William wasn’t sure what to expect when he awoke the next morning. He and the others had spent most of the day and night devising a plan to eliminate the warden. They needed it to look like the spy was responsible and throw suspicion of them. No one else knew about the plan and it was decided to keep it between them.
It was easy to discuss their plan in private as another body had been discovered so a new lockdown was in effect. The problem was they couldn’t come up with anything. In theory, the plan seemed solid. In practice, it was a nightmare. They needed to get him alone without anyone else noticing and kill him without alerting the guards.
Omar suggested the secret storeroom. It was guaranteed to be unguarded. All they needed to do was find out when Harold was there. Lance volunteered to do it. If he could sneak into the storeroom, he could wait for Harold to arrive.
What William hadn’t told the others was he had no intention of going through with their plan. He intended to speak with Cutter. He didn’t like putting Lance at risk like that. The spy was too much of a wildcard, not to mention their identity and values were unknown. There were too many factors outside of his control. And if things went wrong, they would spend the rest of their lives in a prison cell.
Cutter was the better option. If she killed the warden, it would be considered self-defense. Better, it would give him more leverage over her, something he was lacking. It would be easy to lure him there as well.
And the last thing Lyndria was likely to expect was for him to ally with Cutter. It was his best shot at getting ahead of her.
Between the lockdown and Harold’s restrictions, he had to sneak out of his room at night to see her. He had to convince Victor to help him without letting the young man in on the secret. It wasn’t until he told the young man that the sooner they learned all they could about Lyndria, the sooner this would that he agreed to go along with it. Getting around was easier than expected; the security was surprisingly lax even with the current events. He assumed it was the traitor’s doing. Too many guards would scare them into hiding and their efforts would be wasted.
The only time Victor had to say anything was when they rode the elevator which was guarded.
“The warden sent me to pick something up from the storeroom,” Victor replied. He motioned to William and added, “He’s with me.”
The guard nodded and allowed them use of the elevator alone.
Harold’s smuggling schemes are working against him, William thought.
They rode down to the lower levels in silence. William noticed the young man glance in his direction, and he wouldn’t stop fidgeting.
He decided to address it once they stepped off the elevator. The last thing he needed was the young man losing his nerve now of all times. “Is something bothering you?” he asked.
“Well, sir, it’s just. There have been noises down here. Doors opening and closing, the sound of clicking on the floor like claws. But no one claims to have seen anything.”
William sighed. “Do not tell me you’re still buying into that ghost nonsense. I told you, that it’s simply nerves. Lyndria’s spy is trying to scare everyone. It’s an effective tactic for disrupting your enemies.”
“I’m sorry, but you’re wrong, sir. I’ve seen it.”
William stopped walking; the image of yellow eyes jumped into his mind.
“I’ve only caught a glimpse, mind you, but I saw it,” Victor whispered. “It was a tail sliding out of sight.”
“Have you told anyone else about this?”
“I did, but they laughed at me and said I was imagining things. But it’s the vengeful spirit of the dragons, coming for revenge because of what we did here.”
“And what did you do here?”
The young man shook his head and said nothing. He tried to walk away, but William cut him off and took him firmly by the shoulders.
“Victor, it’s all right, you can tell me. What did you do here?”
“The dragons…we torture them.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“No, you don’t understand!” He took a shuddering breath and continued. “We…We barely feed them. They never leave their cells. Sometimes the warden sends us to beat them even when they’ve done nothing wrong. ‘It’s to remind them of the way of things,’ he says.”
“And you want no part of it.”
He shook his head, his eyes never leaving William’s. “But we’re all that stands between order and chaos. These dragons are murderers, but I want no part of this. Even the guard-captain says something is wrong when you put your prisoners down out of mercy.”
William was at a loss. How many times had Victor convinced himself that he was doing the right thing just to deal with the horrors of his actions?
“It’s the curse,” Victor said. “One of the dragons said that Lyndria would come for us one day and make us pay for what we did. The guards laughed at him, but now she’s here and she’s going to kill us all! We’re all going to—”
William shook the man violently. “Calm down! We’re going to put a stop to this, and you are not going to die. But to succeed, I need your help. Can you do that?”
