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Defiance rising, p.16
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       Defiance Rising, p.16

           Amy Miles

  The air feels cold as I rush around the corner and sprint the final leg into the flickering light of the domed Temple. I skid to a halt and appraise the scene before me. Children mill around, some lying on their bellies playing Aeon’s Rift──a game using dried tree bark, splintered sticks, scavenged acorns and no small amount of cheating. I’ve always been an excellent player, which is probably why none of the children challenge me anymore.

  I look about me, scanning the crowd for Eamon. I expected to be yanked into a crushing bear hug by now, but he is nowhere to be found. This worries me.

  The rustle of fabric alerts me to Aminah’s approach before her ice-cold fingers wrap around my arm. “Where’s Eamon?” I ask.

  “He said he’d wait for you in the armory.”

  I frown. “Why isn’t he here to greet me?”

  Aminah sighs and motions for me to sit with her. Apprehension begins to worm through my belly. The pinched skin around her eyes worries me, but no more so than the slight waver in her voice. “He was beside himself last night when he returned without you. It was all Toren could do to talk him into resting before going back out at first light.”

  I look across the Temple to the tunnel leading to the blackberry path beyond. “Why does he feel guilty? It wasn’t his fault we were ambushed.”

  “You know Eamon,” Aminah whispers, leaning against my shoulder. “He’s always been so protective of you. He feels like it’s his fault the aliens found you.”

  I curl my knees up into my chest. The unfamiliar alien garb billows over my legs despite how tightly I’ve cinched it around my waist. “There’s nothing he could have done.”

  Aminah nods. “He knows that, but knowing the truth and accepting it are two different things.”

  I run my hands through my hair, wincing at the mass of tangles Toren’s run left behind. I look beyond Toren to Bastien, who hovers just on the edge of the shadows lining the tunnel. He watches me with obvious discomfort, but I can’t tell if it’s for my benefit or because the entire room has fallen into a stunned silence at his arrival.

  “Eamon’s gonna be furious when he finds out you’ve brought him here,” Aminah warns, following my gaze.

  “I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t just leave Bastien out there.”

  “I understand that, but Eamon won’t.”

  I grimace. “Guess I’d better get this over with.”

  I help Aminah to her feet and turn to Bastien. “You good here for a few minutes?”

  He shrugs and leans back against the wall, feigning an air of indifference now. He may fool everyone else but I know he’s about two seconds from turning and racing back to his own cave. I start toward him but Aminah’s hand falls on my arm.

  “My name’s Aminah. The grumpy one is my boyfriend.” She jerks her head toward Toren then smiles warmly at Bastien and steps forward to shake his hand. “I’m sure you’d like a quick tour to get a feel of our home.”

  Toren’s reluctance doesn’t go unnoticed by Bastien or me, but I let it slide. Obviously, I’m not done fighting for Bastien’s right to be here. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

  I pull Aminah up close. “Try to keep Zahra distracted until I return.”

  “Too late,” Toren mutters and I turn to see Zahra weaving her way across the crowded Temple.

  I inwardly groan as Bastien does a double take. Zahra shoves a teenage boy out of her way and flashes Bastien a smile that would curl any man’s toes. I roll my eyes and snap my fingers in front of Bastien. He blinks and refocuses on me. “You might want to grab a cloth, big boy. You’ve got a bit of drool running down your chin.”

  His smirk is as automatic as it is predictable. “Do I detect an air of jealousy, Princess?”

  “Not at all.” I shoot him a wicked grin. “But you should know she’s like a hyena in heat, and you’re fresh meat.”

  Bastien rubs his chin, no doubt worried there may be some truth to my quip. “Interesting imagery.”

  Aminah yanks me away as Zahra swoops in. “Eamon, remember?”

  I grit my teeth as Zahra offers her hand to Bastien, batting her lashes for all they’re worth. My stomach rolls with disgust, so I force my attention away. “Right. I’ll be back, but I expect a full rundown of what’s happened since I left. Don’t think I’ve forgotten your little mind chat, missy.”

  Aminah’s smile wanes as she darts a glance at Toren. He passes an equally loaded glance back before nodding. “When you return.”

  Weaving my way quickly across the Temple, I try to ignore the high pitched giggling that echoes behind me. I hunch my shoulders and pound my boots harder than necessary.

  It’s a good thing he likes Zahra. Less complication for my life, I chant silently.

