ADVISORY: Some content may not be suitable for younger readers
The solid oak doors slammed shut moments before the iron hinges of the cell door creaked open. The woman inside the cell shot up and caught the young boy thrown at her, barely glancing at the pair of burley guards who locked the door behind him. She half-carried the boy to the flat mat on the floor and hissed when she brought the torch down to see his face.
The boy’s name was Kasch, and he would have been quite handsome if it weren’t for the scars across his face and body. A new gash slit his cheek open, and there was another long slash across his chest. If the boy had been human, he would have already been dead, but he wasn’t human. He looked human, tall, black hair, silver eyes, with roughly tanned skin and solid muscles from days spent in the arena, but that didn’t change the fact that the boy was a dragon.
The woman, Nathryna, hurried to the corner where she kept her supplies and began to do what she could to mend his wounds. Like Kasch, Nathryna was a gladiator, but she was human. She had lived in the gladiatorial arena for forty years, and had learned basic field first-air out of necessity. Since she was the only human that cared about the boy, she had been allowed to have a small med kit to treat his wounds. She cleaned the blood from his chest and face, dabbed the wounds with cleansing ointment, and began to stitch the gashes shut, silently cursing the people who had done this.
Kasch was from another world. He was one of five hundred dragon children that had been sent Parafaxilia as refugees from the war that was devastating their homeland. The humans of Parafaxilia had welcomed the children, but they soon discovered that caring for a baby dragon was more work than many wanted. The dragons grew more powerful with age, developing abilities beyond mere flight. They could all transform into humans, and many stayed that way to avoid persecution and gain favor, and they all had powers that matched the color of their scales. Black dragons could manipulate the earth and stones. Red dragons could manipulate and create fire. Green dragons could create massive winds and manipulate the air. Blue dragons could control the oceans and manipulate the waters around them. Such power frightened the humans of Parafaxilia, and the refugees were quickly turned into slaves. How do you turn dragons into slaves? Easy. Take them as children, make them yearn for your approval, your acceptance, and beat them down. Make them believe that all they have to do to make you love them is to do everything you say, then punish them every time they wander even slightly out of line.
Nathryna felt her heart break as Kasch refused to stir under her treatment. Though she was human, she thought of Kasch as her own child, and she hated to see her ‘son’ bleeding and scarred. Her hand faltered at the collar around the boy’s neck and for a moment she wished she could claw it from his throat. That collar is what marked Kasch as a dragon slave. Other slaves, human slaves like herself, would cow under a whip, but dragons needed something more potent. The collar could sense when a dragon was trying to use their powers, either to remove it or escape, and it would unleash a crippling electric wave. Their owner had a remote to manually activate the collar as well, just in case one of her dragons didn’t behave in her presence.
That’s right. Kasch was only one of her dragons. Qilyel owned two dragons, both fourteen, both with terrakinetic abilities, and both fought in her brutal gladiator games.
“How is he?” It was the voice of the other dragon, a boy called Kryptin who was kept in the next door.
Nathryna knotted the string by Kasch’s cheek, the final touch of her rough first aid, and she went to the door of her cell. “He’s still out cold,” she told Kryptin. “Do you know who he was up against today?”
Nathryna rested her forehead against the cold iron bars. “I should have guessed.”
“Is he really bad?”
“He’ll have two more scars when he wakes.”
Kryptin went quiet.
Nathryna understood the silence that followed. Most dragons had the ability to heal whatever wounds they received, but for some reason, Kasch’s ability to heal was way below the average dragon’s. Kryptin, on the other hand, had been in Qilyel’s possession since he was four, and his skin was yet unmarred.
Qilyel had decided early on that she could market Kryptin for his looks as well as for his battle prowess. She had brainwashed him to believe he was allergic to shirts, then she had him worked so that he would grow tall and muscular. Even as a teenager, he was built as a mountain, and Qilyel rarely gave him a break from paying visitors.
“Did you have a match today?” Nathryna asked.
