Prologue

FOR YEARS DRAGONS roamed the skies, as common as our modern-day airplanes but much more beautiful in their gliding, soaring thermal choreography. Their land-married earthmates, the humans, watched their sky dances with a mixture of envy and apprehension, always wondering when the powerful dragons might strike. For the most part, the dragons, occupying the mountain land where they fed on goats and formed dragon clans in peace, lived independently of humans.

In the end it was humans, not dragons, who tipped the delicate balance of the mountain and forest dwellers. An army, led by King Ardghail, ventured up the mountains to steal the gold that had waited there since the collision of the continents so many years before—the gold that composed the dragon lairs where the clans fed, slept, and most importantly, laid their eggs.

When the dragons realized that the humans had come to destroy them, they fought back, claw tearing at sword and fire blazing at shield. They might have vanquished their gold-greedy foes, if not for King Ardghail’s youngest and least favored son, Prince Roland, who entered the heart of the mountain alone and emerged only after he had killed every single dragon that stood in his way. Prince Roland, later King Roland, became a heroic legend, and tales told around fires and in the beds of children extolled his swordsmanship and bravery. Their leader had brought wealth to his kingdom, and had selflessly saved the lives of thousands of men in exchange for the lives of a hundred dragons….

Or so they thought.

 

Chapter One

I WAS ONLY two steps down the hallway when the homeroom bell rang, marking the start of the school day and another tardy on my record. My mom kept getting on my case about my grades, especially in math and science, but I couldn’t even manage to get into the building without stopping to investigate footprints in the grass or a butterfly with blue and white spots, let alone pass an algebra exam. I couldn’t help it; my mind wandered like an astronaut in space, floating uninterrupted until a teacher or one of my friends snapped me out of my trance.

“Allanah, what are you doing?” a voice asked behind me, and I shook my head as I realized I was at it again, watching a track athlete run laps around the football field through the dirt-dusted window instead of walking through the door. Thank goodness it was my best friend Victoria, who always covered for me when I forgot to answer a question in class or lost my homework on the walk to school.

“Spacing out. This is going to be my third homeroom tardy this year, and it’s only October.”

Victoria seemed to think as she ran a hand through her pin-straight black hair, and I watched her fingers jealously. My own hair—a frizzy mess of red curls—was always stubbornly tangled.

“If you get a third tardy, they’ll send a note home to your mom.”

“She’s going to kill me.” I hung my head as I pictured my mom coming home from a long day at her law firm only to find a note from Mrs. Henderson about how I can’t even get from the bus to room 103 without a guide.

“I’ve got it.” Victoria handed me her hall pass and took my tote bag off of my shoulder.

“What are you doing?”

“You pretend you went to the bathroom, and I’ll tell Mrs. Henderson I’m late. Just sit in my seat—she takes attendance by calling out our names, not what order we sit in.”

“But then you’ll get in trouble!”

Victoria rolled her eyes. “I’m the class president, and I have a perfect 4.0. One tardy’s not going to make a difference.”

“Point taken. Thanks.” I relinquished my bag, and Victoria hoisted it onto her own shoulder.

“What’s in here? Bricks?”

“Books.”

“Don’t tell me you’re back on your fantasy binge again.”

“Was never off it. But it’s not just fantasy; it’s sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal romance—”

Victoria blew off the rest of my explanation with a wave of her perfectly painted fingernails, which were always purple, just like the rest of her clothes. When I asked her once why she only wore one color, she explained that this way she knew all of her clothes matched and dressing in the morning required only opening each drawer and selecting the item on top. Another one of Victoria’s logical yet completely ridiculous conclusions.

“Don’t explain any further. You know, if you focused all of your interest on your classwork instead of useless fiction novels, you might not have a D in three subjects.”

“Two,” I objected. “History is a C-.”

“Whatever. Either way, if you get grounded this summer you won’t be able to come to my parents’ beach house. And you know who else has a beach house at the Jersey Shore….” She nudged my shoulder.

“I’ve told you a million times, I don’t have a crush on Jason.” I could feel the blush starting in my cheeks and moving to my neck. We were close to homeroom, where all of the high school freshmen with names from J to P sat under Mrs. Henderson’s watchful eye from 7:30 to 8:00 a.m., and that included Jason Pierce.

“Oh please. And my mom doesn’t have a crush on Channing Tatum.”

