Lifeblood, p.12
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       Lifeblood, p.12
 

         Part #2 of Everlife series by Gena Showalter  

  Court. Of course! The one and only way to null and void an Everlife covenant.

  Myriad must have learned about her possible defection and found a way to infect her with Penumbra.

  "What happens if Dior defects, but I fail to cleanse her of--you know?" I ask, back inside the pressure cooker, the setting jacked to high.

  "You won't fail," Reed says, but there's a catch in his voice.

  "Help me understand. Why make covenant with Dior now?" I croak. "Why not wait until she's been cleansed?" I know Penumbra is said to only affect humans, but what will happen to our Grid if she dies? Can't be good for us.

  "We do not cherry-pick our humans." Kayla wags a finger in my face. "We offer sanctuary to one and all. Always. We are equals, one life just as important as any other, and circumstances do not dictate our behavior."

  A philosophy I believe with all my heart. And yet... "By accepting Dior, I suspect we'll be endangering millions of other lives. Troikan lives."

  "We'll be endangering millions of other lives if we reject her." Reed pinches the bridge of his nose. "If there's a reason to reject one, then there will be a reason to reject others. When we place restrictions on our aspirants, we break the laws we were built upon. We become Myriad."

  Kayla twines her fingers with mine and presses our joined hands against her raging heartbeat. Desperation radiates from her. "You must cleanse her of Pen--darkness. You must. That is the solution to every problem."

  The pressure cooker just might blow.

  I release her and massage the back of my neck. "Is there anything here that will help me decode my Key?"

  "Are you kidding? I haven't unlocked mine." She holds up her arm, revealing three symbols descending from elbow to wrist. A raindrop, a winding line and a flame.

  Reed holds out his arm, rolls up his sleeve, and shows me three animals branded into his flesh: a lion, a lamb and a fish. "I'm still locked as well, but I've done some digging. Our Keys are some type of cipher."

  He's...right. Excitement sparks. I can't believe I overlooked the key to our Key. Hope unfurls, and it's kindling for the excitement. Somewhere in Troika there's a note...maybe a letter to trainees, or a specific book...even a speech that's been given. Something! Those words will correspond with my numbers and their symbols and unlock the Grid.

  My number brands throb, and I know beyond a doubt I'm on the right track.

  "Where is Dior now?" I ask.

  "Elizabeth convinced her to go into hiding," Reed says.

  If this isn't proof Troika values free will, nothing is. Lives are at stake, and yet we allowed Dior to make her own decision.

  He points to a line of text that's been redacted. "We won't know where she is, exactly, until Elizabeth meets with Madame Meredith tomorrow morning. That's when the rest of us will be sent to her."

  I fought some of my roughest battles outside a Troikan safe house. Looking back, I'm glad they happened. They tested my limits, pushed me to change and to grow. To toughen up.

  "How am I supposed to fight the big P?" I ask.

  "According to Levi, we're to observe only." Kayla nudges me. "Remember?"

  Right. When we observe, we learn. And I desperately need to learn.

  "Dior has had a terrible couple of years." Kayla's chin trembles. "We need to help her. If we don't, who will?"

  Zero! She's right. If any of my friends were in her position, I would move heaven and earth to help. How can I do less for Dior? Besides, I promised Archer I would do everything I could to ease her burden.

  So that's what I'll do.

  "I will find a way to help her," I say. "Is there anything else I need to know before I take off?"

  "Yes." Warm breath strokes my nape. "You can take the rest of the information with you."

  I whip around to glare at Raanan, who is now standing behind me. "Personal boundaries are invisible but real. Please use yours."

  Amusement sparkles in his eyes. He holds up his hands, all innocence, his robe falling to his elbows to reveal his Key, three different types of swords. I'm not sure if he's trying to torment me or make peace.

  "He's right." Reed takes my hand and presses my palm to the edge of the table, where my Troikan brand meets a brand that's been etched into the glass. "Here are a few little tidbits. You can study them tonight."

  Just as quickly as the pages appeared on the table surface, the information they contain uploads into my data pad. Or maybe directly into my mind. Dizziness overwhelms me. Too much, too much. Too fast!

