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Hunted Warrior CHAPTER ONE
They called her the Pet, but she didn’t think of herself as a creature in need of protection, care, or condescension. She’d left that life behind. Neither was she a captive, as she picked her way through the ruins of a crumbling rock labyrinth on the island of Crete. How she’d come to be there was a story she didn’t dare contemplate for fear of going mad. There was no rhyme, no reason, no guide other than the future she saw in bits and patches.
The sun was fierce and gorgeously freeing on the back of her neck. She was a Dragon King, and Dragon Kings loved fire. Most wouldn’t admit how much the cold sunk under their skin and sapped their sense of near-invincibility. Maybe that was for the best. The would-be gods didn’t realize that all empires ended, even those blessed with access to what humans would consider supernatural.
Turning to stare into the blinding white-yellow glare, she didn’t bother to shade her eyes. Her second sight—the gift from the Dragon that gave her the ability to see the future—was always with her, no matter its unpredictability. A man sought her.
A man who hid his violence behind titles and lineage.
Time was slippery like moss on a riverbank. Time was slippery on her fingertips. Time was running out.
She continued her cautious journey through the abandoned ruins of ancient kings. The ground was strewn with pieces of the crumbled labyrinth. Once-high walls had been reduced by countless rains and droughts, decades and centuries, until all that remained were bleached waist-high spikes and jagged edges. There was nothing to grab should she fall—not without impaling her hand. Dragon Kings healed rapidly, but some damage was too much for even their advanced physiology to repair.
Archaeologists had long ago dubbed the site of little historic worth. Its condition was so deteriorated that they could gather little new information about the Minoans of Crete. How blinded they were. Humans suffered the hubris of a society that believed itself the most advanced to ever walk the earth. Any thought as to the Dragon Kings’ existence was disregarded as fairy tales of Valkyries and Olympians and countless messiahs.
The woman called the Pet knew differently. All the myths were true. What was once, would be again.
The Chasm isn’t fixed.
Why her predictions of the future had led her to Crete as a means of stopping the Dragon Kings’ slow extinction was beyond her. She had to trust. She’d always needed to trust, when little in her life stood as an example of why to believe. Maybe her real gift from the Great Dragon wasn’t the ability to see the future but to have faith in what she couldn’t explain.
The labyrinth was waist-high, yes, but it was still a tangle of dead ends, wrong turns, and twenty-foot pits. When she realized a mistake, she couldn’t climb over the wall and continue on. Her hands would be shredded. So, as with all mazes, she doubled back and kept the details firmly in mind. The conventional wisdom was that if one chose a direction and stuck with it—all left turns, always, no matter what—the heart of the geometric puzzle would be revealed.
Those three-story pits barring certain passages made that impossible.
And time . . . Yes, time was slippery. She needed to hurry, because the man was coming.
Yet she couldn’t even describe what she sought. A gift for Cadmin. That’s all she knew.
She drew on powers as both soothsayer and true believer to remind herself of her journey’s importance. Cadmin was the closest she’d ever known to having a baby of her own, although the fetal child had developed in another woman’s womb.
“It took some time to find you,” came a voice at her back. “But you knew I’d never give up.”
The Pet turned and met the steady, distant glare of Malnefoley of Tigony, the Honorable Giva. With that title, he should’ve been the unquestioned leader of their people. His leadership was a listing ship, however—the derisive nickname the Usurper attested to as much—barely righting itself in time to escape the swell of each new wave. It wouldn’t survive much longer.
“I escaped,” she said. “I didn’t attempt to hide.”
“I’m taking you back to Greece.” He flicked his eyes across the irregular half walls. He stood some two hundred meters away, just beyond the outermost wall that marked the border of the labyrinth. Given time and patience, he could climb across three lanes to apprehend her physically, but he had a gift far more crippling and violent than hers.
Electricity was his plaything.
“I don’t want to go back to Greece.” She pushed at the sleeves of her thin purple blouse, which contrasted with her militaristic cargo pants and heavy boots. She was a lover of contrast. In revealing bare skin, she also revealed parallel incisions across her left biceps that had healed to papery scars. “There’s work to be done. For all Five Clans.”
