“Oh, is it story time already?” Cutter asked as William and Lance entered her cell. “And you brought me breakfast! How sweet.”
William glanced at Lance, ready to step in if necessary, but his friend said nothing and instead tightened his jaw. It was a good sign.
Things had not improved since yesterday, something that was already anticipated. Thankfully, Karl made good on his end of the bargain and the guard he assigned to stand outside Cutter’s cell reported no incidents although a few passing guards seemed disappointed.
It was decided not to mention any of this to Cutter. She believed she was in control and William had no other options. It was better that way to ensure she cooperated.
William maintained a neutral expression as he crossed the room and placed the bowl of “food” in front of her. It was a bowl of slop that even the cook said smelled terrible. When asked what it was made of, the reply was “don’t ask.” Something about the tone used and slight smile that followed made him uncomfortable.
She leaned down and sniffed the bowl of goop then looked up at William. “You try it first.”
“The food. I want you to taste it and prove it isn’t poisoned.”
“You cannot be serious!” Lance cried as he started forward.
William quickly the man off. “Given recent events she is right to be paranoid.” Turning back to Cutter he added, “I can assure you that the food, despite it’s questionable look and smell, is not poisonous.”
“Your assurances mean about as much to me as having a pair of tits.”
“Then you can starve for all I care.”
“I don’t know…it’s hard to get my thoughts in order when my stomach’s growling.”
Before he could say anything, Lance scooped the bowl off the floor and drank from it. He then sat the bowl back on the floor and glared daggers at Cutter.
“Are you satisfied now?”
She studied his face for a moment then replied, “All right. I believe you. It doesn’t matter anyway, the amount you would need is too much to cover up even with this stinking of boiled ass.” She sniffed the bowl again and grimaced. “Shame it’s not poisoned; it might give it flavor.”
William didn’t need to look at Lance to know the man was seething with anger. He was just grateful his companion chose to keep quiet than voice his grievances.
He waited until she had finished the “soup” before saying. “Let us continue the story. You mentioned explaining what an Oracle is and her role in the clan.”
“You paid attention. Well, I did say that so here it is. Think of an Oracle like the clan historian. She tracks all the clan’s history.”
“That’s an impressive feat,” William said. “But why does the position only apply to matriarchs?”
“Because of how it works. Matriarchs can transfer their memories to each other and through doing that, they transfer the clan’s history.”
“You expect us to believe that?” Lance asked.
“That’s twice your guy called me a liar. He does it again and he’s not gonna like my reaction.”
“Lance, can you wait outside please?”
He didn’t look happy about it, but he left the room without trouble.
William turned back to Cutter. “So Matriarchs can transfer memories to each other? I never heard of that power.”
“We don’t like to talk about it. Humans ain’t exactly made the best impression on us. That and almost no one practices it anymore.”
He had more questions about this ability but he also wanted things to get back on track. He was on borrowed time as it wouldn’t be long before someone discovered that Cutter’s arrest was falsified and demanded her release. Once the situation had been resolved, he could dig deeper into it later. It held many useful applications if anyone could figure out how it worked.
“Now that we have that cleared up, let us continue with Lyndria. We know she succeeded her in awakening her Call and became Nayome’s disciple.”
“Yeah, she did and became Nayome’s disciple. Earned herself quite a rep for it. Too bad it cost her more than she thought it would.”
Lyndria took a deep breath. Something about the air felt cooler and fresher. She suspected it had something to do with today being the last of her training. Nayome had been ruthless and unrelenting, throwing obstacle after obstacle at her, pushing her to her mental and physical limits.
Two years of grueling training later and now the time had finally come for her to take her place officially as Nayome’s disciple.
And more importantly, to rub Delour’s face in it.
She couldn’t deny the last two years had been a blessing. Delour could no longer torture her as she saw fit, or she would be accused of attacking the future Oracle. Even better, she had her Call and while she could never take the title of Matriarch, knowing that she could was enough.
The final piece that made it complete was knowing her outcast status would be reversed; she was a member of the clan again. All of Delour’s scheming and now the dragon she spurned would be right at her side, giving her advice.
And she planned to use that to its fullest.
“Is the disciple ready?” Nayome asked.
