Authors: Shannon Mayer
I stepped around the corner. Blackbird was indeed cornered, his back to the mountain and no way out.
“Let me guess, you have my father here?”
Blackbird laughed, though there was a nervous edge to it for the first time. “Please, I don’t need Father.”
“Then why are you here?” I approached him, my spear held across my body.
“You’re here, Lark, isn’t that enough? You and I are tied, bound together in ways you cannot understand yet.”
“Not good enough.” I was close enough that I knew I could leap and tackle him.
Samara stepped up beside me. “You know him?”
“One of the problems I’ve been dealing with.”
“You’re looking lovely, Lark. Perhaps you and I should be discussing the potential between us. We could produce the most powerful children.”
“I’d have to be tied down and unconscious.”
He swept his cloak back over one leg and I got a glimpse of dark brown leather pants. Not unlike a Terraling Ender. “That can be arranged.”
Revulsion curled through me.
His presence didn’t surprise me, but I couldn’t figure out what need he had of my father. And then it hit me.
“Your lover is here, isn’t she? Cassava has hidden herself away and you’re helping her.”
He laughed. “Clever girl. Yes, of course I’m helping her. I have been all along. But you’re so easy. I know how to make you do what I want.”
I swung my spear out and he leapt back, slamming into the wall. Why wasn’t he attacking me?
“Samara,” he said, and lines of pink slid around him, “kill her.”
Worm shit and green sticks.
Samara lunged at me, her eyes filled with his power, tingeing the whites. Her pointed staff swept my legs from under me and I hit the ground hard, the stone biting into my bare back. I rolled as she slammed the point of her spear toward my heart. The tip caught the edge of my back and tore a flap of flesh off. “Samara, fight him!” I yelled, knowing it would do no good. Unless I could get my hands on her skin, the power he held over her would stand.
She came at me again and again, and I deflected each blow. But I knew it was only a matter of time before she got through my guard. Her speed matched mine. I had only one choice. I flung my arms wide. “Kill me then.”
With a lunge, she drove her staff toward my middle. At the last possible second, as the tip touched my bare belly, I stepped to the side and slapped my hands on her face. Her momentum carried us forward a few steps before we stumbled to a stop.
“What happened? I dreamed we were fighting.” Her words were slurred as if she’d been drinking.
I let her go, watching for signs that the command Blackbird had given her was truly gone from her. I turned, to see if Blackbird remained, already knowing he too would be gone. The hall was empty except for Samara and me.
“Not a dream, my friend.” My breath came in gasps, and I touched the spot on my belly that had almost become a new scar. A thin trickle of blood ran down, but it was the injury on my back that was going to give me a good war wound.
Footsteps, and then Cactus was there in nothing but a pair of pants. He stared at me and spoke words that made my blood run cold.
“Blackbird took Peta.”
’m coming with you,” Samara said as we ran back to my room. I grabbed my clothes and slid them on with speed, ignoring her. “I said—”
“This is not your fight, Samara.” I grabbed my boots and yanked them on. Cactus dressed beside me, not saying a word.
Blackbird had Peta . . . he knew I would come for her, which meant it was a trap I was about to walk into. There was no way I was taking more people into a trap meant for me. The bond between my familiar and me was strong. When I focused on it, I felt the direction she was in. Straight west, toward the Rim.
I wasn’t surprised.
“I wasn’t asking your permission, Lark,” Samara said, her words cool. “I have every right to pursue an invader of our home.”
Damn it, she was right. “Fine, good luck finding him.”
“He took your familiar, and you can find her. I will follow you.”
Cactus touched my arm. “Lark, wait. Your father is here somewhere. You know that. You know Blackbird is trying to take you away so you don’t find him.”
I nodded. “Yes. Peta means more to me than my father.”
Samara sucked in a sharp breath. “The Terraling king is your father? And you would choose your familiar over him?”
“Do not judge me, Samara,” I snapped. “Peta is my heart mate and has been more a part of healing my soul in the short while she has been with me than any other. My father is barely a sperm donor, as far as I’m concerned.”
Her face softened. “Believe it or not, I understand.” She lifted her hand and from over our heads in the clouds came the shriek of an eagle, the high pitch resonating through the room. The large bird dove out of the sky, banking with his wings so he could land on Samara’s shoulder. He preened a moment, but said nothing.
I held my hand out to Samara and she took it. “Then we hunt together, as our families did once.”
Her eyes glittered. “I always enjoyed roasted game bird.”
Cactus laughed, but I didn’t. With Peta’s life on the line, nothing was funny to me.
Samara touched my arm. “You have a Traveling band?”
I nodded. “It will take us to the Rim.”
Cactus cleared his throat. “You have to say goodbye to the queen, Lark. You can’t leave without taking note of the—”
“Do it for me.” I took his face in my hands and kissed him. “Get Shazer and fly home as fast as you can, as soon as you can.”
