She was maintaining her distance, staying just out of sight from the procession of soldiers and prisoners hiking through the woods. Peter could sense her on the edge of his consciousness as she shadowed them with stealth and cunning, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. He was glad the tigress hadn’t been captured along with the rest of them, as it was the best chance any of them had for rescue.
He tried to split his mind between his link with the tigress and listening in on the conversation taking place near the front of the line. Thor was walking immediately behind Max and Finn, both of whom had been handcuffed and were being escorted by one soldier each, with a rifle trained on them at all times.
“Thor, you don’t understand what’s going on,” Max pleaded, glancing over his shoulder at Thor, smiling hopefully. “We’re friends, aren’t we? Can’t we talk about this?”
“I’m sorry, Max, but this is far beyond me now,” Thor replied, shaking his head slightly. “Odin has demanded you be taken into custody, and you can’t honestly be asking me to go against his orders, are you?”
“Max, stop trying,” Finn grumbled when Max opened his mouth again. “We both know Thor won’t budge until Odin does. We’re going to have to see if we can convince Odin when we meet with him. I assume he’ll be coming to see us personally.”
“It is his prerogative to interview heads of state before their executions,” Thor conceded with a grim frown.
“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” Max muttered.
“Max, you and Finn are lucky you weren’t killed on the spot,” Thor spat, his eyes growing hard. “There is an extermination order for humans in effect, and it is only a matter of time before you all will be killed. Only your rank prevents your immediate death.”
Peter sensed a change in his surroundings and immediately became alert. The soldiers turned toward their commander at his sudden change in emotion. The tigress inched closer, taking the opportunity of the distraction to close the distance between them.
“What about—” Max started but was cut off by the roar of the tigress as she burst out of the trees, heading straight for the soldier guarding Peter. She pounced on the unfortunate man’s back and bore him to the ground, angry jaws clamping down on his throat and cutting off his scream almost before it had even begun.
“Hey, what—” Thor began and then stopped short as he turned around and saw the tiger. Nevala seized the opportunity to crouch low and sweep the legs out from under the soldier guarding him. As he came back to a standing position he spun on his heel, turning his handcuffed wrists around so his palms were facing toward Thor and unleashed a torrent of fire from his hands.
Peter was shocked by Nevala’s maneuver and barely felt it when the tigress moved behind him and bit through the thick chain holding his wrists bound, breaking it in her powerful jaws. He realized he was free a split second later and started toward the trees.
Peter glanced over his shoulder and saw Micah shift his hands slightly, pulling them loose of the handcuffs before tackling the guard watching over Tristan. “Tristan, Peter, run!” he called before beginning to shift his form into one more suitable for combat, his fingernails becoming vicious claws and his teeth extending into gruesome fangs.
Nevala let out another gout of flame before running after Peter, earning a wrathful cry from Thor. “Hunt them down! Capture or kill.”
Bullets began to fly as Peter hurled himself into the underbrush. He had the urge to shift into his tiger form for extra speed but as soon as he reached for it he realized it was no longer an option. Where his lycanthropy had been was now his link with the tigress, and she was right behind him, trying to dodge the bullets as well as he was.
He heard sound of pursuit behind him as the soldiers crashed into the underbrush. Then he heard noise to the side and risked a glance to see Nevala running along a parallel path to his own. Nevala met his eyes for a moment and then dropped to the ground, disappearing from sight. Peter shook his head with bewilderment and pressed forward, not understanding Nevala’s intentions.
The tigress fell into stride next to him growling as she shared in his fear. Neither of them were prepared for the explosion which erupted behind them and knocked them to the ground. Peter struggled to his feet, his ears ringing as he turned back to see the raging inferno which had overtaken the forest he had just run through. Nevala stood to the side of the immolated wood, his hands now free and raised before him as he searched for another target.
Peter could just make out two bodies in the midst of the flames, neither of which was moving, and Nevala seemed as satisfied as Peter with the outcome. Nevala rushed toward Peter and pointed off in the distance. Peter turned the indicated way, hearing the sound of shouting and saw the occasional blast of fire poking tongues of reddish-orange through the trees.
