Smoke was all William could see as he fled down the prison’s hall. Around him, roars of rage, dying screams, and gunshots echoed off the crumbling walls. His arm hurt, though he had no idea why. He didn’t look; there was no time to check his wounds. His legs were working, and that was all that mattered.
It had only been a few moments since the riot began and the place felt like a sauna. His lungs burned from the smoke and running. If he didn’t reach the elevator in time, the dragons would be the least of his problems.
As he ran, he cursed his foolishness. He thought he was in control, he thought he had planned for every contingency. That was why Cutter was locked up alone as far away from the other dragons. To keep her from using her Call. But it seemed her Call didn’t require line of sight or even knowledge of her surroundings. That she could affect this many dragons at once was proof his research was flawed.
And now everyone was paying for it.
He had no idea where he was going, and the chaos made it impossible to get his bearings. Still, he somehow made his way through the prison, never once running into a cell or dead-end. Perhaps his fear had somehow heightened his sense of direction or the path to the nearest exit had been burned into his subconscious.
It all seemed unreal. These dragons were half-starved; there was no way they could break out of their cells this easily unless someone set them free.
The spy rushed to the front of his thoughts. Was that their plan all along, not to kill the guards, but to free the dragons? Everyone was so focused on finding the traitor in their ranks.
He reached the elevator and blessed his luck that it was still on this floor. He was even more grateful to find it still functioning despite the destruction. He quickly slammed the gate closed in the face of several guards running for it and hit the button. Their screams faded as the elevator ascended.
There was no time for chivalry or sentimentality. Getting out was all that mattered. He couldn’t even go looking for the others or get the book because the risk was too high.
He slammed his fist against the wall. She outplayed him. This had to have been planned from the beginning. The spy, the blockade, those weren’t Lyndria’s doing, it was Cutter’s. They all fell for it because they were so focused on Lyndria.
But what was Cutter’s plan? He would have to figure that out later.
The elevator shook and stopped moving. Not caring what floor it was on, he pried the doors open and squeezed through the opening. It took a lot of wiggling, but he managed to get through.
He had gotten off one level shy of the surface. Thankfully, it was the only underground level that didn’t contain dragons.
The elevator was no good now, so he started running in search of a stairwell. There had to be one in the event of power outages or maintenance.
Things were worse than William imagined. The heat caused by the fires on the lower levels was more intense than anticipated. It felt as if his skin were peeling off even though there was no flame in sight. There was less smoke which turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. Holes opened in the floor as he ran. The dragons were trying to reach the upper levels from below. Bursts of flame shot through the openings. He ignored the screaming guards and hurried on.
He managed to find the stairs just a wave of guttural cries filled the air, striking him stiff. He spun just in time to see fire had swept across the floor. The guards standing in its path rolled on the floor.
Through a nearby hole shot forth a massive dark shape. It was the largest Nightstalker he had ever seen. The drake stood his full height, curved horns nearly scraping the ceiling. His black scales reflected no light from the flames surrounding him. The thin form and filed down claws only made it seem more terrifying as his milky grey eyes scanned the hall.
William slowly backed up the stairs, praying the drake didn’t see him. The stairwell was narrow, maybe too narrow for the dragon to follow, but he wouldn’t outrun the flames.
Once the dragon disappeared from view, he turned and ran up the stairs two at a time. He didn’t stop until he burst through the door at the top of the stairs.
He was greeted by a wall of guns and metal. He stopped and raised his hands in the air.
“Hold your fire!” Karl shouted.
William let out a sigh of relief to see the man appear on the other side of the wall. “Lord Delcat, are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine. Have you seen Lance? Or Omar?”
“No, I’m sorry. Was the warden with you?”
That wasn’t what he expected to hear. He slowly shook his head, not meeting the man’s gaze.
Karl swore and steered him towards the barricade. “You need to get to safety while I get the situation under control.”
The floor trembled as a low rumble vibrated through the hall. Everyone lost their balance and leaned on nearby objects for support.
“What was that?” Karl cried.
