Read Caged Warrior Online

Authors: Lindsey Piper

Tags: #Dragon Kings#1

Caged Warrior (5 page)

He shoved her away. Nynn landed on hands and knees on the padded floor. A coughing
fit arched her back.

“Fight me,” he said. “Or I get nasty.”

She held up her middle finger.

Another blink of speed. Another surge of power. He kicked her in the gut.

She clutched her stomach and clasped one hand over her mouth, as if she was ready
to be sick. The heavy supper would fuel her body. Eventually. Right now it was a hindrance.
He’d be impressed if she managed to keep it down.

“This will only get worse if you resist.”

With blond hair in disarray around her heart-shaped
face, Nynn glared at him. Fiercely. Her unearthly blue eyes took on the intensity
of a predator. Leto was surprised by the snap of primal awareness. Manhandling her,
watching her wash, hearing her beg—nothing had jolted him so strongly. Instead, it
was her outright defiance.

A killer instinct, with titanium behind it. A true warrior.

He had hoped for competence. Maybe even skill. The wrath in her expression was a bonus
that affected him physically. He would teach her, watch her win, and then he would
have her for his prize.

Shaking his head, he reminded himself that her training was his true goal.

Again, a blink. He moved with speed that could barely be seen, or so he was told.
He landed a punch against her right kidney.

“You freak! Give me a chance, for the Dragon’s sake.”

“You speak of the Dragon but you lived as a human,” he said, not even winded. “It’s
blasphemy.”

“I can’t help how I was raised.”

“Bullshit, as you say.” Leto leaned against the mesh steel. “You were cast out, I
assume. I can’t imagine he was worth it.”

She stood. Slowly at first. Knees unsteady. She lifted her chin. That killer instinct
had returned. Leto breathed in and relished the sight.

“He was worth everything I’ve endured, everything I ever will. And you’ve never felt
its like.”

Anger lifted in Leto’s chest. Almost pain. Almost shame. Because she was right.

Blink. Kick to the lower back. Scream.

This time she didn’t fall. She whirled on the balls of her feet. The blaze of her
silvery eyes caught with his. An uncanny glow stopped him cold.

Fireworks.

He tried to shake away the illusion, but it remained. Intensified. Thousands of fireworks
bubbled inside a concentrated circle between Nynn’s hands. Sparks. Pinging blasts
of flame were trapped in a sphere of energy that built and built—a balloon ready to
burst. Her face contorted. Sweat trailed down her cheeks. She shrieked with the fury
of a Pendray in the throes of a full berserker rage.

The bubble burst. Leto scrambled out of its path, but even he wasn’t fast enough.

Pure concussive force threw him against the mesh steel. He hit face-first and grunted.
He couldn’t hear. Had he landed on the brushed concrete of the genuine Cage, he would’ve
busted both kneecaps. With any more force, she would’ve broken every bone in his back.

He used the mesh steel to climb to his feet, ready to defend himself. But Nynn was
on her hands and knees, shaking.

He hadn’t expected her to leave her first Cage match with all four limbs intact. Part
of him hadn’t believed the pictures of Dr. Aster’s damaged lab. A hoax? An incentive
to challenge him? Yet Nynn possessed the most remarkable gift he’d ever witnessed.
She was a volcano bursting open and flinging burning, breakneck debris.

Nynn rasped, “What was that?” Then she sagged onto the Cage floor.

He staggered forward. His extraordinary senses returned.

From a corner of the arena room came slow, deliberate clapping. A shuffle and the
thump of a cane followed. Leto’s gaze sliced through the darkness. Entirely bald and
pushing eighty years, Old Man Aster emerged from the shadows. His maniacal grin carved
wrinkles into the pantomime of a clown’s smile. He was only missing the face paint.
His sallow complexion—after having spent most of the last five decades belowground—was
eerie enough.

No matter his value to the Asters, Leto was always disturbed by that warped, skeletal
appearance.

