There is a subconscious, or at times conscious, desire to avoid problems that have been thrown in your path. Issues can hit like landmines and cause utter devastation to a person’s life, so who can really blame us for not wanting to confront them? The trouble with avoidance is we attempt to utilize it way too late in the game, when we’re already eyeball level and sinking fast in the quicksand. I didn’t want to wake up to whatever nightmare was going on; I just wanted to remain drifting aimlessly in the darkness that was blissful unconsciousness, but I couldn’t. Mina, Talitha, and Meriel needed me.
Pain lanced through my skull like vicious lightning and throbbed in time with my pulse. Nausea roiled through my stomach like a treacherous sea and I barely had enough time to roll onto my side to empty the contents of my stomach. Chains clinked in the near darkness when I moved, and I couldn’t get my hands and legs beneath me to get off the floor away from the vile liquid. Short chains in conjunction with wobbly coordination threw my muddled brain for a loop, so I simply stopped moving until I could finish puking and collect my thoughts.
Bile coated my mouth and tongue, and with each heave the pressure in my skull fairly exploded outward. Finally, mercifully, it ceased, and I cracked open one eye, since the other was stuck shut with something itchy and crusty. Even the dim light, from an unknown source, made me wince and the movement ended in pain shuddering through me like a convulsion.
I swallowed against another surge of queasiness, and weak as a newborn I pulled on the chains to determine where they were anchored. They quickly tightened, as I was at the absolute end of them, and I hissed when the movement rubbed the metal manacles against the raw skin of my wrists. Surprising what you don’t notice when your mind is fuddled and you’re puking your innards out. To add insult to my injuries, I needed to go past my vomit to get some slack for the restraints. Using the chains as my new frenemy, I pulled along them as though I was climbing a rope. The major difference being I was on the ground, scraping skin away on the cold, stone floor, and sliding through my own vomit. Who says I never have any fun?
I couldn’t smell, or feel, any food particles in my puke, and I urgently needed to use a bathroom, which led me to believe I’d been wherever I was between one and two days. We’d had steak which takes longer to fully digest than other foods, but we’d also had veggies, so it was a crapshoot, (hardy har har), in figuring it out. Or, perhaps, I’d already sicked it all up. It was difficult to tell.
Through the vomit, while resolutely breathing through my nose, I made my agonizingly slow way to the wall where the chains were anchored. I groaned, rolled to a kneeling position, and then fell back like a limp noodle against the stone to keep me in a sitting position. My head didn’t appreciate all the movement, and when I sat up consciousness wavered like a distant heat wave on the desert sand.
I took a deep, steadying breath, and flinched at the sting when I licked my cracked and swollen lips. My tongue didn’t have enough moisture to help anything, and reported back to me that I was in desperate need of a toothbrush and mouthwash. It was bad enough that I couldn’t ‘scent’ anything beyond that, but my awful halitosis and fuzzy teeth could get in line; what I needed was to get out of these chains.
When only one eye opened again, I reached up and gingerly felt around it to make sure it was just sealed shut with something, and not swollen from an injury. Finding nothing outside of the norm, I bit back a sob as I pried open my eyelid. It was probably blood keeping it closed. I doubted I had much in the way of eyelashes left over after the ordeal, but at least I could see out of both eyes. Small miracles, I supposed.
The dim light was coming from three large candles, each as thick as the thickest part of my forearm and close to it in length, across the small, square room. I was near the back left corner, if you were looking at me from the doorway, which was metal with one of those nifty sliding doors for the prison guards to see and talk to the prisoners through. It was old, the metal rusted and ominously stained dark in certain places.
A groan send a thrill of surprise and fear through me like shit through a goose, and I finally noticed I had a guest. I was beginning to suspect a potential concussion, as if the pain and vomiting wasn’t a big enough clue, because how else could I explain missing an entire person?
Whoever they were, they were male, lying on the floor on their side with their front turned away from me, and there was nothing between him and the Dark Goddess but a smile. It left nothing to the imagination, or covering the long, thick, and savage scars that criss-crossed and overlapped on his back like wicker in a chair.
