Read Caged Warrior Online

Authors: Lindsey Piper

Tags: #Dragon Kings#1

Caged Warrior (8 page)

“The Council spoke of the devil, so I appeared. I
am
Tallis of Pendray. I assumed you’d want to have a little chat.”

Everything about him, from his posture to his words, was laced with sarcasm. He radiated
an impression of complete disregard. He was a man who didn’t care about a thing, not
even dying. As with any Dragon King intent on blending into the world at large, he
wore inconspicuous clothing—a pair of black jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt layered
with a black sweater. The casual, almost sloppy disregard for fashion was meant to
detract from, not accentuate, the classically handsome features of their people. His
hands were in his pockets, as if interrupting the Council’s twice-yearly meeting was
as common as going to a cinema.

Shock and curiosity layered in the Council meeting room like smoke twining with clouds.
Despite having brought the man to the fortress, Mal held no respect for the Heretic.
The man’s list of crimes was nauseating. “Tell us, then. How did you come by Nynn’s
letter?”

“You’re near to the general idea of it,” Tallis said. “Which is impressive for a Council.
Well done.”

Mal gritted his teeth. In the midst of fighting ten recalcitrant senators and the
slow-wash tide of extinction, this bastard was testing the last of his patience.

“Yes, there exists a collection of rebels who refuse clan associations. They found
the letter. Reed of Tigony wasn’t a kilometer from the Asters’ complex when he froze
to death. They’d known its general vicinity.” He chuckled softly. “Only when your
cousin blew the roof off the lab did they know for sure. Reed escaped in the aftermath.”

“You dare laugh about this?”

“Save it, Giva. You need them to hear what I have to say. I was willing to deliver
that letter when none of the rebels could. Anonymity is their great asset. My asset
is to become anonymous when I will it.”

“There are other rumors.” Mal stepped forward. He lifted his chin and prepared to
kill a fellow Dragon King upon Tallis’s next answer—not there in the Fortress of the
Chasm, but wherever the deed needed to be done. “There are rumors you killed Nynn’s
husband, then handed her and her son to the Asters.”

Tallis stared at Mal, emphasizing their impasse. Under the flippancy was a flicker
of something deeper. Flash and gone. “Funny things, rumors.”

“But you
are
a killer.”

Tallis nodded.

“Tell me why we shouldn’t keep you here and force you to stand trial? Or, more fittingly,
return you to the Pendray who despise you?”

Pendray Youth practically growled his agreement with that idea.

“They do hold grudges, my beloved clan.” He shrugged. “But you, Giva, would rather
believe me in hopes of saving Nynn.”

Mal felt as if he held the weight of his people in his hands. The entirety of his
race depended on his next decisions. Luckily, his great weakness was an overabundance
of tenacity, not a lack of resolve.

“Nynn and her son are in pain,” he said. “For now, for me, that is enough. With all
due respect, senators, I’m adjourning this meeting. None of us are leaving until we
reach a consensus. Take action against the cartels? Ignore them and hope Nynn’s fate
is a single event?
Follow this man’s lead? We owe our respective clans the answers they’ll surely demand.”

The crackling energy in his blood could stay. It was the purest part of him, giving
him strength from inside out, providing a reminder to remain stronger than his gift.

“Take the night,” he said, his words spoken with deep confidence. “Take days if need
be. Find it in yourselves to put away this petty bickering and lead our people. It’s
your Dragon-damned duty and I expect nothing less than your full cooperation.”

He turned to the Heretic. With a flick of his wrist, Mal signaled the guards to take
him into custody. “As for you,” Mal said, “I will listen to what you have to say.
I may even accompany you to a stronghold—the Asters’ or otherwise. But first you will
answer every question I have about my cousin.”

SIX

A
udrey was exhausted—body, mind, soul. But she couldn’t sleep.

