The transport sped down a long dark road to a remote airstrip and stopped next to a sleek silver jet. After a moment, Xavier stepped out, clutching the empath Nicole against his chest, and pressing his gun against her ribs.
Azar, red dragon eyes pulsing and blue flame spurting from his nostrils, swooped down from the night sky, abruptly landed, and rattled his huge bat-like wings in warning as Apollo, Phyrrhos, Potawatomi, and Bero—more dragon horses of The Guard—touched down behind him. Kyle slid from her perch on Phyrrhos, immediately missing the warmth of pressing against Tan’s back. She joined Third Warrior Furcho as he dismounted from Azar and stalked toward Xavier.
Furcho’s face was a mask of fury. “If you do anything to hurt her or my child that she carries, I will burn you so slowly you will feel every layer of your skin blister and char black.”
“Protective, are we?” The headlights of the transport switched off, and Xavier’s mocking smile was a flash of white teeth in the night’s pitch black.
Darkest before dawn, Kyle noted. They didn’t have much time before the dragon horses would transform to their daytime forms as regular horses. The hatch to the plane opened, and automated stairs hummed down, activating the plane’s ground lights and illuminating their confrontation.
“We have you surrounded,” Furcho said. “It will be simple for us to disable your plane. Let your hostages go and meet your judgment like a trueborn.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, dragon boy. The way I see it, I hold all the cards.” He turned his head and raised his voice without taking his gaze from Furcho. “Juan.” Another man stepped out of the transport, holding a gun to the temple of a petite young woman and dragging her by the arm when she stumbled. Maya cried as the hard tarmac scraped the skin from her knees.
Kyle surged forward at the sight of her younger sister. “You bastard.”
Furcho’s upraised hand stopped Kyle’s charge. A second guard appeared in the doorway of the plane, roughly holding Toni, Nicole’s shield, by her collar. Xavier smiled again and gestured to Toni. “If you touch my plane, I’ll shoot that girl.” He shrugged and pointed at Maya. “Next will be Cyrus’s daughter. We still have the wife to keep him in line.” He narrowed his eyes, and Nicole flinched as he grabbed her hand and shoved the gun’s barrel against her knuckles. “Then for every minute you continue to delay our departure, I will shoot off a piece of your girlfriend, starting with her pretty hand.”
Nicole’s eyes were wide with fear, and Furcho cursed.
Maya swayed, her eyes blank and unseeing. Her guard grabbed her around the waist to hold her up. “What the dung is this?”
“Maya?” Not now. Kyle had to think fast. “It’s a medical condition, probably all the excitement.”
Maya straightened, her pupils pinpoints in pools of iridescent green. Her voice was high and wispy as she spoke. “Moon’s magic, sun’s fire, Gandhi’s heart, and Odin’s sword. But first a trade, same heart, two souls will pay a debt long owed.” Maya’s pupils expanded, and she seemed to return to awareness. She looked directly at Furcho. “Do not be afraid. The shield will protect. Everything is as it should be for now.” Furcho held her gaze for a long moment, then touched his ear to activate his communicator. He murmured instructions for the army to withdraw.
“Furcho, no.” Kyle was stunned. “Maya.” But Maya’s eyes were closed now, and she slumped against the guard as he half carried, half dragged her toward the plane. Others departed the transport to board the plane. Several men carried Kyle’s mother, still bound, while her father followed meekly. Cyrus seemed to be a confused shadow of the man who’d started this uprising.
“Take me instead of Maya,” Kyle said desperately. “She’ll be more trouble than you want for a hostage.”
Xavier eyed her. “How gallant. But no.”
Furcho’s hand closed around her forearm, his fingers digging into her skin to silence her. He held Nicole’s tearful gaze. “Trust Maya, Nic. Keep her and Toni close.”
Nicole nodded, offering a small smile. “We’ll be fine. I love you.”
Xavier backed away from them, feeling his way up the boarding steps so Nicole was always between him and The Guard.
Kyle had never felt so helpless. Where were they taking Nicole, Toni, Maya, and her mother? Simon, her father’s sinister second-in-command, had to be behind all this. She should have roasted all of him, not just his weapon hand, when she had the chance earlier. Kyle shook off Furcho’s grip and stepped forward. She had to try again. “Don’t you know who I am?” Her shout rang out above the hum of the plane’s engine gearing up.
Xavier stopped in the doorway of the plane. “Should I know you?”
A calm filled her, so deadly she felt as if she could shoot lasers from her eyes to his. “I am the eldest born to Cyrus, the man you call The Prophet.”
Xavier curled his lip and shook his head. “It seems I don’t have a big enough plane for all his whelps.” He pushed Nicole inside and reached for the door to close.
“Simon knows me,” Kyle shouted.
“I am Kyle.” She raised her hands and palmed two blue-white-hot spheres of flame. “You tell Simon that Kyle is coming for him.”
Toni sat next to Nicole, who curled into a window seat and sniffled as she held Furcho’s gaze through the portal until the last possible moment. When the plane lifted off, tears began to roll down Nicole’s cheeks, and her shoulders shook with choked sobs. Toni was at a loss. Should she hold her hand? Rub her back? She didn’t have a great deal of experience with women, especially opposite-oriented women. Nicole wiped at her tears with her sleeve. Stars. She didn’t even have a tissue to offer.
“There’s a clean handkerchief in the pocket of my skirt. I can’t reach it, but you can get it for her.”
Toni turned toward the low, soothing voice and stared into blue eyes.
Laine smiled from the seat across from Toni. “I got in the habit of carrying one when Kyle was young. She had a lot of childhood allergies and was always wiping her nose on her sleeve.”
Toni hesitated. “You’re Kyle’s mom?” It made sense. They had the same dark hair, blue eyes, and angular profile. But Kyle’s eyes were an intense cobalt laser blue. Laine’s were a soft summer sky.
“Yes.” Laine inclined her head toward the young woman who slumped in the seat next to her. “That’s my other daughter, Kyle’s younger sister, Maya. Their father, Cyrus, is in the seat behind us.”
Unlike her tall, dark-haired mother and sister, Maya’s hair was a rich brown and fell in waves past her shoulders. The resemblance to Kyle’s sculpted features was obvious, but Toni found Maya’s more rounded features softer, decidedly beautiful, and, well, angelic.
Toni peeked around the back of her seat to stare at Cyrus. He bent forward to rest his forearms on his thighs and clasped his hands together as he rocked slightly and mumbled to himself. Was he praying? She didn’t think so. She couldn’t make out all the words, but she could discern an occasional “I am The One.” This was the man they called The Prophet? The man who started this misguided uprising? He didn’t look that imposing, but they said he’d cut off a young boy’s hand as a message to the First Warrior. He glanced up, and Toni was startled by the glazed, scary, wild look in his eyes. He was clearly delusional. Laine seemed to read her thoughts.
“He’s ill and needs medical care. I feel responsible for not making sure he was properly monitored,” Laine said. She shifted in her seat and nodded toward her hip. “The handkerchief’s in that pocket.”
“Oh, right.” Toni glanced back at Nicole, who was now hunched over and covering her face with her hands as she cried.
Toni mentally shook herself. She needed to organize a plan. She was the only soldier here and the only shield available to protect these three innocents. Nicole, who was usually calm, was coming apart. Must be baby hormones. Toni had heard lots of stories about how they affected women. Maya’s petite frame and feminine dress didn’t scream warrior, so Toni doubted she could expect help from her. And, though Laine had Kyle’s athletic body, she looked a bit beat up after her tussle with the guards that had prompted them to tie her hands and feet while they left the rest of them loose. She’d have to get them all out of the clutches of their kidnapper. Cyrus, she decided, could fend for himself.
The plane was an old fuel-based commercial commuter model that had been converted to solar power. The front of the plane had been gutted and refurbished with comfortable lounges, but the hostages had been herded to the rear, where the original seating was close and the aisle between them narrow.
A row of empty seats separated them from their burly guard. But all Toni could see of him were his legs stretched across the aisle, which meant he couldn’t see her either. She reached across and retrieved the handkerchief from Laine’s pocket. “Thanks.”
Nicole didn’t speak or look up when Toni gently tugged on her forearm to lay the handkerchief in her hand. She simply unfolded it and buried her face in the cloth as she sobbed.
Toni put her hand on Nicole’s back. “Furcho and Captain Tan will get us out of this. And, until they come, I promise to keep you and the baby safe.” But her reassurance only seemed to make Nicole cry harder. “Nicole…” Toni twisted in her seat when sudden thumping sounded behind them.
Cyrus was trying to stand but didn’t seem to comprehend that he must release his seat restraint first. The more he tried, the harder he struggled, banging his arms and head against the back of Laine’s seat. The guard stood and looked back at them, frowning.
“Release me.” Cyrus’s mumbling was evolving into angry words. “Infidels. You will regret this. I am The Prophet. Have you not yet seen the consequence of your sins?”
