Lifeblood, p.31
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       Lifeblood, p.31
 

         Part #2 of Everlife series by Gena Showalter

  I look from one to the other. "You guys are cool with each other?"

  "We've...chatted." Deacon sits in the chair across from us. "Someone update me."

  "Clay is alive." Killian relays the details he shared with me. "He's bait, and he won't be killed as long as Ten is alive." He motions to the flash-scribe. "You need to listen."

  Trembling, I press the center of the device. At first, there's static and huffing, as if someone is running.

  "We have the boy?"

  "The speaker is the Prince of Ravens," Killian informs us. "One of his assistants gave me the flash-scribe, said he heard I had a thing for a Troikan girl. I think he was told to give me the flash-scribe. I think this is a test to find out what I'll do, maybe even an attempt to manipulate you through what you hear. But if what comes next is true, you need to know. You need to prepare."

  The recording continues.

  "Yes, sir."

  "Excellent. Spread the word. Make sure the Conduit learns of his capture."

  Footsteps. The click of a door being opened and closed.

  The male who'd issued the orders speaks again. "Ready the troops. Every Messenger, Laborer and Leader. Keep the Conduit outside Troika. I want our people surrounding the realm by the end of the day. Block all Light. The weaker their people, the easier our victory."

  The hate in his tone is just as clear as his words. This man...he taught Killian that victors are adored and failures abhorred, encouraged Killian to do anything--lie, steal and kill--to win a battle.

  No wonder he named one of his sons Victor.

  There's a rush of pounding footsteps. The door being opened and closed again.

  "How many agents do we have inside Troika?"

  "Nine."

  "Excellent. Have them--"

  The device goes quiet, revealing the hard rasp of my breathing.

  Killian rubs my arm up and down. "If this is true... I'm sorry."

  Zero! There could be more monsters walking among us. Evil cloaked in righteousness.

  Overcome by urgency and uncertainty--a toxic mix--I fight the urge to curl into Killian's arms and check out. We need to act, but action without clear direction will get us nowhere fast.

  "How do we know you aren't part of this?" Deacon grates, his jaw clenched. "How do we know you aren't setting us up for failure?"

  Killian gazes at me, his expression grave. "You don't."

  "I know," I insist. "I trust you. Always. You and I will rescue Clay. Deacon, you go home and warn our king of a possible attack. I'll return as soon as I can."

  Killian shakes his head before I finish. "I told you, lass. There will be traps set specifically for you. I'll look for Clay. I can sneak attack. You can't. You are Light, and you can't hide anywhere. Your presence is a beacon."

  "I hate to say this but he's right." Deacon stands. "I'll accompany Killian. You return to Troika. If we can't stop the attack, the people will need your Light."

  Logic I cannot refute, no matter how badly I want to.

  "I won't let anything happen to Clay," Killian vows, his arms tightening around me. "I will find him, and I will keep him safe."

  During my Firstlife, Killian's actions led to Clay's Firstdeath. He attacked Archer while we were racing down a snow-covered mountain, and it caused the avalanche that tossed Clay over a ledge.

  Whether Killian admits it or not, he's not doing this for me. Not entirely. He is atoning for a crime his king once praised him for committing.

  "I know you will." My chest constricts. We're both heading into dangerous situations. "If something happens to me--"

  "Nothing will happen to you." He grips my shoulders to shake me. "You will fight, and you will survive. No other outcome is acceptable."

  I kiss him hard, and I kiss him fast, Deacon momentarily forgotten. Killian kisses me back, his strength seeping into me, as if I'm drawing Light from him--because I am?

  Yes! I am, and the realization stuns me. Despite his tie to Myriad, there is Light in him.

  Light springing from his love for me?

  Love is always the answer. Love never fails. Love is life.

  I stop taking and start giving, fanning the flames. Just a little. Not too much. I don't want to overwhelm him or cause Torchlight.

  When he hisses, I know I've pushed the boundaries as far as I can. I jump to my feet, ending the kiss, and punch in the code for Troika. I'm trembling.

  He stands, a tower of menace and aggression, ready to raze his own world to save my friend, just because I asked.

  Any wonder I love him? "You are amazing, Killian Flynn." I hold his gaze until the cabin vanishes around me.

