William yawned loudly as the elevator descended to the lower levels. His dreams had been plagued with nightmares about Lyndria. Twice he awoke expecting to find the dragon standing over him with a fang-filled grin. Twice only the darkness greeted him, but it did little to set him at ease. He still checked the door and window to make sure both were still locked. He hadn’t told Lance. There was no point in making the man worry.
He noticed Victor hadn’t slept well, either. The young man seemed dead on his feet. Not surprising since he was waiting for them outside their room first thing. William wasn’t sure why, but he suspected the warden had something to do with it.
His fatigue faded the closer they got to Cutter’s cell, a strange feeling replacing it.
“What is that smell?” Lance asked. “It smells like—”
“Something burned,” William finished. He broke into a run.
Cutter’s cell was still locked but Victor wasn’t far behind to unlock it. Smoke and burnt flesh assaulted them the instant the door was opened. William nearly gagged. He covered his mouth and nose with a handkerchief and went inside.
“My lord! Wait!” Lance cried.
Through the smoky haze he could make out Cutter where they had left her. The chains were still on from what he could tell, but he didn’t dare get closer to confirm.
Cutter turned to him, her smile unmistakable in the haze. “Hey, Willy! Took you long enough. This body smells like fried ass. You mind getting rid of it?”
He turned in the direction she pointed. Just a few feet away were the smoldering remains of he assumed was a human corpse.
Lance grabbed his arm and pulled him away. “Sir, we can’t stay here!”
William wrenched his arm free and approached Cutter. The guards were coming, so they had only a few seconds before things became more chaotic. “What have you done?!”
“He thought he’d have some fun with me,” Cutter replied calmly. She then scowled. “Too bad I’m not in the fucking mood. Tell warden piss-stain that if one of his guys tries to come into my room again, I’ll roast his ass too.”
William hurried to the cell door, making it just in time to stop the wave of armed men approaching. He coughed to clear his lungs but still struggled to relay the message. “No one can enter yet. She’s threatening to kill anyone who goes inside.”
“We don’t take orders from you, sir,” one of the guards replied. He pushed past William on his way towards the cell.
Lance dove on top of William, knocking them both away from the door. Cutter let out a roar that shook him to his bones, a wave of intense heat washing over them. There was a scream that was cut short several shouts of pain and outrage.
Cutter’s voice carried over the chaos. “DO I STRIKE YOU THAT I’M FUCKING BLUFFING? NEXT GUARD COMES INTO MY ROOM GETS FRIED! TEST ME, I DARE YOU!”
“This is all your fault!” Harold shouted, pointing a threatening finger at William. “We have a system in place here, Lord Delcat, a system that you have ruined!”
William coughed again. Clearing the smoke from his lungs was keeping him from unleashing his full fury. “Really? I didn’t realize raping prisoners was part of your system.”
Harold snorted and dropped into his seat. “Please, that guard was bringing her breakfast.”
“By himself? I thought it was policy that no one was allowed to enter the cells alone.”
The warden’s jaw tightened. “Poor judgement on his part. That doesn’t change the fact she doesn’t call the shots here.”
“She does now,” Lance replied. “You lost two men today, and she will take more unless you do as she says.”
He jumped to his feet and slammed his on the desk. “A dragon will not tell me what to do in my prison!”
William stood and leaned on the desk. “Then allow me. No more guards shall visit Cutter’s cell.”
Harold gnashed his teeth, his face growing redder with each silent moment. William maintained eye-contact. It was taking everything he had not to lose his temper.
Eventually, the warden sighed and sank back into his seat. “You want to take care of that dragon, fine. You can start by cleaning up the remains of the men she killed.” A small smirk appeared as he added, “And you’ll be in charge of ensuring she gets her meals and cleaning up her shit.”
William said nothing to the obvious enjoyment in Harold’s voice, no doubt relishing in the thought of a proud lord relegated to shoveling dragon shit. But he didn’t care so long as it meant Cutter would cooperate.
“Very well,” William said. “However, I ask that Victor acts as my official liaison. He understands the prions workings better than I.” He also added with a small smile of his own as he watched the glee leave the warden’s eyes. “And I doubt you would want me or my associate wandering the halls looking for the kitchens.”
“Fine. I was already assigning a guard to watch over you anyway.”
“In less than a week, she’s already proving to be more trouble than she’s worth,” Lance said, grumbling as he shoveled the last of the man’s ashes into a bin. Cutter’s wrath had been brief. Dragonfire was known to reduce a body to ash but she had used enough flames to kill him causing parts of his body to liquify than incinerate. It made cleaning up messy not to mention the smell and smoke.
“You know me, I aim to please,” Cutter said. She stretched again, rattling her chains. “These chains are so confining. Can you take them off?”
Everyone gave her the same you-can’t-be-serious expression.
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’. You guys are no fun.”
