Read Caged Warrior Online

Authors: Lindsey Piper

Tags: #Dragon Kings#1

Caged Warrior (40 page)

“But why?”

“Something about the Chasm.” He frowned. “But also something about keeping the children
safe.”

Nynn flinched. “What children?”

“All of them,” the Pet said. “In the labs. I saw which would survive whole of mind
and body, and which would not. Then . . . decisions were made.”

Hark scowled. “Dr. Aster doesn’t hold the secret to conception?”

“No, but he never stopped looking—to the misfortune of those housed here.
I
bought him time.”

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Nynn whipped across the hallway and caught
the Pet around the throat—a throat unblemished by any collar. Sparks and flickers
of white-hot light shot out from where their skin meshed. “You helped perpetuate this
horror.”

Although she gasped for air, the Pet’s green gaze was unapologetic. “Your Leto knows
about slavery. He’s not the only one.”

“Where is Aster?”

“Helicopter.”

“He left you?”

“I
stayed
. I’ll be hunted now. Unless . . .” With a grimace of a smile, she showed off brilliant
white teeth in tiny, even rows. “Will you kill me, Nynn of Tigony? I’ve seen it both
ways.”

Doubt stilled Nynn’s wrath. Could she kill a woman who had done nothing more concrete
than stand at Aster’s side? She’d believed Leto a useless, brainwashed thug. There
was no telling what the Pet had done to survive. She could be as guilty as the sadistic
doctor, or as innocent as a child born to the dark life of the Cages.

The decision wasn’t Nynn’s to make, not with Mal there. She exhaled, relaxed her grip,
and let the woman go. The Pet didn’t flinch or dart away. She only tipped her head,
retaining her deliberate means of moving—a woman as fluid as water.

The dark-haired Pendray stranger who’d cleared the way through the guards caught up
with them. “If you want to strangle the little freak, let’s take her with us.”

“Tallis,” the Pet said evenly. “How interesting to see you here. Nynn deserves an
introduction before you run again.”

Nynn caught his eye. He flinched. And looked away. That eerie feeling of familiarity
covered her skin like a fast-growing mold. “Tell me.”

The stranger swallowed and met her gaze for the first time. Head proud. Chin lifted.
“Nynn, your father was named Vallen of Pendray. He was my older brother. And I owe
you a debt beyond words.”

“Yeah, we don’t have time for that,” Hark said. “I’m Sath, remember? Borrow a little
here and there? This green-eyed girl is a soothsayer, which means right now I’m seeing
a big ball of flames and very crispy Dragon
Kings. Couldn’t tell you why, but she doesn’t think this building has much of a future.”
His attention flicked to a chuck of wall just behind the Pet. “And I don’t think it’s
because of the Giva.”

Nynn grabbed the Pet and swirled to one side, where Hark protected them both with
the bent shield. Concentrated blasts of lightning scraped through the whitewashed
inner walls. Mal ripped through marble and cinder block like shredding a paper towel.
The blasted, blackened hole was large enough for her cousin to step through.

Leto followed . . . holding Jack.

Nynn leapt to her feet with a cry that was nearly a scream. She snatched her boy from
Leto and crushed him to her chest. She smoothed his hair back from his dirty face
and kissed him. Again and again. With a sense of disbelief making her shiver, she
buried her nose in his hair and inhaled past the lab’s sterile stench. Jack.
Her Jack.

“Baby, oh, by the Dragon.” She breathed his name, like a mantra against the madness
of having nearly lost him. She would never know his suffering. But then, he would
never know hers. Perhaps they could protect each other that way.

“You told me never to swear by the Dragon.” His voice sounded different. How could
she have forgotten its timbre? No, this was different. Darker and artificially mature.

“There are exceptions.”

Wariness clouded eyes so much like her own, which shone with a golden tint. “You’ll
explain all of it to me.”

“Yes, baby,” she said with a shiver. She pulled him
close again and met Leto’s gaze over her son’s shoulders. “Thank you.”

