Reality. What was her reality?
She lay with eyes closed, mouth clenched against the pain that pulsed through her body. But though her abdomen felt as though fingers of flame laced through it, her mind was the opposite, alight with pure joy.
She was free! Free of the torment of the Malic’Uiel, free of their lies and deception, free from the poisonous chains they’d forged around her heart. She couldn’t help but bask in that knowledge. The physical pain in her body spoke to her humanity, to her weaknesses and failings, but it also spoke to her strengths. She’d beaten them. She’d done something no other man or woman before her had done.
Hope flared in her breast.
If she had reclaimed her mind, could her father as well?
The memory of his capture was as potent now as it had ever been, as if it had happened yesterday; she almost wished it had. Many months had passed since he’d been taken. She remembered the night vividly – the Phantom tearing him away, her father’s sacrifice, and her own screams as she tried to reach him before it was too late. But she’d failed and he’d paid the price.
She relived that memory and her experience of it as an onlooker, studying it but separating herself from it. Em was strong, a fighter. If she found her way back, so could he.
Reality. She needed to come back to it. Yes, she was free, but certainly not safe.
She forced her eyes open and scanned the area around her. She lay in a clearing surrounded by deep forest. Birds hopped between branches and their song filled the air.
Birds! She hadn’t seen a bird in so long. The sight filled her heart with gratitude. Beneath her, thick foliage acted as bedding for her battered body. She tried to sit up but hissed as pain shot through her. She almost laughed. Gilrich had stabbed her! What sweet justice for him, since she’d helped the Malic’Uiel enslave his mind.
Labored breathing drew her attention to two men in the clearing with her – well, one man and one monster, a Cadaver. She glanced over at the Cadaver – Gilrich – unconscious, there in the clearing. His breathing was labored, as if he struggled to get enough air, but he lived.
Gilrich’s mind had been taken by the Malic’uiel – his deformed body spoke to that. Her own body, once deformed as well, was now perfect. She nearly cried as she held her hand out in front of her, a hand that was wonderfully, beautifully human. As the Malic’Uiel had taken her mind, so they’d also taken her body. But, she now knew, when she ripped their chains from her mind, her body had also become free. She’d fought for her mind, for her soul, and won. Could Gilrich’s mine be freed as well?
As she pondered Gilrich’s fate, pieces of her last moments with the Malic’uiel fell into place, tiny bits at first, but quickly turning into an onslaught.
She’d been in the Citadel with her Master, Lord Passus, the Malic’Uiel she had been required to answer to while imprisoned by them. Though her was her master, he was not the Master. There was another Malic’Uiel who all the other answered to. From her time with them, she understood that the ‘lesser’ Malic’uiel were given control of the cities, and took the names of those cities, while the true Master, the leader of the Malic’Uiel, oversaw them all, ensuring success and compliance in her land, the land of Spero.
Gilrich was once her friend. He was once human. But he’d been tortured and twisted by Lord Passus until he was a Cadaver, a slave who existed only to do their bidding. He’d been tasked with taking her ‘to the brink’ as Lord Passus had called it. The Malic’Uiel needed her alive, but nearly dead was fine. Gilrich had done exactly that. She pressed her hand against her stomach; blood soaked the tunic and dripped through her fingers. Yes, he had done his job well. She flinched at the memory of his blade stabbing into her stomach.
Shortly after the attack, she’d begun to lose consciousness. But there was a light…it had come from her and protected her from Lord Passus. She drew her hand up, peering at the flesh as if she could see the light once more. She did not know what it was or how she’d gained its power, but that light had stopped them from harming her further.
Well, the light and Caden. He’d come, appearing out of nowhere, and taken her away from them. That memory was weak, as she’d been in and out of consciousness, but she could almost feel the strength of his arms around her now and the way her soul had longed for him.
Those final moments with the Malic’Uiel seemed surreal now, as if they had happened in another life.