The guard walked back to glare at Cyrus. “I’d shut up and sit quietly before Xavier tells me to slit your trouble-making throat.”
Cyrus flushed, and he sprang from his seat as his fingers finally found the release on the seat restraint. “I am anointed. The One and I are the same.” He slammed his palms repeatedly against the chest of the guard, pushing him backward down the aisle to the front of the plane, where Xavier and four other men lounged in the more-comfortable seating. They stood as Cyrus pushed his startled guard to the floor. “Where is Simon?”
Xavier eyed him. “You’ll see him soon enough.”
“That is not an answer.” Cyrus’s roar filled the plane. He began to pace. “Why are we running from the infidels? The One would have given us protection. We should have stood and fought. We had more than a thousand Believers, most of them armed, and the unnatural army numbered fewer than a hundred.” Spittle ran down his chin. “I am surrounded by cowards.”
Xavier flicked his hand toward Cyrus and spoke to the two men flanking him. “Tie him in his seat if necessary.”
Two of the guards grabbed Cyrus and manhandled him to the rear of the plane. Toni ducked to avoid catching an elbow in the ear as they struggled past her.
“Your souls will perish in hellfire. I am The One.” Cyrus’s screams filled the plane. “I am The One.”
His loud rant seemed too much for Nicole. Her sobs became desperate wails. Toni wanted to cover her ears, but she tried to console Nicole. “Nic, you’ve got to shield him out. He’s mentally unstable and you’re absorbing his distress.” She could put up a physical shield but not a mental one. Nicole would have to do that for herself. Toni cupped Nicole’s face in her hands and forced her to look up. “Nic, please. You have to calm down.” Nicole froze for a second, her eyes holding Toni’s like a lifeline. Then she doubled over and wailed again.
Xavier stomped to the back of the plane. “Knock him out if necessary. Just shut him up.”
“Wait. Don’t hurt him. I can calm him if you just untie me,” Laine said.
Toni turned back to them. If Laine could calm Cyrus, then maybe Nicole would settle. This couldn’t be good for the baby. It was worth a try.
Xavier made a dismissive sound. “You’ve already assaulted my men in an attempt to escape.”
“Where would we go?” Toni said. “We’re in a plane, for star’s sake, thousands of meters high in the sky. You think four women and a crazy man can overpower you and all your armed guards to hijack the plane? This Simon guy might not like it if you damage his mouthpiece.”
One of the guards struggling with Cyrus crumpled as a knee connected with his crotch. Xavier grimaced and drew a switchblade from his pocket. He flicked it open. Sun and stars. Toni didn’t like Cyrus, but her hands itched with the instinct to throw up a shield to protect him. She relaxed a bit when Xavier knelt instead and sliced through the bindings around Laine’s feet, then yanked her forward to cut the twine tying her hands behind her back.
Laine shot out of her seat just as the second guard connected a bone-crunching right hook to Cyrus’s jaw. The guard’s angry expression dissolved into one of disbelief when the punch appeared to have no effect on Cyrus.
“I am The One.” Cyrus’s manic screech triggered another loud wail from Nicole.
Laine wrapped an arm around him from behind, placing one hand in the middle of his chest and the other along his temple. “Cyrus, stop. It’s okay. Everything is okay. There’s been a misunderstanding. These men are taking us to the City of Light.” Though Laine matched him in height, she was much leaner in frame, and Toni marveled that she appeared to easily restrain him though two large men had not.
“I am The Prophet.” His vehemence gone, he sounded more like an impudent child.
“Yes. And we’re going to the City of Light. So, you must rest now.” Laine guided him back to his row of seats, nudging him over so she could sit with him. Keeping one hand on his chest, she spoke in a soothing tone. “There will be much work for you when we arrive.”
“I’m so tired,” he said, quiet now.
Laine drew him down, cradling his head and shoulders in her lap. “Rest now. I’ll keep watch and wake you when we arrive.”
He closed his eyes.
The plane was silent except for Nicole’s hitched breath and occasional sniffs. Toni slid her hand into Nicole’s and sighed in relief. Sun and stars. She’d been ready to start screaming if the racket hadn’t stopped.
“She’s one of those degenerates. A witch,” a guard said, eyeing Laine. “We should tie her and that idiot Cyrus up.”
“I’m not a threat,” Laine said. “My gift is simply a form of healing.”
Xavier studied her. “No restraints, but I’m making you responsible for keeping everyone quiet back here. A guard will watch you at all times. If anyone makes the least bit of trouble, we will tie all of you.”
“Understood,” Laine said.
Toni watched the men as they returned to the lounges, their guard settling this time about five rows away.
“Oh.” Nicole doubled over, and her hand tightened around Toni’s. “Oh, no.” Her tears started again as she gasped. “My baby.”
“What? What’s happening?” Toni’s thoughts raced, tumbling, jumbling, tangling as she panicked. She worked in a hospital but didn’t know anything about healing. She kept inventory and ordered supplies, for star’s sake. “Nicole, no. You can’t do this now.” She had the same first-aid field training every soldier received, and it didn’t include delivering babies. She didn’t need to be a healer to know it was much too soon. Furcho, Alyssa, everybody was counting on her, and she was going to let Nicole lose this baby. Safe. She was supposed to keep— A hand on her arm stopped her mid-thought. She twisted to look down into warm green eyes.
“Maybe Mom and I can help.” Weariness still etched Maya’s soft features, but she’d left her seat and was kneeling in the aisle next to Toni.
“You’re a healer, like your mother?”
Maya lowered her gaze, her smile fading. “No. I don’t share my mother’s gift, but I’m able to act as a conduit for her. She shouldn’t leave my father right now, so I’ll need to be her hands to help your friend.”
Maya raised her eyes again, and Toni was suddenly lost in the swirl of green, flecks of gold and hint of blue. “Nicole’s pregnant.”
Maya’s smile returned, soft but a bit patronizing.
Toni’s ears heated with embarrassment. Duh. Nicole’s baby bump, though not huge, was evident. Maya must think she was an idiot. She groped for something to redeem herself. Then she remembered that Kyle said Furcho was from her hometown. “Furcho is the baby’s father.”
Maya’s face lit up, and Toni had never seen a more beautiful woman…ever…anywhere. “Furcho! He’s a close family friend. Mom, did you hear? We must help.”
Laine smiled from her seat, where Cyrus still slept with his head in her lap. “Yes.” She cocked her head. “But she is gifted, isn’t she?”
Toni nodded. “Nicole’s an empath. She’s usually strong, but…”
“Being pregnant, kidnapped, and absorbing Cyrus’s strong emotions must have been too much for her,” Laine said softly. “Maya, can you reach my hand if you sit next to Nicole?”
Maya stood and gestured to where Toni was sitting. “May I sit there?”
Toni squeezed Nicole’s hand again. “I’ll be two steps away, okay?” Nicole didn’t seem to hear, grasping her belly and gasping as another spasm gripped her, so Toni quickly slipped from her seat and let Maya settle in her place. “You need to hurry.”
Maya reached back to grasp Laine’s hand, then laid her other hand on Nicole’s belly and closed her eyes. When Laine closed her eyes, too, the air warmed around them. Nicole’s spasm seemed to lessen. Then she cried out, and Maya jerked her hand away, her eyes wide.
“Maya?” Laine’s puzzled expression worried Toni. Maybe these people didn’t really know what they were doing. She was supposed to be shielding Nicole from danger. Was she opening the door and inviting it instead?
Maya opened and closed her mouth a few times before she finally spoke. “The baby is strong. Very strong. She’s refusing my unfamiliar touch.”
Nicole began to sob softly, and Maya rose to let Toni retake the seat. Toni didn’t hesitate as she settled next to Nicole and stroked her back. “I told Furcho I’d make sure nothing happened to you and his baby, and I swear to the stars I won’t let you down.”
Nicole nodded and reached for Toni’s hand. She spoke, her voice choked with pain and tears, for the first time since their captors had dragged them onto the plane. “You’ve always been dependable.”
“Toni, would you lay your hand on Nicole’s stomach? Perhaps the baby would accept your touch.” Maya squatted next to Toni’s seat and held out her hand. “Then hold mine and try to clear your thoughts. We need to convince her to stay where she is for at least another few months.”
“Me?” Toni coughed to cover the embarrassing squeak in her voice. “I’ve never done anything like this. I’m not gifted like you guys—”
“Please, Toni. Try?” Nicole grimaced and rubbed at her side. “I’m still trying to master handling my emotions and hers, and shielding feelings from other people.” She grabbed Toni’s hand and pressed it to the bulge of her belly.
Toni jumped. “She moved!”
Laine chuckled. “It was more likely gas. It’s too early in Nicole’s pregnancy to be the baby.”