“Is that what you call this?” William asked, pointing to the scorch marks on the walls and floor. “You murdered two men today. I can understand the first kill was an act of self-defense, but I would not consider any of this ‘fun’.”
Cutter turned to him as far as her chains allowed, but her smirk was unmistakable. “Give it a few decades. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll do to alleviate boredom. Besides, I had to send a message.”
“And that message would be?”
Her expression turned grim. “That I’m not like the other dragons here. I’m nobody’s bitch.”
William turned away and resumed sweeping up the ashes. The situation left a bad taste in his mouth. He didn’t want to think about what else was going on although today’s incident painted a clear enough picture.
“You say that as if you know something,” Lance said.
“Information is what I do best. I might have heard a few things about what goes on here.” She leaned and called out the Victor standing in the doorway. “Isn’t that right, whelp?”
The young guard stiffened then resumed sweeping, his back to everyone.
“Victor, what is she talking about?” William asked.
“It’s nothing, sir.”
“Nothing?” Cutter cried. “Come in here and say that to my face you little shit!”
Victor disappeared into the hall.
“What do you know?” William asked.
“I know that Warden Piss-Stain is not the man you think he is. He’s running a smuggling operation.”
“A likely story,” Lance said. “And how do we know this isn’t some story you made up to discredit the warden?”
Cutter shot a nasty look his way. “Call me a liar again and I’ll be telling the story of how I ripped your balls off.”
“The man has a point,” William added. “I don’t care for Harold, but I won’t ruin a man’s name over rumors and lies.”
“That’s where you come in, Willy. You’re going to prove he’s up to no good.”
“What makes you think I’m going to do that?”
“You could always tell me to fuck off, but if you want me to talk about Lyndria…”
William tightened his grip on the broom, the wood groaning under the strain. “That is not what we agreed.”
“We also didn’t agree on someone trying to make me into his cocksleeve so it looks like there’s problems all around. Don’t forget, Warden Piss-Stain never agreed to anything, and you did promise my safety.” She gave him a sideways, all-knowing look. “If you can’t hold up your end of the bargain—”
“I’m in no mood for games, Cutter. What is it you want?”
She grinned, showing off her fangs. “You know what I want.”
He did and he hated that she knew it too. What she wanted was for him to go against Harold and even likely get him fired. He cursed Harold and his incompetent guards. Things were more complicated now. The incident put him between a rock and a hard place. If Harold was allowed free reign to harm Cutter as he pleased, it would be the same as violating the agreement of her safety.
“Very well, we have a deal.”
“Sir, can we discuss this first?” Lance asked.
“No. We don’t have time for bickering.” Cutter’s actions made the guards look weak to the other prisoners. It wouldn’t be long before the power structure began to crack. And he had no doubt the guards would want revenge for the men she killed.
The prison was a ticking bomb, and he didn’t want to wait around for it to explode. The sooner he got the information he needed, the better.
“Good. We have an understanding then. Now when you’re done cleaning up, get lost. I’m not in the mood for stories today.”
Lance started forward, but William cut him and shook his head. There was no getting her to talk now. He and Lance finished sweeping up the rest of the remains then joined Victor in the hall.
Two guards stood nearby. They seemed engrossed in conversation, but he noticed one of the guards continually glance in their direction and both had their hands on their rifles.
“I don’t think they’re going to take the death of two of their fellow guards lightly,” Lance whispered. “You may not wish to hear this, but it was a mistake to bring her here. We should get her out as soon as possible.”
“I thought you were against setting her free.”
“Whether she is lying or not no longer matters. I don’t like Cutter, but we know her fate if she stays here.”
He nodded. If he had known the state of things here, he would have chosen somewhere else to take her. Osharese made the most sense; secluded, fortified, and safe. Some friction from Harold was expected, the guards rallying against them was not.
With a heavy sigh, he turned to Victor. “I’m sorry to do this to you, but we’ll need help. Find as many men as you can, anyone you can trust—there have to be others in here who think as you do. Find them and convince them to help you.”
Victor squeezed the broom handle. “I, I don’t know, sir—”
“You saw what happened today,” William interjected. “Cutter has established dominance over the guards, they cannot let that stand lest the other dragons get ideas. Also, she killed two of their own. They won’t let her go unpunished and we are too few to watch over her constantly.” He gripped the young man firmly by the shoulders. “Cutter won’t go quietly, and many will die before they kill her. By doing this, you will save the lives of your colleagues.”
“Even if some of them don’t deserve it,” Lance mumbled.
Victor turned to him. “With all due respect, sir, you don’t know what it’s like here.”
“I don’t care what it’s like. You can’t justify the rape and abuse of your charges.”
William got between the two before things got more heated and the guards further along the hall took notice. “Victor, please, go do as I asked. Lance and I will wait here until you return.”
