Chapter 10: Raising the Stakes
William couldn’t believe his eyes. The giant of a man laying on the bed before him was covered in bandages but there was no mistaking it was Omar. It all seemed unreal. Never had he seen the man hospitalized.
A hand touched his shoulder, making him jump. He was relieved to see Lance looking worriedly at him. Karl stood by the door, his face grim and the shadows making his sharp features even sharper. “Are you all right, sir?” Lance asked.
“I’m fine, thank you.” He turned to Karl. “Do you know what happened?”
“No, just that he’s lucky to be alive. If we weren’t patrolling every inch of this place, he probably wouldn’t have been found until morning, and by then he’d be gone.”
The warning echoed in his mind again: A game you’re guaranteed not to win.
“What kind of wild beasts live in the area?” Lance asked.
“None really. Most animals don’t come anywhere near this place because of all the dragons. We barely see rats most of the time.”
“It was a dragon,” William whispered. His chest felt tight, and he had to sit down. His eyes never left Omar. “A dragon did this.”
“What?” Karl asked. “That’s impossible. No dragon comes near this place unless it’s in chains.”
“It…It was her.”
“Sir?” Lance asked.
“Lyndria. It was her. This is all her doing. Why didn’t I see it sooner? Of course she would be keeping an eye on Cutter if they aren’t working together. She dangled the perfect bait in front of me and I waltzed right into her trap. Now she has us surrounded, cut off from all allies and days from rescue.” The room spun around him. He placed his face in his hands so he couldn’t see the blur of color. “She really is cunning. Those murders were her doing as well.”
Lance firmly took him by the shoulders and forced him to face him. “We don’t know that.”
William shook him off. “Who else is responsible then? It’s the perfect plan. She has us cornered. While we suspect one another and fight amongst ourselves, her lackeys watch the roads and ensure no one escapes.”
“Wait, what are you talking about? Who’s Lyndria and what do you mean we’re surrounded?”
The words wouldn’t come no matter how hard he tried. This had never happened before. Never had he made such a grave error. Always cautious and always careful, even in the face of surprises he adapted.
Lance took him firmly by the shoulders and shook him. “Sir, are you all right? I’ve never seen you this rattled before.”
“I, I doomed us all.”
“Since when have you ever accepted defeat. Have you forgotten why we’re here and what’s at stake. Marie would never marry such a coward.”
Harsh as his words were, it worked. He took a deep breath and felt in control again. He made a mental note to thank Lance properly when this ordeal was over. “Thank you, Lance.”
He explained the situation to Karl, making sure to leave out any mention of the tome and what it said. The fewer people who knew about it, the better.
Once he finished his explanation, the guard-captain sat down. His face was pale. “Let me this straight. A dragon that no one has seen in centuries is laying siege to a prison?”
“She’s the only one who could pull something like this not including the Dracaena,” Lance said. “But even she wouldn’t be so bold.”
“It tells us how valuable the information she wants is,” William added. “Lyndria will not be satisfied until she is certain that her secrets remain hidden. All of our lives were likely forfeit long before Cutter arrived here.”
“Your lives, not me and my men. I’ll gather some men and deal with this now. She doesn’t have the numbers to take this place otherwise she would’ve done it by now.”
William cut him off before he could leave. “The time will come when we do something about the blockade, but our first order of business is to take control of the prison. Without her spy, she will no longer receive intel and it will reduce her options to counter us.”
“So we need to find her spy,” Lance said.
“We already did. Karl, which guard discovered Omar?”
“What does that matter?” Karl asked.
“It matters because she didn’t kill him. Omar is a tough man, but even he wouldn’t survive a dragon ambush. They let him crawl back here to send a message. You said so yourself: if he had been left out there until morning, he would have died. If they wanted him dead, they could have easily left his corpse behind.”
“And the spy would know to look for him,” Lance finished.
“Sounds far-fetched to me.”
“It’s our best option,” William said. “Our other option is to lay a trap but that takes time and resources—both of which are in short supply as of late. The sooner we find her spy, the better.” He looked around for his personal effects but saw nothing. “Where are his clothes? They have left a note on his person.”
Karl pointed to a space in the corner where a large bag sat.
“Thank you. Now about the guard, he must be detained immediately. Do not interrogate him until I arrive.”
“I’m sorry, but you’re not in charge of this investigation.”
“We do not have time to let our egos get in the way. Every moment, Lyndria gains the advantage, we would be wise to counter her now before it’s too late.”
Karl gave him a sour look then left the room. William went back to rummaging through the bag filled with torn, bloody clothes. Wrapped in the shirt was a journal made of dragon leather.