Toni nodded. How would Laine know details like that since they’d just met when they were all kidnapped together? But she’d worry about that later. She tightened her hold on Maya’s hand and closed her eyes. “Okay. Let’s do this.” She tried to clear her mind, but her genetic need to protect kicked in when heat spread up her arm from the hand Maya held.
Again, Maya opened her eyes wide, this time focused on Toni. “You are gifted. You’re shielding her.”
Toni glanced nervously toward the front of the plane. Maya had spoken softly, but she didn’t know how well the guard could hear from his seat. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Maya.” Laine’s voice was soft, too.
Maya glanced back at her mother. Great. Now they apparently both knew.
“We won’t hurt her, Toni. You have our word.” Maya’s eyes were a sun-warmed meadow dotted with wildflowers.
Toni wanted to trust her. She really did. “How do I know that? How do you know you won’t hurt her?” Toni asked.
Maya searched Toni’s eyes, until Nicole’s whimper of pain broke through their standoff. “Because I have a gift, too, that I don’t let a lot of people know about.” She sighed. “I’m a seer. Everything I see doesn’t come to pass, because the future is not as set in stone as people would like to believe. But in my brief touch with the baby a moment ago, I saw a future for her. It was only a flash, so I can’t recall specifics, but I can tell you she has a future if we help her now.”
“She’s being truthful, Toni. I can feel it.”
Toni winced at the pain in Nicole’s voice. She didn’t need an empath to decipher the honesty in Maya’s gaze. She took Maya’s hand again and closed her eyes. This time, she welcomed the warmth that spread up her arm and drifted in the wondrous river of calm that flowed through her to the hand she pressed against Nicole’s belly. She blinked when something seemed to press back. Why did she think it was a tiny hand? The image of a young dark-haired, golden-skinned warrior formed in her mind. Stars. She must be delirious from stress. Or maybe she was glimpsing the future because she was acting as a conduit for Maya. Nicole’s sobs quieted. She began to draw deep breaths and finally sighed.
When Maya withdrew and broke their connection, Toni felt hollow. She had to remind herself that what had filled her came entirely from Laine. Or did it? The connection had felt unsettlingly intimate. She’d met these people little more than an hour ago. But this wasn’t about her. It was to help Nicole.
“Thank you.” Nicole sat back and rolled her shoulders. “I’m having a little trouble handling both my emotions and the baby’s. So, I wasn’t prepared to shield out what Cyrus was broadcasting. Being an empath sucks sometimes.”
“Mom has him under control for now.”
Nicole turned in her seat to study Maya kneeling in the aisle. “Is she an empath or a psychic healer?”
Maya shrugged. “I’m not sure. None of our labels fit her gifts.”
“But you are a seer?”
Maya bowed her head and dropped her gaze to her lap, where she nervously traced the pattern on her skirt. Her next words were so soft Toni and Nicole leaned closer to hear. “Yes. But please don’t tell anybody. What I see doesn’t always come true. The choices we make can change the future, and most of the time, it’s dangerous for people to know what might happen.”
The tortured vulnerability in Maya’s huge green eyes when she looked up made Toni’s heart clench. She laid her hand on Maya’s cheek. So soft. “Your secret is safe with us.” She savored the brush of fingers against the hand she rested on Maya’s face. “And I would ask that you keep my gift secret, too. I was assigned to guard Nicole, and now all three of you, if possible. If they know I can shield you from weapons, they’ll try to separate me from you. I’d rather wait until we’re on the ground and have escape options.”
“I will,” Maya said, squeezing Toni’s hand before standing and sliding into the seat across the aisle.
“I like your strategy, Lieutenant Toni,” Laine said from one row back, keeping her voice low.
Toni twisted, her eyes falling on the man sleeping in Laine’s lap. She frowned.
“Don’t worry,” Laine said. “He’s out cold. I’d be able to tell if he was pretending to sleep.”
“You are Kyle’s mother.” Not a question this time, but an accusation. Hadn’t Kyle told Laine what Cyrus had done to her before she escaped and found her way to join The Collective’s warriors? They’d been together for at least a week after Kyle returned to the cult as a Collective spy.
Laine nodded, clearly understanding Toni’s implication. She moved her hand from Cyrus’s chest to caress the strong line of his jaw. “And this is her father. He suffers from a chemical imbalance that causes mental instability. The disease has grown as he’s aged. But I have medication that will bring him back into balance if I’m allowed to give it to him.”
“So, he doesn’t really believe the dung he’s been spreading that started all this mess?” That was a bitter pill to swallow. She had lost people she valued to this war—Jael and Uri. And though she had few friends in their camp, the many pyres of the recruits who were killed when attempting to bond with a wild dragon horse still affected her, as had the death of the warriors at the horrible battle in Brasília. She—and everybody else—needed someone to blame.
“The old religions have always fascinated Cyrus, so I can’t say he doesn’t believe some part of what he’s saying. But I respect his right to believe whatever he wants as long as those convictions don’t harm others who don’t share them.”
“Yet The Natural Order has harmed others,” Nicole said quietly. “They are hoarding food and medicine, while others are starving and dying from disease that the medicine could treat or cure. The First Warrior was killed, and it has devastated her bond mate, who is one of my closest friends. Another Advocate, a gentle giant of a man and a colleague of mine, was murdered in the street by a sniper as he protected my fiancé from The Natural Order.”
Laine closed her eyes and swallowed hard as she stroked her husband’s hair. “Oh, Cyrus. I feel so responsible. I should have paid more attention to you.” Tears dripped from the corners of her eyes, and she swallowed again. Maya stood and stepped close to lay a hand on her mother’s shoulder. Laine opened her eyes and looked up at her daughter. “You tried to warn me. I should have listened.”
“You’ve never sought what’s about to be thrust upon you, but our world will fall into chaos if you continue to refuse to use your gifts,” Maya said. “I saw this three times in three moons, then every seventh full moon since I was a child. It’s the one vision of which I’m certain.”
Laine held out her hand and Maya took it, lacing their fingers together. Laine appeared physically strong like Kyle, but she seemed to draw on her younger daughter’s emotional strength. After a moment, Laine nodded. “I don’t know how I can face the First Warrior’s bond mate or the rest of The Collective’s army and see, hear the loved ones they sacrificed,” she said, resting her head against the back of her seat and looking from Maya to Toni and Nicole.
Was Laine also a necromancer? Did she see souls not attached to a physical body?
“We’ve all made mistakes we’d like to erase,” Nicole said.
Sadness flickered over Laine’s features. She appeared to know and understand the guilt Nicole carried like a heavy yoke. The young Advocate felt responsible because she’d asked Uri to bring her beloved Furcho home safe, and Uri had thrown himself between Furcho and the sniper’s deadly bullet to keep his promise to her. Cyrus stirred, and Laine stroked her hand down his chest, then rested her palm over his heart. He quieted again into a sound slumber. The lights dimmed to conserve the plane’s batteries, and the shadowed interior accentuated the fine lines of weariness etched into Laine’s classic features. “Maya had warned me of the consequences. You had no idea the result of your request.”
“If not Father, some other catalyst would bring what is to come. I feel sure of it. Everything is as it should be.”
Laine didn’t appear convinced by Maya’s assurance, and lamenting what couldn’t be changed wasn’t an efficient way to use their time. Toni hated inefficiency.
“We can’t erase our mistakes, but we can stop the rest of the dominos from falling,” she said. “First we need to figure out a way to get out of this mess and back to safety.”
Laine smiled slightly. “Kyle told me a little about her new friends. She said you were an organizer.”
Toni stood but raised her arms and twisted back and forth as if stretching when the guard sat straighter and stared. She smiled at him and made a show of rubbing her lower back and executing a couple of standing lunges before she refocused on Laine. “I realize that, except for Maya, I’m probably the youngest person here. But I’m the only soldier, and all of you are my responsibility.”
With a serious expression, Laine quickly bowed her head to acknowledge Toni as their leader. “What would you recommend?”
Toni bent forward over one leg as if she was stretching a cramp out of her hamstring. “We lifted off near dawn, so the dragon horses can’t immediately follow us. We need to find a way to stall this plane to give them time to catch up. Can you or Maya drain their electric cells or shatter their solar screens?”
“Of course not.” Maya’s sweet face transformed into a dark cloud Toni would have never thought possible. “Maybe your gifts are suited for war, but our talents are only positive. We never use them to harm anyone.”
Toni scowled. “Our warriors, and your sister, use their gifts to protect The Collective. I was talking about causing enough of a problem that they’d have to land to do repairs or wait until the batteries recharge. You think I want to crash and kill us all?”
“Isn’t that what warrior-types want? To go out in a blaze of glory?”
Anger crawled up Toni’s spine and heated her neck. She leaned close, nose to nose with Maya, and spoke through clenched teeth to keep her voice low. “You obviously know nothing about warriors. It would be a coward’s way out to kill yourself and everyone else because you let the person you’re supposed to be guarding get captured.”