  A few little tidbits? my brain cells shout.

  "Isn't osmosis fun?" Kayla says with a laugh.

  "No!" I grate.

  "Give it moment," Reed replies.

  Raanan adds, "Everything will settle into place in three...two...one."

  Thank the Firstking, the dizziness fades. I draw in a deep breath, slowly release it, and comprehend the information overload is in the process of nestling, settling to the back of my mind to await my study.

  "Okay, I think I'm a fan of osmosis." I rub my temples in an effort to ward off a weird tingling sensation. "Thanks for--"

  Raanan walks away without another word. What an odd duck. When he decides to stop being standoffish, he goes all the way. I'm still not sure what to make of him.

  "Hey, do you want to come over later to go through the information with me?" I ask. "You can bring manna since I'm almost out..." Hint, hint.

  "Oh, I wish," Kayla says, "but I made plans." She opens her mouth to say more, thinks better of it and snaps her jaw closed.

  Interesting.

  "Got other plans myself," Reed says with a shrug.

  Very interesting. Would their plans happen to be together...a secret romance brewing, perhaps?

  "No problem. I hope you have fun." I hug one, then the other. "I'll see you guys later." I'll go home, flip through my new mental files and work on decoding my Key so that I can better help Dior.

  As I make my way out of the Hall, again remaining on alert, an azure glow springs from my palm.

  Curious, I tap the brand. A message from Victor appears.

  How about we get together and come up with a campaign to ensure Archer wins the Resurrection?

  My heartbeat speeds up. Yes! I need Archer. He will help me decode my Key. He will help me save Dior--and in the process, save Troika.

  I send a response, one-handed typing still harder than I ever could have imagined. My place? And brung manna.

  His response appears a few seconds later. Your typing still sucks, I see. (Thankfully I can read Ten.) I'm on my way.

  He beats me there, a bag of manna wafers in hand.

  Victor, I soon learn, is far different than his older brother. Archer gave new meaning to the phrase "in your face," while Victor is all about subtlety and even misdirection.

  "After our session with Levi, I asked around," he says. "Everyone wants the Conduit to return. I failed to make them understand we don't need the Conduit. We have you, and Archer is clearly the optimum choice."

  "What makes you think so?" The question awakens a tide of guilt inside me. Shouldn't I agree flat-out? Why do I need proof my friend is the optimum choice?

  He rolls his eyes. "One day, you're going to have serious power in this realm. You need to be surrounded by people you can trust."

  And I can't trust the Conduit?

  "We have to let people know why Archer is the better choice without actually saying so," Victor continues. "The moment we start claiming he's the best, people will stop listening. Arguing never changes anyone's mind."

  We sprawl on my living room floor and dig in to the manna. When every crumb is gone, I lean against the couch. Victor lies back on the rug and throws a small ball into the air. Catch and release. Catch and release. I think the simple rhythm helps him to focus.

  I wonder what the other newbies are doing tonight, if they've made new friends. If they have a new purpose.

  "What do you suggest?" I finally ask, picking up our conversation as if it hasn't lagged. "I
've never tried to reach people without stating my desire up front."

  "First, we figure out who's currently the most influential person in the realm, and we target him. Or her. One person can lead thousands. Second, we're going to have to leverage Dior. She's sick with the Troikan version of the boogeyman, and while another Conduit could help combat that sickness, Dior has to agree to be cleansed. Will she? Since she loved Archer, he might be the only one capable of convincing her to say yes."

  "I...don't know how I feel about that." Am I being ultrasensitive, or is this something the old Killian would have suggested? 1) We would be playing on everyone's fears. Fear is the enemy at your back with a knife at your throat.

  2) The Resurrection takes place in less than a month. What if we can convince Dior to be cleansed--neutralizing Penumbra--much sooner? If that happens, Archer won't be needed. Not the way Victor suggests, anyway.

  His plan strikes me as underhanded. But this is Archer's brother I'm dealing with; he grew up in Myriad, a child of the Secondking--he's a literal prince. He learned his MO from the same people who taught Killian.

