T.C. McMullen's Disillusionment Series

The Freedom Wars Excerpt

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Daughter of Gods
Revenge of the Gods
Starlight and Judgment
The Freedom Wars
Curse of the Gods
Descended
Retribution
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Earth Map in 4327

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Chapter One

 

 

The south coast exploded in fire and cries of shock, echoing with booms of plasma missiles and zaps of laser cannons out into the darkening sky over the frothy sea. Kira slammed the levers of her war machine, spinning the massive armored hovercraft to face south while her passenger took aim with its roof-mounted plasma cannons. The searing beams flashed in the early evening and burned through the invader’s front line.

 

“Swinging left!” Kira shouted. She hit the switches to shift the large hover disks under her in perfect timing, expertly moved the machine along the knuckle above the sheer cliffs, and plowed through an enemy line fortified with vehicles much like hers. The trio of weapons mounted on the roof clacked when they hit their stops and whirred when they swiveled to take out targets. Two more blasts released with a scream of energy. Thyra whooped from the back when her hits met their mark, launching two enemy hovertanks far into the air.

 

Kira didn’t share the glee. She moved fast, weaving the machine back toward her people, a force dominated by elite Inaut guards on warhorses or in hovercraft like her own. They had to hold the coast. She wasn’t at all sure why the Pure Ones had begun a battle of such magnitude nowhere near a civilization, but the fact they had done so proved she and her battalion couldn’t let them through. Her mind churned with reasons, trying to pick apart the Pure Ones’ strategy and stay one step ahead even while she flew through the battle.

 

Thyra swore, obviously seeing what Kira did when she spun the machine east. A formation of enemy hovertanks mixed with footmen surrounded a central figure. Shimmering gold armor covered the being, armor of the gods nearly as thin as fabric but as impenetrable as drako hide. The man walked on a familiar shimmering disk hovering several feet from the ground and moving forward as he walked. The device was so prevalent with the Pure Ones, who thought themselves too pure to touch soil, and something only one of them could use due to its lack of power source.

 

They were the power source.

 

She punched the switch on the dash and the siren wailed into the night, an alarm for all of hers to fall back. To battle a Pure One, they had to regroup and strategize better than what they had time to do so far.

 

“Knock out what you can!” Kira shouted to Thyra. She barreled recklessly toward the Pure One, determined to give her troops as much cover as she could. Enemy particle beams shook the ground around her, tossing clouds of dust into the chaos. Kira whirled her machine away from the flashing beams, sensing their direction before they hit. She pushed forward, Thyra firing killing blasts into the enemy, until the tingle of the Pure One’s energy grew strong enough to do damage. Kira slammed her heel to the air control and whipped the wheel hard, spinning the machine north, and punched it instantly to full power back toward the timber curtain wall. She concentrated on staying behind her men and women—between them and the Pure One.

 

More explosions shattered the earth, blasting at her troops, most on foot or horseback. Kira yelled in frustration when one struck the ground just ahead, sending men flying and killing many, too many.

 

“Take out their guns!” Kira shouted to the back.

 

“Oh, come on! Ask for something difficult, why don’t ya,” Thyra yelled.

 

“Give them cover, watcher, or move your ass and let me at it!”

 

Thyra howled a warrior’s yell and a dozen quick blasts from the transport’s cannons lit the scene in the rear monitors. Kira watched everything at once, the stream of her troops flowing through the wide-open gates to the relative safety behind the behemoth log wall, and the force approaching from behind her. The wall wouldn’t hold long against a Pure One, but it would have to be long enough. She whipped the wheel, flying toward the gate, careful to stay clear of her troops, and nearly screamed when someone landed on the windshield. She punched the thick strip of glass where her brother’s smiling face appeared. He jumped to the side, landing easily on the ground.

 

She jammed the decelerator on and threw her door open. “Get back inside!”

 

“How many?” Tarenek asked, as if preparing for comrades at a dinner party.

 

“Back inside. Now!” she demanded. They had no time to argue, still having a few strides until she had the transport safe behind the heavy gates waiting for her before they closed.

 

“Fine, don’t answer me,” Tarenek said with a roll of his eyes. He straightened the collar of his coat and stormed out toward the unprotected shoreline.

 

Kira swore at him, flicked her hand to order Thyra into the pilot seat, and jumped from the running board.

 

“Taren, get your ass back inside!” Kira shouted her order, hating that Tarenek was the one person who wouldn’t easily obey her command.

 

He glanced over his shoulder, scowling at her like she was the disobedient one, faced the enemy and swung his hands out toward the south sea.

 

The earth rumbled, rippling around the planted log wall at her back in a growling wave that shook out to the sheer rock cliffs. Kira struggled to keep her footing when the ground shifted and soil blasted into the air, tearing shrieks and flesh from the Pure One’s front lines. Another shove of Tarenek’s hands, and wind wailed down from the sky, pummeling more into bloody heaps. Enemy transports either flew into the sky to smash into bits when they landed or flattened like disks to the soil under the tremendous force of the wind. All but the very center circle fell. The pale shimmer of the Pure One’s shield protected those still standing.

 

“Taren!” Kira yelled, fury ripping her soul to the core. He had grown more and more rebellious over the years, especially the last few months, but never showed such utter disrespect before. Now was not the time.

 

Complete terror burned through her fury like wildfire when the Pure One raised his staff and pinpointed its power directly on Tarenek and her. She planted her feet in the tortured terrain and held her hands out, willing an elemental shield to protect the still open gates behind her, but, even as the threads of air, earth, and water energies wound around her fingers and grew into a shimmering barrier, she couldn’t reach Tarenek.

 

The Pure One’s propulsion hit her shield like metal to wood, and pushed her back, but she somehow managed to hold. She fell to her knees, exhaustion plowing through her. She couldn’t pull up the energies again.

 

Tarenek shrugged out of his coat, brushing it off like dust, and strode forward. His tall build, broad shoulders, and complete confidence stunning even if she hadn’t known what he was capable of doing. But it was stupid to be so reckless.

 

He swung one powerful arm again and the scolding words in her mind died away. The glow of the Pure One’s shield shattered into faint sparks in the smoke and wind. The remaining troops fell, leaving the golden-armored Pure One alone on his floating disk. Tarenek charged, dodging to the side when the Pure One aimed elemental energy at him, and then he was on the poor creature, draining the life from the richly adorned body.  Within seconds, it was over, the disk and Pure One lifeless on the ground.

 

Tarenek straightened, the lone upright figure surrounded by firelight and smoke. His dark hair fluttered before his stormy blue eyes when he turned to look back at her. She struggled to stay upright, to stay coherent, but she had extended too much energy in throwing up the elemental shield and holding it against the Pure One’s blow. Hands grabbed her biceps, pulling her to her feet. Cheers and shouts surrounded her, but she didn’t see anything beyond her brother. He shrugged at her, then turned away, striding over the battlefield, no doubt looking for any of their allies who could be saved.