Victoria’s mom was obsessed with Channing Tatum. She was the only adult I knew who had seen Step Up, and every time I slept over at Victoria’s house, her mom would try to persuade us to watch one of his movies. The daughter of two scientists, Victoria was actually the least nerdy member of her family, and when she wasn’t talking about Channing, her mother normally spent car rides talking about the lab and whatever experiment she and Victoria’s father were working on. I liked sleeping over at Vic’s house though; even if her parents were weird, at least they talked to us like adults and to each other like everything out of either of their mouths was the most brilliant comment ever made. I felt like their second daughter, and for Christmas last year they gave Victoria and me the same present: a matching gold locket with a picture of the other person inside.

My parents, on the other hand, couldn’t be in the same room for five minutes without trying to rip each other’s heads off. When they weren’t ignoring me, they were coming down on me for my terrible grades or my habit of spacing out. Once my dad moved to Texas the year before, my mom had become twice as strict since she had to be both disappointed parental units instead of just one.

“Shhh.” I shushed Victoria before I opened the door to 103, hoping she would let the Jason Pierce thing drop.

I expected Mrs. Henderson to start on one of her tirades about punctuality, but instead, she and the rest of the class sat facing the old TV in the back of the classroom.

“Take your seats,” Mrs. Henderson said without turning her head to look. “The president is about to make some kind of speech.”

“A speech?” Victoria asked as we took our seats, but no one responded.

The president came into focus, and something had changed about him. His hair, normally an obsidian black, had turned white and thin. His skin had wrinkled and sagged, and he now looked more like a grandfather than a dad.

“Citizens,” he began, and the classroom went silent.

“This feels like 9/11,” Victoria whispered so that only I could hear. Neither of us had been in school at that point—in fact, I think I’d only been two at the time—but our older friends and parents had told us stories about being in class when the plane hit the Twin Towers, and how panicked their teachers had been.

“I’ve been dishonest,” he said, looking straight into the camera so that it seemed like his blue eyes bore right into my green ones. “I’ve been masquerading as your president, when really, I’m much more than that.”

He flung off his suit jacket, revealing some kind of black robe. At that exact moment, I noticed a ball at the top of the American flag behind him glowing and sparking like a plasma globe, and the president must have noticed it too, because he ripped off the cloth part of the flag and used the metal pole to help him stand. At his touch, the globe flashed bright blue.

“My name is not President Hammer, but Roland, King of the Mountain. For hundreds of years I have bided my time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, but time has run out.”

President Hammer or King Roland or whoever he was closed his eyes, and in the globe I could see a strange symbol like a tail with a point at the end coming into focus.

“You have read about dragons and magic in your fantasy books, but none of you ever realized that most of those books were written by witches and wizards in hiding. Oh don’t worry,” he said with mock sympathy, “I have found all of the other magical beings and killed them. For a while, storytelling was their only method of expression. But we’re not here to talk about witches and wizards, are we?” King Roland folded his hands on his desk. “We’re here to talk about dragons. The mystical beings that I pretended to kill, but actually turned into humans, who since then have lived among you, breeding and reproducing and growing my army of vicious beasts.”

A symbol flashed across the screen.

“Recognize this?” King Roland’s voice said over the image. “This is what will bring the dragons out of hiding into the light. This is the symbol that will call them to me.”

To my right, I saw Victoria’s face lose its color, and I was pretty sure I knew what had made her so scared. Her mom wore a necklace with the same symbol on it, a keepsake from her ancestors, mountain people who had only come down from the old mining towns in the last hundred years. She motioned to the necklace she wore, our lockets, but I knew what she meant and nodded, too terrified to speak.

“I am calling you now,” King Roland said into the camera. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

A scream echoed down the hall and then the crash of glass breaking. Outside our own window, we could see a half-boy, half-bird thing struggling to fly over school grounds and out toward Washington, DC. Soon he was joined by two more creatures, then another two.

“Yesterday was the day of man,” King Roland said, his eyes so sharp I thought they might burrow right through my own. “Today is the day of dragons.”

The screen went blank.

Suddenly, a movement to my left drew my attention from the screen. Victoria had stood up, and was trying to hide something growing out of her bottom. I had recognized the symbol, so I knew, even before I saw the tail, exactly what was going to happen.

“Everybody out!” I shouted as Victoria rose up, up, up until she was as tall as the ceiling. “She’s turning, and I don’t think any of you want to be here when she finishes.”

Mrs. Henderson led the class outside, but I kept my eyes trained on my friend. After she grew and her tail came in, the next thing to change was her skin, which became as black and shiny as her hair. Then her eyes bulged and narrowed, though they still focused on me and showed the same amount of fear inside.

