Warm breath fogged the air as four figures raced through the lightly forested grounds outside the Shadow Sworn’s Main Compound. If they were to look back, they would see a larger pack of men and women sprinting after them and gaining quickly. But none of them did; they were all too smart for that. No words were exchanged, they all knew their goal and they all knew the consequences of not completing it.
Even using their powers, Luke knew that they might not make it. Where were Charlie and Katniss?
His question was answered soon enough when three figures dropped out of the trees beside them and rolled to their feet, immediately falling into a run beside him. Wait, three people? “Hey, boss.”
There was only one person who he knew who called him boss but even still, “Password.”
“Lotus,” she replied smoothly.
He nodded shortly, “What took you so long?”
“Char went back at the last minute to grab his girlfriend.” Katniss nodded to the two figures handing out identical, sleek black backpacks. He recognized the slighter figure running alongside Charlie as Ivy Carter. She wasn’t a part of his platoon, but she and Charlie often practiced magic together and even worked with them on occasion. “Took longer than expected.”
“Idiot.” Luke cursed under his breath.
“Seeing as how it was the only way to drag him out of the compound, I think I made a pretty good call.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” he promised.
Katniss nodded, falling back into the rest of the pack and Mira took her place. They were crossing the open space between Dunaire’s capital city and the park outside the compound as she spoke, “No use scolding him about it if you would’ve done the same thing, Luke.”
“I know, I know,” he grumbled. “Run now, talk later.”
“We need to stop soon.” She gestured to Lillian, now leaning rather heavily on Nainika, who had reverted to her human form. She caught their gazes and furrowed her brow apologetically.
“We’ll stop for a minute when we reach the city streets,” Luke decided and Mira nodded. “You know a place?”
“You lead, then.”
Mira pulled ahead as Luke dropped back. She plunged into the buildings of the capital, glancing back for only a second to catch a glimpse of the Shadows pursuing them. She quickened her pace after that. She led the group through three streets before arriving at her destination. It was a small, shadowy corner of the city and the front wall of one of the buildings jutted out, shielding a large portion of the alley behind it. There were two exits and the building itself was another exit; the walls were beginning to crumble, giving them easy hand and foot-holds if they needed to climb. She watched the group stagger into the alley, ushering them into the more concealed corners. Charlie waved her off, instead beckoning to Ivy. “C’mon, V. Cast some sound barriers, I'll do some concealment charms.”
“Alright.” Ivy nodded and the two Sorcerers began to cast. Their movements were fluid and graceful, but most importantly, silent.
Apparently, their constant practices hadn’t been entirely wasted on getting lost in each others' eyes, Mira thought wryly as she watched them.
Luke stumbled in last and leaned up against the wall most cloaked by shadows, breathing heavily. Mira joined him, touching his back lightly and he exhaled, rolling his shoulders to release the tension bottled up there. She cast a look at the rest of their ragtag bunch before leaning against the wall to shield their conversation from the others. “Do you think we can make it?”
Luke closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall behind him and he looked weary and far older than his twenty-one years. “I don’t know, Mir, I just don’t know. The barriers over the city will prevent us from leaping out so we can only leap to a place inside this bubble. But we have nowhere to go.”
“So we have to change our plans then?” Another voice piped up from his left. Lillian had hobbled over to them and there was a pained look on her face. Whether it was from loss of blood or something else, she didn’t know.
“Yes.” Something unreadable passed between the two siblings and Mira’s eyes flicked between them uncertainly.
Lillian exhaled, “There’s somewhere closer, here in the capital. I can get us there.”
“How protected is it?” Mira asked.
“Very,” she replied curtly. “I can leap us to the front gates.”
“How many people can you take?” The calculations were already flooding through Luke’s brain as hope surged through him.
“I can leap four other people without me passing out on the other side. At five, I’ll probably lose consciousness for an hour or so. Six or seven, and I’ll be out for three, and so on,” Lillian explained, waving her hands for emphasis.
“Alright.” A plan clicked together in Luke’s head and everyone knew it. They watched him expectantly and he waved them closer. “Lillian will take me, Charlie, and Ivy in the first wave to this base of hers. Ivy and Charlie will come back and grab one and two people respectively.”
“Sounds solid.” Katniss grinned. “Probably the least likely to get us all killed.”
He ignored her. “Any questions?”
“Where is this place exactly?” Katniss asked.
“You’ll find out when we get there,” Lillian replied, her tone clipped. Nainika elbowed her sharply and she amended quickly, “It’s somewhere safe, I promise.”
Luke smirked at them before returning his attention to the rest of the group. “Then if there are no other questions . . .” He let the sentence hang for a moment before rubbing his hands together. “Alright then, we’ll hurry. C’mon, Lil.”
Lillian nodded reluctantly, still rubbing her arm painfully as she leveled a glare at Nainika that promised revenge in the near future. “Yeah, yeah, okay.”