 

~~*~~

 

Tarenek leaned back on the log he had fashioned into a seat earlier, propped his booted feet on a boulder, crossed at the ankles, and slid his small knife around a perfectly ripened apple. He liked the taste of the sweet fruit but didn’t care for its tougher skin. He ignored the grumbles of his friends around him and didn’t acknowledge when they got up to leave. He didn’t share their fear of his sister, maybe because he knew Kira better than anyone there, or maybe just because he was tired of being told what to do. He took a large bite of the fruit, closing his eyes to fully enjoy the delectable taste, and ignored the punch to his propped up foot. Yep, it was definitely because he was tired of being told what to do.

 

“You and me, my tent now,” Kira said, her tone harsh.

 

Tarenek sighed. “I’m comfortable, say it here.”

 

She punched his shoulder with her full strength, unseating him. He tossed his apple in the air, righted himself on his feet, and caught it again when he stood to glare at her. Fighting with her was utterly stupid, partly because she was a commander and undermining her was just wrong for anyone, and partly because she was the one person there who could give him a workout. She could do so only because he didn’t want to hurt her at all, so he couldn’t inflict on her anything harsher than what she would on him. It was nothing more than sibling tussling, and he was too tired and hungry for it now. He took another bite of his fruit and motioned toward her tent with his other hand.  He dutifully followed her into the canvassed space, surprised to find it completely void of other humans when he entered. She was very ticked.

 

Her wolf companions lay along the outer rim of the east wall, both doing little more than twitching an ear toward him. Wiki stood on his hind legs on the flimsy wood she used as a strategizing table, stretched his hands out to claw the air, and screeched at him. Kira grumbled at the tiny primate. He sank down off the table with a squeak and rushed to Shiva. The gray wolf hardly flinched when Wiki launched onto her thick coat and curled up into a ball of dark fur by her left ear.

 

Tarenek crunched another bite from the apple, looking back at Kira when she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. He chewed slowly, waiting, then shrugged when she said nothing.

 

“That’s all you can do?” she asked. “After you nearly get half of us killed.”

 

Tarenek inhaled in sharp protest but coughed on the apple’s juice. “Me?” He cleared his throat. “Me get half of us killed? Not the way I see it, Sis.”

 

“Don’t Sis me, not here, not now. I told you to stand down, to fall back with me. We needed to strategize.”

 

“Strategize what?”

 

“Strategize—the situation—what to do, and not do it while a main gate was wide open. You risked that Pure One’s full hit tearing into the interior of this battalion, killing hundreds!”

 

“You were there,” Tarenek said.

 

“So what?”

 

“So—I knew your shield could handle it.”

 

Kira narrowed her eyes and the veins in her neck pulsed.

 

“Oh, relax. I wasn’t wrong about you or your shield and we would have

strategized exactly what I did. Acting quick—like I did—saved some lives out there and saved us some repair work. Ask Hetrid or Fantor or any of the dozens of others we were able to pull from the mess if they would rather I had followed your orders and waited—and while you’re at it, ask their parents or wives or husbands or children if they would rather I had waited.”

 

Kira glared at him and blinked in rapid succession like she always did when she knew he was right but hated it. She clenched her teeth together, her jaw twitching from the strain.

 

“Give it up, will you,” he said. “I’m not here to give you trouble. I’m on your side.”

 

Kira raked her fingers through her tousled hair and shook her head. “You’re here because we need your help.”

 

“Exactly,” Tarenek said, chewing the last of his fruit. He waved the core in the air until Wiki perked his head up high. Tarenek tossed it softly to the dirt not far from the wolf. Wiki pounced on it and set to work devouring what was left.

 

“I also promised I would look after you out here,” Kira said. “How do I do that if you refuse to listen to me?”

 

“How do I help if you refuse to stop seeing me as a child?”

 

Kira dropped into her wooden chair with a deep sigh. “You are still young.”

 

“Eighteen is not—”

 

“Hardly eighteen—”

 

“Eighteen all the same. And you were seventeen when you joined the watchers,” he said.

 

“We were not at war then.”

 

“But we are now and that’s all the more reason to quit using my age against me. Tilak has guards the same age as I am and they are on active duty—”

 

“Inside Nikkar.”

 

“And none are second generation full Dreovids,” he said, deepening his voice.

 

Kira frowned. Silence, disturbed only by Wiki’s chew and slurp, filled the tent. Voices from the troops outside drifted softly but so ordinary, he hardly heard them anymore.

 

“I’m not arguing with you,” he said. “I came out here to help, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

 

“What if there had been more than one?”

 

He shrugged. “So what?”

 

“While you’re stripping the life out of one, you’re vulnerable just like any other troop.”

He couldn’t stop the grin but regretted it when she scowled at him. She simply didn’t understand.

 

“Sorry for thinking it’s funny, but you’re not realizing that I drink in their life force as I drain it, their power becomes mine on top of what I already have for that split moment, so no, Kira, I’m not more vulnerable.”

 

She crossed her arms again. “You aren’t totally invincible.”

 

He shrugged. “Debatable. But I’m not going to get into all of Zansidri’s talk.”

 

Kira closed her eyes and shook her head. Tarenek glanced over the thin wooden supports of her tent, the crates and barrels stored in the corners, and the bedrolls for her and the dozen other battalion leaders at the camp. Several were Madai, but most there were Inaut, more accustomed to being away from civilization. He was perfectly comfortable, but then, he had the unique ability to fly off to a near town for a warm bath or full-course meal. He always brought some back for his friends, but not Kira. She hated it when he and Elek went off on their own so he never told her. It kept the peace.

 

“Sit,” Kira said, studying him again. She pointed to the barrels along the east side of the tent. Tarenek glanced at them but gestured to the door.

 

“My stump is more comfort—”

 

“Don’t argue with me,” she said. “You owe me this, after jumping out at me, grinning like you were having the most entertaining time of your life, Taren, we need to talk.”

Tarenek felt the corner of his eye twitch, a subconscious acknowledgement of knowing what she wanted. He pulled one of the barrels over to the corner of her table and sat.

 

“Does it make you feel better to lecture?”

 

“You aren’t out here on some thrilling adventure,” she said softly. “It’s war, Taren, and if you keep going this blindly, it can’t end well for you or those around you.”

 

Tarenek narrowed his eyes. “You’re ticked that I laughed because it scared you?”

 

“No, I’m ticked that you pulled such a crazy childish prank right in the middle of battle, that you ignored my order—”

 

“Childish prank,” he cut in. “Childish! What prank? I jumped from the wall to get involved quick. Childish?”

 

“You were amused.”

 

“Because I startled you. What should I be, Miss Highenmighty?”

 

“You should understand what’s going on.”

 

Tarenek stood and paced to the front flap, fighting the burning anger threatening to churn up from his core. She thought him childish, the realization of it punched the fact she was like everyone else deep into his psyche. He had always thought she understood. He had to laugh, had to smile, had to let it all roll from him like dewdrops from a leaf.

 

“That’s what you think of me,” he said.

 

“What should I think? You’ve been out here with me for a month and you’ve done more partying and… Today… You’re getting cockier, not more sensible.”

