A few bodies and broken limbs later we hadn’t found Talitha or Meriel, but we had been motioned in the general direction of where we could find them. Another good indication was the surge in security. The more people we ran across increased the chances we were headed the correct way—or we were about to find the cafeteria. Even the bad guys had to eat.
What was surprising me had to be the amount of half-kins we were running across. With how horrible the clans treated us and looked down on us, you’d figure there wouldn’t be as many of us.
Mina’s footsteps echoed against the walls, her feet making more noise as time went on and she tired. Or it could be that she was pouting because I hadn’t let her change form.
“I can help!” she said, repeating the words she’d used at the bakery, but even if she could have shifted, my answer was still the same. I wanted to spare her from bloodying her hands as long as I possibly could, because living within the clans’ system meant it would happen at some point.
Warren slowed as we neared another corner and crouched down, and I motioned Mina to do the same and received rolling eyes in response. Echoes were funny things, and something that was far away could sound exceedingly close. Boots clomped, almost panicked and frenzied, as though we’d kicked a beehive and were now seeing the reaction.
Warren peeked around the corner and I did my best to breathe quietly. He nodded his head and we stood and moved around the corner. What he hadn’t seen was a blind hallway that blended into the wall and concealed five of the enemy. A club swung down from that entrance, and Warren barely had time to lean back and dodge the blow. They all spilled out a scant second after the weapon connected with the floor, swarmed us, and the fight was on.
It was all I could do to avoid being hit, and I couldn’t keep an eye on Mina as well. A ferocious, slavering blonde came for me, straight, yellow hair like a sheet just past her shoulders, and her mouth open to bare killing teeth and a forked tongue. Her scales were the color of molten gold, and glittered in the low light emitted by lamps on the walls. Eyes like burning sapphires blazed with the promise of pain, and her claws were widespread and ready to slash.
She reached for me a little too soon, so I grabbed her left arm and pulled her past me as I slid my foot just off the ground to sweep one of her feet. She crashed to the floor, her chin hitting with a dull thud and her teeth clacked together on her tongue. When she rolled onto her back she grabbed her mouth, and blood flowed between her fingers. She continued to roll back and forth in pain. Her eyes squeezed shut and choked sobs came from deep in her throat. Our teeth weren’t only dangerous for other people, but us, as well.
Even though time tended to slow down for me in fights, it didn’t mean I could stare at one of the enemy and relish, just a little bit, in their pain. Someone connected with me at my lower back and tackled me forward, and I did my best to protect my face and head from smacking into the floor. I also made sure my tongue was safely ensconced in my mouth.
The two of us hit the floor, and a quick look told me the person holding me was either male, or a very muscled woman. I’d barely had time to make friends with the stones before they picked me up and slammed me back into the stone, again, and again, and again.
“Enough!” a male called out, and aside from the ringing in my ears and heavy breathing, no one made a move or sound.
“Pullman wants them in the portal room,” the same one said, and the arms picked me up like a duffel bag and threw me over an equally muscled shoulder.
“What about Gina?” another male voice asked, though didn’t sound overly concerned.
“Ackerman, take her to the medic and don’t forget the rest of her tongue. Maybe if she’s lucky Tovar can put it back on, and is she’s not lucky at least we won’t have to listen to that mouth of hers anymore,” the male I guessed was the leader, stated. A round of masculine chuckles rumbled through the hallway, and I felt the vibrations from whoever was holding me, join in.
Apparently Gina wasn’t liked much. It also indicated they weren’t entirely a single unit bent on some fanatical purpose. Maybe we could work with this. We were at a disadvantage now, but in my book they were taking us right where we wanted to go, we weren’t chained up, and they all didn’t like each other. The day was looking up.
As I came out of my daze I continued to play dead, and Muscles occasionally re-positioned my weight, which in turn caused some air to be shouldered from my lungs. It wasn’t comfortable, but capture rarely was. I kept my eyes closed, though I wanted nothing more than to open them and try to locate Mina and Warren. All I could do was stay still and hope they were okay. There hadn’t been any injury reports in the hallway on either of them, but that just might mean they didn’t care enough about their captives.
