William always hated Osharese Fortress otherwise known as the scaled prison. It was one of the few places designed to hold the most dangerous creatures on earth: dragons. Possessing the power of flight, a natural armor in their scales, great physical strength, and flaming breath that could melt any metal, no ordinary prison could hold them. Buried deep underground and built with thick steel walls, even a dragon would have a hard time escaping. Even should one escape, the prison was designed like a maze and filled with armed guards. Since the prison’s design, not a single dragon has ever escaped.
That was why he had chosen it as the ideal place to interrogate Cutter. He supposed it was the only place she could be interrogated safely.
But even riding toward the most secure prison ever built, he couldn’t shake the apprehension crawling over him. Horses were trained to be around dragons without panicking, but the ones pulling his carriage refused to pass the gates. Not that William blamed them, so he and Lance had to enter the prison on foot. Even from outside, the stench of dragon was heavy in the air along with despair.
He instinctively wrinkled his nose, the moment the large metal gates swung open to allow him entry. He couldn’t even begin to understand how the guards felt. And it wasn’t a pleasant thought, knowing when he saw Marie again, he would stink of dragon.
So far as he knew, dragons did not keep prisons. When a dragon in a clan committed a crime, they were either killed or exiled so the idea of imprisonment was foreign to them. It made for an effective means of punishment, but he worried about having so many dangerous creatures huddled in one location all with a likely hatred of humans.
He crossed the threshold, and the great metal doors swung shut. The ominous clanging sent chills up William’s spine. Standing outside in the courtyard, he noticed a massive metal cage reaching over the entire courtyard. He understood the reason for its existence, but he still felt like a prisoner.
One of the guards approached them. The man had a very youthful face. He was very tall and stood hunched as if trying to make himself appear smaller. Despite his size, his uniform looked a little too big for him. The result was looking like an oversized child playing dress-up in a suit of armor with a large rifle strapped to his back. “Lord Delcat. Thank you for coming.”
“Yes, thank you. Have everything been taken care of?”
“It has, my Lord. The prisoner has been taken to the lowest levels where we keep the most dangerous dragons.”
“Is that wise?” Lance asked.
“It’s the most secure level of the prison, sir.”
“Good,” William said. “Take us to her, please.”
The guard fidgeted. “Well, are you sure you do not wish to rest first, my Lord? You must be tired after such a long ride.”
“I am tired, but I’m afraid rest must come later.”
“I’m sorry, but my orders were to show you to your chambers for the duration of your stay.”
William raised a brow. “Is there a reason why you’re stalling us?”
“I-It’s just…the prisoner…we’re still trying to break her in.”
“What are you talking about?” Lance asked. “We specifically sent orders that no one was to have any contact with her after she had been detained!”
The guard shrank away, looking more like a scolded child than someone in charge of watching over the most dangerous creatures alive. “I-I know that. It’s just the warden…”
“Take us to see the prisoner, now,” William said.
The guard said nothing as he led them inside. The smell of dragon was even stronger as if one that hadn’t bathed in weeks sat directly under their noses. William ground his teeth together, silently cursing the foul turn things had already taken. His fury distracted him from the dreariness of the prison’s halls. The poor lighting did little to hide that it was not designed for comfort. The low ceiling and narrow passages created a claustrophobic feel. They all entered the elevator and descended to the floors below. The elevator rumbled and groaned as it descended the shaft.
“What is this ‘breaking in’ you speak of?” William asked.
“We have to teach the dragons to respect the order around here. Because dragons don’t have prisons. They need to learn they don’t have luxuries here.”
“You didn’t answer his question,” Lance said.
The guard avoided eye contact. “It depends on the dragon. Some understand right away. Others, need to be…persuaded.”
“M-Mostly through beatings, sir.”
William glowered at the guard and said nothing. Dragons were known for being stubborn as well. No doubt a few of them would rather be beaten to death to submit. If the same thing happens to Cutter before I have a chance to question her, the dragons will be the least of their problems, he thought.