“Yeah, two. My first match was a double, Glifur and Tobur. My second match was a fiver, me against Volin, Ferin, Konus, Tagnar, and Rumli. She must have been really pleased with my performance since apparently I get the night off.”
“I do. Hey, maybe tomorrow I’ll get to beat Hosur into the dirt.”
“Kryptin, what have I said about that?”
He was quiet for one sulky moment before muttering, “We’re all slaves, and there’s no point in holding a grudge. We’re all just trying to survive ‘til tomorrow. But Hosur’s different! He likes beating Kasch to a pulp. He’s three times his size and gets to have a trident! Qilyel never gives Kasch a weapon!”
“That’s because I am a weapon,” Kasch coughed, pushing himself into a sitting position. “I won that last battle.”
“Kasch, lay back down!” Nathryna gently leaned on his shoulders, trying to encourage him back down.
“Get off me, woman!” He coughed and leaned on his knees, running a hand first down the stitching on his chest, then across the stitching on his cheek. He looked at Nathryna from under dark brows, two fingers still on the tender ridges of his new scar. “It’s a shame they keep Hosur in the southern barracks. He may not survive the night.”
Nathryna inhaled sharply. “Kasch, what have you done?”
“I’ve survived. Survived so Qilyel can make profit on my spilt blood, so she can make a profit on us. I hate it here!” He seized the rag soaked with his blood and threw it against the wall.
“You’re sounding better,” Kryptin murmured from his cell.
“And you just go along with it!” Kasch snapped. “Do you like being their pet? Do you like what they do to you in that cell?”
“Of course not! I just don’t know how to get out of it.”
“Have you even tried?”
“That’s enough, boys,” Nathryna hissed. “You’re too loud. The guards will hear, and Kasch is still recovering.”
Kasch grumbled a protest but laid back down. “We have to get out of here.”
Nathryna brushed his hair back. “I know. I know.”
A horn blew early the next morning. Kasch shot up in response to the deep sound, then winced as his chest reacted to his quick movements. He pressed a tentative hand to his chest, checking on the progress of his healing. The skin had closed, leaving a puckered ridge that would never fully heal. His cheek was the same. Kasch let his hand fall into his lap, thankful, at least, that the pain had faded.
Nathryna was propped against the wall, graying hair falling across another scarred face. One leg jutted out, the other was bent, and her arms were folded across her chest. She was still sleeping. Kasch let her enjoy a few more minutes of the only piece of freedom they got, but when the sound of booted feet rang across the stone floor, he gently shook her. Nathryna woke with a start, seizing his hand and twisting it back in an instinctive panic. Kasch didn’t cry out or fight back. He waited for her to wake fully and nodded as she apologized.
“How are you feeling?” She asked, reaching out to examine the stitches.
Kasch pulled away, crossing one arm across his chest and placing his other hand over his cheek. “I’m fine.” His shoulders drooped at her sad expression, and he let his guard drop. “I’m fine, Nath. You did a good job. Thank you.”
“Kryptin! You’re wanted in Qilyel’s chamber.”
Kasch and Nathryna looked to the barrack hallway, watching grimly as Kryptin was prodded down the hall. He paused a moment at their door, smiling when he saw Kasch sitting up and awake. Then one of the guards stabbed him with his spear, barking at him to keep moving.
Nathryna ran to the door. “He hasn’t even eaten yet!”
The other guard struck her in the face with the butt of his spear. Kasch caught her as she fell back, feeling his temper rise with their impatience.
Kryptin quickly took two steps forward, calling back, “I’ll be fine, Nath. Don’t worry about me! I’ll see you later for training.”
“No we won’t,” Kasch muttered. “That…”
“Kasch, don’t,” Nathryna interjected. “There are still guards within hearing distance.”
He punched the wall, his terrakinesis automatically softening the stones so he wouldn’t break his knuckles. The instinctive use of his powers earned him a violent jolt from his collar, and he sat down with a growl. He clawed at the collar and got another jolt for his troubles.
Nathryna sat beside him. “Qilyel won’t hurt him. He brings in too much money.”
