Lifeblood, p.33
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       Lifeblood, p.33
 

         Part #2 of Everlife series by Gena Showalter

  I want to stand and cheer.

  The Barrister blusters, but it isn't long before he regains his equilibrium. "I'd like to present to the court a statement made by Miss Nichols's boyfriend, Javier Diez, this very morning."

  The crowd quiets, tension thickening. And yet, Javier relaxes in his seat, his tension gone. He expected this, whatever it is--he wants it to happen.

  My gaze meets Levi's. He gives an almost undetectable shake of his head. He has no idea what's coming, either.

  The Barrister points to a spot on the wall, where new footage plays. In it, Javier is speaking to Dior. "We can be happy in Myriad. We can have the life you once claimed to want. My covenant will make provision for you, ensuring you're able to practice medicine for the rest of your Firstlife--on anyone--without consequence. If you defect to Troika, they'll insist you practice only on Troikans. You know they will. You'll be in the same situation, only you'll be stuck, with no way out."

  In the video, he caresses her temple, and I stiffen. Does no one else see the shadow he left on her skin? An oily residue now absorbing onto her pores.

  Did he...infect her? Without the possession of a Myriadian General?

  I can't allow this. "He's wrong. He's so wrong," I call. "Don't listen to his lies."

  "Order," the judge demands.

  In the present, Javier stands and says, "I accept the covenant offered by Myriad. I pledge my allegiance to Myriad."

  Gasps abound through the crowd, some of shock, some of glee.

  Dior ducks her head, and my nails cut into my palms. I meet Levi's gaze, and this time he offers me a small smile. A sad smile. He's expecting the worst from this point.

  "I said order!" Bang, bang.

  I want to fall apart, to scream and to rage. To hug Levi and shake Dior. "Remember the Light."

  Bang, bang, bang.

  --Prepare yourself, Miss Lockwood.--Levi's voice whispers through the Grid.

  "Javier," Dior whispers. "I can't. They helped me. I don't want to get sick again. I want--"

  "If you defect today," he tells her, his tone cajoling, "we'll be enemies. I won't be able to help you. You have to trust me, baby. I'm doing what's best for us. I'm doing what's best for you. I know you hope you can one day see your first love again. But your father is in Myriad, and he needs you. My contract provides for him, as well. On the condition you drop this trial."

  She closes her eyes, tears catching in her lashes. In that moment, I see the shadows whirling underneath her skin. My stomach churns. She is infected. The disease has spread. The beginning of a pandemic?

  "I'm sorry, Levi. I'm so sorry, Ten," she says. "But I'm... I'm withdrawing my request to defect. I choose to remain with Myriad."

  Those on Myriad's side cheer. Horror rips through me because I know what she doesn't. A ransom must be paid--in Lifeblood.

  "No!" I leap to my feet.

  Deacon grabs my wrist, holding me in place. By the time I wrench free, Killian is at my side. He wraps his strong arms around me, his grip a shackle.

  "There's nothing you can do, lass. I'm sorry."

  I struggle against him, determined to reach Levi, to protect and shield the General who has so often protected and shielded me. I remained chained to him.

  "Let me go!" Levi doesn't deserve to die. He's done nothing wrong and everything right. He's a good man, and as I'm learning, there are too few of those. "Now, Killian."

  "I'm sorry," he rasps.

  Levi stands, his head as high as I'd wanted Dior's to be. He approaches the Barrister, who is given a blade.

  "Kneel," the Barrister says with a cold smile.

  Levi only raises his head higher. "You are not my king. You have no power over me but that which I willingly grant you. I gladly die for the chance to help Dior Nichols."

  "No," I scream, bucking and kicking to gain my freedom. "Please! Don't do this!"

  Killian only tightens his hold, nearly crushing my bones. A warm tear splashes onto my cheek, but it's not my own.

  --Levi! You have to run. Okay? All right?--I throw the words across the Grid.