The elevator stopped at what William assumed was the lowest level. Somehow it was darker down here than the upper level. The walls resembled a naturally-made tunnel instead of something human-crafted. In the distance, he could just make out some of the cell doors illuminated by the few wall sconces.
The guard lit the lantern beside the elevator entrance then bade them follow him. The silence in the halls was unnerving. The halls twisted and turned in various directions. It didn’t take long before William was completely lost.
Finally, they stopped in front of a large metal door at the end of one of the passages. A deep groove had been worn in the floor from its repeated openings and closings. The moment they stopped, there was the distinct cracking of a whip followed by a voice shouting, “Know your place!”
“Open it,” William ordered.
It took both Lance and the guard the pull the door open. William pushed past them and hurried inside.
Contrary to the confines of the hall, the cell was much larger. Cutter was easy to spot in the center of the dimly lit chamber. Chains were attached to each wing, pulling the leathery appendages straight up to the ceiling. More thick chains pulled her legs and tail in different directions, forcing her to stand with her limbs splayed. A final shorter chain was wrapped around her neck, forcing her head downward.
She was surrounded by a ring of armed guards—a quick headcount revealed at least 10. Two of the guards held her head in a large basin of water. A third man stood beside her, clenching a barbed whip in his hand. The third man did not look the part he played. All of the guards were large men, hewn from stone with grizzled features and carrying large rifles. He was thin, had a soft face, and looked as if the rifles weighed more than he did.
“What is going on in here?!” William thundered.
Everyone in the room stiffened as they looked his way. The two guards holding Cutter’s head stepped back. She snatched her head out of the basin, coughing and gasping for air as best she could with a metal muzzle around her jaws.
The man holding the whip was the only one who did not appear worried. “What we are doing is breaking in the new prisoner, Mr. Delcat.”
“It’s ‘Lord’,” William said, his voice shaking with anger. “And I did not grant you permission to do such a thing.”
“Thankfully, I don’t need your permission to decide what goes on in my prison and how I choose to treat my prisoners.” He tossed the whip to the nearest guard and approached them. “Forgive me for not greeting you at the entrance. My name is—”
“I know exactly who you are Warden Harold Vesper. I left very clear instructions on how I wanted her treated upon her arrival.”
“Perhaps you didn’t hear me, Lord Delcat. I decide what goes on in my prison. Now I decided to allow you to bring your prisoner here to interrogate her, but I still have the final word. If you wish to make use of my guards or interact with the other prisoners here, it must go through me first, is that clear?”
William fought to maintain his composure. Only now did he see the situation he had unknowingly walked into. There was little he could do about it now. Releasing Cutter was out of the question. “I understand.”
“Good. Now, I will have someone escort you back to the upper levels and show you to your chambers.” He gently steered William toward the exit. “It’s at least a five-day ride from here to the nearest city and I suspect you and your bodyguard are very tired. I promise to have this dragon properly broken in by the time you return tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t count on it, fuckbag,” Cutter said menacingly.
William pulled free from the warden as politely as he was able which was only a small step above shoving the man away. “I wish to speak to Cutter now if you don’t mind. Time is a luxury I currently lack.”
“Of course,” Harold said. His eyes betrayed his annoyance. “You have one hour. Then it’s feeding time. I like to keep things on a tight schedule around here.”
“Also, I would like to speak with her alone.”
Harold’s displeasure was more obvious this time. “I cannot allow that. You are a guest here, and your safety is my top priority.”
“If my life is in danger even when she is bound like this, I seriously doubt the efficiency of this place.”
Harold gave a strained smile. “I’m afraid I must insist at least one guard be present at all times. Even I am not allowed to enter a dragon’s cell alone. Also, this place is built like a maze to keep the dragons from escaping. You will need someone to guide you to the elevator when you are finished.”