“Tristan,” Peter whispered. “Let’s go help him.”
They moved toward Tristan together, and increased their speed when they heard Tristan yell and the sounds of his struggle ceased. Peter rushed forward, overcome by his need to help his friend and stepped out into a small clearing only to be pulled back and down by Nevala. Peter protested until a barrage of bullets hit the tree over his head.
“They’re cutting us off,” Nevala said, raising his head above the bushes for a moment before crouching again to avoid another barrage. “There’s more of them than before, and they’re in better positions. This is going to be more difficult.”
“We have to rescue the others,” Peter protested. “We can’t give up now.”
“We’ve lost the element of surprise, and there are a lot more of them than there are of us,” Nevala replied, shaking his head. “Plus, they have hostages. We need to bide our time.”
Peter opened his mouth to respond when the haunting cry of a wolf howl pierced the air. It was a warning; a promise of death sending a shiver down Peter’s spine. He looked up at Nevala, who was peering through the underbrush at the soldiers on the other side.
“They’re moving away . . .” Nevala whispered in disbelief.
“What was that howl about, Nevala?” Peter asked nervously.
“I wish I knew.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Micah stared down the barrel of the flamethrower centered on his body, glaring at the soldier who held it. He had managed to kill three soldiers before they had turned the weapon on him, but it hadn’t been the weapon which had given him the most pause. It had been the soldiers putting guns to Ethan and Zach’s heads and promising to kill them if Micah didn’t stand down.
He took the soldiers at their word and stopped fighting. At least Tristan, Peter, and Nevala had escaped, and that would have to do for now. Micah would figure out how to help the others escape as soon as he found another opportunity, and with any luck his friends would be working on freeing them from the outside.
His handcuffs were secured around his wrists again as a score of soldiers returned to the main group. Micah smiled when he didn’t immediately see any of his friends among them, but then his smile faltered as Tristan was brought in by the last of the soldiers, hogtied instead of having only his wrists bound.
“We lost the doctor and Nevala,” the lead soldier said as Thor turned to receive their report, “but we found the other phoenix.”
“Why are you not still hunting them?” Thor asked, his face stony as he glanced at Tristan and then back to the soldier.
“Fenrir’s Fangs haunt these woods, Master Thor,” the soldier replied, grimacing. Thor looked to the woods, his expression clearly troubled. Micah filed that bit of information away for later as Thor nodded slowly and turned back to his soldiers.
“Who was responsible for watching Nevala?” He asked. All but one of the soldiers took a step away from the one who didn’t move. The lone soldier barely had time to glance at his fellows nervously before Thor raised his rifle and started firing. The soldier’s body shook and shuddered as he cried out in pain, but those cries were quickly cut short as he fell to the ground, but Thor continued to empty his entire clip into the soldier’s lifeless body.
Micah watched in grim silence, unable to tear his eyes away from the pointless death he had witnessed. Zach, Ethan, and Max each had to look away, but when Finn caught him looking, he nodded in understanding to Micah.
Thor lifted his rifle as he methodically switched his expended clip for a new one, meeting the eyes of his soldiers who watched him with rapt attention. “If anyone else lets their guard down,” he growled, “I’ll kill them. Understood?” Each of the soldiers saluted Thor, even the one carrying Tristan dropped him roughly to the ground in order to offer the gesture. “We’ll worry about Nevala and the doctor later,” Thor said after receiving the salutes. He glanced at the woods again, his eyes unnerved as they peered into the shadows. “We move forward. Let’s go.”
The soldiers took up a tighter formation than earlier as the group began to move forward again. Micah felt the flamethrower practically at his back as they marched onward, but there were several other soldiers watching him as well. With less prisoners to guard and the promise of death fresh on the soldiers’ minds, Micah was sure without having to look around that each of his companions had equal attention. There would be no opportunity to escape for the time being.
They marched for over an hour until they arrived at a small alpine village. The place seemed nearly abandoned, but then Micah started to see the occasional form of a soldier moving among the buildings. Whatever this village had been before, it was now a military camp.
Thor led them to the edge of the village and then turned to address the prisoners, obvious scorn in his voice. “We’ve arrived. Welcome to your home, at least for now.”
