Ready for your second excerpt in my upcoming third book in the Of Cinder and Bone series? Here it is! Don't forget, spoilers for Of Cinder and Bone and Of Blood and Ashes ahead.
"Jack...why is there a dragon in our backyard?"
Dr. Rhett "Jack" Jackson spit out his coffee and gaped at his pregnant girlfriend. "Wait, what?"
He pushed his chair out and stumbled to Dr. Kamala Anjali's side. She had the curtain drawn to one side, her jaw hanging open slightly, her brown eyes wide as they beheld the mythical beast that was calmly sniffing the red snapdragons in her garden. Jack rubbed his eyes with his palms just to be safe, but there was no mistaking it. He ripped the sliding door open and padded out onto the neatly cut grass in his faded grey MIT t-shirt and black pajama bottoms.
"Pete? Is that you?" The scientist asked, of course knowing the creature wouldn't answer, but he just couldn't help himself.
The dragon Pete hadn't changed much since the last time he saw her. She stood at the height of the average horse with long limbs and a muscular, streamlined body covered in leaf-green scales aside from her belly, which was a pale cream. Her wings were folded along the groove of her spine, rustling slightly as she lifted her head as he approached. She blinked large golden eyes at him and her tail lashed in the rose bushes behind her, scattering pale pink petals. Her long, sharp fangs protruded down over her lower jaw, but it was closed; she had a muzzle on. She flared her nostrils as he cautiously extended his hand towards her snout, palm flat. The dragon sniffed it and a soothing set of vibrations filled the air.
"Goddess above," Kamala whispered as she reached Jack's side. "It is her."
The dragon chittered slightly in delight and nuzzled Kamala's cheek, then blinked in confusion at her protruding belly. Kamala laughed slightly in spite of her puzzlement and rubbed the bumpy crown of the dragon's head as she sniffed her enormous stomach. "Well, I guess introductions are in order. Pete, meet the baby. Baby, meet Pete."
"Kam...how the hell is this possible?" Jack asked, pushing one hand into his dark brown hair. "How did she get here? How did she even find us?"
"Excellent questions," Kamala agreed. "Which we will answer momentarily. First, we need to keep her out of sight before the neighbors start panicking. Do you think we can sneak her into the house?"
"I don't know," he said, scanning over their eight-foot wooden fence to see if anyone had spotted them yet. It was still early, barely past seven o'clock in the morning. Cambridge tended to wake up on the early side, as both the MIT and Harvard students and alumni would be flitting about getting ready for the day. "She's kind of skittish about small spaces. Let's try to get her into the garage."
Kamala clucked her tongue. "Come along, Pete."
She walked back inside and the dragon followed with slow, steady steps, ducking its head beneath the threshold. Pete's forked tongue darted in and out, testing the air, as she glanced about the two-story house. The den had vaulted ceilings, so she had no trouble standing on all fours. She sniffed the couch as Jack pulled the sliding door shut and tugged the curtains together. He gave the dragon a nudge and she got moving again, following Kamala to the two-car garage. Jack's trusty old Mazda Protégé and Kamala's powder blue Volkswagen Beetle were already inside, but it wasn't too cramped. Kamala led the dragon between the two cars and gently pushed on her shoulders until the creature sat on its hindlegs.
"Did anyone see us?" she asked.
"Not that I noticed, but if she flew in here, there's got to be somebody who saw her," Jack said, taking his phone out of his pocket and Googling dragon sightings in the last hour. He noticed quite a few hits; mainly a blurry figure or a short video of a shadow sweeping someone's backyard. Neither he nor Kamala had any social media accounts, so he had to check to see if dragons were trending, and they were at the moment. Plenty of people were trying to prove or disprove the sightings, but no one had convincing evidence yet.
"I don't get it. The government shut down our project almost six months ago and seized her as well as our other dragons. How could she possibly have gotten loose?"
"Dunno," Jack said, pacing between the cars and rubbing the five o'clock shadow he hadn't shaved off just yet. "Maybe they were transporting her somewhere and she busted out. Does she have any abrasions or injuries?"
Kamala flicked on the overhead light and examined the dragon. "No injuries, but take a look at this."
Jack stepped next to her and peered at where her fingers rested on the dragon's neck. He could see one of her scales had been removed, so there was just smooth pale skin beneath it. The species of dragon that Pete was, varanus lacerto, had multiple epidural layers: thick outer scales about the size of a quarter, and then a protective layer of fat over the muscle. Someone had removed the first layer by force, it appeared, and there was a small scar as if she'd been sewn up from an incision.
"Shit," Jack muttered. "Dollars to donuts that's where they placed a subcutaneous tracker."
Kamala shut her eyes for a second. "Which means the bastards are on their way right now."
