say the pieces of your life, but you are the smartest woman I know, and I’m sure by now you have all your kinks figured out.”
There was only one person who referred to my condition as kinks. “Helen?” I asked, startled.
I hadn’t spoken with my half sister in years. Literally years. “I haven’t heard from you in four years, eight months, and twenty-seven days. Where on earth have you been? Have you talked to Mom? The last time I talked to her—which, sadly, was her calling me to bail her out of a DUI charge—she said you were out in the South Pacific helping set up some sort of a school for orphans. Are you back?”
“I am, and the school I was setting up wasn’t for orphans. Well, not exactly. Kind of. What are you doing?”
“I teach high school math, but you know that. Or you should know it.” Carefully, I set down my chipped horse and decided to worry about repairing its hoof later. “I told you a few years ago in a Christmas card that once I got a handle on my issues, I got a job at the local high school. What are ‘not exactly’ orphans?”
“They’re people who are in hiding. Listen, Ronnie, I’m in a bit of a hurry. Can you meet me? Now?”
“Right now?” I glanced around my sunny apartment. Everything from the two goldfish who swam lazily in a large tank to the writing desk glittered in a golden-red glow of the setting sun. An air purifier hummed away in a manner that reassured me it was sucking all sorts of dust and allergens from the air. I loved my apartment. Everything was in its place; everything was bright and clean and fresh. There was no yelling, no drunken fits of violence, no apathy-induced squalor. It was my own little haven, and now that I had conquered my mental animal, it was a place of peace. “I don’t think I can. I have dusting to do under the bed, and I want to vacuum my heating vents, and then I have some yoga to get done in order to write my book.”
“You’re still trying to write a novel?” Amusement touched her voice. “Is it the same one you said you were going to write as soon as you left college?”
I bridled briefly at the still. “I’ve taken the summer off to write, and these things don’t just burst out of your head, you know. You have to prepare for them. You have to set up a dedicated writing area. You have to get into the mental mind-set of writing, and free your inner muse with yoga and meditation. All that takes time and effort. What did you need? Is something wrong? Oh, Lord, did Mom get out of prison early? I thought she was supposed to be in until next year?”
“I had no idea she was incarcerated again, so I’m afraid I don’t know where she is. Listen, Ronnie, what I need is too complicated to tell you over the phone. Can you postpone your dusting and novel-writing and meet me at…” There was a muffled sound of her speaking and a low answering voice. “Can you meet me at the Fashion Armadillo?”
“It’s a clothing store at the far end of the strip mall out on Sunset. Do you know it?”
“I thought that mall closed. Are you there with someone? Is it a man? You know I’ve broken up with Austin, right? If you had an idea of doing a couples thing, I’m solo now.”
“Good, he was a sociopath.”
“He was not! He was just a bit rigid about things, and had rules that he liked everyone to follow.”
“That’s putting it mildly. No, no, don’t get your feathers ruffled; this has nothing to do with you, your quite possibly homicidal maniac of a former boyfriend, or a couples’ date. Just come to the mall and I’ll explain it all. As soon as possible, okay?”
I glanced at the clock that sat exactly in the center between two windows and allowed a little exasperation to tint my voice. “I have things to do, Helen.”
“I know, but this is important. Life-changing sort of important. Please come. I…I need to see you again. I want to tell you something that it’s time you knew.”
“If I was Mr. Manny, I would tell you that you’re foreshadowing, and that is a big no-no.” I sighed loudly. “All right, I’ll come out to the Fashion Armadillo, although what on earth you’re doing there—”
“Great. See you in a few.”
She hung up before I could say anything more. I stared at my phone for a few minutes, cast a regretful glance at my now-perfect writing table, and mentally apologized to my inner storytelling muse who was waiting for me to do some yoga so she could start the novel I’d been planning on writing for the last twelve years.
Exactly twenty-six minutes later I stopped my VW Bug in front of the now-darkened windows of the last shop in a somewhat seedy strip mall on the outskirts of town. There were no cars in the parking lot, and a tall sodium light meant to illuminate the path of shoppers flickered and buzzed loudly. I sat for a minute staring at the faded, garish painting of an armadillo wearing a flowered hat and psychedelic dress, dancing across the front of the obviously dirty shop windows, and wondered just what the hell Helen was playing at.
To my right, the parking lot yawned empty and mostly dark, only five of the lights actually working. Even so, the place had a decayed, forgotten air to it that gave me the willies. Making sure my door was locked, I dialed the number Helen had used to call me, counting the rings until an automated voice mail picked up and informed me she was not available.
“Helen?” I rolled down my window and leaned out, my voice sounding hushed in the stillness of the night. Although Sunset was one of the main streets in my little Oregon town, the noise from the cars as they zipped by was muffled and distant. “Helen, goddammit, where are you? I am not going to wander around an empty mall that probably has drug users and other squatters holed up inside one of the empty stores. Helen?”
