Read Caged Warrior Online

Authors: Lindsey Piper

Tags: #Dragon Kings#1

Caged Warrior (6 page)

Any interrogation would need to wait. This contest was more immediate. Audrey’s senses
were supercharged and buzzing. She took in every nuance.

“Seems you’re in
my
way, champion,” Hellix said, sneering the last word. “I suggest you step back.”

“I don’t think so.”

“So rude. What of your legendary honor?”

Hellix really was repulsive. His body and his features
were as appealing as any of their people, but his lips twisted in a way that set off
her defensive reflexes. He exuded a cocky, malevolently violent nature.

And that brand. What did it mean? Audrey couldn’t look at it without cringing.

Leto’s expression was a hundred times more condescending than he’d shown her. Maybe
it was a small mercy to know he held some people in even lower regard.

“My honor doesn’t apply to men who have none,” he said.

“Yet you work without question for our master.” Hellix flashed an arrogant smile.
“You’re none too smart, my friend.”

Leto unleashed a low growl. His fists bunched like hunks of steel at the ends of his
corded forearms. Audrey’s view of his back was impressive. The leather straps holding
his damaged armor did little to conceal a patchwork of old scars across rippling,
tense muscles. Those muscles made her stomach watery. Taut tendons at his nape were
all the more impressive because of his closely cut black hair. She could practically
see him twitching with eagerness for the standoff to explode.

The effect of witnessing a commanding man on the verge of savagery was undeniable.
Her breath was strong and fast, just like her heartbeat. Her own fists were at the
ready. She would back Leto if matters came to blows—bizarre, considering their inauspicious
start. The odds weren’t in his favor, and she was smart enough to recognize any ally.
She squeezed her fingers even tighter, hardly daring to exhale. Her only desire was
to leave with her body and brains intact.

That meant leaving with Leto.

However, a very deep, surprising part of her wanted to see him pound the shit out
of Hellix.

The allure of oncoming violence stuck a blade of betrayal between her ribs. Audrey
was a thinking, civilized woman. She had valued logic, books, long conversations with
Caleb about history and politics. He’d teased her for making her way through Shakespeare’s
plays in chronological order.

This
was fascinating on an elemental level.

Only then did she notice that Leto had angled his body between her and Hellix. Intentionally?
She didn’t dare believe it. Her tormentor-cum-ally had kicked her in the guts. Repeatedly.
He’d dragged her by the hair and watched her dress. Only shards of his conversation
with the Old Man helped make sense of his protective stance.

She was valuable to him.

Their postures coiled with menace. “I await our next contest,” Leto said, his voice
impossibly low. “Just as I await a repeat of the last outcome.”

Hellix’s mask slipped for only a second. Beneath the posturing was shame. Audrey wondered
if she’d have noticed it before what had taken place in the Cage. The acuity of her
senses was amplified. Although Hellix hid it quickly, she was certain Leto had also
caught that moment of doubt. No wonder he could stand in the face of Hellix’s hulking
body and fierce scowl. Shame could be as debilitating as pride or fear.

Leto seemed a master at exploiting weaknesses.

Hellix laughed, as if none of it mattered. “One day I’ll throw you down. I’ll sever
your head from your body and you’ll leave this world.”

“If you even came close to earning a place in the Grievance, I might take that threat
seriously.”

“You arrogant—”

“I’ve earned my arrogance.” Rather than push the physical tension, Leto stepped back.
The gesture from any other man would’ve seemed like retreat. His condescending expression,
accented by the silver scar on his upper lip, said otherwise. He owned the moment.
“You boys need the practice. We’ll leave you to it.”

He took Nynn’s clasped hands in one of his and tugged her through the cluster of savagery.
“Oh,” he added, meeting the eyes of each of Hellix’s cronies. “The Old Man is here
today. Not a bad time to try impressing him—unless impressing Hellix holds more meaning.”

