“HEY,” RYAN Foxheart said, lips pressed against my ear. “You gonna get up anytime soon?”
I hummed low in my throat, not wanting to open my eyes yet. The bed was warm and soft, Ryan a hot line of naked muscle at my back, his legs tangled with mine, an arm thrown over my waist. I stretched slowly, letting my back pop as I arched against him. He grunted softly, breath tickling my cheek. I pushed back again, and his hand tightened on my waist. It’d been a long time since he’d fucked me. Knight Commander Foxheart looked good on his back, and looked even better with me above him. But sometimes I just wanted to get fucked, and I thought maybe now was one of those times.
I tried to think if we had anywhere to be, if I had a meeting or a task Morgan had set out for me. For some reason, though, I could barely think through the fog of sleeplust that cloaked my brain. I couldn’t even remember what day it was, but I figured that was okay, given that if anything important needed to happen, I’d remember it.
This was good. This was very, very good.
His hand moved from my waist to my chest, fingers spreading, anchoring me in place as his lips moved to my neck. There was tongue then, and the scrape of teeth. He rolled his hips, cock moving between my legs against the back of my balls.
“So good,” I groaned, unable to find the strength to open my eyes. “Keep doing that.”
He chuckled darkly. “You like that? You like me rubbing off on you?”
“Pretty much the best thing ever,” I mumbled sleepily.
“I can think of one or two things that would be even better.”
“That right, Knight Commander? What do you have in mind?”
“Here,” he said. “Let me show you.”
His hand stroked down my chest slowly, fingers leaving heated trails in their wake. The muscles in my stomach jumped and fluttered as he scraped his nails against them. He rolled his hips again, and I didn’t even try to stop the whimper that crawled out of me. There was a huff of breath on my neck, and I said, “Stop teasing, come on, come on,” and then he circled my cock, squeezing it tightly. I thrust up into his fist, fucking his tight grip. It was dry and my skin burned slightly, but it was worth it. We’d get the oil in a little bit. For now I wanted to feel it as much as I could.
I said, “Gods, I love you, I love you so much,” and I’d never meant anything more in my life.
He said, “I have awoken, O human child. In this forest deep, in the dark of the wild. And I have seen what is in your heart. Take heed of my warning: you are not ready.”
Gooseflesh rose along my arms. “Ryan? What are you—”
I opened my eyes.
I stood before the Great Doors to the throne room in Castle Lockes.
I took a step back, jerking my head around.
I was alone.
“What is this?” I muttered. “How did I get—”
A low murmur of voices came from the other side of the Great Doors.
A feeling of dread trickled down my spine.
I thought about turning and walking away, trying to find Ryan. Or Gary. Or Kevin or Tiggy or my parents or Morgan or Randall or someone, anyone who could tell me what was going on, why I was standing in Castle Lockes in my best robes, a heavy weight gripping my heart, squeezing until I could barely breathe.
There was something else there, tickling the back of my mind, and I couldn’t quite grasp it to pull it forward into the light.
I pressed my hands against the Great Doors.
The wood vibrated under my fingers.
I didn’t want to go inside.
It felt like pain and grief.
I didn’t want that.
I didn’t want any part of it.
I pushed the doors open.
They groaned as they parted, a loud creak that echoed throughout the throne room.
Which, surprisingly, was full.
It was dim inside, the sunlight through the stained-glass windows pale and muted. There had to be a thousand people standing before me, their backs to me. They all seemed to be dressed similarly, in grays and blacks. The men held their hats in front of them. The women’s black-netted veils covered their faces. Their heads were bowed.
I was late, obviously, but for what? I hoped maybe I could get to the front without being noticed. Morgan would probably chew me out, but I could apologize and tell him I just didn’t—
Oh, Sam. You truly are beyond what I had hoped for. But I must remind you again: I have never lied to you. Can you name someone else in your life that can say the same?
I took a stumbling step forward.
I knew that voice, but I couldn’t put a face or a name to it. It felt important—all of this did—but the lust fog had turned into something darker, something deeper, and it coated my skin, tugging me down, slowing everything about me.
My footsteps echoed against the stone floor.
No one turned to look at me.
I knew what this was. Given the way everyone was dressed, it could only be one thing.
“This is a funeral,” I whispered.
I tried to turn and leave. I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Instead, I walked forward.
