FLAME - The Ragnarok Prophesies: Book Three Excerpt

FLAME
The Ragnarök Prophesies: Book Three

Who do you trust when betrayal threatens to destroy everything you hold dear?

When Arionna Jacobs fled town in a desperate bid to save Dace Matthews, she never expected the chaos she would leave in her wake. Now her closest friend is dead, and another is missing, forcing Ari to return to face the devastating consequences of her actions and the broken boy she left behind.

Her problems are only just beginning.

Even as her bond with Dace grows stronger, Arionna finds herself weakening when Freki's cage shatters. Fighting the wolf for control is tearing her apart piece by piece. And at every turn, she finds that those she's put her faith in aren't who they seem, bringing her face to face with Sköll and Hati. As the depth of their betrayal is revealed, Freki spirals out of control, and Arionna must face her greatest fear: losing herself to the fierce wolf within.

The world balances on the edge of a blade, and one wrong move will destroy it all.


With few allies she can trust and little choice left, Arionna must decide between the lives of her friends and her own future with the alpha she loves. Will she be able to stand firm for the sake of the world, or will she falter in the face of defeat?


Prologue

Dace
May, 2010
My feet pounded against the cracked pavement, striking the ground with solid, measured slaps. The foot falls of eight shifters echoed from the left and right. They were falling behind, too far behind to reach Kalei and her pack of wolves in time.
Ducking my head, I pushed for more speed.
Trees loomed ahead, bare branches twisted like claws reaching toward the sky. The wind blew cool against my face, far cooler than was normal for mid-May. But I didn't have time to worry about the weather when the battle for life bounced back from the trees in ominous snarls and pained howls. Those sounds blended with the steps of the group now racing two paces behind me, with the way their hearts pounded in a single rhythm—as if they truly were the family I'd fought to shape them into over the last four years—and with the wordless, furious roars of Geri, the legendary wolf currently raging in my head.
Each pained yelp from deep within the press of trees ahead brought another ferocious roar from him. I clenched my hands, fighting against the urge to drop to all fours and let him take over. Fighting to stay me. To stay Dace Matthews. To stay in control.
I wasn't sure I'd been in control in a long time, though—not since Arionna Jacobs tumbled into my life and changed everything. But I knew one thing: which side of me—wolf or man—held the reins no longer mattered. Somewhere ahead, our kin fought for their lives, and we were always too late, too slow, when it counted.
In some fucked up twist of fate that followed us into every life destiny forced us into, haunting us like a wraith keeping to the shadows, we were never quick enough to save those we'd vowed to protect. Even as I ran, I knew this time would be no different.
The call from Kalei had come too late.
Lykaois already hovered perilously close to death. Feeble breaths came in bloody pockets of air from the gaping hole in his throat. His pack mates fell upon his attacker as one defiant tide, fury driving them onward.
The elder wolf shook them off like rainwater, his amusement cracking through my head like the lash of a whip. His laughter stung, but no worse than the truth. We'd been betrayed, fooled, blinded.
Aki ran with the enemy.
The edge of the pavement reared into sight between one long stride and the next. I took a desperate, flying leap over the tangled roots pushing the cement upward in uneven breaks, over decaying leaves and rotted twigs, and landed with a thud in the thick undergrowth choking the woods. I took a half second to steady myself, and then raced on.
Leaves crunched beneath my feet. Mud splattered the legs of my jeans.
I darted around massive trees and over their fallen brothers, weaving through the woodland without pause. I dodged holes in the ground, instinct and four long years of learning every inch of these woods telling me exactly where to place my feet.
The shifters entered the trees in a flurry of curses and panted breaths behind me. They tripped and slid, but they kept running, racing to the defense of wolves they didn't understand, yet respected nonetheless.
