Tooth, Claw, Flame
Ten years ago, genderfluid 18-year-old Lysa was stranded in a fierce jungle world with no memory of her past. Hints of an abandoned civilization litter the untamed landscape, and local tribes tell stories of ancient magic that has long been lost. But the world has descended far since then. Now brutal, wolf-like humanoids rule the jungle, enslaving any who are weaker than them.
Lysa is one of those slaves.
When her captors’ village is attacked by a horde of angry dragons, Lysa finally manages to escape into the jungle. There she finds a hidden city filled with more of her kind—humans, all free from enslavement. With their help, she discovers hints of her past—of her loving parents and the life they all had before she found herself in this terrible land. But not all her new friends are what they seem. One of them—Calarel—is an immortal mage, alive since the time of antiquity. Lysa learns that Calarel brought her here, capturing Lysa’s parents in a bid to return magic to the world.
But Lysa discovers powers of her own: her genderfluidity gives her the ability to communicate with animals. Once again, Calarel is one step ahead. She tricks Lysa, using her to simultaneously capture every dragon and wolf on the planet, knowing that their souls will grant her access to the ancient device that powers magic itself. Now Lysa must find a way to use her newfound ability to break Calarel’s bonds, stopping her before she uses magic to keep all lifeforms in the world enslaved.
EXCERPT This is the cold open.
For the seventh time that afternoon, Lysa was about to die.
Sweat trickled down her back, spear clutched firmly in her hand as she focused on her breathing. Sweltering jungle heat pressed inward from all sides, the air thick with the scent of decaying wood, lush soil, pineapple fermenting on the ground. Bekal flies flicked against her face, and she suppressed the urge to swat at them. Any sudden moves would likely result in instant death.
She was staring down the face of a kabul wildcat.
It was long and black and sleek and proud, thick paws padding effortlessly along the jungle floor. Now it was motionless, yellow eyes unblinking, looking at her as if it could pierce into her very soul. One small motion, one wrong move, and the cat could end her where she stood.
She held herself perfectly still as a tall wolf crept through the trees behind the cat, keeping himself upwind. He, too, had a spear, intelligence shining from inside his strange green eyes. He walked on two legs, muscles rippling as he moved, sharp fingerclaws wrapped around the wooden shaft of his spear. Thick brown fur covered him from head to toe, whiskers quivering along his snout as he moved silently through the forest.
Lysa wasn’t a hunter.
She was bait.
She couldn’t help the revulsion that filled her as she watched the ugly wolf man move. His name was Jascyn, and he was a rylak. Not her captor, not her friend. He was just the boy they’d paired her with. His wolf-like body was powerful, but his form was wrong. He was clearly inexperienced with the spear. Was her master—Hrildr—trying to get her killed?
He’d put her with the most inept rylak to ever walk on two hind legs.
The wildcat finally had enough of things, it seemed. It bolted, jumping right at her, massive claws outstretched. But Lysa was quick—she ducked, feeling the hot wind of the big cat’s passing, a strand of hair catching in one claw and tearing painfully away.
Then she was running, moving behind a tree, glancing back to see Jascyn’s spear sail through the air where the kabul cat had been.
As always, it was a terrible shot.
The spear went wide, but the cat was gone. It didn’t care to kill them there that day. Maybe it wasn’t hungry, or maybe it was disgusted at their incompetence. Either way, Lysa was saved.
Either way, they’d failed at the hunt.
Well, Jascyn had failed.
This wasn’t Lysa’s job at all.
She wanted to laugh at him, to jeer the way the other rylak did. But that would only invite pain she didn’t need. So instead she swallowed hard, preparing to spit the growls of the horrid rylak language.
“Your throw is improving, Jascyn.”
The lie twisted in her throat.
For a long moment he just stared, silver whiskers gleaming.
Then he erupted into howls of laughter, muscular chest shaking as he did. “You are a poor liar,” he growled, the words coming almost as a bark. “Moons—your arm is better than mine.”
It was. But she didn’t need to tell him that.
“Should we try again?”
Hrildr had sent them out there for a reason, after all. If they returned empty-handed, there was no telling what his rage might do. If Lysa didn’t do her job as bait, bring fresh meat back to the pack for the evening meal, she herself would feel the razor’s edge of her master’s claws.
“We need to try again.” The words burned even as she said them. She wanted nothing more than to simply run, to be free of all of this, to never again know the anger of the rylak pack. But running would do no good.
The jungle was far too wild to face alone.