Victor nodded slowly. It was enough for and they continued to Cutter’s cell.
The notion of a curse was ridiculous, but the thought wouldn’t stop nagging at him. What if this had been Lyndria’s plan all along? He was never her intended target but the prison. That he brought Cutter here was a coincidence that she would make the most of.
Once they were outside Cutter’s cell, he asked Victor to wait outside. The young man looked like a scared child, but he patted him on the shoulder and reassured him that everything would be okay.
This was a conversation he needed to have alone. Victor was hanging by a thread and the last thing he needed was another moral dilemma. The less he knew, the better.
A pair of yellow eyes stared at him in the darkness, sending a chill through his spine. He couldn’t risk turning on the lights so he had to settle for a lantern instead. The glow of the flames made Cutter look a thing of nightmares, the way the shadows danced on her scarred body.
A small smile spreading across her face. “Hey, Willy! You’re late. I expected you to come by sooner. Visiting me for a nightcap, huh? Sorry, I don’t do humans or bondage. Take these chains off and send a drake in here and maybe I’ll let you watch.”
“I have no time for your games.” He sat in the chair in front of her and looked into her eyes. “We need to talk about Harold. He’s too dangerous to be left alive.”
Her smile widened, resembling a psychopathic grin. “So you finally grew a pair of balls and decided to deal with Warden Piss-Stain.” She scratched her side with her hind leg, the rattling of her chains filling the room. “Well, I do want him dead but why should I help you?”
“He pulled out the note and held it up to her. I know you can read this. Harold plans to kill you and harvest your organs. I’m your best chance at ensuring that doesn’t happen.”
“Hm, tempting, but no.”
“You are in no position to—”
“Let’s get something straight: I don’t need you. You only came to me because you don’t want the guards on your ass. Well, I’m not your fucking guard dog. You want him dead, do it yourself. Stop being a pussy and get your hands dirty for once.”
“You have no idea—”
Her chains rattled violently. He could only guess she swung her tail as he didn’t see any other part of her move. “Don’t treat me like a dumbass, Willy. It’s one of the few things I actually like about you. You want me to do it because whoever does it can kiss their freedom goodbye and whoever he works for will focus their attention on me.” She leaned forward as far as her chains would allow. Her face was uncomfortably close to his. “I’m starting to think you’re less of a badass than I gave you credit for. If you’re too weak to go after a human, you have no hope against Lyndria.” She backed away and snorted then faced the wall. “You know what? I’m pulling out of our agreement. A coward can’t help me.”
William stood, knocking his chair over. “I grow tired of this game. You’re standing here in chains, yet you think you have the authority to threaten me when it suits you.”
“And what are you going to do about it, Willy?”
He glared at her, shaking with anger. Every second he wasted negotiating put Marie at risk. He had grown tired of Cutter’s game, but she was right. He had no leverage in this position. If she didn’t help him, Harold would kill her. Lyndria would likely kill her the moment she got out of the prison. Captivity or freedom held the same fate for her.
“Is that angry look supposed to scare me? Look, you got three options, Willy. One, you do what I say and kill Piss-Stain’s body. Just bring me the body, and I’ll take care of the rest. Two, you go along with whatever dumbass backup plan you came up with and hope everything goes well. Or three, you don’t do shit and let everything play out. So which is it?”
She knew what he had decided; it was in her eyes. Option two was too dangerous and if it all went well, it would still mean Lance would be imprisoned. Option three wasn’t even an option. Harold planned to kill both of them; letting him go unopposed was a death sentence. “Very well. I’ll bring you Harold’s body.”
“That’s a good man. Don’t take too long now. Who knows how long he’s going to wait?”
William stormed out of the cell. He knew what she was getting at. She didn’t want to wait. She wanted Harold gone by morning. It made sense. At night, there were fewer patrols.
But there was no time to react. He couldn’t think about how to proceed. He headed for the elevator, not acknowledging Victor’s presence even as the young man called out to him. A knot had formed in his chest and it grew tighter the further he walked.