“For now?” Finn asked.
“Until we give you over to Oberon,” Thor replied with a sneer.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Are you trying to hide from me, Jacob Walker?”
Jacob looked up at the sound of Oberon’s voice. He hadn’t sensed Oberon’s approach, which caught him off guard. Jacob could almost always sense the life force of other living things, but Oberon was blank space. It was almost as if he had no soul. He wouldn’t be surprised if that were true.
After their last conversation, Jacob had taken refuge in the garden of the manor, hoping the more natural surroundings would help ease his nerves. He had expected Oberon to approach him eventually, and he hadn’t really been trying to hide. “Why would I waste my time on such a useless endeavor?” he asked, turning to glare at Oberon.
“An excellent question, but yet you refuse to yield to my proposal,” Oberon said with a conceited smirk. “You still believe your friends are capable of defeating me. I assure you they cannot.”
“You’re rather full of yourself,” Jacob said, snorting. “Has anyone ever told you that?”
“The entire race of the Phoenix, and the entire race of the Djinn once told me that. Now they are almost all gone, destroyed by me,” Oberon said as he leaned over a rose bush that had likely been well cared for years before, but had grown wild in abandonment. A dry season had made the blossoms wither as the bush slowly died. Oberon plucked a dead blossom from the bush. The blossom brightened in his hands and became a fully alive and vibrant white rose. Oberon lifted the flower to his nose and took a long sniff before adding, “You won’t mind if I consider your words insignificant, will you?”
“What exactly are you expecting from me, Oberon?” Jacob asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “I can’t even leave this manor house. It is where I haunt now. How would you expect me to help you find my friends even if I were to consider helping you?”
“It is better to know your enemy directly, if possible,” Oberon replied casually. “You could tell me a great deal about them.”
“Do you not consider my friends as irrelevant as I?” Jacob scoffed.
“Not all of them. Merlin, Tristan . . .” Oberon trailed off with a shrug as he returned the rose to the bush. It seemed to reattach itself to the broken branch, and the bush slowly started to return to life. “There are those who can still turn things in your favor.”
“Now I know for sure you intend to kill me,” Jacob said with a dry chuckle. “You wouldn’t have admitted such a thing if you thought I might be able to tell my friends anything.”
“It doesn’t matter, Jacob. I’ve been informed of your friend’s capture,” Oberon replied, finally turning toward him. “They will be brought to me in a matter of days, and then all your words will be useless. Besides, I find you a more enjoyable conversationalist than any other I’ve spoken to of late.”
“You long for human companionship?” Jacob asked, raising an eyebrow.
Oberon’s eyes grew hard, though his grin widened in contrast. “I long for the companionship of one who doesn’t seek to placate my every desire. I long for the companionship of one who understands immortality, even the curse of it, for it is a heavier burden to bear than most would realize. I want Merlin.”
“Merlin? He is one of your greatest enemies,” Jacob replied incredulously. “He’s been fighting against you this whole time!”
“You’re still young for an immortal existence, Jacob,” Oberon said dismissively. “Eons have passed since Merlin and I were together, but we were together once. We wanted to remake the world, while others stood in our way. We overcame them together, side by side, until Arthur and Scheherazade stood in our way. They stole Merlin from me.”
“So this whole plot has been about revenge?” Jacob said, shaking his head in disgust. “You’ve been hunting Ivan and Nevala this whole time? You instigated the coup which almost destroyed humanity, bringing the monsters out into the open so you could find them.”
“You’re perceptive, I’ll give you that,” Oberon conceded, chuckling. “It took centuries to put the plan in motion, just as it took centuries to force the nonhumans into hiding in the first place when Merlin and I were together, in order to allow the humans time and opportunity to progress. But I have all the time I need. Avalon keeps me alive.” He gestured to the rose bush and said, “It is the land of eternal summer.”
“Then what help can I possibly be to you?” Jacob asked.
“I need to know how Merlin has changed. I need to know if he’s still as he was when I loved him, or if he . . .” Oberon stopped, overcome by sudden emotion. It was the first time Jacob had seen him truly off balance. After taking a moment to regain his composure Oberon continued, “I need to know if he’s worth saving.”