She held out her hands and Luke and Ivy each took one of them. Charlie took Ivy’s hand and, after a nod from Lillian, took Luke’s free one too. Lillian grinned, “If we jump into shadows and get lost forever, just know it was all Nainika’s fault.”
Luke just had time to shoot her a withering look before the four of them slipped into the shadows at their feet. They reappeared in the shadows outside a soaring castle-like mansion that sat on a small hill on the edge of the city. It stood about fifteen stories tall and took up a great portion of land. He didn’t have to search his mind for long before he came across the owner of the property. He had met her before and she was a very unforgettable woman with blond hair dipped in teal and stormy gray eyes. Some men only noticed the beauty of her figure but as a Shadow, he had been trained to see and record everything. That was how he knew there was a keen, calculating light in her eyes and that she was one of the most powerful Shapeshifters in Dunaire. Lady Megan Sutherland was not to be underestimated. “Is this the right place?”
“Of course it is,” Lillian replied coolly.
“We’ll be off then, see you in a moment.” Charlie grinned at the siblings and, after a swift kiss to Ivy, they both teleported away.
Luke and Lillian just had enough time to exchange a few meaningless words before they were back. Like Luke, they recognized Lady Sutherland’s manor on sight and their confusion quickly changed to nervous energy.
“Everyone, look.” Lillian pointed to the highest tower and on the round top of the flagpole, there was a green light shining brightly against the night. “Someone’s inside.”
“What? Who?” Katniss demanded.
“A Dragon, definitely,” she replied, furrowing her brow. “We’ll just have to go inside to find out who.”
They followed Lillian as she led the way around the property to a place on the eastern side of the walls, pausing at a portion of the wall that, to all appearances, was the same as every other point. But she strode forward and, summoning a spark to her palm, pressed it against the wall. To the Shadows’ astonishment, the wall opened inwards into the gardens around the manor. They followed her through the small doorway and around the house to the front door. Ivy looked surprised, “Why the front door?”
Lillian’s eyes glittered as she turned to answer, “Because if we try to enter any other way, we’re sure to get blasted to bits.”
Nainika laughed, “Seems like our sort of place.”
They mounted the steps to the large, intimidating front doors, and Lillian knocked. As soon as she stopped, a hard voice greeted them, obscured so that no one could tell if the speaker was male or female, “Who are you, and give me one good reason why I shouldn’t blast you off my porch.”
“Because then I would be a very dead, very mad, Elemental,” Lillian said, drawing back her hood.
“Lily?” Now some hesitation had entered the voice. “Sorry but you gotta give your claim to fame.”
“Easy, off the coast, one of my boats was boarded and all of my crew lived to tell the tale, that day, I shot an arrow clean through one person and into the person behind.”
The doors opened and out stepped a young man with black hair dipped in a fiery red. He had dark brown eyes that were almost black and an orange fire burned in their depths. It was not hard to recognize him as a Fire Elemental. “You liar. The boat lurched to the side and your arrow grazed my side before planting itself in Mj’s foot.”
“Details, shmeetails.” Lillian waved her hand, almost falling over with the motion. Now that Luke stepped back, he noticed that she was swaying heavily on her right leg. He stepped forward but the boy was already there, swinging her arm around his shoulders with ease.
They turned together and he surveyed the Shadows suspiciously. “Who’re your friends?”
“Oh, you know, some Shadows turned traitors who rescued me out of prison,” she replied. “We have a bunch of them trailing us.”
The man’s eyes swept the group, alighting upon each of their weapons. Finally, he said, “You guys better come in.”
The Shadows followed the pair into the foyer of the grand estate. In the center of the hall, a woman wearing a dark green sweatshirt and black joggers held a bow loosely in her hands. She had auburn hair and pale gray eyes and a quiver attached to her hip and she looked decidedly dangerous. But what surprised Luke most was that he recognized her. She was Lady Sutherland’s cousin, almost a sister, some said. “Lily!”
“’ evening.” Lillian waved. “Meet my brother and his platoon.”
“You’ll vouch for them?” The woman asked. At her nod, the woman turned back to the Shadows with a nod of greeting, “Pleased to meet you. I’m Brooke, that’s Flint.”
Each of the Shadows introduced themselves and the woman’s keen gaze flicked from person to person, seeming to size each of them up.
A few yards away, Flint and Lillian were deep in conversation when a younger girl ran into the room, dark brown hair, streaked green trailing behind her as she hurried over to the pair. She looked young, maybe sixteen, but with a distinct resemblance to Flint that could only make him her brother. Flint looked alarmed when he saw her, putting himself in front of her as if to form a shield as he cast a glance at the Shadows. She whispered something in his ear and he looked surprised for a moment but covered it quickly, turning to Brooke. “Brooke, can you take Fawn upstairs?”
Fawn shot her brother a pleading look. “Can I stay, Flint? Please?”
Flint shook his head firmly, looking to Brooke and Lillian for support. Both women grinned cheerfully. He groaned and hissed a few instructions to his sister before turning to the group, “We have a call coming in. Why don’t you join us?”