He had never truly killed someone before. There was the time he defended himself and Marie from a mugger, but that was different. The man had a knife, and their lives were in danger. Here, the threat felt too distant for this type of reaction. Just the thought of having Harold killed didn’t sit well with him. He planned to ruin his career as if the man wouldn’t seek vengeance. Even during the plan to capture Cutter, he made it clear that no one was to resort to violence unless there was no other option.
He recalled what Cutter said as he entered the elevator. He had never considered himself a coward, but she was right. Someone who wasn’t ready to do what was necessary stood no chance against Lyndria. Even in her youth, she didn’t hesitate to do what had to be done.
But is that no different from stooping to her level? He wondered. Blackmail, kidnap, torture. He had clearly fallen from grace lately. It all seemed noble before. Give them the option to walk away and try to resolve things peacefully, but he had forgotten who he was dealing with. Dragons were not so easily swayed. They didn’t turn on their leaders to save their skins. No doubt Cutter would inspire that same level of loyalty from her people, human or dragon.
It was hard to breathe when he stepped off the elevator. The walls seemed distant and unreal as if in a waking dream. His legs moved on their own as his mind wandered.
Cutter was right. He was a coward. He planned to use her to do what he could not. Because he was unwilling to sacrifice a friend for his goals.
He tried to force the thoughts from his mind, but it only made them come back stronger. Knowing what Harold was up to, no one would care if he vanished from the face of the earth.
I’m doing the world a favor getting rid of him, he thought. No one would blame me. His own men hate following him.
He looked up and realized he stood in front of the warden’s door. It surprised him that he managed to get here without anyone stopping him.
Victor jogged up to him, his face pale. “Sir, what are you doing?”
“What must be done,” he replied listlessly as he banged on the door.
He continued knocking until Harold appeared, annoyance on his face.
“Do you have any idea what time it—Oh, it’s you. Whatever it is you want, it can wait until morning.”
William slammed his hand against the door, preventing it from closing. Harold’s annoyance turned to fear.
“I need to show you something,” William said.
Harold looked at Victor then back to him. “Can’t this wait?”
“It cannot. Cutter is ready to make a deal. She thinks she can bargain for her lie.” He just thought up that lie on the spot, but it surprised him how convincing it sounded.
A nervous grin appeared on Harold’s face. “Does she now? And this late-night meeting is to keep other dragons from catching wind of it, I assume?”
William said nothing.
He didn’t remember going back to Cutter’s cell. All he saw was Marie’s face. Smiling at him. Welcoming him home.
Once they were outside the cell, he told Victor to wait outside and followed Harold in. The warden strutted as if taking his victory lap.
He stood in front of Cutter, arms folded across his chest. His back was turned but William could imagine the smug grin on his face. “Well, dragon, I heard you’re ready to negotiate.”
“I did. Too bad for you.”
William approached from behind, wrapping his arm around Harold’s throat. He struggled and they fell over. William wrapped his legs around him and tightened his grip. It was important that he not make a sound. If Harold uttered even a single cry, it would be over.
He saw Cutter smiling at him. He closed his eyes, but could still see her watching, silently egging him on. Harold tried to claw at his face and arms, but William clenched his teeth against the pain and tightened his grip. He thought only of Marie and what would happen if he failed.
Finally, Harold went limp. William held on for a while longer to be sure he wasn’t faking then let go. Crawling from under the body took more effort than he thought possible. It felt as if Harold still had a grip on him, trying to pull him into an unseen pit to pay for his crimes.
“Look at you doing something yourself for a change.”
He didn’t have the energy to even glare at her let alone rebuke her for the statement.
“What happens now?” he asked.
“Now I’m going to eat very well tonight. Come by in the morning and I’ll tell you how things end between Lyndria and Delour.”
Part of him wanted to ask what would happen to the bones and personal effects. A stronger part didn’t want to know. Shakily, he stood and left the cell. He couldn’t look Victor in the eye as they made their way back to the elevator.