Maya didn’t reply. Her gaze dropped to Toni’s mouth, and Toni self-consciously swiped her tongue over her teeth and lips. Dung. Did she have something stuck in her teeth? Maybe Maya was about to fall out again with another vision of the future. But Maya blinked, her cheeks flushing an attractive shade of dark pink, and then her lashes fluttered as the spell seemed to recede and her gaze found Toni’s again.
“Maya?” Laine appeared puzzled by her daughter’s response.
“I’m so sorry.” Maya backed away, dropping her chin and covering her eyes with one hand. She looked up, her gaze meeting Toni’s and flicking away, her cheeks flaring from pink to a deep rose. Had she seen something in Toni’s future? Her next words were so soft, Toni strained to hear. “The stress of our situation has me on edge. Please forgive my rudeness.”
Toni took Maya’s hand in both of hers. She’d never had the confidence to initiate physical contact with another person, unless it was to push them away or slug them for ridiculing her relatively short stature among an army of tall warriors. Her hand always felt too small for the tools in the stable’s smithy or child-like any time she greeted another adult with a handshake. But Maya’s hand—not smaller, just more finely boned—fit hers perfectly. “Nothing to forgive. We’re all a bit tense, but we need to pull together.” She couldn’t lie to herself. The fiery side of Maya was beyond enticing. She didn’t have Alyssa’s red hair, but Maya’s eyes held the same flame of temper as the First Advocate’s, Toni’s mentor and friend. Maybe that’s why she was letting Maya off the hook so easily. She felt drawn to Maya, probably because she was a lot like Alyssa. Her body wasn’t convinced. She flushed with a new heat, and something fluttered low in her belly. That never happened around Alyssa. She gently withdrew her hands from Maya’s.
“How far can you project your shield?” Laine asked, dissolving the moment between Toni and Maya.
Toni glanced over her shoulder to make sure the guard wasn’t listening. Since they’d dimmed the lights, most of the men had stretched out on the lounges up front to nap. The door to the cockpit was closed. Even their guard was nodding off. Toni turned back to Laine and shrugged. “I’ve never tested it.”
Laine looked out of the window next to their seats. “The sky has turned overcast. That’s why they dimmed the lights. They’re probably supplementing the solar power with batteries. If you can block all the sunlight from reaching the solar panels, then the plane will drain its batteries and have to land. That will buy us some time for our rescuers to catch up.”
“Holy dung. It probably has panels from nose to tail. I’d have to shield the entire plane.”
“From weak sunbeams. You can do that, can’t you?” Maya asked. Ouch. The sarcastic Maya was back. What was it with women? One minute they’re going all googly eyed over you, and the next they’re cutting your legs out from under you.
“The panels start at the wings, extend along each, then part of the way toward the tail,” Laine said. “Kyle and I share a fascination with flying, and when we went to an airshow once, we saw one of these models that had just been converted from fuel to solar.” She drew a T-figure in the air with her finger. “So, not the entire plane.”
Toni eyed her skeptically. She’d never purposefully shielded anybody. It would just happen when she was in a tight spot. She’d throw up her hands, adrenaline would kick in, and the shield happen. What if she couldn’t generate a shield without imminent danger? She gestured toward the front of the plane. “I can’t just stand in the aisle with my arms over my head, looking like a fool without one of those guys noticing.”
“Are you refusing to even try?” Maya’s hard stare was challenging, and her words felt like an accusation.
Son of a dung eater. Why didn’t Maya just check in with the future and see if they got out of this mess and how they did it? A hand on her back stopped the childish retort before it left her mouth.
“Sometimes Toni thinks aloud when she’s planning details,” Nicole said. “Let’s give her a few minutes to work it out. She’s always resourceful. That’s why she’s been promoted so fast.” Nicole slid her hand up Toni’s back to clasp her shoulder and squeeze. “That’s why Furcho trusts her to keep me safe.”
The confidence in Nicole’s eyes reminded Toni that her early planning and record-keeping had prevented an epidemic of influenza from destroying the dragon-horse army. Reminded her that the First Warrior had personally promoted her to be the First Advocate’s top admin officer in the camp clinic. She pushed back old childhood feelings of inadequacy and being the odd duck.
She looked up at the ceiling. She could do this. Sun rays are just another form of energy. If she could block flame, she could easily block sunlight. Could she push a shield outside of the plane’s shell? Well, she’d stood behind Kyle when she deflected flame directed at her. What would the guards think when she raised her hands above her head? Wait. She’d already done that before, when she pretended to stretch. But this would take much longer.
Toni stared at the floor for a minute, then looked up to scan the faces of the three women watching her. Nicole looked hopeful, Laine curious, and Maya skeptical. The last expression made her decide what to do. She straightened her shoulders and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m not guaranteeing this will work, but it’s better than doing nothing.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I have this, uh, thing I can do with my back. Even if it sounds awful, don’t panic. Just go with however I act, okay?”
Nicole smiled and nodded. Toni didn’t doubt she would play her part well. Nicole had conspired with several of Toni’s infamous pranks around camp—some good-natured, others with a touch of revenge for those who thought she was an easy target for teasing.
Laine watched Nicole’s reaction, then added her pledge. “I’m in.”
Maya’s expression turned from skeptical to concerned. “You won’t do anything to hurt yourself, will you? We can find another way.”
Toni blinked. Not even a bipolar person could ping back and forth like this woman. Every time Maya spoke to her was like picking off another petal of a daisy. I like you. I like you not. I like you. I like you not.
“I can pop a vertebra in my back in and out with an awful crunching sound. It’s painful if it gets stuck, but that’s only happened once, and I’ve done it a hundred times to fool people. So, just trust me, okay?”
“I’ve seen her do it,” Nicole said. “It’s creepy, but really okay.”
Maya chewed on her lip.
“I need everybody behind me on this,” Toni said, realizing she could stare into Maya’s beautiful eyes for hours if that’s how long it took for her to answer. She didn’t know why, but it was important that Maya agree.
Maya’s consent was tentative, but Toni held her gaze and smiled. “Thank you,” she said softly. “Having you on my team makes all the difference.”
Maya blushed and ducked her head to hide the smile that transformed her lovely face to radiant. Toni’s own face heated when Nicole playfully nudged her. But Toni had no idea where this new brazen-warrior-like flirting was coming from, other than Maya seemed to draw it out of her. She shook herself mentally. “Anybody have bottled water?”
They all shook their heads.
“Good.” She sat in the aisle seat and coughed. After a few seconds, she coughed again, accompanied by a strangling noise, then furious coughing.
Cyrus mumbled loudly in his sleep, and Laine laid her hands on his forehead and chest and sang quietly, drawing the guard’s attention to her measures to quiet him. She couldn’t have played it better.
Toni took the cue and stood. She coughed loudly as she stumbled toward the front of the plane. Their guard rose from his seat to block her path. “Where do you think you’re going?”
Toni put her hand to her throat. “Water. Do you have some water?” She choked out her words between coughs. She took a few more steps.
“Stop.” Only a few rows of seats away now, he raised his gun and pointed it at her chest. “I’ve seen you pyros melt a gun, so you’re not getting close enough to grab mine.”
Toni wanted to roll her eyes. If she’d been a pyro, he and the rest of their abductors would be ashes by now. But at least he was playing right into her hands. She did her best to look terrified and shot her hands upward, coughing at the same instant she twisted her shoulders in the way she knew would pop that vertebra in and out. The crack of bone shifting was loud in the confined space of the solar plane, and she screamed. She scrunched her eyes closed and whimpered through a suppressed cough.
“What’s going on?” The man Xavier had called Juan approached and peered at Toni over the guard’s shoulder.
“She was coughing and asked for some water. But she was coming too close, and I don’t trust these deviants. I pointed my gun to keep her back, and when she raised her hands like an idiot, there was a popping noise. I didn’t touch her, but I think she maybe hurt herself.”
Juan shook his head in disgust. “We don’t even need this one. If we weren’t flying so high, I’d open a door and push her out.” He jerked his chin toward where the other hostages sat. “Take her back to her seat. I’ll get some bottles of water for them.”
“Please. Can I just stand here for a few minutes? A vertebra in my back misaligns sometimes. As soon as the spasm relaxes, I can pop it back in place.”
The guard scowled. “How long will that take?”
Toni closed her eyes. She couldn’t concentrate on forming a shield while she talked to this buffoon. “Sometimes a minute or two. Sometimes an hour or more. It depends on how tense I am, and you staring at me isn’t helping me relax.”
Juan returned with the water. “Why is she still here?”
“She wants to stand still until…” He waved his hand in front of her. “Until things go back into place.”
Toni glanced sideways without moving her head. Actually, she was a few seats forward of where she should ideally stand. It was already getting hard to hold her arms up.
“Enough. Put your arms down and go back to your seat.” Juan grabbed one of Toni’s arms and tugged. She screamed, and he jerked his hand back.
