Avery thought of nothing. It wasn't hard to shut down. Her mind was as numb as her body, slowly sinking into the mud. Rivulets of water ran down her face and neck, her simple shirt and pants soaked and stuck to her skin. She started to shiver at one point but forced herself to stop. Shivering was your body trying to warm itself up. It was your body trying to stay alive. That was not what she wanted.
She lay on the forest floor for hours, perhaps days, and still the sky stayed dark and stormy, the rain never stopped, and she never died.
Movement in the forest. She tried to ignore it but her mind was already tired of doing nothing. It could never stay blank for long. Even as she counted the seconds between lightning and thunder to focus-to prevent herself from wondering where it all began-her mind wandered. Her world had changed when Roedin fell from the sky. Or was it before that? Was the fox or the bird or the fire in her woodstove real? Was Ferrik just a dark, twisted part of her mind that wanted desperately to feel something?
Perhaps the Cabin wasn't real, and she was already cursed, a corpse locked in stone just as Rena had warned. Doomed to never meet the gods or the Ancestors or whomever was rolling the dice with their lives. Closing her eyes she prayed for oblivion, to know nothing.
Death was supposed to be the easy part, but it was just as hard as living.
The ground moved. Closing her eyes couldn't shut out the reverberations of an army marching by.
Curiosity betrayed her. Squinting against the torrent of rain Avery saw people in the trees. Their figures moved amongst the trunks and branches. Were they dancing? Exercising? What did it matter, nothing was real.
A wing poked out from behind a trunk. He was barely more than a shadow, his figure distorted by the intense downpour of rain. Her stupid heart lurched but she kept still. He's not there. It was just a dream of what she wanted, a life she couldn't have. Pieced together from textbooks and fairytales and wishes that would never come true. She had finally gone insane.
But she couldn't help it. If he was a fantasy-if that life wasn't real and Corinth didn't exist and she was never part of a pack-she didn't care. She would rather get lost back in that hallucination than spend another night alone.
"You need to let go."
Avery rolled her head to glare at the source. "Rena?"
Her friend, her sister, her mother, her keeper. "We've been trying to help you for so long."
"You're dead," Avery said. "I killed you."
She nodded. "You killed me because we got too close."
"Too close to what?" Avery pushed herself up on shaky arms.
Rena looked over her shoulder to a weaving mass of living vines that threatened to grow around the clearing. "We were trying to find a way to let Safira in. Combine her magic with a mind-prime and tear down this spell that is keeping you here."
"Safira didn't care about me. She only ever wanted Adelyn." What was she saying? Avery leaned forward and clutched her head in her hands. She needed to stop engaging, stop playing along with her fantasies. Rena is dead. No, she wasn't. She couldn't be dead because she was never alive. Avery groaned and dug her fingers into her scalp.
"Was Adelyn ever real?" Avery asked.
"A generous, open-minded, powerful alpha prime?" Rena suggested. "Probably, somewhere, someday. To you she was real. That's all that matters."
"It's not. I don't want to live in a fantasy. I want a real world."
"No you don't." Rena pointed to the Cabin, the only real world Avery had ever known. "You've been trying to escape reality forever. You even invented Ferrik to give yourself an enemy, a reason to hate."
Avery gasped in outrage. "That's disgusting! What kind of sick person would do that?" She pushed to her feet and stood in the pouring rain.
"Your mind is sick," Rena said gently, reaching out to caress Avery's face. "But we can help you."
Niamh saw the face in the waterfall for just a brief moment. At first she thought it was Avery, but then the figure turned and the soaking wet curling hair flipped over her shoulder. The ripples in the liquid added years to the female's face. Niamh couldn't believe she ever thought Rena was human. How blind she was. Blinded by hate, by lust, but really by magic.
Niamh screamed as she raised her flaming sword and brought it down on the neck of a Collector.
An arm reached around Avery's chest and held her tight, a hand clamping down on her throat. But it was the stench of him that triggered her fear. She had been trying so hard to feel nothing. Instinct took over. We are all animals at our core.
"Who are you?" Ferrik hissed.
