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Authors: Nicole MacDonald

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BOOK: Feel the Burn
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Rumal waited in the room set aside for the office on this vast ship. With all the soldiers and allies aboard it felt barely bigger than the royal yacht, not at all like a massive galley. The sound of steps made him turn, watching when Rashid ducked through the doorway, followed closely by Lieutenant Belsesus. The centaur, a full foot and a half taller than Rashid, grumbled at the low doorway he squeezed through.

‘I heard the architect worked with a centaur while designing these galleys, but I suspect it was a pontite.’

Rumal gave a short humorless laugh.

‘I believe it’s to do with the size of the decks and the support required to hold griffons, dragons, and so many centaurs. There’s a fair bit of weight aboard.’

They stood in silence until Rashid said, ‘Rumal, you wanted to talk?’

Kassie stood to the side of the closed door and listened closely. The walls weren’t that thick and due to her link with Rumal and his syren energy she could hear him clearly; the others, not so much. Rumal’s despondent sigh made her draw a shield up, to prevent him sensing her sympathy in response to his pain.

‘I thought we had better discuss the change in situation,’ Rumal’s rich, rolling voice sounded darker than ever.

Rashid spoke, ‘There’s no change. The operation stays the same.’

A loud slam made Kassie jump, looking guiltily behind at the empty corridor. She placed a hand silently against the door and leaned in again. Anger reverberated from Rumal and he spoke, spitting the words out with a level of fury she hadn’t seen before now.

‘That was prior to that hellish creature murdering our Prince. She now has his gift and we are obviously walking into a trap!’

An odd swell in the air confused Kassie for a moment, until she recognized Rumal’s syren energy.

‘Pull your fucking influence back, Rumal. You don’t need to use it on us.’

Belsesus sounded unimpressed. Kassie’s heart pounded while she willed Rumal to comply. The swell in the air vanished and she slumped down beside the door, back against the wall, with a silent sigh of relief.

‘Apologies.’

A loud slam, then another, made her jolt in shock. Someone is punching something, she realized, listening hard; the table? A screech of wood against wood made her wince and she heard Rumal let out an exhausted sigh and ask, ‘What are we going to do?’

The floor vibrated and a clomping sound suggested that Belsesus paced the floor. The sound drew near the door and Kassie shrank back against the wall. She relaxed when he moved away.

‘We’ll have to give instructions to the Draoths to leave after a certain amount of time.’

‘Surely some will survive,’ Rashid said.

Belsesus sounded grim. ‘Unless we instruct some to hold back, I don’t foresee good odds.’

The voices fell silent and Kassie leaned against the wall, a growing sense of shock enveloping her mind. No survivors?

‘I still hope the girls will survive,’ Rumal said, his voice barely audible. ‘As long as we get them to the castle.’

‘Cat’s reached her full potential, hasn’t she?’ Belsesus asked.

‘Yes. I saw it with my own eyes,’ said Rashid.

In a hopeful tone the Cavalry Lieutenant said, ‘Then perhaps the other girls will too?’

‘It was likely triggered by Alek’s death, but we don’t know for sure,’ Rumal replied.

Rashid added sardonically, ‘And killing you three would probably do more harm than good.’

‘If we don’t get Cat back, then Elion will be thrown into civil war. The noble houses will move on the castle,’ Rumal stated it matter-of-factly, no emotion in his voice.

‘I think the most we can promise is to get Cat to the castle. I doubt any of us will be in a position to see her back,’ Rashid said.

The awful truth only increased the feeling of numbness in Kassie’s mind and she stared blankly ahead, not noticing those who passed her by or their quizzical looks.

Belsesus’ deep voice broke the silence.

‘The soldiers and allies expect this. We will be frank about it. We may not be able to prevent civil war in Elion, but if we can rid this world of that Southern witch then at least Gar’nyse will be safe.’

‘Safer,’ corrected Rashid.

A random memory rose in Kassie’s mind while she sat there with her arms folded around her knees. The recollection of a beautiful summer evening at the Estate on Delanta. A warm breeze with the sweet scents of twilight flowers and a sense of absolute joy. Kassie’s chest felt tight when the realization hit that she might never see it again. She didn’t notice the men had finished talking until the door opened all of a sudden, making her scramble to her feet.

Rumal caught sight of the movement and his head snapped around, gold eyes staring, tense and ready. He relaxed a fraction at seeing Kassie and then frowned. Unable to face speaking to him about it yet, Kassie put a hand up, shaking her head and fled down the corridor.

* * *

‘Again.’

The dark fury in Sabyn’s voice caused the goblin he’d snapped the command at, to frown. The air felt tense when Sabyn repeated the word with a snarl.

‘AGAIN.’

‘No.’

The goblin stepped back and pointed his sword at Sabyn.

‘I don’t know what you’re playing at, friend, but this isn’t the solution. Training is one thing, this is another.’