Seeing the other dragons acknowledge her as she passed, the mixture of horror and guilt, put a smile on her face. They had ignored her, shunned her, abandoned her, and now they were all paying for it. The future of the clan rested with her.
Delour awaited them in the central chamber, flanked by her sentinels. The two drakes looked very comfortable as they avoided her gaze.
Lyndria hadn’t been inside since her mother was killed. It looked the same as it did that day minus the smoke and flames. The roof was lined with magnificent jewels that reflected multicolored beams of light under the midday sun. The light always gave her mother a regal appearance. Lyndria hated the sight of Delour sitting where her mother once sat, bathed in the same light, but seeing the look of intense loathing made her smile. If looks could kill, she would drop dead on the spot.
They approached and Nayome bowed while Lyndria purposely did not.
Delour’s eyes narrowed. “You bow when you approach your Matriarch, whelp.”
“I’ll be sure to bow the next time I see a Matriarch then.”
Even after spending so much time together, she still couldn’t react when Nayome moved with surprising speed, smacking her in the back of the head and forcing it downward.
“The disciple is a member of the clan, so the disciple will respect the clan’s ways.”
Lyndria growled but kept silent. If nothing else, she would do it for Nayome, the only dragon to stand by her and give her a new life. And she would be sure Delour knew it so she gave her a seething glare as she bowed.
“So this is who you choose as your disciple? You couldn’t pick anyone else?”
“The Matriarch sent the other potentials away. The disciple is all that’s left unless she wants an outsider to hold the clan’s secrets.”
Lyndria gave a fang-filled grin at that. No Matriarch would do such a thing as entrust their history to a stranger.
“Fine,” Delour said sourly. “Then as Matriarch I overturn your outcast status and welcome you back into the clan. Now get out of my sight.”
Lyndria bowed again, her grin never faded then trotted out of the chamber.
The first thing she did was look for Madrin. She hadn’t seen her sister in two years. Training with Nayome had given her new perspective. Before she was upset and hated that Madrin didn’t side with her that day, but now she had awakened her Call it made sense.
Matriarchs exuded power and to anyone who didn’t have their Call, it must seem daunting.
She didn’t understand then, she was too angry at the loss of their mother to consider Madrin’s feelings. Her sister was afraid of losing anything else to an unstoppable force, she realized that now.
As she looked for her sister, she thought of ways to apologize, but each one sounded insincere and forced. It angered her. Madrin was always better at this sort of thing.
She finally found Madrin outside on a ledge overlooking the swamp at the base of the mountain. It was a place they often visited as hatchlings and watch the sun rise together.
The last two years, she had increased in size and sea-green scales had lost their luminosity. Her face looked tired and sunken. But her eyes were a maelstrom of emotion Lyndria couldn’t quite place.
Still, she took a deep breath and approached. “There you are. I was looking all over for you.” She sat down next to her and noticed Madrin continued staring at the landscape. “Great news. I’m back in the clan. Nayome took me on as her disciple.”
“So you’re now going to be Oracle one day,” she said flatly. “Congratulations.”
Lyndria tilted her head. Madrin had never acted like this. She wasn’t one for jealous or random fits of anger. “You don’t sound happy.”
“No, I’m happy. My sister rejected the Matriarch, was branded an outcast, but managed to awaken her Call and become Oracle.” Her tail slapped the ground. “While Delour insults me every chance she gets and I no dragon will choose me.”
“Oh. I had no idea—”
“Of course you didn’t because you were too busy training and becoming Oracle.”
“What’s gotten into you? You never snapped at me like this even when I deserved it.”
Madrin looked at her paws, a mournful whine escaping her. “Delour took my chosen. The others won’t even look at me.”
“She did what?” She wouldn’t put it past her doing such a thing but it seemed unnecessary. There was no point in punishing Madrin like that. “Well, just because he chose the Matriarch—”
“You know he won’t! He can’t! Delour made it clear how she feels about me; if he defies her…" She trailed off and whined again. It didn’t need to be said what would happen. No dragon would choose someone they didn’t respect, and their mates were held to the same standard.
But Lyndria didn’t care about that. Something was wrong. Madrin still refused to look in her direction. “Look at me.”
Madrin turned her head away. Lyndria hurried around to her other side and hissed in rage.
