Lyndria awoke to the smell of horses, making her stomach rumble. Horse meat was hard to come by and not many were willing to go so far away from the swamp to get it. Definitely one of the sweeter meats for her.
She flicked her tongue again and smelled a dragon nearby and snapped her eyes open. She was surrounded by wooden walls. Not far away lay Madrin curled on the floor.
Lyndria leaped up and checked on her sister. Madrin was breathing but one of her legs had been wrapped in brown skin that smelled funny. Panic overtook her at the thought of the unknown disease that had claimed her sister.
She nuzzled her sister until she slowly opened her eyes and smiled. “You’re awake. “She stood and nuzzled her. “When I found you passed out, I was so scared.”
“You found me? So you brought me wherever we are?”
“Uh huh. Timothy calls it a barn.”
“My friend. He’s the one who took care of you.”
Lyndria looked her body and saw not only had her scales been cleaned but she had the same patches of strange skin on her. She began clawing at it when Madrin stopped her.
“Leave it on. It’s okay. It’ll help you get better.”
The idea sounded strange, but she trusted Madrin. Naïve as her sister was, she wasn’t stupid and knew a dangerous situation when she saw it.
“Have you been here this whole time?” Lyndria asked. “I’ve been worried sick about you!”
Madrin recoiled from the outburst. “Sorry. I ran into some human hunters. They use strange attacks called guns. I couldn’t even see them.” She shuddered. “I would’ve died if Timothy hadn’t come. He killed the humans and saved me.”
“And you didn’t think to let the clan know you’re okay?”
“Well, Timothy said I had to stay here until I was fully healed. If my wounds aren’t treated properly, I’ll get an infection.”
Lyndria swore under her breath. These guns were dangerous. A long-range attack that couldn’t be seen was going to be annoying to deal with. Lucky for her, she was used to ambush when hunting. Using smoke screens was effective against all manner of creatures.
Her sister’s voice brought her out of her speculations. “You…ran into humans looking for me, didn’t you?”
“Don’t worry about it. I took care of them.”
Madrin’s eyes widened. “You killed humans? But what about their guns?”
“They’re nasty little shits but they need to be able to see you.”
She nodded and stared at the floor. Something was on her mind.
Before Lyndria could ask, there came a sound behind them. Lyndria whirled around with a snarl, planting herself between Madrin and the interloper. A thin human with very short hair stood there with his hand raised. In his other hand was some kind of box. Hanging off his shoulder was one of the strange sticks Lyndria assumed was the “gun” her sister mentioned. If she hadn’t seen it in action, she would be hard-pressed to think something like that was a threat.
Judging from his expression and stiff movements, something was wrong.
“And your sister is awake,” the human said, exasperated. “This is the last thing we need right now. Actually, scratch that. It might be a good thing.”
Lyndria didn’t relax her stance. “Who the fuck are you? And what are you talking about?”
“That’s Timothy,” Madrin said. “I told you about him.”
“Sorry, we’ll have to introduce ourselves later. Right now, there’s people outside. I need you to stay here and don’t come out until I say it’s safe. Madrin, you know what to do if the worst happens.”
He hurried back out without a word.
Lyndria tilted her head and looked at her sister. “What is he talking about? This isn’t your first time here is it?”
Madrin’s fins flattened against her head as she replied, “No. I’ve known him for a long time now.”
“So what’s the plan if the worst should happen?”
“He wants me to run into the trees. He says the guns are less likely to hit me.”
Lyndria had more questions but getting a handle on the situation came first. She approached the wall the human used to leave and found a hole that let her peek outside.
The human Timothy stood near more humans. She recognized two of them. It was the male and female she encountered before. She couldn’t hear them, but whatever they were talking about, Timothy looked uncomfortable, and they kept motioning in their direction.
“Madrin,” she whispered. “We gotta go. The humans out there are the same ones I attacked when I went looking for you.”
“What? But what about Timothy?”
“He’ll be fine. The humans aren’t attacking him. Now we gotta go.”
Madrin nodded and went to the other side of the room. She opened up another part of the wall, leading to the outside. Lyndria sampled the air, for any signs of humans nearby, but they were downwind, forcing her to rely on sight and sound. She didn’t see or hear anything, so she assumed the coast was clear.
Once the door closed, however, she saw a human standing on the other side. Judging from his scent, he hadn’t reached adulthood yet.
