“This was a bad plan, Aimy,” Croy-li whispered to his best friend, who glanced up at him from the ground to where he was hiding in the rafters of the building, nearly unseen in his black sneaksuit, with his dark skin and black hair hidden partially under his hood.
“It was your plan,” she hissed at him, getting a running start before she launched herself into the air. Aiming at the wall and kicking against it to get herself higher, Amaya made it into the rafters as well. Croy-li grunted when her weight slammed into him, but he kept them both from falling, holding tight to the support beams with his long limbs hooked around the beams until she was situated. At that point, he balanced on a single one, reaching into the pouch at the small of his back.
“That doesn’t make it a particularly good one,” he contested, pulling out his datapad as she hung onto him with her legs, her arms keeping them in place on the support beams while alarms went off in every direction. He was lucky she had grabbed him when she had, because he nearly tilted over in surprise even though he’d been expecting them. She helped him balance.
“Well, bad plan or not, it got us this far. Now will the escape part of it work?”
“I don’t know,” he responded. “That’s why it’s a bad one. I didn’t know they had override power on their alarm system! I can’t get in without, well,” he waved his hand at her and she grunted. “But I’m trying to see if—”
Below them, light spilled and a group of no less than ten armed soldiers entered the room, their guns and lights pointing all over. Croy-li silently put his datapad back into his pouch and pointed up. Amaya closed her eyes for a long moment, as though praying, before nodding. As the soldiers below searched through the room, its many containers and hiding places, the duo made their way higher up, trying to be as silent as possible. None of those below so much as glanced up, apparently not even considering up to be a possibility.
They were almost to the top when Croy-li slipped. Even though Amadhay caught his arm, bracing herself with the crisscrossed support beams to help hold his full weight and helped him steady himself, neither of them realized the amount of noise they made with their scrabbling until they were found. When lights shone up at them, they exchanged glances. The sound of wings and heavy feet and claws on metal approaching them forced the duo to make a rash decision.
“Throw me,” Amaya ordered, grabbing Croy-li’s hands. The boy started to argue, but a heavy body landing close to them changed his mind. She was the better bet at getting out and back in if he were to get caught. Besides, he had something he wanted to try out, and she would be an impediment to him if it did work.
“I’m right behind you,” he promised, throwing Amaya as hard as he could, through the glass dome. Light from outside shone in where the girl had gone through, and Croy-li was able to see that he was surrounded by guards, rather than soldiers, which made it easier on him. Adjusting his mask and hood with one hand, he rummaged through one of his suits’ many pockets, going by sense of touch to try to find the right tool.
“Hey guys,” he said nervously, taking a step up.
They all rushed at him, and without any time to find something else, Croy-li pulled out what he hoped was his blind bomb and dropped it. He jumped up and it hit a lower rafter, just as his legs were grabbed by several of the guards. Silently mouthing a prayer to the Escort that it would work, Croy-li squeezed his eyes closed just in time, holding onto a support beam to keep from being pulled down. The little metal sphere exploded with a soft fwoom and even through his eyelids and with his head facing away, he could see the bright light and felt its warmth through his sneaksuit and on his exposed skin.
Unlike him, the guards had not been ready for the heat or brightness of the light. Those holding onto him let go to catch themselves as they took wrongs steps and found themselves falling from the rafters. The other guards near him were crying in pain.
Light-blindness achieved, assumed temporary. Unexpected accompanied heat and probable severe burns, Croy-li thought, looking over the guards once the light died away. The ones that had remained on the ground seemed to have been hit by some debris, or perhaps the bomb had been harsher on them, because they were all unconscious, most looking injured. Will need to observe the focus subject’s accompanied effects and—
“Hey, dummy!” Amaya’s voice hissed from above him. Looking up, Croy-li remembered that they were still on a mission and still attempting to escape. He could get into the system from the safety of his room to look at the security footage at a later time to document the progress of his invention.
Amaya reached out for him and he climbed higher as quickly as he could, taking her arm to help lift him up. The broken glass cut through his top where it wasn’t reinforced with padded armor when he pressed against it, lifting himself up. Mentally noting to have Squirrel heal it before someone outside of their team noticed, he brushed glass off, making sure to use the reinforced back of his gloves. Stepping lightly, he followed Amaya’s mimed directions to avoid where the glass was thinner and breaking further.
“Have they found our sled?” Croy-li asked Amaya once they were off of the glass and headed for their escape mobile, which was hidden near the tree line. The girl grabbed his arm and leaned into him, using his movement to keep herself going before looking all around them with a distant look in her eyes that told him she had reached out and was seeing someone’s thoughts.