  A glow springs from his brands. He checks the message and groans. "I've got to go." He sits up and wiggles his brows at me. "I've got a hot date."

  Frustration takes a big bite out of my calm. Archer's fate hangs in the balance, and we have yet to develop a workable idea to save him. I can't do this alone, and Victor is bailing on me?

  "You're going on a date, and yet you groaned, as if in pain," I say.

  He gently bounces the ball off my nose. "Because you girls are a lot of work."

  I twist my fists under my eyes, mimicking tears. "Poor baby. So who's the girl?"

  "None of your business, Miss Lockwood."

  "So you're protecting her identity. The relationship must be serious, then." The Book of the Law says it's best to date a person selected for us by the Grid. 1) It's supposed to keep the peace between, well, everyone. No more fighting over a mate, or thinking you belong with someone who would be better off with someone else. 2) It's supposed to keep our focus where it belongs. On the war. And 3) it's supposed to prevent messy breakups.

  Is Victor's date not Grid-approved? Because of free will, we can date whomever we want. Grid-approved or not. Either way, he has nothing to hide.

  I wonder if my recurring dream about Killian is the Grid's version of permission.

  Wishful thinking? I mean, why choose Killian, a Myriadian? Why not select a Troikan for me?

  "Just...think about what I said, okay?" He stands. "Help me with this, and I'll help you with something you really, really want...finding a way to stop the war."

  I purse my lips. "How do you know I want to stop the war?"

  "Doesn't everyone?" He hikes his shoulders. "Face it. You're not exactly subtle."

  He takes off before I can lob a million questions at him. How would he help me? Why hasn't he helped me already? Can he list at least three ways I've been less than subtle? Gotta work on my game.

  I remain in the living room, playing catch with his ball. There's really no need to think about his offer, I decide. I'm not going to help him with his plan. I'm not going to feed other people's fears. Archer would rage if I did. There has to be another way to win everyone over.

  As for stopping the war...my chat with Victor has helped me in that regard. I've been thinking on too large a scale. Because he's right about one thing. Want to reach a thousand people? Start with one. That one will help you reach others. Those others will reach others, and so on and so forth.

  A whisper can become a roar.

  Excitement sparks, hotter than before. One by one.

  My first--Dior.

  I can help her. I must. The fate of Troika depends on it.

  *

  I head to the Veil of Wings, my spirit tucked securely inside my Shell, Whells strapped all over me. Just in case. My hold is secure. I'm not going to be kicked out by anyone or anything; in fact, I'll die before I let go. I stayed up all night, practicing with my Shell and reviewing information about Dior, as if I was cramming for a test.

  Before being taken to the safe house, Dior Nichols lived in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She was a resident at Baptist Hospital, assigned to triage in the ER. On her days off, she played with her dog, Gingerbread, and volunteered at a Myriadian homeless shelter.

  She has a kind heart, almost too good to be true, but her life is far from perfect. Every time she's helped a Troikan loyalist, Myriad has taken away something precious to her--a right she gave them when she made covenant.

  The once-happy girl is now miserable. Court is her only chance.

  She's considered killing herself, a notion that cuts deep into my compassion. I want to shake her and say, "Never give up! If you're breathing, there's hope!" The only reason Dior hasn't ended her life is a clause in her contract. Fine print states she'll have to spend one hundred years locked inside the Kennels if ever she commits suicide.

  One hundred years trapped in a tiny cage.

  Did she not read her contract before signing? Or did she just not care at the time?

  I know how Killian won her over, at least. He approached her when she was at her most vulnerable, after her father, her only guardian, had broken his spine in a car accident. After multiple surgeries, his health had declined and death seemed imminent.

  Archer told her: Trust us to make it right.

  And she had. For a little while. But the situation had grown worse instead of better. At least in Dior's eyes. As a human, she hadn't seen the things happening in the spirit realm. The small fixes for big changes being set into motion.

  Killian told her: No more waiting. Your father will walk out of the hospital, and he'll go home today. Just sign here.

  Patience is a virtue for a reason.