“Very well.” William did not like having a third-party listening in, but this was also likely the best outcome he could hope for. Usually just mentioning the Scale Guild was enough to open doors, but now and again there were a few hard cases who refused to play by the rules. The warden wasn’t going to be dissuaded, and there wasn’t time to get him out of the way.
Harold nodded and ordered the rest of the guards to leave save for the one who led William and Lance to the cell. Judging from the crestfallen look on the guard’s face, William suspected it was meant to punish him.
“I never asked before, but what’s your name?” Wiliam asked.
“My name is Victor, my Lord.”
“Please, call me William. And this is Lance.”
Victor turned to him and bowed slightly. “Pleasure to meet you, my—”
“Just ‘Lance’ is fine.”
“If you three are done sucking each other’s balls, how about you cut me loose?” Cutter said. “I’ll even pretend you weren’t here when I tear this place down.”
Looking at her chained and weak, it was hard to believe she was the same feared dragon especially after the effort it took to track her down and capture her. He used to believe she was untouchable, a true rival and equal despite her vulgar mannerisms. Her knowledge of human politics was as frightening as it was impressive.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” William said. “I apologize for the way you were treated after being brought here, but I need to know everything you know about Lyndria.”
“Why the fuck are you so interested in her? No one wants to hear about her. And as for your apology? Shove it up your ass. You’re just mad Warden Piss-Stain started the torture without you.”
“I do plan to torture you, but I also hoped you would tell me the information willingly.”
She rattled her chains with a movement William assumed was an attempt at stretching. “ You’re a strange human. Fine. I’ll play your game. You want me to talk? We’ll need to talk terms.”
“You are in no position to negotiate,” Lance said angrily.
“No, you are in no position to make demands,” Cutter shot back. “You don’t plan to let me leave me whether I talk or not, and that prick who runs this place isn’t going to let me peacefully rot away in here.” She shot a sly smile in William’s direction. “You, on the other hand, have a Matriarch on your ass, so you can’t afford to leave here with nothing can you?”
“Tell me everything you know about Lyndria, and I’ll arrange for you to be released from this place,” William said.
Lance grabbed William and pulled him to the edge of the room. William was too shocked by the brazen action to react. Lance had never done anything like that before.
“What on earth are you doing?” Lance said. “She’ll slaughter us and our families if she ever gets free.”
William quickly composed himself. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice. Harold showed our hand and she’s right. A slow torturous death awaits her regardless. She’ll keep quiet just to spite me.”
After a few moments of silence, William assumed Lance understood and turned back to Cutter.
“I’ll arrange for your release but only on the condition that you will not take any action against me, my family, or my associates.”
Cutter rolled her eyes. “I guess I can do that. But that walking puss bag of a warden is mine.”
“Do whatever you want with him.”
“W-Wait, you can’t do that!” Victor cried.
Lance walked over to the young man and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Calm down. You are safe from her wrath. And you know Harold better than any of us. Surely, he has this coming to him.”
Victor didn’t reply, but his guilty expression told plenty. William didn’t like that look. It made him wonder exactly what was going on in this prison.
For now, it was something he would have to check into later. Finding out everything he could about Lyndria was his top priority.
“So do we have a deal?” William asked.
“Sure. I promise not to come after you so long as you hold up your end and get me out of here.”
“H-How do we know we can trust her?” Victor asked.
Cutter glared at the young guard. William didn’t interfere. There was little Cutter could do in her position. She wasn’t getting loose, period.
Victor broke eye contact first. He stared at the floor and mumbled, “I’m, I’m sorry.”
William quickly seized control of the conversation. There likely wasn’t much time left before Harold returned and he wanted to begin. “Is Lyndria still alive?”
“That’s impossible,” Lance said. “The stories say she was alive during the Great Rebellion and that was 800 years ago.”
Cutter laughed humorlessly. “I didn’t realize you were such a fucking dragon expert.”
