“Don’t be scared,” Emmitt murmured over his shoulder.
Riyah Mercer clutched her clipboard closer to her chest and smiled at the back of the security guard’s thinning hair. That was so nice of him to care—
“Because they’ll sense that fear and kill you.”
The smile fell from her lips as a massive silverback shifter slammed his entire body against one of the cell doors. The bars gonged with the force. The low noise faded when he paced away, but then he turned and charged the bars again. Gong! This time he stayed, huge hands wrapped around the bars, his eyes totally empty and staring right through her.
Emmitt gave a quick flick of his fingers. “You’ll get used to that. He’s been doing it for a month straight. That’s Titus.”
“I don’t think it’s healthy for him to be caged up like that then,” she said, unable to keep her eyes from the giant.
“Murdered three people in their sleep. Humans. Still feel sorry for him?”
Riyah swallowed bile and ripped her gaze away from the insane animal. The next cage held a man as tall as a building and covered in tattoos, with a feral smile for her as she passed. He spat at the floor right by her shoes and uttered something deplorable about what he was going to do to her body so he could listen to her scream.
She scurried to catch up to Emmitt’s long strides.
“Look,” he muttered. “I’ll be completely honest. I voted against you.”
“A woman don’t belong in this hell. That’s what this is, Mercer. It’s hell. The inmates here? They aren’t what you are used to dealing with at your last prison. They are monsters, and they will slit your throat the second they get the chance. Do you know how many casualties have come with this job?”
“I don’t want to know.”
“Seventeen since this facility opened three years ago. All humans. All strong men who were trained in combat, trained to subdue the demons who live in these walls. Even now, you don’t realize it, but you’re being hunted.” Emmitt’s gaze bore into her as he jammed a finger at a larger cell with an enormous lion pacing in front of the bars, his gold eyes never leaving her. “Meet one of the dominants of the Dunn Pride. He’s set to be released next week. He’ll come after me and the other guards, and after you the second they let him out. He’s been here three times now. He always hunts the guards. A snapped Dunn lion? He can’t even help hunting us. Three strikes, and he’s out.”
“What does that mean?”
“Means we get to finally put that fucker down. His pride refused to do the dirty work, so it’s on us now.”
“Put him down? Like…kill him?”
Emmitt sighed as he slid his master key card into a reader on the wall. “I can tell you won’t last a day here. Your sympathy for these animals will get you hurt or worse. Like I said. I voted against you, but this was the higher-ups’ decision. They’re desperate, and you’re the Hail Mary. Lucky fuckin’ you. You’re gonna burn to ashes for this job.”
Her hands shook so bad she clutched her clipboard tighter. She could do this. She had to. There was no choice. When Clara Daye asked a person to do the impossible, they did it. Or they died trying. Because she was the mother of the Red Dragon, and only Clara and Riyah knew what she was really doing here. Not even Damon Daye, the Blue Dragon himself, knew what his mate was up to. Clara Daye was good and done letting her mate run this show, and she’d just taken control without anyone in Damon’s Mountains knowing. She’d done it quick, too. She’d approached Riyah last week, and look, here she was, seven days later, with a high-clearance job at the most secure shifter prison in the world, on her way to the underground bowels of hell, as Emmitt had so eloquently called it, to sit in a room with the most terrifying creature on the entire planet.
And what was wrong with her? She wasn’t scared of Vyr, like she should be. No, she was scared of failing. Scared of the monsters behind her, but not the one below her.
If this was hell, then Vyr Daye was the devil himself, and she would be meeting him within minutes.
Maybe she was in shock. Or perhaps she was shut down because of the whirlwind of the last week, but she only half-listened to Emmitt explain how to use her card to get down to the lower levels where they kept “the evil ones,” as the old guard called them.
Evil. That word… Riyah had seen real evil, and so far, none of the shifters she’d passed gave off those vibes. Emmitt’s definition was probably vastly different from her own.