She recognized distress in Leto’s dark eyes. They were narrowed so tightly that his
lashes nearly touched.

“What is it?”

“This building.” He glanced at Jack, then closed his eyes.
Set to explode.

Nynn flinched as if burned. Not just the tickle of his voice in her brain, but the
terrorizing words he delivered. “We could leave. Snowmobiles. The Sath borrowing your
gift.”

Silence and the Indranan woman from the snowmobile stepped through the hole. Together
they supported an unconscious woman. Her head lolled at an angle that suggested she
hadn’t had control of her muscles for a long time. No resistance at all.

“Meet Pell,” Leto said quietly, helping them lower his sister to the ground. “And
there are dozens more, Nynn. All of Aster’s test subjects. We can’t make it out—not
all of us. Even with my gift, I don’t think I could move that quickly. If Silence
is right about the detonator, we have roughly twenty minutes.”

“Is that why the guards have gone?” She shook her head. “And the alarms. When did
they stop? Everyone who could flee has already left.”

“Including the other telepath,” said the Indranan woman.

“Ulia?”

“Gone with Aster.” The Pet still sat on the hunk of sheet metal Hark had used to protect
her from Mal’s blast.

Leto stepped to within inches of Nynn. “We could
leave,” he whispered. His damp breath feathered over her lips. She couldn’t be sure
if he spoke out loud or into her mind. The sensation that had been unnerving with
Ulia was comforting from Leto. “You and me. Jack and Pell. I could get the four of
us out. The Sath could take care of themselves.”

“And the others? And those who’ve suffered?”

He nearly shrugged—so slight. “I’ve never fought for anything but my family.” With
a glance toward the fair-haired boy Nynn still clutched, he added, “That means both
of you now.”

Nynn’s heart jumped at the chance. Her family. A new family. Safe and away from this
place of nightmares.

“I haven’t seen this one either,” the Pet said without inflection.

As if caught stealing, Nynn blushed. Her skin flared hot, then frigid cold. She met
the gaze of each person in that blasted corridor. Mal and the dark-haired stranger.
The Dragon Kings who’d come to their aid. Even the Pet and the Sath couple. That didn’t
take into account the men and women—the children—who’d suffered at Aster’s hands.

She wasn’t a soothsayer, but Nynn saw her future.

She nuzzled her son’s hair and drew in a breath, then kissed him. “Take him. Keep
him safe, as I know you would’ve kept me safe for the rest of my days.”

Mal stepped forward in the wake of Leto’s confused silence. “Nynn, what is this?”

“You know what I can do. I take the energy from the air and make it mine. I own it.
This detonation will be no different.”

She said it with the confidence of a woman who
knew her place in the world. She’d always envied that confidence when watching Leto
in his element. Now it was hers—not the serpent she’d imagined when filled with Ulia’s
twisted intentions. No, this was a destiny she’d never imagined. She would save her
new family and these precious few Dragon Kings.

“I won’t let you do it.” Leto’s rough, battered features bunched around an expression
of fury.

She touched his cheek. “You know there’s no other way.”

“I’ll stay, too,” Mal said. “I can help absorb the energy.”

“The Honorable Giva? No way.” She quickly kissed his cheek. “Our people need you.
I understand that now.”

Mal’s head bowed. She’d never seen him humbled, but maybe her awkward forgiveness
held that power. If for no other reason, she was glad to have said it.

Hark was the first to move. He and Silence lifted Pell between them. “Twenty minutes
isn’t much time, people.”

“Out.” Mal’s voice held all the authority of his station, plus that added punch of
charisma and assurance he’d possessed even as a child. “All of us. We need to escape
the blast radius and take as many of the prisoners with us as we can.”

The group mobilized. Nynn slipped through the hole in the cinder block wall. She wanted
to take Leto’s hand, but he held his crude weapons at the ready. His profile was grim
as they ran side by side. She cradled Jack’s head instead. She remembered his weight,
the cadence of his breathing, his shivers of fear—and she held on
tighter. The time she had to hold him close was coming to an end.