Lance was about retort when William raised a hand to silence him. “You say Lyndria is still alive. How? She’s hated by every dragon who knows her name. How has she avoided capture? Why do her kind label her a traitor?”
“That’s a really long fucking story, and you may not believe all of it. You sure have time to hear it?”
“Yes. Start from the beginning.” He didn’t have time but the less control she believe she had, the better.
“First, I need you to take this annoying fucking thing off my face. It’s hard to talk with it on and it smells like it’s been stuck up someone’s ass. Knowing these perverts, it probably has.”
William chose to ignore the comment and moved to remove the muzzle. He felt the stares on the back of his head from Victor and Lance but ignored those as well.
Cutter opened and closed her mouth repeatedly and licked her lips. “Much better. Now, when two dragons love each other very much—”
Lance growled and stepped forward, but Victor held him back. “Do you think this is a game?”
She tilted her head and stared with an innocent look. “But he said start from the beginning.”
“That I did,” William responded with a humorless smile. “But should you really be making jokes with your freedom at stake?”
Her innocent look vanished. “I don’t need you to get out of here. I’m just in a generous mood is all.”
“I’m sure you are. But I’m not in the mood for games, so let me be more specific: Start with the day she lost control of her clan.” The book mentioned repeatedly that the throneless queen would rise again. Knowing what he knew about dragon clans, it wasn’t hard to figure out what that meant.
Cutter snatched her head up in surprise.
“You look surprised.”
Cutter quickly straightened her expression. “Not really. Just wondering why I’m here if you know so much.”
“Leave the wondering to us. For now, just focus on your well-being. Now, begin.”
“Fine. Here’s what happened. It happened a few years after the Great Rebellion started. Keep in mind that Lyndria’s clan didn’t live with humans so it didn’t affect them until later, but we’ll get to that. For now, she had other shit to deal with.”
Lyndria stood in the middle of the cavern, paralyzed with sorrow and rage. The air reeked of blood and smoke. The smoke burned her eyes, but she refused to close them. The cracked and scorched earth beneath her claws was still hot from the flames of the battle, the lingering embers still licked the massive cave walls. In the center of the smoke, blood, and flames, stood the two responsible. One dragon, covered in pitch-black scales, stood over the corpse of her opponent. The once bright sea-green scales of the dead dragon were stained crimson. The fallen dragon’s lifeless, pale, yellow eyes stared back at Lyndria, almost judging her for not interfering. She turned to her sister, Madrin, whose similar sea-green scales were now pale as she also stared at their mother’s body.
Delour—the new Matriarch—stared at her defeated rival. Blood still dripped down her wounded left foreleg, and one of her wings was torn. She was breathing heavily and seemed ready to collapse at any time. But her injuries were far from fatal. She stepped away from her victory and shouted to the spectators: “I am the Matriarch now. Is there anyone else who dares challenge my rule?”
The other dragons bowed their heads in acknowledgment of their new leader. Madrin bowed as well, much to Lyndria’s rage. She refused to acknowledge the usurper and defiantly held her head high.
“What are you doing?” Madrin whispered, her voice laden with fear. “If you don’t bow, she’ll kill you.”
Lyndria said nothing. Dying was better than living her life as the servant of her mother’s killer, but she had no intention of going quietly. She would avenge their mother’s death today or die trying.
Delour noticed Lyndria’s defiance and smiled. “Well, well, it seems I have a challenger!” the other dragons—including Madrin—moved away as if Lyndria were contaminated, backing up as far as the spacious cavern allowed. “Tell me, whelp, this ‘thing’ ”—she nudged the body of Lyndria’s mother with her claw as if it were some filthy object—“this was your mother, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Lyndria replied, her body shaking with anger.
The toothy grin of the Matriarch grew wider. “You want to kill me, don’t you?”
“So that would be a formal challenge then? Tell me, can you use the Call?”
Lyndria’s face fell and her gaze faltered. The Call was something all females had to be able to use to challenge a Matriarch. A skill she didn’t have. “N-No.”
