Lyndria jolted awake at the sound of something being dropped before her. She quickly jumped to her feet, placed the wall at her back, and faced her attacker with a savage snarl. The sudden movement irritated her wounds, but she refused to let her pain show. She immediately relaxed upon seeing it was Madrin who had awoken her. “Sorry. I thought you were someone else,” Lyndria said quickly.
Delour was the only one who bothered to “visit”. The other dragons went out of their way to avoid any contact with her. Delour tried to convince them to abuse her as they saw fit, but the others continued to deny Lyndria’s existence. Whether out of some final lingering loyalties or because they didn’t want to be reminded of what their fate could be should they defy their Matriarch, Lyndria didn’t know or care. No one spoke to her, looked at her, or even acknowledged her presence. When she attempted to speak to them, they instead spoke to the nearest dragon as if she weren’t there. If she touched someone—even by accident—they jumped as if being petted by a ghost. Her name was never spoken. The only mention of her existence was her was “that one” her new name.
So Delour had taken on the role of tormentor and visited Lyndria every other week to test her will. If she refused to bow, as she always did, she was beaten within an inch of her life. It had become a test of wills between them. Delour couldn’t kill her because it would be admitting defeat. Lyndria would rather die than call that murdering traitor her matriarch.
The pain made her stronger. It reminded her what she was fighting against and why it was important that she never gives in.
Madrin nudged the thing she had dropped. It was a piece of meat—or at least Lyndria thought it was meat. The chunk of flesh was gray, and it stank. Even the flies buzzing around the mysterious chunk of flesh avoided landing on it. “It’s the best I could find on short notice.”
“It’s all you were allowed to bring me, you mean,” Lyndria added sourly. She devoured the mystery meat anyway. It was gummy, slimy, and had a questionable after-taste, but she didn’t care. Most of the time, she was forced to scour the swamps at the base of the mountain at night, feeding off rats and frogs and any other small creatures she could find.
Outcasts couldn’t live with the rest of the clan, so a crudely carved alcove near the base of the mountain became her residence. She spent most of her time in the cave since there was little to do outside of it. She couldn’t participate in hunts, her fellow dragons ignored her, and she wasn’t allowed anywhere near the nest. So her days were spent alone, talking to her shadow and plotting her revenge.
While Lyndria forced down the food, her sister approached and started licking Lyndria’s body. In addition to the recent cuts caused by the last attack, the outcast mark branded into her side still hadn’t fully healed. It stung most nights from the cold and bled if she moved too much. She lay there silently as Madrin licked her torso, tail, and underbelly. She hated having her sister wait on her like this. Technically, it was forbidden. A dragon that had been shamed and scarred shouldn’t be receiving help. If any other dragon came in and saw this, they could report it, and Madrin would be in serious trouble.
It wouldn’t come as a shock to learn that Delour ordered the visits. Lyndria overheard the other dragons say that her sister had not escaped punishment and was often given menial tasks like cleaning up leftover bones and rotten meat from the feeding grounds or the broken eggshells in the nest.
When Madrin stopped, Lyndria took a look at her body. Her once luminous sea-green scales were now a muddy brown from blood-staining. She would never admit it to her sister, but she was beginning to like the blood-stained look; it set her apart from the rest of her clan.
“Thanks. That should do for now,” Lyndria said.
“I should clean the rest.”
“Don’t bother. I don’t want you spending the rest of the day cleaning me. Besides, we don’t want Delour to find out what you’ve been up to. I know she ordered you to come here, but I don’t want her looking for an excuse to punish you.”
“I don’t care if she punishes me.”
“I do. You wouldn’t survive as an outcast.”
Madrin stared at the cave floor, nudging a small rock with a claw. “Lyndria…have you ever thought about…apologizing? I’m sure if you begged for Matriarch Delour’s forgiveness—”
“Dragons don’t beg,” Lyndria said through clenched teeth.
“But nothing!” Lyndria cried, her voice and her eyes hard. “That impostor Delour has taken everything but my life and my pride, and I won’t give her either one.”