But the three of them were here, in this clearing, alive and free. Caden lay next to her. His eyes were closed, but from the rise and fall of his chest she knew he was alive.
She realized he was awake when his hand found hers and squeezed. “We have to get out of here.” His voice was weak, shaky, but he pushed himself to his knees; his whole body shook with the effort. Face pale, he forced himself to stand, wheezing with every effort.
Gilrich was as ferocious as any Cadaver, and he’d attacked Caden, stabbing him repeatedly. Kyra watched his struggle, knowing she should be worried about his injuries, but she couldn’t seem to feel anything more than a sense of calm. And admiration. Caden had stepped into the lair of the enemy to take her from their grasp. He’d saved her life.
Blood still dripped through her fingers from the wounds in her stomach. It seeped from the wound, staining the grass beneath her. She held up her hand and watched as it slid down her wrist. A new reality began to take hold, and more memories of her final moments in captivity flooded her mind.
The light. Her light. It had taken Lord Passus, enveloping him with swirls of color and chaos. She’d felt his terror as it happened, but then the light obliterated him. He’d vanished and all the souls he’d trapped in his being exploded from him, finally free of his dark grip.
A rising sense of panic washed over her.
She’d destroyed him. She’d destroyed her master. She’d sworn to serve him, but then had done the opposite!
Guilt threatened to snare her, guilt and fear riding on the tide of panic. The Malic’Uiel do not forgive. They’d told her many, many times. She shoved the fear down. Lord Passus deserved his fate. She would not harbor guilt for him.
Glancing at Gilrich once more, her stomach clenched in a different kind of anxiety, threatened by something much closer than the Malic’Uiel. Gilrich had used her dagger against her. Would he do it again? It lay not far from him, covered in her blood.
Gripping the plants to her right she forced herself to roll over, coming to her knees in the same moment. Warmth bloomed on her stomach as blood pulsed from the wound. Caden was right. They had to get somewhere safe. They both needed help.
She struggled to her feet, stumbling near Gilrich to reclaim her dagger. He would not be using it against her again.
“Where do we go?” she asked Caden, wiping the blood from her weapon. Her voice, clear and calm, sounded strange to her. As a slave to the Malic’Uiel, she’d lost her voice; it had been guttural and harsh, grating in her own ears, as deformed as her body had been.
“We’re going to Tutis. That’s where the army is.”
Kyra clutched her stomach, her body hunched over. “They managed to take a city, then?” The voice didn’t matter. Her abdomen was on fire, and she felt like throwing up. Gilrich’s attack had left its mark.
“They did. And they freed the slaves beneath. Those men and women are the reason we won.”
Kyra swallowed hard, remembering a young child she’d encountered as prisoner to the Malic’Uiel, a child also named Caden. She’d been tasked to guard him and his mother. Following the demands of Lord Passus she had nearly sacrificed the child to them. But she couldn’t do it. His mother had been instrumental in helping her find hope in the middle of her own personal hell; she couldn’t let them have her child.
“Let’s hope we can save them all,” she murmured, hoping for a better life for young Caden and the others enslaved with him.
“We will,” Caden said, his jaw clenched in determination. “Give me your dagger.” He held out his hand, waiting for the weapon.
She nearly turned it over to him but stopped. “What are you going to do with it?” she asked, wary.
He gestured to Gilrich. “We can’t leave him alive.”
She immediately pulled back, holding the weapon behind her. “You’re not killing him,” she said. “He’s coming with us.”
“Are you mad?” Caden demanded. “He’s a Cadaver. He only follows their orders. He nearly killed you!”
She shook her head, lips pressed in a tight line. “The Cadaver nearly killed me. Gilrich did nothing.”
Caden glared at her, frustration evident. “You’ve lost your mind.”
She chuckled. “Those words are far more true than you realize. But I found something, too. I believe I can save him.”