  Impatient, she'd done it, and her father had walked out of the hospital, as promised. Only, he'd collapsed right outside the doors, his heart bursting from strain. He'd died right there on the dirty concrete.

  He'd gone home, again as promised, but he'd gone home to Myriad, his realm of choice. Another reason she'd agreed to their terms. She'd wanted to spend her Everlife with her beloved father.

  What Killian did to her...it was ugly. So very ugly. To hurt Archer, he distorted the truth in the worst possible way. A despicable act from a despicable boy who'd laughed in Archer's face immediately after Dior made covenant--laughed at the heartache he'd caused.

  I know deep in my heart he isn't that boy anymore, but I'm still sickened by his actions--which makes me angry with myself. Who am I to judge anyone for anything? I've made mistakes. Many, many mistakes. I've hurt people, unintentionally and intentionally. I've killed people. I've ruined lives and broken up families.

  I never want people to judge me for the person I used to be, so I shouldn't judge Killian for the person he used to be.

  Troikan rule one: love everyone, even yourself.

  Troikan rule two: forgive everyone, even yourself.

  I get it now. Though there are many other laws, number one is the be all and end all. The reason for the other rules. Number two helps us do the first.

  I'm not dealing with Past Killian anymore. I'm dealing with Present Killian. He's searching for Dior right now, and he won't stop until he finds her. It's his job. Chances are, we're going to fight. And fight hard, just as he warned.

  No matter what, I will do what needs doing. I'll do what's right, and I won't quit.

  Victor, Clay and Elizabeth beat me to the Veil of Wings. Elizabeth won't meet my gaze. Meredith's description of her life rings in my head, and I begin to melt.

  I destroyed her in the worst possible way.

  Everyone is in a brand-new Shell, dressed in a plain T-shirts and a pair of jeans. The Shells look as if they were made with wax, making it obvious they are, in fact, Shells. But then, we aren't supposed to blend in with humans today. We are supposed to stand out.

  I stop beside Clay, who clasps my hand and squeezes.

  "How does this work?" he
asks. This is his first mission, too.

  "Madame Meredith has a lock on our Shells," Victor says. "As soon as we step through the Veil, she'll send us on a beam of Light to a specific location in the Land of the Harvest. Clay and I will stand guard outside the safe house, along with a hundred or so Laborers we probably won't be able to see. They're already in place, and Reed is among them."

  "You, Numbers." Elizabeth snaps her fingers without glancing my way. "You will observe Dior inside the safe house. The goal is to learn the feel of your Shell in the Land of the Harvest and communicate with your teammates without alerting humans you're doing so." Finally her gaze meets mine. Her eyelids narrow to tiny slits, her lashes nearly fusing together. "Remain calm at all times. Fear draws Myriadians like flies."

  This girl is hurting. She's lost everything. She needs compassion rather than censure. I nod. "I'll do my best."

  "No. You'll do, plain and simple. And," she continues, "before you start thinking you'll scare Dior to draw out Killian, expecting him to help you with your job--"

  "I would never," I interject, bristling.

  "Don't," she finishes. "The last time he helped you, he still had a chance to win your soul. He doesn't anymore. Which means he's going to betray you faster than you can say, Please, Killian, no."

  "You don't know him," I say softly. I'll probably have to repeat the words to everyone in Troika at some point or another.

  "Oh, but I do. I've seen how he works firsthand. He's seduced a lot of girls. What makes you think you're special to him?"

  "What makes you think I'm not?"

  Her nostrils flare as she huffs and puffs. "I've gone against him. I've watched my friends die at his hand. I watched Claus die." Her rage is replaced by grief. "Killian uses, lies and tricks. The only thing you're going to get from him...is heartache."

  MYRIAD

  * * *

  From: Z_C_4/23.43.2

  To: K_F_5/23.53.6

  Subject: The fruit of our efforts!

  My spy inside Troika informs me Tenley Lockwood will be in the Land of the Harvest today. She'll be visiting a human you signed. Miss Dior Nichols. The two will be inside a Troikan safe house. The coordinates are attached.

  I'm excited about your next move. Is there anything I can do to help you, Mr. Flynn?

  Might Equals Right!

 
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