Dhoran slammed a massive hand against the desk, leaving a palm-sized depression in solid wood. A crash like a thunderclap followed, echoing inside the close rock walls of the dim, fire lit chamber. A dull ache raced up his arm, jabbing at his elbow before exploding in his shoulder. Anger overriding his pain, he spun around, striding the few steps across the smooth stone floor, and seized the front of Tashon’s black cloak. Sharp claws punctured the heavy cloth, the satisfying sensation taking Dhoran’s mind off the stabbing spasms edging up his neck.
A mewling whimper escaped Tashon’s quivering lips and he cowered, his head tucked inside the cowl of his dark cloak.
With a powerful jerk and a shredding rip, Dhoran lifted the trembling old Socar Batah and leaned in, glaring under the woven hood. A low growl rumbled from deep in Dhoran’s chest, rising to a raging bellow. “Just what . . . are my armies . . . doing . . . in . . . Tamaagra?”
Tashon’s round, dark eyes blinked, his body cringing with every syllable.
Dhoran’s fingers tightened around the cloak front, rending more of the heavy material. “They’ve bungled a simple task. Complicated a situation that should have been dealt with days ago.” Fiery heat flowed through Dhoran’s extremities, a burning equal to his rage. Mounting anger matched the volume of his roaring. “If I must return to Tamaagra, those in command will no longer need to worry about gaining control in the city. Or anywhere else.” Eyes narrowing to slits, he said in a menacing rumble, “They will all be dead.”
Breath hissing, teeth gnashing, Dhoran punctuated his outrage with a steady shake of Tashon’s cloak, jerking the shuddering old Socar Batah around like a rag puppet. “A terrorist, a rebel upstart, a common street meerat from Tamaagra’s squalid alleys. How did this human, this outcast, this fringe dweller . . . penetrate . . . my . . . stronghold . . . with explosives?” Straightening, Dhoran released his grip on Tashon, and spun to face the fire blazing in the hearth.
Dhoran stared into dancing flames, the usual comfort of the fire’s crackle and snap covered by a quick, thick pulse pounding in his ears. He glanced down at warm firelight shimmering against the red-gold scales of his muscular arms. His focus shifted from anger to the visual evidence of his complete transformation. Thrilled by the sight, he turned his hands in the soft yellow glow, catching variations of light and shadow playing across long fingers tipped with glistening, sharp black claws. Content with the feel of this body, its strength, its familiarity, his chest expanded, drawing in a deep, calming, breath. The scent of dank musky stone mingled with the faint trace of smoke, cooling the wild rush of heat hammering through his veins.
“My Lord.” Tashon cleared his throat. His slight voice quavered, accompanied by the rustling of fabric. “My Lord, the . . . fringe dweller was captured before she could do any damage.”
Twisting around, Dhoran held up his hand, stopping Tashon’s account. “She? A female?” Head tilted, a thin-lipped smile slid over sharp teeth. “The one who started this rebellion in Tamaagra?” A light, floating sensation flooded Dhoran’s extremities. “The one called Bryn?”
“I don’t know her name, My Lord. But, your loyal guard is bringing her through the outer tunnel now.” Tashon took a step back. “I thought you would want to know. I—I can arrange to—to have her brought here?”
Pivoting to face the fire’s soothing warmth again, Dhoran shook his head with a slow deliberate movement. “No. Not here. Take her below, to the detention level. I’ll talk to her there. Now. Time to put an end to Bryn and her pathetic little band of followers.” Shoulders squared, he turned toward the door. The long silky mane flowing from the crown of his head down the center of his back swayed with the action. From the corner of his eye, Dhoran caught a quick sheen of golden-brown hair before he strode out of the firelight’s radiance. The dim overhead lighting in the corridor didn’t accentuate the vibrant colors of his red-gold scales or the golden tints of his mane. Pity. “Tashon.”
“My Lord?” The soft flurry of Tashon’s bare feet on stone muffled under his thick, long cape.
“See to it sconces are added to the corridors.” Dhoran kept a rapid pace and held one clawed finger pointed toward the passing ceiling. “Spaced no more than one meter apart.” He gestured from one side to the other. “On both sides of the rock walls.”
“In all the corridors, My Lord? Throughout all the warrens inside the mountain?”
Dhoran slowed, then paused, glancing back over his shoulder. “Is there a problem with my request?”