 

Tarenek whirled on her and stormed back to the table. “Valley of Unrest,” he said.

 

Kira scowled. “What? What’s that to mean?”

 

Tarenek pushed off from the table, the ancient poem surfacing in his mind:

 

“Once it smiled a silent dell,

Where the people did not dwell;

They had gone unto the wars,

Trusting to the mild-eyed stars…

…Now each visitor shall confess

The sad valley’s restlessness.

Nothing there is motionless —

Nothing save the airs that brood

Over the magic solitude.

Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees

That palpitate like the chill seas

Around the misty Hebrides!

Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven

That rustle through the unquiet Heaven

Uneasily, from morn till even,

Over the violets there that lie

In myriad types of the human eye—

Over the lilies there that wave

And weep above a nameless grave!”

 

He sucked in a deep breath and quieted his voice.

 

“They wave: from out their fragrant tops

Eternal dews come down in drops.

They weep—from off their delicate stems

Perennial tears descend in gems.”

 

He kept his gaze on her. “It’s Poe—Edgar Allen Poe, a man who lived thousands of years ago. I found his poems in Zansidri’s library. That one’s fitting, don’t you think? A poem written so many years ago, our minds can’t fathom it, but the words ring true. Don’t tell me I’m childish Kira. I was there when Varik died. I was there when Sable ripped through Nikkar and her people. I’ve been there since the death beams have been flying in this war. I’ve seen friends fall. What do you want me to do, let it crush me every single moment of every day? If that misery is what you want, go find someone else to give it to you. Me, I’d rather laugh and find something good to eat—thank you very much.”

 

He turned and strode into the darkness that had settled heavily over the huge camp. Two hundred were out beyond the curtain wall, patrolling the shore, keeping watch to be sure no new Pure Ones thought to attack. He had an idea why they hit such an isolated locale, but didn’t figure anyone else wanted to hear what he had to say.

 

He slipped into the thicker shadows behind Kira’s tent and launched into a run. He was hungry for more than the meager meal they would be able to provide in camp, and he wanted to take a look south to see if his suspicions were right. He ignored everyone he passed and ran north, over the dirt streets of sorts, trodden down under the huge hooves of warhorses and constant foot traffic. He hardly felt the earth beneath him, he ran as fast as his body allowed him, drawing speed and energy from the powers of the world around him.

 

“Elek!” he shouted up at the sky when he reached the secluded fields just within view of the camps.

 

Here,” the drako rose from the shadows of the softly rolling earth and grasses to the right, a dark majestic form against the lighter sky.

 

Tarenek met his friend in the field and let his eyes adjust to the lack of lighting. “Up to a bit of travel?”

 

Now? Does Kira know?”

 

Tarenek glanced back at the dimly lit camp. “We need to do a little surveillance of the south shore, maybe to the Calaise Islands up to Green Mountain. And while we’re out, maybe grab some meat and vegetables to help replenish the stocks here.”

 

Or replenish your stomach, and I asked—does Kira know?”

 

“She knows what she needs,” Tarenek said.

 

Elek snorted and brought his large head in low, one golden eye intently studying him.

 

“What? You don’t trust me?”

 

Elek blew a sharp burst of air from his nostrils. “Not trust, just trying to decide how much trouble we are inviting.

 

The drako turned his big form and dropped his front shoulder low, allowing Tarenek to climb up on the space between his wings. Tarenek patted his friend’s scaly spine and delighted in the sudden rush of rising quickly into the sky.

 


Chapter Two

 

 

The back flap snapped open and footsteps sounded on the gravel. Kira turned just far enough to know it was Thyra who joined her. Thyra tossed a tin plate with a small serving of thick stew on the makeshift table in front of Kira and held a fork out to her.

 

“Figured you could use this. Saw golden boy running north. Went that good huh?”

 

“Don’t call him that, he’s cocky enough as it is.”

 

“Never do to his face. He’s not all that bad either, give him a break. Half the men here are ten times worse and they have no reason to be.”

 

“They’re different,” Kira said before she could stop herself. She took the fork and stabbed a chunk of pale vegetable.

 

“Yeah, he’s different, but ask yourself why.”

 

Kira kept her gaze on the stew, not hungry in the least. She knew why Tarenek was different from all the others, and she knew it wasn’t fair to him. He was different because he was her brother, her parents’ child, and none of them would do well if something happened to him. Yet he was the one guardsman she shouldn’t worry about. She’d seen him charge head on, taking down a Pure One with no help from anyone else. She had witnessed him dispatching a Pure One several times, but it was usually after other Dreovids or Annunukar depleted the Pure One’s strength. Now she knew he didn’t need any help.  But he was still just eighteen.

 

“Can’t be easy,” Thyra said and stuffed a bite into her mouth, “hafing a bro’er,” she swallowed, “in this mess.”

 

“Appreciate it, but please restrain from the mawkish stuff. I’m not feeling particularly loving at the moment so let’s stick to business.” Going off on any strand of deep thinking with Thyra rarely ended well. It usually dug up old memories, and Tarenek had done a fine job of doing that for one night.

 

“Business?” Thyra hummed. “Sure, we can do that. What is our business here?”

 

“Hold the south border and keep watch for anything odd happening.”

 

“Odd like a Pure One attacking a field hundreds of miles from anywhere.”

 

Kira slammed the fork down. “What exactly are we doing anywhere, Thyra, what?”

 

Thyra chewed slowly, her dark eyes penetrating. Kira cringed, frustrated even more because she allowed her inner turmoil to flow out in angry words. She propped her elbow on the table and her head in her hand, looking only at the plate of unappetizing stew.

 

“My personal opinion,” Thyra said, “you need a few day meeting with Monarch Valdor.”

 

Kira shook her head, refusing. She wouldn’t go in until it was time for the ranks and for her brother to return to the Kharsag Mountains. And until they had done their rounds, helped see reinforcements placed where they were needed, and fought off the Pure Ones, it wouldn’t happen. The Annunukar protected the north shores as well as the hot spots like areas around the Kharsag and Rasp mountain ranges. Her parents were in charge of everything to the west of the mountains as well as all the mountain cities, the Argels kept watch in the swamps and the allied Madai held the east shore. It was the Madai they had to reinforce now that more Pure Ones had started to find their way onto the continent.

 

“I can’t and you know it,” she said.

 

“Could and you know it. Don’t try to hide the fact you have a direct link to Mr. Valdor and he can order you in anytime his heart fancies, so all you have to do is tell him to say so.”

 

“Thyra.”

 

“Okay, fine, we’ll all just put up with you like this then. No problem.”

 

“You really, really, are not helping,” Kira said.

 

“Yeah, well, I’m not good at being subtle. You know that. I speak it as I see it.”

 

“Then do it to someone else somewhere else,” Kira said.

 

Thyra coughed a dry laugh. “I like you better than anyone out there.” She sighed. “I’m trying to help—honest. Why can’t you give yourself a twenty-four hour rest, go see that man of yours? I sure would.”

 

“Tarenek went north,” Kira said, side-stepping what Thyra tried to drag her into. “How far north?”