They stared at each other, unmoving. Lyndria hoped this human was actually blind and couldn’t see them, but the slow widening of his eyes told her that wasn’t the case.
His words broke the paralysis. Lyndria pounced on him. The sudden movement aggravated her injuries, but they needed to keep him quiet. The human collapsed under her weight and she went for his throat before he could scream. A loud bang erupted next to her head. She jerked to the side, her ears ringing.
She saw Madrin speaking to her, but her sister’s panicked expression told her more than enough.
The other humans would have heard that and were coming.
She rushed back into the barn. Their best chance was to take advantage of the opening now and deal with them before they could organize. She had one shot assuming the humans hadn’t moved from their positions. If they had spread out or she was too slow, she was dead.
She continued her charge through the barn and burst through the other side. Immediately, she opened her maw and expelled her flames where the humans stood. Her stomach roiled and her throat felt as if she had swallowed teeth, but kept the flames going until the screaming stopped.
It seemed she had gotten all the humans except Timothy who lay on the grass nearby. His face was wet and pale as he stared at the charred corpses and burning wooden objects few feet away.
Madrin ran alongside her. “Lyndria, what are you doing?”
“Saving our asses. Those humans were going to kill us.” She turned to Timothy and added, “You have good reflexes, human. I wasn’t aiming for you but I’m glad you got out of the way.”
“They didn’t hurt you did they?” Madrin asked.
“No. But they made it clear they weren’t leaving.” He stood up, his hands trembling. “They said a dragon had burned their homes. That was you.”
Lyndria leered at the man. “What of it?”
“Nothing. To be honest, I didn’t like them much. But killing them all is a bit extreme.”
“Next time I’ll ask which one of them wants to die.”
“Lyndria—” Madrin began.
“Save it. I wasn’t going to let them kill you or me. End of discussion.”
She snorted and turned away. Seeing those humans again drove the point home the situation they were in. If those humans could find this place, so could Delour. She wouldn’t put it past the traitor knowing about this place already. Even if Delour didn’t know Madrin was alive, she didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the opportunity to finally be rid of them. The risk of running into another dragon from the clan was always going to be there. Once word got back to Delour, their safety would end.
They had nowhere to go. Going back wasn’t an option, not after Thelan had been sent to kill her. The moment they went back, there would be questions and if anyone suspected what happened, things would get worse.
There was only one hope for peace. Delour would never be satisfied to share a world with them in it. She had to kill her.
William stretched and yawned. The lack of windows made it impossible to tell what time it was and he had left his pocket watch in his room, but he suspected it was likely approaching morning. “I’m surprised to hear a dragon plan to go rogue and defy the clan laws like that,” he said. “I thought dragons regarded those values quite highly.”
“Just because we follow the rules doesn’t mean we like that shit,” Cutter replied. “You’d be surprised how many dragons go rogue, but no one really hears about them. Usually, because they don’t live long.”
“And the Matriarchs don’t wish to look weak.”
“A leader who can’t keep their people in line isn’t a leader.”
“Neither is one who inspires with fear and hatred.”
Cutter smiled. “And yet everyone fears those who are stronger than them.”
There came a knock on the door, followed by the guard’s voice. “Lord Delcat, the warden wishes to see you.”
“Looks like story time is over,” Cutter said. “Hey, when you come back, you mind bringing some water? All this talking makes a girl thirsty.”
William nodded and left the cell. On his way to the cell, he reflected on the latest update. It seemed Madrin was a huge influence on Lyndria. Her sister mattered to her more than anything. It was dangerous, but she could be an effective piece to bring into play as a failsafe against the worst. But those kinds of tactics didn’t sit well with him. Until he learned of Madrin’s fate, it was a moot point anyway.
He noticed the route they were taking didn’t lead to the elevator. “Where are we going?” he asked the guard, trying to keep the fear from his voice.
“To see the warden, sir.”
The hall was scarce on guards and William noticed there were fewer rooms as well. He tried to tell himself he was in no real danger, but the thought wouldn’t leave his mind. Lyndria’s spy could be leading him to his doom right now. He wondered if he should make a run for it and call for help. No doubt Harold filled the halls with his men who would be under orders to ignore him.
His best chance was to walk into the potential ambush and hope for the best.
The guard stopped at one of the doors and opened it. William hesitated before going inside.
