William wasn’t sure what to think as he and Karl continued to lay on the floor with a gun at their backs. The masked man he could see sat with his legs crossed, staring out the window.
He didn’t dare speak for fear of angering them. Karl said nothing as well.
The carriage eventually stopped and the man acknowledged their presence.
“End of the line,” the masked man said.
Hoods were thrown over their heads and they were dragged out of the carriage. He only saw blurred shapes through a haze of brown cloth, a pungent musty odor assaulting his nose. Flying blind, two men had a firm grip on his shoulders, steering him towards his destination. He wondered where Karl was but didn’t dare call out to him. The occasional grunt behind him followed by a gruff, “Keep moving” told him the man was alive at least.
He made out the lights above and the distorted shapes of what he assumed were cabinets hugging the walls. The floor beneath him felt soft as he counted their silent steps. Around them were ambient conversations. He would catch snippets of words being spoken before they faded. Unfortunately, they said nothing useful.
He wondered who these men were and what they wanted with them. They knew about the tome. It worried him what they would do once they discovered he didn’t have it anymore. It was lost after Cutter’s breakout. Whether it was recovered or destroyed, he had no idea.
Eventually, he was shoved into a chair. Someone snatched the hood from his head, and he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the bright light.
They sat in a large study. The walls were framed with massive shelves containing various items, making it feel walled in and cramped. He turned to the windows, hoping the landscape would give him an idea of where he was but the view was blocked by thick curtains.
A very wide woman, giving off a strong air of authority, sat behind a lavish desk. Long red hair framed the sides of her face. His eyes were drawn to her incredibly long nails. The tips were filed into points and painted silver.
The woman smiled, showing off perfect white teeth. “Well, well, if it isn’t the famous Lord William Delcat, back from the dead.” She spoke in an eerily cheerful, sing-song voice. “It is an honor to finally make your acquaintance. And I haven’t forgotten you, Karl Miloslav, former captain of the prison guard.”
“Thank you, my lady,” William said, bowing deeply. He didn’t trust this woman, but he wouldn’t forget his manners. “But you have me at a disadvantage. I don’t know who you are.”
“Not surprising since we just met. I am Lady Catherine Spry. You don’t need to bother with the title. Save the flattery for someone with a larger ego.”
With a wave of her hand, the door closed, and footsteps broke the silence before another man appeared. Like Catherine, he had red hair though his was much shorter. Something about the man’s arrogant demeanor seemed familiar.
“Just Julian is fine,” the man said.
William recognized the voice as the one from the ambush.
“What do you want with us?” Karl asked.
Julian placed an old book on the desk. It was the same tome William had been deciphering. Somehow he hid his surprise at seeing the book in their possession. The only explanation so soon following the breakout was it was given to them likely just before the breakout happened.
He didn’t even want to think about all the implications it meant.
“Do you know what this is?” Julian asked.
“It’s a book,” William replied. “What does that matter?”
“It’s not just any book, my good man,” Catherine said in a sweet tone, but her eyes were lifeless. “This is the reason why you disrupted my operation and cost me a great deal of money. This book is the reason why I had to waste more money and resources tracking you down and organizing this meeting. This book is the reason why everyone in this room—particularly you—is having a very terrible day.”
“Your operation?” Karl asked. “What do--?”
“So you’re Harold’s contact,” William finished. “I didn’t think you would be so brazen as to show yourselves now.”
“We wouldn’t have if it weren’t for you and your ‘pursuit’ of knowledge,” Julian said. “I must admit, the idea of a crazed dragon-worshipping cult is very interesting. Even if it’s all a lie.”
“But we’ll get into that later,” Catherine said. She leaned forward on the desk, the chair groaning under her shifting weight. “First, I will have you explain everything that happened in the prison and leave nothing out.”
Karl frowned and leaned forward himself. “Forgive us, ma’am, but we’re not in a sharing mood. And you’re likely going to kill us when you’re done anyway, so why should we cooperate?”
“That’s a very good question,” Julian said. “But you’re wrong about one thing, we’re not going to do a thing to you. Refuse, and we’ll turn you both over to the Senate. I’m sure they’ll love to hear about how you’re responsible for the largest dragon prison being razed to the ground.”
“Wait!” William cried. He didn’t know how much Karl knew about the Senate, but they had a better chance bargaining with Cutter than the leaders of the Human Territories. At best, they would never see daylight again.
Catherine gave an eerily wide grin. “Looks like you’re the smart one. Well, start talking. What brand of stupidity caused you to take one of the most powerful Matriarchs known in a building full of dragons?”
