Authors: Jonathan Yanez
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Occult, #Romance, #Paranormal, #Vampires, #Teen & Young Adult
“Well, at least you weren’t using the temple for anything, right? I mean, it could have been a lot worse if we tried this in the palace courtyard,” Orion said.
“Yes, Orion, but the way you flew through the air like a baby bird was most definitely the highlight of last night’s events,” Zheng said.
Connor opened his eyes and stared into the jungle sky. He was on his back lying outside of the temple on a blanket.
His father’s head appeared over him and looked down. “Well, that was only the first time. It’ll get easier. You did well.”
Connor sat up and rubbed at his arms where the steel chains had been locked in place. Not so much as a cut or scrape was there.
“How do you feel?” his father asked.
“I couldn’t do it. I thought for a second I had it. I was just beginning to see Laren and control the rage but it was gone in a second.” Connor looked at Orion and Zheng, who stood by the side looking on. “I’m so sorry for—”
Zheng raised both hands with a smile. “Please, Connor. It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve tried to take a swing at me.”
“And,” Orion said, “If you’re capable of that kind of strength and power, then I think we’re going to be all right when it comes to facing Vercin and the inmates of Karnag.”
“We still have a ways to go before that can happen,” Caderyn said. “We need to practice and—”
All four men stopped talking as a figure came into view. The woman was tall and graceful and walked up the steep mountain trail as if she were on a morning stroll.
Connor got to his feet and smiled. “Morrigan.”
Morrigan reached the group, wide-eyed. The temple was in even worse repair than it had been just a day ago. Zheng was covered in dust and the broken tree that now lay by the path looked like it had been struck by lightning. “Good morning, it seems like I missed quite a night.”
Four heads nodded with large eyes.
“Well, I wish I could come with better news but you’re needed at the palace. Vercin has contacted us by using a looking glass. He’s requesting an immediate meeting.
Connor was reminded of the mirror-like tool used for communication by the Elite race. However, even more important to him than speaking with his adversary was a certain female Elite. “Morrigan, is Laren any better?”
Morrigan cleared her throat, searching for a political answer. “Laren has stabilized. She is going to be fine. Her Elite gene has been rendered dormant just like yours was before you knew all of this existed.” Morrigan opened her arms with a wide gesture, taking in The Island’s terrain. “She’s human.”
Connor wasn’t sure why he was so scared for Laren. Somewhere deep down he already knew what Vercin had done to her. His enemy had played a sick joke on the woman he loved. A message to him saying nothing was safe. To Connor this didn’t change anything. He still cared for Laren in the exact same way but he knew Laren. From her point of view this would change everything. “We have to go then,” Connor said.
“But the training, your training has just started, “Orion said.
“If Vercin wants to talk, then maybe we can buy ourselves more time or maybe talk him down from his plan.” Even as Connor said the words he knew how unlikely that would be. Despite the doubt he knew he had to explore every option before the Elite race declared full out war.
“He’s right,” Caderyn said. “Let’s get back to the palace and see what kind of conversation Vercin has planned.”
For Connor, stepping into the palace was like entering the premier of a movie he had written, produced, starred in, and directed. Everyone wanted to see him. Word of him being the Judge and passing the set of ancient trials had spread over land and sea. When the call was sent out to join Connor in the war against Vercin, the majority of four of the five families had flocked to Connor’s banner.
Although Vercin’s reign of terror had occurred hundreds of years previous, to Elites who lived for centuries, the memories were still fresh. They knew the kind of man Vercin was and what his rise to power would mean for the future.
Now Elites of varying eye color warmly shook his hand. There were those who understood his responsibilities and how pressed for time he must be. These supporters just wanted to meet their Judge. Others were only concerned about themselves and how much face time they could get with their savior.
As Connor made his way through the palace halls he was cornered by one of these self-indulgent Elite members. She was a middle-aged woman with short hair. She wore a dress that was more befitting a presidential inauguration than a stroll through the palace in time of war. Beside her were her three girls, all amber-eyed, with winks and shy smiles directed at Connor.