A week ago, she’d quit the prison she’d worked for the last year, packed up her life, and moved to the Arizona desert to likely die by fire, like Emmitt had said. She felt numb as the elevator took them deeper and deeper underground. The temperature changed gradually, growing colder and colder until gooseflesh raised across her forearms.
“Bring a jacket next time. They keep it cold down here for the dragon. He’s like a snake. The cold slows him down. If it gets too warm, he’s even harder to manage. He thrives in heat. He withers in cold. We learned that little trick with Dark Kane.”
Riyah snapped back to attention at the mention of the End of Days. “You worked with the Black Dragon?”
“Call him what he is, Mercer. Apocalypse. Vyr is even worse. Not for long, though.”
She shook her head, utterly baffled. “Dark Kane was never in shifter prison. How did you work with him?”
“Not with him. I worked on him. You signed the confidentiality agreement. You utter a word outside of these walls, and your entire life will be set on fire. This place is shifter prison. This place is also how we fix the baddies. It’s also a research facility.” The elevator made a hideous buzzing noise and the doors opened. The sterile white hallway split in two. Emmitt pointed down the right tunnel. “Research. We’ll tour the New IESA lab after your interview. Boss says it’s imperative you get that done today. So far, Vyr has refused to talk to anyone. It makes things…difficult.” He gestured to follow him down the left hallway. “This hall is what we call the highway to hell. And since you have a sympathy problem, we’re making a pitstop.”
They passed several thick glass cells with shifters, all in human form. She had no guess what their animals were, but now she was sensing the darkness that Emmitt hinted at. The baddies. These were deemed the worst, hidden down here away from the rest of the world for its protection.
The hall seemed to stretch for eternity as her heels clacked neatly on the tile, echoing with each step she took. Twice, Emmitt gave her shoes a narrow-eyed sideways glance. “Please don’t wear victim shoes to work anymore. You can’t run in those.”
“I’m not a guard. I’m a counselor, and this place is secure, right? Why would I need to run?”
“Seventeen,” Emmitt murmured, sliding his card at a security panel beside a door. He shoved it open and glared at her as she passed through. “Don’t matter who you are down here. The second you forget that number, you’ll become eighteen.”
The room was dark, but as they entered the small space, the lights clicked on by a sensor. There was a desk covered in notes, a computer, security screens, and an empty Cheetos package. Through the window, the lights in a cavernous room came on, too. And sitting there on a bare mattress, on an iron bed, surrounded by black scorch marks, the Red Dragon himself stared back at the glass—right at her.
She stood there frozen, unable to move a single muscle, as if ensnared in a cobra’s stare. He looked so different from the man she’d seen on the news, from the pictures Clara had sent of him as a boy and a young adult. His red hair was burred close to the scalp, and he wore a plain white shirt that clung to the defined muscles of his broad shoulders and chest. Tattoo ink peeked out from under the sleeve, decorating his tensed bicep on his left arm. He looked pale, and there was a long, fresh scar that ran from his temple back, back, disappearing behind his head. There was no greeting smile on his lips. In fact, there were no smile lines around his mouth, as if the man had never smiled a day in his life. His cheeks were hollow, and he had bags under his eyes. Even wrecked, he was the most striking man she’d ever seen, and her heart banged against her chest as she realized why he looked so demolished. It was his eyes.
One was the color of a summer sky, and the other was silver with an elongated pupil.
Her chest physically hurt.
Fuck the New IESA and fuck what they were doing to Vyr. She wanted to puke. Eventually, they would take his dragon. They would kill him, and that beast would be still and dead inside him. Both his eyes would freeze and remain silver with those reptilian pupils, as if his dragon was a staring corpse inside him.