His eyes widened as I stepped away from him. Samara nodded and put a hand on my arm. Cactus finally nodded. “I love you, Lark. Don’t forget it.”
I kept my eyes on his as I reached up and twisted the armband counterclockwise. The world around us sucked us down and I braced myself for the memory I would gain from Samara.
The images were dull, and flickered, unlike the other times I’d Traveled with another.
Samara as a child, beaten and hurt. Her desire to protect others. Her Ender training. The ridicule she endured. How much she loved the queen and how she wanted to protect her family.
So much like me it hurt to see and feel the past played out, even in those flickers and bits. We jerked to a stop, and she let me go. This time, the guards were waiting for us inside the Traveling room.
“You are under arrest—”
I launched myself at the guard who spoke. I didn’t know who it was with his visor pulled up, and I didn’t care. I slammed the butt of my spear into his head, dropping him before he could finish his sentence. Samara took on a guard while the remaining two surrounded me.
“Lark, don’t make us hurt you,” Blossom said, her voice distinct even behind the visor.
“It’s not me you have to worry about,” I snarled.
“Cassava is back,” she said.
The guard beside her snapped a fist sideways, catching her in the head. “Shut the hell up, woman.”
His distraction was all I needed. I swept his feet, leapt into the air and came down with my fist, driving it into his chest. Ribs cracked under my blow, at least three by the way his body gave under me.
To the side, Samara drove both fists into her opponent’s gut, throwing him hard into the wall. He slid down as his eyes rolled upward and he passed out.
I stood and stared at Blossom. “Cassava? Are you sure?”
She slipped off her visor and threw it to the floor. “Yes. As soon as you were gone she showed up, took Vetch under her wing and took the throne. She said . . . she was going to send someone to bring Bella home and deal with her condition.” Her voice caught and I put a hand on her shoulder. “She means to kill Bella’s baby, doesn’t she?”
Just like Bramley. “Has she done it? Has she sent anyone?”
Blossom shook her head. “Not that I know.”
I slipped off the Traveling band and put it on Blossom’s arm. “Go, protect Bella. You know she is the one who should rule here. She can’t be hurt. Tell her to fight for all she’s worth and to never forget she holds the necklace. She’ll know what I mean.”
Slowly Blossom nodded. “What about you, Lark?”
I looked at Samara. “I’m going to kill Cassava. I’ll send a message when it’s safe to bring Bella home.”
Blossom brought the globe around and settled it on the Deep. With a twist of the armband she was gone.
“You should go too.” I bent and trussed up the guards, glancing at Samara.
“No. This will affect us too. We know Cassava is a loose cannon. She stole Wicker from us.” She helped me tie up the guards. “How do you want to do this?”
I touched my hand to where the smoky diamond lay in my pouch. I opened the leather bag and slipped it out. “Take this. It will boost your power. When you go back to the Eyrie, give it to Aria. It belongs in her hands.”
She gasped as I dropped it into her hands. “Mother goddess, the power raging in this . . . is it what I think it is?”
“Yes. Use it carefully. Or maybe in this case, not so carefully.” I stood and strode to the door, peeking out. There were no guards waiting for us. But that did not mean it was safe. The bond with Peta tugged at me. She was scared and pissed off as only a cat could be. But she was alive.
I slipped out and Samara followed me, silent. I stopped at the bottom of the steps and tugged off my tall boots. I needed as much connection with the earth as I could get. Wiggling my toes, I pulled the power of the earth below me and let it fill me.
“What can we expect?” Samara asked quietly.
“Blackbird can control all five elements. Cassava is powerful with earth, but nothing else.”
She grabbed my arm. “Can you kill her? Are you strong enough?”
“I’ve been waiting my whole life. I’ll kill her or die trying. In which case, you finish the job. All our homes are in danger as long as she is free.”
Her face grim, she nodded. I crept up the stairs, all my senses straining. But there was no sound, nothing to indicate there were ever inhabitants in the barracks. A spooky emptiness permeated the air as we slipped into the upper levels. I went to my room and then Ash’s. Both were empty, though I hadn’t really expected him to be waiting for me there.
Beckoning for Samara to keep close, I crept along the edge of the training room to the main doors of the barracks. I ran a hand over the wooden doors, then pressed an ear to them. There was nothing, not even a buzz of distant talking. I looked at Samara and she shrugged.
There was no other way . . . unless. . . . I spun and we ran back the way we’d come, bolting down the stairs and sliding to a stop in the Traveling room. There was one armband left. I grabbed it and slid it on. “Hang on.”
“What are you doing—”
The world dissolved, but the trip was quick. I popped us into the forest at the northern edge of the Rim. There wasn’t even time for a memory to roll over me.
I dropped to a crouch and Samara followed suit. “Where are we?”
“At the outside edge of the Rim.”
Slowing for a brief moment, I looked back at her. “Call it a hunch, but there is only one doorway out of the barracks and Cassava knows it. She’s not stupid, even if she is deranged. She’ll be waiting for us to pop through those doors.”