Authors: Lindsey Piper
Tags: #Dragon Kings#1
“Maybe that isn’t such a welcome topic,” the doctor said. “I’ll leave talk of young
Jack for another time.”
More salt water against Leto’s hand. This was a torture he’d never experienced.
What was right? Dragon be, he couldn’t tell.
Dr. Aster smiled. “And you remember my companion, I assume?”
He turned to beckon a young woman forward. She
walked with slinking grace, moving with a cat’s animal ease. Only when she reached
Aster’s side and he snapped his fingers did she squat by his side. Her twisting elegance
was unnatural, if only because she retained an air of dignity even when kneeling.
She curled against the doctor’s upper leg, as if a part of his anatomy, not a separate
Leto’s interactions with Dr. Aster had been limited, but his contact with the Pet
was entirely new. He only ever saw her from a distance. She was the doctor’s constant
companion. No one knew who she was or how she’d come to be more animal than woman.
Dr. Aster’s voice was as deliberate as his slothful gaze.
She stood. An agile unfurling. Leto thought of petals opening—something his mother
had described. A blossom went from tight and closed to radiant and ready to receive.
In this case, to receive instruction from her master. She eyed Leto, then Nynn, but
everything about her posture said that her true attention was riveted to the doctor.
Beautiful, yes. But eerie.
Leto had never seen a Dragon King so pale. He’d never known it possible. She was white.
White like marble struck by floodlights. Her hair was just the opposite. Stark, incomprehensibly
black. Her eyes blazed green and gold. She wore clothes made of what looked like latex,
as black as her hair and as shining as her unsettling
skin. Elfin features. Narrow shoulders. Tiny, tiny mouth.
Rumors abounded about her.
Lobotomized. A failed experiment in the doctor’s lab. No one knew if she had a clan,
if she had a gift, or if she was even a true Dragon King.
Of all the rumors, Leto couldn’t believe in the possibility of a lobotomy. In contrast
to her master, her eyes were shimmering, keen, cagey. An unsettling aura pulsed from
her in chilling waves. She stared at Nynn. Stared outright. She even frowned—the touch
of a crease between her dramatic black brows.
“She hates you,” the Pet said to her master.
Leto half expected the doctor to smack her for such a blunt assessment. He only stroked
her nape. “Of course she does. And we’re not even through with the evening. Leto,
bring her with us.”
After taking a deep breath, he grabbed the chain that dangled between her arms and
pulled. Nynn was shrieking like a Pendray priestess. Long-forged habit demanded that
he exert his dominance, especially in front of Dr. Aster. Leto was their champion.
He did as he was ordered—but not with the violence he would’ve used on anyone else.
She stumbled as she fought his hold. He pulled her up and into his embrace, then tightened
Curses forged with fury and hurt were the most vicious Leto had ever heard—and he’d
heard the worst dying men could spew before taking their last breaths.
“Save your strength,” he whispered against her temple. He couldn’t save her, but he
could do as he’d always done: teach her how to survive. “Nynn, hear me. You’re going
to need it.”
It galled him to realize that was all he could do: offer her words. He couldn’t do
a Dragon damn thing but carry his neophyte toward the training arena. Two guards fell
into step with the doctor. The taller of the two pulled a Taser from his belt.
“Let go of her,” he said to Leto.
Reluctantly, enraged by the frustration that he could do nothing more, Leto dropped
the manacles and let Nynn slip to to her feet. The guard shoved her down and kicked
her in the stomach. She jackknifed. He wedged the sole of his boot between her shoulder
blades, then pushed the Taser against her left ribs. The Tigony could wield electrical
impulses, and even generate their own electrical currents by hauling energy out of
the air and amplifying it.
That didn’t mean they were immune to its effects.
Nynn screamed, vibrated, slumped. The guards hauled her off the floor, working together
until all six of them were locked inside the training arena. Leto was the last to
enter. Everything he’d known about life in the complex—his home—had changed in the
span of a few hours.
There, on the far side of the arena, waited the whipping post. As did Hellix and Fam.
“Dr. Aster, what is this about? She’s my neophyte. She makes her debut in two days
and needs her focus.”
The doctor looked over his shoulder, but he didn’t stop his deliberate walk toward
the whipping post. “She also tried to escape tonight, did she not?”
“She did.” Leto decided on complete honesty. No telling how Dr. Aster had learned
what he did. Lying would only hurt them both. “I dealt her punishment. That’s my right
as her trainer.”
“Oh, I saw your punishment,” the doctor said with a smirk. “Very entertaining. You’re
still reeling from that one. I know it. So close to taking what you wanted. Yet so
good and loyal, trying to teach her what’s right.” He looked down at Nynn, where she
slumped between the two guards. Nothing about the woman Leto had trained remained
in her eyes. “She’s very, very stubborn when it comes to learning lessons. Now it’s
Dr. Aster reached the whipping post. The Pet curled up at his feet, holding his calf
with one hand and the base of the post with the other, so feline and watchful. Unlike
the doctor, she didn’t smirk or smile, only assessed the scene. Leto found no hint
of judgment in her expression, or pleasure. Whoever—
—she was, the Pet was not a sadist made in the doctor’s image.
She looked up the length of the whipping post and exhaled. Leto barely heard her say,
Crystal clear memories still twitched across his back. He bore scars from combat—honorable
scars. He also bore shameful ones. Whip marks. Welts had lifted from strike after
strike of chains hurled at full force. Sometimes Leto’s trainer had administered punishments
for youthful disrespect. Sometimes it had been Leto’s own father, under orders from
the Old Man. Another lifetime, yet he was as helpless now as he had been at fifteen,
still learning what it would take to become a respected, respectful warrior.