Ten, maybe fifteen minutes later, a door creaked open ahead of us and there was a rush of sound. Chanting, steady and low, swallowed me as we made our way through the doorway, and the door clanged behind us a couple of breaths after we were through.
“Put them over there,” Pullman said, disgust and annoyance mere hints of emotion in his voice. I did my best to imitate a sack of potatoes as Muscles dropped me, and I opened my eyes just a slit but something blocked my view.
“Meriel! Talitha!” Mina’s voice rang out, and I inwardly cringed.
“Restrain her, Morton. You two, get up and shift back to human—I know you’re awake,” Pullman commanded, and while I thought for a moment of staying down just to irritate him further, Muscles, or I assumed it was him, grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked me up to a seated position.
“Do it,” Pullman said, though I couldn’t see him beyond the man in front of me, and I gritted my teeth but swallowed an argument. I so did not want to be naked in front of these people again, but Pullman wasn’t the type to push my luck with.
Shifting back could be more painful than shifting to, especially when you’re not doing it in the heat of the moment. Liquid agony spread through my limbs. After I finished, I huffed and groaned back into a sitting position; I’d fallen to the floor and on my side while I changed back. I shivered against the chill in the air on my bare skin.
I opened my eyes to a room with a high ceiling, which must have spanned a few of the levels, and against the wall across from us were painted symbols I didn’t recognize, full of ominous squiggles and sharp lines. Five men were chanting in front of the wall, bare chests, backs, and shoulders gleaming with sweat in the lantern light, and from the smell they were putting off they were human. Keeper Voss had said human mages were needed to open the portal.
They were up on a platform, about a foot above the floor, and as my eyes scanned left one of the guards held his gun at a half-ready position. On the wrong-end of the barrel were a group of kids, among them Meriel and Talitha. Most of the kids were crying while some of the older ones, around Talitha’s age, did their best to comfort them. Meriel clung to Talitha like a lifeline, and had her face buried in Talitha’s shoulder. I saw a gleam of silver at her ankle.
Warren had blocked my view earlier, and one of the men shoved him to sit next to me against the wall, while Mina fought another as they put her on my right.
“Stay still, or I’ll begin removing appendages,” Pullman said to her, his eyes dead and promising to make good on his threat. Mina stilled next to me and swallowed. He said nothing further, just turned around to watch the mages.
“Far be it from me to point out flaws in your villainous scheme, but don’t you think it’s a better idea to summon a portal for the Dragons above ground?” I asked, my mouth getting away from me again.
Pullman didn’t turn around. “We are harnessing the energy of the Earth to help power the portal, and there is one small layer of stone between the Dragons and their freedom. Hardly a challenge for them,” he responded, careless in his confidence.
There was so much power filling the room, one more added on wouldn’t be noticed. “Yes, but what about everyone here when they come through and rain stone down on our heads,” I queried, and supported the words with the slightest hint of power, pushing it especially toward the men in fatigues.
A couple of them shifted from foot to foot, and looked at each other.
“Now, now, Erryn, no more of that,” a kindly voice came from my right in the corner, the one side of the room I’d not looked at.
Keeper Voss sat comfortably in a pale, wooden rocking chair, which was ludicrously out of place given the scene in front of us, but he just rocked away as though he was on someone’s front porch.
“Ah, don’t give me that look, child, this is all for the best,” he said, putting emphasis on the word, ‘best,’ as he titled his head and dropped it just a smidge. “Though I am surprised to see the Nameless here,” he said with a slight chortle, and he stopped rocking for a moment to lean forward and steeple his hands on his knees. “Just think of how they’ll praise me for bringing the Dragons back and getting rid of him,” he finished and smiled. A smile that had once seemed grandfatherly and kind, now held just a twitch of madness, and his eyes gleamed a little too bright.
“Using the unwanted of the clans to bring back the Dragons might work, since they are so much easier to explain away as dispensable sacrifices, but how will the clan leaders greet you when they know you’ve been the one kidnapping their children?” Warren asked, but Keeper Voss ignored him. “Ah,” Warren said, and sat back against the wall as though slammed there by realization, “they won’t be around for much longer. Did you plan on taking over yourself?”