At a nod from Luke, they followed Brooke out of the foyer and through a maze of corridors before arriving in a large circular room. A large, round transmitter was the centerpiece of the room. A miniature woman made of light, instantly recognizable as Megan Sutherland, stood in full color at its center. She was pacing urgently and barely looked up when they walked in. “About the compound—” Megan did a double-take, spotting Lillian and her jaw dropped open before surprise turned to irritation. “You idiot! When I get over there, I swear to the skies, I will destroy you! Are you hearing me? How dare you leave us out of the blue! How dare you!”
“Sorry, my foot!” The projection yelled. “You could’ve gotten captured! Flint and Brooke were about to—”
“Technically, I did get captured,” Lillian interrupted helpfully. “And someone tried to stab me, too. It's hard to grow old in this profession.”
“No one's tried to stab me and that's cool because I enjoy not being stabbed,” Megan snapped. “You should, too.”
Mira pulled Luke aside, leaving the rest of the Shadows to watch on in amusement as Megan continued to rain fire on Lillian. “What are we going to do?”
“What do you mean?”
Mira gestured to the large room. “We don’t belong here, Luke, we’re not soldiers or rebels, we’re Shadows.”
“Where else can we go?” Luke sighed. “But we’ll figure it out like we always do.”
“Luke, Mira, come over here.”
Everyone had already gathered around Megan and were waiting for them. Only Flint and Fawn stood apart, the former had his hand on the latter’s shoulder protectively. The first words out of Megan’s mouth came out in a rush and were directed mainly towards the other Dragons, “Celeste is alive, she’s alive.”
“What?” Brooke demanded. “How?”
“She was simply never caught,” Luke interjected, remembering Lillian’s questions in the prison. “The report said that she escaped capture, leaving five Shadows behind. Dead.”
“Five?” Ivy looked astonished.
“The details seemed a little sketchy,” he agreed. “We’ve been investigating foul play.”
Megan interjected, “The point is that she’s alive and well and that she’s going to meet my team at the border.”
“Thank goodness.” Lillian beamed. “Give her my best.”
“I’m still mad at you,” Megan warned before turning back to Brooke. “Lay low for a while, make sure Lily’s still there when I arrive—”
“So she can feel your wrath,” Fawn called with a laugh.
“Exactly. I have to go now, but I’ll call back soon.”
“Don’t die, Meg,” Brooke ordered.
“You too, all of you.” She met each of their eyes solemnly, and then she was gone.
“Well then, we should try to get some sleep,” Brooke said. “Would you like your own rooms or . . . ?”
“We’ll sleep in pairs,” Luke decided. “Mira and Nainika, Ivy and Katniss, Charlie and I.”
“Can I share with Ivy?” Charlie looked hopeful.
“Not a chance.” Amused titters rose from the room’s other occupants.
“Right then. Everyone, follow me.” Brooke led the Shadows away, leaving Flint and Fawn with Lillian.
Luke noticed that his sister seemed especially close to the siblings but had to follow Brooke as she took them up a flight of stairs and through elegantly carved corridors. Nainika and Mira specifically admired the structure and its functionality for Shapeshifters. Brooke led their group with Charlie and Ivy just behind, his arm wrapped around her and her head resting on his shoulder. Nainika and Katniss walked behind them, arguing quietly and Mira was at Luke’s side. Brooke gave them each a spacious room before excusing herself and leaving them to explore. Though Luke suspected that somehow they would be keeping an eye on the Shadows.
He and Charlie talked for a few moments before his companion settled into sleep and Luke decided to take a walk to think. As he strode past one of the many open balconies, he saw a lone figure sitting comfortably on the railing. Lillian.
He joined her and looked out over the capital spread out before him, at the glittering lights of the city and at the glittering castle that rose at least a hundred stories into the sky. “I love this city, Lil.”
“Sometimes I do, too.”
The admission made him raise an eyebrow suspiciously. She giggled and her eyes sparkled with mirth. “I hate this place, yes, but how could I also not love it? I lived here for fifteen years. And, admittedly, I hated living with our—” she stopped abruptly and he realized she’d been about to say father. “—with Damian. But those two years after being accepted into your platoon . . . those were some of the best moments of my life. Do you really think I could ever wholly hate this city?”
“Well, you left,” Luke said quietly. The unspoken me hung in the silence between them. He hadn’t said it but they were both thinking it.
Lillian bit her lip and looked away, eyes glassy with unshed tears. She took a couple of deep breaths, promising herself she wouldn’t cry; not here, not now. Luke, for his part, didn’t flinch. All the hurt and wondering and wishing that had been bottled up for the last three years were laid out in that simple statement.
“I’m sorry.” The apology was a whisper in the wind that barely reached his ears.
“Did you ever think of taking me with you?”
She didn’t reply but her silence spoke for her. He closed his eyes, pressing his fingers to his temples. “You know, I would’ve gone with you. I would’ve dropped everything and gone, you just never gave me a chance.”
“I’m sorry, Luke.”
He let out a long sigh and took her hand, “Just . . . don’t leave me again.”