 

“How the heck should I know? He was moving too fast.”

 

“Probably out to Elek,” Kira said with a sigh. She had acted out on sloppily made assumptions about Tarenek’s earlier actions. She should have known better than to accuse him of being shallow. He wasn’t the typical eighteen-year-old male, couldn’t be with his gifts and curses. Not many of her people could be. She hated herself now for acting more like a blind parent than a sister.

 

“Possibly. I heard the lizard is somewhere out in the northern fields.”

 

Kira flinched from what Thyra called Elek. Not many from Nikkar cared for Elek at all, being the offspring of the beast that destroyed much of the city and so many people only a dozen years before. The speed of which Elek grew also troubled many. Zaid and Zansidri theorized that Elek fed from Tarenek’s innate primordial energy, but she had no idea. She just knew the two were the best of friends and even she had come to like Elek. He was a kind and gentle drako, not doing much more than protecting Tarenek and catering to his fancies.

 

“I need to find him,” she said and stood.

 

“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea just yet,” Thyra said. “You did give it to him pretty good. Let him cool off for a bit, and you can put together just how exactly you’re going to apologize.”

 

Kira glared at her but sank back onto the hard chair. “You were listening.”

 

Thyra shrugged. “Curse me for not avoiding some entertainment when I stumble on it. I was just bringing you your meal.”

 

Kira poked at the stew again and forced herself to take a bite.

 

“What’s a Hebrides?” Thyra asked.

 

Kira swallowed the gooey sludge. “Spirits if I know, go ask golden boy.” She tried to grin then. Tarenek truly was a unique young man, giving her a show with the poem he had apparently memorized from some ancient book. She wasn’t sure she understood any of it, but he sure thought he did.

 

“Anyone hear anything from the east?” Kira asked.

 

Thyra shrugged. “Not that I’ve heard.”

 

“Odd, isn’t it? Madai City should have checked in.”

 

“Not to us. I’m not sure your man knows we would like to know.”

 

Kira shook her head. Dane understood how important communication was, it was part of the reason they were holding up so well across the continent. She stood, carrying the cold stew with her, and ducked out into the darkening night. Solar lamps mixed their soft glow with firelight. Men and women grouped around dozens of campfires, some dozing, others chatting quietly about things like home, and others still about close calls on the battlefield.

 

She nodded in greeting to those who acknowledged her, making her way to the one solid building in camp. The two-story sod, timber, and stone structure was sturdy enough to house all the communication comms. She found the first floor comm unused but continued up the steep steps to the smaller comm. It was a little more private, but when she dialed in the number, it wasn’t Dane who greeted her.  She talked with Rinch, a Dreovid she knew from Nikkar, for a few minutes, just long enough to know the Madai generals in Madai City had reported all was well and to learn of other attacks along the south coast in the swamps. Attacks that were keeping Dane busy elsewhere. Annunukar were helping where they were needed. Argels were handling the rest in their land.

 

She signed off, relieved to hear that several Dreovids, including Rinch, had joined Dane in Shire West. Dane resented not being on the front lines, but she and her parents had convinced him he was far too valuable to the Madai to risk losing in front line battle. He had seen his share over the past several years before they managed to knock back aerial strikes. Now anything airborne was monitored and struck down if necessary from the space station. Dane had tried to talk her into remaining with him, but after realizing she did have some talents in perusing energy from Earth’s elements, along with her training, she was too valuable to stay inactive. And she couldn’t stay behind. She needed to be with the troops, to protect those she could, to make up for the ones she hadn’t been able to save in her younger years.

 

She finished her meal in front of the dark screen, trying to smother the flame of pain and regret Tarenek had lit with the mention of Varik’s name. She had said her goodbyes to her friend, letting him rest since she met Dane. Dane knew of the young guardsman who gave his life to save hers when she was still too young and inexperienced to help Varik. He’d been only nineteen when he died. One year older than Tarenek now. Cold settled into her stomach and she realized why Tarenek’s actions had infuriated her so. He reminded her of Varik, his upbeat outlook and good looks. In reminding her of Varik he made the possibility of his demise seem so much more possible.

 

She straightened her spine against the chair with the thought. Tarenek was too powerful. Even at age nine, he had helped her stop the beast that had killed Varik. Now, he had the power to snap a beast like that in half with the flick of his wrist while deflecting its fire breath.

 

She left the communication post with a new resolve. When Tarenek returned, she would apologize and she would promise to trust him to do what he could for the people to the best of his ability. It wasn’t fair for her to hold him back.

 

~~*~~

 

Tarenek stepped into the small eatery, glad to find it still open despite the late evening hour. Only a handful of people filled the space, two men at the counter, a group of women at one table, the two youngest taking notice of him. He met their gazes and smiled softly to himself. Even windblown and fresh from battle he got the attention of women. He chose a seat at a small table just to the right of the door with a view of the street out a window beside it. He settled into the padded chair and glanced out at the dark town. He had promised Elek a pig from the farmer to alleviate his guilt for leaving the drako alone in an eastern field far enough away from Starliton to not risk frightening anyone. With daylight all but gone though, he would have to leave payment and take the pig without official purchase, or maybe take Elek down over the Rasp Mountains to see what wildlife he could find. The thrill of the hunt would do the drako good.

 

“May I help you?” a young woman asked.

 

Tarenek slid his gaze from the street and looked up at the young woman. “I suppose you may. What’s tonight’s specials?”

 

She smiled and studied her notepad. “What is it you would like, a full meal? An evening appetizer?”

 

“Go for the meal,” he said.

 

“Roasted pheasant or fish? Both come with potatoes.”

 

“Pheasant,” Tarenek said, catching the delicious smell of it in the air. “With mashed potatoes, gravy, some rolls. And some of your best wine.”

 

She raised her brows. “Going all out?”

 

Tarenek smiled, sensing her worry about his ability to pay. He didn’t appear well off, not in his battle clothes of patched black slacks, and sleeveless cotton shirt under a comfortably worn leather coat. He toyed with the breast pocket of his coat, lifting the flap just enough to reveal his slips of credit. Being a top warrior and closely connected to Monarch Valdor had its advantages.

 

She raised her brow, mumbled something about being right back, and hurried behind the counter. He casually glanced around the room, taking in more about the group of women. The two youngest fleetingly peeked at him and shyly looked away when he met their gazes. One was a cute brunette just a bit younger than he. She giggled and hid her face in her hands at something her friend said just before she glimpsed him and repeated the gesture. It was amusing how flustered a simple look made her, an enjoyable past time for Tarenek. He got so caught up in toying with them, he nearly missed the woman who walked from the shadowed corner across the aisle and slid into the seat in front of his, dominating his attention.

 

He studied her wavy gold hair tied neatly at her shoulders and the mildly confident expression in her dark eyes. She was a pretty woman, not old but not young either. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of her bold show.

 

“Hello,” she said.

 

“Back at you,” Tarenek said, amused by her assertiveness.

 

“Would you by chance be a DeVassi?” she asked.