The left side of Madrin’s face had been horribly disfigured. Her fin was in tatters, most of the scales were gone instead replaced with jagged scars.
“What happened?” she asked shakily.
“Ever since you started training with Nayome, Delour focused her attention on me.” Her claws scraped the ground as she tensed. “When she took Olso from me, I got so angry. I went to ask her why and…and she did this.” She motioned to the scarring on her face. “Said it was my punishment for questioning my Matriarch.”
Lyndria snarled. “The fuck is her problem? Why does she hate you so much?”
“It’s not me she hates. It’s you!”
Lyndria was taken aback by the outburst.
“You stood up to her unlike everyone else. She couldn’t control you. Even after marking you as an outcast, you still wouldn’t break. Now you’re in line to be the next Oracle and she can’t do a thing about it!
“Now because of you, the other dragons think she’s weak! They won’t say it, but everyone’s thinking it. If she can’t one dragon under control, how can she be expected to rule an entire clan? Every day the clan is nearly ripped apart and it’s all your fault!”
“I didn’t mean to—”
Madrin slapped the ground again, the sound so sharp Lyndria flinched as she fell silent.
“You never mean to! You never think about the consequences! I hate Delour too, but she’s the Matriarch now and we have to accept that!”
Lyndria couldn’t respond. She was so wrapped up in her rage she hadn’t considered what her sister was feeling. And now she was feeling the force of two years of suppressed rage, she realized she didn’t know her at all.
“Look, we can figure this out, right?” Lyndria asked. “Now that I’m going to become Oracle, she’ll need to be more careful.”
Madrin sank to the ground. “You can’t fix this. No one can. I have to watch her have eggs with the drake who should have been mine. Why is doing this to us? It would have been kinder to kick him out or even kill him. Why is she so determined to torment me?”
Lyndria didn’t have an answer. Delour had always been vindictive and couldn’t stand for any dragon to get the better of her. Even during friendly contests, everyone hated when she got involved because she wouldn’t stop until she won. She wouldn’t stop until they were broken and bowed before her like everyone else, until they accepted that their place was beneath her and everything they loved and wanted was a gift from her.
She cursed that their mother didn’t see the warning signs. That she didn’t send the Nightstalker away sooner. She still didn’t understand why her mother bothered to take Delour in.
That didn’t matter anymore. What mattered now was sending a message. “You know what? I need to take care of something.”
She stormed off before her sister could say anything. She moved with purpose checking each hall and sampling the air at random intervals, hoping to catch Olso’s scent. The search led her deeper into the caverns, to the lower levels. She knew the area well and that dragons only went down there when they wanted to leave something behind.
It worked out well to find him down here. There would be no witnesses.
She eventually arrived at the final chamber, the death chamber. It was where dragons discarded old bones and rotten meat so they didn’t have to deal with the smell. The stench of rot and death covered up any other scents, but she knew he was here. His scent led to this chamber and it was still fresh. Madrin’s former chosen, Olso, laying a dark corner behind a pile of bones. His green scales stood out from the rest of the yellowed bones and grey chunks of flesh.
“I never thought I’d find you here. Hiding from Delour, huh?”
Olso snatched his head, his paws flat on the floor in preparation to run. He relaxed when he saw Lyndria. “Oh, I…I don’t know wh--what you’re talking about.”
“I heard the bitch wants you to be her chosen. That’s a pretty big deal.” She added with a sly smile. “Unless you don’t want her that is. It’s okay, you can say it.”
The drake lowered his head. “But I want Madrin.”
“So? Choose Madrin, then. What’s stopping you?”
He played with a nearby skull and refused to meet her gaze. “I’ll be marked as an outcast if I do.”
“She said that?”
“Not exactly, but she made it clear that she doesn’t want her mates to be with anyone else. Especially a lowly dragon like her.”
Lyndria bit her tongue until she tasted blood. It was fine when the anger was directed at her and Madrin was just an afterthought. But now she was next to untouchable, her sister was the new target.
“She really can’t just accept that she’s in charge, can she?”
“Nothing.” She approached and sat in front of him. “Tell you what, I can fix this. I know exactly how to make your problems go away.”
He lifted his head, his eyes wide and full of hope. “Really? How?”