A metallic sound came from behind the building, the sort of sound you’d hear if someone knocked over a hubcap.
I sat for a moment in my car, wishing I’d never agreed to come out, wishing I was back safe in my little apartment, wishing I was at that moment performing downward dog in order to kick-start my muse.
But a sister is a sister, even when she has a different father and left home at age sixteen under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
“Familial guilt or not, she is so going to hear about this,” I grumbled, pulling from my purse a bottle of pepper spray and a bottle of hand sanitizer. With one last glance around the parking lot to make sure no druggies were streaming out of the empty shops intent on beating me to death and stealing my car, I got out, locked it, and set the alarm, and holding the pepper spray in one hand and hand sanitizer in the other, I made my way around the back side of the building.
I thought at first that no one was there. Big black shapes of squarish trash bins were scattered down the back wall, as well as a few boxes, wooden crates, and two stacks of pallets.
“Helen?” I asked, my voice a lot more wavery than I had hoped it would sound.
One of the shadows next to the nearest trash can moved. “There you are. I was wondering when you’d get here.”
Relief swept over me at her voice. I hustled forward, the faint glow of light from the parking lot barely showing Helen sitting on the ground, leaning back against the trash can, her legs out in front of her. “For the love of God, woman, what are you doing?”
“Waiting for you. Pull up a pallet and sit.”
“Are you kidding?” I glanced around, my nose wrinkling in disgust. “Who knows what those pallets were used for. It’s probably germ city. I don’t wish to pick up some mystery superbug resistant to every known antibiotic.”
Amusement was evident in her voice. One arm swept out toward me, offering me an indefinable black object. “Fine, but do you mind sitting down? It hurts my neck to look up at you like that. You can sit on my coat. I swear I have only normal germs that antibiotics love.”
I hesitated for a moment, the animal in my mind screaming we should have brought some disinfecting spray, but told myself that was stupid; Helen was my sister and wasn’t an unclean person, so I accepted her coat. I made a little pad and sat cross-legged next to her on it, ignoring the urges that drove me to leave. “You want to tell me why we’re here and not at a decent place, like a Starbucks where we could have the waitstaff wipe down a table so we could sit without catching diseases?”
“I do and I will.” She shifted slightly against the trash can in order to look at me, her face pale in the faint light. I studied it, noting that although she had the same honey-brown hair that we shared with our mother, her features were not at all like mine. Where my face was round, hers was delicately boned, with cheekbones that she didn’t have to highlight. Her eyes were dark, whereas mine were a particularly blah shade of gray. She had the lithe, elegant body of a ballet dancer. I was shaped like a potato, with short, stubby legs, a long torso, and arms that I felt were inadequate for my body. I disliked the fact that my proportions felt so wrong when she was the perfect balance of form.
“You remember when Dad left suddenly?”
I nodded. My stepfather had always been a nice man, one who was away for more time than he was home, but since his presence brought calmness and sobriety to our disturbed mother, we always cherished the time he was with us. It was a little oasis of sanity in an otherwise insane life. “I was seventeen. Mom went downhill after he left for good. You must have been about thirteen.”
“I was. That was the summer I was sent to the McManahans.”
“Foster care.” I made a face. “Again, I feel like I should apologize for going to Gram and Gramp’s house, and not making them take you, but you know how small their house was, and they had Aunt Ruth and her kids there, too.”
“Sweetie, I didn’t call you here to make you feel bad about our respective horrible childhoods. And for the record, I loved the McManahans and wanted to stay with them, but you know how Mom was when she came out of rehab—everything was going to be better, she was done with addiction, et cetera. But all of that is neither here nor there. What I wanted to point out was that when I was sixteen, I left home. Did Mom ever tell you why?”
I raised my eyebrows. “No. She didn’t talk about it other than to say you ran off to be with your dad, which made me feel a lot better about having my own life in college. I figured if you were with him, you’d be safe. Isn’t that where you went?”
“No. Well, kind of.” She shook her head. “It’s all a bit complicated, but I have to tell you about it quickly. We don’t have much time.”
“We don’t?” I glanced around. “Are the murderous car-stealing druggies coming to get us?”
She gave a little laugh that ended abruptly on a hiccup. “No, it’s too late for that. Ronnie, did you ever feel like…like something was different with Dad?”
“Yes,” I said slowly, not wanting to say anything I might regret. He was, after all, her father, and I assumed he was still alive despite not having heard anything from him in more than sixteen years. “He was always kind of…distant…with me. I thought at first it was because I was a stepkid, but he was that way with Mom, too.”
“It wasn’t you, or Mom. He had to do that to protect us. All of us. Just like I have to protect you now.”
“Protect us from what? Oh, God, is he some sort of drug kingpin with a secret life?”
She gave a half laugh. “No, and you have a serious obsession with the idea of drug u. . .
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