“You call what she does to him, what she has him do, not hurting him?”
“I—you know what I mean.”
“No I don’t.”
“Kryptin will be back.”
“Sure. He’ll get a little training, a little food, and then she’ll throw him back into the ring with some more humans. And tonight, he’ll be someone else’s toy.” Kasch caught a quick movement from the corner of his eye and looked down at her. She was crying. Kasch wrapped his arm around her without judgment, and they waited for the guards to escort them to the yard for food and training.
They heard the guards bullying the other slaves out of their cells, their voices getting louder as they neared. When they finally opened their cell, they grabbed Nathryna first and shoved her down the hall toward the arena. Kasch surged to his feet with a growl then took a step back when the guards aimed their spears at him.
“Get moving, lizard boy,” the one guard said. “And don’t try anything funny.”
“If I try anything, it won’t be funny,” Kasch snapped.
The guard retaliated by pressing a button on his belt. A painful jolt shot through Kasch’s neck, and he staggered against the hall wall. The guards shoved him forward mercilessly, prodding him down into the colosseum.
He was the last slave to arrive, which meant that he had the bare scraps left for breakfast. Nathryna ran to him as soon as the guards took their posts around the arena, and she escorted him to the benches that had been set up for the slaves. A half loaf of brown bread was waiting for him, and he devoured it before anyone else could challenge him for it. The half loaf wasn’t enough for his metabolism, but it took the edge off the growls in his stomach.
Two massive men approached the bench, their faces locked in scarred scowls. Nathryna stiffened. They were two gladiators from the southern barracks, both owned by Qilyel’s rival, Bakoth. They were also friends of Hosur.
“Tesin, Koibur,” Kasch greeted calmly, “what do you want?”
“Are you the slimy lizard that put Hosur in the ground?” Koibur asked.
Kasch closed his eyes and tried to brace himself for the coming fight. “If all it took to take Hosur down was a slimy lizard, you have to wonder how he survived as long as he did.”
Tesin aimed a punch for his head, but Kasch moved to the side, not even blinking as the man’s fist cracked the wall. “You watch your mouth, beast!” He roared. “Hosur is dead because of your cheap tricks!”
“Hosur is dead because he refused to give up.”
“Why should Hosur give up to a little lizard like you?”
“Because I cut off his leg, for one.”
Tesin and Koibur both lunged for him. Nathryna went low, ramming both legs into Tesin’s stomach, then she stood, carrying her upward motion into the fist that slammed into Tesin’s chin. Kasch dealt with Koibur, sliding across the bench to avoid the man’s initial attack, then jumping behind him to shove him into the wall. Six guards began running toward the conflict, one of them already pressing the button to trigger Kasch’s collar. Kasch grunted as the electricity flowed into his veins, almost dragging him to his knees. Koibur seized the opportunity to grab the bench and crash it across Kasch’s shoulders, and he went down. The guards reached them then, but they seemed more interested in pulling Nathryna off Tesin than keeping Koibur from continuing to pound Kasch into the dirt. A boulder crashed into the massive man, not killing him, but knocking him off Kasch. Kasch pulled himself up, ready to fight, only to be tackled by three of the guards.
“That is enough!” Qilyel’s voice cut across the arena like a whip. “Kryptin, get that boulder off Koibur.”
Kasch craned his neck to see Kryptin make a fist, no doubt obediently releasing the other slave. Kryptin looked mad; there was a vein bulging in his thick neck. Kasch struggled under the weight of the guards, but he knew if he tried to throw them off, he’d be crippled with another jolt from his collar.
Qilyel, an attractive woman in her late thirties, propped her slender hands on her hips and waved a jeweled wand under his nose. That wand was her special remote for his and Kryptin’s collars. “Kasch, when are you going to learn to behave? Guards, pick him up and escort him back to his cell.”
The guards grabbed his arms and pinned them behind his back, hoisting him to his feet and pushing him back to his cell.
“Lady Qilyel, wait!” Kryptin begged.
“No, Kryp. Training and meals are a privilege reserved for those who behave. Take him away.”