“Punta. You do not want to wake Xavier.” Juan snatched the guard’s gun from him and pressed the tip of the barrel to Toni’s forehead. “Maybe I should just put you out of your misery, and I’ll be rid of this noisy problem.”
Juan and the guard froze at the sound of Xavier behind them.
“You can’t fire a projectile weapon in a pressurized cabin. You’ll crash the plane and kill us all.” Xavier glared at them. “Stuff something in her mouth so we don’t have to listen to her scream and haul her back to her seat.”
Toni closed her eyes against the sweat dripping into them. Dung. Maya was standing behind her.
“Give me the bottles of water, and I’ll help her walk slowly back to where Mother can help her. If you get her screaming, the noise will rile Father again. You don’t want that, do you?” Maya raised an eyebrow at the men when they hesitated.
Xavier’s teeth flashed white in the dim light. “I like her.” He gestured to the guard. “Give her the water.” He watched as the bottles were passed around Toni, and Maya dropped one into each pocket of her skirt, then tucked one in the pocket of Toni’s pants. He cocked his head, eyes gleaming in the dim light as he stared at Maya. “Maybe I’ll see more of you after we settle in at our destination.” Without waiting for a response, he returned to the front of the plane with Juan on his heels.
The guard frowned at them uncertainly, then went back to his post, sitting so he could keep an eye on them.
“Okay. How do we do this?” Maya’s voice was soft, her breath warm on Toni’s neck.
“Could you support my arms for me a few minutes before we move. I’m really tired of holding them up, but I can’t lower them with that bone out of place.”
Maya’s hands were gentle but strong. She propped her elbows on the seat backs next to them, then braced Toni’s arms with hers. Toni gradually relaxed, transferring the weight of her arms to Maya’s support. It was a short but welcome relief.
“Either you’re an incredible actress or you’ve actually hurt yourself. You’re as white as new snow and perspiring like we’re in a sauna.”
Toni closed her eyes, drew in a shallow breath, and carefully dropped her chin to her chest. Lying in a bed of soft icy snow to numb the searing pain at the base of her shoulders appealed to her. “It was bad timing to cough just as I raised my arms. It didn’t go like it usually does.”
“When you’re ready, can you turn around to walk back?”
Toni raised her head. “I’m ready.” She turned carefully and stepped back against the seats to her right after Maya slowly dropped her supporting hands. Toni realized her mistake as Maya, a bare five centimeters shorter, faced her to squeeze past. Their eyes met, and Maya hesitated as her full breasts brushed Toni’s smaller ones. For a few fleeting seconds, Toni forgot about their captors, shielding the solar panels, and even the pain that was sending rivulets of sweat down her neck.
“Sorry,” Maya said, but her small smile contradicted her apology as she broke their gaze and stepped past.
Toni’s impulse to drop her arms and pull Maya back sent a spear of pain up her spine, and she groaned. “Tease,” she said under her breath as she turned toward the back of the plane.
“What’s that?” Maya asked, again helping support Toni’s arms from behind.
“Nothing.” Toni swore she felt heat radiating from Maya standing close behind her. “Small steps. Right foot first.”
Though they shuffled carefully down the aisle, Toni was awash with sweat and pain when she halted where the wings were visible through the plane’s windows. They turned again, but with Maya at her back this time.
“Mother can’t reach you from here,” Maya said. “I can’t even reach her to be a conduit for her.”
“I need to be here to shield all the solar panels.”
“Toni, let her help you first.”
“No. We might be running out of time. Just support my arms.”
“I can help, too.”
Toni tried to turn her head to see Nicole, but her back muscles instantly spasmed.
“Are you a healer?” Maya asked. Many empaths were trained in the medical arts.
“Not by gift like your mother, but by training,” Nicole said. She rubbed her protruding belly. “This little one makes it hard for me to kneel, but I can tell you what to do while I support Toni’s arms.”
Maya nodded. “What should I do?”
“Most likely the tense muscles around her spine are preventing the bone from slipping back into place as it usually would. Since I’m tall and my arms long, I can use the seat backs on either side for leverage and not only hold her arms up, but stretch her spine upward to space it out a bit. I need you to massage the muscles on either side of her spine to relax them, especially right at the base of her shoulder blades. I’ve seen her use this trick before, and that’s where the bone is that she pops out and back.”
“How can you dislocate a bone in your spine without damaging the spinal cord?” Skeptical Maya was back.
“It must be some type of birth deformity, but it doesn’t seem to affect her in any adverse way.” Nicole had returned to her normal chatty personality, all trace of her previous distress gone. “The first time I saw her do it, this bully pushed her into a fence. She popped it out, then pretended her legs were paralyzed. He nearly peed his pants, and I was in a panic. I could have killed her when she got off the stretcher at the clinic, stood, and raised her arms to pop it right back in. The First Advocate wanted to scan her to study the phenomenon, but Toni declined, and Alyssa said it was Toni’s choice to preserve her privacy.”
“Hello. Can you two gossip about me later?” Toni needed to focus and stop thinking about Maya’s huge green eyes and pouty, kissable lips. “We’re wasting time.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.” Nicole’s hands replaced Maya’s and tightened around Toni’s biceps. Toni felt herself being lifted a bit, then lowered so that her heels touched the floor but didn’t bear her full weight as Nicole braced her elbows on the seat backs. The stretching of her spine helped, but the real relief came from Maya’s surprisingly strong hands kneading her tense back muscles.
Toni closed her eyes and moaned. “That feels so good.”
They’d been speaking so quietly among themselves that they all jerked at the loud male voices coming from the front of the plane. “How much longer? Will we reach the City of Light before dark?”
“Not long after sunset.” The door to the cockpit was open, and a man wearing a pilot’s uniform stood there, speaking to Xavier. “We should escape this cloud cover soon so our batteries can fully charge. We’ll be fine to fly the full distance without stopping.”
“Excellent.” Xavier waved a hand to dismiss the man, who returned the cockpit but left the door open.
It was now or never. Toni sucked in a breath and concentrated on projecting a shield past the roof of the plane. The feel of Nicole’s hands on her arms and Maya’s on her back melted away as her own hands warmed. It was working. She pictured the shield spreading the length of the wings and back to the tail of the plane. She’d leave the few solar panels positioned forward of the wings open so the plane didn’t completely lose power. She smiled to herself. “Done. Now we’ll see if it works.”
Maya’s hands paused at Toni’s whispered words, and Toni realized that while she’d concentrated on the shield, her back muscles had relaxed. She twisted her hips slightly, and a soft pop confirmed that her spine had realigned. She drew in a deep breath, elated that the pain was gone. Maybe it was time to retire that trick from her repertoire of pranks. “I’m fine now, but pretend you’re helping me sit down in one of these seats here. I can at least rest my arms against the back of the seat, but I have to keep them up to maintain the shield.” Toni glanced toward the front of the plane. A glow of red flashed in short intervals through the open cockpit door. She could hear the rumbling of the pilots’ voices. “Hurry. Both of you sit in the seats behind me.”
“No. I’ll sit next to you.” Maya watched the cockpit as she and Nicole pretended to help Toni shuffle sideways and sit without lowering her arms.
“I need you behind me if they figure this out and come for us. Please stay close to Nicole so I can shield you together.”
Maya hesitated, glancing from Toni back to the cockpit. Then before Toni had time to react, Maya bent and pressed soft lips against her cheek. “Please be sensible. Don’t sacrifice yourself for us.”
Her quiet words made Toni shiver. She would be sensible because she wanted a chance to feel those lips against hers rather than merely grazing her cheek. But if the situation left no options, she would sacrifice herself for this young woman who had both exasperated and mesmerized her in less than a day’s time. And for Nicole, too, of course.
Xavier frowned when alarms sounded from the cockpit. Were they crashing? Where would parachutes, if there were any, be stashed? Except for being full of fuel and flight ready, the plane had no attendants to point out safety features. The two pilots Juan had hired swore they’d flown this type of plane many times.
Xavier stumbled on his way to the cockpit when the plane bumped through a pocket of air turbulence. Juan, struggling to regain his balance, swayed into his path, and Xavier roughly pushed him to the side. Bracing himself in the cockpit’s open doorway, Xavier shouted at the pilots. “Turn that dung-eating alarm off and tell me what’s going on.”
“The solar panels are malfunctioning, and we’re losing power,” the co-pilot explained as he punched several controls to silence the alarms.
The pilot frantically flipped switches with one hand and white-knuckled the control yoke with the other. “We’re not going to make it out of these mountains to a straight piece of roadway, much less an airport. Get on the radio and send our coordinates to anyone who can hear, and help me put eyes on some place flat and clear enough for us to land.”
“Find a place to land, but do not give out our location.” Xavier yelled over his shoulder, “Juan, have everyone watch out the windows for a field where we can land.”
“Do what I said,” the pilot ordered his co-pilot.