The young man looked uncomfortable with the idea, but he eventually nodded and left. Once he turned the corner, the two guards whispered to each other then followed him.
“Looks like Cutter’s life isn’t the only one in danger,” Lance whispered.
“Go. We can’t lose him. Harold will no doubt attempt to pin his death on us or Cutter somehow.”
“But what about—”
“I’ll be fine. Harold is ambitious and ruthless but he’s not stupid. He won’t dare have me harmed until he’s certain he can get away with it.”
Lance headed down the hall. Once he disappeared around the corner, William went back into the cell. It was safer than standing in the hall. He only somewhat believed Harold wouldn’t have him harmed. He wouldn’t put it past the man killing anyone who couldn’t be controlled and blaming it on the prisoners.
Cutter lifted her head at his entry. “I thought I told you story time’s canceled today.”
He said nothing and sat in the chair in the corner.
“Ignoring me? Well, that’s fucking rude.”
He didn’t take the bait. His mind was occupied with other things. The more he thought about the current situation, the more it nagged at him. He wouldn’t put it past Harold ordering the guard to attack Cutter even if things didn’t end how he wanted. Or it could have been what he was after the entire time.
“If you wanna know so badly, you could just ask, you know.”
“Warden Piss-Stain knew that guy was coming to visit me. His exact words were: ‘I’m here to remind you of your place.’ I think he went a little off-script though.”
He was skeptical to believe her, but he also had little reason to doubt her. “You know this? How?”
“He told me everything before I roasted his ass.”
“He told you everything? With no provocation or reason?”
“I can be very persuasive.”
He didn’t doubt that given her reputation for getting information. But one thing still nagged at him. What if that was the goal all along? Technically, Cutter had done nothing wrong; keeping her locked up was illegal. But if she killed a prison guard, Harold would feel more than justified in keeping her.
He swore under his breath, realizing his mistake in bringing her here. Having Cutter in custody was a shining star in anyone’s reputation. And Harold had shown he was a very ambitious man. An opportunity to “tame” the great Cutter was no different from putting a bottle of the finest wine in front of a drunkard.
“You done kicking yourself in the balls?”
He snapped his head up and looked at her. “Pardon?”
“That look on your face like you just forgot to zip up afterwards. I’m sick of looking at it.”
“I did not come here to entertain you.”
“Maybe you should have. By the way, the service is terrible here.”
This line of conversation wasn’t going anywhere, and he wasn’t in the mood to argue so he chose to change the subject. “What else did the guard tell you?”
A sly smile crossed her face. “That Warden Piss-Stain is working with bad people.”
“What kind of people?”
“The bad kind. You have no idea what you walked into or the shit you’ve started by bringing me here.”
“Is playing coy wise when your freedom is at stake?”
She tilted her head. “What are you talking about? I can get out whenever I want. But I want to send a message before I do.”
This message sounded worrying, but knowing her, he wouldn’t get a straight answer even if he asked.
Nothing more was said until Lance and Victor returned. They managed to speak to a few guards. Word about the incident had spread quickly and signs of a rift between the guards were beginning to form. While the death of their colleague was unfortunate, Freddy, the man who attacked Cutter, wasn’t missed. Many believed he deserved what he got, but the problem, however, was prisoners knew what happened and some of them had begun showing their rebellious side. Several dragons made nasty comments or even threats to their captors.
“This works in our favor,” William said. “With the guards divided and prisoners getting rebellious, they won’t be able to focus as many resources on Cutter.”
“Or they may double down in an effort get control,” Lance said. “Cutter started this, if they get her to heel they may end it.”
“Fat chance of that shit happening,” Cutter spat.
William quickly cut Lance off before he could retort. “That isn’t helping.” He turned to Victor. “Did you manage to convince anyone to help us?”
The young guard nodded. “Yes, sir. The captain of the guard. He doesn’t like Warden Vesper’s way of doing things and he’s said so on many occasions.”
“Sounds like a man I should get in touch with.” If the guard-captain sided with them, it would make controlling the situation much easier.
“Actually, sir, he said he wanted to talk to you. I can take you to him right now if you like.”
“Very good. Lance, watch over Cutter. I’ll send someone to relieve you.”
William wasn’t sure what to expect when he reached the guard-captain’s office. He had expected another cold emotionless room meant to project authority and demand obedience. This office was nothing like that. It felt more like a luxury lounge than an office in a prison. Not that William blamed him for his taste in décor. He likely had to spend a lot of time here so what better way to make the most of it.
Behind the wide oak desk sat the guard-captain. Unlike Harold, this man looked the part he played. His muscular physique and angular features gave the impression of someone hired to deal with dangerous criminals or at least human ones.
The man rose and held out his hand. “Karl Miloslav.”
“Lord William Delcat. It’s nice to meet you.” He accepted the handshake then sat down when prompted.
