Authors: Rhenna Morgan
Maxis’ vision spun and his knees trembled. He couldn’t show fear. Everyone had a weakness, this man included. He just needed to find it.
“So you’ve suddenly decided to make a house call?” Maxis glared at Falon. “Don’t play me for a fool. Even if I were to believe in your assertions, your change in behavior calls for suspicion.”
“Your blubbering heart pushed me past the point of reason.” Falon paused, gripped his hands loosely behind his back, and paced away from Maxis. He studied the barren tract of land. “Deny it all you want, but your dead strategos has done a number on your head. One I’m not willing to stand by and watch. We’ve worked too long and hard on your future for you to go soft now.”
His future. Revenge on the Shantos line for the wrongs handed his family and the throne to go with it. The stranger was right. He needed to get his head in the game. Get his plans under—
“What did you say?” Maxis strode the handful of steps to Falon, gripped the spiritu’s shoulder, and spun him around.
A devious grin crept across Falon’s face. “I said dead strategos. As in not among the living.”
“You know this for certain?”
“I know his presence is no longer within the plane in which my people have purview, so yes. Dead.”
Maxis staggered and his gut lurched. “He could be in zeolite.”
Falon’s voice dripped with disgust. “Praise The Great One, what difference does it make? Look at yourself. You need to focus, reformulate your plans, and reengage. I’ve already given my light brethren an opening they don’t need by appearing in person. The light contingent and the malran don’t need any more advantages.”
Important information. Words he’d need to study. Later.
Reese was dead.
Falon clamped an unforgiving grip on Maxis’ shoulder and roared loud enough his voice echoed off the gorge walls. “Hear me.”
Maxis fired a defensive bolt of electricity toward Falon.
It passed through Falon’s chest, and his maniacal laughter filled the air.
Maxis tottered backward.
The warriors kept to their exercises. Even with Falon’s raging guffaws echoing through the canyon, not one seemed to notice.
“You want an empire, Maxis? Then make one.” Falon’s arms swept out in dramatic fashion. “Build your own. Start with family.”
Family. A poignant chord that rattled more than flesh and blood. His father had never offered a mating link to his mother. She’d escaped too easily because of it, not that his father had bothered to try and find her. He’d finished his life alone with nothing more than a broken rebellion. Evanora had been the wise one, surrounding herself with loyal family and friends. Wasn’t it she who’d fueled Maxis’ goals?
Falon had a point.
Shouts and grunts lifted from the training fields. “What about them?”
Falon inched closer, still on the furthest reaches of Maxis’ periphery. “Reese was never your best choice for strategos. You were biased with him. Always were. If you’d paid closer attention, you’d have noticed someone much more suited to your nature.”
The men had found a rhythm, groups pairing off for practical training. In the furthest section of the field, a bellow rang out. A man collapsed to the ground, a harsh line of crimson stretched across his neck and sightless eyes aimed to the sky.
His partner gripped a wicked dagger with a charcoal hilt and a blade coated in blood.
Maxis shot from his place on the high ledge across the vast valley to intercede before the man charged more of his fellow warriors. He knocked the weapon from the man’s grip. “We need more fighting men, not less.”
The warrior glared at Maxis, his odd green eyes unflinching. Sweat coated his bare chest. His short black hair was equally drenched and scattered. “If they’re weak, they’re not worth it.”
Hard to argue the man’s logic. “Give me your name,” Maxis said.
Silence settled around them, the shuffle of feet and the whisper of wind the only sound.
The men around them glanced back and forth between Uther and Maxis, weight on the balls of their feet, waiting and ready.
They feared them both. With fear came control. How had he missed such a discovery among his troops?
Falon’s voice rang in his head.
“Like I said, a much better match.”
The slow, steady rumble of hushed, masculine voices nudged Reese toward consciousness. Every muscle hung heavy and useless, his eyelids as dead weight as the rest of him. Cold radiated from the hard surface beneath him. Stone maybe, rough and uneven. He shifted and sharp jolts webbed down his spine. Praise the Great One, what the hell had he done? The last thing he remembered—
The warrior’s strike, shooting past Galena’s cheek and nailing him in the shoulder. He should be dead.