Avery's body locked up. She ground her teeth to keep from screaming and squeezed her eyes shut. I'm an alchemist. I'm a human. I'm a slave. I'm a card-shark. I'm a mother. I'm the River-Avery. I'm prime. I'm the Sky Princess.
"I'm no one!"
"Liar!" Ferrik tossed her to the ground and kicked her in the stomach, just as he had done a hundred times before. She rolled away from the blows and curled up in the leaves to protect herself. "I know you're special! Why else would the sorcerer-king want a filthy human?"
Avery caught the next kick and yanked his leg forward until he was off balance. Then she knocked out his standing leg and Ferrik crashed to the ground. She leapt on top of him and started punching. The ragged scar down his face started bleeding first. Then his nose. Some blood splashed up on to her own face, but still she kept punching.
Greasy blond hair flashed in the water, catching Roedin's eye. The ripples made his face even more horrendous, the scars bleeding away any resemblance he might have had to Dellane. Roedin slashed at the waterfall in his rage. He had just put his hand on the rim of the pool when a blast of magic slammed into his side, ripping him off the glass.
He landed on his back and slid across the laboratory floor, crashing into his brother's legs. Hayden stumbled but recovered and pulled Roedin up with an arm before taking up position back-to-back. How many battles had they fought in this way, protecting each other, helping Corinth to victory? As Roedin ducked Hayden leapt. They both moved right, blocking and jabbing in perfect tandem.
Roedin saw Ferrik's face in the water again and the Collector he was fighting became the hated male. There was no stopping the rage that poured into his muscles, that steadied his sword arm. He would destroy them all.
"Does it bear the mark?"
The trees surrounding the clearing blended together forming the walls of a crude shelter of sticks and bark. A fire in the centre of the room emitted more smoke than heat. Avery collapsed to the floor, bloody and exhausted, ready to weep. She was naked.
Rena knelt by her and ran a warm cloth over her skin, wiping away her anger and hate and energy. She checked over every part of Avery's body before declaring, "There's nothing."
"There has to be!" A new mother lay in a sweat-soaked bed. She was alone, propped up on elbows, looking down to where Avery lay immobile under Rena's hands.
Rena looked almost as frustrated at the woman. Her jaw clenched but she wrapped a blanket around Avery and propped her up. "You have a girl." But the woman just curled up on her side and faced away. "Should I get the father?"
"He's no one. I don't even know who..." the woman grumbled. "The vision quest showed... a baby...if I had the Sky Prince...then I would-"
There was a knock at the door and a tall figure stepped inside along with a blast of winter wind. He brushed the snow from his shaggy hair to reveal a pair of pointed ears. Avery sat in the warm blanket, comfortable during this hallucination, completely uninterested in fighting it. If dreams were her only escape she could relish the comfortable ones.
The male's slitted pupils adjusted to the dim light of the hut. "Congratulations!" he said with a pained smile. He was too big for the shack, his clothes too fancy, too warm. Through the open door Avery spotted another figure walking away, his wings tucked in tight against the storm.
"Prime Tao," the girl on the bed greeted, half rising. "I know the vision said it would be the Sky Prince-"
"River, I respect your people's beliefs, but I happen to think that all younglings are special," the sapien said. "I simply brought some supplies to help you out. We'll leave it to the Elders to play with fate."
Rena rubbed Avery's arms but tucked in behind her, practically hiding from the male. More cold air rattled the shack, seeping in through the cracks. The sapien couldn't hide his pitying smile. His eyes darted from River to Avery in Rena's arms.
"I'd like to help in any way I can. I know you don't have...much. And the sire is...not available." He fidgeted with his hands and pulled at the collar of his shirt, uncomfortable in the small space. "I don't want to be too forward but but if you find yourself feeling… overwhelmed, my mate and I could help-"
"The village will raise the child, sapien," Rena snapped. "They don't need your help."
Tao flushed red and backed up a step. "Of course, I didn't mean to suggest...I just thought I would offer."
"I'll think about it," River said from the bed. A human mother would give her baby to a sapien? Avery between Tao and River in confusion. Rena squeezed her shoulders lightly but said nothing.