  He offers me another small smile. --I have no regrets, Miss Lockwood. I will enter into the Rest knowing I did everything I was meant to do. I helped my realm to the best of my ability. I died to give a human Light, whether she accepted it or not. So let my Lifeblood spill. Let it speak throughout the ages to come. Let it say darkness may win a battle but goodwill always wins the war. And you...forgive her and fight for what's right. Let nothing stop you.--

  "Wait. Wait!" Dior shouts as Javier leaps over the bar to reach her. "What's happening? Why do you have a knife?"

  The Barrister's smile widens--he strikes.

  The blades slashes through Levi's throat. Slashes through Shell and spirit alike.

  "Noooo!" I break free of Killian at last and bound over the bar to throw myself into the Barrister, knocking him to the floor. Fury and grief have gained control of me, and they use my fists to punch his horrible face.

  He's not smiling now. No, he isn't smiling now.

  Strong arms fetter my waist and wrench me backward. Again I punch and kick to regain my freedom.

  --Stop...stop, Miss Lockwood... Ten...--

  Levi's voice penetrates my awareness. The guard who grabbed me releases me when Killian punches him. I dive down, skidding across the floor to reach Levi's side and take his hand.

  I fight sobs. --We can get you to a Healer.--

  --A life for a life. The price must always be paid. You know this.--

  "No. No!" I shake my head as I gather him close, intending to lift him. I'll carry him if I must. But I'm not strong enough, not right now, and all I can do is hold him and cry. "Not yours. Never yours."

  His Lifeblood soaks me. It's so beautiful, glittering like diamond dust.

  --I will live on.--

  "In the Rest." I choke on another sob. "I know. I know I'll see you through the Grid, but that's not good enough. I need you in Troika. I need you with me. You're not done with my training. There's so much more you need to teach me. And what about Jeremy? Levi, you can't leave him. He needs you, too."

  --I will be with you both, always. In your hearts, I'll be with you.--

  Not just ours, but every heart he's ever touched. To so many, he's been like a rainbow after a storm.

  He gifts me with another smile, this one slow, the sadness gone. --Until we meet again.--

  "No!" My voice cracks at the edges. "You can't do this."

  The Light fades from his eyes, and his head lolls to the side. I dry heave.

  He's dead. He's dead and gone, his spirit transported into the Rest. I thought the worst was over. I had no idea the worst was actually on the horizon.

  "I didn't know. You have to believe me, Ten, I didn't know this would happen..." Dior drops to her knees and frantically pats Levi's face. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Levi! You didn't tell me. Why didn't you tell me?"

  Javier jerks her to her feet.

  My gaze locks on him and narrows. I've lost too many people lately; I've forgiven too many crimes. Here, now, I'm broken. I'm nothing but shattered pieces.

  "You." I point at him. One decision can change everything. In a single second, your entire world can shift. The things we say, the things we do...we affect everyone around us. "You are responsible for this."

  A flush of shame darkens his cheeks, and yet he never stops tugging at Dior toward the door, eager to escape the poisonous fruit of his labors. "I did what was right for her."

  "Liar. You did what you wanted, not what she needed."

  In the stands, hostilities bubble over, even as Sloan attempts to be a voice of calm.

  "Walk away. This isn't the place--"

  Troikans and Myriadians charge each other. They might be weaponless, but they have fists and they aren't afraid to use them.

  "Order! Order!" the judge shouts from his podium.

  No one listens. Once again, strong arms wrap around me. Killian drags me through the crowd. Deacon remains at his
side, ensuring no one is able to harm me. Once we clear the room, the boys pick up speed and hurry out of the building, down the steps and to the Gate that leads to Troika.

  I stop struggling, knowing I'm not doing anyone any favors. Least of all Levi.

  "I wish I could go with you." Killian reluctantly hands me over to Deacon. He traces his knuckles along my jawline. "After today, I'll have to go into hiding. I'll have to find a way into Many Ends from the fringes. But when you're ready, summon me. I'll come. I'll always come. I love you. Never forget."

  My heart squeezes, trapped in a vise-grip, but I'm too broken to respond.

  As Deacon ushers me through the Gate, my fingers trail from Killian's, my gaze staying hooked with his until the last possible second. Then he's gone, and I'm stepping through the Veil of Wings to enter Troika, where I'm greeted by the same devastation I left.

  When will the heartache end?