She sobbed against the side of his head.

She’d been mistaken all along. She held her boy—the child she had conceived in love
with her dear, murdered Caleb—and she was still fighting for him. That didn’t mean
she would be the one to raise him. The realization shot spikes through her chest and
pierced her heart.

Leto growled at her side. “I know what you’re thinking, Nynn, and you’re wrong. He’ll
never be alone. And neither will we.”

THIRTY-TWO

I
have to do this,” Nynn said, her throat pinching shut. “You know there’s no other
way. If the worst happens—”

Leto’s expression was black with fury.
“No.”

“—then Jack will still be safe. Dozens of lives in exchange for one Dragon King? Our
people are so scarce. This is taking advantage of the odds. Other warriors like Weil
may still be alive down underground, too. And what if I can save this place from the
worst of the destruction? No matter how he acquired the information, or what he did
with it, we need to learn what Dr. Aster knew. Tell me I’m wrong. Deny me any of this.”

Leto stopped with a sudden jerk, took her by the shoulders. “You made me see you and
hear you and feel you because you were so Dragon-damned stubborn. Now you want to
leave me.”

“I don’t want to!”

“I’ve seen the snow and the sun now, but without you, I’ll live in the dark forever.”

She inhaled sharply.

His every hardened feature was pleading—pain-filled eyes, a compressed mouth, nostrils
flaring in that
way she knew, when he was trying to hold on to his temper. “I need you, Nynn.”

Never, not ever, had she expected to hear such a thing from him. Her stoic teacher
and her tender lover. But those words spoke of a desire for forever. She would’ve
honored him in a heartbeat had she trusted any promise she could make in return.

They were close enough to a hallway that she remembered. Small doors. Small chambers
to trap the most powerful beings on the planet and keep them meek. She heard pitiful
sounds and whispered, fearful words, which meant Leto heard them, too.

She released the back of Jack’s head and twined her fingers with Leto’s. “They need
us and they need you,” she said, huddled into Leto’s waiting embrace. “
I
need you . . .” Her voice clogged with tears in her throat. “I need you to be with
me on this. I can’t do it any other way. I can’t leave you and leave Jack without
knowing you were proud of me. I’ll go down fighting, Leto. Nothing you’ve ever taught
me will have been wasted.”

That got to him. She could see it take hold behind the eyes she’d taken so long to
read. He swallowed tightly, and she was oddly gratified to be able to see his Adam’s
apple bob. Such a small gift: his bare throat.

She touched it with fingertips still shaking, although her resolve didn’t waver. A
strange calm had overtaken her, even as her heart shattered. So much of life she would
never know.

One for the many.

“They still wear collars, Leto. They deserve to survive and know what it is to have
their gifts returned and to feel that beautiful pain for the first time.”

Leto leaned close and brushed his lips against hers. “This, my brave girl.
This
is beautiful pain.”

My brave girl.

His words became her new mantra. She could save Jack but she could not keep Leto—only
his quiet, stoic benediction. With one more kiss, when she gathered his taste on her
tongue, he stood upright. He still wore the ceremonial onyx-tipped armor that made
him larger than life. A god. The warrior who would raise her son.

As Leto turned to lead the others in their tasks, she trailed her fingers across the
back of her son’s hand. Then his softness was no longer hers to touch. Jack began
to call for her, reaching back from over Leto’s shoulder. Against her son’s frightened,
suddenly incoherent sobs—sobs that nearly shook her to cowardice—she watched them
go.

I’ll come back for you
.

She wanted to protest the words Leto whispered in her mind, but he and Jack slipped
completely out of view.

♦   ♦   ♦

Leto scooped up two thin, unresisting patients and slung them over his shoulders.
He raced into the vast cold, cursing the disappearing sun and the snow he’d quietly
longed to see. None of it mattered now. Just the people he ran to safety. He could
move fast enough. He could get them all out. He could save Nynn, too.

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