 

Tarenek carefully kept his recognition of the name from showing. He was known as Tarenek Brye Annis, but his father’s surname was DeVassi.

 

“Interesting name,” he said. “What’s it to you?”

 

She gestured with a wave of one finger and a nod of her head to his chest where his coat fell open. “You look a bit like someone I know, a man who wears that same symbol, in fact, it looks just like that, same stone and all.”

 

Tarenek glanced down at his stone on the braided leather rope. The tigereye his father had made him in the symbol of undying love had fallen free of his collar to lay visible against his shirt.

 

“Do you now?” he asked.

 

“Your voice and audaciousness stirs a little recognition as well.”

 

“My loss that I don’t share your recognition,” he said, planting the string to lead her along.

 

She laughed softly. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Tarenek, now would it?”

 

He smiled then, wondering if he’d found himself a mind reader, but looking at her, he knew she was just a woman, a smart and calm woman with a worry, but nothing more.

 

“Hmm, well now, I suppose I’ve been here enough times for you to pick that one up.”

 

“Actually, I’ve only seen you in person from a distance twice.” She reached her hand across the table in greeting. “Hello nephew. It’s nice to meet you face to face in more than just pictures. The last one I saw of you, you were still a boy, not a strapping young man.”

 

Tarenek straightened in his seat, his mind churning. “One of the DeVassi siblings, I presume.” His father had talked some about his brothers and two sisters. Tarenek had met his grandmother and grandfather a few times but things were still turbulent between Madai and Inaut when they died. Judging from the looks of this woman, she was a good bit younger than the older siblings.

 

“You must be Janni,” he said.

 

She smiled beautifully. “I hadn’t hoped Cedrik spoke of me at all.”

 

“Oh, he has. Especially when Kira hit her sassy teenage years. He mentioned her getting the trait from you many times.”

 

Janni chuckled and leaned back in her seat. “Just like him to blame it on me. He caused more than his share of trouble himself.”

 

Tarenek raised one brow, shocked to hear that. His father seemed far too reserved to cause trouble, but the man he knew was a Dreovid with many responsibilities. Both the status and responsibilities could change a man. He looked away from Janni and into the street with the thought. He wondered what his father had been like before the wars.

 

“Well, don’t let me interrupt your meal. I just wanted to introduce myself.”

 

Tarenek returned his attentions to her, wondering why she lied. “So untrue,” he said. Now it was her turn to look unsettled. It took no effort at all for Tarenek to feel her need of something. She had approached him with hope for some good end. She looked down at her hands, breathing too evenly and wondering what she had gotten herself into. Tarenek tried not to smile in reaction to her thoughts. Not many liked knowing he heard them so he had perfected the art of ignoring them, but something about Janni coupled with his lack of time before he had to return to camp made him stray from the usual.

 

“I…I had heard from others…” She mumbled to herself under her breath and diverted her gaze to her hands where she twisted a fine silk scarf, worn at the edges, into a tangle.

 

Tarenek sat back when his meal arrived, thanked the girl, and set to work on consuming the delicious food. Doing something so ordinary would also help Janni shake free of her shock. He watched her casually, noting the fine quality of her blouse and overcoat and the few pieces of jewelry she wore, but not as much as what one would see on those who still considered themselves royalty. She was simply a fine woman confident in herself but not overly so.

 

“How is your father?” she asked.

 

Tarenek shrugged. “Good the last I heard. Haven’t actually seen him for a few months. He and Mom, they’re holding the lines in the Kharsags.” He chewed another bit of tender meat, loving how it melted on his tongue.

 

She asked more about his dad, peppering the conversation with pieces of her childhood memories, none deep enough for him to get a full picture.

 

“Your mother must really be something,” she said, her voice soft.

 

That was it, the final clue he needed to piece it all together. She was melancholy over loss of family. It was what drove her to approach him and ask about her brother. He wondered if she realized she appeared older than her older brother. His father wouldn’t show age for another few hundred years or more. Janni wouldn’t be so lucky. He let her continue with the small talk, avoiding what it was she really wanted. He understood her reluctance; it was a big request from a perfect stranger, even if they were related.

 

He drank his wine and swallowed the last of the pheasant and potatoes before he leaned back and studied her, trying to gauge how gentle he had to be without intruding on her thoughts.

 

“I ah…I’m really still on active duty,” he said.

 

“Oh,” Janni said. “I thought, here… Isn’t the nearest garrison a day away?”

 

“I have fast means of transportation,” he said. “But I still can’t stay long.”

 

She forced a smile and slid her hands from the table. “I thank you, doubly so now, for your time and company.”

 

“I’ll see what I can do if you take me to him.”

 

Her pleasant smile drifted quickly away into shocked awe, her eyes widening a bit. He leaned toward her. “You had a reason for approaching me, it’s not the norm for you to walk up to someone, even if you might know them, and join them, I can tell that much. A husband or son right?”

 

“Spirits,” Janni whispered. “How did you…”

 

“Pretty much the same way I might be able to help.”

 

She tried to smile but her lips trembled. “It’s true then—the things I’ve heard.”

 

Tarenek drew in a deep inhale and gulped the last of his sweet wine. “Don’t know what you’ve heard.”

 

“That you’re like one of them, the Pure Ones.”

 

Tarenek laughed a true belly laugh, not missing the two girls still watching him from behind their whispers and giggles at the far table. He was no stranger to the admiring glances from women but didn’t have time to tease now.

 

“Like one of  them.” He sighed. “No, not at all really. I happen to like humans. And I can smite the lofty ones with a flick of a finger.” He clicked his middle and thumb together, not missing Janni’s flinch. She feared him now, not understanding his sense of humor like so many. He pushed his chair back, counting out the notes of credit he owed for the meal and left a hefty bonus for the gal behind the counter. He stood and held his hand out to Janni, acting the part of a perfect gentleman.

 

She let her gaze flit over his hand but did nothing more.

 

“I’m harmless unless you try to kill me or someone else,” he said softly. “Come on. You lead, I’ll follow.”

 

“I—I don’t…” She patted her hand to her chest, flustered.

 

Tarenek straightened his stance and stood silently beside the table, waiting for her to gather herself. He had judged her a little wrong from her assertiveness when she first joined him. She wasn’t ready to have the truth thrust at her so blatantly even if she had hoped for the rumors to be true.

 

“Pictures,” he said. “When did you see them and from where?” He slipped into his chair and scratched at the filth on the back of his neck.  He would have to forgo the promise of a bath, but that was no big deal.

 

“Pictures of—of what?”

 

“Me, you said the last you saw, I was a boy.”

 

“Oh, yes, well, it’s been many years. My mother, your grandmother, had several from a visit she and Father had with you in Tarjei. She cherished them. I have them now.”