We were getting closer. Half a mile separated us from the battle now.
The woods thickened, darkening. Everywhere my gaze fell, life fought to break free of the press and tangle blurring around me. Spring scrabbled for a foothold in a wood long lost to the wild and a world still held in a vise by winter. Tiny buds struggled to lift their heads toward the weak sunlight trickling in from beneath the dense overhang of branches.
Lykaois died as spring sought to live.
The pack ahead howled, filling the air with screams of grief and anger.
My body began to vibrate, humming with the force of Geri's response to their rage. Perhaps even with the force of my own.
My vision blurred, blackening.
Fire rolled through me, melting bone and sinew.
My muscles screamed in protest, contorting wildly.
I lost my footing and tripped. Blood rushed through my veins, liquid lava unmaking me from the inside out. My hands lengthened, fingers twisting, taking a new shape. I groaned, and tripped again, hitting the ground hard.
Geri burst forth between one beat of my heart and the next, exploding into life as my mind wheeled and tumbled, rearranging itself with astonishing ease. My body, my soul… they remembered the change from man to wolf. They welcomed it.
Geri climbed to his feet as the shifters caught up to us. He shook off the fire still burning its way through our veins and began to jog beside them. I felt invaded, torn apart, and put back together in the wrong order. Trapped in my own mind. Except I wasn't Geri's prisoner this time.
Because of Arionna, we were finally partners—equal for the first time in this life.
Geri pulled ahead of the shifters, his animal stride quickly outstripping the speed their human legs mustered. Everything sat lower to the ground as he ran. Trees seemed taller, fallen logs smaller. I could usually see for miles without the wolf's help, but now my eyes picked out details I'd missed before. Ants marched through the undergrowth, carrying scavenged scraps back to their queen. Worms slugged onward beneath soppy, crumbling leaves. Dust motes and dirt hovered in the highest branches, dancing alongside small moths and miniscule gnats in fingers of heated air.
Kalei, alpha of the pack that had come to stand with us against Sköll and Hati, shared her vision with us. Aki flew at Rafe, attempting to get his jaws around the smaller wolf's throat like he had with Lykaois. Rafe moved too fast for the old wolf though, darting so quickly he almost seemed to dance along the forest floor.
Aki's jaws closed around nothing but air.
Snarls broke from Geri's lips, ominous, angry sounds that stoked something inside until I raged like he had for so long. Ineffective. Trapped. But not alone this time. The terrifying wolf and I fought to work together around the chasm in our mind, the massive crack separating us. That crack had all but disappeared before Arionna left, but it had returned once she was gone, stretching like the Grand Canyon between us.
Don't let him go, I yelled through the void anyway, hoping like hell Geri heard me and understood.
The pack came into sight ahead. They surrounded Aki, fighting to bring him down. All but two were present. The pup, Fuki, was hundreds of miles away, in Illinois with Arionna. I felt his mother, Buka, racing toward us from the west side of town where she'd stood guard over Beth Michaelson, exactly as she had since Arionna fled town with the girl's surviving triplet sister, Chelle.
For the first time since my actions drove Ari away, I was glad she was gone. She didn't have to witness this betrayal firsthand, or feel the shame of knowing we'd been too blind to see the treachery unfolding right beneath our noses. She didn't have to watch her friends fight for their lives this time. She didn't have to risk losing her own like Lykaois had.
The rest of the wolves were beaten, but not broken, thank God. Cuts and scrapes and limps were minor injuries compared to our fallen brother's. His body lay in the middle of the chaos, battered and still.
Lykaois had never liked me. He'd fought me every step of the way since the moment he appeared in town, questioning my judgment, my choices, and my leadership. What right did I have to lead when I caged my wolf in imaginary bars of iron? He'd tried to attack Arionna. Geri and I had wanted to kill him that day. We'd ached to tear him to shreds for threatening her. Had Arionna not stood so close to me that the wild, fearful beating of her heart echoed in my ears, we may have done exactly that. But she had been there, and we'd let her attacker live.