Kasch glared at Qilyel. She stared back calmly, ignoring the fact that there were four people in the fight. She clapped her hands briskly as Kasch was pushed back into the barrack halls, and he could hear her commanding tones dividing the slaves into their training groups.
Kasch cherished the quietness of his cell. He stared at the stone walls, at the cell door, letting his mind wander. He could manipulate the stones, he could bend the iron. The only thing keeping him prisoner was the collar around his neck. He traced his fingers along the edge of the collar, feeling for any breaks in the metal. There was none. It was perfect! And yet, if he could find some way to disrupt the programming…
Someone screamed from the arena. Kasch sat up, waiting for an identifier. The voice was new and female, and she screamed four more times before finally falling silent. Kasch leaned back against the wall and went back to solving his own dilemma. The sufferings of a new slave weren’t his problem. Humans didn’t have collars. Humans could escape any time they wanted. He punched the wall.
The morning passed as shadows across the wall. Kasch’s stomach growled, letting him know that it was lunch time, but he got no relief. An hour later, he heard the slaves being brought back to their cells to rest before the games began. Kasch went to the door, watching for Nathryna and Kryptin. Kryptin was brought in first and locked safely in his cell before the five guards escorting him went back to fetch the other slaves.
“Kryp!” Kasch pressed his face against the bars. “Do you want to get out of here?”
Kryptin’s arms dangled out from between his bars. “Of course.”
“I think I’ve figured out a way. If we can damage our collars in a fight, we can escape!”
“Qilyel has spare collars.”
“But she won’t be able to put them on right away. We’ll have time to act! And without our collars, no one can stop us!”
“The guards are coming!”
The boys ducked back in their cells as the parade of slaves passed by. Nathryna was in their midst, but the guards pushed her forward, not letting her take her usual place with Kasch. She was locked in a cell three doors down on the opposite side of the hall. If the boys angled their heads just right against the bars, they could see her, and she them.
“Are you all right?” She called. “Kasch, you’re not hungry, are you?”
“Of course not, Nath! The stones in my cell taste delicious.”
Her groan was audible. Kasch grinned and walked back to the worn mat that was his bed. He heard the guards bang their spears against the bars, snapping at Kryptin to back away from the door, then they appeared in the hallway in front of his cell, glaring in at him. Kasch closed his eyes, giving them no more reason to make his life miserable. After a few minutes, they passed on, snapping at and beating any slave who gave them an excuse. They only had two hours to rest before the first round of games began.
The first few matches always featured the newest slaves and contained the most casualties. Qilyel and the other owners sold these tickets to the peasantry on the cheap, letting them satisfy their bloodlust before kicking them back out into the streets. The next set of matches were sold to the middle class, and they were more civil, featuring the lower ranks of the pro gladiators against starved animals. Nathryna fought in these matches, using a net and spear to survive. The final round of matches was naturally sold to the rich and noble, and it starred the pros against pros in matches that were almost staged. Kryptin was a star in these final rounds, often fighting against groups of pros since it was so easy for him to win a one on one match. Kasch would fight in a warm-up game of the third round, but he was never allowed to advance the ranks to the weekly tournaments. He had more than enough skill and strength to earn a position there, but his scarred face and body repulsed the viewers. He didn’t care. Kryptin won every tournament—and rightly so—and Kasch did not want the “prizes” forced on the victor.
Kasch let his eyes wander to the wall that separated his cell from Kryptin’s. On one hand, it was amusing that so many humans wanted Kryp, even knowing what he was. On the other hand, it only proved the fact that humans were the lowest form of life. The only good human was Nath. When he and Kryptin escaped, they would take her with them, and see that she got the life she deserved.
The hum of humans filling the stands crept into the cells. The guards dragged slaves into the arena in pairs and in groups of five, then carried back the survivors still worth saving. Next went the beat tamers, being taken out in groups of three. When Nathryna passed his cell, she pretended to trip and subtly rolled a bit of brown bread into Kasch’s cell. Kasch devoured it as soon as the guards had gone, and immediately felt a little more prepared for his turn in the ring. But the guards didn’t come for him. He was used to being taken in the first group, but as the matches progressed, Kasch stayed put. Then Qilyel appeared, her heels heralding her arrival on the cold stone.