It was another cell, but instead of being empty as he feared, three guards had their weapons trained on a Green Crested Genial. A dragon with dark-green scales lay in the middle of the floor. Blood poured from his downturned muzzle as a low whine filled the room.
Harold stood in front of the dragon, a smug grin on his face. Next to him was a metal tray filled with bloody dragon teeth and a pair of pliers.
“Ah, Lord Delcat,” Harold said, still facing the genial in front of him. “You arrived just in time.”
The emphasis on his title didn’t escape his notice just he knew why he was brought here instead of the office. It was a scare tactic to remind him of his position in this place and a display of Harold’s authority. Seeing Harold didn’t put his mind at ease. He would have rather take his chances with the spy.
But he refused to give Harold the satisfaction of getting under his skin. “If you brought me here to administer first-aid, I’m afraid there is nothing I can do,” he said calmly.
“Oh, him? Don’t worry. Dragons heal quickly, he won’t bleed out. No, the reason I brought you here is because we need to talk.” He removed a pair of bloody gloves and dropped them on the tray. “Visiting prisoners late at night, wandering the halls in the middle of a lockdown, bringing in outsiders, ordering my guards about—”
“I gave no orders,” William replied calmly. “And the ‘outsider’ I assume you refer to is a good friend of mine who was severely wounded.”
“This is a prison, not a hospital. We can’t take in every tired and wounded traveler who passes by.”
He clenched his jaw and said nothing.
“We have rules here for a reason, Lord Delcat.” He pointed to the dragon who flinched at the movement. “Take that drake for example. He thought it would be a good idea to bite one of my men during feeding time. Now he has only six fingers.”
“I’m truly sorry, but you know what they say about an eye for an eye.”
The warden smiled and motioned to the guards before steering William towards the door. “Very true which is why he gets to keep his toes. But we made sure he won’t biting anyone else ever again.” The cell door closed behind them with an ominous clang, leaving them alone in the hall. “I understand we have our differences, but I am not your enemy. The rules are in place for your safety. It would be in your best interest to follow them.”
“Or I lose my toes? You’ll have to do better than that if you wish to threaten me. I have the most dangerous dragon in Geolga after my life. I have very little time or patience for games. Speak plainly. What is it you’re after?”
Harold chuckled. “Threaten you? Please. I do not need to threaten you. And this Lyndria is nothing but a ghost. And you’re right, I should speak plainly. The games end now. You and your colleague will be leaving today. Your things have been packed and a carriage is waiting outside to take you home.”
That was not what William expected even without Lyndria’s followers watching the roads, he couldn’t leave yet. “Harold—”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take over the investigation into this Lyndria character for you. I have an expert who specializes in this sort of thing. I’ll be sure to share my findings with you.”
“Someone who specializes in torture you mean. And all roads to the prison are being watched. You can’t--”
Harold waved him away. “Call it what you will, Lord Delcat. You have no authority here. Now don’t worry about your safety, I will be sending you with an armed escort. They’ll see you safely to the next town. Now if you’ll excuse me.”
William cut him off. “We had an agreement!”
“That was before people started dying.”
“As if that matters to you! The only thing that worries you is that you didn’t order their executions. Just tell me what it is you’re after!”
Harold grinned which made William angrier. He wanted so badly to smack the smile off his face. “Well, Lord Delcat, it seems you’re in a very dangerous situation. This Lyndria or whoever she is wants you. I could go along with my plan to kick you out and feed you to her or you can stay under my protection.” His grin grew wider, nearly splitting his head in two. “Of course, that requires doing as I ask.”
“What do you want?” William asked through clenched teeth. It never occurred to him that Harold would use this to his advantage. And with Lyndria blocking communication with the outside, he no longer held any leverage.
“For now, I want you to return to your room. I will contact you with further instructions later.” The cell door opened, and the guards entered the hall. “These men will escort you back to your room.”
William glared at the man before storming down the hall. He wished it had been an assassination attempt; that would have been easier to deal with.
The moment he turned the corner, one of the guards grabbed him. He felt a hand slip into his pocket.
“Don’t go wandering off,” the guard said.
William wrenched free. “I know where I’m going.” He didn’t dare check his pockets and risk agitating the man further. The other two guards showed no indication of coming to his defense if things turned violent.