In the brief pauses in the fight Hayden tried to calm his mind to search for the other half of his magic. If Avery had it still he should be able to magnify his own. But there was so much power in the room it was hard to pinpoint the source. The Collectors were primes in their own right, but the humans-the humans had borrowed magic with no control. He didn't blame them, he feared them. Adelyn had spent centuries learning control so that anger could not unleash her magic. And anger was the only thing that fueled this fight.
Avery's heart beat, that much he knew. She floated in the clear fluid, her auburn hair adding a macabre splash of red to the crystal pool. A female stood at the head of the pool leaning over the rim to hold Avery's face above the water. Her eyes were focused on the middle distance, working whatever magic she had on Avery's mind. Hayden reached out to stop the sapien's heart but was rejected by a shield, some force that encircled the working prime. He would have to kill her the old-fashioned way.
"Be careful, alpha prime," Sarlac sneered as he pulled his sword from the gut of one of the freed prisoners. "The mind is a delicate place. If you tear the connection they could both descend into madness."
Fine then. Hayden would kill Sarlac first.
The human woman named River paced the room that was both Avery's Cabin and not. It was the same size, same rough logs and creaking rafters, but the shelves were sparsely stocked instead of overflowing with food and supplies. No library was tucked into the corner and the mud floor was frozen and covered with reeds.
"The vision said I would give birth to the Sky Prince. She said it would happen…" River stopped suddenly and looked over at Avery. She chewed on her lower lip as her brain processed whatever idea had stopped her pacing. Avery couldn't move, locked onto the sight of the human woman with mousy brown hair and hazel eyes, chewing on her lower lip.
"Mother?" Avery whispered.
The woman grabbed Avery's arm and dragged her over to the bed, pushing her down on her stomach. She lifted Avery's shirt and ran her hands along the unblemished skin on her back. "This is for the best, little one. It will save us both."
Avery should have been able to throw her off, to roll away, and run from the Cabin. But instead she was held there, squirming under the woman's grip. Even when the burning started she just pressed her face into the dirty blanket and screamed. She screamed as the pattern was cut into her flesh, but she also screamed at the realisation of what was happening. What had happened.
With a roar Pike slammed his sword down on the sapien, their blades echoing in the room. He brandished two weapons, spinning and slashing faster than any human could. His sapien-half would keep him in this fight.
The sorcerer-king used his primes as a shield, hiding behind their power while he barked orders around the strange glass pool that held Avery. He was a scientist not a soldier and somehow he had swayed these powerful sapiens to his cause. What evidence or manipulations had Sarlac orchestrated that made them willing to die for this? That made them believe a human could threaten their existence? Perhaps Safira's defeat had been planned as well; the final proof that Avery was as dangerous as Sarlac would have them believe.
The waterfall distracted him. A stretch of red streaked down and Pike worked his way closer to see if she was bleeding. A baby appeared in the liquid screen naked and screaming as it lay on its belly. Hands held it down and drew on its back.
The baby was being marked with a symbol. Not by the gods or the Ancestors or by some twist of fate. It was being marked by a human.
Pike looked up from the screen to where Avery's face was being held above water. The prime's eyes were open now and she looked just as confused as he. Pike ducked under a sword and leapt up the three steps to the platform. The sapien holding Avery's face above water cringed and ducked as objects and magic flew over her. She didn't move to stop Pike as he reached into the water and slipped his hands around Avery's back.
"We've been deceived," she growled. "This is no one. Just a -" She jerked forward and twisted, dunking Avery's head below water. Pike tightened his arms to pull Avery out of the water but didn't move. He couldn't. Electricity coursed through him, convulsing his muscles and holding him in place. Lightning danced in the water wrapping around Avery in a deadly net. Finally Pike was thrown back and down the stairs where he landed hard on his back, his eyes still locked on the clear pool of water on the steel pedestal. The sapien's body lay twitching on the ground, Hazel's hand wrapped around her ankle.
"Shit," Hazel hissed through gritted teeth as she pulled herself to her feet. She reached over the lip of the pool and slipped a hand under Avery's shoulder to pull her back to the surface. Pike rolled to his side but the electricity still lingered in his body, making him jerk involuntarily.