“I told you.” His voice was cultured, but scratched by his advanced age. “She’s amazing.
She’ll rival you one day, my champion.”

Leto straightened to his full height. Upon the raised floor of the Cage, he had the
higher vantage. That didn’t matter when staring into his master’s eyes. His pride
twitched. “Is that what you want, sir? For her to best me?”

“No, Leto. You are going to do what you do best: make our family very wealthy and
make me very proud.” He nodded toward Nynn’s fallen body. “To do so, you will fight
with Malnefoley’s cousin . . . as your partner.”

FOUR

P
artner. With her.”

“Yes, Leto.” The Old Man stroked a mustache as wan as his skin and as thin as his
hair. Had he not possessed piercing green eyes, he would’ve appeared an albino. “The
crowd grows weary of your successes. Betting has been poor—all in your favor. It’s
become a losing prospect for the bookies. Some have refused to take wagers on you.
The other cartels refuse to pit their best against you in a future Grievance, which
would exclude you from the games.” He grinned again with that warped joker’s smile.
“Apparently there exists the possibility of too much of a good thing.”

Indignation burned in Leto’s throat. To have his victories so insulted was something
he’d never imagined. Couldn’t comprehend. After the blow he’d suffered at Nynn’s hands,
the insult to his pride was too much.

A faint glow radiated from her body, even through her armor. The training arena took
on an eerie light. Her power shocked him. Stayed with him. A headache had burst across
his temples—the constant beat of unreleased tension.

He swallowed in an attempt to regain his patience.
He couldn’t argue with the head of the Aster cartel. Perhaps the facts could be plainly
stated.

“Sir, I’ve never fought with a partner. She’s an untested threat to herself and to
me.”

“My point exactly. She adds an element of uncertainty that you no longer possess.
The crowd will hold its breath and the exchange of coin will skyrocket.” The Old Man
thumped forward, near enough to touch the bars of the Cage. “You will do this, Leto.
I don’t care how you manage it. If Nynn of Tigony survives three matches, I will provide
your sister Pell with whatever medical care she requires.”

“For life?”

“What remains of it.”

Leto’s focus returned, as did a sudden lifting of his heart. He didn’t like the situation,
and rebellious thoughts doubted he could make it happen. But his purpose remained
as clear as the sunlight his mother had described to him as a boy.

“Pell has been under the care of my older sister and brother-in-law for many years,”
Leto said with a tight roughness in his throat. “My family would be very grateful
for the assistance. I will do this, sir.”

“Good.”

The Old Man thumped away—three sounds with each step. Step. Cane. Shuffle. Leto would’ve
recognized that pattern anywhere. His master’s cadence was nearly as familiar as his
own heartbeat.

Over his shoulder, the Old Man called, “I’ll return in the days before the match.
Arrangements will need to be made if you’re not ready.”

I’ll be ready.

To turn this woman—practically a human, but for her remarkable powers—into a fighter
would be nothing short of astonishing. What better opportunity to demonstrate his
prowess as a warrior? Three matches. Keep her alive. Then his comatose younger sister
would be protected forever.

Leto returned to where Nynn had fallen. Cropped, golden blond hair glimmered beneath
the floodlights that lined the Cage’s octagonal posts. She appeared asleep. Again
he was fascinated with her freckles. He’d never seen their like—light brown, not tinged
with red as with pale human women. He recognized that her stubbornness resided almost
entirely in her pert chin. That stubbornness disappeared while she rested. Flaring
brows gave her an exotic look, even among the Dragon Kings. Their women were perfection,
hewn of centuries of power and flawless genetics.

Perhaps that was why they could not reproduce. What if such perfection came at great
cost?

Leto was not the man to speculate.

“Wake.” He gave her a hard shove. “Lab filth. Get up.”

“I thought you’d decided on Nynn. Sir.”

He indulged in a tight smile because her eyes remained closed. “I did.”

Feathery gold lashes fluttered open. She assessed him in a way that belied her depleted
sprawl. “What happened? I’m . . . Shit, I hurt.”