“Oh, you heard me right. I mean, a man is only as strong as the woman he has beside him. And that’s just not coming from me, Mr. Moore, that’s coming from someone else. I forget who said it at the moment, but you can take that to the bank.”
Connor was a deer in headlights as the woman continued to talk. Still dirty from his night on the mountain, all he could think about was seeing Laren and changing into some clean clothes.
The woman he was talking to must have noticed his state because she went on, “Oh well, all of my girls would make great housekeepers.”
“Oh, really, well—”
“Oh yes, they’re just the nicest and sweetest girls, and I dare say they’re close to your age, Connor. Connor, can I call you Connor?”
“Oh, perfect! See? We’re already getting along so well.”
The woman rambled on and on, beating around the bush of Connor going out with one of her daughters. Connor soon found himself looking into the downside of near immortality.
I guess the saying ‘just shoot me’ doesn’t apply to you anymore.
Connor stood with his arms crossed, nodding and smiling to the woman when finally he was saved.
“Connor! There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you.” Connor, along with his hunters, looked to their left as Katie approached. She was wearing a huge smile on her face as she walked towards the group. “You haven’t forgotten about the super important meeting, right? I mean that one you have to go to right now or else the fate of our kind and all humanity will be doomed.”
Connor did a half nod. He caught the woman and her daughters’ surprised expressions out of the corner of his eye.
“Oh yes, that super important meeting that can’t wait or the fate of the world will be thrown into darkness,” Connor said, turning back to his would-be mother-in-law and company. “I really have to be going, but it’s been so nice meeting you and I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
“Oh yes, of course,” the woman started, “but we really should talk abou—”
“Come on, Connor, hurry,” Katie said. “Can’t be late, fate of the world, and all.”
Connor had to remind himself not to run as he joined Katie. “Thanks, I owe you one.”
Katie winked a bright blue eye at him as she laughed. “I think you owe me two or three for that one but we won’t keep score.”
Connor smiled at his longtime friend and once girlfriend. “How’s training going with Morrigan?”
“Great. I mean, I’d be the last one to think I’d willingly trade pompoms for a wand and pointed hat, but it—it just feels right, somehow. Like this is where I’m supposed to be. Does that make any sense?”
“Perfect sense. How—how are you doing with knowing who your mom really is?” Connor mentally kicked himself for the awkward subject. Katie’s mother was a sorceress just like her and Morrigan and recently she had revealed herself to be on the side of their enemy, Vercin. “Katie, if you’re not ready to talk about it, I totally understand. I’m just saying if you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
Katie lowered her eyes to the hall floor as they continued to walk. “No, I know what you mean. Thanks, Connor. You’re actually the one person I wouldn’t mind talking about my mom with. I guess I’m still in denial. For so many years I thought she was someone she clearly isn’t. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that the woman I grew up with and loved is actually an Elite sorceress hungry for power.”
The two stopped at Connor’s door.
“I’m just hoping that there’s some small part of the mother I knew inside. Maybe it’s too late for her but maybe there’s some way I can still get through to her.”
“Don’t lose hope, Kat.”
“Thanks, Connor, I won’t.” Katie sniffed the air and grimaced. “Oh man, this Elite smelling thing has its drawbacks. You most definitely need a shower.”
“Yeah, you’re telling me. I had a crazy night.”
“Well, Judge, get changed and I’ll see you soon.”
The two stood staring at each other for an awkward second. In times past there would have been a hug or kiss but now with their new relationship definition in place, Katie just smiled and walked away.
Connor walked into his small room and straight to the shower. He knew he should be thinking about Vercin and how he was going to defeat him if he couldn’t be one with his Elite gene but the entire time he couldn’t stop thinking about Laren.
On one hand he was happy to see her again. He just wanted to spend time with her. On the other he knew she would be taking the loss of her Elite gene hard, not to mention the loss of her father.
Someone had left a meal of turkey wraps and fruit outside of his door. Connor said a silent prayer of thanks to whoever had been the thoughtful saint. He grabbed both food items and made his way to Laren’s room.
Connor was lucky enough to avoid any other would-be suitors on his way and soon found himself wiping away crumbs from his shirt. He knocked on Laren’s door. When there was no answer, he slowly turned the knob. “Hey, Laren, it’s Connor. Are you here?”
