Cold metal tightened around June’s left wrist and the creature pulled her arm behind her back. June tried to resist, to fight back, to get away but the thing moved quicker than she could. Shifting on her back, he was suddenly pressing its knee into her spine.
Before he could secure her right hand, June tucked it under her chest to keep it free. June turned her head so she could see her goal, the river, just a few steps away.
The creature sighed, as if it were annoyed by the situation.
June twisted and tried to roll. The knee dug into her back, preventing her from moving.
“There are two ways we can do this.” His voice was calm, as if he were trying to talk reason to an unreasonable person. “You can give me your other hand, or I can make you give it to me.” He paused, allowing June a moment she needed to think.
She couldn’t break his hold. But if he made a mistake, she could free herself and escape.
Just as June was about to tell him where he could shove his request, a pair of boots partially blocked her view of the river. The furry blue-grey creature that had been hurting Nakidir squatted down, completely blocking her view with his smug face.
Grudgingly, she admitted defeat and surrendered her right hand. Sure she was probably going to die. Painfully. But she got what she wanted. The monsters chased their true prey. Ignoring peripheral things. Like the villagers. One for thirty.
A good trade.
June closed her eyes as the man holding her down removed his knee and hoisted her to her knees and pulled her back to rest on her heels. The man placed a hand on her shoulder, firm pressure held her on her knees. Kept her from trying to escape. Calmness came as the realization settled in that they were going to kill her. It was over, the hiding, the fear. All of it was over. Now she was just waiting for them to finish what they’d started.
With a deep breath June opened her eyes. The cat-like creature remained squatting where he was, his red hourglass pupils made her blink in surprise. Afternoon light bounced off his blue-gray fur and glinted off the water rushing by behind him.
A hand pulled the black ring from her index finger. The cat creature held his hand palm up, and the man behind her placed it in his palm.
The light seemed to be absorbed by the ring.
While he was rolling the ring across his fingers, he seemed to lose awareness of her. June used the opportunity to get a headcount.
The tall walking statue was standing off to the right. He had large reflective black eyes, as if they were made from polished obsidian. His skin seemed to be made from orange and brown granite.
“Will they come back?” The cat man asked.
June turned her attention back to the creature with blue-gray fur. His tail was lashing back and forth, almost lazily.
When June didn’t answer he gave her a predator’s smile. Pointed teeth fitting together in sharp angles.
Under all those eyes her shoulders dropped, and her resolve faltered. Images and sensations of what he was going to do to her flashed through her mind and body. The blood in her veins was hot, and sweat beaded on her shoulder blades and rolled down her spine. June swallowed hard. But she couldn’t break her eyes from the creatures. In those red hourglass pupils she saw her slow and painful death. Or worse, life as a slave.
June crushed that feeling under the heel of her boot and drove it down. She would do what was required, what was needed. She had to give the villagers as much time to flee as she could. Even if she had to purchase that time with pain and suffering.
Seconds passed. The silence between them growing longer. There was a sense of anticipation in the air, as if the creatures were waiting for her to do something. What she didn’t know. But something.
Taking a deep breath, June forced herself to sit taller. “Well?” Her voice wavered, she could hear the edge of hysteria in her tone, feel it tightening around her throat. “Do what you came here to do and leave.”
June hoped that after the creatures killed her, they would just go. Let the people here live the remainder of their lives in peace. No need to hunt anyone down.
The creature brought its hand to chest level and stretched his fingers so she could see. June clenched her jaw to keep from screaming. Claws extended from the tips of his fingers before vanishing again. They looked razor-sharp—
Suddenly, the world exploded in heat and flames.
June lost track of where down was as she tumbled through the air, her body riding the waves of heat and energy.
June landed hard on her back. The wind, again, knocked out of her. When the stars cleared from her vision she was staring up at the tree above her. The tree that was tipping in her direction.
She rolled – it fell right where she’d been. Sitting up with her hands secured behind her was surprisingly difficult. She had to get to the river before the next blow came. June froze as she searched for where to run.
Where the creature had been was a mass of blood, bone, and fur. Remains sprayed the area. Coated the trees and rocks.
“Are you injured?” The voice was deep and masculine.
June turned to look at the man who’d spoken. Her jaw almost hit the floor. He was a big man, broad shouldered, with a neatly trimmed red beard and long braided hair. It would have made the Vikings proud. If June didn’t know any better she would say that he was a Viking.
The man lifted a hand and reached toward her, but stopped short. Careful not to touch her.
A shiver ran through her body.
The man nodded, satisfied.
“I’m sorry. I should have asked permission first.” He looked away, his cheeks turning pink as embarrassment and shame coursed through him. Clearing his throat, he extended his hand and looked her in the eyes. “I am Master Hadrian.”
As if with magic, the manacles holding her hands behind her back clanked as they hit the ground.
Heat rushed to June’s face as she took his hand. “June.”
Instead of pulling her up, Master Hadrian bowed over her hand. “I owe you, and the people I placed you with an apology. I was tasked to keep watch and protect. I have failed you.” He whispered the last sentence so softly; June almost hadn’t heard it.