The stocky creature with dark gray skin and black tufted ears turned his back on Sabyn. All those standing in the semi circle tensed, watching Sabyn with edgy eyes. Loi’s mouth felt as dry as sawdust and she swallowed, trying to moisten it, her eyes locked on him. The tall man flexed his broad shoulders, glaring at something past their heads and she knew he relived that awful morning again, his hand flexing around the handle of his sword. The ship swayed when a sudden change in wind hit and those watching drifted off to help the Draoths. Loi ignored them, her eyes still on Sabyn who seemed locked in a living nightmare, muttering and shaking his head.

‘Go to him, Loi, he needs you.’

She twisted to see Tomiar standing a few feet behind her. The griffon watched Sabyn intently, her tail swishing over the tan boards of the deck, the tufted end flashing glimpses of green in the sunlight against the griffon’s black fur.

‘I don’t know what to say to him?’

The sense of uselessness at the awful situation left her scrambling; what did you say at such a time? It still didn’t seem real, but the complete absence of Cat’s energy made it horribly true.

‘Doesn’t matter what you say, he needs you.’

Loi stayed still, watching while Sabyn shook himself again. He stalked to the rail, leaned both elbows on it and stared down at the water. The tense line of his shoulders sagged and he rubbed a hand over his face, the devastated expression making him look years older.

Loi seized the hand rail and pulled herself up. Climbing down from her seat on the second level she crossed the main deck, stopping behind him. Again that useless feeling hit and she stared at the pattern on his shirt, fumbling for the right words. He turned and regarded her; the creased lines of pain across his brow and around his eyes made her move forward in an instant, a hand extended to soothe.

‘Oh, Sab.’

The rough stubble on his jaw rasped against her palm and he closed his eyes at her touch, the fleeting glimmer of moisture in them making her own eyes fill with tears. He cupped her hand with his and reached out with the other, drawing her close, wrapping both arms around her. Loi tucked her head in the crook of his neck, her arms tight around his back and felt him tremble. It scared the heck out of her.

In a thick, throaty voice Sabyn muttered again and again while pressing kisses to her hair and forehead. ‘I love you, goddess. So much. Never forget that. I love you.’

It’s not meant to be like this. Fear and despair made her shake and Loi reached to the others in her mind.

Kass, Sian?

Hey hun.

The quiet sympathy in Sian’s thoughts made tears well up and Loi pressed her face to Sabyn’s shoulder.

Siany, it’s awful. I don’t know what to do.

Panic constricted her chest when she felt the tension, sorrow, and worst of all, fear, running through Sabyn’s arms while he held her.

There’s nothing you can do.

Kassie’s voice sounded soft, but firm.

This is why we can’t let her win. Why we will kill her.

Loi went quiet for a moment, then thought.

How’s Cat?

Kassie didn’t send any words, instead showing them. Loi watched, through Kassie’s eyes, as Cat wept, eyes closed and face distraught, hands clenching and unclenching while her lips mouthed Alek’s name over and over. The paralyzing fear Loi had felt at Sabyn’s pain hummed through her while she watched her friend suffer.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

There’s nothing fair about war, Loi,
Sian thought sorrowfully.

I can’t believe she took them both. Yakov wasn’t even coming!

We need to do this for them. Blow that bitch to oblivion.

Kassie’s angry thought made both girls nod in agreement. It didn’t make Loi feel better, but it did give her something to focus on.

Thanks guys, I appreciate it.

When their energy vanished from her mind, Loi realized the anxious, angry tension Sabyn projected had lessened and she pulled back, reaching to cup his face and kiss his lips softly.

‘Better?’

The blue of his eyes looked colder than a glacier, but it wasn’t directed at her. Sabyn turned his head, pressing his lips to her palm, then sighed.

‘No. Nothing will make this better. But we have a job to do, and I will see it done.’

A deep voice made them both turn.

‘If it is a sword you seek, we will challenge you.’

Three Hotorethites stood behind them. The warrior elves with ebony skin far darker than Rumal’s, and slanted violet eyes, made Loi nervous. The most intimidating of the allies, Loi wasn’t comfortable with them yet and stared from behind Sabyn’s back. The three warriors held the remarkable swords of the elite Nyjen class—double edged blades with a gentle S curve and a prominent hook on one side. The pommels of the carved handles were set with a massive canine tooth from a kyast; a vicious carnivore. Loi pressed herself tighter to Sabyn and he glanced down, giving her a hint of a smile and a wink.

‘Not to worry, goddess. It’s all practice.’

He stepped away, drawing sword and gave the three warriors a courtly bow. The elves spread around Sabyn, eyes alight with the challenge and the widely spaced tribal scars down their arms glowed deep purple. Feeling her heart hammer, Loi squeezed her hands into tight fists and stepped forward—before she could give it any more thought—placing her back against Sabyn’s.