“Are you well-rested, Kryptin?” She asked.
“Good. And are you ready to behave yourself, Kasch?”
“What are you playing at, Qilyel?”
Her red lips pursed in displeasure, and she flicked a switch on her wand.
Kasch screamed and cowed as the electricity of his collar coursed through his spine. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
“Do you promise to behave?”
“I’ll behave! I’ll behave! Just make it stop! Please!”
Qilyel flicked the button again and lowered her wand. “Good boy. I’m glad that your defiance flared up just now, Kasch. It gave me a chance to remind you of a very important fact of life: I do not tolerate disobedience. Keep that in mind during your match.”
“Why?” Kasch demanded. “What are you up to?”
Qilyel flipped the switch on her wand again, and Kasch went down with a scream.
“My lady, please stop!” Kryptin begged over Kasch’s cries.
“Do you hear that, Kasch? Respect.” Qilyel turned the current off and tapped her foot patiently as Kasch picked himself up. “You will be fighting in a specialty match tonight. Dragon fighting dragon. It’s already sold out.”
“Lady Qilyel, no!”
Kasch pressed his face against the bars. “Never!”
“Since when have you ever had a choice?” Qilyel smiled and snapped her fingers.
A guard trotted over and bowed, waiting for instruction.
“Which is the slave woman that they’re attached to?”
“Number thirty-one, Nathryna, milady.”
“Fetch her, please.”
Kasch threw himself at the bars, straining to reach the woman. “Leave her alone, you–!”
She thumbed the switch again, but this time, she had to flick on both collars, because Kryptin was also fighting against his cell door. Through the haze of his pain, Kasch saw Nathryna being dragged forward. Her mouth was open with concern at the sight of the boys writhing on the floor.
Qilyel turned the collars off, but she didn’t give the boys a chance to recover before explaining, “I have a lot of money riding on this fight, and I will not lose it because a pair of overgrown lizards think they have the strength to oppose me. Both of you will fight in the arena tonight, and you will fight with all of your strength, or this slave will die.”
Kasch threw himself at the door again. “I’ll kill you, Qilyel. I’ll kill you if you hurt her!” Electricity coursed through him again, but this time he fought it. Then the current intensified, and he collapsed to the floor.
“Her life is no longer in my hands, Kasch. If she dies, it will be your fault.”
“Qilyel, please,” Kryptin begged. “Don’t do this. Don’t make me fight him. He could die!”
“Don’t do it, boys,” Nathryna began, but she was silenced by a gloved fist to the mouth.
“Nath!” Kryptin wailed, and Kasch could see Kryptin’s arm reaching through the bars toward the fallen woman.
“Do what you’re best at, little Kryp. As you’re told.” Qilyel spun on her heel, snapping her fingers for the guards to bring Nathryna along, as well.
The pain running down his spine slowed, then vanished, and Kasch picked himself up, leaning against the bars and staring down the hallway where Qilyel had taken Nathryna. He heard Kryptin crying in the next cell, and he wished he could cry, too.
“We have to fight, Kryp,” he croaked.
“Nath doesn’t want us to.”
“Qilyel will kill her if we don’t!”
“You could die if we do!”
Kasch punched the wall, wishing he could reach the dragon next door. “You think I can’t take you in a fight? When we get out there, I want you to come at me as hard as you can! Don’t give Qilyel a reason to hurt Nath! Do you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
Moments later, the guards returned, first taking Kryptin, then coming back for Kasch. For the first time in his life, Kasch didn’t fight them, didn’t struggle. He walked tamely out to the entrance of the arena and waited for the signal.
“As a once in a lifetime special, brought to you by the fabulously beautiful Lady Qilyel, it’s the Duel of the Dragons!”
