Lifeblood, p.11
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       Lifeblood, p.11
 

         Part #2 of Everlife series by Gena Showalter  

  One possible explanation...his words caused the reaction? But is he right or he is wrong?

  The tingle becomes an ache, but I'm in no shape to puzzle out the reason. "Forget about me. Let's talk about you. I've been training with you, but I have no idea what your position is."

  "I'm a Messenger." He practically pounds his chest like a gorilla. "One of the best. I whisper words of encouragement to Troikan loyalists, inspire Unsigned humans to speak with TLs and report any findings to Laborers."

  Archer was the best at his job, too. "I know why your brother defected to Troika. Why did you?"

  He tenses before he admits, "I wanted more time with him."

  Oh...ouch. A barbed lump grows in my throat. "Because of me, he's gone."

  "Every day I'm more convinced he can win the Resurrection, despite the fact a Conduit is in the running. The way everyone reacted to your involvement in his demise...he was more loved than I realized."

  His words both tear me down and lift me up.

  To me, the Resurrection proves Myriad is wrong and souls of the dead never Fuse with human souls in order to return to the Land of the Harvest. To someone like, say, Killian, it might prove only Myriadians experience Fusion.

  A lie. Only a lie. One of so many.

  Killian, like everyone else in Myriad, believes my spirit is Fused with one of their great Generals. He also believes his mother's spirit is Fused with a human, that she's a new person, alive and well.

  Will he see this situation as I do, or as I suspect? The answer is so important. After all, our beliefs direct our steps, leading us along certain paths.

  Lies are shackles. Truth is freedom.

  Lies will keep us apart. Truth can bring us together.

  "Can any spirit win, or only the ones who died this year?" I ask. "And when does the Resurrection take place?

  "Only the spirits who died this year. And in less than a month."

  What? Hardly any time to enact a plan of action. "Why do it? I mean, don't get me wrong. I'm overjoyed it happens. I just don't understand the reason."

  "You just named the reason. Our joy."

  I chew on my bottom lip. "I'd like to speak with those who have been resurrected in the past."

  He sighs. "I figured you'd be asking for an introduction and already made inquiries. Don't take this the wrong way, okay, but those I've spoken to so far refuse to meet with you. Free will, you know."

  There's a right way to take that? Talk about kicking a girl while she's down. "How many still live?"

  "Not as many as you'd think. Once they experience the Rest, they are ready to go back. They aren't exactly motivated to stick around."

  Great! My odds of success are dwindling fast. "What happens when the resurrected die again?"

  "They reenter the Rest, and they are excluded from the next vote."

  We pass through the arched doorway leading to the coliseum, where Levi and the others are waiting.

  "I still can't believe I'm working with a General," Victor says quietly. "While I trained with Messengers, I worked with a Leader. And really, you should be trained by the princess, and what an honor that would be, but--don't tell anyone I said this--Levi is better. He's stronger, smarter and in charge of our first line of defense. The fact that you're working with him...that you'll one day outrank him... I'm in awe."

  There's no time to respond. Not that I know what to say. I didn't have a clue we'd been so highly honored.

  Clay and Meredith notice my poor condition and rush over to worry and demand answers. Elizabeth doesn't reveal a hint of emotion, and I wonder...is she the owner of the board? Did she perform the hit-and-run?

  "Back in line," Levi calls.

  With a wince and muttered apology, my friends return to their positions.

  He turns his scowl to me. "You're late." When he sees the Lifeblood soaking my top, he barks, "What happened?"

  I watch Elizabeth as I say, "I was attacked."

  Her expression never wavers. If she's the culprit, she expresses zero guilt or glee.

  Levi taps his palm, his keyboard glowing. "Why haven't you had any manna? Why haven't I received a medical report?"

  "I don't have any manna on hand, and I didn't visit a Healer." I change the subject before he can insist I take time out to visit one. I'll never risk being benched. "So where are Reed and Kayla?" My wingmen.

  "Elsewhere," he says, and offers nothing more. "Why didn't you visit a Healer?" He removes a necklace from his neck and tosses it my way. "They're here to help you."