Her chest heaved as she fought to gain control of her emotions for Emmitt. Right now, she wanted to kill him. Riyah wasn’t violent by nature, but she already felt like she knew Vyr because she knew his mother, who loved him like he was the sun and the moon. This was a man born with a monster in him. Not his fault. He was being tortured for something he had no control over. Her eyes stung, and she blinked hard. Clearing her throat, she carefully asked, “Why was he sitting in the dark? And if you’re so concerned about what a beast he is, why is there no one in here watching him?”
“He is a creature of darkness, Mercer. He’s comfortable there.”
“Yeah, the goddamn scorch marks all over the walls back your theory.”
“Seventeen is sitting in the belly of the beast.”
“W-what?” she asked, ripping her attention from the man.
Emmitt made his way to the computer and brought the screen to life. “No one is in here observing because this is my office. There are two more across the way. Those have someone in them at all times. We didn’t leave the Red Dragon alone. It’s against the rules to not have at least two rooms occupied at all times in case he goes off the rails again.”
“Again,” she repeated, her gaze drifting back to Vyr. He looked harmless enough, just sitting there with his fists clenched between his knees. Just to test, she moved a few steps to the side, and his gaze followed her.
“Can he see me?”
“No. This is two-way glass. He sees his own reflection.” Emmitt looked up from his screen at Vyr. Quick as a whip, the dragon shifter with the vacant eyes turned his head to the left. Huh. So Emmitt didn’t realize Vyr could sense them. When Emmitt gave his attention to the glowing computer screen again, Vyr blinked slowly and dragged his gaze directly back to her.
Chills rippled up her arms.
Clara had kept some things to herself, clearly. Riyah had a moment. She had a moment when she wondered if she’d been tricked into this, when she wondered at Clara’s end game. Was Riyah at more risk than the red-haired grizzly shifter of Damon’s Mountains had told her? She’d sworn up and down that Riyah would be safe with her son, but Vyr’s gaze was filled with such fiery hatred, she was seriously questioning what the hell she was doing here.
“Here you go. I like to show this to all newbies as a warning.” He stood back and let her have a better view of the video that was playing on the oversize monitor.
On it, a lone man approached Vyr, who looked cool and relaxed. At that point, his hair was shaved on the sides but longer on top. There wasn’t a scar on his head. His eyes were piercing blue, and he was leaned back against the wall, one knee bent and his arm resting on it like he didn’t have a care in the world. He smiled and seemed to say something cordially.
“What are they saying?” she asked.
“Don’t know. There’s no volume on this footage.”
She was calling bullshit. There was volume—he just wasn’t letting her hear it. She had good instincts for when someone was lying. No, she wasn’t a shifter, but she was something people here didn’t know about or understand. Emmitt was stepping slowly to her bad side—a very unfortunate place to be.
Riyah set her clipboard down and locked her arms against the desk, squinted, and focused on the two men having a conversation on the grainy footage. Vyr clenched his fist once in the video, the muscles in his forearm flexing, but his face was still relaxed. He was even smiling. Sure, it looked like the devil’s smile, but it still counted. He was talking now, his masculine lips forming words she would’ve given just about anything to hear.
Other than that clenched fist, nothing seemed off, and when he relaxed his hand, she naturally relaxed, too. Big mistake. With zero warning, a massive red dragon exploded from Vyr like a bomb going off. Fire covered the screen, and then there was the guard, burning. The Red Dragon opened his mouth, full of rows of razor sharp teeth, and the burning man disappeared into his maw. Vyr tossed his head back, swallowed, and lowered his gaze to the camera. He tensed and blasted fire onto it, and the screen went dark.
Utterly shocked, she stood there panting, traumatized, eyes glued to that black screen, wishing she could wash the memory of that awful few seconds from her mind.
Vyr really was a man-eater. A guiltless one. He was a monster, like Emmitt had said.
“Well, lookee there. You dropped your sympathy. Good. You’ll live longer without it. Come on, Mercer.”
“W-where are we going?”
Emmitt held open the door and smiled slowly. “You’re going to meet the Red Dragon.”