Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
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To MB and KL.
Thanks for Billie.
I am grateful for my family, my friends, and my agent, and to Lauren and Kate. I held
the keys to a wonderland. You encouraged me to open the door.
No time for formality, cousin. Forgive me.
My darling Caleb is dead. Jack and I have been imprisoned. Dr. Aster is obsessed with
learning how Jack was born naturally. Endless experiments and torture. He removed
one of my ovaries. My knuckles have yet to heal. He’ll cut off my hands if I fight
back again, but I’m tempted every time my little boy screams.
Those who’ve been ruined are sent to the Cages. Some never return. Reed, of our own
Clan Tigony, will try to escape before that fate. I hold little hope. He’s been driven
insane. One leg taken. No tongue.
Please help us! You lead the Council. I know we’ve had our differences, but to keep
punishing me will destroy the Dragon Kings. Aster guards the secret to our survival,
In love and faith of the Dragon,
he wasn’t in the lab. That’s all she knew. The smells were different. Fewer sterilizing
cleansers and less recycled air. More body odor. Piss and sweat. Dirt. Wet rocks.
Audrey opened her eyes and blinked. She pushed up onto her hands and knees. Pain banged
at her temples—the ache of still-healing blows to the skull and her own frantic pulse.
Lifting her head was an effort like swimming through wet cement.
Her fuzzy vision sharpened as she got used to the dim lighting. Just a pair of bare
incandescent bulbs. A humid mist hung heavy in the cavelike room. Even when her eyes
worked together, focusing, that mist ebbed away at details. She couldn’t tell where
the algae-covered walls began and ended.
The bars of her four-by-four cage were a prison. Solid iron. She lifted swollen hands
and grasped the cold metal. Frustration ate at her insides. Rattling the cage bars,
“Where is my son?”
At least in the lab, she and Jack had shared a cell. No bars. Only walls painted black.
Just as disorienting. But
that confinement had almost felt safe. She’d held her boy, thankful the darkness concealed
the worst of their wounds.
Now she had iron bars, algae, and a black pit where her heart had been.
“Where is he? Aster! You son of a bitch!”
The hair lifted on the backs of her forearms. As her heartbeat jacked, she noticed
her dirty body. Her vulnerability. She wore a paper hospital gown—no underwear, no
shoes. Had she been dragged straight from the lab? The last thing she remembered was
being strapped to an operating table after having slipped the note to Reed. A mask
had pumped anesthetic into her mouth and nose but she’d been hopeful for the first
time in months.
Maybe that explained her grogginess. From surgery to a Dragon-damned cave.
Now she wore a damping collar.
Her powers had never manifested. Giving birth to the first natural-born Dragon King
in a generation was the only remarkable thing she’d ever done.
She forced the distracting details away.
Look for a way out. A way to survive.
The iron bars were a lost cause, but the floor was pitted concrete.
With a crack in the corner.
Audrey picked where moisture had worn away a small crevice. Her fingertips bled. Aching
knuckles stretched shadow puppets along the wall. She wiped sweat from her forehead.
Her toes gripped for balance as she scraped harder, faster.
The steps echoed more loudly. Heavy. Determined.
Certainly male. His footfalls hit too heavily for a lean man. A bruiser. One of the
Aster cartel’s bodyguards. She didn’t stand a chance, but she kept clawing. Her breath
became hot steam in her lungs.
A piece of concrete about the size of her fist gave way. One pointed end had promise.
If she could strike just the right spot on the man’s temple . . .
She edged away from the bars until her spine pinched against the rock wall. After
twisting her long hair, she shoved it down the back of the hospital gown. She balanced
on the balls of her feet, ready to spring.
As a member of the Honorable Giva’s immediate family, she’d been instructed in martial
training from an early age. She’d never wielded the powers of her kind, and she was
seriously out of practice, but she was not helpless. The chunk of concrete rested
in her palm. It was the difference between dying—and dying while fighting.
A flashlight’s beam penetrated the recess of the cave. Audrey narrowed her eyes. She
watched through her lashes. The man had so many advantages. That realization should’ve
cowed her. Should’ve turned her backbone to mud and left her weeping. But after having
been a victim for more than a year—drugged, bound, helpless—she felt mighty. No manacles.
No hallucinogens. Just a rock in her hand and a blaze of pure rage.
The man stepped into clear view.
Easily more than six foot, he was built for breaking bones and ripping off limbs.
Brawn. Solid muscle. Powerful biceps. Plate metal covered his heart and vital organs,
leaving his arms free. Calf-high boots were made of toughened leather. Bare, muscular
with the slightest movement. But he didn’t seem the kind of man to make slight movements.