She snapped back. “No one’s thinking of the trees or the sled. But they know we took the chip, so maybe run faster.”
Croy-li groaned, but ran faster, getting ahead of her so that he could get to the sled to start it up. If he could get it going by the time she caught up, they would be out free. Otherwise, it was far too possible that they would have to fight their way out. He hated fighting the RA. The soldiers were too well trained and comfortable with what was necessary to take them down.
“Have I mentioned how horrible this plan was?” he asked.
She grunted and a thud made him look back just in time to see her jump over an unconscious body. “Well, it was your idea, genius.”
Assured that she was alright, Croy-li focused back on his own running when he stumbled. “I feel like you’re using that term as an insult and as a genius, I am insulted.”
“Good. It worked, then.” She left out a huff of breath that made him look back again. She had stopped running and was frowning, with that distant look in her eye. “They know where we are,” she stated, snapping back. “So get the sled up. I’ve got your back.”
“I’d feel better if Squirrel were here,” Croy-li muttered, hopping over a fallen tree branch to their sled. He pulled it up from its hiding place and brushed the snow off of it. “Or Jazz. Or Soda. Even Brave or Blu. Why are we here alone again?” he muttered, pulling a small spark stick from his pocket. “Oh, I remember. Because you wanted to do it without them. ‘cause the stinking Thief Lord told you to do it alone. And of course you do what he says.”
“Are you done complaining?” Amaya asked hurriedly, “Because we have two Arachins coming at us and I definitely forgot my bug spray.”
Croy-li glanced up and at seeing the scorpion Arachins, looked back to what he was doing. “You could take them,” he said with a shrug, wishing suddenly that he hadn’t unplugged everything. He had only needed to switch the spark plug out and no one would’ve been able to take it anywhere. But no, he had to be thorough.
“Can I borrow your gun?” Amaya asked and Croy-li scoffed.
“You asking tells me you want me to shoot them. Wouldn’t work. Scorpions’ exo’s too thick for bullets except for point blank. And I’m not getting that close. You?”
“Only if you don’t get the sled working in the next few clicks.”
A loud whir came from the sled and both teenagers sighed in relief.
“Thank Goddess,” Amaya muttered, keeping her eyes on the Arachins even as she jogged over to Croy-li and wrapped herself around him. Once she was tucked behind him, Croy-li glanced back to see the Arachins still hadn’t closed the distance between them. They didn’t move through the snow very fast and he assumed that they simply couldn’t. He vaguely remembered that scorpions hibernated in winter, so for there to be any out was atypical.
“Wait a click,” Croy-li muttered, trying to take a quick picture of them with his vid-pod.
“No clicks,” Amaya stated, reaching around him to put the sled into motion. The runners beneath them moved jerkily to get them moving on the even ground. She was wise, because the Arachins started moving more swiftly, closing the distance between them almost in time to catch the duo, but the sled hit a hill and sped down, dropping them right out of the stinger’s reach.
Amaya gave a relieved huff, wrapping her arms around Croy-li’s waist once he took the controls. She pressed her face into his back and Croy-li smiled, almost forgetting that they were still in danger.
“For the record,” she muttered and he strained to hear her over the wind. “Thief Lord told me to pick a partner. He suggested Jazz or Soda. I chose you.”
“He was probably right,” Croy-li said loudly to combat the wind, smiling when she pinched him in the side.
“Mutt,” she teased, and Croy-li relaxed as they got out of the RA’s territory.
They were only a few yards out when the vrrm of snow cars and the crunch of snow under running feet indicated that they were still being chased. They both glanced back and cursed at the sight of wolves. The snow cars weren’t as much of a worry, considering they were obviously standard peacekeeper mobiles and wouldn’t last much longer at their current speed—especially not given that Croy-li had made sure to pour a drop of Sludge Freeze on all the wheels he’d seen while they were back at the compound.
“Drive for me,” Croy-li ordered Amaya, not giving her a chance to argue before he opened the main panel for the engine of their sled.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, grabbing the joystick with both hands so that she could evade a large rock. “Other than trying to get us killed.”
“Trying to not get us killed?” Croy-li suggested, focusing on rearranging the wires. “I put this in just in case of wolf ferals, so here’s hoping it works.”
“Hoping?!” Amaya screeched. A loud howl came from behind them, echoed by several others. Both of them glanced up and back to see that the snow cars were, in fact, stuck in the snow. Unfortunately, they had been replaced by several wolf ferals, two large cat shifters, and an enormous bear that neither was sure if it were a feral or shifter.