Hazel wasn't tall enough to lift Avery out of the pool. So she rested her armpits on the lip and pinned Avery's head to her shoulder, keeping her face above the surface. Then she reached into her shirt and flipped a small chain over her head, using her teeth and one free hand to open the loop and drop it around Avery's neck.
"C'mon princess, don't give up now," Hazel growled.
But she wasn't a princess. She was just a girl. A random baby born to a desperate mother who had added the mark afterward. Avery wasn't blessed by the gods, she had no super-powers, no ability to save the human race.
She wasn't the chosen one, she was just, normal.
Avery pressed herself into the corner of the hut, wrapping her arms around her knees and hugging them close to her chest. Salty tears dried to her cheeks and left her feeling hollow. Rena came over and draped a blanket over her. The gesture should have been motherly, loving. But instead of sharing the tender smile Avery was hoping for, Rena simply pinched her lips and nodded. She lifted Avery's chin and they locked eyes.
"Silence," she said.
Avery had a thousand questions but none came to her lips. She already knew the answers anyway, even if she didn't want to. Instead she watched Rena approach the human woman and clutch her face between her hands.
"River, your baby died," Rena said firmly. "It was too weak to survive this world."
The woman's face twisted in confusion, then sadness. She was fighting Rena's magic, unwilling to have her mind influenced. But Rena never broke eye contact and the woman's resolve weakened as she fell to her knees, Rena still clutching her face.
"How can that be? It was the Sky Soul."
"No. It wasn't. You never had the Sky Soul. You marked her yourself. Made it up to save yourself." That wasn't a lie. Rena said it was easier to manipulate a story when it was partially true. So focused on channeling that magic, Rena didn't hear the knock at the door, didn't feel the cold air sweep in, didn't notice the sapien watching them.
"What are you doing?"
Niamh stopped dead in her tracks, her mouth hanging open as she panted. The sword that had once been aflame was quiet, darkened by soot and blood and smoke. It hung loosely at her side, tip resting on the stone floor.
She saw him. Tao looked angry, confused. She wanted to reach into the water and smooth those worried lines away. He was usually so kind, happy. Naive.
The image wasn't clear, she wondered if her mind was just playing tricks on her. If perhaps she was nearing her end, and she was seeing him as he waited for her. She didn't understand the other images in the waterfall: a young human woman; a smoky room; a baby in rags.
Why had the image of her dead mate appeared in the water? He had been gone for longer than he had been alive. Perhaps that was the prime's power: to use someone's memories against them. Haunt them.
Niamh snapped out of her trance and looked up the steps to the head of the pool. Sarlac wrenched Hazel away and lifted her with one hand. His massive fist encircled her throat, threatening to snap her neck.
"What did you do?" he snarled.
Hazel clutched at the hand on her throat, sparks dancing on her fingertips but never shocking the sapien. She drew back and kicked him in the stomach and he barely flinched. Niamh leapt over Pike's body, registering that he was still alive, and jumped up to the dais. But Hazel was a scrappy human and didn't rely on magic for her fights. She used Sarlac's arm to lever herself up and wrap her legs around his neck. Surprised, he faltered, and stepped back, tripping off the top step and sending them both tumbling down the stairs.
Instead of following Niamh turned to the pool and reached in to pull Avery back to the surface. Her singular focus left her blind to the threats still flying around the room. She never even saw whatever slammed into her side.
Rena stayed focused on River, not willing to stop the connection lest she weaken the effects of the spell. Avery did nothing.
Tao grabbed Rena's wrist and pulled her away. "You have magic!" he exclaimed in astonishment. Rena broke his grip but did not back down from the sapien. He looked at his own hand, equally surprised that she had been able to free herself so easily. "You're a sapien."
"Get out of here, prime! This doesn't concern you. I have been sent on Temple business."
"How can this be? You look human!"
An Elder appeared at the door. She used a cane for stability but stood tall and sure, commanding the small space easily. "Show me the baby," she said between raspy breaths.
"It died," Rena said quickly, stepping closer for a clear line of sight. Behind her the mother wailed and collapsed to the floor, clawing at the ground dramatically.
Tao stepped between Rena and the humans to block her eye contact. "Stop it, Rena. What's going on?"
