No Monday update this week.

Work has been….special.

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Eight – 06

[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]

It was controlled chaos around us as she dragged me along to the tunnel’s entrance. She had no way to know that I had zero intentions of going below, especially at that point. I stuck close, not wanting to tip her off to what I was planning.

I could hear my uncle shouting something from near the gates. We were maybe a dozen yards from the tunnel entrance we were heading toward, and I nudged Kailey gently. She startled, turning to me, blinking rapidly.

“What is it?”

I gestured toward the sound of her father’s voice. “You’d better get going. I’m sure he didn’t expect that it’d take as long as it did to convince me. Whatever’s going to happen, I think it’s going to be starting pretty quick here and you’ll want to be near him when it does, if that’s what he’s planning to have happen, anyway.”

“But I’m supposed to—”

I pointed ahead of us with a wince. “The tunnel’s right there. Where the hell else am I going to go? Like you said, there’s not anywhere else that’s safe if someone’s about to attack us, and you’re right, I’m in no condition to fight or anything like that right now. Go. I’ll be okay.”

She hesitated, biting down hard on her lower lip. “Stay down there until the all-clear’s called, okay? They’re really worried about you.” Her voice cracked a little. “I’m really worried about you.”

“I know,” I said quietly, stomach twisting. I pecked her on the cheek and nudged her slightly. “Go. Be careful.”

After another hesitation, she nodded, turning away and taking off at a jog toward the sound of her father’s voice, which had come from the direction of the gates.

I took a slow, deep breath, then continued on toward the tunnel’s entrance, just in case she looked back to make sure I’d gone in that direction. I knew her too well—she’d look back and check. I saw the motion of it from the corner of my eye after I’d gone another dozen steps, and then she moved out of my sight—and I moved out of hers.

Once I reached the tunnel’s entrance, I changed direction. The noise was getting quieter, the number of people rushing a round dropping to a trickle—the last few headed to the tunnels, the last few headed to the wall.

Steeling myself and hoping no one thought to ask any awkward questions, I turned and slowly, slowly headed for the wall.

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Eight – 05

[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]

I tugged on my boots.  Kailey crossed her arms, watching me, her expression suddenly suspicious.

“What are you not telling me?” she asked.

I shook my head quickly and regretted it as the world spun around me, then slowly righted itself.  Oof.  Don’t do that again, Lin.  I rubbed at my temple.  “Don’t worry about it.”

Those are words out of your mouth that I am too damn smart to believe,” she said, snagging a spare blanket from my bed and the last book she’d seen me reading—one I was admittedly still reading.  “Come on.  The family wants you safe.”

Unfortunately, the family didn’t always get what it wanted, but for the moment, I’d play along.  I let her usher me outside and found myself mumbling a heartfelt curse against the glaring sunshine.  The pain was almost enough to make me double over.

So that’s why Dad always wore the sunglasses after a big fight.  I’d never known exactly why, but back then I’d chalked it up to just looking cool and concealing anything like dark circles or black eyes.  I’d never considered another practical purpose for the act.  Now, the reason he’d worn them was becoming abundantly clear, especially if I’d inherited at least part of my heightened sensitivity from him.

“What’s wrong?” Kailey asked me as she turned me toward one of the entrances to the tunnels.

I almost shook my head but barely managed to stop myself.  “Just the light.  Making the headache worse.”

“I thought Aunt Jac gave you something for the pain.”

“She did.  Clearly, not enough.”  Probably because she—rightfully—expected me to stay in bed and sleep it off.  Which I would be doing if the world wasn’t suddenly exploding.

Was this really what it had been like for our parents all those years ago?

Something told me we were about to get a stronger dose of their experience than either of us had ever bargained for.

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Eight – 04

[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]

“Fine.” The word came as an exhaled breath. “Fine, dammit, fine. There are riders coming cross-country. I saw them from the orchard. They’re armed. They might be scouts, they might be something else, we don’t know. Dad’s getting everyone ready for a fight and he wants you below where you’ll be safe.”

My heart started to hammer. “What about you?”

“He told me to find him after I’d gotten you somewhere safe.”

Then why the hell is he sending me into hiding? Even as the thought crossed my mind, though, I already knew the answer—I was hurt and needed to be protected. But how many times had my parents gone to the battle lines hurt? I knew from their journals that it had happened dozens of times. Each of them had worried every single time, but they’d still done it.