  I reach the far end of the Temple and skirt along the outer rim of the room, politely nodding at my fellow hunters who rise up to welcome me home. I catch a glimpse of Zahra’s hand pressed against Bastien’s chest. When she pushes her lips out into a pout and begins winding her blond tresses around her finger, I turn away and force myself to ignore the unusual pangs of jealousy that stab at me.

  “So much for not letting him get to me,” I mutter as I slip into the far tunnel and hurry past the flickering torches. I’m not really sure if I’m running toward Eamon or away from Bastien.

  Soon I have to pause to let my eyes adjust to the pitch darkness. My fingers trail over the damp stone, cold and achingly familiar. It’s good to be home. I only wish home hadn’t become a place of such emotional turmoil.

  I count out my steps silently in my head and approach our pathetically under stocked armory. The air takes on a chill as I approach the offshoot toward the Cascades. I long to take a dip beneath the icy waters, to wash away my pain and uncertainty. The two offshoots to the right would lead me on a daylong journey into the depths of the cavern system and ultimately lead me to a dead end.

  I step through the open doorway into the armory and spy Eamon sitting near the rear of the long room, his shoulders hunched over. I know he can hear my approach, but he makes no move to acknowledge me.

  “Eamon?” My call reverberates through the nearly empty space. He leans his head back, disappearing into the shadows, but remains silent. “Aminah told me you would be here.”

  His exhales a heavy sigh as I sink down a foot away.

  I wait for him to speak. My anxiety begins to swell into frustration as the impatient part of me wants to scream at him to get over whatever he’s dealing with and just come clean.

  The more sensitive side of me thankfully wins over.

  I reach out my hand and gently let it rest on his forearm. The muscles under my palm clench violently, but I grip his arm to prevent him from pulling away.

  “You have to talk to me at some point.”

  “Don’t.” Eamon growls and shoves my hand away. “Don’t try to tell me none of this was my fault. I’ve heard it from Toren and Aminah. I know what happened out there.”

  “So do I.” I scoot forward so that my knee brushes his leg. “We were ambushed, Eamon. That happens in war.”

  “I should’ve whistled for you sooner. I knew I was pushing our time limit to get home but I wanted to wait a few more minutes.” He groans and presses his head back against the stone. “If I’d followed the plan, none of this would have happened.”

  “Hey,” I whisper, rising onto my knees. I place my hands on his arms, waiting for him to look at me. “You did exactly what you should’ve done. What I would’ve done if I’d taken point. It’s who we are, Eamon.”

  He shakes his head. “I put your life in danger.”

  “We’re all in danger.” My fingers tighten around his arm. “I’m not a child that needs protecting anymore, Eamon. I can take care of myself.”

  “I know.” He sighs heavily. Judging by the way his shoulders sag, he really does know. “If something had happened to you…”

  I reach
out and pull his face closer to mine, drawing him from the shadow so I can see him. “I’m fine. See?”

  He reaches out his hands, his fingers dancing across my face and down to my shoulder. He nods, closing his eyes. “I’m glad you’re back.”

  “Me too.” I smile. “I never thought I’d say this, but I actually missed this place.”

  “And me?” He drops his gaze.

  I laugh and punch him in the arm. “Of course, you. You’re my best friend!”

  Eamon’s brow furrows as he nods and stares at the floor. My laughter falters as his Adam’s apple bobs. “Eamon? What’s wrong?”

  “Nothing. It’s just─”

  “Illyria?” I turn at Toren’s call as he ducks into the armory. He comes up short when he sees us sitting close together in the dark. Clearing his throat, he turns and faces the wall instead. “Sorry. I just thought you might like to know dinner is ready. After the kids are in bed we will talk about what’s going to happen with Bastien.”

  Eamon stiffens beside me. “That guy from the City?”

  I wince and toss a murderous glare at Toren. “Thanks a lot,” I mutter as he backs out.

  “What’s he talking about, Illyria?”

  I sigh and rise to my feet. Eamon quickly follows suit. I start to speak but think better of it. Instead I just shake my head. “Might as well get this over with, too.”

  I watch Bastien from across the Temple as the argument rises to new heights. Although I knew Bastien’s arrival would cause conflict, I had hoped Eamon would see why I had to bring him back with me. Apparently not.

  Their introduction didn’t go over smoothly, to say the least. After nearly thirty minutes of ranting on Eamon’s part, Toren has jumped into the fray while I sit back and watch with a headache building just behind my right temple.

  Aminah quickly rushed the children through their dinner as Bastien and Eamon glared at each other across the room. I suppose a part of me should be grateful Eamon held off until the children were tucked into bed, but my gut tells me his anger only had time to fester.