The guards pulled Nynn forward. Hellix reached far
overhead and inserted a hook through a link from her manacle chain. Her toes barely
reached the floor, with her arms stretched taut overhead. Her collar pressed upward
on her throat. Sweat dampened her brows. The doctor grabbed a hunk of hair at her
crown. He lifted until her eyes were level. Leto had come to expect fight and fire.
Dr. Aster pushed the Pet from his leg and faced a selection of whips and chains hanging
from a pegged board. Perhaps the concealment of shadows had prompted the Old Man to
have the whipping post erected in that particular place—half hidden but visible enough
to send a shiver down the backs of any warrior who’d been chained to its unforgiving
In the center of the training arena, the Cage lights cast gruesome slices of black
and white over the doctor’s smile, one of pure anticipatory glee. Had Leto any reason
to suspect that tales of the laboratories were false . . . those reasons were gone
The doctor selected a thick whip. Three inches in diameter at the base. No more than
four feet long. Although it tapered to a point, the thickness would deliver as much
punch as sting. Aster tested the heft, but lifted his eyes as if to turn over the
responsibility. Why not? The Old Man had never delivered any of Leto’s whippings.
He’d liked to watch.
Leto was sweating. He had to make one more attempt. “Sir, I cannot whip her. She’s
to be my partner. This . . . She’ll never forgive me for something so extreme. Fighting
at her side will be impossible.”
For a moment, the movement of Dr. Aster’s sluggish,
measured gray eyes made him seem almost kind. Almost sympathetic. “That’s very logical,
Leto. And accurate. You won’t be the one to deliver this woman’s sentence.”
He handed the whip to Hellix.
Leto sprang. No calculations. No thought toward how his actions would affect his future
or his family. He simply couldn’t let Hellix whip Nynn.
He’d never made such a rash choice. He’d never seen a choice come to so little fruition.
One guard cocked a napalm pistol. The other hefted the recharged Taser.
They needed ten minutes and both weapons to take him down.
udrey woke up screaming.
She’d screamed for hours, even in her dreams.
Bricks of pain slammed down on her head. Fire like the lick of the Dragon’s breath
scorched her back, ass, and upper thighs. What must’ve been burns from the Tasers
nettled and itched—between her shoulder blades, down her ribs. One at the base of
She moaned. Her head was too heavy to keep upright. When she stopped fighting gravity,
she hit pitted wood with her forehead. Must still be the post—the whipping post where
agony threaded through every inhale, every shrieked exhale. Was the training arena
in near darkness, or were her eyes failing? Hard to tell past her mangled senses.
Moving, ever again . . . wasn’t possible. She hurt too much. That pain would never
A noise—the scuff of leather soles—pulsed panic across raw nerves. She moaned once
more, then fought,
to move. Manacles still circled her wrists. The chain would still be looped through
the ring at the top of the post. Drawing from reserves she didn’t know she had, she
dug her knees into the post. Flexed screeching
abdominal muscles. Tried to find a position that wasn’t just hanging by a chain. If
she could climb high enough, she might be able to release the chain from its loop.
She needed a weapon. Manacles would do.
Leto had been right. By accompanying Kilgore and trying to play his game, she’d volunteered
to be used. Maybe so many months in the labs had left that possibility open. Nothing
had been out of pride’s reach when begging for her son. She’d done unthinkable things
on the chance of some small reprieve. What was the difference, giving in to one more
That wasn’t her anymore. She wasn’t scared Audrey MacLaren anymore. She wasn’t even
some halfway-committed neophyte. Dr. Aster had handed a whip to Hellix, and the sick
sadist changed her life once again. Weeks of Leto’s training and his strange, twisted
faith in her coalesced around her pain and hatred. Making her new.
She was Nynn of Tigony. Fully. And she’d strangle the fucker who tried to touch her
Hoping for something other than hazy shadows, she blinked and kept blinking. She couldn’t
trust that the lights had been dimmed. But she’d fight near-blind if she needed to.
Up. Up again—two more pushes, with all the strength she had left. Another inch. Struggling.
No part of her body was free of agony, so it didn’t matter when the insides of her
knees became ripped and bloodied, pierced with splinters. Her palms, too, as well
as the inside grooves of her knuckles.
She reached the hook, the loop, the chance to hurt someone. It wasn’t going to be
Manacles and collar remained, but she was free of the post. She dropped to the ground.
Although her legs gave way, she held a low, crouching defensive stance. Both shredded
hands clutched the chain.
The shock of Leto’s low, hushed whisper was not as startling as the relief that followed.
“Where are you?” she gasped.
A light flickered on, far across the arena. The Cage waited between them. Slowly,
her eyes adjusted to that slight illumination. At least she wasn’t blind as well as
half-crippled. Small comfort, but she didn’t have any other kind. Any last softness
in her life had been crushed.
Slowly, Leto appeared. He walked with the same deliberation that shouted ego and attitude
and victory. But something was different. She stayed crouched low, watching. His pace
was the same. His balance was not. He favored his left leg—nothing so obvious as a
limp, yet she spotted the change. His shoulders, too. Tighter and set higher, hunched
almost defensively toward the lower band of his collar.
She waited. Stunned, really. She remembered . . .
He’d lunged at Hellix, or perhaps he’d even aimed his strength at the doctor. She
hadn’t known his target, and despite all of his courage and strategy for battle, she
doubted he’d known either. Just pure
. The memory of his fight materialized in full, grotesque detail. In the Cages, he
was unbeatable. That confidence allowed him to attack every opponent, knowing its
outcome in advance.
He had acted on quick, violent instinct.
had been his failing. Rage had given him the power to hold off the guards, but he’d
been an animal. No strategy, and none of the advantages a Dragon King had over humans—