Once, these two boys worked together to save me from a madwoman, but Archer was the go-between. Deacon and Killian will never work together again, will they? They will never fully trust each other. One realm can’t trust the other. Too many betrayals litter the past.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. I won’t abandon my friends when they need me most. I peer at Killian. “I’ll stay. I’ll help.”
“Help?” He sneers at me. “Don’t kid yerself, lass. Ye’ll get hurt, and I’ll be forced to watch. You are no longer mine to protect.” His bitterness creates an invisible wall between us. He turns and slips inside his Shell. “Go! Before it’s too late.”
No longer mine...
The pain I felt before? Nothing compared to this. “I’m sorry.” I did this. I broke us—broke him. The boy who risked his life to save mine.
Help him, help Troika. Two needs. One will always negate the other.
“An apology without a change in behavior is worthless.” He doesn’t glance in my direction. “Prove you mean yours and leave.”
My determination to remain only strengthens. I will prove my affection for him by saving him from my realm.
I stand my ground and prepare to fight, scanning my surroundings. Oh...zero. I swallow hard.
Countless spirits and Shells who fought to either rescue or kill me are in pieces. Death should not be pretty, but the sight is as glorious as it is sickening. Lifeblood glitters in the sunlight, turning war into a twisted fairy tale.
During my Firstlife, I had trouble differentiating between humans and Shells. Now? I can tell with a single glance. Shells are dense with a plastic-like appearance I never before noticed. They are like life-size dolls. I can pick out the spirits and humans; spirits are luminescent and human flesh is dull. I can even tell who is Troikan and Myriadian. Troikans are the sunrise, a dawning illumination, while Myriadians are the sunset, a herald of darkness.
Light versus shadow. Bright versus gloom.
Those who haven’t been chopped to bits are still locked in a gruesome battle. Grunts and groans blend with the pop of breaking bones and the gurgle of warriors choking on blood, creating a horrific sound track. My hand covers my mouth.
“You’re not going to like this next part, lass.” Killian grabs hold of a spear. The one Sloan used to kill me—the one still lodged in her lifeless chest.
He yanks. The weapon exits her body, taking pieces of rib with it. “After Firstdeath, most spirits remain trapped inside the body until freed by another spirit.” He reaches into her torso, his fingers ghosting through her flesh. He yanks—
And there she is, the real Sloan. For a moment, rage overwhelms me. Behold, my betrayer! She looks the same, and yet completely different. The model-pretty blonde has morphed into an exquisite, incomparable beauty with hair as white as snow and lips as red as wine.
She killed an innocent human. She should be as haggard on the outside as she is on the inside.
My hands ball into fists. I can end her, the way she ended me. I can destroy her Everlife before it begins. Does she truly deserve a second chance?
The question drifts through the train track in my mind, startling me.
Sloan gazes at the world around her with wide eyes the color of a morning sky. She’s distracted and unaware of the danger. There’s no better time to strike...
I’m going to do it, I decide. I don’t care if I deserve a second chance or not. Don’t care if my actions make me a hypocrite and contradict my beliefs.
What’s wrong with me?
I don’t care about that, either. I wrench free of Deacon and take a step toward her. Black shadows rise from the ground, covering her feet...her calves...her thighs. Pain twists her features.
“Help me.” She reaches for me with a trembling hand.
I stop abruptly.
She reaches for Killian. He steps back, leaving her alone with her agony. Then she’s gone, no hint of her anywhere.
“Where did she go?” I demand, only to fight a torrent of shame. Her absence is a gift, the temptation to harm her gone. I should let her go, not chase after her.
“Where else? Myriad.” Deacon shackles my biceps in a firm grip and tugs me in the opposite direction. “You need to head to Troika. You’re vulnerable here.”
The war still rages, soldiers cutting each other down with fiery swords, shooting each other with laser guns. Shells are disintegrating left and right, the sight devastating.
“I’m staying,” I croak. Running away is cowardly. I am the cause of the battle. I will ensure it ends.
“What do you think you can do, Ten?” Deacon’s grip tightens. “You’re riding an emotional roller coaster right now.”
“How do you—”
“I’ve been where you are. I know the Grid is exposing aspects of yourself you may not like. I also know you cannot help anyone but yourself right now. No speech, no matter how inspired, is going to penetrate the bloodlust currently plaguing these soldiers.” He wrenches me to the side, startling and tripping me.
An arrow soars past me as I flail.
“See!” he shouts. “You’re in danger.”
“Go, Ten. Now!” Killian spins and swings the spear, stabbing a Troikan in the process of sneaking up behind him. “If you’re killed, everything we’ve done to help you will be in vain.”
I should be thrilled he’s avoided injury, but his actions only feed the fury Sloan unearthed. I step toward him, intending to...what? I don’t want to hurt him, but I can’t allow him to kill another Troikan, either. These people...they’re my brothers and sisters now.
Whoa. Such affinity for individuals I’ve never met?
Deacon tightens his hold. “I can’t escort you to Troika without your permission. Say yes.”
Free will matters, even in a war zone?
I struggle with duty and desire as more and more Troikans gather around Killian, attacking him en masse. He’s strong and skilled, but is he skilled enough to survive this?
Fear for him—for everyone he’s fighting—leaves me ice-cold.
A group of his comrades rush over to aid him, and I’m as relieved as I am ashamed. The group could harm my people.
More arrows zoom in my direction. Deacon uses a sword to deflect them, saving me from injury. Or worse.
Zero! If I throw myself into the fray, I can help Troika or I can help Killian, but not both.
No need to ponder. I have to help Killian. I recently lost my mom and brother. Earlier today I watched as my dad was gunned down. I lost Archer. I can’t lose Killian, too.
Already lost him...
No. Absolutely not! And yet, hot tears blur my vision and streak down my cheeks. The Grid, whatever it is, has turned me into an emotional wreck.
Forget emotion. I need to act. Now or never.