It was what they had to do. What they were supposed to do.

I swallowed, standing up. I pulled on a clean shirt over the bandages, then a pair of pants and socks. Kailey watched me, chewing on her lip. Outside, the clamor of the village preparing for a potential attack hadn’t abated at all. I wondered how close they’d gotten, or if they were still where Kailey had spotted them.

“How long was it since you saw them?” I asked.

She frowned. “I don’t know. Ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Why?”

“Just curious,” I said. That’s about the time I woke up.

Everything’s connected.

                Everything.

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Eight – 03

[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]

“Oh hell no.” Kailey crossed the room in two seconds flat and grabbed my arm before I could stop her—or warn her.

Hell, someone should have warned me. The pain that lanced through me had molten claws that dug into the marrow of my bones. Even trying to suppress the cry that tore from my lips resulted in a sound I’d never heard before, one that indicated pain even more extreme than I’d realized I was feeling. I jerked it from her grasp, gasping like a fish out of water as the pain stole my breath.

All the blood drained from her face, her eyes saucer-wide. “Oh gods, Lin, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Breath hissed through my teeth as I hugged my arms to my body, trying to push the pain aside. It wasn’t working.

Is this what Mom and Dad dealt with every time something like this came at them? If that’s the case it’s sure as hell not going to be fun. Not ever.

Stubborn as I was, though, it wasn’t going to stop me.

“It’s fine,” I rasped. “Just please don’t do that again.” I gritted my teeth, trying to ignore the way my eyes were tearing and the way that my nerves seemed to be misfiring.

“We have to go below,” she whispered. “Please, don’t fight with me.”

“What’s going on?” I asked her again, my voice still raspy, but steady.

Her lips thinned. “Lin—”

“Dammit,” I snarled, starting to stand up. She was quick to slide her arm around my waist to support me. I tried to shove her away. “No, Kay. No. Not if you’re not going to tell me what I need to know. If you don’t tell me, I’ve got to go find out myself.”

It’s important.

I just don’t know why.

Now my eyes were watering for an entirely different reason. I reached up to swipe at the tears that stung. Frustration had always been the most upsetting thing for me—more than pain, more than loss, more than anger, anything.

Her jaw trembled as I glanced at her sidelong.

I couldn’t tell if that meant she was going to tell me or if she was going to haul off and slug me, bandages and all.

It wouldn’t have been the first time.

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Eight – 02

[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]

My heart started hammering faster, like it was trying to batter its way through my breastbone to reach open air. “Where? Why?”

“Dad said to take you below where it’s safe.”

Below. She meant the old steam tunnels, the ones that had been our shelters from attacks when we were young and remained shelters now when the weather got well and truly foul. Bile slicked my tongue and burned at the back of my throat. There was nothing wrong with the weather.

“Why?” I asked, my stomach dropping. “What’s going on?”

You already know.

I tried to ignore the voice at the back of my thoughts, slowly getting out of bed. It was harder than I thought it’d be. I’d known that everything hurt, but I hadn’t been prepared for exactly how much, or for the alternating chills and fever that didn’t seem to want to quit—not at all.

Was this what it was like for Mom and Dad?

I tried to shove the thought away. Kailey just stared at me, starting to seem a little impatient with what I’m sure she mistook for recalcitrance.

“Kay,” I said quietly. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I don’t think I should. Come on. It’s not safe.”

“Why not?”

She almost punched the doorframe. “Dammit, Lin! Can’t you just for once in your damn life do what you’re asked without it turning into some kind of game of twenty questions? You’re not always entitled to every godsdamned answer you want.”

Swallowing hard, I just stared at her for a second.

Then I sat back down on my bed.

“Go below,” I told her. “I’m staying here.”

It was a lie, though not a bluff.

If she wasn’t going to tell me, I’d just have to go find out what was going on myself.

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Eight – 01

[This post is from Thomas Merlin Ambrose’s point of view.]

Wake up, Lin.

The covers and my mattress cocooned me. If I didn’t move, I didn’t hurt. If I didn’t move, I could stay comfortable. Everything would be fine.

Wake up.

The voice was familiar and insistent, but I really didn’t want to listen. My eyes were so heavy and they ached, as if my body knew better than my stubborn soul what it needed. Fever flushed my skin, leaving my cheeks and neck hot, but I didn’t feel the worst of it if I held still, if I didn’t move—if I stayed in that twilight space between sleeping and waking.