"More than likely," Jack sighed. "Dammit. Ten bucks says they'll find some way to blame this on the two of us."
"I'll take that bet," she groused, stroking the dragon's swan-like neck. "That still doesn't explain how the hell she found us. She's never been anywhere aside from MIT campus. Is her sense of smell truly powerful enough to locate us from literal miles away?"
"In theory? Yeah, I guess so. She imprinted on us at birth, and dragons' senses are sharp as hell. Even though we're indoors, we've lived here for a good while, so our scent's on everything around here by now. Still, this is insane."
Kamala smiled a bit. "Yes. But in spite of it all, I...missed her."
Jack rubbed the bumpy scales over Pete's right eye and listened to her purr. "Yeah. Me too, Kam."
The doorbell rang.
Jack shut his eyes. "And here comes trouble."
"I'll stay with her," Kamala said. "Make sure they show you a bloody warrant first."
Jack shuffled back to the door, snorting. "Like that'll matter."
He shut the garage door, grabbed his coffee from the dining room table, and then opened the front door.
"Morning, assholes!" Jack said brightly. "What would you like to steal from us this time?"
Two men stood on Jack's welcome mat. The one on the left was tall, sturdy, and had brunette hair and deep frown lines with a no nonsense expression on his face. He wore sunglasses, a black suit, black tie, a white dress shirt, and polished shoes. The one on the right was slightly shorter, pudgy, and had curly brown hair and a beard. He wore a lab coat over a stained Firefly t-shirt, khakis, and sneakers.
"Climb down off that cross, Dr. Jackson," the man on the left said, folding his sunglasses and tucking them in the pocket of his suit.
Jack stared at him and then pointedly tilted the mug enough to spill coffee on the man in black's shoes. "Oops. Clumsy me."
The man sighed laboriously and shook his feet. "So infantile. You know why we're here. Where is it?"
"What?" Jack asked innocently. "Oh, your hairline? I think it's on the back of your head."
"The dragon," the man snarled. "Where is the dragon?"
Jack leaned against the doorjamb and purposely slurped his coffee before answering. "Oh, I'm sorry. Have you lost one of our dragons? What a pity. It's almost like you two chuckleheads and the rest of your department have no idea what you're doing."
"It wasn't my fault," the pudgy man insisted. "The handler was careless."
Jack glanced at him. "You're really not helping your case here, buddy."
"Dr. Jackson," the man on the left said through his teeth. "Where. Is. The. Dragon?"
Jack leaned in, pronouncing every word slowly. "Up. Your. Ass."
The man stared at him with his dead brown eyes for a long moment before smirking. "You know, if you weren't so high-handed and pretentious, I'd probably like you. Fine. We'll do this by the book."
He reached into his suit jacket and withdrew a document, slapping it against Jack's chest. "Here's the warrant you're about to ask for. Not that it matters."
He jabbed a thumb at the man beside him. "Dr. Whitmore's got the tracker to prove the asset is within these premises. So scurry along and go get it before I call local P.D. to kick the door down."
Jack scowled and flipped the document open, again slurping his coffee obnoxiously loud and reading it as slowly as possible. "Well, seems everything's in order here. If you'll excuse me, I'll see what I can do about facilitating the evidence of your complete and utter ineptitude."
"It wasn't my fault!" Dr. Whitmore whined, but by then, Jack had slammed the door in both their faces.
Jack returned to the garage and handed Kamala the letter. She growled and crumpled it in her small fist. "Four hours. She's been missing for four hours according to this nonsense. They couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel."
"Agreed," Jack said. "But this is a fight we can't win right now. Maybe we can use it later, but we have to turn her over to them."
"Bastards," she spat.
"Hey," Jack said gently, kissing her temple. "Stress levels, remember?"
She exhaled, rubbing the top of her swollen stomach. "Right. Pete won't go willingly. Find out if they have a tranquilizer first. I'll administer it so she doesn't get upset."
"Will do, angel."
Jack opened the front door again. "Agent Shannon, I assume you have something that can subdue the dragon."
"Yes," he said. "What about it?"
"Mind handing it over? I'm pretty sure she'll rip your face off if she sees you coming at her with one."
Agent Shannon lifted a thick eyebrow. "You want me to hand you a tranquilizer gun? So you can knock me out and take the asset and run?"
Jack rolled his eyes. "Actually, I don't want your big, ugly body on my driveway. You'll scare my neighbors and cause the property value to plummet."
Agent Shannon sucked his teeth and glanced at Dr. Whitmore. "Doc?"
"He's right. The dragon is, uh, rather averse to your presence. It's imprinted on the two of them and should allow them to inject it."
The government agent gave Jack a long stare before walking over to the large unmarked truck with a long, metal trailer attached. He unlocked it and pulled out a silver briefcase. He popped it open and withdrew a tranquilizer gun.
