Authors: Megan Joel Peterson,Skye Malone
by Megan Joel Peterson
Copyright 2013 Megan Joel Peterson
Published by Wildflower Isle
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this text and any portions thereof in any manner whatsoever.
This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and incidents appearing in this work are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design by Karri Klawiter
Broken lights flickered, sending off occasional sparks as they dangled over the rubble-strewn floor. Pounding her fist on the metal storage room door, Tanya Bartlow swallowed down the urge to sob and cast another glance to her daughter huddled in the corner.
“We’re getting out of here,” she promised for the hundredth time, hating the fact stupid reality was probably going to make her a liar.
Clutching her stuffed bear, Missy nodded, believing her mother with all the faith her five years of life could hold.
Fighting renewed tears, Tanya turned back to the door. Early on, she’d tried blowing the damn thing up, to the near destruction of the whole room. The supports above the door could be holding the weight of the entire factory for all she knew, because when her magic hit the door, things had gone horribly wrong.
Half the room was on the ground. Concrete, steel and rebar from the levels above had been their unwelcome companions for the better part of half an hour, ever since the sounds of explosions had faded from the building above. They’d been lucky – insanely lucky – to survive the ensuing cave-in, though doing so put them no closer to escape than they’d been before.
And meanwhile, the damned, dented, useless door remained.
The hallway had collapsed, she was fairly certain. And the doorframe itself was far too shallow to hold a portal, had she been any good at forming them anyway. But she couldn’t tell that to Missy. She was all the girl had left, no thanks to the royals, the war, and her husband’s blind faith in the former that led to his death by the latter.
Or whatever the story was these days.
Cursing under her breath, she slammed her fist into the warped metal again, begging no one in particular to finally start playing fair.
Magic roared down the hall.
She stumbled away from the door. Hurriedly, she motioned for Missy to scoot behind the chunks of concrete. With her round face nearly the same color as her curly blonde hair, the little girl quickly did as she was told.
The door jerked as someone pulled at it from the other side.
A voice grumbled in annoyance. Another voice, colder and infinitely more authoritative, murmured in response.
Magic hit the door and spread, chasing the length and breadth of the steel. Heat began to radiate into the room while, with alarming speed, the gray metal shifted to orange.
Tanya retreated, the sweat slipping from her brow only partly the fault of the oppressive warmth baking the room. Like syrup, the metal door slid down and pooled on the ground, where it rapidly began to cool.
She barely noticed it. Her gaze was locked on the men in the hallway.
Taliesin. At least a dozen. Without hesitation, she struck out, throwing everything she had at them. The Taliesin staggered back, their hasty shields barely holding against her furious assault. Gasping, she whipped her hand toward the next few, succeeding in sending them toppling against the wall.
A wave of magic slammed into her, and then she was on the floor. White lights and darkness danced across her vision as footsteps pounded into the room.
Missy’s screams sent her surging blindly to her feet. Blinking frantically, she scanned the blurred chaos for her daughter, only to stumble as the girl barreled into her.
The shadows faded, revealing the Taliesin. Red-faced with fury, one of them grabbed her and wrenched her around.
“Try that again and you’re both dead,” he growled.
She glared, seething with the desire to spit in his face, though she knew it’d only give the bastards an excuse to finally make Missy an orphan. Satisfying herself with a sneer, she pulled her frightened daughter toward the door.
“That was all?”
The dry voice drew her attention from the Taliesin. By a blockade of concrete and steel at the end of the corridor, a man leaned calmly against the wall. Slender and tall like some kind of elf from a fantasy book, with prematurely gray hair pulled back into a long ponytail at the nape of his neck, he raised an eyebrow and then shrugged away from his support, ignoring the guards as they retreated from his path.
Despite herself, she shivered. The man looked human. There wasn’t a trace of magic on him, nor any sense of what side he was on. He was just ordinary.
And the Taliesin deferred to him without question.
Her heart pounded harder at memories of the guards’ whispers and the snide comments from the council bastard, Sebastian. The mad teenage queen of Merlin swore there were wizards out there no one but cripples could detect. Wizards more powerful than anyone on either side of the war.
Wizards who’d actually been responsible for everything that’d happened the night Howard died.
“A woman and a girl, with the door heavily bolted from the outside?” the man continued. He regarded her curiously. “What on earth did you do to earn such fear?”
She couldn’t breathe enough to bring the words into the world, but at her silence, he simply smiled and then jerked his chin at the Taliesin. Without a sound, the men pushed her toward the stairs.
Fire lit the factory floor and poured black smoke through gaping holes in the ceiling. The walkways were on the ground, though their warped supports still protruded from the walls like broken bones. Chunks of the roof lay everywhere, with crushed beds and curtain frames sticking up like insect legs from beneath the car-sized debris.
Other things pinned by the destruction came into view.
Her gorge rose and swiftly, her hand dropped to cover Missy’s eyes.
The Taliesin shoved them onward. Rubble shifted beneath her shoes, threatening to roll her ankles with each step as she circled an enormous chunk of concrete with bolted-down parts of rooftop machinery still attached to its side.
Her breath caught. On a space of cleared ground ahead, people were kneeled with their hands clasped atop their heads. Men and women alike, they waited, their bodies trembling and their eyes locked on the floor.
