Chapter 16

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Braeden rose slowly to his feet. His left arm ached something fierce, but he pushed the pain to the back of his mind until it was nothing more than an annoying twinge. Whatever drug the Shadow Sisters had shot him up with to sedate him had slowed his healing to a slow crawl and sent his inner demon into hibernation. He was building up a resistance—it was the only reason he had been able to escape after weeks of nightmarish hallucinations—but not fast enough for his liking. He should've waited to escape until he was stronger, but he saw a chance and he took it. With his mind and body still sluggish, he hadn't been sure he'd be able to control the fire drake. He'd managed, barely, and somehow he'd found the wherewithal to find Sam. And he'd be damned if it all came to naught.

He was stronger now than he had been this morning, but the task ahead of him was a far harder one. When he'd stolen the smallest drake at daybreak, he hadn't needed to wrest it away from another rider. The control he'd forged was tenuous, and the fire breather fought him the entire way. So when the pull of unconsciousness had threatened to take him under, he'd killed the beast, rather than risk its disobedience. Maybe that had been a mistake. He'd thrown away a powerful weapon. Now he would need to make another gamble, but this time, more lives than his were at stake.

Sam slipped under his right arm, steadying him. "You're swaying on your feet," she murmured.

Braeden glanced down at the top of her head. Her hair had grown lighter from the sun in the weeks since he'd last seen her, glints of red and gold running through the dark sable. She was so much smaller than him, his Sam. So much more breakable. So much more human. Yet she was afraid for him. "I haven't found my sea legs yet," he lied. To pull this off, he needed her focused, not needlessly worried over him.

Sam tilted her head back to look up at him, skepticism writ plain on her face. "Don't go dying on me, you big lout. I've only just found you again."

Braeden pressed his lips to her brow, wishing they were a million miles from here—back at sea, back in Thule. Anywhere but this burning ship in this gods forsaken land he'd once called home.  Against her forehead, he said, "Neither of us is going to die today. I swear it."

"Then tell me what you need me to do."

He stepped out of her embrace. "I'm going to take care of the drakes. I need you to handle their riders."

Sam made a frustrated groan. "I can't even see the riders. How am I supposed to fight them?"

"I've seen the Shadow Sisters in action," he said. "They can't fight and shield at the same time. If you can get them on the defensive, they'll drop their shadow shields."

Behind them, the mainmast cracked and split, folding in on itself with a loud crash. The smoky haze covering the ship grew thicker. The men who hadn't made it below deck coughed and shouted, fighting and climbing over each other to get to the hatch. Desperation made men do desperate things. Many of them would die today. Braeden's fault, because he'd wanted so badly to find Sam he hadn't cared who got in the way. He could blame the drugs for his ill-thought-out escape plan, but even if he were clearheaded, he wasn't sure he'd have done differently.

Braeden closed his eyes and concentrated. He blocked out all the noise, the heat, the smoke—even Sam, standing beside him—until the world was a blank void, except for the darkness at the edges. Distantly, he was aware that he hated it here, this bleak, lonely place in his mind absent of color or emotion. But the part of himself that knew hate and joy and love was nothing more than an outsider looking in, behind the invisible walls he'd erected himself.

He made himself step into the darkness. Even here, in this place, he was repulsed by it. The darkness had a voice: "Braeden," it whispered seductively. But he kept one foot firmly in the void, and its oily slickness recoiled and slid off him.

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