"Sapien! We tolerate your presence in our preserve because of the food and supplies you bring. But leave this holy place at once!" the Elder cried. She pointed her cane at him as though she posed any threat to the powerful male.
Tao immediately bowed respectfully but didn't back off. "The baby was healthy and alive when I came by yesterday. I don't understand what changed."
"Human babies die all the time," Rena spat.
"Show me the body," the Elder ordered. "If it bears the mark another Sky Soul can be reborn."
"I swear, grandmother. I birthed the Sky Soul. It's not my fault it died," River wailed. She grabbed on to the Elder's pants and pleaded from her knees.
"Where is it?" she demanded, pointing to Rena.
Rena backed away, standing between the Elder and where Avery sat curled up in the corner, disguised with nothing but a blanket. "He did it!" Rena cried, pointing to Tao. "The sapiens are trying to wipe us out. He took the Sky Soul!"
"What?" Tao balked. "Grandmother, I would never interfere with your people's religion."
"He was here when it was born and tried to take it away to his city!" Rena continued. Her hands flexed and stretched as she wove the story into their minds. "All sapiens are the same. Evil, ruthless, desperate for power."
"What are you doing?" Tao hissed. "You are-"
"Get out of here! Leave this sacred place and this heartbroken mother!" she shoved Tao out the door and into the snow. He didn't resist and instead turned to flee down the path. But a crowd had gathered in the clearing outside, waiting to celebrate the birth of their king.
The moving pictures of the waterfall stopped. Whatever mind-magic the prime had been wielding was interrupted by Hazel's shock. The sapien lay on the steps, her eyes locked open, either dead or trapped in her own spell. Strangely, Tobias thought he recognised her. They had gone to school together as younglings. His mother had encouraged them to be friends, but he had been too scared that she would get into his head, discover his secret. Mind-primes were difficult to trust.
Tobias moved around the debris in the room to clear a path to the clear pool. He called to the water that held Avery but it didn't respond. A whole part of him was missing leaving a gaping hole in his very being. The water had always been there, always responded. There was an enormous lake just above them that stayed silent like a brick. Just yesterday-two days?-he could have drained that tank with half a thought, and used the water to wipe away the filth in the room.
He poured his anger into lifting broken tables and crashing through debris. Sarlac was standing by the tank again and Tobias needed to kill him. He kicked at the edge of a table that rested on its side, spinning it away and exposing a sapien cowering underneath. He covered his head with arms and looked up at Tobias in terror, shaking on his knees.
"Please, alpha prime," the male stuttered. "I didn't know. I didn't mean to-"
Tobias was inclined to lob off the male's head and move on. He had bigger problems than a pathetic scientist. But he hesitated.
He looked from the terrified male and back up to the tank where Sarlac was pouring something into the water.
They were battling scientists.
Again, Tobias was gripped by a moment of mad laughter. The primes sacrificing their lives in this fight were just grunts, being used for their muscles and their mindless devotion. It was damned scientists who were profiting.
"You have to get her out of there!" the male screeched. He had mustered enough courage to peek over the table's edge and follow Tobias' gaze to the pool. "Sarlac is insane. He thinks she's some kind of weapon. The chemical reaction will-"
Tobias didn't wait to hear about the formula or equations that had been calculated for this spell. He leapt over the table and raced across the room dodging debris and flying metal. Sarlac was his singular focus. The male had destroyed Gallen from within, slowly manipulating good people into doing terrible things. The potion Sarlac was now mixing into the clear pool was like the poison he had dumped into the city's wells.
As Tobias rounded the pool Sarlac's shoulders slumped in relief and he looked up at the alpha prime of Gallen. "It's done."
Tobias ran a blade through his heart.
Gasping for air Avery pushed herself up and forced her feet forward. Run. That's all she knew. She tried fighting, tried reasoning, tried trying, but in the end she just ran away from everything.
The forest was dark and though the leaves should have filtered some rain, water continued to assault her. Twigs and branches caught in her hair and scratched her face, just as they had when she and Roedin fled the Cabin. They had escaped this place that day-even if it was just in her mind. Maybe if she ran fast enough, far enough, she could break free again.