“I can’t answer your question,” Jacob replied, shaking his head.
“Yes.” Oberon nodded. “I know that, but in the asking I may make some sense of it all.”
“Do you believe you are wrong for what you have done?” Jacob asked, hopeful he was seeing some small trace of sanity in Oberon which he could nurture and turn to his advantage.
“No.” Oberon shook his head, staring at the rose bush as he gently stroked one of the blossoms. “I was trying to create a world in which humans could live in peace. They supported our coup, and all the elves are descendants of those first humans who rose to help us . . .” His voice trailed off as his eyes grew distant, and when he spoke again his voice was quiet and carried the weathering of age and experience. “I was trying to create a world where gods were benevolent, rather than cruel, and the only way I could do that was by sealing all the other gods away.”
“But now all the humans are being destroyed. How could that possibly fit into your goals?” Jacob asked.
“They didn’t earn my benevolence,” Oberon muttered, gripping the rose by the stem in white-knuckled grip. “Only the elves are worthy of my love.”
“You’re insane, Oberon,” Jacob said, shaking his head.
“And you’re dead,” Oberon remarked, meeting Jacob’s gaze. They held the stare for a moment and then Oberon turned away, walking back to the manor house. Jacob watched him go and then glanced at the rose bush. It was dead and withered, a husk of the life it had once held, and it would never hold vibrant blossoms again.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Zach yawned and stretched. Despite their predicament, he was weak from the blood loss and the strenuous march through the woods. As soon as they’d arrived at the room in the basement of a small church he took one of the three cots and settled down to sleep. He doubted there would be any attempt at escape or rescue made in the next few hours, and it was time to recover some of his energy.
He barely noticed as the door was closed and locked behind them, though he did notice the strangeness of the room before he closed his eyes. One of the cots was filled with a large pile of rags, and the floor was inscribed with all manner of runes which were completely unfamiliar to him. Tristan seemed to take special interest in the runes but made no remark about them as Zach lay down and tried to make himself comfortable.
Even though his eyes were closed and the cot wasn’t unbearable, his mind began to whirl with what had occurred over the past year of his life, from the death of Corban and Tristan’s capture to his brief time with the Icarus Confederacy. During all of that time he hadn’t felt in control of his life, and this was no different. Despite his need for sleep he found himself muttering to no one in particular, “I’m getting a little sick of feeling like a prisoner.”
Even though Zach had not been looking for a response, Tristan gave him one. “Tell me about it. This is crazy. What do they want from us anyway?”
“I’m curious why they didn’t kill me,” Zach said as he rolled onto his side, deciding a conversation would be more important than sleep. “What was all that talk they had about killing humans?”
“It’s because even though Thor has to talk big, he doesn’t hold any particular animosity toward humankind. As long as he was bringing Max Derringer and Finn Turner into custody, he could excuse keeping you alive as well.” The pile of rags on the other cot shifted and rolled over, and a young man with long black hair and sparkling green eyes regarded them with interest. Zach nearly jumped out of his skin as he struggled to sit up, completely caught off guard he had mistaken a person for nothing more than a pile of rags.
“Who are you?” Tristan asked suspiciously. “How do you know so much about us?”
“My name is Loki,” The man replied, shifting slowly into a sitting position. “At least that’s what they call me. I used to work closely with Thor and Odin, but I betrayed them when they ordered the execution of humankind.” He shrugged as he leaned against the wall. “My former name is irrelevant.”
“Is that why you’re imprisoned with us?” Tristan asked, taking up a defensive posture between Loki and Zach. “They wanted to throw all the humans together?”
“I’m no more human than you, phoenix,” Loki replied, rolling his eyes. “I’m a goblin, proud as can be.”
Tristan became even tenser as he took another step closer to Zach and away from Loki. “No offense, but the last goblin we crossed paths with wasn’t exactly friendly. Why should we trust you?”
“Oh, so you’re going to judge me based off of your past experience with my race?” Loki asked, raising an eyebrow. He snickered and shook his head. “Perhaps I was wrong. You are human.”