 

Tarenek furrowed his brow. The last he remembered seeing his grandparents, he had been six. He blew out a silent whistle. “It has been a while then,” he said, not able to completely hide the sadness in his tone. He had fond memories of his grandparents and wished he had gotten to know them better. Dad never said much about them. Tarenek looked up to find Janni all but staring at him. He wondered what life would have been like if he had known the DeVassi side of his heritage better. Or, for that matter, if the Brye Annis lineage hadn’t been so devastated with loss. He knew only his mother and her older brother, and had faint memories of Greatmother Trysali. He was more than proud to carry their surname as his. But the DeVassis were quite amazing also.

 

He laced his fingers together on the tabletop and leaned closer to Janni, doing his best to ignore the faint whispers from across the room. Things were so much larger and more important than some young girls’ fancies.

 

“I apologize for being so impetuous before,” he said, keeping his tone soft. “I just got done arguing with Kira but I suppose, in a way, she was right. I didn’t mean to startle you or to intrude on your thoughts. It’s a defensive thing I do, take enough of a peek of a person’s mind to know how I should handle a situation. Guess I’ve been in camp too long to remember how to be civil.”

 

Janni shook her head to stop him. “I—I did approach you.”

 

“True. And I’d like to help now, if I could.” He glanced over at the girls one last time, not liking how interested they were. Their interest was growing, and they had seen someone they knew approach him. “Could we talk about it on the way?”

 

Janni looked down at her hands in her lap for a moment then nodded in agreement. She nervously preceded him out into the darkened street, glancing fearfully about. He wondered if she was apprehensive about him still, but sensed it was something more permanent. Starliton wasn’t known as the best of towns. He, being who he was, never paid attention to danger levels.

 

“You aren’t usually out so late?” he asked.

 

“I ah, I try not to be. But I had a delivery to make down at the bakery tonight and noticed you at the eatery.”

 

“Nothing will happen now,” he said.

 

“Hope not,” she said softly.

 

Tarenek chuckled. “Wouldn’t be real smart of anyone to try to move in on you while you’re walking with one of the highest trained Inaut warriors on the continent, now would it?”

 

She looked up at him and smiled. “No, I suppose not.”

 

Tarenek glanced at the two-story buildings flanking the street. All had heavy doors sealed tight and shutters over first floor windows. Lanterns hung at every door in addition to the dim solar streetlights. He wondered how a place got to be so crime-ridden and decided to bring it up with Kira, see if Dane couldn’t spare a few troops to patrol towns off the threatened paths like Starliton.

 

“I really am sorry for taking up your time,” Janni said. “I just… I don’t know. I suppose more than anything I wanted to meet you, my nephew and all.”

 

“Don’t be,” Tarenek said. “For the first time ever, Dad’s family isn’t just names in records.” He shrugged and looked at Janni again. He saw a bit of his dad in her and she also freshened the memories of his grandmother Juliara. “It’s good.”

 

“I’m… I’m glad then.”

 

“Up to explaining what it is you originally wanted to ask me?”

 

Janni sighed deeply and held her coat closed at her throat. “Gods forgive me. I accept that Fate works in its own way, I do. But… My husband and son both served on the east coast, have since this war began. The attack four months ago just outside Madai City…my husband was killed and my son…” She wiped one hand quickly over her eyes. “He was badly injured, still hasn’t fully recovered, but more than that, he blames himself. Survivor’s guilt, I suppose. I really don’t know what could help him, I just—I had to… I have to do something.”

 

Tarenek gazed down the street they walked, hardly seeing the derelict buildings. The attack on Madai City was part of the reason he was no longer trapped inside the boundaries of the Kharsag Mountains within easy reach of his parents. Teams of Annunukar were also spreading out to help shore up the Madai armies.

 

“A cousin,” he whispered. He had several cousins, children of his Uncle Tilak, but it felt good to learn there were others. “I might not be able to heal him completely, but if you want, I can make him forget at least the worst of it.”

 

Janni looked up at him, her lips parted in awe. She shook her head. “I know far too little about my brother and his son,” she said softly.

 

“If you want to think about it, I can come back in a few nights. It’s up to you.”

 

She halted on the street, debating her options. “Come meet him,” she said. “Then give me your opinion and we’ll go from there.”

 

He smiled. “Good enough.”

 


Chapter Three

 

 

Tarenek crested the gentle slope, walking up to the camouflaged mound he knew was Elek. Elek blinked his large gold eye, lifted his head to glance around, and then focused on Tarenek. Night painted everything in opaque blackness, but he and Elek could both see all details and even faint color. It all still looked gloomy to Tarenek now.

 

Silence? This can’t be good, coming from you.”

 

“Very funny,” Tarenek said.

 

You’ve been gone a long time. And where is my pig?” Elek sniffed, his large nostrils puffing air tainted with the scent of smoke. “And your bath?

 

“No time,” Tarenek said. “We’ll follow the Rasps down to the coast, see if you can get your scrawny claws into a goat or something.”

 

Elek snorted and arched his head high on his powerful neck. “A goat?

 

“Elek,” Tarenek said and peered up at his friend. “Can we just go please?”

 

Tarenek willed his friend to drop the conversation. All he wanted was to get back to work, survey the south seas to see if his suspicions were right, and get some sleep. His visit with Janni and her son had tired him and left him with Drenton’s memory of his father dying in a most horrific way. The battle outside Madai City had killed so many. Tarenek hated that he couldn’t give Drenton back his father, or Janni her husband, but he had, hopefully, given Janni back her son and Drenton his life.

 

Elek tilted his large head to the side, contemplating him with one shimmering eye. Dim starlight reflected from his glistening golden horns. “Goats leave an odd aftertaste, I’ll go for something up north after dropping you home.

 

Tarenek didn’t care for the idea of Elek being off alone, even north and even with him being a thirty-foot-long drako, but he was too exhausted to argue. Besides, it was his fault. He hadn’t brought what he promised for Elek. He climbed onto Elek’s back and rested while the wind whistled around him. He drank in the safety and security Elek gave him, a strange sort of total acceptance and unconditional love Tarenek often took for granted. He didn’t now. He stared up into the sky, hardly aware of crossing the Rasp Mountains and the swamps farther west, wondering what it was like beyond the boundaries of Earth on the other world. A strange sort of hate stirred in his soul with the thought. It was because of the other world that people like Janni’s husband were being killed in battles all over New Earth, but it was also to credit for the people of Earth’s very existence.

 

He twisted onto his stomach, when the salty scent of seawater filled the air above the stench of the swamps, and focused on what was below, not above. The frothing seawaters churned and growled at the main continent’s rocky shores and shimmered in starlight. The currents between the islands and the mainland were harsh and constantly roiling. He sat up and focused all his senses on the air. The acrid smell of the recent battles to the east coated the atmosphere, mixing terribly with the smells of the water, wet rock, and soil. Several minutes later, he focused on the dark mass of islands. The Calaise Islands were sparsely used because storms hammered them relentlessly and little soil or other vegetation survived on the rocky lands. He found them just as dark as always when Elek soared above the channel, turning sharply and flying east. Green Mountain Island was a different matter. Covered in lush grasses, only the thorny brush and abundance of poisonous snakes and vicious predators kept it relatively untouched by humans. Its shores were jagged volcanic rock from years of formation, but something had changed the energy of the land.