Madrin flinched at the outburst, and she seemed wounded by her sister’s words. It couldn’t have escaped her attention that she wasn’t included in the list of things Delour would never have. Lyndria purposely phrased it that way. It made her scales crawl that her sister was willing to accept this life rather than die or aid in getting revenge.
She left her cave without a word. That meat was disgusting and Madrin’s cowardice wasn’t helping the nausea coming over her.
It didn’t take long to reach the swamps. She made sure no one was around before vomiting her breakfast into some bushes. The bile coating her tongue was a welcome taste compared to the hunk of spoiled flesh. Since she wasn’t allowed to go to the usual watering hole, she headed to a very small pond she had found. After sniffing it to ensure no other dragons had used it to relieve themselves, she drank until her stomach felt tight. Hunting would take time and a growling stomach would give away her position.
She heard someone approaching and spun around to come face-to-face with a larger dragoness with bluish-green scales. The fins on the sides of her head fanned out as a wide grin appeared on her longer muzzle. “Ah, here is the dragoness.”
“The fuck you want, Nayome?” Lyndria snapped.
“Temper, temper, the dragoness needs to calm herself before she gets herself hurt.”
Lyndria growled but kept her relaxed posture. Even if she weren’t an outcast, attacking the clan’s oracle wouldn’t end well. It didn’t change that the dragoness had no reason to approach her.
“I’ve come for the dragoness.”
Lyndria snorted as she stepped around her. “Come to tell me to accept my new matriarch?”
“Finding acceptance is something the dragoness must do herself.” She stepped in Lyndria’s path again. “My purpose is different. The dragoness has been chosen to become the next oracle.”
Lyndria tilted her head. Nayome was known for her sense of humor and love of pranks, but this seemed a bit excessive. In all the years, she had known her, she never knew the oracle to joke about choosing her next apprentice. “You do realize I’m an outcast?”
“The laws do not forbid it. So, will the dragoness accept?”
She wasn’t sure. This was a lot to take in. Being the oracle’s disciple would override her outcast status, but it also meant she would eventually become Delour’s advisor. Then there was the requirement of only Matriarchs being allowed to become oracles. She had shown no signs of awakening her Call.
“She does not have an answer. That is fine. The dragoness knows where to find me should she make up her mind.”
Seeing Nayome turn her back broke Lyndria’s stupor. “Hold on! You track me down just to drop that on me and walk away?! You can only choose a Matriarch as your disciple and I don’t have my Call!”
The Oracle turned around with a sly smile. “Yet. She resists, but she has shown the signs. If the dragoness accepts, she may just awaken the power stored within her.”
She could never challenge Delour, but knowing she had the power to do so would be more than enough. “But why? Why me?”
The smile faded as her fins flattened against her head. “A promise made to her mother. If she becomes Oracle, she will see for herself.”
“I’ll do it.”
The smile returned. “Good. But first, she must awaken her Call if Delour is to accept her as Oracle.”
“How do you even know I have one?”
“She stood up to the Matriarch when all others cowered beneath her might. She has proven she has a strong will, but can it become stronger?”
“It will become stronger,” Lyndria said firmly. The moment she said that, five large drakes appeared. They stood next to Nayome and stared at Lyndria listlessly.
Lyndria jumped back and took an aggressive stance. “What the fuck is this?! Did you set me up?”
“She wants to awaken her Call, but we do not have time to wait. The fastest way to awaken her Call is through stress.” She motioned to the drakes beside her. “These dragons will try to kill her. If she wants to survive, she will awaken her Call. If not, well, it won’t matter anymore. She has ten seconds to start running. She will not return unless she is a Matriarch.”
“I think that’s a good place to end it,” Cutter said. She stretched, rattling her chains. “It’s nice to leave the audience with a little suspense.”
William frowned at her. “Is this all a game to you?”
“Well, I cease to find it amusing. We both know she succeeds, so why the games?”