  I appear outside the Veil of Wings--and frown. The Light...where is the Light? Despite my urgency, I pause to gaze at the sky...and groan. There will be a battle. I'm too late to stop it. Dark shadows have fallen over the water. So many shadows, cast by Myriadian soldiers.

  Life can change in a blink, going from bad to good, or good to bad, or anything in between. With combat on the horizon, everything in Troika is about to change. Lifeblood will be spilled, and people will die. Innocents will die.

  Disregarding the burn of panic, I soar through the Veil. My necklaces bounce against my chest. I refuse to hide the one Killian gave me under my shirt any longer. We hide because we fear the opinions of others, the outcome or whatever big bad we think will happen. I'm done with that.

  Today I fight. For one--for all.

  chapter twenty-six

  * * *

  "Do not be pressured. There is no right or wrong, only what is within a thousand shades of gray."

  --Myriad

  I race through the first Gate, a Stairwell, then another Gate, exiting in the Capital of New--and finding utter chaos. Smoke billows around the buildings, thickening the air. The streets are congested with citizens running in a mad haze. I can't see through the masses. Nearly everyone is covered in soot, their clothes ripped and stained, Lifeblood trickling from different wounds.

  "What happened?" I demand of the man slowly spinning in circles.

  He ignores me, his gaze unfocused.

  "Bombed," a sobbing woman tells me. "We've been bombed."

  "Thomas! Thomas! Have you seen my son? Where's my son?"

  "Matilda!"

  Other cries ring out as I push my way through the crowd. Jeremy. I have to get to Jeremy. Myriadian spies have begun their attack, and even babies are fair game.

  Up ahead, an injured little girl trips and falls. No one else notices her. She is going to be trampled.

  I fight my way to her and, reaching her, sweep her into my arms. At the second of contact, my Troikan brand glows, the Grid ensuring my Light rushes into her. She gasps, the cuts on her face and chest beginning to knit together. All the while I continue moving forward.

  I'm as grateful as I am amazed. I understand now. A Conduit is a vessel used to protect and route a substance into another vessel.

  I carry her through the throng...but soon the masses part of their own volition, the people switching their focus to my Light. A chorus of frantic bellows suddenly quiets.

  "Matilda!" A woman with tears wetting her cheeks rushes over to pull the little girl into her arms. "You're okay, you're okay."

  The two embrace, the girl sobbing, "Momma, Momma. I'm so scared."

  I face the crowd, suspecting I have but a moment to fan the flames of calm before fear once again takes hold. My gaze finds Winifred, Rebel, Clementine and Nico. And there is Sawyer with Fatima in his arms. Relief helps ground me. I'm so glad they're okay.

  "Myriadian armies are here," I call. "They want us confused and panicked, so we'll be easier to pick off. Not all of you consider yourselves warriors, I know. Some of you work in the gardens and manna fields. Some of you make our clothes and clean our cities. But the heart of Troika beats within us all. Together, we are strong. Stay calm, stay smart. Guard our children. Do not give Myriadians what they want: our fear. We will find the ones who did this. We will prevail!"

  I d
on't know if I've reached them. I leap back into motion and rush through a Stairwell. When I exit, I choke on smoke, my throat on fire. My eyes water. Still I sprint down the streets...

  A dark haze opens, and I come upon General Tasanee and General John working alongside Hazel and Steven to dig through what's left of the cathedral--rubble, only rubble. I cover my mouth with a trembling hand. Hazel spots me and cries out with joy. She nudges Steven, and the two rush over to hug me.

  A knot grows in the pit of my stomach. The spies must have struck the Laborers first to take out our best fighters.

  I try to concentrate on numbers to calm myself. The possible number of people inside versus the possible number of survivors.

  The odds are poor.

  No grief. Not here, not now. I'm needed.

  "Help us," General Tasanee rasps. Her jet-black hair hangs in tangles around a soot-streaked face. Her leather catsuit is torn in multiple places.

  "I've got to find my brother, Jeremy."

  She nods her consent. I'm about to race off when Hazel grabs my wrist.

  With tears in her eyes, she says, "We found Reed. He was...he... Kayla escorted him to the Sanatorium."