 

Tarenek felt the vibration ripple into his core, just as it did any time he faced a Pure One, only now, other vibrations layered on it. He slapped the left side of Elek’s powerful neck, urgently signaling for Elek to divert directly north. He didn’t want to risk being spotted, and if he felt them, they surely sensed him. He straddled Elek’s neck and hunched low to allow Elek more maneuverability and speed.

 

Hold on,” Elek said, tucking his wings in tight and diving north, gaining speed as he dropped altitude, then snapped his huge wings out, catching the wind and shooting forward. Tarenek turned to look behind and make sure nothing followed them in the dark skies. He had been right to think invaders had set up a base just off the mainland. That was why they were able to attack a coast in the middle of nowhere. They probably figured they could break through somewhere along the shore in one of the less guarded areas, and once they did, they could pour in and tear the continent apart from the inside.

 

He had to warn Kira so she could tell Dane and didn’t dare ignore the fact the lofty could possibly have brought drakos back to Earth again. It was a bad situation even if drakos weren’t involved. Pure Ones had gained a foothold on the surface. Somehow, he and the others had to fix that.

 

~~*~~

 

Kira heard the shouts from outside the wall first, some shouts of confusion, others of warning. The troops around her all stirred and climbed to their feet, and everyone looked to the sky. Someone shouted Elek’s name just a moment before the dark shadow of the beast soared above her, blotting out the starlight with his large wings. He circled once, dove low, and into the firelight and Tarenek slipped from his back.

 

Kira’s heart lurched into her stomach, but Tarenek landed in front of her, flexing his knees and straightening as if he had jumped from just several feet up. She never understood how he could jump from so high. He met her full on, the expression on his face a mix of tension, urgency, and sadness that knocked her speechless.

 

“Don’t yell,” he said. “We’ve got a big problem.”

 

He grabbed her forearm and led her down the path leading to the communication building. She fought with the need to scold him for not listening to the rule of staying off his drako. She had promised herself she would stop correcting him, but she couldn’t stop feeling concerned.

 

“You were out on Elek?”

 

Tarenek glanced at her. “I needed to check a hunch I had, and I wasn’t wrong.”

 

“Taren, being airborne right now is not safe, what if someone from the space station mistook you.”

 

Tarenek huffed.

 

“What is that supposed to mean,” Kira said, careful to keep her tone steady.

 

“Dane had Elek’s life signature programmed into the scanners up there. I thought he would’ve told you. He considers Elek and me assets in this war.”

 

Kira pulled him to a stop. She considered both of them assets and not just because of the war. “What’s the problem then, what hunch?”

 

He studied her for a moment. “I’m not going to fight with you.”

 

Kira glanced around at the few tents nearest them. “That’s not what I’m doing. Look, you had a good point before, and I’m sorry. I don’t mean to smother you.”

 

Tarenek smiled sadly. “I know. And apparently I forget you don’t know what’s going on in my head. I’m sorry about that too.”

 

“Yeah, well, I should have known better than thinking—”

 

“It’s done, gone, forget it. Right now, we’ve got Lofty Ones in a camp on the south shores of Green Mountain. I didn’t stick around long enough to see how many, wanted to get out before they sensed me, but it’s half a dozen, I tasted the stench of at least that many.”

 

Kira took in Tarenek’s words, struggling to snuff the shot of adrenaline and anger. She hurried forward again. “The south side,” she said. “How, how without the station seeing them?”

 

“Slowly,” Tarenek answered. “I’ve been thinking they had to be doing something somewhere though, and after the one tonight, something I saw in his mind told me.” Tarenek wiped his hand roughly over his brow. “They’re definitely there, either out in the open or maybe in one of the caverns.”

 

“Doesn’t matter, we need to remove them either way.”

 

She hurried toward the comm building, signaling to several of the top guards she passed, including Thyra, that they should stay alert. The stench of recent battle and anticipation for more filled the damp air with a stifling chill. Smoke filled the spaces between tents. Tarenek said a few more things, but mostly to himself. He did as she did, strategized in his head until a formal meeting where all thoughts would be shared.

 

She stopped at the open lower comm and quickly dialed the number for Dane’s camp again. This time, it was Dane who answered. The image of him in his casual dress filled the screen and stole her wits. She diverted her gaze and remained standing with Tarenek at her side, refusing to gaze too deeply at the man looking back at her.

 

“We have a developing situation,” she said.

 

Dane leaned closer to the screen. “Are you all right?” His voice sounded muffled by electronics but still true enough her heart recognized it. She cringed at the personal question and the concern so clear on the surface. What needed discussed was so much more important than her well-being.

 

“Pure Ones in a camp, at least six strong, on the south shore of Green Mountain,” Tarenek said, thankfully not making any teasing comments. He was all business, subtly but strangely different from what he had been hours ago. She wondered what it was he had seen, if the six lofty ones were what had him so focused or if it was something she had said. She wasn’t sure she liked it.

 

Dane’s hazel eyes darkened and he straightened in his chair. “That many? How? How could they?”

 

“The how isn’t the big problem right now,” Kira said. “It’s the when. We have to close it down before they get any stronger or hit somewhere in that number.”

 

Dane nodded, typing something on his desk. “I can have three Annunukar and Rinch and Delara there by tomorrow eve.”

 

Tarenek shook his head. “Too late.”

 

“That’s the best I can do. I can shuttle them out—”

 

“Let me do it,” Tarenek said, leaning down over the table, closer to the screen.

 

“We’ll need you there,” Dane said. “For six, we’ll need all we can spare.”

 

“I can take them,” Tarenek said. “Now. Alone. Just me.”

 

A sudden shock of cold dread spiked through Kira when she realized what Tarenek was saying. The confused and then deepening expression on Dane’s face showed her he felt the same.  He pressed his forearms on the desk and carefully folded his hands together.

 

“Tarenek, I can’t make that order. It’s far too much to ask of one person, even you.”

 

“Why? Isn’t that why you sent me out here?”

 

“To take on so many at once, absolutely not.”

 

“Not at once. I’ve thought it all through, how to pick them apart and pluck the life from them. Dane, I can do it, I can be there within the hour and I can keep them from killing more of ours.”

 

Kira studied the steadiness of Tarenek’s strong hand on the tabletop and the solid tone of his voice, full of intense conviction.

 

Dane looked down at his desk, the weight of the news pressing on him but only obvious to her. She knew him so well. “Even an Annunukar can’t—”

 

“Do what I can,” Tarenek cut in. “An Annunukar can’t kill a Pure One alone. I can. I can suck the life right out of them in seconds. I can take down this camp.”

 

Dane protested again, stating that the next evening would have to be soon enough.

 

“By then, they could hit here, this camp, our camp, our troops, again, chisel away at our men here, kill spirits knows how many.” Tarenek nearly clawed the table. His building frustration flashed so swiftly Kira felt it flow from his psyche.

 

“He can do it,” she said.

 

Tarenek whirled, his stormy eyes narrowed with confusion. She nodded to him and faced the screen.