Keeper Voss sighed and shook his head. “Such disdain for my grand vision. One clan united under a single banner, with the Dragons to back us and lead us on toward power. No more bickering between clans, no more loathing for half-kins, and no more bowing and scraping for the humans,” he spat, the first stirrings of anger and zealous ambition heating his voice.
“All it takes is the lives of some children, human mages, and half-kins. Yes, how grand and noble,” Warren mocked.
My words had pushed the uncertainty of those around us to the forefront of their minds, but Warren’s words now had them looking toward the exit.
We might have been able to clear the room of some of them, but at that moment the wall with the markings shimmered, like water and light reflected in a mirror. The stones weren’t moving, yet, but the ceremony was almost at the apex. The sight caught everyone’s breath, and solidified the resolve of the half-kins around us—we’d lost our edge as quick as we thought we’d gained it.
“Bring the first child,” Pullman said, and my blood froze.
That moment sharpened into crystal clarity, and all I could see was the little, pastel pink bow at the end of a girl’s braid; her cinnamon hair a vibrant color against the hair accessory. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and when a man grabbed her, she screamed, and the moment shattered.
I looked at Warren, and Warren looked to me, but I couldn’t think except; ‘She looks so small.’ I must have moved because the barrel of a gun wavered into my view, and I looked up to a man next to me, his scalp gleaming with sweat beneath his buzz cut hair. He shook his head once and sharp. I stilled, and tried to relax my muscles before I got myself shot.
“Silence, girl, we only need a little blood,” Pullman said, deadpan, but still annoyed. The man hauled her up to the platform where Pullman held an old, tarnished metal goblet, the size of my hands with wrists together and fingers up, mirroring the shape of the large cup. In the other hand he held a knife that gleamed wicked in the light, and though the girl struggled and tried to push back from Pullman, the man who held her brought her forward.
When Pullman put the cup underneath her arm, she collapsed onto the ground to try and get away, but another man vaulted the platform and held her up, arm below her heart, while the original captor held her forearm over the cup for Pullman. He slit her wrist, the sharp blade splitting the skin with ease, and blood rushed out like a river being freed from a dam. Pullman only let it flow for a few seconds, while the girl cried and whimpered at the pain and fear. Then he called a whisper of power and cauterized the wound with the flat of his blade.
They repeated this for each of the children, and the level of struggle and cooperation varied between each of them. Meriel was last, and they had to pry her from Talitha’s arms. She was small, but I knew from experience toddlers could pack more of a punch than people realized. It took two of them to get her on the platform and hold her down for the cut. When her wound was cauterized, they took her back to Talitha where she cried and hunkered down into Talitha’s arms.
Pullman turned to the portal, carefully stirring the cup of blood, filled almost to the brim.
“May blood call to blood, and bring our brethren home once more,” he said, and threw the blood against the wall. It was like the wall truly was water, because instead of dripping down the wall, it spread until it became a pool of red, and the stones melted into nothingness.
Before anyone could react, a small form darted through and a scream sounded from the man to my right. My head snapped up and all I could see was scales, a whip-like tail, and a face buried into the flesh of the man’s neck.
Then all hell broke loose. People were running around and trying to get out of the room, while others were trying to keep them in. I couldn’t see the children through the pandemonium, and I could only hope they stayed out of the way and away from anything coming through the portal.
“Portals only go one way, and this one needs pure, royal, clan blood to power it,” Warren said, next to my ear. I jumped and flinched back from him, but my eyes met his. “I wish we’d had more time,” he said, and before I could utter a single word he kissed me, hard and fast. He took my breath away, and then grabbed a knife from the thigh sheath of the man who was being eaten. He dashed up to the platform, and in all the chaos no one stopped him when he grabbed one of the humans and slit their throat, then threw the man into the portal. The man didn’t so much as fall through as disintegrated into it, and the portal spat like an angry cat, and wobbled along the edges.
Shouts to stop him came from Pullman and Voss, but there was too much going on as a couple larger forms made their way through. Warren slipped around them, avoiding teeth, claws, and tails, and cut deep down his forearm, the blood pouring from his elbow in a stream of red. It hit the ground like small drops of rain. With his profile to me I saw him smile, a sad turn of his lips, then he rushed to the portal with his bloodied arm leading the way.