He stirred, head tucked toward his belly in a fetal position, and the vulnerability belied the strength evident in the muscles of his back, butt, and what little I could see of the rest of him. I cleared my throat, and he stilled the way a predator did when they scented a potential enemy.
“Hello,” I barely choked out trying to sound calm, but the dryness and swollen tissue in my throat barely let me sound like a person.
“Erryn?” an equally harsh voice questioned, and Warren rolled up to his knees. I averted my eyes, trying to give him some semblance of privacy, and looked down to note I was still—thankfully—clothed.
“Yes,” I tried, and made a poor attempt to clear my throat and possibly conjure moisture from somewhere. “Um, you’re naked.” Pure wit and brilliance, I tell ya.
“I shifted at the house and our captors didn’t bother to re-clothe me,” he replied, the words coming out as painful as sandpaper along the skin.
Shifting forms was difficult on clothing, which is why most people did so without, if given the choice. While the Law of Conservation of Mass meant we didn’t shift into a form much bigger than what we were as human, for most our Dragon form tended to be bulkier. Not to mention the mechanics for our legs were different, and we didn’t exactly remain still as the agony of a shift poured through us like molten gold.
“Do you know where we are, or who took us?” I had a pretty good idea on the latter, but the former was somewhat more enigmatic.
“The people trying to kidnap Meriel, I’m assuming, and they took care in covering my head and keeping me unconscious for most of the trip. I—” he started, but stopped as emotion sat thick on his words like fresh tree sap and stalled him. “I tried to keep them from getting her, from getting all the girls,” he continued, and dread pooled in the pit of my stomach while rage danced through me like a bonfire, “but I failed. I couldn’t protect people, again,” he finished, as his grief and regret sat heavy on the air as though a boulder crushed the wind from me.
“Hey, I didn’t do anything but get hit and lose consciousness. If anyone should be embarrassed it’s me,” I said, the words spat out and more bitter than the bile blanketing my tongue. I was supposed to protect them, and I’d come up short on that vital finish line.
“They took us all by surprise, though Mina was able to get a few chunks out of the one who hit you. I heard them yelling for a medic to take him while they brought her down. I’m not sure about Talitha, but we know they have Meriel because she was the primary target,” he said, the despair making way for a more logical angle on the discussion.
“Yes, she certainly was,” a muffled voice came from the other side of the door.
We both stiffened, and our gazes zeroed in on the door across the room. When the tumblers keeping it locked slid back and the door began to open, we both moved to our feet. The chains nearly yanked me back down; they were only long enough to let us hunch, not stand fully erect.
The man who came through the doorway was dressed in a business suit, and it was so out of place in the grungy dungeon that the absurdity and hysteria almost had me cracking a smile. What stopped me was the cold, dead stare in his icy blue eyes, as unforgiving and merciless as a Russian winter. He was a half-kin, like me.
It was hard to explain how Drakken recognized each other, and knew whether they were full-blood or half-kin. It was some kind of ability hardwired into our brains. It’s not like Drakken routinely sent their bodies in to be studied by scientists to know how we functioned, so it was all theory.
His skin stretched taut over his frame, leaving him with a skeletal and sickly appearance, further emphasized by the gauntness of his cheeks. Weak, the thought jumped, and as though he shouldn’t be alive, but it was foolish to underestimate an opponent based on looks. His hair was wispy and white, like spider webs, and cut just a little too short to allow a comb-over. A chill emanated from him, somewhat like leaving a freezer door open and standing next to it, and a deathly pallor hung from him as though it was a heavy cloak; leaving his shoulders with a slight hunch.
“Who are you?” Warren demanded, breaking the silence and whatever magic he’d woven around me.
I dragged in a breath, as though I hadn’t been breathing since he opened the door and our eyes met, and my oxygen starved lungs screamed in agony. My eyes watered as I did my best to squelch the need to cough, and I closed my eyes against his unwavering stare.
“My name is Raymond Pullman, though that will likely mean little to you. Clans rarely intersect, and half-kins from different clans even less, Nameless,” Raymond answered to both of us, though I knew his gaze never wavered from me as he spoke.