  Bringing my bowl to my lips, I try to block out Eamon’s vehement argument as the warm liquid spills down my throat. My stomach growls, begging for more of the rabbit stew, but I know there’s hardly enough to go around. I wipe my mouth with a cloth and push the empty bowl aside.

  “This is getting us nowhere,” I say as I swing my leg over the aged wooden bench and push up from the table. “The aliens that attacked Eamon and me last night weren’t part of any supply line. They were looking for me, for us, and now they know we aren’t too far away. How long do you think it will take Commander Drakon to divert all of his Grounders on this mountain? We don’t have time to sit around and bicker. Bastien knows the City. He can help us track down the Grounders and see how much time we have left.”

  “To go where?” Aminah asks. “We have elderly and little children. This is their home.”

  “I know.” I look toward the darkened tunnel leading toward the sleeping closets. “We are responsible for more lives than our own. That’s my point. If we wait to be blindsided, many of them might die. Are you willing to take that risk?”

  “No one is arguing with you, Illyria,” Toren says from his place on the other side of the altar. He leans over the map, scouring for information that he might have previously overlooked. “We have the emergency exits in place, but there is nowhere for us to go.”

  “Then find somewhere,” I growl. “Commander Drakon will stop at nothing until he finds us.”

  “How can you be so sure of that?” Eamon asks.

  “I…” I frown and cross my arms over my chest. “I just am. I saw Drakon with my own eyes when I was in the City. Bastien and I humiliated him when we escaped. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to take that well.”

  I force myself not to look at Bastien as I smooth over my lie. I can feel his intense gaze fall on me, but he remains silent.

  “So why do you have to be the one to go with him?” Zahra pipes up. “Why can’t Eamon go? Or Toren?”

  “Typical,” I snort, rolling my eyes.

  She turns and glares icily at me. “Excuse me?”

  “Seems your allegiances have switched pretty fast, Zahra. How quick you are willing to throw Eamon to the wolves.” I turn to face off with her, rolling my shoulders back to broaden my stance. “Eamon can hardly stand the sight of Bastien and Toren is needed here to lead. Are you willing to volunteer?”

  Zahra’s eyes flash with resentment. “Of course not! You know I’m not a fighter.”

  “Thought not,” I grin as I shove past her into the inner circle of my friends.

  From the corner of my eye, I note that Bastien has cleaned himself up. His hair is still damp from his dip in the Cascades. One of Toren’s old shirts now accentuates his broad frame. The pair of tattered pants seems to be a decent fit, apart from being too short in the leg. I wince as I see a large red patch over his right thigh and realize Aminah has given Bastien one of Eamon’s pants to wear.

  I glance between Eamon and Toren. Both appear in firm mutual agreement that Bastien is not to be trusted. Zahra is too smitten with him to possibly vote against his admittance to the group. Aminah’s nose is scrunched, her head tilted to the side as if she’s trying to listen to something.

  She blinks and looks in my direction. I’m listening to more than their words, Illyria.

  I flinch, shocked to hear her voice in my head once more. You never told me how you are able to do this.

  Now is not the right time. The guys need to get this over with.

  On this, we agree. Eamon is getting far more heated than I’ve ever seen and Toren doesn’t seem to be doing anything to slow him down. Bastien stands only a few feet away, hands firmly clenched at his side, displaying amazing self-control in light of the obvious threat.

  Aminah shifts her gaze toward Bastien, her eyes widening with curiosity. What did you hear? I ask.

  It’s not what I heard but what I saw. She turns to stare at me fully. You were the cause of the blast?

  I suck in a breath. How do you know about that?

  I would think it should be obvious by now. Bastien tells you he can do extraordinary things after getting hit with some invisible blast and you didn’t connect the dots to my ability to read minds or Toren’s super speed? You’re slipping, Illyria.

  I rub my forehead, feeling a headache expanding to take in the entire right side of my head. What about Eamon and Zahra? Any weird developments?

  Her eyes narrow. Eamon didn’t tell you?

  Guess it slipped his mind. Even I can hear the bitterness laced through my words.

  Aminah reaches out and grasps my arm, her expression soft with sincerity. He’s hurting right now. Don’t blame him for keeping his secrets.

  What about Zahra? What’s her gift? Please tell me it’s something stupid.

  The twinkle in Aminah’s eye gives me a chance to hope. Zahra can speak to animals. You should’ve seen her this morning. She woke up all puffy eyed and swearing like a trooper about all the noise. Seems the bats were rather chatty throughout the night.