“I was right. Omar would never use something made with dragon leather.”
“He hunts dragons for a living,” Lance said.
“He hunts dangerous creatures,” William corrected. “Whatever you believe you know about Omar, I can assure you that he has more respect for dragons than I do.”
“And yet he kills them.”
William opened the journal and leafed through its pages. Most of its contents had either been torn out or smudged with ink. “The Hunter’s Society does what they must to protect us all. There are very few who willing to go after a rouge dragon.”
Lance fell silent and for once, William was grateful. He hated having this conversation. While he didn’t agree with their methods, he knew the Hunter’s Society was the only official group that had the training to go against dragons.
He reached the end of the journal. Written in sloppy handwriting was a single sentence:
That knowledge is not for you.
In the lower left-hand corner of the page was a symbol in the shape of a dragon’s eye. The eye had a capital L for its pupil.
Lyndria is watching you, he thought. How inventive. He showed the message to Lance who raised a brow.
“That’s all she has to say?” Lance asked.
“For now. But she’s showing her hand. We just need to remain steadfast and track down her spy.”
“I’ll see how that’s going along. You should go with Victor to see Cutter. If Lyndria is really desperate we may not have a lot of time to make her talk.”
Victor was waiting for him in the hall. He quickly stood at attention when the door opened, but he still wore the embarrassed expression from the verbal lashing Karl gave him for sleeping on the job. There was no time to reassure the young man. They needed to move on.
On their way to Cutter’s cell, William explained the situation and their next move. As he explained everything, he gauged Victor’s reaction. The young man reacted as expected, with genuine fear and concern, telling William he wasn’t in on it or the world’s greatest actor. It brought him some relief that the young man wasn’t the traitor. As one of the few allies he could count on, it would have been a shame to have to kill him.
Victor seemed especially worried when William explained what they were going to do in Cutter’s cell. If she did not cooperate, they would make a show of power to establish order. The time for games was over. She was going to talk whether she wanted to or not.
Cutter was wide-awake and looking at him as he entered. “Things are pretty noisy out there. What’s the matter? Caught someone beating off during their shift?”
“That isn’t your concern. I would like to pick up where we left off.”
She snorted and laid on the floor. “Nah. I ain’t in the mood for story time.”
William nodded to Victor who turned the crank attacked to Cutter’s chains. It wasn’t until the chains had been pulled tight that he signaled him to stop. Silently, he applauded her resolve. Despite having her limbs stretched to their limits, she didn’t utter a single sound. But the way her fins fanned out gave away her discomfort.
“I was not asking,” he said. “Did you forget the terms of our agreement? You are to tell me what you know about Lyndria.”
“So, what? You gonna torture me if I don’t talk?”
“If it comes to that. Whether or not it will depends on you.” He kneeled in front of her to look her in the eye. “Have you forgotten that your only chance of freedom lies with me? If something occurs because you were wasting my time, I assure you, no one else in this prison will honor our agreement.”
She smiled. “Took you long enough to figure that out. All right, I’ll start talking. Just loosen my chains--”
“No. I will loosen your bindings when the situation demands. Until then, you will make do.”
“Someone’s in a bad mood. You think someone died.”
“Someone did,” Victor replied. He recoiled from the harsh look William gave him.
“Oh, so that’s why you’re hounding me in the middle of the night. So where was I? Oh yeah, Lyndria just let Delour know that she’s no in control. That bitch as you’d expect, ain’t happy at all.”
“So she plotted her revenge.”
“She did. I’ll skip the boring bits and go 20 years into the future when she finally gets her chance.”
“20 years is a long time for a grudge even by dragon standards.”
A humorless smile crossed her face. “Never underestimate the power of hatred. Delour hated that Lyndria refused to bow to her. And Lyndria hated the bitch who murdered her mother. It became a game for them to see who would cave first.”
“Why not simply dispose of her?” William asked.
“Do I really have to explain everything? Delour was a piece of shit, but she was still a Matriarch. That ain’t a dragon you can just kill. But she never stopped imagining herself ripping that hateful bitch’s throat out. And Delour couldn’t kill Lyndria because then that would be admitting defeat. The outcast got the better of the great Matriarch—she’d never live it down.” There was a distant look in her eyes, like someone remembering a pleasant memory.
Her expression quickly turned sour and her fins folded as her eyes darted back to William. “The humans had finally come to Lyndria’s home and things only went downhill from there.”
