She wasn’t in the lab. That’s all she knew. The smells were different. Fewer sterilizing cleansers and less recycled air. More body odor. Piss and sweat. Dirt. Wet rocks.
Audrey opened her eyes and blinked. She pushed up onto her hands and knees. Pain banged at her temples—the ache of still-healing blows to the skull and her own frantic pulse. Lifting her head was an effort like swimming through wet cement.
Her fuzzy vision sharpened as she got used to the dim lighting. Just a pair of bare incandescent bulbs. A humid mist hung heavy in the cavelike room. Even when her eyes worked together, focusing, that mist ebbed away at details. She couldn’t tell where the algae-covered walls began and ended.
The bars of her four-by-four cage were a prison. Solid iron. She lifted swollen hands and grasped the cold metal. Frustration ate at her insides. Rattling the cage bars, she shrieked.
“Where is my son?”
At least in the lab, she and Jack had shared a cell. No bars. Only walls painted black. Just as disorienting. But that confinement had almost felt safe. She’d held her boy, thankful the darkness concealed the worst of their wounds.
Now she had iron bars, algae, and a black pit where her heart had been.
“Where is he? Aster! You son of a bitch!”
The hair lifted on the backs of her forearms. As her heartbeat jacked, she noticed her dirty body. Her vulnerability. She wore a paper hospital gown—no underwear, no shoes. Had she been dragged straight from the lab? The last thing she remembered was being strapped to an operating table after having slipped the note to Reed. A mask had pumped anesthetic into her mouth and nose but she’d been hopeful for the first time in months.
Maybe that explained her grogginess. From surgery to a Dragon-damned cave.
Now she wore a damping collar. But why? Her powers had never manifested. Giving birth to the first natural-born Dragon King in a generation was the only remarkable thing she’d ever done.
She forced the distracting details away. Look for a way out. A way to survive. The iron bars were a lost cause, but the floor was pitted concrete.
With a crack in the corner.
Audrey picked where moisture had worn away a small crevice. Her fingertips bled. Aching knuckles stretched shadow puppets along the wall. She wiped sweat from her forehead. Her toes gripped for balance as she scraped harder, faster.
The steps echoed more loudly. Heavy. Determined. Certainly male. His footfalls hit too heavily for a lean man. A bruiser. One of the Aster cartel’s bodyguards. She didn’t stand a chance, but she kept clawing. Her breath became hot steam in her lungs.
A piece of concrete about the size of her fist gave way. One pointed end had promise. If she could strike just the right spot on the man’s temple . . .
She edged away from the bars until her spine pinched against the rock wall. After twisting her long hair, she shoved it down the back of the hospital gown. She balanced on the balls of her feet, ready to spring.
As a member of the Honorable Giva’s immediate family, she’d been instructed in martial training from an early age. She’d never wielded the powers of her kind, and she was seriously out of practice, but she was not helpless. The chunk of concrete rested in her palm. It was the difference between dying—and dying while fighting.
A flashlight’s beam penetrated the recess of the cave. Audrey narrowed her eyes. She watched through her lashes. The man had so many advantages. That realization should’ve cowed her. Should’ve turned her backbone to mud and left her weeping. But after having been a victim for more than a year—drugged, bound, helpless—she felt mighty. No manacles. No hallucinogens. Just a rock in her hand and a blaze of pure rage.
The man stepped into clear view.
Easily more than six foot, he was built for breaking bones and ripping off limbs. Brawn. Solid muscle. Powerful biceps. Plate metal covered his heart and vital organs, leaving his arms free. Calf-high boots were made of toughened leather. Bare, muscular thighs flexed with the slightest movement. But he didn’t seem the kind of man to make slight movements. Everything about him was overwhelming.
His jaw was fixed in an expression she’d learned to recognize: You will find no mercy here.
Audrey gave her flight instinct a hard shove. She pushed far into the shadows. Futile, really, when he aimed the beam directly at her face. She squinted and kept her right hand out of sight as the cage was unlocked.
“Disgusting,” he muttered.
“And you’re a traitor,” she spat in the language of the Dragon Kings. A language she hadn’t used for nearly a decade.
Since meeting Caleb, she hadn’t given much thought to the old ways. Her happiness as a human wife had been too easy. Too good to last. But long ago, the ways of the Dragon Kings had been her entire life—the ritual and the covert power.
No matter her ostracism from her clan.
Years of rage came rushing back. The coiled ferocity in her legs exploded. She leapt. The cage door swung open on hinges that squealed a rusted protest.
Not even the momentum of her leap shifted the man from his kneeling stance. He only grunted. Audrey’s quick instincts brought that chunk of concrete up, up, in a violent arc. Her aim was true. The jagged edge struck the side of his face. Another grunt.
Then Audrey was thrown across the room.
Her shoulder hit the ground, followed by her head. A cry ripped from her throat. She slid three feet. Agony stabbed down to her marrow, as if pain had always been a part of her body.
He’d simply . . . hurled her.
The big man needed only two strides to cross to where Audrey was sprawled. He stripped the chuck of concrete from her hand and tossed it down the tunnel.