She lay on the rugged ground and stared at irregular shadows distorting the depth
of her cell. Training room, he’d called it. Sleeping quarters. She knew better. Bars
and keys meant imprisonment. A breath of free air had not been hers in more than a
year. Each one she drew was tainted with acidic pain. Helplessness should’ve become
part of her after such demoralizing captivity.

It
had
been.

She’d nearly given up in the labs. Another few months, maybe weeks, and she would’ve
done anything to end her life. And Jack’s.

Every morning, she’d wondered if murder-suicide would be better than another day of
torture. She was scarred, inside and out, but she could place blame where it belonged.
A child, though . . . Jack wasn’t even six. He would never outgrow this cruelty.

In the end, Audrey’s survival instinct had been too strong. Over and over, she’d decided
to give them one more day. One more chance. She hadn’t been able to abandon hope.
She’d cursed it almost as often as she
clung to it—almost as strongly as she’d clung to her little boy.

She was swathed in darkness once again, yet she wasn’t holding Jack. No slight warmth.
No soft breathing when he finally drifted toward dream. Not that his dreams were without
trauma. Even there he was not free. His nightmares broke her heart.

She’d rather have a broken heart than empty arms.

Her back ached. Regret and uncertainty were parasites digging into her mind. She was
to become a Cage warrior. The decision whether to release Jack from that misery was
no longer hers. Instead, she would free him and rebuild their lives. She had the power
to make it so.

You blew the roof off Dr. Aster’s lab.

She no longer needed to wonder why she’d been plucked from one hell and deposited
into another. New questions sprouted.

How?

Since when?

And why this dread in the pit of my stomach?

Every part of her body hurt. Her scalp burned where Leto had dragged her across the
floor. Her arm creaked where he’d yanked it behind her back. Her gut cramped where
he’d kicked her. The energy beneath her skin stung with pain close to pleasure. At
least this pain had purpose.

Audrey curled into herself like an infant in a bassinet. Only by remembering long-ago
Tigony techniques for calming her restless mind did she finally feel the warm blanket
of sleep.

For a moment.

A key rattling at the end of the sloping corridor
roused her with a start. Noise meant danger. She was on her feet in an instant. Cold
made her clumsy. She wobbled, focusing beyond shadow after charcoal shadow. Yet her
muscles responded with surprising grace. The aches had eased. She buzzed with the
need to move.

“Awake so early?”

She flinched away from the sudden spark of the two bare lightbulbs. But even that
disoriented sense returned more quickly. Had releasing her powers done something?
Maybe it was nothing more than shedding the sluggish hopelessness of Dr. Aster’s lab,
but she doubted it. She wished she could remember or understand. Then she might feel
more satisfaction, and banish the queasy, lingering dread. She didn’t have time for
unknowns.

Leto stood half a dozen feet away. He wore similar armor, but this set was free of
damage. His right shoulder was covered by alternating layers of metal and leathers
of different thickness and texture. The other shoulder was bare. Striated muscles
flexed and shifted with every small movement. Biceps, forearms—even his hands. He
was the most impressive man she’d ever seen. Something out of an impossible fantasy.
Darkness and intensity. Vigor and power. A pulse of purpose surged in constant waves
from his magnificent body, potent enough to feel against her skin.

A man in control.

A man who needed her.

That she could be of any importance to such an intimidating mountain of skilled, deadly
brawn almost made her laugh.
No way.
For Dragon’s sake, she’d clipped coupons and taken Jack to Mommy and Me swimming
lessons. She was no warrior.

Her amped-up body and sharpened senses said otherwise.

She had no chance at survival, let alone rescuing Jack, if she didn’t transform into
something like Leto of Clan Garnis.

She nodded toward the small crisscross of surgical tape, where she’d pierced his cheek.
“The bandage doesn’t suit you.”

“Then don’t strike me again.”

“I’m going to land as many blows as possible.”

The heavy bag he dropped at his feet sounded overly loud in the cell. Two shields
followed with twin clangs of steel against rock. “You’re in a mouthy mood. No breakfast.”