Lyndria yawned loudly. How she hated these meetings. Not only were they boring, but she had nothing to do other than watch the other dragons talk strategy. Nayome always dragged along because she needed the experience and wouldn’t hear anything else about it. She had long learned to keep quiet about it.
Something about this meeting was different. No one looked her way and often whispered to each other. Even Nayome was being more cryptic than normal. That was never a good sign.
“So what have we learned from our hunters?” Delour asked.
Roch, the clan’s top hunter and close friend of Lyndria and Madrin’s mother, spoke up. He was also quite big for a Short-Snout being almost twice the size of every other dragon there, except Delour. “We found the human settlement at the edge of the swamp.”
“Humans?” Lyndria asked. “Since when do humans live around here?”
Nayome answered first, “Since they began killing our kind.”
“You haven’t heard? The humans have declared war on all dragons,” Delour said.
“If we haven’t put them in their place yet?”
“The disciple underestimates her prey. She would be wise not to disregard them. Soft and vulnerable, they are dangerous in groups and should always be watched.”
Roch cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention. “As I said, the humans have been staying away from us for the most part, but I don’t know how long it will last.”
“We should destroy them now and send a message,” Delour said.
“The Matriarch acts rashly. Humans do not travel alone. Destroy them now and more will follow, like pests.”
“And what would you have me do, negotiate with them? As if I would even give the satisfaction of treating them like an equal.”
“Maybe we should ask one of the other clans for help,” Roch offered.
“Ask for help to deal with humans? Does anyone have a good suggestion?”
Lyndria rolled her eyes. “Yes, we wouldn’t want you to look weak.”
Delour growled and started forward. “Watch your tongue. I’m still your Matriarch.”
Lyndria said nothing but only because Nayome sent her one of her famous don’t-you-start-again looks. While she kept her defiance to a minimum, she made a point of reminding Delour that she would never accept her as Matriarch. She had never told anyone how she counted the days until someone challenged her for the title.
It was easier said than done, however. If any females showed any signs of awakening her Call, she was either exiled or met an unfortunate accident. The other dragons had noticed this too.
“What about the other thing?” Delour asked, throwing a glance in Lyndria’s direction.
“We haven’t picked up the trail yet. I don’t know how but the humans managed her scent.” He froze, the look on his revealing he said something he shouldn’t have. The scathing look Delour was sending his way reinforced it.
“Wait, whose scent?” Lyndria asked. “And what does that have to do with the humans?”
No one said anything and they refused to look her way except Delour, but even she didn’t wear her usual smug or condescending expression.
Eventually, Roch stepped forward. “Lyndria, your sister, she’s gone missing. She went hunting and never came back. Not long after, the humans appeared. We think they did it.
Lyndria stared at them, hoping this was just another one of Delour’s schemes or Nayome’s twisted idea of a joke. It couldn’t be real.
But they wore the same apologetic expression.
She dug her claws into the ground, trying to keep her cool. “When?”
“We don’t—” Roch began.
“How long has my sister been missing?” she roared. “And you all knew!” She paced in front of them, her body tensing with every step. “And instead of doing something about it, you’re all standing here debating like you’re trying what to have for dinner!”
“The disciple must—”
“SHUT UP!” She spun on Roch and focused her Call. Tell me where the humans are.
Roch spoke in a monotone voice, his eyes unfocused and staring straight ahead. “They live to the northeast, just past the hunting grounds.”
Lyndria rushed out of the chamber, ignoring Nayome’s protests. As she ran for the nearest exit, weaving between dragons, she searched the memories Nayome shared with her of past Matriarchs for any tips on dealing with humans. There was very little information as her clan rarely dealt with humans and preferred to keep to themselves.
I guess I’m making my own memories, she thought.
Once she was outside, she leaped into the air and flew off in the direction Roch said.
She flew at full speed until she saw small streams of smoke in the distance. Unsure of what to expect, she slowed down. The smoke came from several weird structures standing on the ground. It looked so odd without the surrounding trees.
It didn’t matter. Once she was over the human settlement, she folded her wings and plummeted. She launched a stream of flame from her mouth as she pulled out of the steep dive. The human structure beneath her burst into flames. Human screams reached her ears as several of them poured out of the strange structure.
She circled and launched another stream of flame, lighting two more structures ablaze.
Ringing filled the air along with more screams. She noticed several humans pointing at her with strange sticks.
Before she could speculate there was a searing pain in her wing followed by a loud bang. She cried out and fell. She tucked her body into a ball as she collided with the top of a nearby structure and fell through it. Pain erupted through her entire body.