“Very well,” Jascyn growled, trudging through the undergrowth to find his spear. The kabul cat was long gone, off for a better—or perhaps less clumsy—meal.
Lysa followed silently. Jascyn was one of the weakest packmembers, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t kill her in an instant. It was better if she bit her tongue, doing what any good slave would do. It was better if she played along.
The trees cleared for a moment as they crested the top of the hill, a vast swathe of vivid blue sky cutting through the trees and offering a view of the jungle all around them. Endless trees grew as far as she could see, vines and ferns and red and yellow heliconia flowers tracing their way through the wild undergrowth. She heard mice skittering about beneath a layer of dead leaves and mushrooms and moist dirt, bekal flies swarming in the air. The Kojo River curved its way through the jungle in the distance, gray and turgid water marking the border of her world. The faint outline of Geija, the blue moon, was visible overhead in the daytime sky, but she did not take it for the sign of peace that it was meant to be.
She would never find peace in the Kalmansa Wilds.
She shivered despite the intense jungle heat. Once a slave, always a slave. She couldn’t make it across the river—no one could swim that well. She wouldn’t last a day in the jungle on her own, and that was if she could somehow elude her captors. She was stuck in the life she had, the only words that filled her ears an ugly, raspy growl.
A thought came to her, a fleeting image of a city, flashing metal, dark faces, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. There had been some kind of power there.
She just didn’t know what it was.
She was about to continue on, about to follow Jascyn back into the jungle when it appeared: the thing she had been most dreading to see. There were many dangerous creatures in the Kalmansa Wilds, after all. Many things that could kill her with hardly any effort. The list of horrors in the jungle was endless, but this was the worst of them. This was what kept her up at night, praying to the Three Moons to keep her safe.
This was a dragon.
It soared in from overhead, effortlessly flying in from somewhere to the south, irridescent scales shimmering in the sunlight as it flew. It was a brilliant purple color, widespread wings held taut to catch the wind. Four arms emerged from its body, sharp claws grasping the air as it winged its way toward the river. Two great eyes regarded her above a long snout, mouth parting slightly to reveal rows of formidable teeth.
Even from all this distance, it was looking at her.
“Angels,” she said, the curse slipping from her lips unbidden. She should run. She should hide. She should at least hold her spear at the ready, like she had been trained. The rylak hadn’t left her completely useless—the jungle was too harsh for that. They’d taught her how to use a spear.
But the techniques had all fled from her, her mind an empty shell. All she could do was freeze, and falter, and hope to all the Moons that she would live to see another day.
Suddenly Jascyn didn’t seem so bad.
The dragon hovered in the air above the river, at least twenty feet long with a wingspan twice as wide. It stared, eyes piercing directly to her soul, and it was all Lysa could do to avoid fainting right there.
“Ba ad wen ud la,” the dragon said, its voice deep and rich, easily audible even from so great a distance. Then it seemed to smile, sharp teeth shining, and it wheeled its way into the sky and flew away.
She was sure it had been speaking to her.
Lysa let out the breath she had been holding. “Angels,” she cursed again. “That was close.”
“Stop using the ellr language,” Jascyn growled. “What did you say?”
“I was scared,” she said, turning to him, switching to the rylak growls. “That dragon was looking at me.”
“It was looking at us.” He seemed scared, too.
There were very few things in the Wilds that could scare a rylak, but dragons were definitely one of them.
“Let’s go. We still have a hunt to make.”
But an arm took her suddenly, a thick arm covered with thick fur, muscles taut, claws digging into her skin. She smelled it as it came up behind her, muscular body thrusting up against her as it jerked her roughly to the side, whirling around her as it did, and then she was staring into the eyes of a monster. Another wolf, held upright like a man.
A rylak, and a far worse one than Jascyn.
It was her master.
Hrildr was standing in front of her, and he looked mad. “Your test period is over,” he growled. “You have failed the hunt.”
* * * * *
Oily fur. Stifling musk. Grinding teeth and guttural growls. Claws pressed into skin, piercing claws, wet snouts. Snapping teeth. Flames.
Lysa was finally home.
She felt something wash over her as she beheld the scene, mangrove huts and burlap tents and campfires and brutal, burly wolf men snarling in the growing evening. She needed a different body, a different face. A different name. She brushed her hair aside, tucking it into a quick bun with a grass tie she’d had in her pocket. She squared her shoulders, dropping her voice into the guttural growl of the rylak language.
She let the feeling overtake her, and she became a man.
Lys stood in the center of the village of Felgr and did his best not to scream.