  I tell myself Reed will heal. I tell myself we'll all heal. But I'm trembling as I run, run, my surroundings whizzing at my sides. I enter another Stairwell, braced for the worst. Thank the Firstking! The houses are still intact.

  Boom!

  The ground shudders, a gust of wind knocking me back, every molecule of air abandoning my lungs. I lumber onto unsteady legs, dark smoke rising in the distance...where Levi's house used to stand.

  No. No, no, no.

  I leap over an obstacle course of debris, my eyes burning, my chest boiling. When I reach the remains of Levi's home, I search the wreckage...there! Millicent, Jeremy's nanny. She's cut and bleeding, barely conscious, but she's alive.

  "Jeremy," I rush out. "Where's Jeremy?"

  "He w-wasn't here," she manages.

  "Where is he? Please! Tell me where he is!"

  "D-don't know. Sorry. So sorry." Her head lolls to the side, her eyes closing.

  Guided by the Grid, I flatten my hand over her heart, and a ray of Light rushes into her.

  Her eyelids flutter open, color quickly returning to her flesh. The Light...she's charging like a battery.

  "Look out!" The warning comes from behind me.

  There's no time to react. A hard weight slams into me, knocking me to the ground. I buck, and General Bahari rolls off me, an arrow lodged in her chest.

  She...saved me?

  She reaches for me, a silent plea for help...and then she begins to seize, her entire body shaking. Foam drips from the corner of her mouth. Poison?

  Around us, Troikans are climbing free of the rubble and gathering their wits. We are unnoticed. I tremble as I yank out the arrow. She goes still, and I press my fist into the wound to staunch the flow of Lifeblood, at the same time unleashing a ray of Light.

  Her eyes open and widen. I turn to see what she sees. A guy I've never met is racing toward us, notching a second arrow in his bow. He has no Light.

  The arrow flies. Another guy jumps in front of me, shielding me--he is lit up like a Christmas tree. We weren't unnoticed, after all. With a grunt, Christmas drops. Just like the General, he seizes, his mouth foaming.

  I remove the arrow, feed him a ray of Light and lumber to my feet, determined. No one else is taking a hit meant for me.

  As I race forward...faster and faster...another arrow flies my way. Got this. I unsheathe and twirl my swords, the arrow pinging and falling uselessly to the ground.

  To my right, another guy races from the shroud of smoke, a spear in hand. He takes aim. His Light is faded--he's another of Myriad's spies. I dodge the spear and swing my arms, sparks of pure Light flinging from the ends of my swords, cutting through his chest.

  I should feel triumphant. I just feel sad.

  The other spy notches an arrow, but I duck, still running. Finally he's within reach. I slam my swords together, creating a staff--and slam the fiery end into his temple. He stumbles, and I hit him again, disorienting him before swiping his feet out from under him.

  As he topples, I yank the staff apart. One of the hilts vibrates, ready, and when he lands, the tip is there to greet him, sliding deep into his chest. He shakes, like the General he nearly killed, before rivers of black swim through his veins, his flesh beginning to harden.

  Only when his entire body is stone do I straighten. Again I entertain no triumph. I take no satisfaction in my actions, but I will accept no regret, either. Those who come into my house better mind their manners. These people are my family. I will protect them until my dying breath. If that means peace can never be reached, so be it. Not that I will ever stop trying.

  Troikans do not try. They do.

  I wipe my bloody mouth with the back of my hand, my gaze landing on Raanan, who snatches up the spy's weapon.

  "What do you want me to do?" he asks me.

  The entire realm shudders, the rubble at my feet banging together. A new chorus of screams erupts, a thicker wall of smoke billowing in the distance, rising to cover the sky and darken more of our precious Light.

  Horror descends. Myriad wanted me to cleanse Dior and weaken. They wanted me helpless as they attacked my people. One step ahead of me all along.

  "Ten! Ten!"

  I spin and catch sight of Kayla, who is headed my way, pale hair flying behind her, a multitude of weapons strapped to her small body, metal swords banging against her legs with every step.

  She's alive!

  "Levi sent me to gather any Laborers who survived the blast. He's sending soldiers through the Veil of Wings to clear the armies outside our walls so Light can reach us." As she speaks, she tosses a weapon at anyone within reach.