Now we mourned him.
Geri burst into the middle of the battle without slowing. Kalei leaped out of his way. Seff and Rafe lunged at Aki, momentarily holding his attention away from my wolf. They danced backward, out of the reach of his fangs, and out of Geri's way.
He hit Aki like a hammer from the left, flinging him off his feet. The old wolf slammed into the base of a tree, rolled across the ground, and then climbed back to a loose fighting stance with a single shake of his head.
One of the shifters swore loudly, realizing, perhaps, what the pack had grasped before Lykaois died. Aki was too strong, too quick, to be the ordinary wolf we'd long believed him to be. He was not Sköll or Hati, I knew, but he was one of theirs nonetheless. A bastard Jötunn shifter, hiding his presence with a wizened face none of us thought to question.
Buka reached the scene, but didn't come forward. She hung back, lurking in the shadows of the trees, unnoticed by Aki. The shifters and wolves spread out around us in a tight circle, leaving Aki nowhere to go. The wolf curled his upper lip and snarled, but he didn't try to attack again. He wasn't stupid. He might have been strong enough to take on the wolves alone, but only a fool would try to tackle the combined might of the pack, the shifters, and Geri.
Aki stood where he was, Lykaois's blood staining his muzzle.
Surprisingly, Geri didn't immediately go for the animal's throat. He sat back on his haunches, waiting for something.
A flutter of thought drifted across the canyon between us, startling me.
Without Arionna, Geri still understood me more clearly than I'd thought he did.
I reached deep, grasping at every ounce of energy I had.
We must question him, Kalei, I said, relieved when the thought made it to her. Before Ari strengthened the bond between Geri and me, my attempts to communicate with the pack's alpha would have been useless. I could have screamed from my corner of Geri's mind, and Kalei would have heard nothing.
She stepped up beside Geri with a disdainful toss of her head. Aki could give no explanation that would satisfy her. He'd betrayed the trust of the pack, pretended to be one of them—killed one of them—for an enemy the pack had hated instinctively for as far back as wolf-memory stretched. He'd condemned himself to death the second he attacked one of theirs.
Kalei would allow him to be questioned first though, because we needed answers. If Aki knew where Mandy Chapman was, we had to know, before Sköll and Hati killed her.
After that, the pack could kill him slowly. Painfully.
I told Kalei as much.
Aki's twisted laughter sounded in my head again. You think I fear death, níðingr?
A murmur of surprise wound through shifter and wolf alike, each taken off guard that he communicated in the human way, with words and Old Norse insults. Kalei and Geri were as surprised as the rest, though neither showed their emotions. They—no, we—were alpha for a reason.
Kalei stepped aside, her thoughts full of disdain for Aki and human speech in general.
Where's the girl? I asked the old wolf, putting everything I had into the demand. The thought still wasn't nearly as strong as I wanted, but my question didn't waver.
Aki looked right at Geri, at me, but didn't answer.
Buka hovered in the shadows, waiting for a chance to attack.
Where is she? I asked again.
Níðingr, Aki repeated, the insult full of venom and loathing.
Geri dove forward, knocking the Jötunn shifter to the ground with a menacing snarl. He sank his teeth into Aki's side and shook his head. Flesh tore like paper beneath his sharp fangs. The metallic taste of Aki's blood running down his throat sent a savage stab of pleasure through both of us.
Aki didn't make a sound.
Where is she?
Geri took a step back, allowing the damned wolf to roll to his feet again.
Answer me, I demanded.
Answer you? You are a foolish pup, demanding answers when you do not even know the question.
Kalei darted forward, moving with a quiet grace that took Aki off guard. He barely missed the slash of her fangs across his muzzle. As quickly as she'd leaped forward, she danced back out of his reach.
Geri snarled a warning when Aki made to follow after her.
The old wolf reluctantly moved away from the pack's alpha. He didn't make the mistake of ignoring the danger she presented this time though, instead keeping one wary eye on her.