“So, Mr. Delcat—”
“It’s ‘Lord’ if you please.”
“Fine, Lord Delcat, with all due respect when are you leaving my damn prison?”
William was taken aback by the question. “I, I’m sorry?”
“We’ve had nothing but trouble since you got here with that dragon. And it’s likely to get worse, so I’d like to know now how much suffering I’ll have to endure before you get lost.”
“I’m afraid I can’t afford to waste time so let’s get straight to the point, Mr. Miloslav. I require you to get your guards under control. There’s talk of many of them seeking to harm my prisoner. As for when I’m leaving, once my business with Cutter is concluded, I’ll be on my way.”
“She killed two men. I won’t argue that Freddy deserved it, but Auster was a good man. And he’s leaving behind his pregnant wife because your prisoner wanted to make a statement.”
“Forgive me if I don’t feel pity for a torturer.”
Karl slowly stood, a vein rising in his broad forehead. “You have no idea what goes on here. What these men have to endure day after day. Policing dragons isn’t a simple or easy task.”
“I imagine it can’t be so terrible when there are so many…‘stress relivers’ available to them.”
Karl’s lips pressed into a thin line. “I don’t condone the abuse of our charges.”
“And yet I’ve had to step in twice now to prevent it for a prisoner who has been here less than a week. And I know the dragons who don’t obey are often beaten into submission.” He waited for a retort. Instead, Karl slowly sat down and said nothing, so William continued. “Perhaps we can help each other. I hear you’re not a fan of the current warden who I imagine is the one who put those ‘policies’ in place.”
“I thought you didn’t like to waste time. Like you said, ‘get to the point.’ ”
He would have smiled if the situation weren’t so serious. That and he read Karl as the kind of man who preferred directness and didn’t care for games. “Very well. Neither of us is happy with how Harold treats the prisoners, so I propose we work together and remove him.”
Karl leaned forward, his expression darkening. “I don’t like what you’re implying.”
“What is it you think I’m implying? I’m not suggesting we kill the man, simply his career. You know better than most the deplorable things he orders around here. Help me, and I’ll see to it that Harold is removed from his position before the end of the year.”
The war in the guard-captain’s thoughts was easy to read. Likely he or someone else tried such a thing and it didn’t end well. Victor’s lack of willingness to cooperate told him that much. Whatever Harold was doing here, it kept the guards in line and scared to go against him.
He needed to sweeten the deal or at least convince him it was better to fight than keeping silent. “I plan to go against the warden regardless of your assistance. Wouldn’t you like to play a role in his downfall? You can’t be pleased knowing what goes on here and doing nothing about it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It never is. But I do know that Harold will have either Cutter or myself killed if not both of us. How much longer before he does the same to you? He has your obedience but not your loyalty. The man is many things but he’s no fool. Eventually, he will see you as a threat.”
Karl fidgeted, his eyes darting back and forth across the desk and his hands were clasped together as his thumbs fought with each other. “Fine. I guess we’ll do things your way.”
“Thank you. Now our first order of business is to assign some loyal men to guard Cutter. She’s vital and I can’t afford to lose her. In the meantime, I’ll start sending letters to appropriate individuals. All you’ll need to do is provide the evidence when the time comes.”
He stood and headed for the door, not waiting for a reply.
The trip to his room was uneventful which suited him fine. Once he was back at his desk, he began drafting the letter to send to the Scale Guild detailing Harold’s atrocities, asking for Victor’s input. He learned that more was happening than even he knew. The dragons who were brought in were declawed and the guards were not gentle about it. It seemed Cutter resisted which resulted in her being put through “obedience training.” Some dragons were even defanged or starved to keep them in line.
With each story, William found it hard to keep his rage in check. Even he used to praise this place as being the most efficient dragon prison available and had no idea of the crimes being committed. Such treatment of human prisoners would never have been tolerated.
The sun had set by the time they concluded the interview and Lance returned. The man shuffled towards his bed and fell on it.
“Yes, this day has been very trying for everyone,” William said.
“Forgive me, but Cutter is more of a drain on my mind than dealing with the guards' weird looks.”
“Has she been behaving at least?”
Lance lifted his head, his brow furrowing. “I…I honestly don’t remember. After you left, everything is a bit of a haze.”
“You must be pretty worn out if you can’t remember what you did,” Victor said.
“I’m sorry, Lance. I asked a lot of you today. Get some rest, you’ve earned it.”
A nod was Lance’s reply before laying his head on the pillow.
William turned to Victor. “You should get some rest as well. Thank you for your assistance.”
Once Victor was gone, William went back to deciphering more of the tome. Jefferey’s warning rang clear in his head every time he touched the cover. That warning aroused his curiosity. It held secrets someone was desperate to keep buried or wanted only those worthy to find.
“And I believe I’m more than worthy,” he mumbled to his shadow.