Caden’s jaw dropped. In all their experience with Cadavers, none had shown that they could be saved. Once a human was enslaved by the Malic’Uiel, their mind became the target and their humanity whittled away until there was nothing left but a monster. The humanity died long before the body ever did. At least, that’s what Caden and the others believed. Kyra’s own experience – once a Cadaver and slave, now a human again – told her that they were wrong.
Kyra straightened, trying to breathe through the pain. “I was a Cadaver too, Caden. You didn’t see me, but I was as bad as any of them. Deformed, horrifying, longing for the will of the Malic’Uiel. I brought Gilrich to this fate.” She glanced at Gilrich’s body again, a single tear escaping. “I will not see him die because of me.”
Caden’s gaze skipped between Kyra and Gilrich. His fist was clenched and his jaw tight. The battle waged in his eyes.
She stepped closer to him, resting her hand on his arm. “Caden, Gilrich is your best friend. You can’t just leave him to this, to life as a Cadaver, and you can’t kill him; I will stop you.”
He met her eyes with his, holding them. “He nearly killed you. You may still die,” he whispered, his hand reaching to touch her bleeding abdomen. “The Gilrich I knew no longer exists.”
She smiled softly, gesturing to Gilrich’s body. “You have the power to see into his mind. Why don’t you find out for yourself if he’s still there?”
Caden’s unique power, transferred unintentionally from a Phantom desperately trying to live, gave him the ability into the minds of others, among other things. He’d helped her more than once using that skill.
“You want me to…connect…with that?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice losing its power. The blood flowed faster through her fingers now, and the trees began to spin. She sank to her knees, holding herself up with the hand that held her dagger. “Tell me he’s still there,” she whispered.
“Fine.” He stepped to Gilrich, resting his hand on his old friend’s head. Kyra watched while he closed his eyes, focusing his thoughts on whatever magic enabled him to read the minds of others.
It had been so long since she’d seen him. She let herself appreciate his humanness now. His thick brown hair had grown in the months since they’d been separated; it hung haphazardly across his forehead. He was taller than Girlich by a handspan or so, and his body was solid with strong shoulders and wiry muscles. If he were looking at her, his eyes would be gray; they would convey more than his words ever did. She couldn’t help but note the contrast between him and his once best friend.
Gilrich, still unconscious, did not look like a man. There was a time when he’d been her best friend as well. At that time, he was slight of build with light brown hair, an easy smile, and the ability to be happy no matter what. He always seemed to find the sun. But she’d lost that man to the Cadaver he’d become. Now, his spine was distorted with his neck jutting out in front of him creating a brutal hunch. His fingers were elongated, curved, and hardened; they looked like claws rather than the hands of a man. Even the bones in his legs and arms had slowly deformed as he’d embraced the Malic’Uiel. He wore a cloak, but she knew beneath the thick fabric his limbs would be twisted and knobby.
The worst part to look upon was his face. His kind blue eyes were gone. Instead, cloudy, colorless eyes bulged out of a face that looked as if it had been flattened against a wall and never recovered. Enough remained for him to be recognizable, but the Gilrich she’d loved was gone. Slowly she let her head drop, breathing to keep herself conscious.
She would just have to bring him back.
There was the voice again, the one carried through the trees. She realized after a moment that the voice was in her mind.
Yes? She asked.
Go to Caden.
She nodded, struggling to her feet to do the voice’s bidding. When she was next to him she slumped back to her knees.
He jumped at her presence next to him, dropping his hand from Gilrich’s head. “He’s still there,” he murmured, not meeting her gaze.
“You’ve connected with a Cadaver before. Is he as far gone as that man was?”
When he didn’t elaborate, she pushed further. “Why does that bother you?”
“It doesn’t,” he said, “but it scares me. I don’t dare hope, Kyra. You believe the impossible.”
The silence stretched on between them, an invisible ribbon of his anxiety. Kyra finally spoke. “I came back, Caden. I was him. And I came back.”