“I told you: it’s for the sake of the audience. I could just tell you she survives and awakens her Call, but that’s boring as fuck.”
William sighed and put his hands in his pockets to hide his tension. It was an obvious move that would tell Cutter that her coyness was getting to him. Letting her believe she held the best hand was key to making her slip up. The slight smile on her snout told him the tactic was working.
“That term you used, ‘Oracle’, I don’t recognize it.”
“Most humans wouldn’t. We don’t use it anymore. Nowadays we use Keeper.”
“And what exactly is a ‘Keeper's role in the clan?”
“You’ll find out when I continue the story.”
Victor stepped forward, shuffling his feet like a small child. “Um, my lord? It’s almost feeding time for the prisoners. For security reasons, I have to take you back to your room.”
“Very well.” Before leaving, he turned back to Cutter. “I shall return at noon tomorrow.”
“I’ll have to check my schedule. Might be busy that day.”
William and Lance followed Victor through the silent hallway. Lance was unusually quiet. He was always a man of few words, but William could practically hear the man’s brow furrowing.
While they waited for the elevator, he turned his attention to their escort. “Victor, I trust you’ll keep what you learned today a secret?”
“Of, of course. But I must tell the warden—”
“Especially from the warden.”
The young man shuffled his feet. “But—”
William patted the guard’s shoulder. “If anything happens, I accept full responsibility. But for your safety, you must not get tangled up in this. You should know that Cutter is a very dangerous dragon and not because she is one. She has powerful friends who will not hesitate to come to her defense. Even now, they are likely formulating a rescue attempt.”
Victor’s eyes widened as he nodded silently. The elevator arrived and they continued to the upper levels in silence. Just reaching the upper floors felt like a breath of fresh air. The smell of dragon wasn’t nearly as pungent and the lighting was far better. William wondered how many of the guards had been ordered to keep an eye on their guests. He noticed the way they watched from their peripherals or tensed when he drew near.
Victor opened the door to their room, revealing a space just large enough for two single beds and a small table William assumed to be the “desk” he requested. It turned out, there was only one spare room available so William and Lance had to share. He suspected it was more so to keep an eye on the both of them, but it also meant Lance would always nearby, so he wasn’t complaining.
“Is this really the best they could do?” Lance asked.
“I’m sorry,” Victor said. “But we’re really crowded and—”
William raised a hand to silence the young man. “It’s all right. You should return to your duties now.”
Victor bowed and left the room. William waited a few moments to ensure they were alone before turning to Lance. “Is there something bothering you? You were very quiet.”
“Forgive me, sir, but I don’t understand the reason for this. Why are we wasting our time with storytelling? What does it matter where she came from or that she trained to become an Oracle?”
“Because we know too little about Lyndria. The best way to hunt a beast is to understand it. By learning about her past, we can learn how she thinks and know what her goal is. It is our best chance of getting ahead of her.”
He went to the suitcases and began unpacking his notes and texts on dragons. “Take today for example. We know that Lyndria is a Keeper and that it is a rare position among dragons. Now we simply do more research and learn a bit more of what Lyndria is capable of.”
“Ah, I see. But what if this a fraud using her name?”
The last of the books he removed from the suitcase was the old tome which was in a secret compartment. He was glad to find the book undisturbed. He carried the papers to the desk. “Then we will learn the truth about her power and use that to expose the fraud. Regardless, we are not going up against a simple wyrm. Whoever this is has avoided capture and persecution from humans and dragons alike. We will need every advantage possible.”
Lance was silent for a moment before replying. “You say, truth, but we can’t trust Cutter. We can’t verify her information and she has every reason to lie to us.”
“Her freedom is on the line. She knows we’re the only ones in this prison who care about her well-being. And she also agreed to tell us what she knew. Say what you will about dragons, they have stronger codes of honor than any human.”
Lance still didn’t look convinced, but he sat on the edge of the bed and said nothing.