  If it weren’t for the raging dispute going on around me I would’ve given into the impulse to pump my fists in triumph. Seems fate does have a sense of humor. There is no one more deserving of such a gift than Zahra, who has been fearful of animals from birth. It’s part of the reason she remains in the cave as much as possible.

  What about Bastien? Can you tell what his gift is?

  Aminah offers only a shrug in response as Toren turns to address her. “What’s your opinion on Bastien?”

  “He’s not really my type,” she smiles.

  I cough, fighting to cover over my laughter. Bastien smirks, crossing his arms over his chest, shifting to lounge back against the wall.

  The vein running down Toren’s forehead pulses as he offers Aminah a watered down glare. “Anything you
can say that might be a bit more useful?”

  “Oh,” she tries to cover over her smile. “He appears to be harmless and he seems rather devoted to protecting Illyria, per his oath, as he told you earlier.”

  And he seems abnormally good at avoiding thinking of certain aspects of your time together. Any reason for that? She tosses my way.

  Sweat clings to my palms as I offer what I hope to be an indifferent shrug. No clue. Guess you’ll have to ask him.

  She stares long and hard at me as I do my best to keep my poker face firmly in place. When I begin to feel it crack, I quickly distract her. What about Eamon?

  Her frown deepens as Toren shifts to address Zahra. His questions fade into the background as Aminah answers. I don’t really know. He hasn’t said a whole lot since he got back. It’s hard to read his thoughts though. They’re jumbled.

  Meaning? I press.

  Meaning his thoughts fragment from time to time. It’s almost as if random thoughts leap into his mind and disrupt everything. I don’t know what to make of it.

  Zahra’s shrill voice pulls me back to the brewing storm around me. “How dare you insinuate I have an ulterior motive, Eamon!”

  “Enough.” I shove the map out of the way, hoist myself onto the altar stone in the center of the room, and swing my legs back and forth. “Bastien is staying. He saved my life and I owe him. Besides, we could use his help around here.”

  Eamon starts to protest but I hold up my hand. “Things have changed. The aliens are moving into our area with some serious firepower. We need food, weapons and a really good plan.” I let my gaze soften as I linger on Eamon’s face. “Toren is needed here, Aminah and Zahra aren’t fit for combat and I’m not letting the two of you out of my sight. So, that means I’m going with Bastien to search out the Grounders. End of story.”

  Eamon’s protest won’t be stopped this time. “No way. We know nothing about this guy. Does anyone else think it’s strange how he just magically appears when Illyria needs him the most?”

  Bastien’s jaw tightens but, after a sharp glance from me, he remains silent. “If he hadn’t been there last night I would be dead. You should be thanking him, not accusing.”

  Toren holds up his hands as he moves between us. “I hate to admit it, but Illyria’s right. Although,” he turns to shoot a warning glance in my direction, “I don’t like the idea of you and him going alone into the City. You need to take someone else with you.”

  “Who? Mathias?” I can imagine the bumbling teen following us around. He turned fifteen about a week ago and has yet to figure out how to compensate for his enormous feet. “If we’re ambushed, he’ll either get us killed or captured. We all know he’s about a dense as a box of rocks. I mean the guy actually thinks Zahra’s hot.” I grin smugly over at her.

  Zahra’s cry of indignation sounds dangerously close to a pig snort. Toren waves her off and focuses on his girlfriend. “Aminah?”

  She purses her lips as she becomes the center of attention, a place she usually avoids at all costs. “Bastien seems fine to me. I haven’t found anything in his mind that makes me think he’s a danger to Illyria.”

  Bastien clears his throat, shooting me a guarded glance that I interpret to be concern for me. Toren watches the interaction before shifting to look at Eamon. “What do you think?”

  Eamon’s fingers pop as they clench into fists at his side. “Illyria’s right,” he grinds out. “Mathias will endanger them.”

  “So you think she should go with Bastien?” Toren presses.

  He won’t meet my gaze as he reluctantly nods. “He’s proven he can take care of himself. Let’s just hope Illyria’s right about him.”

  I wonder if I’m wrong to push for Bastien’s inclusion to the group right now. For the first time in my life, I’ve knowingly hurt my best friend and shoved a wedge between us that I’m unsure I have the ability to remove.

  Toren shakes his head. “Fine, I guess Bastien stays. You two need to rest up tonight and head out in the morning.”

  Zahra squeals and rushes to Bastien’s side, fawning over him with nauseating excitement. I turn my back on them and meet Eamon’s piercing gaze. I hold it for a moment before excusing myself from the room. I’m desperate for sleep, but more than that, I need time to think.

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