Lifeblood, p.19
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       Lifeblood, p.19
 

         Part #2 of Everlife series by Gena Showalter
From: K_F_5/23.53.6

  To: Z_C_4/23.43.2

  Subject: Was the risk truly worth it?

  ANY injury has the potential to be life-threatening. What if Miss Lockwood had been unable to obtain manna and hemorrhaged to death?

  What happened to your plan to trust me?

  Let me be clear about this, in case any other opportunities to harm her arise. Hurt her, and I hurt you. News flash: you cannot defeat Troika without her. Myriad has tried for centuries. If she dies, the entire realm will be forced to pay a high price. Myriad will lose the war. Citizens will lose their realm, homes and families. And why will this happen? Because of your orders.

  You once told me you love your realm. Do you really want to be the one who destroys it?

  As for my disconnection from the Grid. The reason should answer both of your concerns. If you haven't noticed, Miss Aubuchon's feed has been going dark at the exact same time. What can you deduce from that?

  Might Equals Right!

  ML, Killian Flynn

  MYRIAD

  * * *

  From: Z_C_4/23.43.2

  To: K_F_5/23.53.6

  Subject: You're right I shouldn't have doubted your motives. Your passion is clear. For Myriad and for Miss Aubuchon. I support your romantic relationship. There's no need to go dark again.

  I apologize for my actions. In my zeal to reach our goal, I placed our realm in danger. I won't do so again, you have my word.

  However, what's done is done. This is the perfect opportunity to reap the fruits provided by our labors. Whether you feel ready to take the next step or not. Because, if Miss Lockwood doesn't begin to aid our cause, she will only continue to hurt it, and we will be forced to consider elimination.

  Might Equals Right!

  Sir Zhi Chen

  chapter fourteen

  * * *

  "Trust in Fate. If one door closes, simply wait. Another will open."

  --Myriad

  As I exit the Veil of Wings, the sense of calm and rightness I usually experience gives way to grief. Without Killian's arms around me, holding the world at bay, I begin to spiral.

  "I'm sorry," I say as Victor releases me. "I didn't mean--"

  "No need to apologize. I understand. You love him. You wanted to protect him."

  Does he understand? His voice is unruffled, but a muscle is jumping under his eye.

  I hand him the gun I stole from him. "Meredith is dead. I lost her." The words are glass shards in my throat. I didn't just lose her--I lost my way.

  "I know. Troika lost a great Leader today."

  I don't care about her station or her title. To me, she wasn't a Leader. She was an amazing grandmother.

  "You'll see her again, Ten." Victor pats my shoulder. "You know you will. It's only a matter of time."

  He doesn't mention the Resurrection, and I don't have to wonder why. He still wants Archer to win.

  Do I?

  "She saved me. I'd rather she lived, and I died." I wrap my arms around my middle. The hated position of defeat.

  "She knew, and she felt the same about you."

  Love is the single most essential part of our lives, a need we all share, and yet it's always been invisible to the naked eye. Until today. Today I saw love in its purest form.

  Meredith loved me enough to die for me.

  A sob climbs up my throat, a poem drifting through my mind.

  I can't say goodbye. This isn't goodbye.

  You're gone, but you're still here.

  You're still here with me, deep in my heart.

  I'll hold you close. I won't let you go.

  When I train, you'll be with me.

  When I shine, it's your Light others will see.

  When I hurt, your memory will be my comfort.

  We'll be together. You and me. Forever.

  But not today. Today you're gone.

  No matter where I look, you're not here.

  When I cry, you're not here to hold me.

  When I sob, you're not here to comfort me.

  When I quiet, you're not here.

  Why aren't you here?

  Today I'm alone.

  Usually my poems have a double meaning. A negative and positive side. I can think of nothing positive about this situation. Hot tears flow down my cheeks.

  "Meredith is in a better place. And so are you," Victor says. "Everyone in Troika will trust you now. Your wants--and the Laborers you desire to have on your team--will matter."

  I frown at him. "What are you talking about?"

  He grins. Grins! "You'll be able to sway the Resurrection."

  I don't care! "I still don't understand," I say, managing to temper my voice.

  "I saw the Myriad soldiers you slayed. You should be proud. You should be celebrating."