“You were Dr. Aster’s companion for how many years? You commit blasphemy when speaking of the Five Clans.”
“I was his companion. Now I’m not.” She nodded to the parallel scars. “These are the reminders I gave myself as proof of my freedom and loyalty to our kind.”
The intensity of Malnefoley’s expression increased a hundredfold when he narrowed his eyes. His lips tightened. She could see his anger, even feel it, despite the distance and obstacles between them. He looked like an emperor whose displeasure would result in countless deaths.
Did others see him as she did? Were they so awed or bitter as to miss the signs? Or was fear what caused so many to whisper “Usurper” behind his back, rather than challenge him outright?
“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe a brainwashed servant.”
“I didn’t serve him,” she said, snarling.
You wouldn’t understand. No one would.
In some warped way, her relationship with Dr. Heath Aster, heir to the human Aster cartel, was that of a victim coming to love her torturer. He had hurt her. He’d also left her in isolation for months at a time. She’d been twelve years old on the first day of her imprisonment. After decades of such treatment, she’d craved his attention, no matter how painful, because being alone was far more devastating. Affection was a strange emotion to feel for the man her logical mind knew was her abuser, her dismantler, her maker.
“You aided in the perpetuation of his crimes,” the Giva said. “You helped him keep hundreds of Dragon Kings imprisoned as the victims of his sick experiments.”
She exhaled. Her shoulders slumped, which was a surprise. Had she really expected anything different from the Giva? “Your mind won’t be changed by anything I say.”
Without looking at him again, she resumed her slow, careful push through the ruins, searching, not knowing what her eyes—her soul—needed to find.
“You can’t walk away from me.” His voice was no louder now, but more commanding. He possessed some trick of supreme confidence. It radiated from him like the pulse of heat from a raging furnace.
“I can if you don’t know the way to follow,” she said.
The hair on the backs of her arms and neck lifted—such susceptible little pores, awakened by the smallest wash of fear. The Giva, however, was no slight threat. The Tigony were like turbine engines. They pulled bits of electricity out of the air, down to the barest hint of static, then whirled and intensified them into storms worthy of the mighty Zeus throwing lightning bolts. The Pet briefly wondered if Malnefoley was descended from the Tigony man who must have inspired timeless Greek myths of Mount Olympus.
“You’ll come back with me,” he said, his voice darkly ominous. “Now.”
She turned a corner, then another, looking back only briefly.
He was the revered, hated, distrusted, undeniable Malnefoley of Tigony.
He should’ve looked ridiculous wearing an Armani suit in the middle of an abandoned archaeological site. Yet, tall and imposing, his body was built for well-tailored clothing. Electricity snapped from his fingers and arced like a heavenly rainbow across his aristocratic features. The sun was merciless, but it cast shadows as it dipped toward the west. The Giva banished shadow. He was completely illuminated. Blue eyes were bluer. Cheekbones were more dramatic. Blond hair was transformed into filaments of gold.
He bore his considerable power as if it were featherlight.
Surrounded by the snapping proof of his clan’s magnificence, he adopted a grim, humorless smile. “Don’t make me repeat myself. And don’t give me reason to lose my temper.”
“You won’t hurt me. I spent enough months detained in your Tigony fortress to know that. You’re too convinced of my worth.”
Her heartbeat was a metronome that kept time with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, pounding a frightened tempo in her chest. She had survived so much, and she would survive the Giva in all his tempestuous conceit. But surviving was wearisome.
Rest was a word from another language.
Cadmin was waiting for her. Somewhere. The Pet could only pick her way through the rubble and wait for the worst to happen, let it pass through her, and move on. That had been her life. That would always be her life. She gave herself a moment to absorb the sadness and pain, then reduced it down and down and down until she could breathe.
When it came, the bolt of electricity stole her vision, obliterated her ability to hear, and seemed to peel back layer after layer of skin. In the moment between strike and agony, she was glad she couldn’t see her half-bared arms, for fear of finding exposed bone rather than healthy flesh.
But the agony would not be denied. Her heart’s metronome stopped its clicking smash. She blinked three times and fell to the rocky ground.