“She wanted to get out,” Lu said as Connor walked in and found Laren’s older brother sitting on her bed. “She just left. I think she needed some space.”
Connor nodded as he looked at the big man who had been ferocious with an unstable bloodlust only days before. “Oh, I see. How’s your family doing with—with everything going on?”
Lu’s black shirt rippled with tensed muscles underneath. His hair was already starting to grow back, making his Mohawk look only slightly less intimidating. “Reap cried his eyes out for the first few days, but kids are resilient. Our mother is strong when she’s talking to us but I can tell she’s hiding a lot of pain. Laren has not only the loss of our father on her plate but now the fact that she’s human to deal with, and I’m a wreck.”
“Oh wow. I was half expecting you to just be angry again or tell me you didn’t want to talk about it.”
Lu half smiled. “As good as ripping those soldiers from limb to limb felt, nothing is going to bring back my father. I can do more good just being here for my family than on the battlefield. Don’t get me wrong—when the time comes for violence, I’m going to be first in line, but my father would want me here with a level head. Not running around like a lunatic ,no matter how good it felt.”
Connor was stunned by Lu’s sudden change. “I think that’s great, Lu. I know your father would be proud of you and your decision. What brought about the sudden change?”
“Laren did. She has a way with people.”
“Yeah. Really laid into you, huh?”
“She slapped me, hard, more than once.”
Connor’s eyes doubled in size. “She what?”
“You heard me. She slapped me and yelled at me. She almost broke her hand on my face since she’s human and all but she got her point across.”
“Wow.” Connor knew he should probably say more but at the moment he was impressed, not for the first time, by the internal strength Laren possessed.
“She’s going to need you, Connor.” Lu looked at Connor with intense jade green eyes. “She won’t admit it. She’s way too stubborn for that, but she’ll need you all the same.”
“I know, I’m going to go find her now.”
“Try not to get slapped.”
Connor made his way through the palace again to the rear of the large building. Connor knew Laren would want a quiet place to think. The front of the palace courtyard was filled with tents and Elites. Laren wouldn’t stay inside either, there were too many people running about preparing for the confrontation.
A warm sun greeted Connor as he stepped outside. The garden to the rear of the palace spread out in all directions and the noise of everyday life seemed fainter with every step.
Connor walked down the path that split the garden in half. Giving a second thought to his appearance, he combed over his thick black hair to the side. He saw Laren’s familiar form sitting on a stone bench to his right.
“Hey, you. How are you feeling?”
Laren looked up at him as he approached and did her best to smile. “Oh, you know, human and all.”
Connor took a seat by her on the stone bench and gently placed his hand on hers. They were surrounded by roses on all sides. Every shade was present and accounted for, from bright orange to soft pink. No one was around and the two found themselves alone for the first time since Laren’s rescue.
“I’m so sorry about your father. You know if there’s anything I can do, all you have to do is ask.” When Laren didn’t say anything, Connor tried again. “We’ll find a way, Laren. Vercin has called for a meeting. I’ll find out what was done to you and we’ll reverse it. You’ll be a member of the Elite race again and everything will be like it was before.”
Laren avoided eye contact with Connor, instead staring into the forest of roses. “I know you’re trying to help, Connor. The pain of my father’s passing will be dulled with time but we have to face the idea that I may never be an Elite again.”
The defeat in her voice and the way she stared off into the distance made Connor worry. “Laren—”
“Connor, you know I love you, right?”
All the warning signs for a bad conversation were present. Laren turned in her seat and took both of Connor’s hands in her own.
“Yes, I know that, Laren. I love you, too.”
“I know you do and that’s why this is so hard to say.”
“Then don’t.” Connor hated the panic in his voice but he knew what was coming next.
“Connor, you’re a Judge of an Elite race. You are The Judge that Morrigan said was coming to lead us out of a time of darkness hundreds of years ago. And now, now I’m just human. You have hundreds, maybe even a thousand years to live. I’ll be lucky if I see another seventy.”
Connor wouldn’t let Laren sacrifice herself for him. He knew deep down she thought she was doing the right thing for his sake. “No, I won’t let this get between us. I’ll find a way. Even if you are human, my feelings for you haven’t changed.”