Xavier pressed the tip of his handgun against the co-pilot’s temple. “I give the orders. No communications.” He yanked the man’s headset off, unplugged it from the console, and tossed it into the main cabin before returning the weapon to his waistband.
The pilot’s head moved back and forth, scanning the darkening landscape. “We’re in the middle of government-mandated wilderness at least eighty kilometers wide. After we crash-land—and there will be injuries—we might have to hike thirty to forty kilometers to reach civilization.”
“What about parachutes?” Xavier asked.
“You have a better chance of surviving an unplanned landing than parachuting from a plane like this into a dark forest.”
“There!” The co-pilot pointed to a strip of land with a downward slope. The blackened, decaying remains of a few large trees lay like soldiers felled by a lightning fire, but thin saplings daring to reclaim the torched earth dotted most of the long strip.
“It’ll be tricky, but it’s our best chance.” The pilot guided the plane in a wide arc, then switched on the landing lights.
Toni’s arms and head ached. She’d never had to maintain a shield this long and breathed a sigh of relief as the plane dipped toward the dark side of the mountain. The batteries were too drained to recover in the dim light of the mountain’s shadow. She lowered her arms with a groan, and cool hands reached around her seat to massage her stiff shoulders. Stars, that felt good.
“We’re landing,” Laine said from behind them. “Check the overhead compartments for pillows or blankets or anything to cushion yourselves. If you find life jackets under the seats, use those, too.”
Their guard was busy buckling himself as he stared out a window, so Toni ignored her stiff muscles and sprang from her seat. “Nicole, check overhead since you’re tall. Maya and I will look under the seats.”
They located old inflatable life vests under each seat, and nearly all expanded when Toni pulled their activation cords. Nicole found a cache of pillows and blankets, but the pillows were small and thin. Maya took four of the inflated vests and began packing them around her parents.
Toni glanced at one window. The mountain seemed to be rising to grab them. They had only minutes, and she needed to get everyone in place. “Maya, you need to get buckled in. We don’t have much time.”
Laine let Maya stuff one inflated vest around her feet, then shooed her away. “Go. I can position the rest.”
Toni directed her to their row of three seats. “Let me sit by the window, then Nicole in the middle, and Maya in the aisle seat.”
Maya stopped Nicole’s protest. “She’s right. We have to protect the baby.”
Toni climbed across the two seats and pulled the plastic shield down over the portal, as well as the ones in front and behind. Then she lifted the armrests between seats. “Nicole, you shouldn’t belt in because the impact could harm the baby. We’ll both hold on to you.”
“Good idea,” Maya said, but she frowned. “But maybe I should take the window seat.”
Toni wanted to roll her eyes. Was this woman going to question everything she did? “No. I’m going to throw up a shield to reinforce the bulkhead as well as protect us from flying debris or from fire if the solar panels short out and burst into flame.”
Maya looked at Nicole. “She’s quite handy to have around, isn’t she?”
“You don’t know the half of it.” Nicole laughed, a ridiculous sound among the frantic shuffling and swearing of the men running for a last look out the windows, then fighting over the best places to weather the landing.
Two men snatched up cushions from one lounge and fled past them to the back of the plane. “They say the tail is the best place to be in a crash,” one man said as he stumbled over Maya’s outstretched foot.
“Oh, so sorry,” Maya said. But the man barely paused, and Maya’s smirk indicated the trip had been intentional. Her expression instantly went blank as Xavier and Juan approached.
Toni cursed but recanted with a “thank the stars” when the two men stopped several rows before them. They’d obviously observed their hostages inflating the life vests to use as cushions and retrieved several from the seats around them before settling to brace for impact.
Nicole muttered an Advocate’s chant under her breath, imploring the universe to protect her unborn child as Toni and Maya packed vests around the three of them, then entwined their arms with hers.
“She will be fine. We will be fine,” Maya said. “I have seen it.”
Alyssa jerked up, a terrible scream tearing her from her dream. Pain shot up her back. The scream might have been her own, but another rattled the windows of the hospital ward. Dragon horse, not human. Night again. Commander Danielle, Second Warrior and clone to Alyssa’s dead bond mate Jael, remained unmoving on the bed next to Alyssa’s chair. They’d brought her back, unconscious from head and shoulder wounds, after the dragon-horse warriors’ most recent clash with The Natural Order. Her wounds should heal though she’d lost a great deal of blood, but Danielle had not roused as expected. Alyssa stared at the smooth lines of her handsome face, willing her to wake. Another agonized shriek sounded, more terrible and closer than the previous. What was going on out there? She groaned as she stood and stretched. Running footsteps pounded down the hallway outside the ward.
Will, the clinic pharmacist, skidded through the doorway, breathless. “It’s Titan. I think he’s looking for the Commander. Maybe she’s calling him. Is she waking up?”
Alyssa scanned the vitals monitor. No change. She shook her head. “I don’t think so.” The screams of Danielle’s dragon horse were growing more frequent, and other dragon horses joined in a tortured chorus. Alyssa put her hands over her ears.
“I’ll go see what’s going on,” Will said, shouting to be heard over the deafening clamor. Alyssa studied the monitors for any sign of change. Danielle’s pulse and respirations were slowing and her blood pressure dropping. That couldn’t be right.
Will returned and hugged her to him. “Michael said for us to stay inside.”
“What? No. What’s going on, Will?” She pushed him away. He was developing a relationship with Michael, but he obviously didn’t understand yet how arrogant warriors could be when it came to dealing with non-warriors.
“Alyssa. Don’t. He said you should stay with the Commander.”
What didn’t they want her to know? To see? She charged through the door and outside.
Danielle’s buckskin dragon horse, Titan, nostrils flaring and spewing flame, paced the wide lane outside the hospital and beat his wings against the ground without taking flight. People peeked out of windows and from between buildings. Only the other members of The Guard and Kyle stood in a wide semicircle before the distraught animal. The dragon horses of The Guard hovered along the rooftops of the camp, still adding their voices to Titan’s.
“What is it? Does he need to see Danielle?”
Titan breathed a long column of flame into the sky, then screeched out a wounded sound that slammed Alyssa so hard she nearly collapsed. Even as First Advocate and an extremely powerful empath, she didn’t naturally sense animals. But she felt his despair as real as her own. Furcho bowed his head, unable to speak. Kyle grabbed Alyssa’s arm to steady her but looked to Tan to give an explanation.
“Tan, what’s happening?” Alyssa was surprised to feel the normally guarded warrior emotionally open, her feelings raw and easily read.
Tears trickled down Tan’s face, but her voice was steady. “If a warrior passes this life and their bond is broken, the dragon horse usually goes mad from the pain. A lone horse will fling himself against cliffs until he dies. The lucky ones have a herd that will gather and end his pain quickly. That’s why the others are here.”
Titan slammed himself to the ground, got up, and charged the building to crash against it like a rabid animal.
“Stop him.” Alyssa grabbed Furcho’s arm. “Do something. He’s hurting himself.” Then Tan’s words sank in. If a warrior passes this life. She ran into the hospital. The vitals monitor was silent and dark. “No, no. Not you, too. I can’t make it without you.” She hit the code button. No one came. Everybody was outside. She sprinted back to the street. “Tan, she’s coding.” She tried to drag Tan toward the door, but she wouldn’t move. “You’re a doctor. You have to come.”
Tan turned to her, her eyes pools of pain. “She’s gone, Alyssa. Their bond is broken. Danielle made me promise if this ever happened…her greatest wish has always been for her soul to be freed to rejoin her bond mate Saran.”
Alyssa slammed her palms against Tan’s chest, trying to force her to move. “You said her wounds weren’t that serious.”
Tan shook her head and grasped Alyssa’s wrists to stop her. “They aren’t. Still, she has to want to live.”
“I don’t understand what they’re waiting for,” Furcho muttered. “Azar just keeps showing me the wild stallion. I don’t understand.”
“There’s your answer,” Kyle said.
Dark Star’s wings spanned the entire width of the lane as he coasted to a landing. Titan reared and cried out a pitiful sound. As he launched into the air, Dark Star bellowed a huge column of pure blue flame. Bero, Azar, Potawatomi, Apollo, and Phyrrhos joined their inferno to his, and within seconds, Titan was ash.
Alyssa could no longer hold back her sobs of grief and ran inside, closing the door to the ward and locking it. She wasn’t ready to light another pyre. The hand she took in hers was still warm. She smoothed Danielle’s blond hair as she cried and stroked the cheek so like her lover’s. She wasn’t Jael, but with Danielle’s help, Alyssa was beginning to feel that she might find some purpose in this life until she could be with her love again. “I needed you, Danielle. I know you wanted to be with Saran, but without Jael, I needed you to stay with me.”
She wished that people were as merciful as dragon horses and would send grieving souls to follow the ones to whom they were bonded. When they lit the pyre for Second Warrior Danielle, Alyssa would lose the last tiny piece of Jael, the other half of her soul.