The opening was up ahead. The gorge. Below a river cut through the valley. The water wasn't deep enough to save her, but she would jump. She would fly again before this was over. Bursting out of the trees she launched herself into the air and closed her eyes to float. If this was a fantasy then Roedin would catch her, a knight in shining armour, coming to rescue his damsel in distress. And if it was reality then the torture would end finally.
Comforting arms wrapped around her and she smiled, nuzzling her face into his chest. Instead of the musky scent of leather and autumn leaves she smelled wood smoke and lye soap. Fine hair tickled her face as the strong arms let her rest on the cold, snowy ground. She whimpered in complaint and blinked her eyes open to see two familiar sapien faces peering down at her. One was an older male, his features worn and grey dusting his beard. The other was a young female, red curly hair falling over her shoulders.
"You're sure this is the one?" Hongbo asked, narrowing his eyes at Avery.
Rena looked away and rubbed the back of her neck. "It bears the mark. Isn't that what we're looking for?"
"It's very unusual."
"You can see it for yourself!" Rena grabbed Avery's hip and rolled her over, lifting the bottom of her shirt so her back was exposed. Again Avery did nothing to stop this, as though she had no control over her limbs or the strength to fight back. "Is that not the mark of the Sky Prince?"
Hongbo pinched her tender flesh and stretched out the skin, tracing the now familiar and hated pattern with his finger. "The book specifically said it would be male, a prince. Son of the gods."
Rena ground her teeth together, evidently fighting for control of her temper. "I cannot speak on the lessons from the ancestors. I am only an acolyte and have no training. But I have been living with humans for decades, moving from preserve to preserve before they notice I don't age. Now I found it! I found this terrifying human and brought it to you!"
"You are dangerously close to blasphemy."
Rena took a calming breath and raised her chin. "Forgive me, shepherd. I'm honoured to be the one who has found this weapon and protect our people."
Hongbo straightened and wiped his hands on his shirt. "We will wait until she ages to be sure we are not mistaken."
Avery's eyes darted between the concerned male and Rena's confused face.
"Bring the infant to the Vault. The priests will use spells to keep it from being discovered until we can break the cycle."
"Bring it…Prime Hongbo, I completed my challenge. I found the human weapon; am I not to be-"
"We have no experience keeping a human youngling alive. You will need to care for it until it can survive on its own. It cannot die, or this is all for naught."
Rena looked down at Avery with such disgust and pain. Avery could almost feel the weight of that hate pressing down on her, crushing her into the snowpack. There was no warmth in those eyes, no love in her gaze.
The air in the laboratory became hard, brittle. The sweat on Roedin's face instantly dried and flaked off as crusty snow. He shook out his wings to clear away the ice forming there and coiled, ready for his next opponent.
The ice-prime was supercooling the room. He stood on the far side of the pool, his power spreading but his magic focused on the water. Ice expanded across the surface and the water flowing over the edge ceased.
Humans would die quickly at this temperature, their fragile bodies susceptible to ice crystals forming in their blood. Roedin ducked as another bolt of lightning flew across the room. It missed Kurt where he stood by the pool and instead hit an overhead lumenstone, raining sparks down on them. Hazel stumbled a knee, already shaking in the cold.
Vireo was ripping down the walls, creating more ammunition for her power. But it was without care. She grabbed anything metal and crushed it, no longer fighting an enemy so much as destroying the lab. Her eyes had gone red and blood leaked from the corners of her lips. The symptoms were familiar though Roedin had only seen them on faunids.
"Vireo, stop!" Skye shouted. The metal mostly pinged off his skin but some got through. Small pockets of red blossomed on his clothing. The magic he had been given in that potion was wearing off. Still he sprinted through the metal hailstorm and tackled the woman to the ground. She snarled like a rabid animal, foaming at the mouth. Skye leapt back in horror, watching her writhe and convulse on the floor. "What the-"
The metal rivet flew out of the pedestal holding the glass pool and landed in Skye's chest. He blinked in surprise then sank to his knees. Hayden jumped over the debris and caught Skye before he hit the ground. He pressed his hand over the wound and ducked as another volley of metal rained down on them.
"Someone put her down before she kills us all!" Hayden shouted.