William recalled what he witnessed on the lower levels and a chill went through him. “It’s the dragons,” he said. “They’re coming up through—”
A deafening boom cut him off as the floor nearby erupted in flame and stone. The black knocked him off his feet. The world rushed around him in a blur as he was flung through the air.
Something abruptly stopped his flight. His body was wracked with pain as light flashed before his eyes then everything went dark.
William snatched his eyes open and sucked in a shuddering breath, immediately choking on a cloud of dirt. Everything hurt and he felt drained of energy. The ground felt hard and uneven but also cool and dry. There were voices and the sound of shovels and pickaxes being used.
Dim light from a single lantern gave just enough to make out his surroundings. And he wished he couldn’t.
He was in a cavern but sitting in front of him was the large Nightstalker from before. Laying on the ground made him seem even larger. His paws alone were larger than William’s head.
William tried to sit up quietly, but the drake looked back at him. “You’re awake.” He faced forward then tossed something over his shoulder. “Here.”
A waterskin landed at William’s feet. Realizing his thirst, he nearly leaped on it in a hurry to drink. There was only enough to wet the inside of his mouth, but it was better than nothing.
“Come,” the drake said, picking up the lantern in his jaws.
He held on to the waterskin like a security blanket and followed the dragon further into the tunnel. Sounds of digging surrounded them but he saw no one.
He didn’t dare speak, but he wondered where they were. Was this a place beneath the prison or was it someplace far away? The fate of the others also occupied his thoughts. He tried not to think about it. It was doubtful the guards were still alive.
The area slowly brightened until they reached a massive chamber. Just looking at the formation of the chamber and the circular shape of the skylight revealed this was no natural structure. On the far side of the chamber were several humans digging into the wall. He recognized their dirt-smeared guard uniforms. Among them were other humans wearing mining clothes. More dragons stood guard over the lot.
To his left were a handful of prison guards. They sat on their knees, heads bowed as a pair of angry-looking Ravagers stood watch over them. Karl and Victor were among the group, both looking defeated. Neither Lance nor Omar were among them.
The Nightstalker led him to the far side of the cavern. As they drew closer, he noticed the group digging was made up of guards. Sitting at the head of the group, was Cutter. She was easily the smallest dragon there, but he had no doubts she was in charge.
“You’re awake,” Cutter said, her back still turned. “Did you sleep well?”
His voice came out as a dry croak. “I-I, yes, I did sleep well.”
“Good. It would’ve sucked if you died.”
Her words incited something in him. He no longer cared about his predicament. “As if you care about the lives that were lost! You planned this from the start! How many men died because of your--”
Something struck him from behind, sending him face-first into the rocky ground. He just managed to catch himself when something pressed on his back, forcing him to the ground.
“Really? You know exactly the kind of shit they were doing here and you’re actually upset that they’re dead?”
“There were still good men among them.”
“You mean the pussies who followed orders because they were looking out for their skins?”
“That still doesn’t justify murdering them!” He felt blunt claws digging into his back.
“The dragons here would probably disagree with you.” She spun around. “But I don’t give a shit what you think.” She nodded to the dragon holding him down and the pressure disappeared from his back. Still, her gaze warned him to stay down.
“In case you’re wondering, we’re under the prison. This place used to be a part of a dragon temple, did you know that?”
“How ironic that it became a prison for them.”
“Yeah, it’s almost funny. Almost.”
She turned back to the diggers. One of them was moving slowly. She slapped her tail against the ground, the crack echoing through the cavern. All the humans in guard uniforms jumped and sped up their pace. A few of the others chuckled.
“You think I’m cruel, don’t you?” Cutter asked.
“What is considered cruel depends on one’s perspective,” William replied. “I want to feel sorry for them, but they brought this on themselves.”
“Funny you say that. Because I wonder what you brought on yourself. I mean, you kidnapped me, threatened me, probably would have tortured me if I held out long enough.”
He tried to hide his fear but knew she could tell. “What do you-you mean? We had a deal!”
“Our deal depended on you getting me out which you failed to do. I’m out and you can’t fulfill your end of the bargain so why should I honor mine?”