‘Then let’s practice.’

*~*~*

Chapter Three

‘He was so young!’

Loushka chuckled and it rumbled through me.

‘Well, the youngest of the group. He did everything the older boys did, determined not to weaken the team. They didn’t know he cried himself to sleep the first few nights, he was so sore from the training.’

‘Brave boy,’
I thought while watching Loushka’s memories and shifted closer, burrowing into her thick mane that shielded me from the biting wind.

The lanky, scrawny youth in the griffon’s memories was instantly recognizable; his mop of black hair constantly falling into the overlarge navy eyes which were dwarfed by thick black brows. Such a gawky looking thing, I thought and couldn’t help giggling, tears flowing.

The contradicting emotions, joy of seeing him so real and alive, and so young! Then grief at knowing what became of this determined teen I watched via Loushka’s memories, felt exhausting, but I loved to watch him.

‘Oh god, Loushka. I don’t know how I’m going to live without him.’

Loushka stayed silent, then sighed.

‘I wouldn’t worry, Cat. We probably won’t survive the fight.’

The casual manner in which she said it gave me a curious sense of hope and I tensed, heart pounding at the thought of ending this awful pain.

‘The others will though?’

‘You and I will make sure of it.’

The sense of relief caused a guilt of its own, but I brushed it aside.

‘Show me more?’

‘I’ll show you everything, Cat.’

The young Alek appeared in my mind again and I watched avidly while he approached Loushka, eyes cautious. Behind him a man watched Alek sidle close and reach out to Loushka’s face. With the memory from Loushka’s point of view it meant he seemed to reach to my face, eyes curious, kind and excited. A sob caught in my throat and I sat straighter, reaching for his face even though I knew it wasn’t there.

‘Aren’t you beautiful?’

The high, childish voice dropped on certain syllables, hinting at the voice I knew. The man in the background stepped closer, smiling. I spied the discreet gold crown and my eyes widened when I realized I watched my father. A handsome man, his face showed pride and affection while he watched Alek, making my heart feel both light and heavy.

‘She is very beautiful, Al,’ King Nikias smiled at Loushka and then his son. ‘But you need to speak with your mind, not your voice.’

Alek’s thin shoulders hunched, all the emotions of a teenager receiving a reprimand flashing across his face and I squeezed a hand tight, the irrational desire to comfort him rising at that painfully awkward expression.

Alek frowned, staring at Loushka and I heard Loushka’s younger voice think kindly to him.

‘It isn’t that difficult, just relax young Prince, you’re doing fine.’

‘I hate being watched. I don’t want to mess up.’

‘Don’t think of it.’

‘Okay. Please don’t call me prince, I don’t need it and no one will know, not even Yakov.’

‘As you wish, Alek. Would you like to go for a flight?’

The ground drew close when Loushka lay down, watching Alek who turned to the King.

‘Father, may I?’

‘You may, son. You don’t need my permission, I trust you.’

The gangly boy flushed with pride and his unshielded thoughts projected straight to Loushka.

‘I’m not a child anymore! I don’t need permission! See if Sab can tease me now!’

The sense of glee was gorgeous and I choked up then, laughing and sobbing with both hands to my face, tears dripping down my fingers.

‘Thank you, Loushka.’

From a seat on the lower deck, Kassie watched Cat and Loushka up on the front top deck. A large shadow fell over her and she glanced to the side craning her neck to smile up at Kerak. The griffon stared longingly at Loushka then swiveled his head to look at Kassie, his amber eyes regarding her warmly behind the massive beak.

‘Good morning, Kerak,’
she thought.

‘Morning, Kass.’

‘Has Loushka spoken to you yet?’
Kassie thought.

‘She said good morning.’

‘That’s a good start.’

Kerak made a throaty trill, his tail swishing over the wooden deck.

‘It is. Wanna play lifting?’

Kassie chuckled when the griffon assumed a pose like a playful cat, dancing back a couple of steps, spine arched and wings hunched while his tail lashed the air, forelegs extended and ready.

‘Okay, let’s practice at the other end of the ship.’

A crowd of soldiers came to watch; the smaller forest goblins of Ihali leaping onto the backs of watching centaurs to get a better view. A bunch of Halenine fae joined them, clinging to the centaurs’ tails or perching on the heads of apprehensive soldiers and Kassie resisted a giggle. The tiny fae proved that size didn’t matter when it came to battle ability. One single bite from a Halenine fae would kill most, or in the case of a griffon, make them very ill. So the small red and black fae received the utmost respect from all those aboard.

Kerak quivered with excitement and crouched low, waiting, while Kassie focused on swirling an air bubble all the way around him.

‘Make sure to lift me higher than the masts!’

Kassie didn’t reply, deep in concentration while she coaxed more air particles into the bubble. It provided just the distraction she needed from the current gloomy mood and she stretched her energy out further and further, until the air currents responded to her call.