“Can you hear me, lab filth?”
The old language rattled in her brain. Words passed down from the blessed Dragon. Nothing quite worked. Her lungs wouldn’t take in air. Something ground painfully in her hip socket. She nodded out of pure reflex.
“If you ever attempt to strike me again, I will snap your spine in two. Think you could recover from that? Our kind can endure a great deal—much more than humans. But we’re not immortal.”
“Where is my son?” Only a rasp now.
“He’s better off dead. Now get up.”
He yanked her up under both arms and thrust her against a wall. Shots of fire spiked her joints. She gasped as panic set in. She wanted to fight. Wanted to. Yet just as when Dr. Aster had drugged her, or when her brain short-circuited because of his torture, she could not.
That didn’t stop her from snarling and spitting.
Because he spoke the language of the Dragon Kings, he belonged to one of the sacred Five Clans. But to actually work for that madman? He was the filth. Bile surged into her mouth.
“You’ve still got some spirit.” His muscles were tense, holding her immobile, while his breathing remained calm. “I can see why Old Man Aster has plans for you. We’re going to have quite the time.”
The flashlight had rolled across the ground until it illuminated her captor’s face. Blood streamed down from where she’d gouged a ragged hole in his cheek. He was smooth-shaven, and his black hair was shorn close to his head. Eyes the color of teak were fathomless, unreadable. Dark lashes cast shadows along his sharp cheekbones. A scar on his upper lip told stories of past battles. A damping collar encircled his thick, muscular throat.
A tattoo of a serpent wrapped around the back of his head. The tongue hissed toward one temple and the tail flicked toward the other. The Aster family symbol.
Realization settled ice in her belly. He was far deadlier than a brute from the laboratory.
Part boogeyman, part myth—he was a Cage warrior.
“The Aster cartel owns you now, lab filth. But they’re done with experiments.” His scarred lip curled into a snarling smile. “You’re here to fight in the Cages.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Leto had not expected so much resistance from the woman. The prospect heated his blood. For too long he’d only found satisfaction in preparing for the annual Grievance—the ultimate prize for the most dedicated warriors.
Warriors like Leto.
Performing in monthly Cage matches was essential to keep his skills sharp. Training Dragon Kings—called neophytes until they won their first fight—for those monthly matches was a drudgery. Most were volunteers who had debts to repay. They rarely possessed the true courage that deserved combat. Some were as weak and sniveling as humans.
Yet others went on to greatness. Leto had trained such victors.
His cheek was bleeding profusely. This nasty castoff from Dr. Aster’s lab had surprising spark.
“You’re insane,” she snarled. “I’m not going in there.”
“Have you ever seen a Cage fight?”
She shuddered. “Of course not! They’re for barbarians.”
With a swift movement that had nothing to do with his Dragon-given gift, Leto spun her. “Now is the time you listen. You believe me a barbarian, then believe my threats aren’t idle. Your suffering won’t weigh on my conscience.”
“Because you have none.” With her cheek pressed against the damp cave wall, her words were muffled.
Leto loosened his grip. If he pulled any harder he would dislocate her shoulder. The goal was not to impair his charges but to ready them. Instead, he added another incentive for her to obey. With his free hand he grasped between her legs.
“No conscience,” he repeated coldly. “I will have my way.”
She stiffened. She stilled. But Leto realized his heart was beating far too fast. Need had gathered in him for three weeks. Cage warriors were permitted female flesh only after a victory—unless they chose to violate their charges, as he threatened now. Some mentors indulged too often. Their neophytes became submissive, not resilient and strong. Leto had never needed to use such crude methods. He had other means, including stores of patience.
And he never lost a match. The regular reward of satisfying his sexual needs was not something every Cage warrior could claim.
She bucked against his hold. “If you think worse wasn’t done to me in the Asters’ lab, then you have no idea what goes on there.”
“Doesn’t matter to me.” He gave her pussy a last, hard squeeze. At least this time she flinched and tried to pull away. Any reaction could be twisted to his advantage. “Maybe you’ll enjoy it. Pleasure can be another incentive.”
She slammed her head backward. Her skull smacked the bridge of his nose. Pain rocketed through his brain. The woman scrambled from his arms and ran. Leto shook his head. Part of him was dazed that she’d got the jump on him. Mostly he was amused. Where did she think she could go?
From down the short corridor that led to her cell’s gate came a feminine shriek. Pure frustration. She was certainly loud enough to use the sonic assaults that accompanied the berserker rages of Clan Pendray. They annoyed the fuck out of him. Shaking off a weeklong migraine was the price of victory over those Dragon-damned Reapers.
He took a strip of linen from beneath his chest armor and wiped his face. The gouge in his cheek was nearly a puncture. The woman continued her tirade. High-pitched bellows echoed up the corridor.
“She-devil bitch,” he muttered to himself.
Still, he was surprisingly eager to get started.
Leto set his shoulders and lifted his chin. The Aster family ran the most powerful human crime cartel in the world. His victories over their cartel rivals—the Townsends of England and the Kawashimas of Hong Kong—had earned him many privileges. First among them was the right for his sister Yeta and her husband, Dalnis, to conceive a little girl. Soon, with the Dragon’s blessing, his efforts would earn protection and care for his comatose younger sister, Pell. Up in the human world where they’d made their home, Yeta and Dalnis had taken on the burden of Pell’s care for nearly a decade.