Kasch was shoved out into the open amidst the blood-crazed cheers of the filthy-rich crowd. He squared his shoulders and raised his fist as the announcer continued his spiel.
“The scarred dragon, Kasch, rises from the lower ranks to challenge our reigning champion, Kryptin the Mountainous!”
Kryptin strode into the arena, his eyes cast down, his broad shoulders slumping. The already intense cheer rising from the audience increased, accompanied by the screams and swoons of Kryptin’s adoring fans.
“As a special bonus, these two leviathans will be battling in their draconic forms!”
Kasch and Kryptin stared at each other in alarm and turned up to the stands. Qilyel was sitting in her gold-gilded box, waving cheerfully at her patrons. She caught the boys’ stares and casually thumbed her wand pointedly. The guard behind her tapped his sword, reminding them what was at stake.
“But don’t let this alarm you! Our grand and glorious Lady Qilyel has taken precautions to protect our precious patrons! So, sit back and relax, and enjoy this once in a lifetime battle!”
Kasch took a deep breath and transformed. The crowd screamed in reaction to his rising black scales, his crown of four horns, and his deep crimson wings. He flapped his wings and roared for the benefit of the spectacle, then rolled back his shoulders to brace himself for Kryptin’s inevitable attack. But Kryptin had stayed in his human form. He kept his head bowed. The screams turned to boos and jeers, but when Kryptin raised his gaze, he focused only on Kasch.
“I won’t fight you,” he said.
“Do it, or Nathryna will die.”
Kryptin shook his head.
“She means it, Kryp! She doesn’t care about Nath! She doesn’t care about anything except her precious money!”
“I know.” Kryptin took a deep breath and raised his hands, palms up. “The way I see it, I have a choice to make, Nath or you. I know what Nath would want, and I know what Qilyel wants, and I’ll choose to follow Nath every time.”
“You idiot!” Kasch lashed at him with his tail. “All of these staged battles have gone to your big head!” He swiped at him with his claws. “You couldn’t kill me even if you tried!”
Kryptin leapt back, dodging each blow with the same sad look on his face. It was infuriating. Kasch chased after him, clawing at him, whipping his tail, chomping at him, roaring for him to fight back, but Kryptin always managed to stay just out of reach. The crowd loudly proclaimed their dismay, throwing whatever they could both into the arena and at Qilyel’s special box. Qilyel was visibly livid. Nathryna was as good as dead.
Kasch stopped his rabid charged and hunkered low, his wings dragging on the sandy floor. “Kryp, please. We can still make it a good fight. We can still save Nath. Please.”
Kryptin froze then slowly shook his head. “I’m not going to give her what she wants. I’m not going to hurt you.”
“Fine.” Kasch shrank back down into his human form and cracked his knuckles. “Maybe Qilyel will be satisfied with your bloodied corpse.”
“Do what you have to.”
Kasch leapt at the human dragon and landed a punch squarely in his face. Kryptin staggered back under the force of the blow, but his only retaliation was another sad look. Kasch punched him again, hitting his face, his stomach, his groin, his head, anywhere that was sure to cause pain and damage. Kryptin was strong; he bore a lot of punishment without ever attempting to strike back. After a half-hour of the fierce, one-sided onslaught, Kryptin fell unmoving onto the ground. Kasch stood over him, knuckles dripping with the dragons’ blood. He felt sick to his stomach, but he looked up toward Qilyel’s box, breathing heavily with nervous hope. She scowled and shook her head. Kasch sank to his knees and threw up.
The crowds in the stands booed and stormed out, helped by Qilyel’s guards. Kasch resisted the urge to check on Kryptin, and resisted the guilt and fear that swelled in his gut. Kryptin stirred slightly, the abrasions and bruises slowly shrinking on his back. A few minutes later, Qilyel was in the arena, surrounded by her men, Nathryna dragged behind her on a long chain. Kryptin pulled himself into a kneeling position, his lip, nose, and eyebrow bleeding, the red contrasting with the purple and blue of his cheeks.