Wake up!

I barely swallowed a snarl of frustration as my eyes snapped open. “What the hell?” I cast a quick glance around the room, breathing already ragged.

Nothing. No one.

The pain hit a second later and I groaned, starting to roll over, gasping quietly as a spike of pain lanced from my shoulder straight through my chest.

Damn it all. Even after reading his parents’ journals and listening to all the stories, I hadn’t quite been prepared for how much this hurt.

Aunt Jac is right. I need to lay low for a few days. Squeezing my eyes shut again, I reached to adjust the blankets that were twisted around me somehow, trying to settle back in and let the sounds of the village’s afternoon activities lull me back into sleep.

The voice must have been just another crazy fever dream. I was sure of it.

But I couldn’t get back to sleep.

The sounds were wrong.

There was too much activity, too much shouting. I swallowed bile, forcing myself to sit up, straining my ears to listen. I could hear the voices, but not clearly enough to make out what was being said.

Still, something wasn’t right. I clawed back the blankets, gritting my teeth against the burning, wracking pain from the wounds the camazotzi had left me with, fighting to ignore the alternating waves of fever and chills.

Something wasn’t right and I needed to know what.

I’d managed to swing my legs over the side of my bed and was almost ready to try to climb to my feet when the door to my cottage opened. Kailey stood in the doorway, her eyes wide and her expression slack. Terror lurked in her gaze, a terror that shot straight into the core of me.

“We have to go,” she said, her voice hoarse and tight. “Now.”

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Seven – 04

[This post is from Kailey’s point of view.]

Breath burned in her lungs as her strides ate up the distance between the orchard and the gates, gates that still stood open despite everything they’d been through over the years—a side effect of the peace that had held for so long. There weren’t even sentries anymore during daylight. It was only at night when they kept the watches.

For the first time, it seemed foolish to her.

The wards can’t protect us from everything.

It was a sobering thought, though a true one.

Heart pounding, she dodged the other villagers as they went about their business, nearly colliding with a few who stepped in the wrong direction as she tried to anticipate their dodge. She didn’t even have enough breath to spare to apologize as she tore through the village proper toward the hill behind the forge.

As long as the weather was good, that’s where her father always met with his council.

She didn’t slow as she pounded up the hill, though she tried to summon enough extra breath to shout. “Dad! Dad!”

There they were, clustered together—her parents, Phelan and Jacqueline, Uncle Jay and Aunt Caro, Thordin and Sif, and Aunt Neve. From the look on her face, it seemed Neve had heard her first, her brow furrowing as Kailey came up the hill as fast as her legs could carry her.

“Kay?” Her father’s brows knit as she reached them, breaking away from her mother’s side to move toward her. “What is it? Is it Lin?”

Kailey doubled over, trying to catch her breath. She gripped her knees, knuckles going white as she gulped in air, heart still beating too fast, blood thundering in her ears. Her aunts and uncles and her mother closed in around her in a tightening circle, something that was oddly comforting and terrifying all at once.

Unseen power crackled in the air and set the hair on her arms and the back of her neck standing on end.

They don’t even know what I’ve seen and they’re already—

“Riders,” she managed to gasp out between lungfuls of air. “Below the orchard, in the field. Not on the road. Cross-country. I—”

“Whoa, whoa,” Matt said, grasping her shoulder gently. “Calm down. Slow down. What happened?”

Hadn’t he been listening?

“There are riders in the field below the orchard,” she said more slowly this time, more carefully. “It looks like they were going cross-country. They’re armed, Dad. I could see it. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they’d stopped below the orchard.”

“How many?” Thordin asked, his voice a deep rumble, like the thunder presaging a storm. She’d never heard his voice like that, not anytime she could remember. “Did you see?”

“Six,” she said, swallowing hard. “There were six. On horseback. They were armed.”

“What kind of weapons?” Sif asked, her voice soft. There was a thread of anger there, though, anger and something else-if Kailey didn’t know better, she’d have suggested it was eagerness, a promise of something that she didn’t want to fathom.

“I don’t know,” she said, swallowing hard. “I don’t know, I didn’t get a good look. I was just so scared and I knew that I needed to get back without being seen and tell you that they were here and that they were coming. They’re on horseback and they’re armed. I could see the sun glinting off metal.”