“I know you won’t let me go, Connor,” Laren said as she reached up and cupped his jaw in her hand. “That’s why I have to let you go. You have a destiny to fulfill. A destiny that doesn’t include a relationship with a human.”
“Hmmmmpphhhh…” The sound of someone clearing their throat much too loudly reached Connor’s ears. Connor turned to see Morrigan standing a few yards away. “I’m sorry to bother you but we’re awaiting you in the war room for a decision on Vercin’s request for a meeting.”
Connor nodded and turned back to Laren. “Human or Elite, I won’t lose you, no matter what the cost.”
Laren gave him another smile and kiss on the cheek. “Go get ‘em, Judge.”
Connor’s heart was torn in two. He wanted more than anything to stay by Laren’s side and comfort her. But he was a Judge now. If there was a cure for Laren, he knew that Vercin held the key.
Connor rose from his seat and followed Morrigan back into the palace. “I’m sorry for having to disrupt you, Connor but if there’s the slightest chance we can convince Vercin to engage in peace talks, we have to jump at it.”
“I understand,” Connor said, his jaw clenched.
The war room was a short walk from the rear courtyard and Morrigan opened the door, ushering Connor inside. The room was full of both familiar and unfamiliar faces. Orion, Zheng, Kora, Lu, Caderyn, Randolph, Miyanda, and her mother were all there. In addition, a dozen or so appointed leaders of the Elite families were also present.
Connor caught Randolph’s eye and gave him a nod. As one of only a few members of the Ulfric family siding against Vercin, Connor respected him even more. Randolph returned the nod with a solemn smile.
“The Judge has arrived,” Zheng said, rising from his seat at the head of the table. “Please, Morrigan, now that all are present, tell us exactly what Vercin said.”
All eyes in the room turned to the sorceress. She cleared her throat. “I received the message yesterday night by means of the looking glass. It was from Vercin himself, who asked for a meeting with Connor and only Connor. He said any other members we deem fit are welcome to come, but when the talking starts, he wants only Connor there.”
“It sounds like a trap,” Randolph said. He stood leaning against a wall looking around at his fellow Elites. “I know better than anyone what Vercin and his men are capable of.”
“You should,” Lu said under his breath but still loud enough for everyone to hear. “You were one of his men.”
“‘Were’ being the key word, Lupus. I told you. My loyalties lie here with you and our true Judge. If you don’t believe me, you can go on another bloody rampage and try capturing someone this time to ask them instead of tearing them to pieces.”
Lu rose from his seat as if he were going to jump over the table and strangle Randolph.
“Thank you both for your thoughts,” Connor said. “I know there’s always the possibility it could be a trap, but we have to take any chance we can if it means resolving this peacefully.”
“And your passion for meeting with Vercin would have to do with peace talks?” Miyanda said slowly from her seat at the table. “I mean, your eagerness to meet with our enemy wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain Abelardus losing her power and turning human? I don’t doubt your courage or your word, so tell me this has nothing to do with Laren and I will believe you.”
Connor bit his tongue and paused. If Miyanda had accused him of wanting to meet with Vercin to find a cure for Laren it would have been better. The way Miyanda phrased the question, though with no malice or hint of ill will, made Connor stop and question his own intentions.
An expression of regret passed over Miyanda’s strong features. “Connor, I saw you accomplish the impossible first hand when you captured the dragon. I will follow you wherever you lead. I meant no disrespect.”
Connor nodded as Miyanda apologized. “No disrespect taken. However, this is about peace first and foremost. If there is any chance to end this now instead of a final confrontation that will result in hundreds, maybe thousands dead, then we owe it to ourselves to follow through and try.” Connor paused. “But I’ve never lied to you and I won’t start now. If there’s a way to cure Laren and prevent this from happening again, I will find it. And I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Most of the heads in the room nodded agreement.
“Morrigan,” Connor asked as he turned to his mentor and friend. “Where and when did Vercin say the meeting would take place?”
Morrigan looked down at the slender gold watch on her wrist. “The meeting is set to take place in an hour. In Central Park.”