She smiled before lunging, biting his face. With her jaws clamped on his muzzle, he couldn’t scream. She twisted, using her forelegs to flip him onto his side. She then went for the throat, blood filling her maw as he thrashed beneath her. The bitter taste burned the inside of her mouth.
I’m sorry, she thought. But for once that bitch isn’t going to win. If my sister can’t have you, no one can.
She released him when he stopped moving. His eyes were still wide open, silent listless gaze thanking her for releasing him from the torment.
She dragged his body into the darkest corner then quickly dug a shallow grave and buried him in it. She then covered the mound with bones before leaving the caves to wash the blood off. He deserved better, but it was too risky to give him a proper burial. No one would find him, but Delour would know. And she would suspect Lyndria was responsible. Madrin was too timid to enact revenge, and everyone knew it.
Her time living in the lower levels paid off as she was able to leave without running into another dragon. She went to her old watering hole, knowing it would be unused. It was hard to look at her reflection as she washed off the dirt and blood. She had killed another dragon, a clan member. The burning sensation in her mouth didn’t leave. It wasn’t supposed to be him. The blood of the first dragon she killed was supposed to be Delour’s.
Night had fallen by the time she returned to the caverns. None of the other dragons took notice of her even though she was back in the clan again. They still wore the masks of guilt and shame. So many of them doubted her. They likely thought she was going to get herself killed instead of becoming the Oracle. So their greatest shame would be immortalized in her memories, passed on to future Oracles for as long the clan remained. History would remember them as cowards.
Good. None of you bastards deserve to be forgiven, she thought.
Her sleeping chamber was still near the base of the mountain and she had no plans to change it. But she wanted to check on Madrin first. Her sister was still on the overlook, staring at the night sky.
Lyndria sat next to her. “I took care of it.”
“So now we finally see some of Lyndria’s ruthlessness,” William said. “Already I can understand why she’s hated. She has no respect for dragon laws. Interesting.”
“Oh? What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing important.” It was interesting to know that despite dragons and their high codes of honor, there were those among them who didn’t follow it. He wondered how much of that was the norm for other dragons. That they just went along with what was expected of them.
But he could look into that later. He now had confirmation that Lyndria was incredibly dangerous even by dragon standards. Nothing was off-limits to her.
“Please, continue,” he said.
Before Cutter could go on, the door opened and Victor cautiously poked his head inside. Cutter blew in his direction, causing the young man to give a frightened cry as he backpedaled out of sight. The dragoness roared with laughter which William didn’t find amusing.
After several moments, Lance entered the room. “The guards are putting the prison on lockdown. We have to return to our room.”
“Why?” William asked. “Did something happen?” He looked at Cutter who gave him an innocent stare.
“I don’t know the exact details just that anyone caught roaming the halls without authorization will be arrested, no exceptions.”
He nodded and turned to Cutter. “We will have to continue this when the lockdown is lifted.”
“Aw, but I was just getting to the good part! You won’t believe how Delour got her revenge. Anyway, watch your back! It’s dangerous to roam this place, especially at night!”
He stopped to ask her what she meant, but Victor urged they move on.
They headed back to the elevator at a brisk pace. Once they were inside and riding to the upper levels, William addressed Victor. “Do you know what happened?”
“Two men were found dead in the guard’s barracks, sir.”
“Two more were killed?” Lance asked. “But the barracks are nowhere near the cells. Do you know who was killed?”
Victor shook his head. “Not personally, but I heard the two men were loyal to Warden Vesper.”
“You don’t the guard-captain—?” Lance whispered to William.
“Not likely. He didn’t take kindly to the idea of killing the warden; he wouldn’t kill two men to further his goals. Victor, is there anything else you can tell us?”
They got off the elevator and hurried to their room. Victor was silent the entire time. He chewed the inside of his cheek and kept his head on a swivel.
William waited until they were alone in the room before addressing the young guard’s fears. “If you are fearing for your life, don’t worry. Neither I nor Lance will tell anyone what you reveal here.”
“It, It’s not that, sir. It’s just…the bodies…they were torn apart. As if some kind of wild animal did it or, or—”
“A dragon?” Lance finished.
“A dragon managed to escape its cell, travel to the upper levels, kill two men, and return to its cell undetected?” William asked. “Impossible.”