All the years of training with Nayome, of fighting for her life against Delour, had helped her recover quickly despite the pain. She rolled over, spewing flames in all directions. Dragons had a natural fire resistance so the heat wouldn’t bother her. She hoped the same could be said for humans as she got her bearings.
The “human cave”, as Lyndria chose to call it, wasn’t very spacious or defensible. Already flames coated the walls and ceiling. The weird objects hanging on the walls and taking up the floor space were alight in seconds.
One of the walls had a large hole in it. Through it, she saw humans gathering in front of the structure. They each carried long sticks. Now that she wasn’t fighting them, she could take in their appearance. They stood on two legs and seemed so thin and weak. No claws, skinny bodies and limbs, and covered in strange loose skin.
“Nayome wasn’t kidding when she said they were dangerous,” she mumbled. “Whatever those sticks are for, I didn’t even see them attack.”
One of the humans noticed her and pointed, causing the other to raise their sticks. She ducked and more bangs rang out. Something shattered, showering her in clear shards. Those sticks were too dangerous to approach recklessly. She looked around for something to distract them. She grabbed the first thing she could fit in her jaws, ignoring the flames licking at her gums and face, and threw the object towards the hole in the wall.
Several more bangs rang out as the humans attacked the decoy. She leapt out the opening once the sounds stopped and swept the area with her flames. The humans uttered a single cry of terror before collapsing to the ground.
Before more humans arrived, she ran into a gap between two human structures. She breathed her flames onto both as she kept going. The ringing was growing more frantic now. The humans were fleeing in all directions, their screams overlapping and making it impossible to discern what they were saying.
It didn’t matter, so long as she could hear Madrin over their screams.
“Madrin? Madrin, where are you?”
She weaved between the human caves, calling her sister’s name. She used her wings to blow the smoke around to mask her movements. Occasionally, she heard the bang of the sticks and was forced to drop and keep quiet until it passed. Whatever those weird sticks were, they were dangerous. She couldn’t even see the attack and one hit was enough to knock her out of the sky.
There was too much smoke and another acrid scent in the air to get Madrin’s scent, but if she had to guess, her sister would be inside one of the human caves. But the more she searched, the more frantic she became. These flimsy caves couldn’t hold a dragon—note even a kind one like Madrin. They were too weak and burned so easily.
She needed answers and the humans were the only ones who were going to give them to her. The humans hadn’t given up trying to fight her, taking one alive would be difficult. Crouching low, she waited in the smoke for a human to pass by.
It didn’t take long to come across a pair of humans separated from the rest of the group. Judging from their scents she guessed one was male and the other female.
The male quickly stood in front of the female.
“Where’s my sister?” Lyndria said.
“What? Who is--?” the male began.
“Don’t lie to me!”
The humans recoiled, flattening against the wall. Lyndria stepped closer, ensuring they didn’t have the space to consider running.
“Tell me where she is, now!”
The male looked at the female who shook her head, her eyes wide.
“Okay,” the male said. “I’ll tell you, but you have to promise—”
She snarled and lunged for the male, planting her forepaws on either side of his head. “The only thing I promise is not to tear your ass apart right here! Now tell me where my sister—”
A sharp pain raked across her back just as another bang cut through the air. She snarled and, spun spraying her flames across the area. The screams of her attacker confirmed her attack worked. It felt as if she had swallowed one of her claws and it was tearing open her stomach. She had used her flames too much and was paying for it.
The male and female tried to run while she recovered from the pain. In two bounds she was in front of them again.
“Please!” the female cried. “We don’t know who you’re looking for! We haven’t hurt anyone we swear!”
Lyndria snorted. If they didn’t know anything, they were useless to her.
“Wait!” a voice called out behind her. “I know where she is!”
She whirled around to see another human male standing there. He had both his hands raised. The gesture looked odd, but he wasn’t carrying one of those sticks which suited her fine.
She slowly approached the male, keeping her guard up in case it was a trap. “Take me to her.”
“Okay, I’ll take you to her.”
“Simon, no!” the other male shouted.
Lyndria whirled on the pair. “Get your sorry asses out of my sight!”
The two humans didn’t hesitate to take off running. Once they were out of view she turned back to the one called Simon. “Take me to my sister, and if I find out you lied to me, I’ll kill you.”
Simon swallowed and nodded.
Lyndria followed paces behind him, keeping her guard up for any other humans. They walked towards the swamp. Soon she no longer heard the human cries or the roaring flames. The acrid burning smell was gone, replaced with damp plants and stagnant water. But there were no dragon scents.
Finally, the human stopped walking and looked up at the sky. “All right. Here we are.”