He made his way back to the elevator without incident. Karl was already inside the elevator. He steered William inside and said to the guards, “I’ll take it from here.”
Once the doors were closed, Karl said, “Did you get the key?”
“Key?” He patted his pockets and found a wax key that wasn’t there before.
“Good. You have no idea how hard it was to make a copy of that. It unlocks a door in the back of the storage room. Warden Vesper always seems to want to meet me whenever I go anywhere near it.”
“Thank you. I’m glad to see you took initiative.”
“I’m not stupid, Lord Delcat. Also, your friend is awake. I had him moved to your room for now. He’ll be safer there.”
William nodded and examined the key. On the bow was a carving in the shape of a draconic eye with a capital L for the pupil. He returned the key to his pocket and cut a glance at Karl.
He would have smiled if it not for the precarious predicament. He needed not to let him know, but he suspected that was the point. They had an agreement and he had to honor it, spy or not. That and the guard-captain had already proven to be his best ally whether he liked it or not. William needed him to gain leverage over Harold.
The elevator stopped on a level William didn’t recognize. Before he could ask any questions, he was shoved forward into the hall.
“You have 15 minutes before the guards show up. Make sure you’re on the elevator by then.” He pointed to the floor. There was a chalk marking on the border between the wall and the floor.
William watched the elevator leave, feeling more foolish by the second. It all made sense now. Lyndria anticipated his every move. Ever since he found the tome, he had been a pawn in her game. Of course, Jefferey was the only person who could decipher it and Cutter was likely the only other dragon alive who knew her story and was within reach. And he let his arrogance trick him into thinking she would be scrambling to get ahead of him.
Now that he thought about it, Lance was the one who suggested the prison. He wanted to take Cutter to one of the safehouses.
He quickly pushed the thought out of his mind. The moment he began doubting those closest to him, she won.
A clanging sound rang through the hall, paralyzing him. That was the elevator. He wished he had his watch with him, but 15 minutes couldn’t have passed already. He stood there for a moment, listening for any signs of approach. Only silence answered so he shrugged it off as nerves and moved on.
The markers were easy to follow and spread out enough that they weren’t suspicious unless someone knew to look for them. As he delved deeper into the hall, more questions sprouted. What did Lyndria want with him? Was Karl acting alone or under orders? How did he miss the signs? Why didn’t he realize it sooner? He recalled every meeting with guard-captain but nothing stood out.
It presented a useful opportunity. If he could get Karl to join him, he would finally have a link to Lyndria. But first, he needed to determine if the man was loyal or not.
He reached the last marker, pointing to a basic wooden door. Testing it revealed it was unlocked so he quickly entered the portal.
The door led to a storeroom, packed with shelves and crates filled with preserved foods. There was enough food to last for months.
He made his way through the maze of shelves until he found the back room Karl mentioned. This one was blocked by a much heavier metal door. The wax key fit inside the lock and William entered and turned on the lights.
He immediately wished he hadn’t and fumbled about in the dark. The room was small but it was lined with shelves. On the shelves were jars and boxes containing what he assumed were dragon parts. He felt sick thinking about the number of dragons harvested.
“I knew you were depraved, Harold, but this is extreme even for you.”
The idea made his stomach roil, but he needed to search for evidence. The existence of this room wasn’t enough. He needed evidence implicating Harold. A small desk jammed into the corner was piled with papers. Examining the papers revealed they were prison records of the dragons harvested. Written in the margins were all the parts taken from each one.
William folded a few sheets and placed them in his pocket. It was damning, but not enough. At best, it made the warden seem incompetent which wasn’t good enough. Before he would have settled for having him fired but seeing this made him realize he wanted Harold ruined. That man couldn’t get a job as a doorman when he was through with him.
Sifting through the rest of the papers, he found a hastily scribbled note:
I just learned that Cutter is coming to my prison. Just imagine what she would sell for! She would probably sell for three times a much alive, but I can’t promise anything. She’s a Matriarch and they don’t break easily. And the man who is having her brought here is an entitled bastard so until he’s dealt with I’ll have to be careful. I’ll deal with him when the time comes. In the meantime, I need you to line up a buyer before word gets out. If everything goes to plan, I’ll have her heart in a jar by the end of the month, just in time for the next shipment.