“What if it was a ghost?” Victor asked.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” William and Lance replied.
“It’s not a ghost,” William said. “Likely someone is taking matters upon themselves. You’ll need to be careful.”
The guard nodded, but he didn’t seem convinced. William patted him on the shoulder and steered him towards the chair by the desk. “It’s going to be all right,” he said. “You’re simply letting your fears get the best of you. It’s a common tactic to use against your enemies.”
“Effective, too,” Lance added.
“It’s not that, sir, it’s just”—he bit his lip and looked around before continuing in hushed tones—“there are rumors of this place being haunted.”
“You can’t be serious,” Lance said. “Now the prison is haunted?”
“They say this used to be where dragons were buried when they died.”
“And now their lost souls roam the halls looking for revenge? Superstitious nonsense.”
“Perhaps not,” William said. “You said yourself, fear is an effective tactic to use against one’s enemies. And a ‘haunted’ building is the perfect place for mysterious killings. Someone is likely using it as a cover to murder unopposed.” He turned back to Victor, “The two men who died, did they have any enemies?”
He thought for a moment before replying, “Not that I know of, but I didn’t know them that well.”
“Well, you should determine why those two men were targeted specifically. I doubt the killings were random. And it is likely there will be more deaths before they are caught.”
He took the notebook and tome from his bag and sat on the bed. Before opening the tome and resuming his research, he asked, “Has this sort of thing happened before?”
That was worrying. There was enough discord with Cutter’s presence. Whoever knew to take advantage of that. Blame would be put on her and also him for bringing her there regardless of how irrational it seemed.
He tried to decipher more of the book, but he couldn’t focus. Thoughts of the murder wouldn’t leave his mind. The bodies weren’t hidden very well if they were discovered so soon. And the timing couldn’t be worse. Tensions were already running high following the death of the other two guards.
No matter how much he questioned it, he couldn’t find the logic behind it. If the goal truly was to implicate him or Cutter the bodies wouldn’t have been left in the barracks where neither of them has easy access. He refused to buy into that ghost nonsense. If such things existed the world be overrun with vengeful spirits.
He continued to flip through the pages aimlessly, hoping to find a passage to divert his attention from his current thoughts. Eventually, the others fell asleep. Victor said he had been ordered not to leave their side until the lockdown lifted. Lance suggested the young man was likely too afraid to go by himself, but they agreed it was too dangerous for him to travel alone. So a place was made for him on the floor where he quickly fell asleep.
William stayed up and worked on the tome. He managed to decipher several passages that told him little; it was mostly detailing how and why dragons should be obeyed above all else and why one should dedicate their life to serving their chosen dracaena, specifically Lyndria.
It began to frustrate him. There seemed to be nothing detailing Lyndria’s origins, not even speculation. It felt as if he were on a timer that was running twice as fast. There wasn’t enough time to learn Lyndria’s origins, but he also couldn’t properly deal with her until he knew how she thought.
And the only way to do that was to learn her past.
He needed Once the lockdown was lifted, he needed to see Cutter again, and this time she would need to tell him something substantial.
He found himself back on the page with the warning, his eyes drawn the final passage:
For she will make you play the game. A game you are guaranteed not to win.
The words didn’t carry much meaning until now. But now it made him wonder if the game had already started.
There came a knock at the door. Lance immediately sat up, pistol in hand. “Who’s there?” he called.
“Lord Delcat, I need to speak with you,” Karl replied.
William nodded to his bodyguard who stowed the weapon and moved to open the door. Victor continued to sleep, but William decided not to wake the young man.
The guard-captain entered, flanked by two more guards. He glanced at Victor on the floor. The tightness in his jaw suggested he didn’t like him sleeping on the job. “You’re still awake. Well, I wanted to tell you that a man was found outside the prison. The man was badly injured. We were able to stabilize him, however, and he’s resting in the infirmary.”
“Forgive me if this sounds callous but what does that have to do with me?” William asked. “Neither I nor my friend has set foot outside the building.”
“Before he passed out, he mentioned you by name.”
William swallowed, the warning echoing in his mind. “Did you get the man’s name?”
“No, but we didn’t need to. He was carrying ID. The man’s name is Omar Shroud.”