  My hands ball into fists. His words are a slap in the face. Killian is the one who killed the soldiers, but I can't praise him without exposing his secret, and that I will not do.

  I want to scream. I want to scream until my voice is gone. I'm supposed to save us all, but I couldn't even save my grandmother. I couldn't save one person. A person I loved. A special woman with a special purpose of her own.

  Everything starts and ends with one. If I'm Troika's last hope, we're all doomed.

  I can't deal with this. It's too much.

  "I'm going home," I croak.

  "You can't. We have to visit the Sanatorium. The Troikan version of a hospital. After every battle, we're required to see a Healer."

  I have zero desire to undergo a physical checkup, but I don't argue. I don't have the energy.

  Thankfully, as Victor herds me to the nearest Gate, a sheen of ice numbs me. The only way I can get through this.

  The Grid attempts to warm me, gently prompting me to feel and heal, but I don't want to be warmed. I don't want to feel or heal.

  Victor is silent as we exit the Gate in the Capital of New. Other soldiers stride ahead of us and behind us, and everyone is headed in the same direction.

  In every section of the realm, the people who stayed behind line the streets, cheering us for our efforts.

  Fatima rushes from the crowd to throw her arms around me. My cold threatens to crack.

  "I'm so glad you're alive," she says, her dark eyes filled with relief.

  I wish I could say the same.

  She rushes off, then, to rejoin her group.

  The Sanatorium is housed in a building similar to the cathedral, with a plethora of stained-glass windows, a pergola covered in clinging ivy and a rose garden leading to the entrance.

  Dogs and cats play chase along the cobblestone paths, pausing to offer licks and purrs--and conversation--to anyone willing to stop.

  It's true, then. The animals talk. I'm amazed, fascinated and curious, but I don't deserve their brand of comfort and sidestep the creatures in my path.

  As soon as we enter the cathedral, two Healers step forward, as if they've been waiting for us. We're led down a hallway. Victor is escorted into a room on the left and I'm escorted into a room on the right.

  The word room is somewhat inaccurate, however. Closet works better. There's enough space for a gurney and a medical cart with wheels, nothing more.

  Despite the diminutive size, the area is designed to inspire relaxation; a waterfall cascades down the center of each wall, splashing into bowls of amethyst geodes.

  My Healer removes the belt around my waist and in a gentle voice says, "Lie down, please."

  Fine. Whatever. Let's get this over with. I peer up at the ceiling mural. Doves in flight.

  She checks my vitals and injects me with liquid manna. She asks me questions--how do you feel, what happened, what do you need? I remain silent. Answers will only invite more questions.

  She refills the vial around my neck. When she lifts a rag to clean Meredith's Lifeblood from my skin, I latch on to her wrist, stopping her. She flinches.

  "Sorry," I say and release her.

  "I only wish to cleanse you," she says in her gentle, so
othing voice.

  "No." The Lifeblood is all I have left of my grandmother. I'm going to wear it with pride.

  The look she gives me is filled with tenderness. "Visit the Baths of Restoration, then. The water will buoy you, spirit, soul and body."

  I have no desire to be buoyed. "Are we done?"

  She sighs. "Yes."

  I thank her, stand and walk out. I don't wait for Victor; I go home.

  By the time I'm locked inside my apartment, the ice is threatening to crack for good. I want to cry. Oh, I want so badly to cry, but tears are a luxury I shouldn't be allowed to experience.

  The sunlight streaming in through the window calls to me. I need it like air, but I avoid every golden, glorious beam. Another luxury I shouldn't be allowed. I flop onto my couch.

  When the Book of the Law appears, I stab at it with my fingers until it fades. I hate this. Right now I think I hate myself, too. If I'd taken Levi's out and refused the mission, Meredith would still be alive.

  A hard knock sounds at my front door.

  "Go away," I call.

  Someone picks the lock, or maybe uses a key. Hinges squeak as the door opens.

  Levi leans against the frame, his arms crossed. "We have Mr. Diez. Two of our Laborers followed the group hiding the human. They called for backup, and a new team of Laborers swept in to squire Mr. Diez away. He's staying in one of our safe houses, away from other humans."