The feeling was only in his mind, of course—his body was still that of a girl. He’d had the urges ever since he was a child—the gender dysphoria, the feeling that she should be a he, but only for certain days, for certain times.
The rylak had a tendency to bring out his more masculine side.
They were all around him, beating their chests with fists or bellowing or pushing each other around. He thought of them as men, and well he should—their penises were all there, usually hidden beneath layers of thick, fetid fur. But they were all like that, a village full of heartless, hairy wolf-like men, and once again Lys fought the urge to run.
He would never escape. The rylak were too intent on keeping him around.
“Come,” Hrildr said in his horrible language, the sound coming out as a half-growl, half-bark. “Inside. Now.”
Lys understood him perfectly.
For one brief moment, he wondered how he knew multiple languages. There was the language of the ellr, the one he spoke when he was alone or with others of the same race. Then there was the language of the rylak, one that he struggled with but managed. But how did he know the ellr language to begin with? He had no memory beyond this place, no memory of his time before he’d been imprisoned here.
Memories of his early life were gone.
He followed Hrildr into the little hut, mangrove shafts making a firm but supple wall that was porous to the elements. They didn’t have advanced building materials here—not like the vision of the city he had seen in the recesses of his mind. They made do with what the jungle had to offer, when they weren’t getting killed by the incredible array of predators out there in the Wilds.
When they weren’t killing each other.
“You did not kill anything,” Hrildr said, the growling language harsh to Lys’s ears. “You did not perform as bait.”
Lys cleared his throat, shifting into rylak. “It’s not my fault Jascyn can’t throw. And anyway, you saw the sakul bird. We were under attack.”
“You were being stupid.” He took a step forward, looming over Lys, breath sharp. The rylak were always like this.
Intimidating as hell.
“I wouldn’t be stupid,” Lys said, feeling adrenaline coursing through him as he took a step toward the monstrous wolf, “if you treated me fairly. As an equal.”
The look on Hrildr’s face sent fear racing through Lys’s body. The rylak just stood there, towering, breath huffing rhythmically, the air vibrating his whiskers and the hairs along his mouth. Then he opened that mouth, revealing rows of razor sharp teeth, tilted his head back, and laughed.
The sound was uproarious, loud and long, rippling through the hut and into the village beyond. But it was over almost as soon as it had begun, and then Hrildr was back to glowering.
Typical rylak. Always so moody.
“Don’t make me hurt you,” he said. “Don’t make me put you in your place.”
“I shouldn’t even be here,” Lys said, feeling despair wash over him. “I don’t even know where I’m from.”
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from!” Hrildr shouted, raising his arm, fingerclaws unsheathed. Lys flinched. This was bad. But the monster leaned forward instead of striking, teeth gleaming in the dim light inside the hut. “You could have been useful to us, you know.” Lys knew where this was going. “If you only had your magic, perhaps we would hold you in higher regard. Like we did with Hloldr. With Magona.”
They were just legends. Hloldr was a rylak of old, allied with an ancient ellr mage named Magona during the War of the Twins. Even if any of that was real, it didn’t matter.
Magic was long, long gone.
“There’s no such thing as magic,” Lys said, and he felt the strike before he saw it happen. The room reeled, blood flying from his face, pain piercing through his flesh and soul and brain. He fell to the floor, trying not to cry, trying to keep his sanity—his identity—intact.
But he was failing.
“I only did my best today,” he said, blood streaming down his face. The blow was bad. He would need medical attention, and soon. “A dragon spoke to me.”
“Silence!” Hrildr roared, and he hit Lys again, fingerclaws outstretched. The pain this time was even worse than before, ripping open the abdomen that the kabul cat had previously only barely scratched. Now Lys was truly dying. Now he would be no more. For there were many things to be afraid of in the jungle, many things that could kill you with barely even a thought.
Rylak were at the top of the list.
“I’m sorry,” he cried, feeling the blood flow out of him as he lay there on the floor. “The dragon spoke to me.”
“You are not special,” Hrildr said, the growls of his voice a match for Lys’s pain. The rylak loomed over him, spittle flecking his jaw. He would have been almost handsome, if he hadn’t been nearly trying to kill him. “This world is no place for you.”
And he hit Lys, hit him harder than he had before, claws out, slicing through his skin. And he just kept hitting him, pummeling his body, rage and anger powering his blows. Lys had disappointed him. Lys was a terrible slave. Lys had no reason to exist.
But a dragon had spoken to him.
He held that thought for as long as he could, until the pain rendered him unconscious.