  "I'm fine." I catch the chain and find a vial of manna dangling from the end. "I'll be fine."

  "Whoever did this... I will find out, and I will ensure justice is done." The fierceness of his tone... I shudder, kind of feeling sorry for the culprit now. "In the meantime, drink the manna, get the vial refilled after practice, and wear the necklace without fail in case something like this ever happens again."

  I drain the contents and hang the now-empty vial from my neck. My wounds...fail to heal. Disappointment knocks at my door.

  Before Levi notices and decides to go ahead and send me to the Healer, I say, "Where's Deacon?"

  "Out on assignment." Levi's gaze slides over me, his frown deepening. As if he sees something I don't. "Have you decoded your Key?"

  Ugh! He has a one-track mind. "You know the answer. Why do you continue to ask?"

  Alejandro walks up behind him and pats him on the shoulder, but smiles at me. "He continues to ask so your determination to succeed will grow--or at least your determination to shout yes in his face so he'll finally stop asking."

  The two Generals shake hands and share a look of concern. For me?

  "Time to build your stamina," Levi tells me. "Run around the columns until you collapse."

  I hate building my stamina, but today I do it without complaint. I gotta get stronger. Gotta get tougher. I run and run, pushing myself to my limits.

  All the while Levi and Alejandro chat, and neither seems happy about what they are discussing. I wonder...has the Penumbra situation gotten worse?

  When I trip over my own foot, I force my attention to remain on the track. I run like the wind. A sickly, dying wind. To my consternation, my wounds continue leaking Lifeblood.

  Just like bodies, spirits sweat with exertion, and all too soon I'm drenched. My limbs burn and tremble, exhaustion settling in, but something amazing happens, too. The sticky film I noticed earlier finally fades. I don't have the strength to hold on to my resentment about the attack--and that's exactly what had adhered to me. Resentment. Levi must have seen it.

  My wounds heal at last, every hint of pain fading.

  Lesson learned. Resentment blocks the effects of manna. Emotions matter.

  I run another lap...and another. I'm certain I'm about to fall over when Meredith appears on the sidelines to cheer me on. Victor joins her, the two giving me a mental and physical boost. I make it another three laps. Clay throws water on my face, cooling me down, and I make it another two.

  Elizabeth stands in the distance, watching with thinly veiled dislike until Levi commands the entire group to follow me. Alejandro has left him in a bad mood.

  With my teammates around me, I run another lap...four...six...

  A thousand times, I want to give up, but there's no way I'll be the first to go down. A good soldier endures hardship, and that's that. I will endure.

  "All right," Levi finally calls. "Enough."

  Still I run another lap. When I go for a second, my body screams, "That's it, no more." I collapse. Grass and dirt fill my mouth, but I'm too busy wheezing to care.

  Levi marches over extends his arms. "Take my hands. Send a stream of Light into me."

  Though I'm soaked in sweat, I sit up and link my fingers through his. I close my eyes to better concentrate on the vivid rays and swirling warmth in my heart and mind. The home of the Grid.

  I reach out with every intention of latching on to...nothing. I latch on to nothing, the Light dancing just out of m
y reach.

  Levi releases me, and I open my eyes. I expect to see disappointment, but he smiles encouragingly and gives me a freaking noogie.

  "You've proved you can persevere when you're injured and tired. You've proved you can let go of upset feelings to do what needs doing. I'm pleased, Miss Lockwood."

  I struggle to tamp down the urge to preen and quip, "Try to contain your excitement on my behalf. Too many compliments will go to my head."

  One corner of his mouth curves up. "Tomorrow morning, you and your teammates will visit the infected human. You will observe her, nothing more. Unless she threatens human life, you will not speak to her or interact with her in any way. Not yet. Understand?"

  Finally! Progress! I mask my eagerness and give him a jaunty salute. "Sir, yes, sir."

  "Head to the Hall of Records in the Museum of Wisdom. Study our files on Dior Nichols."

  Whoa. Slam the breaks. "Did you say Dior Nichols?"

  "Yes. She is the one infected with Penumbra."