Qilyel paced in front of them, the long nails of her fingers clacking against the wand. Then she drew one of the guards’ swords and placed the tip under Kryptin’s chin. “Who, exactly did you think you would save with that little stunt? This piece of trash?” She turned and stabbed Nathryna in the stomach.
“No!” Kasch lunged forward, but the guards grabbed him and forced him down. At the same time, Qilyel triggered his collar, robbing him of any strength he had to fight back.
Kryptin began to cry, doubling over again even though the only mark left on him was dried blood.
“Or did you think you would save this waste of space?” Qilyel Turned her sword, still dripping with Nathryna’s blood, toward Kasch.
Kryptin stopped crying and charged forward with an agonized roar, catching the guards and Qilyel off guard. He went straight for Qilyel, wrapping his large hands around her throat. All of the guards charged at him, dropping Kasch. He crawled to Nathryna and scooped her into his arms, trying his best to stem the flow of blood.
Nath shook her head. “Don’t. Don’t blame Kryptin. I would much rather die than see you fight. Take what Kryp has given you. Run.”
“I can’t. The collar.”
“Just run, Kasch. Run!” She pushed at him and rolled from his lap, wheezing as she clutched her stomach. “Run!”
Kasch sobbed, but he ran, feeling the wet of her blood staining his pants. He heard Kryptin shouting behind him, heard a commotion, but he didn’t dare to look back.
He ran to the main gate, using his terrakinesis to tear it down. The adrenaline and grief numbed him to the normally crippling flow of electricity, enabling him to run out from the colosseum and down to the nearby city. He was waiting to hear the shouts of the guards and the sounds of their booted feet running across the cobblestone road, waiting to feel the crippling pain of Qilyel’s thumb on her wand.
Kasch knew his adrenaline was waning, and his energy was dangerously low. He staggered into the nearest, darkest alley, trying not to let his sobs echo. The alley was between a lesser house and a wall. Then the sounds he’d dreaded entered the alley: boots on stone. He inched down the wall until he found a small gate. Luckily for him, it was unlocked and well-greased; he was able to slip inside without a sound.
The wall had been surrounding a decorative mansion with a vast, landscaped yard. There wouldn’t be anyplace to hide until he reached the house, which felt to be a mile away. The sounds of guards outside the wall intensified. Kasch locked the gate he’d come through, then ran toward the house. The guards began banging on the door, and a light flicked on in the house. Kasch dived into the nearest bush as a young man came out. The guards burst in at the same time, and they seemed to freeze when they saw him.
“What are you doing here?” The man demanded, his dark hair glinting red in the light from the house.
One of the guards stepped forward. “Sir, a slave has escaped from the arena. We are checking all possible routes of escape to find him.”
“Get out of my yard.”
“Sir, let me be clear about the dangers. It is a dragon that escaped.”
“Get out of my yard!”
He didn’t shout, but there was a sharp power behind his voice that made the guards jump. The man pointed toward the gate they had entered, and the guards hurried back through it. Kasch watched them go, a small taste of relief filling his stomach. But the man stayed still, and Kasch was scared again. Scared of the man that had banished the guards with the power of his voice. That man began to walk slowly toward Kasch’s hiding place. He had found him.
Kasch ripped a branch from the bush and raised it as he jumped to confront the man.
“Please don’t do that,” the man said, calmly raising a hand. “I mean you no harm.” He stepped into a cold sliver of light, letting it cross his face. He was no older than Kasch or Kryptin, and with the exception of dark red hair and his intense blue eyes, he looked almost identical to them. “My name is Coen. I’m a dragon, like you. I’d like to offer you sanctuary.” He reached forward and crushed the collar, pulling it from Kasch’s neck. He stared at it in disgust and crumpled it before dumping it in an already over-flowing trash receptacle. “How would you like to show the humans what it’s like to live in fear?”
Nathryna was dead. Qilyel would undoubtedly kill Kryptin once he was subdued. Kasch had lost everything. He felt that crushing weight grow in his heart, but Coen’s offer fed something else in him, too: vengeance. He clenched his fist and met his rescuer’s gaze. “When do we start?”