  News of Levi's death has already spread, everyone Deacon and I pass bawling. Most people knew him as a General, a warrior who helped save spirits and humans alike. An icon. A symbol of Light.

  I knew him as a friend.

  Hopeful glances find me, and part of me withers. I'm not the answer to their problems. I'm not as strong as I thought I was. I'm just a girl torn and shattered by the ravages of war. I'm the defeated one. The loser. The failure. Abhorred...by myself.

  Even as Light shines over me, I am surrounded by darkness.

  Love is not the answer

  How could anyone believe that

  Love empowers!

  Hate

  Is the true treasure and far better than

  Love

  Hate allows you to do what's necessary for victory,

  and victory is the source of your happiness.

  Never allow yourself to be convinced that

  Love is not a weakness

  The truth is

  Love is an anchor that holds you down

  Be wise, and refuse to believe the biggest lie of all:

  Love gives you wings and makes you soar.

  A woman steps into my path, stopping me. I know her. Brigitte's mother. Smiling, she grabs my hands; she's the only bit of happiness amid the gloom. "Thank you. Thank you!"

  I simply blink at her.

  "Brigitte signed with Troika this morning!"

  My brow furrows with confusion. "Why?" I don't understand. I spoke to her once, only once.

  "Whatever you said kept her thinking. She couldn't escape your words and finally visited a TL stationed in Paris. They spoke at length. She left crying but returned a few hours later to make her pledge."

  "That's wonderful," I say, only sounding more depressed.

  I pull from her hold, pull from Deacon's hold and run... I run, and I don't look back.

  *

  I end up in the scorched manna fields, my heart pounding. No matter how far I go, I can't escape my problems.

  I stop and press my fists into my temples as I look up at the water-sky and scream. I scream until my lungs empty, and my voice breaks. I scream with all the rage trapped inside me. I scream with agony I'm not sure I'll survive, and helplessness I despise with every fiber of my being.

  We have been knocked down, but we won't stay down.

  Levi's words are beautiful and uplifting. And yet I still cannot see the Light.

  "I fought for what was right, and I failed. Where is my justice?" I shout to no one. To everyone.

  "Justice comes, its wings steady and sure." The soft voice drifts from a room in the Grid. "Though it doesn't always come on our timetable."

  I close my eyes and see a woman clad in a white robe. She--Princess Mariee--stands in a doorway, regarding me with eyes free of tears but filled with...joy?

  "Levi lived a good life," she says. "He achieved great victories and will enjoy great peace."

  "Agreed, but I can't see past the sorrow of his loss."

  "Why? He isn't lost. We know exactly where he is. And one day, we will join him."

  But one day isn't now. "Why can't we enjoy peace here? Or, if we must fight, why can't we fight to free the spirits trapped in Many Ends?" Killian's proposal--making covenant with each other--burns through my mind. Perhaps it's our only way in.

  "You can't make peace with a monster. When you try, you only deceive yourself. You leave yourself vulnerable to attack. And there will be attacks. They will be subtle rather than overt, and that is where true danger lies. Victor is the perfect example of this."

  "The monster. You speak of Ambrosine."

  "And those like Victor and Javier, who want nothing to do with the truth."

  "But shouldn't we try to reach those people? We say we love. So let's put action to word. Let's love our enemy and help even those who have hurt us."

  "You've seen what happens when we fail." She spreads her arms wide, whether to indicate the barren field, or the pain arching through the Grid, I'm not sure. "You see here and now. I see the future."

  Does she mean that literally? "Let's forge a new path," I say, and my grief begins to lessen, leaving room for determination.

  For a long while we simply stare at each other. Then she lifts her hand, a light glowing at the end of her index finger. She traces that finger around each of my eyes, imprinting warmth into my skin, almost as if she's created an invisible pair of glasses.

  "We Troikans are of one body...one heart," she says. "The Secondking has decided you will be our mouth and speak for us. You will choose who will be released from the Rest."

  "No." I shake my head. "The decision should not be mine." The pressure!

  "And yet, the decree has been issued. In two days, you will choose."

  "But the people...the Generals. They must be upset about this."