Everything about him was overwhelming.
His jaw was fixed in an expression she’d learned to recognize:
You will find no mercy here.
Audrey gave her flight instinct a hard shove. She pushed far into the shadows. Futile,
really, when he aimed the beam directly at her face. She squinted and kept her right
hand out of sight as the cage was unlocked.
“Disgusting,” he muttered.
“And you’re a traitor,” she spat in the language of the Dragon Kings. A language she
hadn’t used for nearly a decade.
Since meeting Caleb, she hadn’t given much thought to the old ways. Her happiness
as a human wife had been too easy. Too good to last. But long ago, the ways of the
Dragon Kings had been her entire life—the ritual and the covert power.
No matter her ostracism from her clan.
Years of rage came rushing back. The coiled ferocity in her legs exploded. She leapt.
The cage door swung open on hinges that squealed a rusted protest.
Not even the momentum of her leap shifted the man from his kneeling stance. He only
grunted. Audrey’s quick instincts brought that chunk of concrete up, up, in a violent
arc. Her aim was true. The jagged edge struck the side of his face. Another grunt.
Then Audrey was thrown across the room.
Her shoulder hit the ground, followed by her head. A cry ripped from her throat. She
slid three feet. Agony stabbed down to her marrow, as if pain had always been a part
of her body.
He’d simply . . . hurled her.
The big man needed only two strides to cross to where Audrey was sprawled. He stripped
the chuck of concrete from her hand and tossed it down the tunnel.
“Can you hear me, lab filth?”
The old language rattled in her brain. Words passed down from the blessed Dragon.
Nothing quite worked. Her lungs wouldn’t take in air. Something ground painfully in
her hip socket. She nodded out of pure reflex.
“If you ever attempt to strike me again, I will snap your spine in two. Think you
could recover from that? Our kind can endure a great deal—much more than humans. But
we’re not immortal.”
“Where is my son?” Only a rasp now.
“He’s better off dead. Now get up.”
He yanked her up under both arms and thrust her against a wall. Shots of fire spiked
her joints. She gasped as panic set in. She wanted to fight.
Yet just as when Dr. Aster had drugged her, or when her brain short-circuited because
of his torture, she could not.
That didn’t stop her from snarling and spitting.
Because he spoke the language of the Dragon Kings, he belonged to one of the sacred
Five Clans. But to actually work for that madman?
was the filth. Bile surged into her mouth.
“You’ve still got some spirit.” His muscles were tense, holding her immobile, while
his breathing remained calm. “I can see why Old Man Aster has plans for you. We’re
going to have quite the time.”
The flashlight had rolled across the ground until it illuminated her captor’s face.
Blood streamed down from where she’d gouged a ragged hole in his cheek. He was
smooth-shaven, and his black hair was shorn close to his head. Eyes the color of teak
were fathomless, unreadable. Dark lashes cast shadows along his sharp cheekbones.
A scar on his upper lip told stories of past battles. A damping collar encircled his
thick, muscular throat.
A tattoo of a serpent wrapped around the back of his head. The tongue hissed toward
one temple and the tail flicked toward the other. The Aster family symbol.
Realization settled ice in her belly. He was far deadlier than a brute from the laboratory.
Part boogeyman, part myth—he was a Cage warrior.
“The Aster cartel owns you now, lab filth. But they’re done with experiments.” His
scarred lip curled into a snarling smile. “You’re here to fight in the Cages.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Leto had not expected so much resistance from the woman. The prospect heated his blood.
For too long he’d only found satisfaction in preparing for the annual Grievance—the
ultimate prize for the most dedicated warriors.
Warriors like Leto.
Performing in monthly Cage matches was essential to keep his skills sharp. Training
Dragon Kings—called neophytes until they won their first fight—for those monthly matches
was a drudgery. Most were volunteers who had debts to repay. They rarely possessed
the true courage that deserved combat. Some were as weak and sniveling as humans.
Yet others went on to greatness. Leto had trained such victors.
His cheek was bleeding profusely. This nasty castoff from Dr. Aster’s lab had surprising
“You’re insane,” she snarled. “I’m not going in there.”
“Have you ever seen a Cage fight?”
She shuddered. “Of course not! They’re for barbarians.”
With a swift movement that had nothing to do with his Dragon-given gift, Leto spun
her. “Now is the time you listen. You believe me a barbarian, then believe my threats
aren’t idle. Your suffering won’t weigh on my conscience.”
“Because you have none.” With her cheek pressed against the damp cave wall, her words