The steps I took were deliberate, measured. But my body felt stiff and tired. I ached all over, and I was having a hard time catching my breath.
It wasn’t long before my eyes burned and my face was wet.
And I didn’t know why.
I was a quarter of the way to the front of the throne room. I didn’t know if it was the tears, the fog, or something wrong with my vision, but I couldn’t make out what waited for me. It was blurred and lost in a haze. I didn’t think it could be anything good.
I passed another row of mourners only to be stopped by a hand on my shoulder. I looked over to see a dragon made of stars watching me. No one seemed concerned that such a creature existed amongst them. His starlight pulsed low, creating shadows that crawled along their faces. He twinkled and he sparkled, and I felt sick to my stomach at the sight of him.
He said, “Hey, hi. Hello, Sam of Wilds. Did you know that when an apprentice becomes a full-fledged wizard, their name changes? It’s a title, an honorific. It’s meant to show the progression of a wizard’s magic. You are Sam of Wilds. You must become Sam of Dragons. And I’m sorry to say that all of you will not survive until the end. There will be loss, Sam. And it will burn like nothing has ever burned before. You must remember to keep in the light, even when the dark begins to curl around your feet.”
Then he turned and bowed his head.
I moved on.
A choir began to sing. Their song was an aching one, burning bittersweet in my heart. I couldn’t make out the words, but it didn’t matter. I knew the tone of what it was.
The front of the throne room came into sharper focus.
The thrones had been removed. By whom, I didn’t know. It was a rarity when it happened. Usually only for funerals. And there were only funerals in the throne room when someone important had died.
I saw my parents first. They stood side by side, heads bowed. My mother’s shoulders shook. My father reached up and wiped his eyes.
They didn’t look up.
A hornless unicorn stood next to them and a half-giant next to him. The half-giant held the unicorn’s head to his chest, running his hand through the mane.
“Gary,” I said. “Tiggy.”
Two wizards. Morgan and Randall.
A King. A Prince.
Anthony and Justin.
A fierce black dragon, his head through an open doorway that led to a garden.
“Kevin,” I said. “Guys, what’s going—”
“Stone crumbles,” another voice said, and I turned to see a snake dragon monster thing curled in the corner, tongue flicking out as it watched me. “You have to remember that, Sam. Stone crumbles.”
“Do not listen to him,” a voice whispered in my ear. “He is but a child. He knows not of what he speaks. I have seen it, Sam of Wilds, for I have the sight. You must come home. I will show you what you’re supposed to do. You have been chosen. It calls for you.”
“Vadoma,” I said as she walked past me. She was followed by a large wolf. My magic curled at the sight of him, pulling me toward him, but I resisted as they stood off to the side, like they were waiting to see what I would do.
I looked away from them. I didn’t trust them. Her more than the wolf.
He lay atop a stone dais, his armor shining brightly in the flickering candlelight. His skin was waxy and pale, his lips almost colorless. I could see the hint of teeth underneath them. His hair fell in waves across his head, dull and lifeless. A sword lay on his chest, his hands clasped around the hilt.
He was beautiful.
He was dead.
I said, “Ryan? You gotta get up. You gotta get up, okay? Please. Please get up.”
The candles went out all at once. Little wisps of smoke rose from each of them.
The weak light through the stained-glass windows began to fade, as if the sun was covered by an approaching storm.
And then I felt it. A sickness. Disease. A sense of wrongness.
I turned to look back the way I’d come.
A man stood at the Great Doors. He was obscured by shadows.
“I won’t let you do this,” I told him, though I didn’t know why. “I won’t let you have him. Or anyone.”
“The dragons will never be yours.”
“Here’s a hint, Sam,” he said, voice garbled like the shadows were spilling from his throat. “It’s never been about the dragons. I don’t want the dragons. Those are all yours, kiddo. Gather them. Don’t. I don’t give a fuck what you do with them. In the end, it won’t matter. For them. For you.”
“I will end you,” I said.
“I relish the thought. I told you once that I would rip the lighting-struck heart from your chest. Trust me when I say I’ll do just that.”
“You want to see just how lightning-struck my heart is?” I snarled at him. “You’ve got it.”
And I gathered my magic around me, the strength of it unfocused and wild because my cornerstone was dead, he was lying on a stone slab behind me, dead, and I would tear this world apart to make sure those responsible suffered as much as I had.
The dark man in shadows laughed, and I—