He had no answer, knowing she had him in a corner. She planned to break out regardless, so the terms of their agreement were void even before it was made.
“Lucky for you I’m feeling generous. Since you did give me the perfect opening to do what I needed to do, I’ll give you a chance to redeem yourself or you can take your punishment now and walk away free as a bird.”
It seemed doubtful that whatever Cutter had in mind would end in him “walking” anywhere so she once again had him right she wanted him. He no longer had the energy to even be angry with her, simply hung his head and mumbled, “What would you have me do?”
Cutter approached and to his surprise, gently lifted his head. “We’ll get to that. Until then, you’re going to keep me company.”
“You got somewhere better to be?”
He was too perplexed by her actions to even begin to contemplate what she was thinking. He thought that even with enough time, he would be able to figure her out, but it seemed he knew nothing. She was the definition of an enigma.
“Look on the bright side,” Cutter said. “With all the shit that went down, everyone’s going to think you’re dead.”
That didn’t make him feel better. It bought time at best.
The sound of crumbling rocks got his attention. The diggers had broken through the wall revealing an archway in the mountain.
“Finally, some fucking progress,” Cutter said. “All right. I’ll be back. Keep an eye on them.” She motioned to the ex-guards and entered the archway with a pair of humans holding lanterns.
William was nudged from behind and followed. He noticed the Nightstalker from before was behind him, pulling an empty cart.
He couldn’t deny his fascination with the temple despite the dangerous circumstances. Massive statues of dragons stretched to the high ceiling, framed by thick columns. Most of them had been preserved being shielded underground from the weather and wear but a few had crumbled from age. Still, he saw the intricate level of detail put into each carving. He wished he had more light and time to examine things more closely.
Questions surged through his mind. When was it built? What purpose did it serve? What happened that it became the site of a prison? The history and tales this place guarded almost made him giddy with excitement.
He half-expected to find bones half-buried in the dirt but saw no signs of life. They never entered the side rooms as they followed Cutter down the hall, but the deeper they delved, the more lifeless the place felt. And it had nothing to do with the stale air and silent, dark halls. It reminded him of a mausoleum.
Cutter was just visible at the head of the group, strutting casually through the dark halls. She never hesitated at the turns and took no notice of the other rooms or architecture. No one spoke or strayed from the path, just silently marveled at everything around them.
She led them to a dead end. William feared she planned to kill him here when she pushed against the wall and it gave way, sliding open to a new room.
Inside they found rows upon rolls of scrolls and old books lining the walls. In the room’s center sat a large stone table piled with more dusty books.
“So this is where you hid it, you sneaky bitch,” Cutter whispered. She looked back at the humans. “Start carting everything. And be careful. This shit’s older than I am.”
The humans bowed and got to work, taking the books and piling them in the cart. William started to move forward, but the dragon behind him dragged him back into the hall and growled. The message was clear and he remained still while they worked.
Cutter left the room and sat next to him. “Thanks a lot, Willy. I never would’ve found this room without you.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” he replied sarcastically. He thought back to the mysterious note that mentioned a hidden room in the prison. This could be what they were searching for but who sent the note?
He wanted to know what it was Cutter was searching for but she likely wouldn’t share that information with him.
“They’re gonna be a while so why don’t I tell you the history of this place?”
He had nothing better to do and it wouldn’t surprise him if that was by design, so he had no reason to say no.
“This is the hall of the dracaena. Those statues we passed, that’s every dragon who held the title.”
“There were not many.”
“Dragons live long and have no natural enemies, remember?”
Until the humans arose to challenge them, he thought. Sitting within striking distance of two dragons, he didn’t dare say it aloud.
Cutter continued. “Anyway, there were places like this all over Geolga. Once the Rebellion started, humans started tearing these places down. This might be the only one left.”
He said nothing. It was a shame that so much history and culture had been destroyed, but given what it was all built on he couldn’t blame his ancestors for wanting to erase every part of that dark past.
“So what is hidden here that you needed to acquire?”
Cutter gave a wide grin. “That goes all the way back to Lyndria.”