Hellix’s men were surprisingly susceptible to Leto’s ploy. They broke into overtly
masculine trash-talking and slapped one another like football players before a big
game. Their interest in Leto and Nynn dissipated in a breath. Hellix remained a fuming,
intimidating barrier, but even he didn’t stop them from exiting.

Instead, he took control of what resources he had left: the men who’d abandoned him.
“Come on, you shit stains. Get in that Dragon-damned Cage.”

Audrey didn’t look behind her as Leto’s grip was replaced by the guard’s manacles.
Her exhale was pure relief. The incident added new layers to her situation. Being
trained by a fool or a sadist would only get her killed. Now, she trusted Leto more
than she would’ve thought possible upon waking that morning.

Morning. What a joke. She had no idea whether the sun shone, or the moon instead.

“How did you know he would back down?”

Leto walked ahead of her with long strides. He cast an assessing glance over his shoulder.
He seemed to do that most frequently when she used logic rather than mindless hysterics.
Not the best first impression she’d ever made, but screw it. Anyone who’d suffered
in Aster’s labs would’ve behaved the same way.

“I’ve lived in close quarters with Hellix for six years,” he said. “I’ve never seen
him strike first.”

“And the others? No concern?”

His impressive back gleamed bronze beneath the corridor’s fluorescent lights. “My
skills are not limited to the Cages.”

“I’ve seen that much.” She ran a hand over her raggedly shorn hair. She wanted a mirror,
if only to even out the damage he’d done. Or maybe to see herself as he saw her. “Brawn
seems to be your lifeblood. I’d like to survive, thank you very much. That means learning
from you.”

He chuckled so softly that his lips barely moved. The sound was as throaty and scarred
as his voice. “I’m not going to need to break you.”

“You sound disappointed.”

“Maybe.”

Something close to amusement hovered in his glittering black eyes. Even with the fluorescent
glare and the strange brightness of her senses, she couldn’t be sure. She’d forgotten
how many subtle human emotions were cloaked among the Dragon Kings. Facial expressions
were generally placid and restrained—the better to keep the Five Clans from slaughtering
each other millennia ago.

Living among human beings, she had learned to
smile and laugh and cry with abandon. She had learned to express what she felt. Here,
that was a dangerous weakness she would have to unlearn. Otherwise, every ploy and
intention would scream across her features.

More thefts. Now I can’t even laugh or cry.

“I don’t doubt you’ll find new ways to keep me in my place,” she said quietly.

“An invitation if ever I heard one.”

His scant smile was Audrey’s first glimpse of the man behind the armor. She hid a
smile of her own. Women possessed advantages that balanced obvious vulnerabilities.
From the dawn of time, they’d latched onto the biggest and strongest males. Safety
among alphas. Out among humans who’d layered civility over old instincts, she would’ve
been appalled at such a thought.

Leto was the alpha she needed in order to survive. To get her son back. To make the
Asters pay.

The guards returned them to Audrey’s cell and locked them both inside.

Leto leaned against a damp wall and crossed arms that bulged with sculpted muscles.
Everything he did led back to the Cages. Be the best. Save his family. But he was
incurably brainwashed by the Asters. He was part of the system she was going to burn
to the ground. Only when it came to surviving the matches did their goals align.

“Are you going to tell me what happened in there?”

He lifted his brows a fraction. “With Hellix? You were there.”

“No, in the Cage.”

Hard masculine features shifted into an expression of . . . confusion? Disbelief?
“You really don’t remember?”

“I damn sure remember you kicking the crap out of me.”

Audrey dared to approach him, which she wouldn’t have hours before. The energy buzzing
in her blood was like a venomous toxin, but she didn’t feel sick. Only different.
More radiant, although that word didn’t make sense. People weren’t
radiant
. That was the stuff of cosmetics commercials and descriptions of brides in wedding
white.

Still. She couldn’t deny that she’d come away changed. Whether that was good or bad
would have to wait.