William returned to deciphering the book. Being an outcast was a far cry from starting a cult, but there had to be something hidden in the pages about Lyndria’s past. In a blank notebook, he jotted down what Cutter had revealed to him. Her once being an outcast would work in their favor. It likely meant that most of her allies came from threats and bribes—connections that were easily exploited.
It was just a matter of finding the right buttons to push.
He poured over his notes until it became dark then he decided to call it a night. To capture everything Cutter said, he needed to be wide awake.
A loud banging on the door jolted William out of his sleep. Lance was already on his feet, pistol in hand.
“Who is it?” Lance asked.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Victor replied, “But there is a man here to see you. He said he was a friend of yours.”
Only a handful of people knew where William was and none of them he would count as “friends”.
“Very well,” he called back. “I shall get ready and come to see him.”
The door burst open and a large man walked into the room as if he had come home from a long journey. His bronze face was hidden behind a mask of dark hair. He held his muscular arms wide. “Really going to make me stand outside while you ‘freshen up’? Is that any way to treat an old friend?”
William grunted and signaled to Lance to lower his weapon pointed at the man’s head. Lance lowered his weapon and the giant continued, his footsteps thundering with every step. “Of all the places to find the great William Delcatt, I never thought to check a prison.”
“Very funny, Omar,” William replied. He had barely gotten out of bed before Omar pulled him into a crushing hug.
“You could at least pretend to be happy to see me.”
“Last I remember we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”
Omar released him. “But we still held a lot of respect for each other.”
“That we do.” He motioned to Lance. “This is my bodyguard and close friend, Lance Gardner. Lance, meet Omar Shroud, he’s the guild master of the Hunter’s Society in Diamus.”
Omar held out his hand which Lance ignored. He didn’t seem bothered by the gesture as he stroked his beard.
“What is a member of the Hunter’s Society doing here?” Lance asked.
“My contact in the prison told me the great Cutter had been captured so I came to see for myself.” He shot a sly smile William’s way. “I should’ve known you were involved.”
And the only way you would know that so soon is if word had gotten out before I even arrived, William thought. Harold’s office has more leaks than I thought. “And I should’ve known that word of Cutter’s capture would reach a group of dragon hunters.”
“Whoa now. We don’t hunt dragons anymore.”
“You don’t hunt dragons publicly you mean,” Lance countered. “You only butcher them in alleys and call it self-defense.”
Omar’s expression hardened and William was reminded of the man he once knew and respected. The no-holds-barred, never flinching type who didn’t hesitate to put “talkers” in their place with action. “Dragons are fierce creatures. Just because we ‘tame’ them hasn’t removed their fangs. And when one of those scaly beasts goes rogue, who are you going to call on to track it down? The Scale Guild?”
“Lance, would you mind keeping an eye outside?” William asked quickly, hoping to avoid an argument. “I’d rather this conversation remain private.” He waited until Lance left then motioned for Omar to sit in the chair by the desk while he sat on the bed. “You didn’t need to visit me to see a prisoner.”
“When I heard you were here, I figured I should say something. And I’m not stupid. If you’re involved that means the Scale Guild is involved and that means things are serious.”
“The Scale Guild is not involved. I’m acting independently.”
Omar leaned back in his seat and laughed. “Well look who finally grew a pair! It’s a shame you chose Cutter to go after. If it were any other wyrm, I’d praise you, but she’s anything but another wyrm.”
“I’m fully aware, and I have safeguards in place.”
“They better be damn foolproof or you’re going to have a lot of blood on your hands.” He smiled again. “And you called me reckless.”
“You led ten men to their deaths to ‘toughen them up’. That’s the very definition of reckless.”
That wiped the smile off Omar’s face. William silently cursed himself. The man’s temper and extreme methods were exactly why the Scale Guild refused to work with him.
“I did what I had to. The goal was never to kill them but that they died to a single wyrm proved they were too soft. They would’ve gotten themselves killed eventually and probably taken more with them.”