“You don’t remember?”

“Light. An explosion. I thought you said you had speed and reflexes. You decide to
blow my head off instead?”

She truly didn’t know? Dragon damn, this was getting messy.

“Get up, or I’ll haul you out of here,” he said. “Your prickly pride wouldn’t like
that. Or I can introduce you to Hellix and his allies. They’ll be here to train soon.”

“Hellix?”

“A Pendray. He wasn’t trained for the Cages from youth, as I was. He was a criminal—a
rapist and molester of the innocent, including the daughter of one of the Old Man’s
backers. Hellix was sentenced to die in a Grievance.”

“But he survived?”

“He was
allowed
to survive after two straight hours of fighting. The Old Man thought his salacious
history made for a good story. He lost that backer but gained a novelty.”

“More about entertaining the crowds,” she said, dragging to all fours. “They sound
charming.”

“Hellix’s sycophants believe him a god for having dragged up from that low beginning.”

Her mouth drew into a crooked smile. “And here you made me think all Cage warriors
held hands and sang Boy Scout songs.”

Leto scowled and arose. He didn’t consider Hellix a warrior. When he thought of the
men and women he respected, he never included that monster.

“Stay, then. I regret that you won’t fare well.”

She held out her hand. “Please, sir.”

Surely a trick.

They were still inside the Cage, with their collars deactivated. He did not relish
taking two huge blows in such a short span. From a neophyte, no less.

As was common practice among their people, he assessed her body’s unspoken language.
Shaking legs. Unsteady
fingers. Sweat-slicked short strands of hair against her nape. Their gazes met, where
her icy pale blue eyes revealed her fatigue.

She was in earnest.

He pulled her to her feet. “Walk or be carried.”

Steps ragged, she followed him out of the Cage. She scratched at her forearms as if
energy bristled inside her body. A glimmer of that electric explosion still raced
through his veins, too. She was a wild creature hewn of untapped potential. He’d witnessed
her unflinching determination. The memory of it stirred him in disturbing ways.

He reached the training facility’s exit, having cleared his unwelcome thoughts, when
Hellix barged through. Three arrogant shits followed like puppies after scraps, although
they matched their idol in size and training.

Hellix’s hair was bright red, which contrasted with his darker skin and piercing blue
eyes. He bore scars on his face—from combat, of course, but also a brand in the shape
of a dagger on his forehead. Only the brand marred the otherwise handsome features
of a Dragon King.

“Leto. You look worse for wear, brother.”

Standing chest to chest, Leto dared not assess his own appearance. He hadn’t considered
the effect of Nynn’s powers on his armor and would reveal no such weakness now.

“You are no brother to me,” he said.

The monster’s keen appraisal of Nynn raised Leto’s hackles. “And who is this? Your
new project? I should fight harder in my matches. Whores and wealth are satisfying.
Still, I’d like to train a neophyte of my own. Imagine the possibilities.”

Leto needed to get Nynn out of there before things got ugly. She was barely able to
stand, let alone fight. Free of the rules of the Cage, Hellix never played fair.

Yet Leto couldn’t resist a pointed look at the puckered scar on Hellix’s forehead.
“Too bad. Forever banned, knife-branded scum. No neophytes for you.” He looked down
at the man he despised. “Now get the fuck out of my way.”

♦   ♦   ♦

Audrey watched the men square off. A primal shiver dusted her limbs with goose bumps.
Fear? Curiosity? Or worse, anticipation? She’d never seen such a contest in the making.
That she could respond on such an instinctual level was a surprise.

But then, everything inside her felt changed. She couldn’t remember what had happened
in the Cage, only that she still ached. Her body was jittery. Her lower jaw trembled.
The ends of her fingers tingled as if she’d stuck them in a light socket.

Why do I feel like there’s a tiger in my skin? And what the hell happened to his armor?

But how to demand answers from a man who had more in common with a brick wall than
a sentient creature?

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