"We'll have you out in a minute, ma'am. Just keep still awhile longer."
The voice rolled across the gray mist enshrouding my mind--a soothing sound that brought no comfort, only confusion. Why would he say I shouldn't move?
And why was he saying it just to me? Why wasn't he saying anything to Rainey, who'd been driving the car?
Ignoring the advice, I shifted, trying to get more comfortable, trying to feel. Pain shot through my side, spreading out in heated waves across my body and reverberating through my brain. The sensation was oddly comforting even as it tore a scream from my throat.
If I could feel, then I wasn't dead.
Should I be?
Yes, something inside me whispered. Yes.
I swallowed heavily, trying to ease the dryness in my throat. What the hell had happened to us? And why did it suddenly feel like I was missing hours of my life?
The thing that was digging into my side felt jagged and fat, like a serrated knife with a thicker, heavier edge, yet there were no knives in the car. People like me and Rainey didn't need knives or guns or any other sort of human weapon, because we were born with our own. And it was just as dangerous, just as accurate, as any gun or knife.
So why did it feel like I had a knife in my side?
I tried to open my eyes, suddenly desperate to see where I was, to find Rainey, to understand what was going on. But I couldn't force them open and I had no idea why.
Alarm snaked through the haze, fueling my growing sense that something was very wrong.
I sucked in a deep breath, trying to keep calm, trying to keep still as the stranger had advised. The air was cool, yet sunshine ran through it, hinting that dawn had passed and that the day was already here. But that couldn't be right. Rainey and I had been driving through sunset, not sunrise, enjoying the last rays before the night stole the heat from us.
Moisture rolled down the side of my cheek. Not a tear; it was too warm to be a tear.
There was blood on my face, blood running through my hair. My stomach clenched and the fear surged to new heights, making it difficult to breathe. What the hell had happened? And where the hell was Rainey?
Had we been in some sort of accident?
No, came the answer from the foggy depths of my mind. This was no accident.
Memories surged at the thought, though the resulting images were little more than fractured flashes mixed with snatches of sound, as if there were bits my memory couldn't--or wouldn't--recall. There was the deep, oddly familiar voice on the phone who'd given us our first decent clue in weeks. And Rainey's excitement over the possible lead--our chance to discover not only what had happened to her sister, but also to everyone else who had once lived in the town of Stillwater. Our mad, off-key singing as we'd sped through the mountains, heading back to San Francisco and our meeting with the man who just might hold some answers.
Then the truck lights that had appeared out of nowhere and raced toward us. The realization that the driver wasn't keeping to his own side of the road, that he was heading directly for us. Rainey's desperate, useless attempts to avoid him. The screeching, crumpling sound of metal as the truck smashed into us, sending us spinning. The screaming of tires as Rainey stomped on the brakes, trying to stop us from being shunted through the guardrail. The roar of the truck's engine being gunned, and a second, more crushing sideways blow that buckled the doors and forced us through the very railing we'd been so desperate to avoid. The fear and the panic and the realization that we couldn't get out, couldn't get free, as the car dropped over the ledge and smashed into the rocks below, rolling over, and over, and over . . .
The sound of sobbing shattered the reeling images--deep, sobbing gasps that spoke of pain and fear. Mine. I sought desperately to gain some control, to quiet the sobs and suck down some air. Hysteria wouldn't help. Hysteria never helped.
Something pricked my arm. A needle. I wanted to tell them that whatever they were giving me probably wouldn't work because human medicine almost never did on us, but the words stuck somewhere in my throat. Not because I couldn't speak, but because I'd learned the hard way never to say anything that might hint to the humans that they were not alone in this world.
And yet, despite my certainty that the drug wouldn't work, my awareness seemed to strengthen. I became conscious of the hiss of air and of the screech and groan of metal being forced apart. Close by, someone breathed heavily; I could smell his sweat and fear. Farther away was the murmur of conversation, the rattle of chains, and the forlorn sighing of the wind. It had an echo, making it sound as if we were on the edge of a precipice.
What was absent was Rainey's sweet, summery scent. I should have been able to smell her. In the little hatchback there wasn't much distance between the passenger seat and the driver's, yet I had no sense of her.
Fear surged anew and I raised a hand, ignoring the sharp, angry stabbing in my side as I swiped at my eyes. Something flaked away and a crack of warm light penetrated. I swiped again, then a hand grabbed mine, the fingers cool and strong. I struggled against the grip but couldn't break free, and that scared me even more. He was human, and I wasn't. Not entirely. There was no way on this earth he should have been able to restrain me so easily.
"Don't," he said, gravelly voice calm and soothing, showing no trace of the fear I could smell on him. "There's a cut above your eye and you'll only make the bleeding worse."
It couldn't get worse, I wanted to say. And I meant the situation, not the wound. Yet that little voice inside me whispered that the pain wasn't over yet, that there was a whole lot more to come.
I clenched my fingers against the stranger's, suddenly needing the security of his touch. At least it was something real in a world that had seemingly gone mad.
The screeching of metal stopped, and the thick silence was almost as frightening. Yet welcome. If only the pounding in my head would stop . . .
"Almost there, ma'am. Just keep calm a little longer."
"Where . . ." My voice came out little more than a harsh whisper and my throat burned in protest. I swallowed heavily and tried again. "Where is Rainey?"
He hesitated. "Your friend?"
His hesitation lasted longer. "Let's just concentrate on getting you out and safe."
There was something in his voice that had alarm bells ringing. An edge that spoke of sorrow and death and all those things I didn't want to contemplate or believe.
"Where is she?" I said, almost desperately. "I need to know she's okay."
"She's being taken care of by someone else," he said, and I sensed the lie in his words.