"Any funny business," Agent Shannon said, slapping it into Jack's hand. "I take you down."
Jack smiled. "Yeah, because that worked so well last time."
Agent Shannon sneered. "It was a cheap shot, Jackson. Want to try me again when I'm paying attention?"
"No, I think I'll just let you live with the shame of knowing a civilian put you on your ass." Jack slammed the door shut a second time and headed into the garage.
Kamala took the tranquilizer gun and gave it a detailed once over, checking that the dosage looked correct and would subdue the dragon. She sighed and pressed her forehead to the dragon's, her voice slightly hoarse. "I am so sorry, meri priya. We will save you. I swear it."
She injected the sedative. The dragon flinched slightly when the tiny needle pierced her skin. The effect was almost immediate. Pete swayed and Jack caught her upper body, lowering her to the ground as gently as he could. A thin green film slid down over her golden eyes and she fell asleep in minutes. She even snored, which they both thought was cute.
Jack heaved another sigh and walked over to the garage door. He hit the switch and the door rumbled and roared as it slid up from the ground. Agent Shannon and Larry were already standing there with an altered version of a hand truck. It was collapsible and about eight feet long and a couple feet wide. Agent Shannon smiled as he spotted Kamala.
"Dr. Anjali," he said politely. "Don't you look radiant."
"Don't you look smug and unintelligent," she replied, and then swept back inside the house without another word. He chuckled and helped the chubby scientist load the dragon onto the carrier. They wheeled her up into the trailer and locked it shut. Dr. Whitmore got inside the truck and Agent Shannon slid his aviator sunglasses back onto his face.
"Thank you for your cooperation, Dr. Jackson."
Jack smiled again. "I hope you step on a Lego. Barefoot."
Agent Shannon bared his teeth in a grin and climbed inside the truck. He backed out of the driveway slowly and then pulled off into the street. Jack spat the sour taste in his mouth out into the bushes and returned inside.
Kamala stood in the kitchen, furiously stirring a spoon into her chamomile tea. "This is unacceptable."
"Yep," Jack agreed, pouring the remainder of his coffee down the drain.
"Who do they think they are? They lose our dragon--they risk her life with their idiotic inability to comprehend her abilities--and then demand that we return her to them without any consequences whatsoever? I have never heard of anything so ridiculous in my life."
"Yep," Jack agreed, rinsing out the mug.
"What if someone had gotten hurt, eh? What if some gun-toting moron with a twitchy trigger finger spotted her before she came to us? She could be gone, just like that. Taken from this world through no fault of her own."
Jack stepped up behind her and slid his arms around her shoulders. Kamala's stiff spine slowly relaxed against the front of his chest. Her eyes drifted closed as he ran his large hand over her belly in soothing circles. He kissed her ear, his voice low and soft. "I know. And we're not going to let them get away with this. We're going to give them hell. We're not going to give up on the fight until our dragons are back where they belong, safe and sound."
She shook her head slightly. "You always know just what to say."
"Hardly," he said. "You were stirring that tea pretty hard, Dr. Anjali. I just didn't want you to break my favorite mug."
Kamala turned in his arms. "Yes, we both know you're terrified of my superhuman maternal powers. I'll try not to scare you so much."
"You kidding me?" he said, lacing his fingers over the small of her back. "I'm counting on them to save us someday. You should be wearing a cape instead of stretch pants."
She sighed. "Oh, don't bloody remind me. I went up another size this week. I need to get this blasted child out of me before I become a manatee."
Jack choked on a laugh. "Stop it. You're gorgeous no matter what size you are."
She pursed her lips. "Don't try to get back on my good side, Dr. Jackson. Remember, it's all your fault that I'm like this."
"Oh, lest we forget. The rugrat was conceived the first time we, uh, fondue'd, and I believe you were the one who initiated that."
Kamala blushed. "Point taken."
She pressed her forehead against his and sighed. "This sucks."
"Yes," he said softly. "It does. But you know what doesn't suck?"
She glanced up at him. "What?"
Jack leaned in and kissed her gently between words.
Kamala collapsed into stunned giggles. "You are an idiot, Dr. Jackson."
"What? I mean, am I wrong?"
Her smile turned a bit wicked. "Not in the slightest. It would be an excellent distraction from the chaotic morning we both just had."
She eagerly gripped his hand to drag him into their bedroom, but then her cell phone rang. She sighed and answered it with a brisk, dismissive tone. "Yes?"
"Kam," Faye Worthington's resigned, annoyed voice said. "I'm in jail."
Of Dawn and Embers hits digital bookshelves July 20, 2019. Pre-order now to get the special price of only .99c! It will increase to $4.99 on July 21st. Stay tuned for more!
Kyoko M is the Amazon bestselling author of The Black Parade series.