  So I wasn't needed, after all. Meredith wasn't needed.

  My nails bite into my thighs. "Thanks for the info." I motion to the hall; a not-too-subtle hint I'd like to be alone.

  "I'm not done," he says, unaffected by my rudeness. "We suspect we were given Mr. Diez's location in the first place, and told another human had been infected, in order to lure you out of Troika. I apologize for asking you to fight."

  My throat tightens, air wheezing in and out. He has no reason to apologize. My decision, my consequences.

  "The situation has been explained to Miss Nichols," he continues. "She's upset, could use a friend."

  Silent, I turn away from him. Dior has Clay. I'll only make things worse for her.

  He sighs. "Tomorrow, your training starts again. You will not hide here. You will practice with me until you've decoded your Key and have full use of your Light."

  "What if I can't?" I rub the number brands on my arm.

  He strides over, crouches in front of me and gives my chin a gentle tap. "You can. You will."

  Will I? Another crack in the ice. No, no, no. My eyes burn. I press my lips together to contain a whimper.

  He places a ring in my palm. A very unusual ring. "She wanted you to have this. A six-shot pinfire cylinder that can be fired straight from your hand. Notice the notch on one side."

  I tremble as I slip the ring on my index finger and hug it close to my chest.

  "Her grandfather gifted her with the ring before his Second-death, along with a message. So often we are given the tools to fight against evil but fail to use them. Use this." Levi pats my shoulder. "Joy is strength, Miss Lockwood, and you need to find yours."

  My eyes burn hotter. "How? Meredith died today."

  "Yes, and you are parted. For now. But true joy isn't a state of mind or even a feeling. It's a weapon you wield. It stands up to fear and says No. You won't come near me. It butts heads with defeat and says I can do anything, despite the odds. You have it inside you, desperate for release, but you must choose to see your situation through its eyes. You must be diligent and watch over your land. Pull the weeds--grief and sorrow--when they try to grow."

  I scrub a hand down my face. "Why did you send Meredith to battle? You had to know she would--"

  "We didn't. We told her to stay in Troika. She disobeyed."

  The news shrivels my insides. I'm looking for someone to blame, aren't I? But our present will always be the sum total of decisions made in our past.

  "I think it's time we ask ourselves the hard question, Levi. What if I'm not a Conduit? What if I'm a time bomb waiting to blow? Just..." I motion to the door a second time, my arm shaking. "Go. Please."

  "I'm leaving." He straightens and holds out his hand. "But you're coming with me. You're going to experience an Exchange."

  Of course I am. "I'm being punished."

  "The Exchange isn't always about punishment, Miss Lockwood. See the battle through Meredith's eyes, begin to heal."

  I lick my lips as dread bubbles up inside me. I've witnessed someone else's Exchange, and the experience scarred me.

  "Come," he says, waving his fingers.

  I know I have the right to refuse him. Free will. But I place my hand in his. This is something I deserve. A non-punishment punishment.

  He tugs me to my feet and ushers me into the hallway, where Kayla is waiting, a blue robe draped over her arm. She's fighting tears as she fits the material over my shoulders, and she won't meet my gaze.

  She blames me. She must.

  Neither of us speaks. There's a ball of sorrow stuck in my throat.

  She doesn't follow us from the cathedral.

  After taking two Gates, we end up in the Temple of Temples. For the first time, the entire section of the city is emptied out.

  "Why aren't we in the Garden of Exchange?" I ask softly.

  "This Exchange is a gift. We go to the giver."

  In the back of the Waft of Incense, doors open. Tremors sweep through me as we enter the Great Throne room. The air is sweetly scented air, almost intoxicating.

  Two creatures fly overhead, drawing us deeper inside. Both have a single head with a different face on every side. A man, a lion, a ram and an eagle. Both have two sets of wings. One set arches over a pair of wide shoulders while the other set covers the groin area. One wears gold armor, the other silver.

  My gaze returns to their wings. At first glance the feathers look like a peacock's, but the ends...a human eye tips every single one. I gasp. Those eyes watch me.

  The creatures dance around seven towering lamp stands, and I know without asking the stands represent different cities in the realm. Two glow brighter than others, and the reason hits me with the force of a jackhammer. Seven cities, seven Conduits needed.