Within arm’s length, she touched his blasted armor—a burnt edge of leather and flame-curled
iron. His chest remained concealed, but the pitted metal and singed padding were exposed.
The champion had been bested.

She preferred him whole and shielded. Powerful. Useful.

More potent.

“But I don’t remember this,” she said. “What did this much damage?”


You
did.”

“No way. I told you, my gift never manifested.”

“Don’t make me repeat myself, neophyte. You blew a hole in Dr. Aster’s lab. That’s
how the Old Man found out about you, and that’s why you’re here.”

Flickers of memory pushed through. Fire. Lightning. Pain and rage fused into energy
she couldn’t control. She wanted to protest, but she was too uncertain to contradict
Leto’s outrageous claim.

That’s how Reed escaped.

How had she forgotten? She’d unleashed chaos enough for him crawl to freedom. In her
previous memories, he’d simply . . . gone.

The truth remained stark. Her hopes were no stronger now than when rage had given
over to a burst of power she couldn’t remember unleashing.

Instead, she was left with a new truth. She had a gift from the Dragon.

She’d become reconciled to her lack. Dragon be, she hadn’t lived among her own kind
for years. Now she recalled kinship, deep roots, and matched instincts. It should
have been a joyful realization. Only, Audrey was ready to vomit. Sick, shadowy fear
clenched inside her chest. She sank to the damp floor and leaned against one of the
algae-covered walls. Eyes unseeing, she fought to remember just as hard as she fought
to forget.

“We start again tomorrow,” Leto said. “Sleep now.”

The sound of the clanging gate echoed through the dank space. Audrey barely noticed.
She pushed her fingers against her temples. Something was there, lurking in her mind—something
dark and terrifying and ready to erupt.

FIVE

T
he letter is the most important development we’ve had about the cartels in a decade,”
said Malnefoley, the Honorable Giva. “You refuse to acknowledge it.”

Sath Wisdom sat forward in her chair. “Watch your tone.”

He whirled his gaze toward the seemingly ageless woman. “What did you say?”

She pressed her hands flat against the meeting table hewn of wood older than memory.
It, like everything else in the Fortress of the Chasm, was storied and inviolate—a
functional memorial to the creature that had given life to them all. Even their robes
were hundreds of years old, sewn from heavy black cloth and accented with each clan’s
color. Copies of copies of copies of those worn by the first Council of the Five Clans,
when Sath, Tigony, Pendray, Garnis, and Indranan bridged their divisions to secure
an armistice that had kept the Dragon Kings strong for millennia.

Only the Sath knew their people’s entire history. They kept secrets they weren’t meant
to hide, just as they took powers that weren’t their own.

“You heard me, Malnefoley,” Sath Wisdom said with
narrowed eyes. “You won’t get anywhere by bullying us into submission.”

For the sake of harmony and, more important, as a means of keeping his temper, Mal
didn’t call her on the obvious slight. His family still called him by his given name.
To everyone else, he was the Honorable Giva—the only one of the Council to wear robes
of endless black. No clan color. Senators relinquished their identities when they
assumed their positions, the better to secure nonpartisan consensus. Two came from
each clan. The old women were referred to as Wisdom for their sagacity and maternal
patience, while the impetuous men were dubbed Youth for their spirit and eagerness
to go to war.

Checks and balances, with the Giva as their fulcrum.

Of all the senators, Sath Wisdom was his most formidable opponent. She was a Thief.

No
.

She was Sath. That she challenged him at the start of their twice-annual assembly
was not a good sign. It was not a Giva’s place to resort to name-calling, and with
what he had planned, the meeting was only going to become more contentious.

Outside their mountaintop Tibetan shelter, a snowstorm raged as if it would wake the
Dragon from its forever sleep. Snow swirled against the wall of glass tempered in
the deep fires of the Chasm. Unbreakable. Shimmering and golden. Only its unknowable
properties kept them safe from the force of a Himalayan blizzard.

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