  I share what little Light I have left, guaranteeing everyone is steady.

  "Go. Help the others," I say. "I'm searching for my brother."

  Raanan pats my shoulder, and a spark of Light ignites between us. Not one created by me. He gasps. Is he... Could he be...?

  The group rushes off, led by a fully recovered General Bahari.

  "I know where Jeremy is," Kayla tells me.

  Thank the Firstking! I'll consider Raanan's status later. "Take me to him." Maybe I shared too much Light. I'm weak, trembling, swaying on my feet. "Please."

  "Come on." She heads in the opposite direction. "He's in the Tower of Might."

  I follow, my relief potent and powerful. The deeper we go, the more shadows that descend over the watery sky, and my brands dull. Vibrations erupt in the back of my mind, telling me something's wrong.

  "Kayla," I rasp as we approach the Gate.

  She enters without pause. I trail behind, intending to grab her and retreat. Jeremy must have been moved, because--

  Whack!

  A spiked board smacks me in the face, and I careen, nearly losing my grip on my swords. Dizziness and pain are instant and excruciating, Lifeblood washing over my eyes and coating my tongue.

  Male laughter rings out. "That never gets old."

  "Stop! Victor," Kayla cries. "You said she wouldn't be hurt."

  Victor. Of course. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that Kayla set me up. That she helped him plan a mass destruction of innocents.

  I blink in an effort to clear my vision. "Where's Jeremy?"

  "He's fine," she assures me. "I put him in a bunker before...before..."

  The first bomb went off, I finish for her. She did. She set me up and helped plan this. Betrayal nearly rips me in two.

  Victor drops the board and palms a .44. "Surprise! Your good pal is out of hiding and better than ever." He waves, his hand almost fully regrown.

  The realm shakes with great force, rattling my brain against my skull. Another bomb? I remain on the ground, feeling utterly defeated. First I loved and trusted Sloan, and she killed me. Then I loved and trusted Kayla, and she does this.

  "How?" I croak.

/>   She bows her head, radiating shame. "I'm sorry, Ten. I am. But I love him."

  This isn't love, I want to scream. "He tried to kill me. Numerous times! In my apartment, he even tried to kill you."

  "No," she says. "He only tried to weaken you. And he only wounded me, so no one would know I'd helped him. He did me a favor."

  She can't be so foolish. She can't.

  "Poor Ten." Victor smiles, smug. "Outsmarted and outplayed."

  "You want peace, Ten," Kayla continues, desperate to make me understand. "This is how we get it."

  "This? This?" I shout. "You mean slaughtering innocents?"

  "A few will die to save many," she rushes out. "Victor promised me. Your Light is going to be dimmed with Penumbra, and the realms will be on equal footing." Her gaze pleads with me to consent to my own downfall. "The fighting will stop."

  Fool! "Light and dark cannot coexist." Archer and Killian have said the same to me on multiple occasions. "I can't be infected with Penumbra, only killed."

  "No." She shakes her head, vehement. "Victor promised."

  "Ten is right. At some point, we are going to kill her. But don't worry, baby. You won't be around to see it." He aims and fires, a bullet nailing her between the eyes.

  "No!" I jump up. In that moment, I don't care what she's done or how terribly she's hurt me. I only want her to be okay.

  I hurry to her side--or try to.

  Victor fires at my feet, stopping me in my tracks. "Stay where you are."

  "How could you hurt her?" I grate.

  "Easily. She served her purpose. Now toss the swords in my direction."

  I hesitate. There are no other Troikans nearby. None that I can see, anyway. They were called away to fight the threat outside.

  Victor is smart. He knew exactly where to draw me.

  Did the armies put more soldiers above this area, knowing he would lead me to it? Knowing I would need only a single ray of Light to start a conflagration?

  I lick my lips and toss the swords...but only a few feet away from me.

  Scowling, he stomps over to kick the blades behind him. While he's distracted, I reach up to rub my thumb against Killian's necklace. I know he can't get inside the realm, but maybe, just maybe, he can pinpoint my location and help clear the area above the Tower of Might.

  I just have to keep Victor talking long enough for Killian to arrive.

  "Why haven't you killed me already?" I ask. "Didn't you learn your lesson about letting me live?"

 
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