Being resurrected felt the same as dying. A fire bloomed with intense heat through my body, the flame blinding. The difference was that when I’d died, the sooty blackness dragged me under fast. This time, I was hurtled toward the fire itself, yanked unwillingly into the core of its blaze and held there, suspended while the light sent searing pinpricks into extremities that I hadn’t felt in eons.
It hurt, but it wasn’t the same pain as dying. It was the pain of numbness dissipating as circulation returned to a limb. My body hadn’t existed for a very long time. I didn’t quite know how long it had been, but some core of my awareness told me long enough.
Long enough for the maddening sticky ichor that had corrupted my mind to be no more than a niggling memory. Long enough that the overwhelming love and pain that had filled that deadly fire had long since faded to ash and blown away on the wind.
When the numbness finally cleared and the painful tingling stopped, I opened my eyes, unsurprised to find myself hunched naked amid a pile of pale gray ashes. I stared down at my hands, splayed on the ground, and curled my fingers into the soft powdery substance. The scent of charred bones still lingered. My bones. But the heat of the fire that had done this was long gone, leaving nothing but icy cold behind.
I expected a pang of grief, of loss and abandonment, of betrayal, hurt. Any number of feelings should have existed inside me. I had loved my murderer and he had done this to me. Yet all I felt was cold and empty.
A gritty, sardonic laugh erupted unexpectedly from my chest, sending a puff of ashes into the gray air. It was fitting, wasn’t it? That I’d loved the Void and all that was left of that love now was an empty void inside me.
“You saved me though, didn’t you?” I asked, tilting my head back and staring up at a colorless sky. Breathing deeply, I stood, surprised that my limbs and joints didn’t protest. I felt… disturbingly normal. The sensations and emotions of my being were just as gray and colorless as my surroundings.
The memories were far more interesting to dwell on, and with the clarifying filter of time I could see the truth of that day.
I’d become a monster. I was recruited into the rarified ranks of the Ultiori Elite by a powerful general who had once been beyond reproach, and therefore had my trust.
That general, Nikhil, had been my closest friend since childhood, before joining the ranks of the pharaoh’s army and working his way up until he was her warlord. Then through a tragic twist taking her throne for himself.
When he returned to our village and asked me to join him, he’d been different from the man I remembered. He was dark and brooding and set on vengeance I was only too happy to take as my own. I knew he’d wedded the pharaoh herself, and that she’d been killed on their wedding night, so I was happy to lend my own sword to his cause. Anything for my best friend.
What I hadn’t realized was the depth of the darkness that corrupted his soul at the time. Not just the darkness of grief and rage, but something far more sinister. Something I was unprepared to fight when it ultimately infected me too.
I was just as unprepared to fight an unbearable attraction to the dead pharaoh’s dragon brother, the very target of Nikhil’s coldest rage. Everyone else knew the immortal dragon as either Osiris or the Void, but in the heat of our affair he was only Ked. We’d been drawn to each other with the same strange pull, at first ignorant of my diminishing lack of control over my own mind. Ultimately the darkness inside me warred with my love for the immortal Void. The conflict drove me mad.
Ked had saved me by killing me. He had recognized the corruption tainting my mind, turning me into a monster like the thing Nikhil had become. Ked had made the impossible choice to turn his fire on me, a choice he had made out of love.
Only now I believed that thanks to that love, I hadn’t truly been allowed to die.
So even though my bond with Ked had been severed and I felt less than nothing about what we once were to each other, I still had a soul. I still had consciousness.
I just wish I knew where it was I’d been resurrected to. This gray wasteland couldn’t be the remains of my world, could it? Had Nikhil’s thirst for vengeance gone that far?
Staring down at my hands, all I saw was more gray, the remnants of ash coating my darker-hued skin. I turned to survey every direction. The horizon stretched in an even line of pale, powdery ash for as far as I could see, except to the East I saw a shape. It was no more than a shadow against the drab background, but its disruption of the sameness in this world was enough to make me take the first step toward it.
Whatever a tree was doing in this stark landscape, I would find out.
What I saw made me ache to have a body again, to be able to insinuate myself between the tangle of muscled limbs, groping hands, and seeking tongues. I wanted so badly to be the focus of their attention. To be wrapped in those strong arms. Kissed with those lips, bitten with those teeth.
One had a shaved head, a sun-kissed complexion and dark tattoos winding across his shoulders, arms, and chest. He seemed to be the target of the other two’s attention, hesitant at first, then giving in entirely while they pleasured him, his rough moans reminding me of my old lover’s.
The one on his knees looked world-weary with thick, black hair that brushed his shoulders and fell across his forehead as he lowered his mouth onto the first one’s beautiful cock and sucked as though savoring his favorite meal.
The third was the largest, a glorious, sculpted masterpiece of dragon flesh, skin and muscles unmarred with any markings or even hair, aside from the perfectly trimmed and styled wave combed back from his high forehead. He and the tattooed one kissed while the tattooed one dropped his hand and tugged at the fastening to the other’s pants, soon freeing his hard cock and grasping it in his fist.
They looked like Ked, each in their own way, be it a rough, gravelly voice, or a hungry glint in the eye or a tilt of the mouth, but were also nothing like him. They reveled in their shared pleasure in a way he never had. He’d always taken lovemaking so seriously, but these three seemed to be having fun with it, and I wanted in on the fun.
But they couldn’t even see me now, much less touch me. Still, as they stripped each other and stroked each other, heat built deep inside me. I moved closer, able to scent their manly musk as I leaned a hip against the counter beside them.