Tobias pulled his sword out of Sarlac and started towards her but was smashed by a flying metal table. Everything metal in the room was in the air, whirling around in a deadly cyclone. Vireo had lost control and the metal did not distinguish friend from foe. Her magic was no longer assisting them but became as deadly as the primes they faced.
Roedin hesitated. Sarlac lay on the steps, blood dripping. Kurt was freezing the pool but Niamh crouched on the opposite side, countering his ice with her fire while she tried to hide from the deadly metal. Someone needed to get to Vireo and stop her uncontrolled magic before she shredded them all.
The woman barred her teeth in a maniacal grin. Her gums were bleeding and her eyes streaked with red. Was she laughing? She had lost her mind but seemed focused on the pool where Avery floated below the surface.
Vireo squeezed her eyes shut and let out a bone chilling scream. The metal rivets were pulled from the pedestal. Vireo was breaking the pool holding Avery and sending the rivets into Kurt's chest. Instead of blocking them, the prime thrust his hands forward and froze the water solid.
The glass sides of the pool shattered under the water pressure throwing Niamh away and down the metal steps. Roedin pushed his way through flying debris, trying to Vireo and end the chaos. The room screamed as metal collided and Hayden shouted to Niamh, Pike shouted at Vireo, and someone let out a war cry.
Dreysus ran through the maelstrom and drove a sword through Vireo's neck.
The cold from Rena glare seeped in under the blanket chilled Avery's core. Her head pressed into the snow as it molded around her body so she couldn't roll away. Rena had thought turning over the Sky Soul would mean freedom, but instead she was saddled with an infant to care for.
Avery was heartbroken. She wanted to hate Rena, to hate sapiens, to hate her mother and blame them all for her undeserved fate. But instead she hated the world. This world that kept humans in such abject poverty that a young girl's only hope was to give birth to a miracle. And when that failed she was desperate enough to lie about it.
Tears froze to her face where they leaked out of the corner of her eyes. She didn't lift a hand to wipe them away but let the ice burn her skin as the crystalline structure spread. There was never any magic, just tricks and mind games and luck that let everyone believe she could be more than an unloved daughter of a lonely girl.
The room felt unnaturally quiet like when the thunder has passed and the rain is no longer pounding on the roof. It reminded Pike of the moment when one slipped into the tunnel entrance at Cloud Fortress. The storms could howl on that mountain slope, nearly peeling them off the face. Then he would direct the Rangers to the hidden entrance and they would step around the corner and the mountain would swallow them. It was always a relief, a weight lifted off their senses. Now the silence felt oppressive, hollow and empty.
Pike sank to his knees.
He was still breathing heavily and though the fighting was over he couldn't seem to rein it in. Determination and sheer force of will had kept him going, but now he was drained. He had nothing left to process what he was seeing.
Roedin ran his hands along the ice, searching for a crack or flaw he could exploit. But it wasn't frozen. Sarlac had added something so that Kurt's magic turned it to crystal, not ice. The room was so quiet Pike could hear the desperate words Roedin muttered under his breath. "No, no, no, no, no." Ordering it to not be so. The muscles in his neck strained as he clenched his jaw.
Niamh sat on the floor nearby, dumbfounded. Her mouth moved as though to say something but no sound came out. Her eyes just searched the crystal coffin, looking for an explanation or a caveat or an alternative ending.
Footsteps pounded down the long tunnel that led to the lab. People were coming. Friend or enemy, Pike didn't care anymore. Hazel and Skye's bodies lay amongst the Collectors along with the mind-prime who had exploited Avery's memories.
Hayden shut Vireo's eyes and rose from a crouch, slowly approaching the now-still pool. Avery's body was suspended, captured perfectly in glass. The crystalline structure bent the light at odd angles so that her hair was every colour imaginable, depending where you stood. For once she looked at rest, no longer haunted by memories or nightmares, or pressures of things she didn't ask for or understand.
"NO!" Roedin screamed. He screamed. He didn't roar or order or demand. He screamed like a terrified pup, pounding at the crystal with his fists. No one stopped him.
Hayden put a hand on the crystal. "There's a heartbeat."