  The princess and I are working overtime, being drained faster than we should, two women doing the job of seven.

  A puzzle to work out another day.

  Marble steps lead to two alabaster columns. Between the columns are thrones. A rainbow arcs behind both, and crimson-colored water flows from the feet of the smaller one, down the stairs and through the center of the entire room. Just like the Veil of Wings.

  A man dressed in dented armor sits in the smaller throne. Light shines from him, the most glorious Light. I know I've met the Secondking, Eron, Prince of Doves and firstborn of the Firstking, but this feels like the first time. I'm still in awe of him.

  His beautiful eyes peer at me with sympathy I don't deserve. The ice melts. Tears finally pour down my cheeks, leaving stinging tracks in their wake.

  As long as he's been alive, as many people as he's lost, he probably understands grief better than anyone.

  He is the essence of Troika itself; in one glance, there is no doubt he is everything the realm represents. Love. Forgiveness. Strength. Equality. And that armor...he is also a warrior, something I hadn't known. He fights alongside his people. He fights for his people.

  He stands with fluid grace and descends the steps. At the bottom, he stops to stretch his arms toward me.

  Do I curtsy?

  "Your Majesty," I say, and suddenly I don't have to wonder what to do. Through the Grid, my heart knows what my mind doesn't. I go to him and kneel, my arms crossed over my chest. Next I raise and uncross my arms, offering him my hands in a show of fealty.

  A sign I was once bound by darkness, but now, because of Light, I'm free.

  He clasps my hands and in an instant, a blink, a breath, a second, the Lifeblood coating me rises from my skin, the glittering particles hovering in the air around me.

 
Those particles float away as the Secondking gently pulls me to my feet, and my heart shudders. "You are brave, Ten. You are mighty. A Conduit with unmatched determination."

  The tears flow faster as I shake my head. "No. I'm stubborn and foolish. A maker of incomparable mistakes."

  He frowns at me. "If that is what you believe, that is what you will be."

  I say nothing more. I can't. There's another ball of sorrow in my throat.

  "Do you see?" he asks, his grip on me tightening. "Do you see?"

  See...as Levi once told me to do? To meditate on the outcome I want rather than the outcome I fear? My chin trembles as I shake my head. "Not yet."

  "See."

  I bow my head, my eyes closing, and suddenly I'm no longer Ten; I'm Meredith. I see the world through her eyes. I feel her emotions and hear her thoughts.

  I'm standing at the Eye, watching my worst fear come to life. Ten is in trouble, MLs killing anyone who gets close to her.

  If she's hurt, or worse...

  No! When she finally taps into the power that is locked inside her, she will send legions of enemy soldiers fleeing in terror. Troika needs her. I need her.

  Months ago, when Ten lived at the asylum, her mother sent me a message. Take care of my girl.

  Truth is, I vowed to take care of her long before that day. I've watched over Ten since her birth, have loved her since her birth. Every time danger dared approach her, I petitioned my General, seeking aid for her. Aid that was always granted. Not that she ever knew it.

  Can I really hold my position now, as ordered, when she needs me most?

  "Kayla," I shout. "Take my place."

  She pales. "I... I can't. I'm not ready."

  When Kayla first arrived in Troika, she was assigned to the Laborers. I took notice of her because of her connection to Ten, but it didn't take me long to see the Leader caged inside her, waiting to be freed.

  "You are. You're stronger than you realize. And your comm will keep a log of Laborers who enter the fray. When one is weakened, let others know backup is required. If your messages fail to go through, it's because a Myriadian Buckler is in place. Continue to resend. At some point, the Buckler will fall." I run, as fast as my feet will carry me, a Pyre in hand, a manifestation of my Light.

  I reach the Veil of Wings and--

  Land in the center of the action. I scan the sea of faces, searching...searching...there!

  Ten has killed an ML, and it's clear she's wallowing in guilt.

  I quickly dispatch an ML of my own. I've got to help my granddaughter reach Javier; once she's touched him, the way she touched Dior, he'll be unable to infect anyone else, at least for a while, his Penumbra too busy repairing the damage Ten caused. Then my girl can go home. We can figure out our next move without an army breathing down our necks.

 
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