For some reason, I had not worried about my own safety as I stayed in the room to watch my best friend’s transition, but when I realized that Jason had snuck back in the room too, something changed. I felt a surge of energy run through my veins, like drinking a hundred Red Bulls, and it kept building until Victoria’s new dragon body lunged at my crush with smoke billowing from her nostrils and a vindictive look in her eye. Then I let it out through my hands, just channeled the surge in the only way that felt right, and a stream of light came out.

The light surrounded Victoria, who stopped trying to attack Jason and stood still. It wrapped itself around her, tighter and tighter in a python grip, until she began to shrink back to her original size. Only when she had become human again did the light begin to dissipate, but instead of fading, each particle journeyed from the air into her necklace.

“What happened?” Victoria asked as she blinked and took in the empty room.

“What happened? You became a dragon and scared the heck out of us, that’s what happened,” I yelled without meaning to.

“It’s no use, Allanah,” Jason’s voice said behind me. In truth, I’d forgotten he was there, which said a lot about how distracted I’d been by the weird light. “Once they fully transition into dragons, none of these people will remember their human lives, just like their ancestors forgot their dragon lives so long ago.”

“But then why am I back to being a normal sixteen-year-old?” Victoria asked. Then they both slowly turned to me, and I took a step back.

“Allanah saved you,” Jason explained. He kept giving me a look, the way a farmer might look at his prized pumpkin, and though I’d waited for years for Jason to notice me, I’d been hoping for a slightly different kind of admiration. “The Council had suspected she had powers, but they weren’t sure what kind, since every witch or wizard has a different set of spells, or if they would manifest themselves—”

“Wait a minute, what?” I interrupted. “What Council? What powers?”

“The Council who sent me to be your guardian,” Jason explained patiently, though he kept looking at his watch. “King Roland thought he’d killed off every witch and wizard since the time of his reign, but he actually only killed the ones he knew about. The Council was formed in order to keep an eye on people we suspected might be special, and to keep their identity a secret until Roland revealed his. The people on the Council have powers, but they’re nowhere near as strong as what I just saw.”

“This must be some kind of prank,” Victoria said in her most logical voice.

“It’s not, and I can prove it.” He must have recorded Victoria’s transformation for his secret council, since he pulled out his phone and played back the transformation blow-by-blow. I kept my eyes on my hands, and sure enough, something magical had come out of them. My eyes, normally a dull, grassy green, had looked so bright and shiny that they might have been emeralds.

“So I’m safe?” Victoria asked Jason, but I didn’t like the uncertain look on his face.

“I don’t know. It seems that Allanah channeled your transformation into that locket of yours, so we’d need to test it in order to see how much memory you can sustain and how much control you can have. I saw something else when Allanah finished her work, but I need the Council to look at you both before I know for sure.”

“Then let’s go,” I said. “Let’s find this council and get some answers out of them.”

“But what about school?” Victoria asked. “My parents will kill me if I miss a whole day.”

Jason and I shared a look, and I knew he had figured out the first thing I did as soon as I saw the symbol: if Victoria was a dragon, that meant her parents, Benita and Roger, were too. Their labs were probably destroyed, with dragon-sized holes in the windows and fire marks on the doors.

“Wait a minute.” Victoria looked from Jason to me to Jason again. “You don’t think….” Her eyes grew moist, and she swayed so violently that I thought she might faint.

Jason eased her into Mrs. Henderson’s chair and patted Victoria’s arm so tenderly that he might have had a crush on her. In fact, with their black hair, brown eyes, and pale white skin, let alone their intelligence and great grades, they even looked like the perfect match. I had always assumed Jason looked at me out of the corner of his eye because he liked me, and that he followed me in the halls sometimes because he was jealous of the guy friends I might stop and talk to, but now I knew the truth: some kind of council had ordered Jason to follow me, and he had done his job so well that I had never suspected an ulterior motive.

“We could be wrong,” Jason said, his voice soothing and low, “but there’s only one way to find out. We need to go to the Council and ask for their help.”

“And how do we get to this Council?” I asked skeptically since Victoria was too indisposed to be her practical self. “It’s not like we can just drive there.”

“Actually, we can.” Jason held up a key ring. “The Council kept a car parked in a nearby garage for me just in case an emergency like this ever happened.”

“Great.” I helped Victoria stand, and the three of us began to walk down the abandoned hallways.

“Hey, Jason?” I asked from the other side of Victoria.

“Yeah?”

“You know how to drive, right?”

Though I couldn’t see his face, I could feel his hesitation.

“Of course I do.”

For the first time since he began espousing crazy talk about witches and dragons and his precious Council, I felt like he was lying.