“Time to go.”
No way! “I’m racer-ready. Let’s stay and help.”
“You’re that eager to die again?”
Hey! “I’ve got skills.” Both Killian and Archer worked with me before—
My shoulders hunch as a sense of dejection pierces me.
“You have zero skills,” Deacon says, merciless. “Right now you’re like an infant. All you can do is cry and crap your pants. So...” He turns, stabs an incoming ML. “If Her Majesty is ready to continue her travels...”
How can he stand to help me? Archer was his best friend, and I put him in the line of fire by requesting a Troikan army be sent to save Killian, who still defends Myriad despite being beaten by his bosses, and Sloan, who secretly had already made covenant with the enemy.
Archer wasn’t just a Laborer, sent to the Land of the Harvest to protect his human charges. He wasn’t just a negotiator of covenant terms or a guide for those who had signed with Troika. He was a man of great integrity, honor and kindness. A rarity. A hero in a time when villains are the norm.
Archer loved me when I was unlovable. Time and time again he could have disrespected me with a lie. It would have been easier for us both. Instead he told the truth, no matter how painful. He abandoned a centuries-old feud with his greatest enemy to help me. In the end, he died taking a blow meant for me.
The hunch in my shoulders deepens. “Yes,” I say softly. “Let’s go.”
Deacon slings an arm around my waist. We dematerialize in a blaze of Light and reappear—
I inhale sharply. We’re standing in the center of a crystal bridge. Before us is a crimson-colored waterfall framed by a wall of glistening ruby geodes. The layered sediment resembles feathers; those feathers stretch out on both sides, creating the illusion of wings. Framing those wings are stones of topaz, jasper and beryl.
The architecture is stunning, far too perfect to be man-made or even nature-made. Intelligent creation.
There are no Troikans or Myriadians here. No battles. Just me and Deacon and the cool kiss of mist on my cheeks. A scent sweeter than manna—sweeter even than Killian—permeates the air.
“Now that we’re alone...” Deacon gets in my face, snapping, “Your first day in the Everlife, you aided Myriad. You protected the guy who was killing my soldiers. Soldiers who risked their lives to save you.”
I look away from him, unable to meet his gaze. Shame is a deluge inside me, and my confidence crumbles like a condemned building. “Killian killed his own soldiers, too. He—”
“You’re still protecting him!” Deacon bellows.
I bow my head. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not. If you could go back, you’d do it all over again.” His tone flattened, but even worse, his words were dead-on. “I told you there’s a chance Archer will come back to us, and there is. A very small chance. Every year, the names of the people who die are placed in the Book of New Life. Troikan citizens vote for a slain spirit to exit the Rest. It’s called the Resurrection. But we lost a Conduit this year, too. Conduits always win.”
My hopes lift...and crash. “Maybe we can convince everyone to vote for Archer instead?” I love the big goof with all my heart. I want more seconds, days, weeks with him. I want years! Decades! “We can do anything if we—”
“Put our heads together? Work hard enough? Have faith?” He sneers at me. “Unsuccessful people work themselves into the grave every day. And have faith in what, Ten? Ourselves? Last time I checked, neither one of us had the ability to perform a miracle.”
I wither, part of me wishing I could blame Fate for our predicament. If everything happened for a reason and our actions couldn’t change what’s coming, I wouldn’t have to carry the blame. But every decision matters, leading down a specific road, and I know it.
“What do you want me to do?” I ask. “Tell me, and I’ll do it.”
“Don’t bother.” Still he shows me no mercy. “What you do tomorrow doesn’t change what you did today.”
Sorrow floods me, drowns me, and I wrap trembling arms around my middle.
At both the best and worst of times, my mind does one of two things: obsesses over numbers or drafts a poem.
Guess what I do now?
I am Ten, the completion of a cycle. Composed of two numbers. One and zero. One: solitary. Without companionship. Zero: neither a negative nor a positive, just a whole lot of nothing...like my status right now.
Ten out of ten people hate me right now.
Ten out of ten people will die during their lifetime.
The two most popular numbers in the world are three and seven. 3 + 7 = 10. Three is known as the trinity...or troika. Spirit, soul and body. Seven is often called the perfect number. Seven continents, seven layers of skin—three main layers, with four others in between—and seven colors in a rainbow. Seven notes of sound. Seven dimensions and directions—two opposite directions for each dimension, plus the center...the static...the one that never changes.
Everything has changed for me.
Deacon scrubs a hand down his face. “At least the battle in the Land of the Harvest ended the moment you cleared the guard tower.”
“I’m glad.” There would be no more deaths because of decisions I made. Not today, at least.
He stares at me for a long while. “Here’s what is going to happen. I’m taking you into Troika, where your family and friends are waiting to greet you. You’ll spend a week exploring the realm, getting to know the land and the people, and you’ll attend a welcome party for those who recently experienced Firstdeath. Then you’ll begin your training.”
I’m to become a General. Actually a Conduit, the highest type of General. I’m supposed to save my realm from the horrors of Myriad’s darkness.
There are six main positions in Troika—General, Leader, Headhunter, Laborer, Messenger and Healer—with hundreds of sub-positions under each.
Six positions, just as there are six fundamental virtues: love, wisdom, truth, goodness, mercy and justice.
“Through it all,” he adds, “you’ll stay away from me. I can’t stand the sight of you.”
Sandpaper rubs my throat raw. “Very well.” I owe him. I’ll respect his wishes—even if I’m currently losing respect for him. Troikans praise the merits of forgiveness and lament the hazards of retaliation. Two reasons I picked the realm. Two reasons I forsook Killian.
Am I a fool?
And did I really just think the word Troikans rather than we? I sigh. I’m part of the family, even if I feel alone.
Not that feelings are reliable. Feelings rarely provide a realistic picture, and often lead to destruction. I have to act on my heart-knowledge: what the heart understands, even if the mind—or logic—doesn’t.
Hello, spiritual law. With Sloan, I acted on my feelings. What I dished, I’m now eating. Today’s chef is Deacon.
Ann-nn-nd my shoulders roll in a little more. If left unchecked, my feelings can be a weapon more dangerous than a gun or a knife. They can send me sprinting down the wrong path and put me in the wrong place at the wrong time. They can hold me in darkness, blinding me to Light. They can make me soar one moment, and send me crashing the next. I must rise above. Must do what’s right even when everything around me is wrong.
I won’t forget again.
Deacon waves at the waterfall. “This is the Veil of Wings. The only way into Troika. Troikans can pass through without worry. If a Myriadian tries, he will burn to ash.”
Tremors shake me. Message received. If I attempt to bring Killian inside, I’ll kill him.
The weight of my decision to stand with one realm and rise against the other...to put everything I have, everything I am, into a single cause...to abandon the boy willing to kill for me, even willing to die for me...suddenly assails me. Panic crawls from the ashes of my despair, and slays my calm.