Some of the tension faded from Tristan’s body. “I’m sorry,” he sighed. “I shouldn’t have judged you too quickly.”
Zach was content to observe the conversation rather than directly participate. He was intrigued by Loki, and wanted to observe him before trying to speak. “It’s irrelevant to me,” Loki replied, shrugging. “I was only making a point. Little escapes my attention, which is how I knew you came here in the company of Finn and Max. The guards were talking as your group approached. I also know you were recently in the company of an old friend of mine. Nevala?”
“What do you know of him?” Tristan asked, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “You call him an old friend but I’ve never heard him mention anyone by the name of Loki. I only know that name from some of the books I read as a kid. You’re Thor’s brother, right?”
“We worked side by side, not long ago. I suppose that’s what earned me the name when I betrayed them,” Loki replied, chuckling dryly. “Nevala and I also worked together, long ago. Things were different then. I cannot sense him in this place, did he not accompany you?”
“No,” Tristan replied cautiously. “He managed to escape.”
“Then we may have a chance yet,” Loki said, nodding to himself.
“A chance?” Zach asked, his intrigue by the hope he heard in Loki’s voice causing him to break his silence.
“Nevala is a powerful phoenix; likely the most powerful phoenix alive,” Loki said pointedly. “He will surely be an asset to Fenrir, who has been orchestrating my rescue for weeks.”
“Why do they keep you alive?” Tristan asked.
“I’m a political prisoner, same as you. As long as they have the threat of killing me, Fenrir won’t act,” Loki replied. “His forces are growing, but the size of the force is irrelevant if all it does is wait to act. Odin is hoping Fenrir will be held at bay until he is able to marshal his forces and wipe Fenrir’s resistance from the face of Europe.”
“So, you’re hoping Nevala will change that?” Tristan asked. “How?”
“Nevala can move in quicker than anyone, and hit harder than they’ll ever expect,” Loki replied, nodding his head more emphatically now. “Especially now that he’s been reborn.”
“How do you know about that?” Zach asked, starting to share in Tristan’s suspicion.
“I admit, I haven’t been completely truthful with you,” Loki said, laughing nervously. “Have you ever heard of telepathy, Zach?”
“You can read people’s minds?” Zach asked, intrigued by the thought. “Prove it.”
“I just did,” Loki said smugly. “You haven’t told me your name, have you? No? Need more convincing? Fine, right now you’re thinking I’m a narcissistic douche bag but can’t help but feel insatiably attracted to me.”
Zach’s face grew hot as he blushed a deep shade of crimson. He shook his head emphatically as he looked between Loki and Tristan as he felt a similar amount of blood rush to his groin. “B-but . . .” he stammered and then shook his head one final time in protest. “No!”
“Zach, even I can see your boner,” Tristan said, rolling his eyes as he returned his attention to Loki. “It’s hardly a secret. Try something else.”
“Fine,” Loki said with a tight smile. “You’re wondering why Ivan told you to run instead of fight. You’re wondering why your friends, Luke, Hayden, and Jacob had to die. You’re worried about your lover Micah, and why he hasn’t been brought to the same place you were.”
“That’s all true,” Tristan confirmed, nodding. “But you also said ‘little escapes your attention’, how do I know if you’re telling the truth about reading my mind and didn’t just pick that all up by observation?”
“You won’t, but does that matter?” Loki asked, shrugging. “I can still be of help to you.”
“Perhaps,” Tristan said slowly. “What else can you tell us?”
“That’s the spirit,” Loki said, clapping his hands together in excitement as he looked from Tristan and then met Zach’s eyes, his own sparkling with mischief. “I think this will be a very profitable time together.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Micah wasn’t surprised they had split the group up, but he was surprised he and Ethan had been kept together. He had assumed they would keep him in isolation, given what he had done to the soldiers on the way here, but it seemed they had other plans for him. The two were led down the center street in the town until they came to what appeared to have once been a small doctor’s office from the outside.