Cool, damp air swished across his torso, tainted with the scent of mold, earth, and something else he couldn’t quite place. He pulled in another breath, ignoring the tiny stabs poking beneath his ribs. Herbs. Nothing he knew by name, just a clean, crisp edge out of place with everything else. And flowers. Definitely flowers.
Out of nowhere, a pressure built at his wound, ratcheting from warm to blowtorch hot in seconds. A scream punched from his lungs and jammed in a vicious knot at the back of his throat. He needed to move. To thrash and strike at whatever it was attacking him, but his body couldn’t move, too paralyzed by pain to break free.
The pain flashed to nothing in an instant, the heat of the assault falling away with it.
He shuddered, chilled to the bone with goose bumps covering his flesh.
A flutter brushed across his mind.
His memories. Someone was trying to read him. An invasion. He forced his eyes open, tried to push away, and froze. His voice cracked. “Galena.”
Light from the torches behind her flickered off her auburn hair, and her lips curved in a tight, practiced smile. “I know that was painful, but you’ll be fine now.”
She’d healed him. That was the burn beneath his skin. But guilt shone in her eyes too. Had she read his memories before he shut her out?
Reese flinched at the clipped reprimand. He knew that angry tone all too well. The same one Ramsay Shantos had flailed him with all those years ago. He didn’t dare look up. Didn’t trust himself.
“Get him up and in the cell.” His former strategos, the man who’d trained and then denied Reese entry into the warrior brotherhood, dipped into Reese’s line of sight and pulled Galena away.
Two guards hustled forward and hoisted Reese up by his armpits and thighs. They lugged him toward a cell, every jerk and bounce lashing fresh torment against his bruised and battered body.
An icy wave pummeled him, and his stomach lurched. Zeolite. The crystal showed no mercy, crushing his powers as soundly as a boot heel on a bug.
His guards grunted beneath the impact as well, their dagger sheaths thumping against their belts with each shuffle. They tossed him toward the corner.
He slammed into a thinly cushioned cot, and his teeth clacked together, rattling as hard as the cell door the guards slammed on their way out.
Praise the Great One, he ached. Everywhere. He pushed upright, holding his breath until the fresh wave of agony settled.
A candle burned on the weathered wooden table beside him. Eden didn’t utilize electricity the way humans did, and no sane jailer would risk piping in light from above. Too much opportunity for prisoners to feed on Eden’s energy through the opening and past the Zeolite to feed their powers.
On the other side of his door, Ramsay’s voice roared, ripping someone a new asshole.
Reese struggled to his feet, locked his knees and slowed his breath. He knew Ramsay like few others did. It’d take his once friend another thirty seconds tops before he stomped through the cell door and unleashed his venom on the person he was really pissed at.
He rolled his shoulders and exhaled through the pain. Damn it, if he wouldn’t find his pride and meet Ramsay’s attack upright. His drast was gone, leaving his chest bare. Understandable with the charred mess covering his wound, but least he still had his pants and boots.
The latch on the door kachunked and the door whooshed open.
Ramsay prowled inside and shoved the door closed. His jaw looked hard enough to snap. Thank The Great One, zeolite would keep things on an even keel where powers were concerned.
Reese glanced at the door. “Where’s Galena?”
“My sister’s not your concern,” Ramsay said, harsh and cold as the dungeon.
Like histus she wasn’t. For whatever reason, she’d saved him. “Was she hurt?”
Ramsay crossed his arms and tilted his head. “Why would you care? You tried to kill her.”
Seventy years and Ramsay’s glare still sliced him.
“A warrior with something to hide has no place in the brotherhood. This candidate is unworthy to serve.”
The memory tore through Reese, slicing open old wounds poorly healed. “Why did you let her heal me?”
Ramsay uncurled his arms and stepped forward, nostrils flared. “Because you’ve got information and I want it.”
The blood rushed from his head and his knees threatened to give way. Of course, that’s why Galena had saved him. She’d thought of her race. Of her brothers, and saved him for what he knew. Not some spark of mercy or kindness.
The door flew open and the thick wood cracked against the stone wall. “Ramsay, let him heal.”
“Not now, Galena.” Ramsay kept his gaze locked on Reese.