Where is Mandy, dammit?
Beyond your reach now, pup. She'll wish for death before you set eyes on her again.
Son of a bitch!
Sköll and Hati already had her.
I'd suspected as much, but Aki's confirmation made my blood boil. We were supposed to be protecting the girl, keeping her safe from Sköll and Hati, and we'd failed. How many more would we lose before we stopped the twin wolves and their mad plan to free Fenrir from his chains and usher in Ragnarök?
Where are Sköll and Hati?
We come into your family, right beneath your nose, and you do not question us. We sit in your circle, attend your council, and you do not notice. We attack your mate, kill your kin, and you do nothing. We are everywhere, and you trust, blindly. Aki's gaze roved around the group. This is who your foolish god sent to save you? This is your véurr? He laughed again. Eldhúsfífl.
His insults strung like the sharp edge of a blade against my flesh. I fought the urge to wrest control from Geri and wrap my hands around the bastard wolf's throat.
If the shifters or pack doubted my leadership, they didn't show their uncertainty. Their murmurs and snarls were full of defiance and the same corrosive hatred eating away at me day in and day out since Sköll and Hati attacked Arionna.
This idiot has beaten them before, I reminded Aki. Time and again, your masters have come against us and lost. Fenrir will remain in the chains Odin bound him into like a neutered pup. Sköll and Hati will fail, exactly like they always do. When the sun falls on this age, it will not be by their doing, hraumi.
Aki's eyes burned with hatred.
He leapt toward us, snarling savagely.
Geri braced to absorb the impact of the charging wolf.
Aki struck like a clap of thunder, knocking him off his feet.
He was up again in seconds.
So was Aki.
He came like a bull this time, fangs gnashing at the air.
Geri met his charge again.
Aki leapt at the last second, attempting to catch Geri unprepared. Geri was ready for him though. He rose up, and with his fangs, grabbed Aki by the throat before slamming him to the ground so hard bone would have snapped had Aki been the ordinary gray wolf whose face he wore. As it was, Aki struggled to get his feet beneath him this time. He sat back, panting.
Geri and I watched him for a moment, disgusted. The old wolf had run with us, lived amongst us, and we hadn't known. How much had we said in front of him? How much had he gleaned from Kalei and Buka? From me?
Everything, I had to assume.
Sköll and Hati knew everything about us, including where to find Arionna, Fuki, and Ronan.
Kill him, I said to Kalei. As much as I wanted to feel Geri's fangs rip into Aki's flesh again, his life wasn't ours to take. Vengeance belonged to Kalei and the pack.
Geri cast Aki one final glance and then stepped back, making room for the other wolves to close ranks around the doomed Jötunn.
Aki spoke before they could move. My kin follow behind her, pup. They cling to her shadow unseen, setting traps to spring upon her. She and the raven and the little wolf will die soon, and you will be all alone. You will not talk so foolishly then, vargdropi.
I didn't have to ask what he meant. I knew.
Arionna was in danger.
Geri turned with a ferocious snarl, enraged at the threat to our mate, but he was too late. Buka darted from the shadows, racing full tilt toward Aki, incensed by his threat to Fuki, her pup, and to Arionna, one she'd adopted as her own.
He was waiting for her when she leapt.
His jaws closed around her throat with an audible snap.
Her howl ended abruptly, cut off by her collapsing airway.
Aki tossed his head, flinging her into a tree.
Bone cracked, and Buka fell limply to the ground.
She didn't get up again.
A memory floated through her mind. Arionna stood with her hands clutched in Fuki's fur, woman and wolf bidding the pack farewell. Buka wanted me to tell them she would meet them again in the next life.
Farewell, brother, she whispered to me, pushing hard to get the human thought to form.
Her hind legs twitched… and then went still.
The wolves howled, inflamed by their beta's death.
Violent shouts rose from the shifters.
They didn't stand a chance though.
What calm Geri and I still possessed shattered in a spray of bright red rage.
Aki died before his body hit the ground.



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