Also, about that other thing we discussed, I checked the blueprints but there’s no mention of a secret room under the prison like you suggested and no I won’t tear the place apart looking for it. Whoever gave you that tip likely had a good laugh.
A wide grin spread across his face. “I have you now, Harold.” He folded the letter and stuffed it in his pocket then left the room. He then locked the door and quickly made his way back to the elevator.
By his estimate, he still had time before the guards arrived, but he was cautious all the same. The last thing he needed was to be caught now.
He turned the next corner and froze. There was a streak of blood on the floor. At the far end of the hall, he caught a glimpse of something sliding out of sight. He immediately backed around the corner and flattened against the wall.
There shouldn’t be anyone else on this floor. So far as he knew, Karl was the only one who knew he was here, but it made no sense to give him the key and lead him to Harold’s storeroom just to kill him.
He figured he could worry about the identity of the interloper later. Getting back to the elevator took priority. The attack was at the far end of the hall. The route to the elevator was halfway between them. If he moved quickly, he should be able to get back unnoticed.
He peered around the corner and stared straight into a pair of yellow eyes.
“Sir! William, snap out of it!”
William started at the voice. It surprised him to see Lance standing in front of him. It surprised him to see he was no longer in the hallway but back in his room. Omar lay on the bed. Even wrapped in bandages, he looked more like the intimidating giant William remembered.
“I…I…don’t know what happened.” He felt lightheaded and needed to sit down so he slid to the floor. “The last thing I remember was… Thinking about it made his head hurt. He remembered the storeroom and Harold’s letter but everything after that was a blur.
Lance kneeled beside him. “You walked in here in a daze. Your eyes were unfocused as if your mind was elsewhere.”
“It looked a lot like those drakes when a Matriarch Calls them,” Omar added.
“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no record of it ever working on humans and there are only drakes in this prison.”
“What about Cutter?”
“She is locked in a cell isolated from everyone else.”
“I’m glad to see you’re doing well, Omar,” William said, hoping to end the argument before it heated up anymore. “But should you be moving about in your condition?”
Omar shrugged then winced. “I didn’t get a choice. After I woke up, your guy brought me here. I heard about our situation. Damn dragon is smarter than I thought. To pull off something of this scale this fast—she’s been planning this.”
“Yes, she has,” William said. “And I know why.” He pulled out the papers he swiped from the storeroom and the wax key Karl gave him. “I’ll explain everything after I’ve had some water.”
Thankfully, there was a pitcher of water in the room already which he drank half of before feeling satisfied.
He set the pitcher down then explained everything that happened; Harold’s threat, Karl’s key, and what he learned from the storeroom. He left out the trip back to the elevator, which he didn’t remember, and the others didn’t ask anyway.
When he finished his story, Lance and Omar looked disgusted as a silence fell over them.
Lance spoke first. “What are people going to do with dragon organs?”
“Easy. Experiment on them,” Omar replied. “We get lots of requests from collectors and psychos who want us to hunt a dragon so they can have its parts. Researchers trying to learn what they can or fools who think eating a dragon’s heart will make them live longer or they fix their impotence with its semen.”
Lance frowned. “Are people really that desperate?”
“You obviously never left your wife dissatisfied.”
“Regardless, we have the means to shut down his operation once we get out of here,” William said. “What we do know is that Lyndria will keep us alive until she has it. Until I can find a way to use that our advantage we should continue with the plan.”
“Actually, sir, I have an idea. Why don’t we eliminate Harold now?”
William’s eyes widened. Lance was no stranger to violence, but he only responded in the face of a real threat. “Do you know what you’re suggesting?”
“As long as he’s alive, he’s a threat. Not just to us but the dragons in this prison. No matter what crimes they committed, they don’t deserve this fate. It will take weeks to get this information in the right hands and for action to be taken. Harold could easily cover his tracks by then.”
“I agree,” Omar said. “Everyone’s looking this spy which gives us the perfect cover.”
“If we kill him, Lyndria will have nothing to focus on.”
“And if we don’t, he’ll force our hand anyway. Harold truly believes he has the situation under control and that letter proves he has no intention of letting Cutter leave alive, and by extension, us as well.”
It was a valid point, but it still didn’t sit right with him. It shouldn’t be up to them to decide to execute someone even if his actions were deplorable.
“I…I need to think on this.”
“Don’t think too long,” Omar said. “He’s not going to wait while you figure it out.”