  "Their reaction is not your concern. Go now," she says. "You have many choices to make. Do what you see is good and right."

  I gulp. "And if I'm wrong?"

  "We will all pay the price."

  *

  Do what you see is good and right.

  What you see.

  The words reverberate through my mind as I set a course for the Urals--for my special cave--and summon Killian.

  The moment he arrives, he pulls me into his arms. Though we've been parted for only a short time, I feel as if forever has passed. I return his embrace with equal fervor.

  He lifts my face, his gaze searching. With his thumbs, he caresses the rise of my cheekbones. "There's still darkness in yer eyes, lass. I much prefer the Light."

  "So much has gone wrong." I clutch the collar of his shirt. "So many people have died."

  "That is the way of the world."

  "But it shouldn't have to be." I rest my head in the hollow of his neck. "I'm supposed to choose who's released from the Rest. Me alone. But who do I bring back? Archer? My grandmother? Levi? Elizabeth? Another Conduit? I had begun to think the Conduit was the answer, but I think Conduits can be made, like Abrogates." I haven't forgotten the spark I shared with Raanan.

  "Peace is your goal, lass. Bring back the one who will help you achieve it."

  He makes it sound so easy.

  He kisses me then, and I welcome him eagerly, losing myself in the moment...losing myself in him, in all that he is--the boy I love, the boy who loves me back. His hands slide down the ridges of my spine while I cling to him. All the while his scent and taste remake me into something--someone--new. I'm no longer Ten, the Conduit who stands alone. I'm Ten, one girl forged by two, with the heart of her entire realm beating in her chest.

  When Killian lifts his head, we are both trembling.

  His gaze remains hot on mine as he whispers, "An te a luionn le madai, eiroidh se le dearnaid."

  The Grid translates. He who lies down with dogs, gets up with fleas. A little laugh escapes me. "Not exactly the romantic words I dreamed of hearing."

  "They should be. I'm no longer going to lie down with dogs," he says. "I'll lie down with the treasure of my heart."

  I melt. And then I gape at him. "You're
going to defect, now rather than later." I lick my lips, nervous energy overtaking me. Court won't be pretty for either of us.

  "I am."

  "Ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine," I tell him.

  Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

  He smiles at me, and I give him a swift kiss.

  "Killian," I say on a wispy catch of breath. "My answer is yes."

  His hold on me tightens. "You mean..."

  "I mean, yes." I nod. "Yes, I will make covenant with you."

  Shock registers, then pleasure. Then his own bout of nervousness. He cups my face with his big, calloused hands, his thumbs once again brushing over the rise of my cheeks.

  "You're sure, lass? I'm now being hunted by my own people. I can get inside Myriad, but the moment I pass through our Veil, I'll be met with resistance."

  "We can sneak me inside and we can overcome any resistance together."

  Together, we can find a way into the Kennels and Many Ends. We can save the people being tortured. Maybe, just maybe, we can dethrone Ambrosine and finally usher in peace between the realms.

  "You're sure?" he asks again.

  "I'm sure," I say with a nod.

  A radiant smile lifts the corners of his lips. "Then let us begin."

  "Victory comes one day at a time."

  --Ten Lockwood

  MYRIAD

  * * *

  From: S_A_5/46.15.33

  To: K_F_5/23.53.6

  Subject: Penumbra I know you're in hiding, Killian. I know you're in trouble. But you have to come back to Myriad. After Dior's court appearance, I overheard something I shouldn't have. We knew the Penumbra had begun to spread but we didn't know our realm had found a way to mass-produce the infection. Thousands of humans are going to be affected--and soon.

  Killian, please! You have to come back. I can't fight this alone.

  ML-in-training, Sloan Aubuchon

  MYRIAD

  * * *

  From: Mailer-Erratum

  To: S_A_5/46.15.33/K_F_5/23.53.6

  Subject: THIS MESSAGE HAS BEEN DEEMED UNDELIVERABLE

  Report to Zhi Chen for debriefing.

  * * * * *

  Thank you for reading LIFEBLOOD!

  Change can begin with just one person...and one spark

  can ignite a conflagration.

  Killian and Ten's new bond will be tested. Myriad will strike

 
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