* * *
The crackle and fire in Mal’s veins was like having indulged in the strongest spirits. No, even stronger. Lava replaced blood. He was made of lightning and his pulse boomed like thunder. The release of a single bolt of concentrated energy was practical; it did the trick. But it was also a tease. A woman sliding slim, feminine hands between his thighs, massaging, urging, then jerking away—that would’ve been less frustrating. When he let his gift build and build, it was such a temptation to let it all go.
Yet he had taught himself restraint a very long time ago. He was cautious in his use of violence, no matter the resentment that simmered deep in his bones. His temper, if left unchecked, could level cities. He knew firsthand.
As the head of the Council that served and oversaw the governments of the Five Clans, he was the consummate politician. In truth, he was a warrior forced to live a lie. He was no politician, not in his heart and his blackest soul.
That didn’t mean he was prone to giving in to the urge to solve disputes with force. His temper was ever-present, but it was a constant reminder of his younger, deadlier self. It was a part of him he constantly needed to restrain, for the sake of the Dragon Kings.
Dr. Aster’s Pet, however, was an exception.
Unlike members of Clan Pendray with their berserker furies, the Tigony were a refined people. Mal knew his gift’s potential down to the slightest variable. To deliver his electric punch, he had taken into account an estimation of the woman’s weight and physical condition, and even the ambient temperature. The result was a strike strong enough to knock her out for no more than two minutes, without lasting damage.
Then he breathed. He put his fleeting, petulant anger away. For two decades, he’d been the Honorable Giva, even when behaving like a calm, neutral leader had constricted him like a full-body straightjacket. That entailed rational thought, smooth negotiations, and measured discussion—the training he’d received from his parents, the heads of the Tigony royal house. For years, he’d kept his powers close like a gambler holding a straight flush.
The Pet was far too canny for his liking. He needed her back in the Tigony stronghold. And he needed her to start talking. That meant finding her in that tangled labyrinth. She’d dropped to the ground following his blast, behind the rugged half walls of the ruins.
Five days before, she’d escaped the stronghold of Clan Tigony, high in the mountains of Greece. He didn’t know how. None of his guards—loyal and tested—knew how. It was as if she’d transformed into air, swished through ventilation shafts, and caught the first breeze south to Crete. Yet she told the truth: A woman who feared getting caught would’ve made a better point of hiding. When he asked humans about an unusual, plain-speaking, coltish young woman with wild raven-black hair, the answers had been quick and sure.
She had served Dr. Aster as his devoted companion—so devoted that no one referred to her as anything other than the Pet. She must know the madman’s secrets, including how he was able to help Dragon Kings conceive. A woman connected to the highest echelon of the Aster cartel was invaluable.
Why was she here? What scheme was she enacting? Something on behalf of the Asters?
That didn’t ring true. If she wanted to remain with the insane doctor, she would’ve escaped with the man when Mal had helped liberate his cousin from the Asters’ laboratories in the Canadian tundra. Instead, the Pet had stayed behind. She had surrendered to Mal without protest. Every minute since had been a study in silence and frustration—silence from her, and frustration strong enough to consume his patience.
He didn’t have time for this.
After removing his suit coat, he wadded it into a ball. The expensive fabric served as protection as he vaulted one of the jagged half walls. Navigating one at a time, he hoisted himself up using the coat as padding for his hands. The ancient, crumbling rock was flaked and chipped like shale honed to razors.
He topped the last wall. A jerk behind his knees sent him sprawling onto the unforgiving ground. The Pet. She’d been pressed flat against the wall, waiting for him.
His head connected with a boulder the size of a large melon.
“Bathatéi,” he shouted, using the worst curse in the shared language of the Dragon Kings.
The descending sun stole his vision. He jerked his head to the side by instinct alone. Metal scraped against rock. Sparks shot against his cheek. Those sparks might not have been visible to the naked eye, but he absorbed their minute flashes of power. He snatched them out of the air and armored his skin with the living equivalent of an electrical fence.
The Pet landed another blow, in the form of brass knuckles against his breastbone. Thudding pain shot out from the center of his chest, while she screamed. Electricity arced from the knuckles to his chest and back again. She landed on her ass, her elfin features enraged. Telltale quivers made her muscles jump and twitch. But she didn’t give up. She landed two more hits, one against his temple, and as he rolled—again by instinct—one to the base of his spine.