The Matriarch began circling her would-be challenger. “Then you can’t bend the wills of others to suit your whims?”
“Yes or no, whelp!”
Lyndria flinched, her courage draining from her. A moment ago, she was more than prepared to give her life to avenging her mother’s death. Even seeing her opponent wounded and half-covered in blood did little to bolster her courage. But why? Her rage and desire for revenge still lingered, but still, she was afraid to make a move. Was this the power of a Matriarch? Delour only had the title for a few moments, yet she already had a strong commanding presence that grew steadily stronger. It was like Delour exuded an enormous pressure that made the very air feel heavy.
Lyndria looked again at her mother’s lifeless body, then at her sister cowering on the ground, then finally to the other dragons, hoping one of them would be inspired by her defiance and come to her aid. They all watched the spectacle with uncaring expressions or kept their gaze upon the ground. What was wrong with them? Did they not see this for what it was? Was her mother not loved as their Matriarch?
In truth, no dragon was going to interfere, and Lyndria knew this. It was the law after all. Whoever killed the previous Matriarch took the mantle. Even her mother became Matriarch by slaying the previous one, but the previous Matriarch was selfish and cared nothing about the clan’s well-being. Her mother was different. She was loved by the clan; she cared about them, and under her guidance, they prospered. Now she was dead, slaughtered by an outsider who wanted nothing more than to be in charge, and no one was even going to try to avenge her. Whether it was the law or not, it felt wrong.
Lyndria remembered when the outsider came to the clan. The would-be usurper was alone and on the verge of starvation, but still, Lyndria’s mother took her in and fed her. Despite being an outsider, she was welcomed as one of them and even took a mate. In only a year, the outsider became a respected member of the clan and even led the hunts for food which was a high honor. Lyndria never liked the newcomer and always felt she had a hidden agenda. Now she realized all too late what that agenda entailed.
She hated it. Knowing it was a formal challenge and that Delour had technically done nothing wrong left a bad taste in her mouth.
Knowing no one would come to her defense, Lyndria bowed her head in defeat and spoke softly, unable to even sound defiant, “No.”
There was no one else to stand up to the Matriarch. All the other females who could use the Call were either already dead or banished, the outsider’s doing. She made a point of ensuring no one could defy her once she claimed leadership.
Delour threw her head back and laughed. “So you thought you could challenge me without being able to use the Call. Pathetic.”
Something slammed into Lyndria’s back, hard. Most likely the Matriarch’s tail. The blow knocked the air from Lyndria’s lungs and she collapsed to the ground, unable to breathe or move. Her vision blurred, the surrounding dragons and cavern walls devolving into a swirl of green and grey.
“Normally, the punishment for your crime is exile, but I did just kill your mother. So I’ll be fair and accept your challenge. However, know that if you lose, I’ll kill you and your sister right now.”
Lyndria was still gasping for air and trying to regain the use of her legs. Even at full strength, she didn’t stand a chance, that one blow made it clear. She would be joining her mother sooner than she thought.
“No! Please, forgive my sister’s rudeness,” Madrin cried as she placed herself between them. “Lyndria has always been high-spirited and said whatever was on her mind. Even our mother had a hard time getting her to listen.”
“Madrin…what…are…you…doing?” Lyndria said. Speaking was the only thing she could manage; her vision was still unclear, and she remained in a great deal of pain.
“Shut up, Lyndria,” Madrin snapped. “This is our Matriarch now. You need to accept that. Mother accepted her challenge and lost, or are you saying you have no respect for the clan’s laws?”
Even if Lyndria could speak, she would’ve remained silent. Respect was everything to a dragon. Even if she did somehow win the duel, she broke their laws challenging the Matriarch without being able to use the Call.
“Madrin, was it? You must care a great deal for your sister…or are you more worried about dying when she loses?” the Matriarch added with a dark chuckle.