The air around Loushka and I went still, the wind dropping away and we both twisted looking for Kassie. At the other end of the huge deck I spotted Kerak, floating up into the air with Kassie’s energy swirled around him like a bug caught in a soap bubble. Higher and higher he rose until he cleared the masts. I heard the snap when Kassie released the air bubble. The griffon gave an undignified squawk and snapped his wings out, the tan feathers catching the light, glinting citrine when he pumped his wings and shot high in the air with a scream of delight. I watched him swoop about the ships, zooming between them and screeching at those aboard. The soldiers and sailors hollered back and I heard Sito’s disgruntled roar of frustration when Kerak teasingly darted over him. The griffon landed in the water between our ship and Sito’s, creating a wave of water, then set about grooming and bathing. I stood, stretching my arms high to help relieve the stiffness in my back from sitting so long and stepped over to the rail, leaning on it and watched Kerak. Sito grumbled from the deck of the other ship and I half smiled, about to turn to Alek, then froze. A dead feeling spread in my chest while I stared around seeing the deck full of soldiers, but no Alek. From the main deck, Rumal looked at me, sorrow visible in his stance and tears rose in my throat.

‘Loushka, I think I’m done for the day. I’m going below.’
I hugged her massive neck, feeling the smooth hardness of her beak touch my back then sneezed when her mane tickled my nose.

Ignatius appeared at the base of the stairs while I climbed down to the main deck.

‘Princess?’

The effort of explaining my actions felt too hard and weariness hit. I shrugged by way of apology, though there wasn’t a need.

‘I’m going below.’

He nodded, offering an arm and escorted me below to the little room where I’d woken. The avid attention, though I understood the intent, bothered me and I spoke little, waiting for the moment the door clicked shut then breathed a sigh of relief. Bending, I yanked my boots off, tossing them in a corner and sat at the table, feeling disjointed by the loud voices and footsteps outside and from the decks above.

So much for peace and quiet, I thought, slumping in the seat. With nothing to distract me I noticed the swaying of the ship and watched a piece of fruit on the tray Ignatius left roll slowly one way, and then the other. Vague ideas occurred to me, like eating, or sleeping, but I felt bone weary, limbs too heavy to move. Just breathing felt hard. My mind seemed locked in a gray, dull limbo and the practical voice shouted from some distance, urging me to get angry, to do something—anything! I looked around the room, eyes dragging over the little details; a sock beside one of the trunks, a knot in a floorboard, a dark blue spot staining the food tray. That dark blue registered in my mind and the dull gray fog exploded with color when the pain hit. I tipped off the chair to the floor, a strange harsh rasping noise escaping my throat, eyes filling with hot tears while I struggled for breath on my hands and knees. Brilliant streaks of red and vivid yellow flashed through the gray before darkening to deep thunderous shades, wreaking havoc on my soul. It forced the shift to Elemental and I flopped to my side in a fetal position, my mind locked on those images of Alek and those awful last moments as the flames consumed me, flooding my veins with an insane heat.

To watch, helplessly, when the one you love with your entire being is slaughtered before your eyes…

The inferno within while I saw that moment—his hand lying limp half curled, lips whispering that apology while that sadistic bitch walked toward him—and a scream of fury tried to force its way past my swollen throat but only a high pitched noise managed to escape. Despair washed away the fury and the room, sweltering with heat a moment ago, cooled and I sobbed
 
as I lay there on the heated floorboards, his name my personal mantra of sorrow while time heartlessly marched on.

Reality and the cool air brought a clarity to mind that I hadn’t felt since before that awful morning. Sitting up, I rested my chin on my knees while considering this sudden sharpness.

Right now, I felt almost normal; sharp, aware and capable. With tentative thoughts I considered Alek and then Yakov, testing, waiting for the inevitable. It took a slow measured count to twenty before the tears slipped out. The fury and despair didn’t come, just a heavy sense of sorrow. Somewhere deep in my mind I felt satisfied.

I can do this, I thought, working at determination. I will do this, for Alek.

Feeling exhausted, I staggered to my feet with a grunt, arms out when another wave of dizziness hit. I went to one of the trunks and hauled the heavy lid up, staring in. Maeri had folded each item neatly and sorted them, mine on the left and Al’s on the right. Selecting the worn soft blue shirt he often slept in, I closed the lid with a thud and turned, leaning against the trunk. The shirt had seen years of use, its neckline stretched out of shape and his scent wafted from the soft fabric. With both hands I pressed it to my face, breathing deeply and the aroma scorched my mind. I kept my eyes closed while imagining he stood behind me, arms wrapped blissfully tight around my body. Sorrow came in so many forms and now the regretful, achingly sad version caught me as I sat back at the table, the shirt held close.

BOOK: Feel the Burn
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