Chapter 2

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It was hard to say how long the dragon had been dead. Our bodies didn't decay at the same rate as humans', even in our human form. It could have been weeks or months or years. From where I crouched, the dragon just looked like he was sleeping.

But there was no question that he was dead. A long wooden shaft protruded from his chest, the wood coated with dried blood. Even a dragon couldn't survive a chest wound like that.

I crept closer to the body, careful to not set off any traps that might be waiting for me. His scarred face wasn't one I recognized, which meant he must have been there for some time. By now, I'd met everyone in Windhaven.

He was painfully handsome, even with his scar. Not every dragon wore their mark so well. Young, too—maybe a year or two older than me. Gunmetal blue eyes stared sightlessly into nothing. Black hair, so black it must have been dyed, was pulled into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck. He should have looked feminine, with long hair like that, but the bones of his face were too strong, his jaw too pronounced. Only the unnatural pallor of his skin hinted at his death. Well, that and the pole through his chest.

I sat staring at the dead dragon for far longer than was wise. Who was he, I wondered, this dragon I never knew. What had happened to him? And why had he tried to escape Windhaven?

Another thought occurred to me. What if, instead of escaping Windhaven, he had been trying to break in?

It was a crazy, irrational thought. Windhaven hadn't received any communications from a dragon outside these walls in more than two years. Many doubted that any of them still lived. Even if there were other dragons elsewhere in Blackthorne, why would they come here? Windhaven was a prison. There were no bars or striped uniforms, but deep down, we all knew what this was.

I shook my head to clear it. No more wasting time with the dead. "I'm sorry," I whispered, and swept my hand over his eyes, closing his lids. If I came back—no, when I came back, I'd see to it that he was buried. Somewhere, somebody mourned him.

I pressed on through the tunnel, holding my candle out in front of me. The Mortalis Guard had been through here recently—the dirt ground showed fresh tire tread marks. The Guard must have deactivated whatever booby traps had been set in order to get in and out of Windhaven without harm. That didn't mean, though, that they hadn't since been reactivated.

The handsome face of the dead dragon flashed before me. I didn't want to wind up like him. If I died, my father was doomed.

I made a right turn, and then a left, my feet scuffing up dirt as I followed the tire tracks. With every step, I expected to set off a bomb or some other nefarious death trap. But I plodded on, with my life and all my limbs intact.

Another turn took me to the end of the tunnel. An iron lattice gate blocked the exit, a heavy padlock hanging from a latch in the middle. Light from the outside poured in, patterning the ground.

That was it? A locked door was Blackthorne's idea of security? Had they really kept us all prisoner for years with nothing more than a few well-placed rumors and fear?

But what about the dead dragon? my subconscious whispered. Something had killed him in the tunneled walls. Unless...unless his body had been planted, to send dragons like me running.

Squaring my shoulders, I approached the gate and examined the make of the padlock. I didn't have the key, but I didn't need one. I had my father's hunting knife, and that would do just as well.

Jamming the knife's blade into the keyhole, I felt around until I found the pin. Putting my full weight into the effort, I twisted my wrist back and forth until the pin moved, and the bolt popped open.

I smirked. Picking a lock was a skill my father taught me. He himself had learned the trick during the war. I had thought it a waste of time when he made me practice over and over again until I could practically do it blindfolded. Now I guess I owed him one.

After removing the padlock, the gate swung open easily. Cautiously, I peered outside and took a single step into the broad daylight.

A low whistle was the only warning I got. If there had been the slightest breeze, I never would have heard it.

But I did hear it—a long, low whine and a slight fizz buzzing like a bee in my ear. Every instinct I had screamed at me to run.

I ran. Arms and legs pumping wildly, I ran until the world around me was a blur. I saw nothing, heard nothing but the sound of my own breathless pants. My lungs burned and my heart thumped like a punch against the inside of my chest.

Get away get away get away the voice inside me screamed.

I didn't stop until I ran headfirst into a solid wall, toppling over with it. At least, I thought it was a wall until it let out a grunt and began to wriggle underneath me.

"What the 'ell," the body underneath mine grumbled. "That 'urt, it did."

Hastily, I scrambled to my feet, offering the boy I'd tumbled a hand up. "Sorry," I gasped, struggling to catch my breath. "I wasn't watching where I was going."

The boy snorted, brushing off the dirt from his blue overalls. His forearms were a deep bronze, like he spent plenty of time in the sun. "No need to state the obvious." He said "obvious" like it had four syllables instead of three. A deep country accent—one I hadn't heard outside of movies. "What you running from anyway, girl?"

"Nothing," I lied. "I just felt like running. That's all."

His head snapped up, and he saw me—really saw me—for the first time. His gaze ran over my scar, then fastened on my collar. "You're a dragon."

Before I could respond, a loud explosion rocked the ground.

A/N: So I'm continuing to update this for now, just cuz it's super easy to write. By the way, if I'm slower to respond to comments than usual these days, it's because of my day job, which just got a lot crazier. It should hopefully lighten up in a couple weeks. But I do appreciate your feedback!

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