“The stars foretell it,” Saran-Sung-Josh said.
“You expect too much!” First Warrior Jael threw arms up to shout at the seven ethereal figures gathered in a semicircle before her. She paced restlessly, her soul bond with Alyssa stretched agonizingly thin. They were The Collective Council, having ascended permanently to the spiritual realm after gaining the wisdom and experiences of multiple lives. Each presented in human form as genderless composites of their most recent lives. Newly ascended after many lives, she’d earned a place among them that would allow the life force of the most ancient of the Elders to divide and begin new soul journeys. But she wanted only to return to her lover—to feel Alyssa’s heart beat in sync with hers, hold her as they slept, to love her with every cell of her being.
“From the wounds of The Chosen will come healing for all.” An elder with a heart-shaped face and gray crew-cut, Morgaine-Viktor-Paola used a tone that implied no further explanation was required.
Jael whirled on them and, with supernatural strength, tore open the ragged rend in the silver battleskin where the laser had pierced her heart. “What about this heart?” The fatal wound still gaped between her breasts. “Who will heal my wound?”
The Ancient Elder, who stood at the center of their arc, held up a hand and raised white, sightless eyes as though listening in the silence. After a long quiet, the Ancient spoke in a voice like a chorus of many, in a language so old that another had to translate. “The First Advocate is not The Chosen who will rise to unite a new Collective.”
Jael’s anguished cry rang out, and the Elders turned to the Ancient, their human images flickering as the ethereal beings plumbed the universe for an explanation of this revelation. Still too tied to her human soul, Jael exploded. “I have served The Collective faithfully lifetime after lifetime as a solitary soul. I’ve given myself in battle over and over as your First Warrior, suffering grievous wounds and losses. When I am finally rewarded with the soul meant to bond with mine, I am torn away, and now you tell me our sacrifice was for nothing?” Her anger was a bolt of lightning, flashing, then gone. Deflated, she bowed her head and hugged her arms to her chest. “She is the other half of my heart.”
The Ancient turned white pupil-less eyes to Jael. “Your sacrifice was but one path to the destination The Collective must reach. We underestimated the strength of your joining and only now feel the agony of your soul bond. For that, The Council offers its regrets.”
Jael straightened as a new anger filled her, righteous and defiant. “Regret isn’t enough. I’m invoking my right as First Warrior to demand justice.”
The Elders’ discussion of her petition was an indistinct hum until the Ancient raised his hand and all went silent. “What is done cannot be undone,” the Ancient said.
Jael fell to her knees, eyes closed. The Ancient’s words were like another stab into her shattered heart. Still, she could not let go of the bond that tethered her to earth, to her soul mate. How did Saran and Danielle survive their separation? Jael could feel that they also remained tethered. She raised her head and stared at Saran-Sung-Josh, silently imploring for help.
Saran-Sung-Josh nodded and turned to the Ancient. “Perhaps there is a path for restitution.”
Alyssa’s sobs quieted, and her breath hitched as she rubbed her wet cheek against the solid chest. Maybe she was going mad like Titan. She could have sworn she heard the thu-thump of a heart. Madness might be better than waking each day with reality. Wait. She heard it again. She gasped as the chest under her cheek rose and fell. She sat up. Sun and stars. She was crazy. She couldn’t be seeing this. The monitor over the bed lit up, and the readings climbed into normal ranges. Color flooded into Second Warrior Danielle’s gray face. She ran to the door, unlocked and flung it open.
“Tan.” She ran outside. No one was there. She turned to go back and collided with Tan in the hallway.
“Alyssa.” Tan was followed by Michael and Raven. “I know you—”
“She’s alive. Come quick.” She ran back to the ward without waiting to see if they’d follow. The monitors still showed normal readings. Thank the stars. She wasn’t hallucinating.
“This is impossible,” Tan said, feeling for a pulse in the wrist and neck.
Eyelids rippled with movement, and the monitor showed heart rate, body temperature, and brain activity begin to elevate.
“She’s waking up,” Michael said.
Tan flicked on a penlight and had started to lift an eyelid when a clomping ruckus made them all turn toward the door.
“What the…get that animal out of here,” Tan said.
Dark Star wedged himself through the doorway and stood at the foot of the bed, rattling his wings in warning when Raven moved toward him. He extended his arched neck, and his red, elliptical pupils pulsed as he touched his nose to the figure in the bed.
Alyssa stood very still until a groan drew her gaze back to the bed, and she touched the warm cheek as the eyelids fluttered. “Come on. You can do it. Open your eyes and look at me.” The monitors quieted and the numbers dropped, and Alyssa held her breath. Her throat tightened with tears she didn’t think she had left to cry. “Please don’t leave me again.”
“I’m here.” The voice was hoarse but the inflection familiar. The numbers rose and steadied again. “It just took me a while to get back.” The eyelids fluttered, and thick blond lashes lifted to reveal eyes as blue as the summer sky. First Warrior Jael swallowed and licked her dry lips. “We’re growing old together. They promised.”
Maya was sure she’d see her next life soon when the plane touched down with a jolt, followed by the slap and pop of saplings against the fuselage as it pitched wildly over the rocky terrain. Then a second, much harder jolt jammed them against the row of seats in front of them—well, her and Toni. They managed to twist their bodies partially in front of Nicole and pad her lurch forward. But Maya wanted to let go of Nicole’s arm and cover her ears when the terrible screech of tearing metal filled the plane. The left wing was ripped away, eviscerating the plane’s fuselage. She watched in horror as several seats disappeared through the gaping hole, along with the two guards strapped into them.
Severed wires sparked and burst into flame, producing a black smoke that stung her nostrils and made her cough. Shards of glass and metal, anything left loose in the plane, and the rocks and dirt pouring in through the gaping hole filled the air but never touched them because Toni threw her arm up, and the debris bounced off the invisible barrier that surrounded them.
Maya thought that the screams of men tossed about the interior and the screech of twisting metal would never end, but the jarring ride suddenly halted, and the popping of new electrical fires was the only sound.
“Mom?” Maya’s tentative query seemed to reboot the scene. A few small lights along the plane’s ceiling, powered by individual batteries, flickered to life. Groans emanated from the men who had stupidly sought shelter under the upturned lounges rather than belting into a seat. They’d been tossed about like rag dolls along with the loose furniture and other debris.
“We’re fine, Maya. Are you girls okay?” Laine’s voice, firm and alert, carried over the stirring of the others and Cyrus’s irritated mumbling.
Maya let out a relieved breath and turned to Nicole. “How’s the baby?”
Nicole rubbed her belly and nodded. “Good. Thanks to you guys.” She squeezed Maya’s hand and planted a kiss on Toni’s cheek. “Other than being jostled around a bit, I think we fared better than anyone else.”
“We’re all good, Mom.” Maya smiled at the flush darkening Toni’s neck and ears in the dim light. Stars, she was cute. Maya had been attracted before to other girls—and some boys—but she couldn’t seem to keep her eyes off this dark-haired young warrior with brooding brown eyes. Maya frowned. Her silly infatuation irritated her. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe because the woman—like most warriors—was a bit bossy and self-important, or because she had always been sure her first real sense of chemistry would be with a scholar, craftsperson, or artist. Not a warrior type, for stars’ sake. Maybe her lesson to learn in this life was humility. But wasn’t she already learning that by being gifted as a seer, the most ridiculed of talents?
Maya glanced over, feeling suddenly shy when she discovered Toni watching her. As Toni’s wary expression softened into a smile, Maya realized she’d been smiling at Toni. Sun and moon, could she be more obvious? She deliberately widened her smile to a sarcastic grin and mouthed, my hero. Toni shrugged, and her cheeks glowed brighter than the blush that Nicole’s platonic kiss had elicited. Nicole raised a questioning brow at Maya. Oh, right. Jumping inconvenient having an empath around who could read her true emotions. It was Maya’s turn to shrug, embarrassed at being caught trying to cover her true feelings. Toni deserved better from her. She had brought the plane down and kept them safe in the ensuing rough landing.
Xavier and Juan rose from their seats several rows ahead. Too bad they hadn’t chosen seats on the other side and been sucked out with their two underlings. Maya immediately regretted the thought. Stars, she hoped her mother, who always seemed to hear her thoughts, wasn’t listening.
Xavier straightened his suit jacket, then brushed dirt and bits of other debris from his clothes. He appeared otherwise unscathed. Juan held a bloody handkerchief to his rapidly swelling right brow, that side of his face marred by a multitude of small cuts from the window that had exploded next to him.
“Go check on the pilots and the rest of the men,” Xavier said, ignoring Juan’s injuries. “See who is able-bodied and who might be too injured to walk off this mountain.”
Juan wordlessly turned and steadied himself by grasping the seat backs of each row as he headed toward the front of the plane.
Xavier eyed his hostages. “You seem to have fared well enough. Stay in your seats.”