As if spurred by the mere mention of food, Audrey’s stomach chose that moment to rumble.
The guards at the end of the tunnel could’ve heard it. Leto’s smirk twitched.

He walked through her small cell like a god. There was no other way to describe his
stride, his straight back, his proud shoulders. He moved with refinement despite the
weight of each step. After kneeling before the large leather bag, he pried it open.
Metal. Gleaming metal of all shapes and sizes. Each piece shone with deadly purpose.

Dragon-dark eyes lifted to meet hers. “First, we learn materials.”

One by one, he introduced her to the weapons available to them in the Cages. A machete
and a mace. A wicked dagger and a sickle. Even something that resembled a metal skull.

“I don’t understand,” she said once he finished. “You
haven’t mentioned anything more about what may be a mystery Dragon-born gift. And
now you’re teaching a course on Medieval Weaponry 101.”

“Your gift needs to be developed. But even a warrior in complete control cannot rely
on it. During a match, an arbiter controls the Cages. With the flip of a switch, our
collars activate again. Survival becomes a matter of blood combat. That means working
with steel and martial arts—even if your pyrotechnic display was impressive.”

“And completely gone from my memory.”

“Another problem, yes.” He leaned closer. Breath against skin. Lips near enough to
brush her ear. They never did. “My job is to make sure you can survive those random
minutes when our powers won’t mean a Dragon-damned thing.”

Audrey shivered. Her body was already edgy with an energy she couldn’t control. To
feel Leto’s warm skin so nearby added another layer of sensation.
Want.
She tried to push it away. She called it a betrayal against the husband she still
missed with every heartbeat. Yet the craving for physical contact was undeniable—contact
that didn’t mean pain and fear. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the
heady power of his scent.

Feeling out-of-body, she reached to pick up the metal skull.

Leto snatched her wrist and glared. “Do you take me for a fool?”

“How am I supposed to learn to use them if I can’t touch them? Tell me, at least.”

“It’s a
nighnor
. Are you really so ignorant of our ways?”

“I’m sure circumstances have taught us very different things. Can you read?”

“Yes.” His mouth pinched tightly. “My mother taught me. She taught me many things.”

“And when was the last time you were aboveground? The last time you saw the sun?”

His subtle glare intensified, but his tension was more evident in his shoulders. “How
is that important?”

“I’m just curious what you barbarians learn down here, other than ripping out spines.
And besides, a
nighnor
is the ceremonial weapon of the Sath.” She felt pleased at having taken him by surprise.
Again. “You forget. I was raised among the Tigony. That meant years of learning our
lore and rituals. I don’t know how to use it, but I know what it is.”

He hefted the
nighnor
. “Your turn to tell me. Prove it.”

“Each one is ancient, from the time when the Sath ruled as Pharaohs. They’re said
to be the heads of men who denied the superiority of the first Dragon Kings. The fearful
made the Sath into gods rather than suffer the same fate.” Her stomach knotted for
reasons other than hunger. “Coated in iron. Lacquered and polished over the years
to add luster. But beneath the metal is bone. Some ancient peasant’s skull.”

Leto shrugged. “So they say.”

“Let me touch it. Sir.”

“That’s not a question.”

“Forget the mind games, remember? You need me to learn.” Their gazes met. “More than
that, I think you want me to.”

The set of his jaw became as ruthless as the skull he
held. Metal over bone. “Do not assume anything about me, neophyte.”

“How can I not? We know the stakes. Give me the damn thing and teach me how to use
it.”

“No lunch either.”

Audrey huffed a breath. “You
are
dense. Even Dr. Aster fed me. ‘Keep up your strength, Mrs. MacLaren,’ he always said.
‘More work to do tomorrow.’ ” She stood and glared down at the strongest man she’d
ever seen. “You can’t harm me,
sir
. Not like he did. So get on with what we know needs to be done.”

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