  I reel, a girl stuck on a spinning carnival ride. Dior is the twenty-year-old med student Archer tried to win for Troika. He fell in love with her in the process and would have succeeded if Killian hadn't stolen her away, convincing her to make covenant with Myriad and tricking her into agreeing to the worst terms of all time.

  The old Killian, I mean.

  "If you've never dealt with Penumbra," I say, "how can you be sure she's infected?"

  "I personally entered the Land of the Harvest to observe Miss Nichols. I saw the darkness writhing underneath her skin, watched that darkness attempt to jump on one of her friends. I have no doubts we're dealing with Penumbra."

  Dior Nichols, patient zero. This can't be a coincidence.

  Archer didn't just love her; he adored her, and he despised Killian for ruining her future.

  Killian hadn't used his usual method--straight-up seduction--so I'm not sure how he won her over. I only know he's expressed massive guilt.

  According to Dior's contract, she cannot help Troikan loyalists without earning a punishment. However, hospital policy states she can't turn anyone away due to their realm affiliation. A terrible catch-22.

  Twenty-two, the atomic number of titanium, which is harder than any rock. The number of players permitted on the field in American football. The number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

  "Do I have time to take a shower?" I ask Levi.

  He looks me over and winkles his nose. "No, but you're going to make time."

  Funny. I head to the locker room only to pause to look at him over my shoulder. "Do you ever wish the war would end?"

  "Yes. Of course," he replies without hesitation. "But the day we stop fighting is the day we're conquered."

  Didn't Meredith say the same? "What if Myriad wants to stop fighting, too?"

  "The citizens might crave peace, but their king will never allow it. He won't stop until he's dead--or every Troikan is."

  chapter eight

  * * *

  "When you cease seeking, you will find."

  --Myriad

  After a quick scrubbing, I emerge from the stall to find Meredith standing guard at the door. She hands me a white robe with white trim, a combination I haven't seen before, and exchanges the empty vial on my necklace for a full one.

  "Thank you," I say.

  She nods, her expression grave. "During Elizabeth's Firstlife, she lost her family at a young age and ended up bouncing from foster home to foster home. She wasn't always treated well. In her last home, it was so bad she ran away and ended up in all kinds of trouble. Archer was her TL, and he changed her life. When she came here a little over a year ago, she fell hard for a boy named Claus. She felt for him what you feel for Killian. The day you died, Killian killed Claus."

  I want to cover my ears and shake my head, no, no, no. I'd known Killian had ended her boyfriend's life. I hadn't known the rest. I hadn't known about the horrors of her Firstlife.

  My grandmother is forcing me to see Elizabeth as a person rather than a villain. A person with hopes, dreams and hurts, just like me.

  I want to snarl at her and tell her it will never work. I've been ridiculed, insulted and beaten by a heartless bitch.

  I want to hug Elizabeth close and comfort her while she cries.

  "Go on," Meredith says in an act of compassion. "You have a job to do."

  I force Elizabeth to the back of my mind. I'll figure out my feelings later. I kiss Meredith's cheek. "I love you," I say and haul butt to the Hall of Records.

  I remain on alert for any sort of attack. Catch me by surprise once, shame on me. Catch me by surprise twice, experience my wrath.

  When I reach my destination, I take a moment to appreciate the massive Victorian Gothic. Tall and sprawling, it is enclosed by a black brick-and-granite wall. A multitude of people rush in and out.

  In total, there are ten stained-glass windows. The three biggest depict (1) the Firstking, (2) the Secondking and (3) Princess Mariee with doves rising over her shoulders, their lovely white wings extended. The other seven windows line up in a single row, divided only by larger windows with clear glass.

  Between the Firstking and the Secondking are panels showing the Land of the Harvest, the sun and a tree in full bloom. Between the Prince of Doves and Princess Mariee are panels depicting the four seasons inside a single circle. A bird flies above it while a fish swims below it. The next panels feature a spirit on the upper half and a human on the lower half, the two reaching for each other. Finally, there's a window without an image, a simple pane of a glass with different shades of blue.

