Chapter One

12 Whitewater, 78th Year of Dragons

Warren ducked into the narrow alley, throwing himself against the near wall and sitting down hard as he tried to regain his breath as quietly as possible. He met with some small success, for when the guards clamored past a moment later, he had collected himself enough to hold his breath, praying to anyone that was listening that they would fail to notice him. They did, and only when their shouts and torches were long gone did he dare to relax enough to stretch his cramped legs. He grimaced as the sore muscles expanded.

Shouts of alarm and the thunder of a great many hooves jerked Warren back to the present situation. They seemed to be coming from further up the alley. The young man scowled, looking about for an alternate escape route. He scrambled up a nearby stack of wooden crates. Warren dropped to all fours and trotted across the roof like an animal, then vaulted to the next, and the next, and the next, making his way toward the city walls. If he could just get outside the Keep, Lord Klaskyo and his guards would most likely give up the chase. Then he would only have one man to contend with, and he would be on more familiar territory.

Warren launched himself from the final rooftop and landed on the ramparts, leaning forward and catching himself on the tips of his fingers. He took off down the wide walkway, intending to take the stairs built into the stone fortifications down to the ground level and then flee out the gates and into the night.

Suddenly, a guard in the blue and purple of Klaskyo Keep blocked his path. He made a valiant attempt to stop before colliding with the man, but he was going too fast and the guard was too near. They crashed, tumbling to the wooden planks, and rolled about for a moment. The guard was too shocked to put up much of a fight, and Warren broke free an instant later.

But then the guard recovered his wits and his feet and charged Warren, who jumped to the side, tripped over the low wall that lined the rampart, and spilled out into the void of space.

Panic blasted through the lad, and he flailed his arms, seeking something—anything—to grab that might break his fall. There was nothing. Nothing.

And then, all of a sudden, there was something.

A flash of searing brilliance pierced the night sky wide open, leaving neon squiggly lines etched into Warren's retina. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision, and then realized that he had stopped falling. He must have hit the ground. He didn't feel dead. In fact, he didn't feel anything. No, there was nothing beneath him, just a slight pressure around his middle.

Finally, Warren's eyes readjusted, and he glared muddy-brown fire down at the ground, mere inches below him. It passed by quickly, in a blur, and the whoosh of the wind all around finally registered on Warren's overloaded senses.

"Oh, man," the lad muttered. He allowed himself to go limp as he was carried off into the night.

----------

"Are we to make a habit of this, then?" Tobe poked at the fire his dragon had started as he had tied Warren to a nearby tree.

Warren sighed. "I had hoped it would only take a few tries," he admitted.

"You're not going to escape."

"That's what they all say."

"How many times has it been now? A dozen? More?"

"Seventeen."

"But none of them were me."

"You do pose a singular challenge. You have something none of the others did."

"And what's that?"

"Flight."

Tobe chuckled, and his dragon lifted its head from where it had lain itself out on the forest floor. "Hush, Sunchaser," Tobe scolded, though the tender, loving look he directed at the mighty beast belied the harsh command. He turned his attention back to Warren. "Why even bother trying? They won't have any choice but to let you go anyway. They don't have you on anything worse than petty theft and disturbing the peace, neither of which will get you anything more debilitating than a few days in a locked cell. If you hadn't run away before your hearing, you'd be out by now anyway."

Warren just shook his head, his brown eyes closing as though he were imagining something far away. "You could never understand."

"Why do you insist upon taunting the peace officers as you do? You're only getting yourself into more and more trouble."

"Because I can," Warren replied simply. "And no one could stop me." He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "At least, not until you came along."

Tobe could not help but laugh once more. "Do you realize that you're wanted by fourteen different lords and the dragonlord himself? Surely you cannot hope to get out of all of that?"

"I can if they never catch me."

"But you've been caught! Eighteen times, now!" Tobe threw a hand back through his short hair in frustration. "Look, I understand that sometimes, when just surviving is as tough as it is now, a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. But I'm trying to help you, Warren. Like I said, Klaskyo can't hold you very long, and you can't serve the same sentence in more than one Keep. Serve your couple of days here, and I'll take you to Dragon Keep Central with me."

"Why? So I can live with all the orphans and become one of you Guardians' little 'projects?' I don't need your help, I never asked for it! I don't need anybody."

Tobe stood, turning toward the lad with a strange look in his eye. "That's not true. We all need each other. The people need we Guardians to fight off the Mist, and the Guardians need the people to support us so we can fight the Mist. It's a circle, a loop, a never-ending cycle of supply and demand."

Warren leapt to his feet, having long since subtly freed himself from Tobe's ropes. "That's ridiculous! I didn't need any Guardians or anybody else to help me escape the Meeps, and I don't need you to help me stay free!"

Tobe flinched visibly at the mention of Meeps, the worst of the Others. So few of their humans managed to make their way to freedom, and of those who did, only one in a hundred lived for more than a few weeks afterward. "If you truly did survive the Meeps, then you are too valuable a person to waste on a life like the one you insist upon leading. I will not allow you to throw yourself away. You may not need us, Warren, but we need you and the exclusive information you possess."

"I'm not telling you anything," Warren shot back stubbornly.

"I'm not the one I need you to tell."

"I'm not telling anybody anything."

"If you do, we may be able to save others from the pain you suffered."

"I don't care."

"What about the friends and family you left behind?"

"They're dead."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"Don't be."

"Fine. But I'm not letting you join them."

"I wasn't planning on it." With that, Warren dove past Tobe and dashed away into the dense underbrush, swift and silent as a shadow. He disappeared from sight in an instant.

Chase!

Let him be. The dragon lifted its head, blinked, yawned, and settled back down. He will come to us in his own time.

But you said—

And I did not lie. But he needs time. He is young and willful and frightened and lost. Like all children, give him freedom and he will realize how much he needs to have structure.

If you're sure…

I always am.

Tobe could only smile and shake his head.