Trotting forward, Tashon stopped and hugged the wall, bending at the waist in an awkward bow. “No, My Lord.”
Tipping his head to the left until a cracking from his neck echoed in the tight corridor, then to the right with a similar snap, Dhoran nodded. “Good.”
She advanced from the far end of the carved rock corridor through a flux of murky shadows and dim yellow light under buzzing fixtures. Head high, chin thrust forward, her boots drummed a steady cadence over the rough stone floor. Two Socar Batah escorts flanked her. A third in step behind.
Her expression unflinching, she stared, boldfaced, in his direction. Water dripped from the dark interior of a holding cell on Dhoran’s right, the drops keeping tempo with the quick footsteps of her approach.
The tap of her boot heels against stone intensified. The sound swelled, booming in Dhoran’s ears, matching the surge of his pounding pulse. A pang of fear shot across his skin, the charge prickling at the base of his neck. He shifted his weight, fingers curling into fists.
A bruise colored the skin around her swollen left eyelid. Crusted blood bordered a laceration over her forehead and right temple. Scraped and streaked with dirt, her bound hands hung limp in front of her. Although taller than the Socar Batah in step beside her, their thick muscling made her appear delicate, almost harmless.
Dhoran knew better. This human female was a threat to him and to his still tenuous grasp on Tamaagra.
One of her escorts reached out and grabbed her arm, yanking her to a stop a meter in front of Dhoran. A quiet growl slipped from between sharp, bared teeth. “Lower your gaze before the master.”
She turned her head to stare at him, eyes narrowing. “He’s not my master. And get your paws off me before I—”
“Silence,” the guard hissed. The single word stretched into an outraged yowl. Pointed ears flattening against his furry round head, he tightened his clawed fingers and jerked her sideways.
Dhoran stepped forward, waving the Socar Batah away.
Lips drawn over yellowed fangs, the guard released her. All three Socar Batah stepped back at their master’s command. They dropped into low crouches, ready to spring, dark round eyes narrowing.
This must be Bryn. Bold. Fearless. Outspoken. Impertinent. “Tashon, you must see to our guest’s injuries. Send for a healer.”
“Immediately, My Lord.”
From the communication console behind Dhoran, a Shifter fumbled with the controls until reaching a human in the command center on an upper level. “Sssend a healer to dentenssssion.”
Dhoran sighed, a low snarl rumbling in his throat, and made a mental note to assign at least one human tech to detention. He raised a clawed hand and gestured to the lighted cell on his left. “Please.” He shrugged. “There’s no reason we can’t be civil.”
“Really? I can think of a few.” Hands clasped, she swung them up over her head and leapt forward. Entwined fingers making a double fist, she lashed out in a downward arc, grimacing with the effort to reach him.
Her strike passed centimeters from Dhoran’s face, the air of its passage brushing his cheek. He stood his ground, but that prickling fear returned, charging along his arms, fingertips tingling.
The Socar Batah guards sprang, seizing her, dragging her into the cell.
She thrashed and kicked, face burning with anger, her stare piercing.
Meeting her defiant glare, Dhoran backed away. He shook his head, the rumble of his voice low and threatening. “Have it your way.”
The guards tossed her into the corner and spun away, dashing back through the door. The last one out slammed a hand against a button on the small cell’s control panel, closing the thick metal access with a reverberating bang.
Above the door’s panel, a monitor glowed to life. Dhoran watched the grainy black and white image of Bryn scrambling upright, and rushing toward the door. The heavy access thumped closed before she reached the threshold. Panting, she searched the walls, located the monitor’s feed, and staring into the tiny device, smiled.
Depressing a button on the panel, Dhoran said, “Now Bryn, you’ll find cooperation on your part will make this brief time of captivity go much smoother.” His grumbling chuckle echoed against stone walls.
Mouth dropping open, she swayed, her legs unsteady.
Dhoran chuckled again. “Yes. I know who you are. The trouble maker from Tamaagra.”
Her shoulders slumped, voice tinny through the speaker. “I see. Well . . ., this changes things.” She turned away from the monitor’s feed, and stood stone still, facing the impenetrable rock of the cell’s back wall. Head bowed, a quiet litany of unintelligible words carried through the speakers.
Dhoran listened. Her soft chanting reminded him of other prisoners held in similar cells and their incessant and useless prayers. Foolish. He started to turn away, a single word mingling with the others catching his attention. No, not a word. A name. Sean.
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