"Get her out of there!" Roedin lifted a sword and slammed it down, shattering the blade on the crystal. Then he tried to chip away at it using the hilt as a hammer. Nothing even dented the clear glass and finally Roedin pressed his forehead against where Avery lay just below the surface, his tears pooling below him. "She's trapped."
I can't be trapped again.
Pike was going to vomit. "She's alive in there?"
Glass crunched and metal screeched in the corner of the room. Dreysus, the traitorous alchemist, was rifling around in the debris searching for something. Pike grabbed his shirt, practically lifting him off his feet. "Fix it! Dissolve that...cage!"
The sapien's face was already splotchy, his eyes red with tears. He looked over Pike's shoulder at the glass coffin but didn't fight back.
"She made it too good," Dreysus said in a pained voice. "I only needed to tweek the formula to have it sustain life."
"What are you saying?" Pike gasped. He dragged the sapien closer and shoved him up the three steps to the raised platform where the crystal rested. "Get her out of there!
"I thought it would be used to transport goods over long distances. Fruits and vegetables fresh as they day they were picked. I never imagined he would use it on a person!" Dreysus fell to his hands and knees before the altar of the person he once called friend.
Hayden left the crystal and made his way over to bodies of Hazel and Skye. Whatever magic they had temporarily wielded was gone, their human bodies spent. Would they have escaped that prison if they hadn't taken the magic? Die now or die later. All we're ever doing is postponing death. Even sapiens weren't immortal; they just lived long enough they got tired of it.
They had survived a great battle with primes but they hadn't won. You think this is the war? Adelyn has asked. This is just a footnote, a fight, a strategic lesson to be studied by analysts. What went wrong? What should they have done differently?
There are no victories in war, only casualties.
Again Pike sank to the ground, sitting on the bottom step and holding his head in his hands. The thumping on the twisted door got louder. People were trying to get in. The sound pulsed in his chest and skittered across the floor. Roedin continued to pound on the glass like the stupid animal he was. Brainless oaf. If he loved her so much, how could he let this happen?
Pike closed his eyes and tried to block out the sound but it continued to beat a taunting rhythmic pattern. A heartbeat. He whirled around to let loose on the faunid, needing somewhere to direct his anger and his sadness and his despair that they had come this far and still lost. But Roedin wasn't pounding on the crystal. He held his hands above the glass watching cracks spread like frost over the surface.
Dreysus stared at the crystal coffin, his jaw hanging open in wonder.
The ground rumbled. Glass and metal rattled and echoed off the domed room.
"I think we should leave," Tobias said, looking up at the water ceiling.
Roedin wrapped his arms around the crystal coffin. "Help me move it!"
Pike reached for the glass and then wiped his hand back, shaking off the sting. It was hot. How were Roedin's arms not burning?
"We need to go!" Tobias shouted. "Niamh, can you walk? Dreysus, carry that human. Pike help me with this one!"
Hayden touched Roedin's shoulder. "We have to get out of here, Roe."
"I can't leave her again!" Roedin pleaded, trying to heave at the crystal.
The shaking stopped.
Their breathing stopped.
The crystal exploded.
Arctos roared as he heaved on the heavy metal door. It was twisted and bent on the frame, preventing them from blasting it open and storming the room. Instead they used their combined faunid strength to peel it back until they could fit through. Sharpshooters kept their arrows pointed at the opening, waiting for someone to defend the steel barricade.
Steam and smoke leaked out carrying the scent of blood and burning. Arctos bared his teeth and sent every last bit of strength he had into his muscles, desperate to know what was on the other side, and dreading to find out.
As soon as there was enough space the Rangers leapt through the gap. Thistle went first, his smaller frame slipping through before Birch or any sapien or faunid could fit. Raven and Willow were close behind and Shawi jumped in ahead of the others to support the humans. Arctos followed.
Instead of a fight they found the room in pieces. Glass coated every horizontal surface. It glistened like morning dew, adding an ethereal feeling to the large domed space. Arctos' eyes swept the room quickly, making an initial assessment. Nothing moved.
On a raised platform Roedin sat holding Avery in his arms. She looked so small in his hulking frame, so pale against his dark skin and bloody armor. He brushed hair back from her face and held her to his chest, whispering something between kissing her forehead.
She looked dead, but Arctos had seen her dead before.