No, I thought. No!
Rainey had to be alive. Had to be. She wasn't just my friend, she was my strength, my courage, and my confidante. She'd hauled me out of more scrapes than I could remember. She couldn't be gone.
Fear and disbelief surged. I tore my hand from his and scrubbed urgently at my eyes. Warmth began to flow anew, but I was finally able to see.
And what I saw was the crumpled steering wheel, the smashed remains of the windshield, the smears of blood on the jagged, twisted front end of the car.
No, no, NO!
She couldn't be dead. She couldn't. I'd survived, and she was stronger--tougher--than me. How could she die? How could that be possible?
And then I saw something else.
Dawn had well and truly passed.
That's why my rescuer had been so vague about Rainey. They couldn't find her. And no matter how much they looked, they never would. The flesh of a dead dragon incinerated at the first touch of sunrise.
I began to scream then, and there was nothing anyone could do to make me stop. Because they didn't understand what a dragon dying unaccompanied at dawn meant.
But I did. And it tore me apart.
Though in the end, I did stop--but only because the pain of being wrenched free of the twisted, broken wreck finally swept me into unconsciousness.
I left the hospital as soon as I was physically able.
The staff had tried to make me stay. They'd tried to convince me that one day after an operation to remove a six-inch piece of steel from my side, I should be flat on my back and recovering, not strolling around like there was nothing wrong with me.
But they didn't understand what I was. I couldn't have stayed there even if I'd wanted to, and not just because they would have noticed how fast I healed and started asking questions.
No, the real reason was Rainey.
Her soul still had a chance to move on.
Sunset wasn't only the time where day met night, it was the time when the dead could mingle more freely with those who lived. Some of those ghosts would be dragons who died without someone to pray for them, destined to roam this earth forever--insubstantial beings who could never move on, never feel, and never experience life again. But those who had died before their time had one small lifeline. If I caught and killed those responsible for Rainey's demise within seven days of her death, I could then pray for her soul on the fall of the final day and she would be able to move on.
I had five of those seven days left, and there was no way on this earth I was going to waste them lying in a hospital bed. No matter how much it still hurt to walk around.
Which was why I was sitting here, in this dark and dingy bar, waiting for the man we'd arranged to meet before that truck had barreled into us.
I reached for my Coke and did a quick scan of the place. It wasn't anywhere I would have chosen, though I could see the appeal to a sea dragon. Situated in the Marina district of San Francisco, the bar was dark and smoky, and the air thick with the scent of beer, sweaty men, and secrets. Tables hid in dim corners, those sitting at them barely visible in the nebulous light.
There was no one human in those shadows.
A long wooden bar dominated one side of the venue, and the gleaming brass foot rail and old-style stools reminded me of something out of the Old West--although the décor of the rest of the place was more ship-related than Western-themed, with old rope ladders, furled sails, and a ship's wheel taking pride of place on the various walls.
I'd attracted plenty of attention when I'd walked in, and I wasn't entirely sure whether it was due to the fact that I was the only female in the place, or the rather prominent scar on my forehead. Most of the men had quickly lost interest once I'd sent a few scowls their way, but the bartender--a big, swarthy man of indeterminate age--seemed to be keeping an eye on me. While some part of me figured he simply didn't want trouble, something about it bothered me nonetheless.
Then the door to my right opened, briefly silhouetting the figure of a man. He was thickset but tall, and his hair was a wild mix of black, blue, and green, as if some artist had spilled a palette of sea-colored paints over his head.
When my gaze met his, he nodded once, then stepped into the room.
I took another sip of Coke and waited. He weaved his way through the mess of tables and chairs, his movements deft and sure, exhibiting a fluid grace so rare in most people.
Of course, he wasn't most people. He was one of the other ones. One of the monsters.
"Angus Dougall, at your service," he said, his deep, somewhat gruff voice holding only the barest hint of a Scottish burr. "Sorry I was so late, but there were protestors up on Mission Street and the traffic was hell. You want another drink?"
"Not at the moment, thanks. And why meet here if it was so far out of your way?"
"Because I know these parts well enough."
Implying that he felt safer here than anywhere else, I guessed. He took off a blue woolen peacoat that had seen better years and tossed it over the back of the chair opposite, then walked to the bar. He was, I thought with amusement, very much the image of a sea captain of old, complete with jaunty cap and a pipe shoved in his back pocket. His multicolored hair was wild and scraggly, his skin burned nut-brown by the sun, and his beard was as unkempt as his hair. All that was missing was the parrot on his shoulder. And the wrinkles--because despite looking like an old-style sea captain, he couldn't have been any older than his mid-forties.
Only I doubt he'd ever been near a boat in his life. Sea dragons had no need for that mode of transport. Not according to Leith--a friend who was currently running a background check on Dougall. And he should know, because he was a sea dragon himself.
Angus came back with a beer in his hand and sat down. His gaze swept my face, lingering on the half-healed wound that snuck out from my hair to create a jagged line across half my forehead. Once it was fully healed, it would be barely visible, but right now it was fucking ugly.
Which was a small price to pay, considering the other option. Tears touched my eyes and I blinked them away rapidly. Now was not the time to grieve. I had far too much to do before I could give in to the pain and hurt and loss.
Angus took a sip of his beer then said, "I wasn't actually expecting you to make it today. I thought you'd been in an accident?"
Fear prickled my spine. I took a drink to ease the sudden dryness in my throat and wondered if he'd been behind the wheel of that truck. Wondered just how safe I was in this bar, even with the dozen or so strangers around us.
Excerpted from Mercy Burns by Keri Arthur. Copyright © 2011 by Keri Arthur. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.