Lyndria couldn’t see her sister’s expression, but the way Madrin stiffened at the suggestion told it all. Madrin was more worried about saving her scaled-hide than anything.
A sinister smile spread on Delour’s face. “Because she is your sister, and I would hate to judge such a loyal dragon for another’s mistakes, If you both swear your loyalty to me and that you will never challenge me for the title of Matriarch, I’ll allow you both to live.”
Some of Lyndria’s strength returned, and she was able to shakily push herself to stand. The Matriarch had a lot of nerve; with their word, she could humiliate them and secure her position in one swoop. Breaking one’s word was a despicable and unforgivable act.
Madrin bowed without hesitating. “I swear my loyalty to you, Matriarch. From this day forth, I shall hear only your voice, and do as it commands without question.”
Delour smiled and nodded. “And I accept your service.” Turning to Lyndria with a condescending grin she said, “Your turn.”
“Just kill me and get it over with,” Lyndria spat. “Or exile me—I don’t care. I have no intention of living under your rule.”
“Lyndria!” Madrin cried, her face full of horror. The surrounding dragons shuffled nervously. Whether they feared facing their new leader’s wrath or they were being inspired by her defiance, Lyndria didn’t know or care anymore. She meant what she said. She could not avenge her mother, but if being made an example of inspired others to defy Delour, so be it.
The Matriarch’s grin vanished, and her gaze turned icy. “Exile you? So you can return years later with a clan of your own to challenge me? I think not. Unfortunately, your sister has already pledged her loyalty to me, so I can’t make good on my promise and slaughter you both.” She paced back and forth, contemplating a suitable punishment for her. Lyndria considered launching a sneak attack while her foe was distracted. It would be so easy to end the usurper’s reign and avenge her mother in a single movement. She didn’t need a large window, she just had to clamp her jaws around Delour’s throat, and the battle would be hers. The other dragons would hate her for it. Should she succeed, they just might kill her instead.
But it didn’t matter. Delour needed to pay for what she had done.
“Don’t you move,” a voice in the back of Lyndria’s mind commanded.
Lyndria’s body stiffened. It was the Call—the power only a Matriarch could wield to make other dragons do her bidding. Just as the voice commanded, she didn’t move—not even a twitch of her tail as the Matriarch continued to pace before her.
Finally, Delour stopped and faced Lyndria with a strong look of disgust in her yellow eyes. “Hold her down,” she commanded.
Before Lyndria could react, several dragons larger than she was on top of her, pinning her to the ground. She screamed for them to release her and struggled against them, but they wouldn’t budge an inch.
The Matriarch slowly walked around Lyndria until she disappeared from view. “I have just the punishment for you.”
Lyndria felt an intense pain in her side as the Matriarch’s claws sliced effortlessly through her scales. It was unlike anything she ever felt before—even more painful than the blow from earlier. She let out an ear-rupturing scream of pain. Her mind went numb, spots danced before her eyes, and all she could think about was the pain as the claws cut deep into her flesh. No one spoke—or if they did, Lyndria couldn’t hear them over her anguished cries.
Then it was over. She no longer felt the Matriarch’s claws, but the intense pain remained, now reduced to a sharp throbbing. It took everything Lyndria had to stay conscious. Her side felt warm and wet from the blood running down her side. The dragons holding her down did not release her. Madrin stood just a few feet away, her head turned to not witness her sister’s defacement.
Lyndria couldn’t believe what had happened. She had been marked as an outcast, a fate worse than death or exile.
Without warning, the Matriarch cut into the other side, and Lyndria began screaming all over again.
Barely audible over her screams, she heard the Matriarch speak. “You shall bear the mark of shame. You will bear no eggs, take no one as your mate, lead no hunts, and never hold any position of respect. You are now nothing more than a reminder for those who defy me. That shall be your punishment for defying your Matriarch.”
There was more to the speech, but Lyndria lost consciousness. The last thing she heard was the drowning echo of her pain-ridden cries.