Part of him conceded that the strike was perfect. Part of him was too enraged to care.
She landed atop his chest, squatting. Her boots were heavy. They fortified her slight weight. Beneath his dress shirt, Mal’s skin was stretched by the industrial treads of their soles.
The Pet grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked his head off the ground. “You’re bleeding.”
“That would be your fault.”
“The rock’s fault. I take credit for making you fall.” She shoved his head back down, then smeared her palm across his shirt. He caught the distinctly coppery smell of blood.
He was more surprised that her touch seemed designed to enflame and entice, as much as serve a practical purpose. Just how much had Dr. Aster, that psychotic fifty-something sadist, taught her in all means of combat?
Anger wasn’t a strong enough word for the flames gathering in his hands. His palms felt as if beetles and maggots wiggled across his skin. The only way to banish it was to let the electricity build and burn—then unleash it.
He whirled away. She didn’t lose her balance but had to jump to the side. She was petite and agile. The way she’d recovered from his initial blast was impressive. Both stood in loose fighting stances. Only now, she held a switchblade.
“You don’t experience pain,” he said, squaring off against her.
“I experience pain. You’d rather think that I don’t.”
He called on deep muscle memory to fight her hand-to-hand. Another concentrated, precise strike took time to build, but his was already prepped and ready to burst. He had always been more powerful than most of his clansmen—so quick to gather more and more energy into his personal arsenal. At that moment he could’ve blown up a mountain, but he didn’t want to lobotomize her. Martial training was the only alternative.
He swept his leg to try and catch behind her calves, but she jumped straight up, then landed with the ease of a cat. She twirled to one side and stabbed him twice in the shoulder. The sharp spike of her assault made him grunt. Her control of the blade was faster than he would’ve thought possible. Was she of Clan Garnis? So scattered as to be nicknamed the Lost, the Garnis possessed amazing senses and reflexes, but her features were more delicate than those hearty nomads.
He had yet to determine the Pet’s clan, or even her gift from the Dragon.
Still more mysteries he intended to solve.
Mal caught her trailing wrist. He yanked her against his body, spun, and used that momentum to slam her against one of the half walls. She caught her balance by gripping the razor-sharp shale. Her shriek was as wild as it was anguished. She dropped the switchblade. Mal tried to pin her, but the attempt wasn’t fast enough. When was the last time he’d used his body to fight? His muscles were unfamiliar weapons, but they were weapons he relished rediscovering.
She launched off the wall, which added power to her punch. Brass knuckles connected with his jaw.
He reeled. His lip was split. More sparks crackled where her metal met his skin. She squealed as the electricity spiked up her arm. They circled one another like two starving wolves whose only option was cannibalism.
“I’m walking away now,” she said simply.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“Then we keep fighting until one of us is a cripple. How long until you lose your temper and do too much damage? I’ll be useless to you.”
Mal breathed heavily through his nose. He would’ve rather dangled over a volcano than have his options so limited.
“Do you want to be caught?” he asked. “You could’ve bribed any bus driver and boat captain who helped you escape the mainland.”
“I have nothing to use as a bribe.”
“Women always do.”
Her eyes became slits, her expression murderous. “Not an option.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m looking for something.”
“I don’t know.”
“Nothing good will come from testing me,” he said. “Because you’re right. I might lose my temper. I might destroy the only link I have to the Aster cartel and the answer to Dragon King conception. Not that it’ll matter to you by then.”
“A tempest in a suit. Does the Council know who sits at the head of their table?”
“No.” He stepped forward. “Do you think I need you in particular? You’re convenient. You’re valuable. Yet other Dragon Kings are connected with the cartels. I’ll find them, one by one, just like I found you, until I get the answers our people need.”
She tsked as if patronizing a child. “I’m sure altruism propels you.”
“What do you mean?”
Standing to her full height for the first time, which wasn’t very tall at all, she smirked. She packed so much disdain in the single lift of a midnight brow. “Our people? No. In your heart, Honorable Giva, you only want to win. At any price.”