“I know of you; you were sent into exile many years ago from one of the white clans,” Warren said, and I opened my eyes a crack to watch Raymond’s reaction.
He merely slid his gaze, as slow and full of potential violence as a great white moving through the water, to Warren, who seemed completely immune to the man’s presence. Lucky duck.
“Yes, because I refused to be a disgusting pawn to the will of the clans, as this woman chose to be. They say I’m a traitor, but the real traitors are those like her, who bow and scrape to pompous fools obsessed with pure bloodlines,” he spat, though kept his attention on Warren, dismissing me as nothing more than a piece of garbage in his presence.
“Seems the clan Drakkens aren’t the only pretentious asshats among our race,” I said, and returned the insult, my mouth shooting away like a Wild West pistol in a showdown.
He still didn’t look at me.
“Careful, whore, or my men will slit your brats’ throats and let you watch the light die from their eyes, and I’ll be sure to let them know it was your careless words that did it,” he said, voice mocking, and daring me to say more.
I closed my mouth with an angry clack of teeth.
“That’s better,” he said, and made the most lazy, arrogant motion with his hand over his shoulder, as though he couldn’t be bothered, or needed, to do more. He twitched two of his fingers forward, the slightest of movements, and two men dressed in all black fatigues entered the room.
One had the implacable stare of man who has been through combat, saw it all and did it all, especially if his survival was in the balance. The other had pure, undiluted murder in his jade eyes, and the look was directed at me. This wasn’t like Raymond’s disgust for my life choices. This was someone who had a major bone to pick with me, and I had no idea what I’d done to warrant it. I made a habit of not offending people badly enough that they wanted my head on a platter.
“Hose them down, unchain them, and bring them to the chamber,” Raymond said, and left, his gait as smooth as molasses and just as unhurried.
After a minute, when a door opened and thumped shut much further down the hall, the military man, (because it was rare for a guy to get that look anywhere else), turned to murderous dude. I had to make light of the guy in my mind, because this wasn’t the time or place to give in to hysterics.
“Go grab the hose,” he said, words brooking no argument. Never taking his eyes from me, Murderous Dude backed out of the room.
Military Man advanced and pulled a knife from a sheath at his thigh. My breath caught in my throat and fear clamored for control in my brain, but he wasn’t aiming for me specifically. It didn’t take long for the sharp knife to cut away my vomit-soaked clothing—all of it. I remained as still as I could, not wanting my flesh to be collateral damage. When he stepped back I was naked and feeling more vulnerable than if I was swimming in a gator-infested swamp. My nakedness held no importance to Military Man–he was simply completing a job.
When Murderous Dude returned with the hose, though, his eyes lit up with an evil pleasure that shook me down to my toes. All this terror and pain was going to do me in before the bad guys ever got a chance; I wasn’t sure how much more of this my heart could take. The nozzle on the hose was the cylindrical kind that could widen like a flower in bloom, or narrow down into a stinging line of high-pressured liquid pain.
Before he started it up I knew what he was going to do, and barely had time to turn my face as the narrow stream punched me like a fist in the jaw. He kept it there, aiming for my mouth and nose as much as possible, and I turned away as best I could. I shivered as the freezing cold water sluiced over my skin, and grimaced when the water managed to catch where I’d been punched by the brass knuckles.
“Stop fucking around and clean her off, Terry,” Military Man said to Murderous Dude, his tone curt and annoyed.
Terry growled at him, like a tiger defending a piece of meat, but after a tense moment the water moved on.
It hurt. Dark Goddess, did it ever.
“Turn around,” Terry said, the satisfaction in his voice in the face of my pain like a layer of grease running over my skin. He finished cleaning me, though made sure to concentrate on any bruises I hadn’t noticed at that point, and moved on to Warren.
When we were clean, Military Man unlocked the chains connected to the length of chain between the manacles at our wrists and ankles. He motioned for us to move through the doorway, staying just out of hobbled lunging reach, and we complied.
“Go,” he said, the man of many words, and we went. To what, though, I’m not sure I wanted to find out.