Authors: Caris Roane
Now that Greaves was gone, her conversations with Merl had dwindled. But she thought it possible he could make himself useful once more.
I need information about Duncan. I want you to get close to him and use any means you can. Track his movements, and report back.
When he remained silent, a soft alarm went off in the back of her head.
Do you understand what I’m asking of you?
You want me to infiltrate and gather information.
You were never stupid. Just remember our little agreement and stay the course.
I need this from you.
I’m at your service, Princess.
For a moment, only a split-second really, she felt something emanate from Merl just before she ended the telepathic communication. Stroking her leopard’s head and rubbing his ears, she felt the flavor of the emotion and what came to her was a sense of panic.
Yolanthe gave herself a shake. She had to be mistaken. What did Merl have to be afraid of, except of course for the contents of the last cell in her below-ground prison?
Ah, her prison. One of her favorite places on her estate.
Maybe it was having a discussion with Merl that gave her the idea, but after a moment, she made her way to the round, stone staircase at the east wing of her villa. She descended slowly, her heartrate ramping up. She would need her sex slaves soon because the sight of her prisoners always fed her libido. In seven of her cells were some of the most famous warriors of Third Earth, each a powerhouse in his own right.
The Militia Warrior guards who tended to her prisoners came to attention. They wore the burgundy leather weapons harness of the Third Earth Militia, black leather kilts, and the traditional three long braids on either side of the face. “Your Highness,” the men called out in unison, not looking her in the eye as each brought a sword to his chest in salute.
She nodded, then began a slow progress down the line of cells. She had all seven men shackled and pinned to the walls, some facing away from her, others with a full-frontal view she enjoyed immeasurably. These were no ordinary warriors, but Third Earth Warriors of the Blood, captured at the same time she’d sent Merl to Second Earth.
She loved seeing a fighting man naked and stripped of his power. Each was heavily muscled since she required her prisoners to work out on a daily basis. She wasn’t completely inhuman; she had her sex slaves service them once a week as long as they continued to build muscle. She would have enjoyed taking the men into her bed, but she was convinced they’d kill her before she even had a chance to spread her legs.
Guards ranged down the somewhat wide hallway at twenty-foot intervals. She ran a tight ship and in the several centuries she’d kept a working jail, she’d never had one escape. The creation of her formidable mist over her property had been her best safeguard since not even the most powerful inmate could fold out of the prison.
When she reached the last cell, she smiled, for the woman looked lovely. She wore a semi-sheer lavender veil covering her head and draping past her shoulders. A number of silver weights in the shape of tear-drops were attached to the hem of the veil, holding the fabric in place.
The covering had two special properties. The first prevented the woman from utilizing her telepathy except with tremendous pain and the other would deliver a death-vapor if she attempted to remove the veil. She wore a fresh linen gown, supplied weekly.
An unusual kind of power vibrated from the woman, something Yolanthe had never quite understood. It was as though she lived on a different plane while her body remained imprisoned in the villa palace.
“Katlynn, my dear, I spoke with your brother today for the first time in ages.”
Katlynn turned slowly in her direction. “You talked to Merl?”
“Yes, I did.” Yolanthe smiled. “And I can see you’ve grown hopeful. But I assure you, he has no intention of attempting a rescue. He knows full well any such act on his part would force me to draw a blade across your throat.”
Duncan had spent the past several minutes detailing for Luken what happened after he’d gotten separated from Merl and Rachel. Luken was still sitting in the dirt, though Horace had brought in two members of his healing squad to help speed up the wing repair process.
Luken scowled as he shifted his gaze to Merl. “What do you have to say?”
Merl ground his teeth and flared his nostrils. “Your men are holding back. If Duncan had been able to access his Third Earth powers, Yolanthe couldn’t have trapped him. I can’t teach the unteachable.”
Merl’s words infuriated Duncan. “Maybe it’s not the team’s fault. Maybe it’s your method, manner, and quality of instruction. I mean, a couple of minutes ago you blanked out when Luken asked you a question. Yeah, I’m thinking it’s you.”