Unbidden and utterly out of place, a sense of satisfaction hit her, almost ludicrous in its strength. Council guards cowered among the prisoners. Fear etched their faces, the expression so similar to the one they’d always brought to Missy’s face that the sight nearly made her laugh.
The ponytailed man strode past. Her satisfaction withered as quickly as it had come.
As the Taliesin shoved her to her knees next to the other Merlin, she watched the man cross the open space in the center of the factory floor and approach a small group on the opposite side. A pale-haired woman stood beside a giant, their backs to the prisoners and their attention on a third man seated on a block of concrete. Watching the far end of the factory, the man ignored them, giving no sign he noticed the fires or the destruction all around.
She followed his gaze. Against the wall, crumpled walkways formed a rough tent over what had once been a door, though only a shattered hole of soot-covered concrete remained.
Motion caught her eye and she turned back toward the group. But for the man inexplicably staring at the wall, the other three people were looking at her.
Involuntarily, she flinched from the sight of the giant’s face. Scarred was too mild a term.
The man looked like a monster from one of Missy’s nightmares.
She swallowed hard, cursing herself for the reaction. She was better than this. Stronger than this. The bastards who might have killed Missy’s father had no more right to her fear than the council who’d vilified her husband for crimes she knew Howard would never commit.
And she’d be damned if she let them see her cowering like the spineless scum at her side.
Clenching her teeth, she forced herself to look back and run her gaze over every inch of his twisted face.
The giant gave no sign of caring about the attention. Expressionless, he glanced to the man on the concrete slab. Upon receiving no more notice than before, he turned and started toward the prisoners, the other two with him falling in behind.
His wounds became more apparent as he came closer. In the melted horror of one side of his face, a milky white eye stared out, moving as though it could still see. Vicious scars cut across one wrist and hand to climb past the buttoned sleeve of his shirt, hinting of greater damage hidden above. Ignoring Missy’s small noises of fear and the sobbing of a wizard farther down the row, he came to a stop, surveying them all.
“We require information,” he said quietly, his tone leaving no doubt that the need would be supplied. “Safe houses. Places of refuge. Any location where your allies and your queen will try to hide.”
His mismatched eyes skimmed them again and then came to rest on the guard kneeled at his feet. “Have you nothing to say?”
“Go to hell,” the man growled.
For a moment, the giant was silent. And then the guard collapsed dead to the ground.
Tanya stared, her ragged breaths doing little to fill her lungs.
“We will only ask once,” the giant said.
His gaze ran down the rows of wizards and then caught on her. A hint of curiosity flickered across his face and, with a quick glance to the blonde woman waiting like a ghost behind him, he started toward her.
Tanya struggled to keep breathing as he drew closer. Unconsciously, her fingers tightened on her daughter till Missy whimpered with pain.
“Simeon tells me you were locked in the basement,” the man said. “Bolted in from the outside, in point of fact.” Dry amusement touched his expression as his gaze slid from her to the cowering wizards and back. “Am I correct to assume your compatriots placed you there?”
She could feel the Merlin watching her, daring her to answer, and she trembled.
“Yet,” the giant continued when she didn’t speak. “You’re familiar.”
His deep voice nearly turned the words into a question, and for a moment he looked almost mystified, as though he sought to place a memory.
She swallowed hard. The Merlins’ gazes were physical pressures. Fighting the urge to curse the bastards, she kept her focus on the giant, knowing the judgmental, baseless hatred she’d see in the other wizards’ eyes anyway.
“You knew my husband.”
The giant’s brow twitched downward.
“You killed him.”
Eyebrow rising again, he regarded her skeptically and then glanced to the blonde. Hints of disgust showed through the woman’s glacial expression as she shrugged a slender shoulder.
“And who was your husband that we would bother killing him?” the giant asked, the dry amusement returning.
“Howard Bartlow,” she said, looking hard into his nightmare eyes. “The man you framed for selling out the king.”
The giant paused. “Howard,” he repeated. His gaze flicked down the line of wizards thoughtfully.
And then his face cleared.
“Tanya,” he said, his tone warming as he fitted her name into the blank that had obviously been in his mind. His gaze dropped to her daughter. “And… Missy. Howard had a photograph of you both.” He nodded to himself and then made a baffled noise. “My dear lady, who told you we killed your husband?”
“You killed the royals.”
He shrugged an eyebrow. “Well, yes,” he admitted as though the statement was obvious. “But by no means did we kill your husband.” He smiled at her briefly, and then turned the expression on the Merlin kneeling nearby. “They were the ones who did that.”
She stared at him.
“Howard was helping us,” the giant continued. “The Children and their council had decided to do away with your family. To be rid of the liability you presented. Howard turned to the only help he could find. They killed him for trying to save you.”
He glanced back to the Merlin, calm certainty in his eyes. “Or haven’t they threatened you since he died?”
One of the guards opened his mouth furiously.
Like a striking snake, the blonde woman’s hand wrapped around the man’s throat. Choking, he lurched in her grip, his face slowly beginning to change color.
The giant ignored them. “So tell me, Tanya. Can you help us? Will you work with us to make sure Howard’s sacrifice for you wasn’t in vain?”
For a long moment, she couldn’t pull her gaze from the other Merlin. In the blonde’s hand, the guard twisted. With red-rimmed eyes, a sobbing woman stared down the row, her expression everything Tanya had known it would be.