  Before me, an iron balustrade offers seven different openings that lead to a grand staircase in the center of the building. On each side is a picturesque bridge that climbs to the second floor, where seven columns create different archways. Between each arch is a roundel featuring a bronzed dove in various positions. On the ground, eating. On a bench. On a tree. In flight. Soaring through the clouds, soaring above the clouds and, finally, surrounded by a beam of amber Light.

  So much symbolism here. Too much to decipher all at once.

  I scale the steps, finding three granite panels between the columns attached to the wall, revealing carved friezes portraying fierce battle scenes. There are four pediment niches where flowers overflow, and between two are Reed and Kayla, who are holding stacks of books and vibrating with excitement.

  "This way." Kayla turns on a sandaled foot, the hem of her robe swaying with the movement. The material is light green with dark green trim, and labels her a Leader-in-training.

  Reed trails her, and I trail Reed. He's wearing a white robe with a green trim, signifying his status as a Laborer-in-training.

  The deeper we go, the more awed I am, the inside of the Hall even more elaborate than the outside, with domed ceilings and life-size sculptures of Generals who have led our armies into battle throughout the centuries. There are multiple chandeliers, but they aren't connected to the ceiling. The glowing teardrops are suspended in the air, dancing together to create different shapes and patterns.

  I'm mesmerized and trip over my own feet--twice.

  "Good going, graceful," a male quips.

  I turn, meeting Raanan's hard gaze. He's at a table, surrounded by books--and he just spoke to me, I realize. This is the first time I've ever heard his voice.

  "I'm hot, I know," he mutters. "No need to stare. Later, your fantasies will remind you of what I look like."

  I prefer him silent. And seriously, is he hitting on me--or himself? "What are you doing here?"

  "Studying for a test. I assume you're doing the same." His wry tone suggests I'm an idiot. Or at least borderline.

  "You assume wrong. I'm studying for a mission." Ooo-kay. My tone suggests I'm smug and prideful, two things a Troikan is not supposed to be. I end the conversation before I can throw witchy into the mix, giving him my back as I face my friends.

  Kayla and Reed have settled at the glass table next to Raanan's--great!--and they are arr
anging their books in rows of three. When they finish, sections of the glass depress, hiding the books beneath the surface while magnifying the pages over the surface.

  "Amazing." My voice echoes, and I cover my mouth with my fingers. "Sorry."

  "If you think that's cool, just wait." The strange thing is, her voice doesn't echo. To the table, she says, "Show me the text I've highlighted about Tenley Lockwood." She grins at me. "Everyone always wants to know what can be learned about them, but more than that, there is no better way to prove the information you read about others is correct."

  My cheeks flush as text appears on the glass. "Anyone can read about my life history? My mistakes?"

  Someone shushes me.

  Grin widening, Kayla takes my hand, places my palm on the table and, after a few seconds of confusion as a neon colors flash over my skin, she releases me.

  "There. You're now connected," she says.

  Connected?

  "After you've dealt with your bad decisions and embarrassing moments," she says, "they're redacted."

  "Dealt with?" I parrot. This time, my voice doesn't carry. I don't understand, but I can deal with only one mystery at a time.

  "You know...worked through, forgiven yourself and others, apologized, that kind of thing. Whatever you haven't dealt with, well, you still don't have to worry. Only Generals can access the bulk of that information."

  My heart pounds as I read the mostly-redacted file, Tenley Lockwood--thick black line--during her escape from Prynne Asylum. After--thick black line--with Archer Prince. Thick black line--with ML Killian Flynn. Thick black line--Prynne Asylum closed down.

  The asylum closed down?

  Well. Something becomes clear: no one ever gets away with a crime, and no secret will ever remain a secret. Whether in Firstlife or the Everlife, there will be a punishment or a reward.

  "Per Levi's request, I've already searched for your attacker," Kayla says. "So far, the incident hasn't appeared in anyone's file."

  "Okay, I've seen enough. Dismiss my file."

  She types into an invisible keyboard, and says, "Please show every sentence I've highlighted about Dior Nichols and reveal the accompanying photos."

  The text is replaced, and photographs of Dior Nichols in different stages of her life appear.

  Dior Magnolia Nichols visited with TL Elizabeth Winchester on November 1 seeking a way to break covenant with Myriad. We are proceeding accordingly.

 
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