They were shoved through the doorway and found the place had been completely remodeled into a laboratory. Ethan’s eyes surveyed the room with a look of recognition as he looked at the different pieces of equipment. That look quickly became one of interest as his eyes settled on the room’s single occupant, a man standing over a low table, looking at a series of test tubes and scribbling down notes on a clipboard, a small crossbow-like device hanging from the belt at his hip.
“Where the fuck are we?” Micah asked, sharing a look with Ethan.
“You’re in my laboratory . . .” The man said as he turned around. Micah’s blood ran hot as he looked into the face of his father, Kyle. His father had died long ago, and he had only known one being to wear that face since then, a shape shifter he had last crossed paths with in Seattle and who was responsible for the death of Micah’s real parents. Micah started toward the man even as the crossbow-like device was raised and pointed his way. “Hello, Micah,” the man said with a sneer as he pulled the trigger, firing a cord which traveled through the air like bolas until it struck Micah and wrapped around his body.
Micah knew immediately that the cord was similar to Indrus’ cords used for hunting shape shifters, and he knew struggling against the bindings wouldn’t get him anything but pain. The shape shifter wearing Kyle’s face walked toward Micah as Micah growled up at him. “You! Bastard, I’m going to kill you!”
“I sincerely doubt that,” the shape shifter replied, “Not in your present state. I’m afraid you and I were never properly introduced. My name is Timothy. After that bastard Indrus killed my partner, I came back and learned what I could about his work. I began by analyzing the cord Indrus used to bind my partner, hoping I’d be able to use it to hunt him and you down for your betrayal.” He shook his head and chuckled as he stared down at Micah with contempt. “If I had only known then that I could get an unlimited supply of such devices by merely allying myself with the Elves.”
Micah caught movement from Ethan out of the corner of his eye and tried to keep Timothy’s attention. “You talk too much,” he growled. “Did anyone ever tell you that?”
“Is that so?” Timothy replied, amused. “I think you’re going to find the times I’m quiet are the ones you have to worry about. You—” Ethan lunged forward, reaching for the bare flesh on Timothy’s arm. Timothy moved fluidly out of the way as Ethan stumbled forward and into one of the tables. As Ethan recovered, Timothy reached into one of his pockets and withdrew a syringe filled with a yellow liquid, taking a quick step toward Ethan and injecting it into Ethan’s neck.
Ethan dropped to the floor, unmoving as Timothy looked down at him with the same amused expression from before. “That’s enough out of you, Holmes. You thought to surprise me, did you? I’m going to love dissecting you.”
“What did you do to him!?” Micah roared as he struggled against the cord binding him, shifting in an attempt to make his form capable of slipping out of the cord. The cord sensed him shifting and tightened even more, causing waves of intense pain to course through Micah’s body.
“Interesting,” Timothy said as he set the syringe down and leaned over Micah. “You’re willing to endure the excruciating pain of the cords digging into your flesh, just to get to your injured friend—”
“I’ll kill you!” Micah growled through gritted teeth.
“Will you, now? And how exactly do you propose to do that?” Timothy asked as he reached for another object from a nearby table. He held it up in the light above Micah, showing the arrow which had unmistakably come from Indrus Krane’s personal collection. “You think the cord is the only thing I stole from Indrus?”
“That’s . . .” Micah stopped struggling as he realized the arrow was likely poisoned with the same poison Indrus had used to kill dozens of shape shifters over the years. “I swear, you haven’t beaten me yet. Threaten me all you want, but one day you’ll let your guard down and I’m going to get to you.”
“Cute,” Timothy said, laughing. “Sleep now.” He leaned forward with the arrow, his face contorted in a wicked sneer.
“What, I’m not struggling!” Micah protested as the arrow came ever closer to his flesh. His heart skipped a beat as true fear took hold. Timothy pressed the arrowhead against Micah’s flesh, and the sneer widened further. “Wait!” Micah protested one last time, but Timothy didn’t care and thrust the arrowhead into the flesh of Micah’s leg.If Micah had thought the pain of the cord digging into his flesh had been intense, it was nothing compared to the feeling of the poison entering into his veins and destabilizing his flesh. His sight disappeared first, followed quickly by his other senses until only his sense of touch remained. Then this faded too until he could sense nothing at all.
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