“Possibly armored,” Thordin said quietly, glancing to her father.

“Get the gates closed,” her father said, his expression darkening. “And start pulling everyone back. Set for an attack. This could be a scouting party setting up for much worse. Let’s make sure they see that we’re not to be trifled with.”

“What about the riders?” Sif asked quietly.

Her father smiled grimly. “They get to learn the lesson firsthand.”

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Seven – 03

[This post is from Kailey Astoris’s point of view.]

The sun slanted slowly lower in the sky as she perched there, though it was barely discernable—it wouldn’t be dark tonight until late, as usual for the summer. Still, she noticed as she always did. Sometimes she wondered if that was a gift from one of her parents. Usually, she decided it didn’t matter.

Kailey’s fingers tightened around the book in her lap.

I wish he’d never told me. Then I’d have been able to come back out here and just—just be. I’d have been able to come back out here and go back to what I was doing before Finn found me and told me that he was hurt. Everything would be normal.

Instead she was dwelling on things she couldn’t change—things that might not even be decided yet.

Damn you, Lin. Damn you.

A flicker of motion and light caught her eye from downhill and instantly every nerve fired, every muscle tensing. She strained her ears as she slowly straightened from her lean against the tree’s trunk to peer downhill, toward the motion and light she thought she’d saw. Her heart hammered in her throat, lodged there, making it hard to breathe—or it would have, if she’d have dared to try. Faintly on the wind, she heard the sound of voices.

The Hunt’s scouting parties aren’t due back for weeks yet and Cameron travels alone. She leaned a little further forward, trying to stay hidden in the tree, squinting between the branches.

There. Six riders were below the orchard, already off the road, as if they’d already been riding cross-country. She leaned forward even more, caught sight of the sun reflecting off metal.

Armed. Shit.

At this distance, she couldn’t make out what they were saying, nor could she clearly see their faces. But they were armed, and they seemed to be strangers as they paused at the edge of the orchard, seeming to debate what its presence meant there.

I have to warn the others. She swallowed bile, heart still going at twice its normal speed. Please, please don’t let them see me. Please.

Quietly, carefully, she wedged her book between two branches and began to ease out of the tree. There would be no time for her shoes. She had to move fast.

Gods and monsters, she thought, lips clamped tightly together as she carefully climbed down, trying to keep hidden, worried her stomach would betray her. Is this what it was like for them every day?

If it was, she took back every desire she’d ever had to know what it was like here before the treaties, before the end of the wars. She just wanted the peace they’d had to last forever instead.

Her feet hit the ground and she winced slightly as she came down on a twig. Holding her breath, she peered down the hill. The strangers were still paused down there, still talking.

Another glint of metal. One of the horses snorted and pawed at the ground.

Sucking in a deep breath, Kailey turned and ran.

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Seven – 02

[This post is from Kailey’s point of view.]

The book stayed unopened on her knees, though. Kailey tilted her head back to stare at the few snatches of sky she could see between leaves and fruit and branches, her gaze unfocused until all that filled her sight was mottled green and brown and blue.

I don’t want anything to change.

But everything already had and it wasn’t something that she got a vote in. That was what hurt the most, she thought. That nothing and no one had asked for her consent when things started to spiral out of control.

Was this what it felt like for Dad? For Mom, all those years ago?

There were things that they didn’t talk about, her parents, and there were things that they did. Most of her mother’s past was shrouded in secrets and whispers. From what little she knew, it made sense. She and her brother had never asked for sanitized versions of the story—which she had no doubt was what they would get—and so all they had were pieces and fragments of the whole picture. That was fine with her. She didn’t want her mother to hurt, not ever again—she knew that she’d hurt enough in her thousands of years of life to last a thousand lifetimes, maybe more.

Now something was coming to upset her and all the rest all over again. Kailey’s lips thinned and her hands curled into fists.

Can’t we all just be left alone?

She knew the answer to that, though, and it wasn’t one that she liked, either. It was the reason that she knew that Lin was right, no matter how much she wanted to deny it. It was why his parents were dead, why he was alone except for them—except for the village that had helped raise them all.

Nothing would ever leave them alone, not forever. They had done too much, faced too much, and were a threat to too much.

Nothing would ever change that, not even the passage of time.

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