Merl looked like he wanted to say something, then changed his mind. Even so, he got in Duncan’s face, his light blue eyes fierce. “Did you even try to use your
He glared back at Merl-the-asshole. “Yes, but with no success.”
Merl grimaced. “You’re not listening to me, Duncan. You have to seize the power here.” Merl slapped a hand against the center of his own battle harness, then Duncan’s. “You’re rock solid as a Warrior of the Blood on Second, but you’ve got to bump up your game. Otherwise, you’ll be dead before we even set foot on Third Earth.”
Each foray through the darkening grid had led them to a nest of wreckers and an intense battle, usually involving Rachel’s shield to get them safely out. The team hadn’t yet succeeded once in finding a safe landing on Third Earth.
Duncan flared his nostrils. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Merl narrowed his eyes and a dark red hue suddenly covered his face. “Get in the game,” he shouted, not two inches away from Duncan.
“I am in the game.” Duncan withheld a long stream of curses that shot through his head.
“Like hell you are.”
Duncan’s hands shook. He wanted to punch the bastard, but it wouldn’t achieve anything especially since Merl was about to go Third Earth warrior on his ass. He could feel the Third ascender revving up.
Merl turned his back to Duncan. The man’s wing-locks were pumped and ready to explode into full-mount.
This was not going to be fun.
As Merl mounted his wings, he disappeared into a fold at exactly the same time. Unbelievable. Dematerializing in full-mount was something none of them could do because it did a serious wing-mangle, at least for Second ascenders. Point-of-fact: Luken, sitting on the ground, surrounded by healers.
But where would Merl appear? Behind Duncan? In front of him?
A new flow of adrenaline hit Duncan’s bloodstream.
Merl, who’d served as a Warrior of the Blood in his own dimension decades past, as well as a grid wrecker, would hold nothing back short of slicing Duncan in two with his sword.
Duncan moved in a slow circle, trying to prepare, his sword held wide, knees bent. Merl reappeared with his black-and-violet banded wings shimmering at the tips. A drift of
smoke rose from his body.
“Fuck,” Duncan murmured. He lifted his sword as Merl levitated swiftly a few feet into the air then came down on him like lightning.
Duncan barely blocked the strike with his own sword. And with so much Third Earth power behind the blow, Duncan fell to the ground, flat on his back, the tip of Merl’s blade pressed into the unprotected notch above Duncan’s sternum. A little more pressure would sever his windpipe, a major artery, and his spine. There’d be no coming back.
Merl stared down at him, his wings wafting in the cool night breeze. The desert in late fall wasn’t a bad place to be, unless you were on your back with a sword at your throat.
“You haven’t had a vision in a month,” Merl said quietly, but through gritted teeth. “And you’ve left your woman twisting in the wind. What the hell is wrong with you? Can’t you see the connection? I’ll say it again,
get in the game.”
The resonance he added hurt Duncan’s ears.
Merl levitated with a faint wing-flap, lifting himself backward a few feet to land on the ground. In one smooth motion, he drew in his wings. All those quick, seamless movements were an amazing demonstration of Merl’s Third power, showcasing the skills he’d been trying but failing to teach the team.
Duncan sat up but for the moment remained where he was. He hated the arrogant bastard who’d been ordered to train them in Third Earth ways.
Merl folded his sword away. “This team is fucked.”
As Duncan rose to his feet, Merl faced the rest of the group. “Which one of you pansy-ass little girls wants to go one-on-one with me? Any of you?”
“I’ll go,” Rachel called out. And before anyone could stop her, she plucked one of the daggers from her weapons harness and flung it straight at Merl’s throat.
But instead of the blade finding home, something the entire team no doubt wanted right now, the Third Earth bastard actually caught the hilt in his hand and threw the blade to the ground. “Anyone else?”
Luken called out, “Merl, back off. We’re done for the night. Everyone, hit the showers or the Ops Cave or whatever the hell you want. We’ll pick up again tomorrow evening.”
When no one moved, he added in a hard voice, “Go.”
Merl picked up Rachel’s dagger from the dirt and handed it to her.
“Anything I can do to speed up my throw?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Rachel, it’s a Third Earth gift. I don’t know what Endelle was thinking creating a team of Second ascenders to do battle on Third.”