Caden was quiet for a few moments, but then he took her hand and squeezed it tight. “You came back,” he whispered.
“And so will he.”
Finally, his eyes met hers and she saw the depths of their pain. “He may, but at what cost? How long do we force him to suffer this monstrous existence on…on what? Hope?”
“If he can be saved, so can the others.”
Caden hesitated, grappling with himself. She understood his conflict. To end the life of the man they both loved was a cruelty to all of them. But to leave him alive, to leave his soul trapped as a Cadaver, was a different kind of cruelty.
“Just give me time,” she said. “I don’t ask for forever. I just ask for time. Let’s see if he shows improvement. If I am wrong, we will not leave him in this state.”
“He will suffer, Kyra. He won’t be given freedom in Tutis.”
She glanced at the Cadaver – Gilrich – and her chest tightened. “I know,” she said. “But I don’t know any other way.” She swayed as a wave of dizziness washed over her. Pressing her hand against her stomach, she clenched her jaw as pain followed the dizziness.
Caden tried to hide his fear as he slumped against him. “Okay,” he agreed hastily. “I’ll talk to General Prait. Just don’t die on me!”
“I won’t die,” she mumbled.
The expletive that followed barely registered in her mind. The dizziness wanted to take her. “Get us to Tutis, Caden,” she said, the words slurred. She knew he could do it. He’d gotten them here, to this clearing, away from the Malic’Uiel. With his power, it would be easy for him to teleport them.
“I can’t,” he said, eyes wild and desperate. “I’m weak. My energy is depleted.”
Only now did she see the full extent of his injuries. Gilrich had been thorough when he’d attacked Caden. Multiple stab wounds in his left arm and near his shoulder bled onto his tunic. The most vital parts of Caden’s body had been missed, but his skin was ashen and she knew he’d lost a lot of blood – too much blood. That loss coupled with the strength he’d used to get them here…he was right. He wouldn’t have what he needed to transport them to Tutis.
You must give him your strength. The voice returned, giving counsel now.
Kyra nodded, responding to the voice though it only lived in her head. She flattened her hand against his palm. “Take what you need from me. I know you can do it.”
He shook his head, his voice hard. “I’m not Phantom.”
“No, you’re not. But you have their power. Take my strength to get us there.”
“If I take from you, you may not make it.”
“If you don’t, none of us will make it.”
Caden ran his fingers along her palm, his jaw tight in indecision. “I could kill you,” he whispered.
Slowly, resolve hardened his features as he warred with himself. If they stayed, they would all die. If he trusted her and did as she requested…maybe. Maybe they could live. He reached to touch Gilrich’s still shoulder. “You sure about this?” he asked.
He inhaled deeply, then let the breath out in a burst, his eyes locked on hers. His grip tightened around her palm while his power flowed into her. She forced her body to relax, forced her mind to open. His fire raced through her body. Pulling what it needed from hers to fuel him. As it spread, she weakened, but she didn’t take her eyes from his, trusting that he could do this. Her previous sense of peace returned, and she knew, somehow, that they’d be okay.
The world faded around them, the trees shimmered and then disappeared entirely. In the same moment, the walls of Tutis began to take shape, first a blur but then the blur sharpened, the city coming into focus. The closer they got the weaker Kyra felt. Tutis faded in and out of her vision. Finally, the city gates shimmered into existence.
Gilrich remained unconscious while Kyra collapsed, fighting the darkness threatening to consume her.
“Kyra!” Caden said, shaking her shoulders roughly. “You promised I wouldn’t kill you. Don’t you dare let go!”
Kyra gripped his hand while blackness fluttered at the edge of her vision. The world swirled around her. She shivered as cold washed over her.
Protect the city. The voice spoke with authority. Do it now or none of you will make it.
“I can’t,” Kyra whispered.
You have to.
Kyra glanced at the city walls. Then she found Caden’s panic-stricken gaze.
“I can’t,” she whispered before the blackness engulfed her.