Toni shuffled past Nicole and Maya, then straightened to face Xavier in the aisle. He wasn’t a tall man, besting Toni’s height by only about eight centimeters. She pointed to a sparking electrical panel. “We need to get everyone off this plane. With the solar grid shorted out and sparking, the battery units could combust at any time.”
“She’s right, Boss. I’ve seen a plane smaller than this go up in flames when one battery exploded and set off a chain reaction that lit up the whole array.” One of the two men who had taken refuge in seats at the tail of the plane was walking up the aisle behind Toni. The other man was trying to kick open an emergency door several rows behind Laine and Cyrus, but the odd tilt of the plane against the ground held it fast.
Xavier turned to survey the front of the plane and the ragged gap where the left wing had been. He gestured to the men, then the opening. “You two take our guests out through there. I’ll check with Juan about getting the rest out.”
Toni’s group was already rising, eager to depart their treacherous transport. Maya reached for one of the battery-powered lights. “Hey, these are detachable. Let’s grab the ones back here and take them out with us.”
“I bet there’s a first-aid kit either near the cockpit or in the rear steward’s nook. If somebody can bring it along, I can help treat injuries,” Nicole said. “I’m not a gifted healer like Laine, but I am a trained medical Advocate.”
The man by the door didn’t wait for Xavier’s consent. After a quick search of the small nook where stewards prepared food and drinks, he held up a white metal box with a large red cross on it, then gathered two more lights as he moved forward to take up rear guard while they filed carefully through the tangle of severed wires that ringed the plane’s jagged wound.
The new moon was a sliver, and their weak lights made tiny pools in the black night. Still, Maya could see green sprouting from the blackened landscape as they trudged uphill.
“Over there.” Laine pointed her light toward a good-sized area mostly devoid of saplings, near the edge of the burn and about ten meters from the wreckage. “Looks like enough room for the injured to lie down, but we should have brought some seat cushions and blankets from the plane.”
They all, even their guards, turned to look back at the downed aircraft, and Maya was suddenly aware of the raised voices and occasional screams as the injured were discovered and attempts were made to extract them or evaluate their wounds. Sparks from the exposed wires, however, had lessened. A man appeared in the gap where the wing had been and held up a light. His face was dark with blood on one side, his other arm belted against his torso. He stepped to the side so two more could exit—one apparently able-bodied who was supporting and half dragging a comrade with an obvious leg injury.
“I’ll go back to get some blankets,” the first guard said to the second. “You watch the prisoners.”
“I thought Xavier said we were guests. I was just about to make my apologies for leaving early. It’s been an exciting adventure, but I’ve had enough fun for the night.” Toni’s muttered sarcasm drew a frown from the second guard, who pointed his weapon at her.
“You think you’re funny? Maybe I’ll shoot your foot to make sure you stay put.”
Maya didn’t stop to evaluate whether precognition or something else made fear flash through her. She stepped between Toni and the guard. “None of us are stupid enough to go running off into the dark woods,” she told the guard. She twisted to face Toni. “It’s so dark, you could walk off a cliff without seeing it or run into a bear.” Then she addressed the first guard, who had hesitated to make sure the second guard didn’t need help. “I’ll go with you. Two people can carry back more cushions and blankets.”
“Maya, no!” Laine and Toni both protested.
“It’s too dangerous. The battery array could still explode,” Laine said.
“I’ll go,” Toni said.
“Mom, it looks like the wires aren’t sparking so much anymore. And, Toni, you should stay with Nicole. We need her and Mom to help the wounded as they come out. So, that makes me the best person.”
The guards shared an amused look, but Maya was used to people underestimating her strength and resolve because of her petite size.
“You will stay with your mother. I’ll go help gather supplies from the plane. We’ll need water and whatever food we can scavenge, too.” All heads turned, their expressions shocked as eyes settled on the tall figure next to Laine. Cyrus’s tone was firm and perfectly sane. He pointed to the second guard. “There’ll be no shooting anyone in the foot, but keep an eye on these ladies to make sure nothing happens to them.” He started down the hill, waving for the first guard to join him. “Come on. Let’s do this quickly.”
Maya stared after Cyrus, torn between hating the lunatic inside him and loving these increasingly rare glimpses of the father who’d raised her.
“That is the real Cyrus, the loving father who nurtured you, Thomas, and Kyle to adulthood.”
Laine’s soft voice caught her off guard, and Maya dropped her chin, sad. Lately, a lot of things made her that way. Maya stared at the small bit of greenery pushing up through the scorched dirt. She was even sad that winter would turn the vegetation brown within a month, perhaps weeks. If Kyle were here, she’d point out that the winter months were important for growing strong roots, rather than constantly expending energy to grow foliage or flower. Maya’s eyes burned with tears, and her throat tightened with a desperate longing for simpler times when her older sister was her constant protector and mentor.
“Hey. Are you okay?”
Warm fingers gently grasped, then entwined with hers. Maya was surprised when she looked up into brown eyes instead of her mother’s blue ones. She barely breathed as Toni raised her free hand slowly, as though Maya was a skittish filly. The touch of her fingers was soft against Maya’s cheek, wiping away a tear that had escaped.
“Yeah.” Maya cleared her throat and shrugged. “I was thinking about when times were less complicated.” She stared into Toni’s eyes, dark pools in the faint ring of light. “I miss the father I used to know, and I miss my sister and brother.”
“I’m sorry about your brother.”
“You know about Thomas?”
“Kyle told me. We were bunkmates for a few weeks when she first showed up at camp. Commander Danielle, Second Warrior, asked me to show her the ropes and help her keep Captain Tan’s dragon horse from breeding.”
Maya gasped. “So Kyle has a dragon horse now? She’s a warrior?”
Toni cocked her head, her smile rueful. “Not exactly.”
Maya frowned. She’d had dreams of Kyle with a glittering reddish-gold dragon horse, accompanied by a dark warrior on a steed that was a deeper copper color. “Then my vision didn’t come true. Tell me what did happen.”
Toni chuckled. “It’s a really long story that we don’t have time for now. I don’t know what you saw in your vision, but it could likely still happen.” She looked past Maya. “Right now, the first of the supplies and more wounded are headed our way. If you can hang lights in some of these saplings, I’ll try to organize things so Nicole and your mom can spend their time treating wounds.”
“I can do that.” Actually, Maya was relieved to have Toni take charge and for them all to be useful. She felt a little less like a helpless hostage.
Toni surveyed the bottles of water and single-serving bags of peanuts, pretzels, and biscotti. If they slit the life vests in strategic places, they could replace the air they held with water and their meager food supplies. They weren’t ideal as hiking packs, but a water bottle slid into the collar behind the carrier’s neck could provide a counter-balance to make wearing it more comfortable. She started to reach for the small razor-sharp knife she kept in her pocket for opening cartons of supplies in the clinic, then stopped. If they knew she had the knife, they’d take it. She couldn’t believe her captors hadn’t searched them for weapons. She showed Laine what cuts needed to be made in each vest, and Laine took the vests to Cyrus for help. Then Toni turned back to the water and snacks they’d scavenged. She began to divide the supplies into piles. Should she stuff a pack for each person? No, not everyone. She doubted Xavier would carry anything.
Toni tapped her chin as she calculated. Of the sixteen or so men traveling with Xavier, only five were unscathed. Well, six, if Toni counted Cyrus as one of them. He was ordering people around like he was in charge rather than a hostage. Xavier was ignoring him, too busy berating the pilot somewhere outside their circle of light. The remaining men suffered various degrees of wounds. Laine and Nicole had treated eight with head wounds and broken bones, including resetting one dislocated shoulder. Most could walk down the mountain if they took it slow, but three others were seriously injured and remained in the plane. Would someone stay behind with them? Or should she find something to use as poles and attach seat cushions or blankets to make stretchers?
Toni sighed and stared up at the stars, bright against the midnight sky, then closed her eyes. If she listened intently enough for the swish of dragon wings, maybe she could conjure a rescue force descending from the high air currents.
“Wishing upon a star?” Maya’s fingers found and entwined with hers. They seemed to naturally do this anytime they were within touching distance. At least tonight, cloaked in darkness. Would they be different in the bright light of day?
“Just listening to the night sounds.”
Maya edged closer, warm against Toni’s side, and whispered, “Do you think they’ll find us tonight? It’s so dark.”
“They don’t need light. The dragon horses have clear night vision. But I don’t know how they could have tracked us here. If the pilot filed a flight plan, it probably wasn’t our actual route.” Toni smiled when Maya’s head dropped to rest against her shoulder. She wanted desperately to block everything else out and kiss her, but her responsibilities came first. “That’s why I have to plan for all possibilities, one of them being that we might have to rescue ourselves.” Maybe she should also consider future regrets for missed opportunities. Wouldn’t want any of those. She twisted to palm Maya’s cheek and brush a lingering kiss on her soft lips. “So, now I have to get some information from Xavier to finish my inventory planning.”