When he moved away, Owen shoulder-blocked him. But Merl did nothing more than offer a glare before moving on.
They were all on edge and pissed.
Rachel didn’t have as much of a problem with Merl as the men did. Though to Merl’s credit, he no longer tried to flirt with her. Duncan and Merl had fought a few weeks back and Rachel had intervened, covering Duncan with her shield and forcing the fight to stop. He’d been out of his mind with jealousy because Merl had turned all his flirting charm toward Rachel. At least he’d stopped that shit.
Duncan turned toward Rachel, wanting to say something to her, maybe to apologize again. But as usual, his voice shut down. All he could manage was, “Thanks for saving my ass. Again.”
She offered a brief nod, but didn’t respond. They were hardly speaking these days unless it was a mission-oriented conversation.
He wished she was pissed off about his having broken up with her a month ago, then he could pretend this wasn’t all his fault. Instead, she’d been womanly about the whole thing and had given him space, lots of it. No pressure. But because he was caught in the
the myth-that-wasn’t-a-myth, even her low-key attitude felt like an unbearable weight on his soul.
He wished she’d yell at him. But she never had, even though he’d basically cut her off after he’d promised ‘to try’.
As he watched Rachel fold a cloth into her hand and wipe down the blade, desire for her rose as it always did, like a hurricane within his body. She was his woman, his
the one destined to bond with him. And he craved her. Even though they’d dated off-and-on for decades, what he felt for her now was beyond description, an ache in his groin, his soul, a profound vibration through his sliced up heart.
She turned toward him. Her lips parted and he understood why. The
had added a pair of inciting scents to the picture the moment sexual desire rose. No doubt, she smelled his need, which she’d said reminded her of spicy ale.
“Duncan,” she said softly, a plea in her voice.
But he couldn’t act on what he felt. He’d tried to tell her what was wrong, but he found it impossible to explain why being close to her cut him up inside. He’d called it a snake that bites.
Despite his almost painful craving for her, he turned on his heel and headed toward the entrance to Militia Warrior HQ. He wondered what Merl had meant when he suggested his disconnect from Rachel was part of his issue in not being able to harness his
Was it possible Rachel was the key to opening up his Third Earth abilities?
Rachel watched Duncan go, her gaze fixed for a long moment on his broad shoulders, then moving down the beautiful line of his back. Duncan had a perfect physique with a lean waist and a firm warrior’s ass. The sexy, black leather kilt gave her all kinds of ideas. When she’d caught his spicy ale scent, she’d almost thrown herself at him. She needed him badly and still didn’t really understand why he’d cut her off.
She knew he was in pain, enduring a kind of torment she might never fully understand. His father had been a cruel man and his mother had disappeared when he was six. She’d come to believe the combination of both circumstances had poisoned her man. It was possible he’d never come back to her despite the pull of the
Meanwhile, she kept her tears to herself.
She finished cleaning off her dagger then slid it into her battle-harness.
Luken called to her. “You did good tonight, Rachel. Thanks for stepping up.”
She waved in his direction, but she was too tired to offer more than a half-smile. She thought Luken was one of the finest men she’d ever known, much in Duncan’s mold. The problem was Duncan didn’t believe he was worth a damn. Maybe that was why she had tremendous grace for him right now. And she loved him. He was her man, her
She rotated her throwing arm slowly then pulled her elbow with her opposing hand to stretch a few of her nagging back muscles. She was exhausted, as usual, from the night’s work, and really sore in a variety of places. It was a testament to a month’s training that she no longer lost her cookies at the sight of blood or blown-up wreckers. For the past month the team had either battled death vampires at the Second Earth Borderlands as part of their training, or faced off with wreckers in the Third Earth darkening grid.
And of course, since Yolanthe now had a bead on Duncan, the game had taken a brand new terrifying turn.
She was learning a lot, but progress was way too slow. The entire team lived with a constant sense of urgency, a collective need to be heading to Third. From the beginning, Endelle’s vision had made it clear the fate of two worlds depended on the black ops team getting to Third and doing some good, especially Duncan and Luken.