 

“Dane, I know everything in you—in any of us—tells us how impossible it is for one to take down so many, but I’ve witnessed Tarenek stopping a Pure One. He’s swift, efficient, full of expertise, and he’s thought his plan through.”

 

Dane didn’t blink. He parted his lips but didn’t speak for a moment. “You’re asking me to give you the go-ahead to send one single man after a half dozen Pure Ones?”

 

Kira tried to smile to cover her own doubt, tried to snuff enough of her heart and be the cold-hearted watcher she trained to be. “No. I’m telling you, as one of the top commanders on this battlefield, that this is the best thing to do, and I’m asking that you assign it to Tarenek. Much different than one single man. He’s more powerful than an Annunukar or Dreovid. It would be irresponsible of us to ignore this chance for the sake of fearing for him.”

 

Tarenek straightened, his attention fully on her. She did her best to ignore him. What she spoke wasn’t the pure truth of her intentions. She could only hope Tarenek either wouldn’t see it or wouldn’t say anything.

 

“Dane, if you can trust me, I’ll make the order. I’ll take care of the details from here and see it gets done.”

 

Dane squinted his left eye, just a twinge, as he always did when suspicious of something, but his devotion to her was unfaltering. She felt a trickle of guilt for not being fully open to what she planned, but Dane wouldn’t be able to see beyond his affections for her and, by relation, Tarenek. It wasn’t a weakness, but simply something he hadn’t had time to train for. She had trained for it and still struggled. If the positions were reversed and she was in his place, giving the order to do what she planned wouldn’t be easy and maybe not even possible. The threat of guilt if she or Tarenek were lost in battle would be too much for him to live under. Loss like that was hard enough without the knowledge of giving the order.

 

“I do trust you,” Dane said softly.

 

Tarenek cupped his hand supportively over Kira’s shoulder, whispered to her that he would be outside, and slipped out the door. She desperately wished he had stayed. Being alone with Dane, with the thoughts in her mind, nearly hurt.

 

Dane seemed to study the wall behind her, then settled his sultry gaze on her. “How are you? Really and truly?”

 

She bowed her head, not able to face his scrutiny. “I’m fine, perfectly well. The battalion…we’ve taken a few hits, lost too many.”

 

Dane sighed. “One is too many.” He rubbed his temple. “Come in,” he said softly. “I sincerely need your guidance. You know the land and your people.”

 

“Just as Rinch does,” Kira said, keeping her voice gentle. “I’ll be all right here, Dane. I will. These people need me. Just today I was able to shield the main door from an attack.” She cringed when Dane’s eyes widened. “I’m in no more danger here than you are there and no more than any of our people.”

 

“I should be there with you,” he said.

 

“Absolutely not and you know why. The time will come when I can return, but it’s not yet. My tour out hasn’t been filled yet.”

 

Dane sighed. “Understood, but don’t fault me for not liking it.”

 

She forced a smile but had to look away again. Her heart ached far too much. “Dane, I need to go, to start setting things up for Taren, make sure he has everything he needs.”

Dane leaned back in his seat. “Keep me posted, and next time, if I’m not right here, send whoever answers to get me, understood?”

 

“Yes Sir,” she said and genuinely smiled then. “Take care of yourself.”

 

“I expect you to do the same.”

 

She quickly signed off and turned to face the door. Now she had just one more male to deal with. 

 

~~*~~

 

Tarenek stood outside the comm shack, his hands on his hips and his attentions on his thoughts and the dusty, beaten ground at his feet. He didn’t miss the arrival of Thyra and Melek and several other of the battalion leaders or second in command. He withstood the urge to pace against the churning thoughts in his mind only because of them. Pacing made people nervous and nervous was something none of them could afford. Kira hadn’t told Dane the full truth and Tarenek didn’t like what he sensed from her. Not at all.

 

Throwing himself on the island with six Pure Ones wasn’t a worry at all. He would handle them, as he had handled the four other Pure Ones he had faced in the past two years. Having Kira on the same island at the same time wasn’t an option. He knew what she was capable of and while it was much in comparison with others, it wasn’t much compared to a Pure One. Her shield worked to deflect their power, but not for long and not from continuous attacks. He had to find a way to talk her out of it, or sneak onto the island before she could act, but he couldn’t rush there either.

 

His life force was a powerful energy he couldn’t hide. Just as the Lofty stood out to him when he neared, he would to them. What he had to do was wait for one to leave, catch that one, keep a shadow of the life signature to take as his own, which wouldn’t be easy, for long enough to get on the island and start picking them off.

 

“Hey,” Thyra said, moving close enough he couldn’t ignore her. He glared at her from the corner of his eye, irritated at her for interrupting his thoughts.

 

“A clue to what’s going on, please,” she said.

 

“Nothing you need to concern yourself with, other than shoring up our walls. I’ll take care of everything else.”

 

“Sure you will,” Thyra said, a snide tone to her words. “I’ll wait for Kira.”

 

“Whatever,” Tarenek said, and looked to the sky. He had asked Elek to keep his attentions on the south shore and get him if he sensed any life moving on the sea.

 

“Should we expect a full attack again?” Melek asked.

 

Tarenek moved a few steps away but couldn’t keep the others totally blind. “Not sure, not if I can stop it, but you should be ready.” He looked over the dozen faces he had come to know since he arrived at the camp several weeks before. They all looked at him with respect, and several, a touch of admiration. He’d gotten used to it, but now it bothered him. He wasn’t their commander in any respect, nor did he want to be. He wanted all of them gone, back home where they were with their families, their people, away from harm.

 

“Kira will fill you all in,” he said. He caught a glimpse of Thyra’s sly smile, but she snuffed it before he looked her full on. She was amused because of the argument she had heard earlier. He couldn’t despise her totally, for she hadn’t spied on purpose and she kept her opinions neutral, both fairly respectable things. He blinked away the mind-sight, consciously pushing the thoughts of the others from his. He had trained for years to catch surface thoughts from people’s minds in just a blink. Now, he wished to unlearn it. If he could, the dread caused by what he saw skip through Kira wouldn’t be shadowing him now.

 

When Kira stepped out of the building behind, he turned expectantly just as all the others did. She glanced at him, then moved to the others, meeting with the battalion commanders. They voiced their opinions of something, stated their plans, and rushed off in different directions. He realized then that only Thyra, Melek and another top watcher from Nikkar named Nordel, remained.

 

It wasn’t a whisper from anyone’s mind that turned him with a suspicious eye on Kira, but the people who stayed. They were those inside the current camp who had been trained as watchers to infiltrate the Madai before Dane became Monarch and allied with them. Infiltrating the enemy was their specialty. A sudden wave of stomach flipping fear slammed through him.

 

“Spirits, Kira, what in creations are you thinking?”

 

Kira flashed her dark gaze at him and smirked. “Funny, I was wondering the same about you. I stood behind you in there, as I do now. I trust what you say about no time to wait.  But I don’t think you can pick them apart from their minions and knock them out one by one, not on your own. You need distractions. And that’s where we come in. We best get busy.”

 

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