There was no one around and no signs of Madrin, not even a scent. “You lied to me.”
“Yes, I did. But now everyone is safe from you. I don’t know who you’re looking for, but we never had her.”
She killed him in a single blow.
“Forgive me, but you said Delour got her revenge,” William said. “I fail to see what this has to do with that.”
“It has to do with everything,” Cutter replied, nettled. “Now don’t interrupt. You wanted me to tell this damn story. If you gotta know so bad, Delour had nothing to do with Madrin going missing, but when Lyndria ran off, it presented the perfect opportunity.”
Lyndria threw her head back and roared. Her body was reaching its limit. Blood poured down her legs and side from the strange human attacks. Her throat felt tore open from the repeated overuse of her flames.
But she couldn’t stop. The humans couldn’t have gone far. If she hurried, she might catch them again.
One of them was going to talk.
Before she could move a shadow passed overhead. She looked up and saw a drake hovering over her. She recognized him immediately, Thelan, the clan’s top hunter. Like Roch, he was large for a Short-Snout and much faster than he looked. It was often joked about that he had Nightstalker blood to explain his speed. What stood out the most to her were his eyes. They were unfocused as if he were sleepwalking.
She knew that look, it was when a dragon was under the effects of the Matriarch’s Call.
“Delour sent you to kill me, huh? I guess I really pissed her off if she’s sending someone else to do it. But that’s what happens when you take things that aren’t yours.”
There was no reaction at all from the drake. That would be a problem. A blank look meant his mind had been fully overpowered. It was likely her Call wouldn’t work on him because of it.
A fight was inevitable. She crouched and growled. “Sorry, Thelan, but no one is getting between me and Madrin.”
He said nothing. Without warning, he lunged for her. She reacted on reflex, just dodging the larger dragon. He spun, just catching her side with his claws. She hissed in pain as she leaped back further out of range. On top of her deteriorating condition, he had the size advantage. She couldn’t afford to approach carelessly.
Thelan quickly fired a burst of flame at her, forcing her to look away. The fire didn’t hurt much but it irritating her wounds something fierce. By the time she turned back to him, he had already crossed the distance between them.
She could do nothing but brace herself for his charge. The tackle reverberated through her body and sent her sliding back, but she remained standing. He attempted to slash her face, but she rolled to the side. She was too slow to get up however and he was on top of her, fangs aiming for her throat.
It took everything she had to keep him from biting her throat as his claws tore into her arms and torso.
Luckily, she remembered a trick she learned training under Nayome. Getting her legs underneath his body, she pushed with all her might. It caught him off guard and he flipped over onto his back.
She seized her chance and leaped onto him, seized Roch’s head in her claws, and slammed it into the ground. The blow dazed him, but she lifted his head and slammed it again. She did it over and over until he stopped moving.
Lyndria took a moment to catch her breath. The fight was over, and her body was reminding her of her injuries. Every part of her hurt and she was exhausted, trickles of warm blood running down her legs and sides. But she couldn’t stay there. Other dragons would come looking and she wanted to be as far away as possible when they got there.
She cursed her rashness and foolishness. The humans never had Madrin; she saw that now she calmed down. They didn’t have the means to detain a dragon nor the numbers to threaten the clan. It was a trap to isolate her and send someone to kill her assuming the humans didn’t do it first. Such an easy trap and she fell for it.
Each step felt like ages and the world around her seemed to be standing still. As she moved away from the swamp. No way could she return to the clan now. Delour would find some way to pin Thelan’s death on her, then she would be justified in executing her without looking weak to the others.
It soon started to rain. She hadn’t even noticed the sky or perhaps it had always been that way. She didn’t know. The water stung as it struck her cuts, but there was nothing to do but to endure it.
Shelter. She thought. I need shelter for the night. I’m easy prey for anything that’s bold or hungry enough to go after a dragon.
The rain came down harder. A veil of water blocked her vision as the sky darkened. The water had turned the ground to mud, making her claws sink in with each step and forcing her to exert herself further. She had no idea how long she walked or how far, but she continued in what she hoped was a straight line knowing the moment she stopped to rest, she wasn’t getting back up.
Eventually, she bumped into a strange piece of wood. It stood up to her chin and stretched out as far as she could see. It had to be another human invention; something like this didn’t exist in nature. It was a risk but going back wasn’t an option, so she slowly climbed over it, each movement sending waves of pain through her body. The moment she reached the top, she lost her balance and tumbled over the other side landing on her side in the mud.
Her body had enough. She couldn’t get up no matter how much she willed her body to move.
The world around her faded into darkness as she lost consciousness.