She swayed, her face pale. Whatever she’d done to heal him, her empathic gift had taken its toll.
Ramsay stalked toward Reese. “You’re well enough. I’ll bet I can find a way to get what we need out of you.”
“Ramsay.” Galena darted forward and stumbled.
Reese dodged to the side. His legs gave out beneath him, but he broke her fall, his good shoulder snapping against the stone floor.
Galena twisted in his hold and studied his injury, her eyes flared in alarm and her mouth parted. “Reese.”
Screw the pain. Every bit was worth it to have her this close. To have her lips this close and her breath on his face. To feel her soft breasts pressed against his against his chest and let her flowery scent cart his mind miles and miles away from here.
Ramsay scooped her up and out of Reese’s arms.
“I’m fine.” Galena shoved Ramsay and tried to wiggle free. “I’m fine. Put me down.”
“You’re not fine.” Ramsay shifted her in his arms. “You look like hell.”
Reese pushed himself from the floor on wobbly legs, his breath shallow and huffing.
“I just need some rest.” She still struggled. “Now put me down.”
“No.” Ramsay spun for the open door, his guards hovering outside the door. He paused at the entrance and scowled at Reese. “She saved your ass. Not once, but twice. If you care so much about her, you’ll thank her for her efforts in the form of answers when I get back.”
The door slammed behind him and quick footsteps faded into nothingness.
Reese dropped to the cot and the wooden legs grated against the floor. What in histus was wrong with him? He was a POW, would probably hang within twenty-four hours, and all he could process was the way Galena felt next to him. He couldn’t twist the scenario more if he tried.
He fisted the cot’s coarse brown blanket. Galena shouldn’t have wasted her energy to heal him. The zeolite negated his gifts, but it also sheltered him from Maxis. The minute he stepped free of the protective crystal Maxis would find him via link and shred his brain the same way he had Phybe’s.
He laughed and banged the back of his head against the wall. What was he thinking? Ramsay and Eryx would hang him for treason whether he gave them the information they wanted or not. Even if they offered mercy in exchange for what he knew, he’d spend the rest of his life behind zeolite, which was worse than death.
Two death sentences or a lifetime in prison. He let out a harsh exhale and hung his head. No matter which way things went, he was well and truly screwed.
* * * *
Galena bolted upright in bed and gasped. Her pulse thrummed at either side of her neck and her breasts ached, tight and heavy. Cool air hit her sweat-slick skin as she blinked her eyes into focus. Emerald curtains framed a window open to dark skies. A favorite painting hung along the far wall. Her room at the castle.
Now she remembered. Ramsay hadn’t let her go home. Had insisted she sleep at the castle instead of her cottage.
Plucking the damp silk against her belly, she took a slow steady breath and dropped back to the pillows. Wisps of erotic images clung to her thoughts
Her and Reese, lips and tongues, tangled and sweaty. She pressed her legs together and groaned at the lingering ache between them. In her dream, he’d devoured her. Touched her in a way no man had in real life. Bold. Decadent.
She flicked the covers aside and shoved upright. She didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. So what if her subconscious put Reese’s face on her desires? It didn’t mean she wanted him literally. Just that she wanted to be desired. To be more than someone’s political advantage or empty-headed house warmer. Completely reasonable.
Pulling her hair off her neck, she plodded to the window and rested her elbows on the stone ledge. If she’d minded her manners and stayed out of Reese’s head in the first place, her imagination wouldn’t have had so much material to work with.
Her cheeks flared hot and a strangled cough bubbled up. She’d just wanted to gauge his intentions at the battlefield. To see if he’d meant her harm. Boy had she ended up with a surprise. Her image. Front and center in the bulk of all his last memories.
Did he really see her that way? That sexy? Voluptuous?
The wind coiled around her neck, teasing the damp stands. The barely lightening skies fell out of focus. What would it feel like to have Reese touch her there? To feel his hands in her hair? His breath at her neck?
She pushed away from the window and stomped toward her closet. Nursing those ideas wasn’t healthy. Or realistic. Dawn was close, so she’d been out what? Twelve? Thirteen hours? Plenty of time for her to bounce back. The Great One knew, she had enough to catch up on.