William’s ears burned as he recalled the event leading up to Cutter’s capture and her actions at the prison. Looking back on it, he realized what a fool he was and every word twisted the guilt within him. It was so obvious the mistakes he made due to his arrogance. By the time he reached Cutter’s breakout, he felt like vomiting.
The only upside was Catherine showed no judgement and never interrupted him. Julian stood there wearing a smug smirk. William didn’t dare look in Karl’s direction. It was his fault the man’s life had completely fallen apart.
He purposely left out Lance and Omar’s involvement. Assuming these people didn’t know about them, he saw no point in dragging them into it.
Just as he left out the specifics of what Cutter told him about Lyndria. The information she revealed about dragons was too dangerous to pass around blindly especially to people who were in the business of killing dragons.
When he finished, Catherine replied immediately.
“Well, William, I expected better from you. Cutter had you wrapped around her talon from day one. She used the memory of a dead dragon to threaten your family and blind you to any and all dangers.” She leaned towards Julian and added. “Make sure to write that down, it’s genius.”
“I believe the threat of Lyndria is real,” William said.
“Of course you do,” Julian said. “You’re a dead man if you’re wrong. But in all of your conversations with Cutter, did she tell you anything relevant? Or did she just string you along with the promise she would?”
William said nothing, knowing he already had his answer. The information was relevant to something he was unaware of and he was being strung along for entertainment.
Catherine turned to Karl. “And you? You just let him have free reign to endanger everyone there?”
“The only people responsible for endangering anyone are you,” Karl spat. “Do you have any idea—”
“Save the sermon,” she interjected in a bored tone. “I told you before: save it for someone with a bigger ego. Dragons have been oppressing humankind for centuries, it’s only right we return the favor.”
“Just because we worshipped them once doesn’t give you the right to treat like they’re less than nothing!”
Julien and Catherine burst into laughter. William tensed in his seat.
“Oh, you sweet summer child,” Catherine said. “You think this is about that? Well, you’re half-right at least. You see when worshipped dragons in the past, they made sure we served their needs both in life and death.” Catherine drummed her talon-like nails on the desk as if pausing for dramatic effect before continuing. “You see, the dragons were quite kind to those who worshipped them. Those who did not, however, served them in other ways.”
“And by ‘other ways’, she means they packed non-believers into camps to serve as food,” Julian finished, wearing a look of disgust. “That’s how the dragons ruled us. Through fear. You bowed or you were eaten. Those so-called ‘temples’ were nothing more than slaughterhouses for the non-believers, criminals, and the poor.”
“I don’t recall any records of this,” William said.
Catherine was quick to reply, “Well, of course, you wouldn’t. The dragons weren’t keeping records and too much human history was lost during the rebellion. Or did you actually believe we turned on our ‘gods’ simply because we felt like it?”
“Save it,” Karl said. “You’re in it for the money, nothing more.”
William grabbed the man’s arm and whispered, “Are you finished antagonizing them, or have you forgotten we’re prisoners here?”
Karl wrenched his arm free. “I haven’t forgotten. Just like I haven’t forgotten what the dragons did the moment they got loose. They bragged about how they were going to kill us. How they were going to make us suffer. Do you have any idea what’s it like to realize how helpless you are and at someone’s mercy?”
He glared at Catherine and Julian, a vein throbbing in the side of his neck. “It’s because of people like you. Good men died that day because of your greed. If the dragons learned what really went on in that prison, thousands more will die. All so you could line your pockets and grow fat on someone else’s suffering.”
Julian clapped his hands slowly. “Thank you for the speech, but we didn’t come here to debate ethics with you. You’re going to clean up the mess you made.”
“You mean put you back in business.”
“Call it what you will, you’re in no position to refuse us,” Catherine said. “If you don’t help, we’ll turn you over to the authorities.”
“Or we could tell them about your little operation.”
William glared daggers at the man. It took every ounce of strength not to leap over and strangle him.
She laughed heartily, pausing long enough to wipe her eyes. “And tell them what? And where’s your proof? The evidence was destroyed, your only witnesses are either dead or in the wind, so all you have is the word of a man desperate to avoid prison.”
“Or an execution,” Julian said.
“Regardless, you have nothing and we don’t need you to resume our plans,” Catherine said. “You’re only here because it would be faster to make you do it. Cheaper too.-”
“What would you have us do?” William asked quickly, cutting off Karl who leaned forward to retort.
“We’ll get to that,” Catherine said. She clapped her hands and two men entered the room. “For now, you two will rest until we have need of you.” She gave the tome and notebook to Julian who handed it to William. “In the meantime, you’ll make yourself useful and finish deciphering that. A translated version will fetch a much higher price.”