He would win the Grievance, year after year. To keep his family safe. To ensure Clan Garnis would live on.
Confidence gave him extra swagger as he strode down the sloping corridor to retrieve his screaming neophyte. She stood with her back against the gate made of floor-to-ceiling wrought iron. Leto had no key. He was let in and out by the Asters’ human guards. Cattle prods, Tasers, and napalm bullets kept even the most powerful Dragon King in check. The collars made it so.
Leto had never fought back. Why would he? This subterranean complex had always been his place of glory and purpose, where his father had fought. Where, in service to his loved ones, his father had died.
Decapitated by a Dragon blade.
“Stay away from me!”
“I won’t.” His words were as assured as he felt.
She darted sideways. Though slender, she was wily and surprisingly strong. But she would never be his match. He caught her around the middle. Momentum threw her onto his forearm. Again he hurled her to the ground. He pinned her with his boot heel on her collar, right over her larynx.
“You’ll only hurt yourself. Save this fire. You’ll need it for the Cages.”
She cradled her elbow and glared up with pale, pale eyes—maybe blue.
“I’m to train you for your first bout in three weeks,” he continued. “Normally we’d have more time, but Old Man Aster wants you ready by then. He’ll be hosting many important people.”
He removed his boot and grabbed a fistful of hair—a honey blond shade that trailed down her back. He’d need to fix that. His actions were proof of how dangerous long hair could be in battle.
“Let go of me!”
“No.” He dragged her back to the main body of the training room. He shoved her into a crevice that had been carved by a steady trickle of water. “Wash yourself. I won’t work with garbage.”
She hissed as cold water drenched her face, sluiced down her back. The thin paper hospital gown clung to her body. Soon it would be as useless as wet tissue. He had proper armor for her to change into. Eventually. First, she needed to learn her place.
Leto crossed his arms. “What was that?”
She pinched her lips into a tight white line. That honey-colored hair darkened beneath the water’s trickle. Her arms and legs trembled. She closed into a protective ball.
If the woman didn’t ask, Leto would have a despicable chore ahead of him. On a certain level he would enjoy breaking her. Yet he craved a real opponent. She had that potential, if she proved smart enough to know when to back down.
“May I have some soap?” The effort of asking contorted her features with fury.
Slowly, he knelt before her. He’d trained enough for the Cages to know when the appearance of gentleness held greater power than aggression. She backed deeper into the crevice, but her fear was nowhere to be seen. Those pale, almost silver eyes were visible through the water dribbling down her face. Already she was cleaner. He could see more of her features. Stubborn. Every feature stubborn.
“I will not give much advice beyond techniques for fighting. But listen to me now: Save your hostility. I am not your enemy.”
She whipped wet hair back from her heart-shaped face. Her pointed chin was haughty, but her lips were delicate. Thin. Tremulous. As with every Dragon King, her skin was naturally tan. Hers was overlaid with a shimmering luster, like gold beneath a blazing light. Wide cheekbones were streaked with freckles, not the dirt he’d assumed. The water darkened her lashes and framed those nearly translucent eyes. Her gaze was canny. She assessed every detail, even through her fury.
Intelligence in a trainee was a double-edged sword.
“Become a half-dead cripple for all I care,” Leto said with a shrug. “You know it takes a great deal to kill a Dragon King. But the crowd loves when combatants bleed and scream. No one mourns.”
“My son would mourn me,” she whispered.
“He already does. Dr. Aster will have told him you’re dead.”
“I was promised my son. One year more.”
He almost pitied the woman’s naïveté. She’d be lucky to stand or talk or chew after her first match. Yes, she would heal, as all Dragon Kings did, but the process was imperfect. Amputated limbs never grew back. Minds cracked into mad pieces. Scars remained. His split lip and lashed back were a testament to that.
He masked his pessimism and long-ago pains. This was his responsibility. He had yet to fail the Old Man. He wouldn’t let this woman destroy the respect Leto had spent years acquiring.
“Learn to fight,” he said. “Or you’ll suffer as others have.”
She shuddered. The hospital gown clung to her. She tucked her legs beneath her and crossed shaky arms over her breasts. The water let her keep few secrets. “And you’re here to teach me?”
“You would’ve saved yourself a lot of abuse had you asked that question twenty minutes ago.”
“Bathatéi.” The worst curse word in the language of the Dragon Kings.
Leto only laughed. “Your name. Now.”
She lashed out with a tight fist. He caught it easily, then the next one. The only weapon she had left—one she might not have realized—was the surprise of her breasts. The soaked paper gown outlined their lithe, luscious shape. Leto forced his gaze back to her face.
“Your name,” he said with growing menace. “Unless you enjoy being called lab filth.”
“My name in exchange for soap.”
He grinned. This was going to be fun.
A swallow disappeared beneath the edge of her collar. She lifted her chin. “My name is Audrey MacLaren.”