Withdrawing her hand, June shrugged, and stood. Uncomfortable with his intensity. Opening her mouth to reply she closed it again. She didn’t know how to respond. It wasn’t okay, nothing that just happened was okay.
June turned her back on Hadrian, peering in the direction of the village. “They need help.”
When Master Hadrian didn’t respond she turned to look at him. He was staring at her, his eyes unwavering. She had the sensation that he was peering into her soul, seeing what she was made of. Deciding if she was worthy.
After a few more pregnant seconds Master Hadrian nodded slowly. “I’ve already sent for the others. They’ll catch up and help those who were injured.” He was still staring at her.
The heat crept up June’s neck to settle into her cheeks again. “What?” Reaching up, June ran her hand along her skin. “Is there something on my face?”
Master Hadrian shook himself. “No. I just…” he looked away and coughed. “We’ll have to move you. It’s not safe here anymore.”
As Master Hadrian reached out a hand to grab her, June stepped back. He didn’t reach for her again.
She needed to think. Turning to face the river she stared at the blood, flesh, fur and bone covering the ground. Putting a hand to her lips she pressed them together thinking of the boy whose hands had been broken. To the man who had surely been killed.
“And what’s going to stop them from finding me in the next place you put me to keep me safe?” June gestured to the destruction. “Then this will happen again.” Casting her eyes around, a pang of sadness rippled through her. She caused this. Her resistance is what caused all this suffering. If she had swallowed her pride none of the villagers would have been harmed.
June shook her head. “No. I won’t run. I can’t stand by and do nothing anymore.”
When June looked back at Master Hadrian, she thought she saw a smile on his face, but it was gone by the time she blinked.
He nodded. The muscles on his chest expanded as he took a breath. “They…” He paused, seeming to consider. “My first offer hasn’t been retracted.”
Excited heat burned through June as she registered the meaning behind Master Hadrian’s words. She wouldn’t be helpless anymore. No more standing on the sidelines.
Master Hadrian coughed and looked away, his face turning red. “Or I can arrange for another teacher.” He paused, letting his words hang in the air. “If that would make you more comfortable.”
Master Hadrian was still looking at her with his icy blue eyes. His face betraying none of the emotion beneath the surface. But his eyes showed everything he was trying to hide.
He was attracted to her. It was in the way he looked at her. He was looking at something he wanted. Someone she wanted.
“I want the best.” June said.
“I am the best.” His response was calm.
June weighed his words, his tone, his eyes. He wasn’t boasting or trying to exaggerate his abilities to impress her as some men did. He was stating a fact. Water is wet, Master Hadrian is the best.
Lifting a hand, he held it palm first, three inches from her chest. “But you’ll be better.” A frown touched his eyes. “In almost every aspect of power.” He clicked his tongue. “There are three types of Immortality. You won’t have much skill in Mental Immortality.” An ugly emotion washed across his eyes so quick June wasn’t sure it had actually been there.
Master Hadrian lowered his hand. He was still looking her in the eyes.
“But you’ll be one of the most powerful Immortals that’s ever lived.” He grinned. “You’re strong enough to hold the Gersemi in your hands and crush them between your fingers.” He took a deep breath, his strong chest expanding. “You’ll make the Gersemi sweat. Make them pay for everything they’ve done to us.”
“What have they done to us?” June asked, worried about being used for some silly blood vendetta. She could hear it now, Three hundred years ago they killed some lord and now we’re locked in a blood feud. She would not be dragged into such an immature and petty conflict.
The smile was gone from his face and he was staring at her with uncomfortable intensity. He expected her to say something, to respond. But she wasn’t in this to make anyone fear her.
Master Hadrian extended his hand to her. “We go to the training grounds and I explain the rules.”
June hesitated, looking at his hand. If she took it, he would train her. If he was telling her the truth, she would be powerful and feared. Anything she wanted was within her reach. No more worrying about food or water. Or where she would sleep. But power was a double-edged weapon. It twisted those who used it as they wielded it. It changed them. Corrupted them.
Placing her hand in his she swore she would never let the power change her. She had to remember where she came from. Who she was fighting for.
Master Hadrian closed his fingers around hers and pulled her close. Energy surged. Ice cut down to her marrow. The world tilted and spun. Her vision went black for the briefest of moments. When her vision cleared, she was almost sitting in Master Hadrian’s lap. He was supporting her and they were standing on hard packed dirt. A black tower pointing to the sky.
June swayed her ears ringing.
Master Hadrian pulled her just a little closer, taking on more of her weight.
June put a hand to her head.
“Easy.” Master Hadrian lowered her to the ground. “Easy. It will pass.”
The ground was soft beneath her hands and knees. Warmed by the sun.
“Will it always be like that?” Slowly. Every so slowly. The ringing receded. The world stopped spinning and the white sparks faded away.
Master Hadrian pulled her hair back from her face. “Just breathe.” Standing he again offered his hand to her. “Rule one. You will always end sentences with the person’s rank and their name. Do you understand?”
June put her hand in his and allowed him to pull her to her feet. “Yes.” She paused, then added. “Master Hadrian.”