“How did you get this book?” William asked. “I can’t imagine you found it lying on top of the rubble.”
“It was given to us by one of our agents,” Catherine replied. “Good thing, too, or else it would be lost to the ages. Now goodbye.”
Suspecting, the conversation was over, William stood and headed for the door.
As he and Karl were led through the halls, his mind raced with ideas for his next move. The way things stood now, he was in a bad position. Their timing was strangely convenient as if they had been waiting for an opportunity to snatch them. Still, if they refused the tome and provided him with a chance to finish the translation; he wasn’t giving that up for anything.
Despite what they said, Lyndria was real and a real threat. He refused to believe otherwise.
Yet, he wasn’t worried. Even as he considered his options, a strange feeling of reassurance washed over him. Cutter’s words jumped to the front of his mind:
“Because you’re still useful.”
She was coming for him. Whatever she planned, he was a part of it, so she wouldn’t leave him alone for long. It never occurred to him he would find comfort in being someone’s pawn, but if he had to choose, he would rather be under Cutter’s thumb than Catherine’s.
The thoughts and conspiracies teased him until the guards stopped in front of a room at the end of the hall. The instant the door opened, the guards shoved him and Karl inside and slammed the door closed.
The room reminded him of a cheap hotel. It contained just enough for its occupants to be comfortable but nothing in the way of luxuries. Between the two beds and the desk in the corner, there was little room to maneuver.
“This is a mess,” Karl said. “What do we do now?”
William sat at the desk and opened the notebook. Its pages were a bit wrinkled from being handled roughly, but all its contents were there.
“I’m going to finish what I started,” he said calmly.
“And just wait for that bitch to summon us like a dog?”
“Unless you have a better solution.”
The silence told him plenty and he was glad to let the matter drop. It was welcome as he didn’t want the distraction from what he was trying to confirm.
What Julian said about the dragons eating the non-believers worried him. It wouldn’t be a surprise if a few dragons ruled that way, but if it were the norm, it could spark a huge controversy. There were still areas under dragon rule and those kinds of rumors floating around would be damaging.
But even reading over the tome it was hard to tell if it were written out of fascination or fear. Reading between the lines, Lyndria gave no quarter to her enemies and any who opposed her met with violent ends.
“So exactly is so special about that book?” Karl asked. “I don’t see how what some past group did is going to help us now.”
“The past is what gives insight into the future. Also, I don’t think we need to worry.”
“Because you have a plan?”
“Because Cutter and Lyndria do. Two of the most powerful dragons in the Geolga have an interest in me and I’m in the clutches of dragon traffickers. I doubt we’ll be here long.”
“And what makes you so sure?”
He closed the book with a sigh and faced the man. “Cutter said I was useful to her, and we both know she doesn’t like to leave things unfinished.”
Karl rolled his eyes and dropped on the edge of the bed. “So that’s it? We just give up and wait to be rescued?”
“Sometimes waiting for your chance is better than trying to create one. Catherine will send us out soon. We’ll have our opening then.” He turned back to the book. “So until that time comes, yes, I plan to wait.”
Silence fell over them again, so he dove into the translation in earnest.
Night had fallen by the time he looked up and realized he hadn’t taken a break. Karl had fallen asleep on one of the beds.
He decided to finish translating the current page and call it a night, but the final passage caught his attention:
There is none other that Lyndria respected but Cutter, the Forgotten One. But we shall not forget for it was through her influence that our goddess’s eyes were opened and she set on the path to claim her divine right.
He rubbed his eyes and double-checked his notes to ensure he wrote the correct translation. It still read the same.
His mind raced with all the implications that passage held as he rushed over to Karl and shook him violently awake.
“You have to hear this,” he said. He then read the passage aloud.
Karl sat up in the bed shrugged. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand why you’re so surprised. It makes sense that Lyndria and Cutter are working together.”
“This book is centuries old. Cutter met Lyndria during the Great Rebellion.”
His eyes widened at that. “She was there? But—are you sure it’s the same Cutter?”
“I don’t believe it is a popular name among dragons.”
“Yes, but you said, ‘the forgotten one.’ Everyone knows who Cutter is or at least heard of her. She isn’t forgotten at all.”
“That is an excellent point. Perhaps this was written before Cutter became famous?”
“It’s possible. What else does it say?”
“I haven’t translated further.”
Karl climbed out of bed and went to the desk.
“Then we should find out. It would explain why Cutter is so interested in that book. It contains her secrets.”
William nodded. This was something he couldn’t pass up. This would confirm if Cutter lied to him or not.
He supposed he wouldn’t be getting any sleep after all.