I could touch myself, so as I stood there watching, I pulled open the lace bodice of my dress and plucked at one nipple, pretending it was one of them sucking on it. With my other hand, I gathered up my skirt until I could dip fingers between my thighs, into the wetness they’d caused.
They were dragons in the truest sense, hungry for the magic they could only give each other through the release they worked toward. If only I could touch them, I could give them mine too. I’d happily let them take as much from me as they wished. Impulsively I reached out, touched the cheek of the tattooed one. My fingers passed through, but there was still a sense of his energy crackling around him. He tilted toward me and let out a shuddering breath, as if somehow he sensed my presence.
“Do you think she’s watching us?” he asked.
“If she is, she’s getting a show.”
The abrupt yank on my shadow stunned me for a moment. When I got my bearings, the stark, monotone world came into focus. The tree in front of me glowed with pale, pulsing light, threads of magic flowing through it as if it were, in fact, a living thing rooted to the earth. Salem’s shadow form was visible across from me, shaved head gleaming and eyes blazing with shock at a spot between Razik and me.
Then I felt the new presence and turned my head. A ghostly figure of a woman stood between Razik and me, her face flickering between flawless pale skin and stark, shadowed bone. I couldn’t help but grimace reflexively at the macabre sight, but then her face solidified into something more human and ethereally beautiful. She glanced around at each of us.
“It’s about fucking time.” Her ultraviolet eyes flashed with annoyance, and a shock of utter certainty spiked into my gut. She was the reason I was here.
But a split second later, my physical body reclaimed my errant shadow with a snap, and the world came back into focus, the colors returning and the sounds clear and unmuted. I inhaled sharply, the sound echoed by the other two men.
The woman was gone.
“Everything okay?” Cassandra asked, giving us concerned looks. “You all looked like you touched a live wire. That’s never happened before.”
Razik cleared his throat, still staring at the spot between us where the ghost woman had stood just a moment ago. “Um, there’s some serious power in this thing. But I think we’ve got it covered. Is there anything else we need to know?” He gave Cassandra a pointed look.
“Patrolling the glyphs and ensuring the barrier remains intact are the most important things. I’ll give you a map of the island with the location of each glyph marked. Beyond that, your time is your own.”
I held my tongue. Clearly, she had no idea there was a ghost lurking around this tree. I didn’t want to alarm her without investigating the issue first, and a glance at Razik and Salem told me they were just fine remaining mum on the issue too. Perhaps they were curious for the same reason I was. There had been something about her. Something I didn’t want to share with just anyone.
“You’re welcome to audit any of the classes,” Cassandra continued. “Just please don’t fraternize with the students. If you ever feel drawn to any of them, we’d prefer you not act on it until we can verify a soul link. April and Deva Rainsong are in close contact about the use of the hounds. The school is designed to allow for mating between Bloodline and the higher races, but we don’t encourage it. The hounds are the ones who ultimately determine the best matches between two souls, and we trust their choices. But the school is here first and foremost to train the strongest members of the Bloodline.”
I couldn’t say whether I would be drawn to a student unless the mysterious woman I’d just seen was one, but after catching sight of her, I highly doubted I’d have any such urges with the others.
“You just mean don’t fuck the customers,” Salem said. “Which is not a problem. I think Razik, Errol, and I are fully capable of taking care of each other when the need arises. No need to disturb your precious Bloodline.”
He flashed me a challenging stare, and my eyebrows shot up. I couldn’t help but smile, which only seemed to irritate him. His taunt turned into a scowl that made me wonder if he’d even meant it. Did he think I wouldn’t like him?
Razik laughed. “Don’t worry, Cassandra,” he said. “I’m sure we can manage our energy levels on our own, like Salem says.”
She seemed relieved at his assurance and nodded. “Good. Then Andrew will show you to your rooms. Dinner’s served at six.”
“Oh gods, you are really here, aren’t you?” she murmured against my back. My skin prickled with goosebumps at her contact, so real, so solid, so very warm. Her full breasts pressed against the center of my back had my cock rousing with interest, and her hands seemed unable to stop caressing as if she was completely unaware of the effect she had. I didn’t want her to stop, so I had to brace myself, my stomach tightening and my jaw clenching as she slipped her hands lower.
I was entirely nude in this form, since even conjured clothing had enough weight to make noise if I moved, and she was extremely close to discovering the state she’d put me in. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop her, to turn and face her yet. Some part of me wanted to let her have me however she wished, as if she had earned the right to objectify me, and it was my duty to allow it. To indulge her.
I’d have never endured this kind of pawing interest from any other woman. I had no idea why she was so special, but I knew she was, nonetheless. Some deep part of my soul burned with the certainty that this was what she needed, and I had to give it to her.
So I only stood there, blood on fire with the heat of her roaming hands that grew bolder with every stroke, her breathing quickening against my back as she grazed them down over my hips and slid in a vee to my crotch.
I couldn’t suppress a groan when she grasped my hard, aching shaft in both hands and stroked. One hand reached the tip and froze, toying with the row of small barbells that pierced the ridged head of my cock. There were four adorning the upper side of the head, plus a fifth through my frenulum, and she made a point of touching each one, the deliberate nudges sending jolts of need deep into my balls.
“Careful,” I growled in warning.
She answered by digging her teeth into the flesh of my shoulder then releasing with a delicate lick.
“You feel good. So good,” she rasped, her earlier sadness evidently forgotten.