“If you feel they’re not up to code, fire them—But you didn’t come here to argue about that again. Why do you care what happens to Cutter or any dragon for that matter?”
“Just because we’re not soft like you Scale Guild types doesn’t mean we want to see all dragons mounted on a wall.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Omar smiled so wide his teeth were visible beneath his beard. “Sharp as always. The truth is, the wyrms are nervous. Cutter kept a lot of the nastier ones in check and now she’s missing. It’ll be kept quiet, but word will spread soon enough.”
“Well, don’t worry. The moment I get what I need from her, I’ll release her and she can go back to whatever she did before this.”
“Why’d you capture her anyway?”
“She has information on Lyndria.” Of all the people to consider trustworthy, Omar was one of them. If nothing else, he could be trusted not to purposely sabotage their efforts.
“Lyndria? She’s a ghost. I’m not even convinced she’s a real dragon, just a figurehead an organization hides behind to do things from the shadows.”
Omar leaned forward in his seat. For the first time, William saw fear in his eyes. It was an unsettling sight. “You’re joking.”
William told him everything he had learned about the dragoness so far and even showed him the old tome dedicated to worshipping her. With each moment, he noticed Omar’s jaw become tighter.
Finally, when he finished his story Omar shook his head and sighed. “You really know how to find trouble. And the Scale Guild is letting you do this alone?”
“They can’t afford a war with Cutter if this doesn’t pan out so, yes. I must do it alone.”
“Figures they’d back out. Are you even sure this is the same dragon?” He pointed to the book with a look of disgust. “As old as that thing is, there’s no way she’s still alive now.”
“I thought the same thing, but we mustn’t forget that no dragon has ever been recorded dying of old age.”
“Well, whether she’s alive or not is irrelevant. The threat her name carries is real. If there’s anything you need, just ask.”
William was taken back by the offer. Omar was one of the most stubborn men he’d ever met; it was one of the traits that made him so respected and disliked. That he would cave so easily wasn’t a good sign. “Now that you mention it, I could use some help deciphering this text. I’ve exhausted every other resource available. I know that Hunter’s Society was once respected as Geolga’s authority on dragons.”
Omar snorted. “That was back when killing dragons was our only way of dealing with them. Compared to back then, we’re a joke. A bunch of useless glory seekers who would piss themselves at the first sign of danger.”
“Regardless, your organization should have more information than most on dragons.”
Omar stared at him. William hoped the man wouldn’t catch on that he hadn’t approached them sooner. The thought did cross his mind, but the less anyone knew, the better. Also, he didn’t want to have to deal with Omar again. Their conversation had already proved he hadn’t changed much since their last meeting.
“All right. I’ll see what I can dig up. For security reasons, the book will stay here. This Lyndria or her ghost has a long reach and this is the safest place for it right now. Anything I find, I’ll bring back personally. You just watch yourself. Cutter won’t let this slide. I suggest putting a bullet in her head when you’re done with her.”
William said nothing as Omar left. There was little point in telling the man he had given his word to set her free provided she tell him all that she knew about Lyndria. It would earn himself another insult.
Lance quickly re-entered the room. “Forgive me if this seems out of line, but are you sure we can trust him?”
“Other than yourself, he’s the only other person I would trust with this. Say what you will about Omar, he’s always been dedicated and loyal to a fault.”
“I’m sorry, but that doesn’t mean much to a man who led his subordinates to their deaths as a way of testing them.”
William sighed and placed a hand on the cover of the book. The rough leather surface comforted him. “The price of being a leader. While I don’t condone his actions, I do understand them. He needs brave men and women who won’t crack under pressure when the time comes to face a dragon. You’ve seen firsthand how dangerous they can be.”
“You say that but we’re standing in a building full of trained guards. Brave men and women can’t be in short supply.”
A strange smile touched William’s lips as he recalled saying something similar to Omar. He repeated the man’s response with a grave tone. “There’s a difference between being trained to deal with a threat and surviving a staredown with a beast that can murder you with a single exhale.”