They exchanged glances and Croy-li went back to switching out wires and gears. He wasn’t sure that Amaya noticed when the motor in their sled stopped, since she was focused on trying to steer them, and he hoped she wouldn’t need to. Taking a deep breath and shooting a quick prayer to Escort, he molded his sticky tack into a ball, stuck three wires into it, and then pressed all of that to an otherwise untouched, shiny metal box the size of his thumbnail. At first nothing happened, and Croy-li chewed on his lip, ignoring when Amaya again asked him what he was doing.
He pressed the sticky tack more closely against the box, taking care to keep the wires from directly touching the box with a thin layer of the tack insulating them. Unsure what he had done wrong, he flicked the box, noting that it moved when he did.
Is it not in right? He wondered, moving the box until it was firmly in place.
“Take the wheel and I’ll shoot,” Amaya said right before the speed adapter started working. The motor woke up and worked double time, making the runners move with the momentum of the sled instead of just allowing the momentum to take them.
“No shooting,” Croy-li muttered, checking his hip to make sure his friend hadn’t taken his gun while he hadn’t been paying attention. It was still there.
“What do you want us to do, then?” she asked, glancing back again. The animals had stopped chasing now that they were moving too fast and were watching them, but had not stopped howling. “Because they’re still tracking us.”
“Trust me, okay?” Croy-li closed the engine and covered her hands with his. “We don’t need to shoot anyone.”
Amaya huffed, leaning her forehead on his spine. “I wasn’t going to kill anyone,” she said softly, and Croy-li forced a laugh.
“I know,” he said, trying not to look back at her. We’re moving too fast, he told himself. If I look back, we could crash into something. The truth, though, was the he didn’t want her to see that he didn’t believe her. “I just don’t want any more evidence left than necessary.”
“You’re using a standard Local Force 2802 Hemlok,” she stated matter-of-factly. “We chose that gun because it’s standard fare and evidence left by it would be useless.”
“And you’re a crap shot,” Croy-li added defensively. “I mean, I don’t think you’d kill them if you weren’t meaning to, but…” You might not hit at all was where he meant to continue with it, but they both knew he was lying.
“I wasn’t going to kill anyone,” Amaya repeated, lightly hitting her head against his spine several times. “I don’t do that for him, not anymore.”
He wanted to believe her and knew that she needed to believe that, so he didn’t point out that her continued requests for his gun really pointed the other direction. Instead, he shrugged. “Point is, we didn’t kill anyone. Still got the chip?” he asked.
She bit his shoulder. “Of course I still got the chip.”
“Still got that can I gave you?”
“Yeah…” she said slowly.
He lifted his hands from hers. “Grab it,” he ordered, taking the joystick again once she took her hands back to rummage through the pouch attached to the small of her back. “Got it?” he asked after a moment.
“Spray it all over yourself and as much of me as you can.”
“Why?” she asked even as she did it, spraying a cloud over herself. “Woah.”
Croy-li glanced back to see that the cloud hadn’t moved from her, staying tight to her skin and the sled. It was white and glittered like the snow, but when he looked close enough, he could see the nanites that he’d set into the can. Amaya stood, her arm linked loosely around his neck, to spray his front and the rest of the sled.
“Are we invisible?” she asked, sitting down again as the cloud settled.
“Close enough,” Croy-li responded, squinting to see. It hadn’t come out at transparent as he’d wanted. It was supposed to be undiscernible from the outside, but easily seen through inside of it. Instead, he managed a sort of translucent cloud, more like a thin sheet or curtain than glass, like he’d expected.
“Can you see?” Amaya asked after a moment.
“Yes,” he responded instantly, even though he was having trouble. Considering the cat of her aelfe and the low light of the early morning, he had no doubt that she would be able to see better than him. Still, he didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t planned the cloud to be so thick.
She laughed softly and wrapped her hands around his, looking over his shoulder and through the nanites. “Stop being like that. You know my sight is better than yours.”
He mimicked her under his breath before making a face at her. “Anyway, wanna know the best part?” he asked, seemingly just in time when the sounds of large wings and clicking reached their ears. Amaya reached one hand up to cover his mouth, but Croy-li shook it off. “They can’t hear us. Or locate us by sound.” That part he was sure about, considering it was the nanites main function.
“I could kiss you,” Amaya flattered, making Croy-li flush. “How long before they give up?”
Croy-li shrugged. “How should I know?”
“How long before the cloud goes?” she asked instead.
“Uh, that I don’t know either.”
She pinched his side as hard as she could. “I take back the kissing,” she snapped. “So what do you know?”
“I know the boiling point for every element off the top of my head,” he quipped, wincing when she pinched him again. “And that you need to cut your nails,” he muttered under his breath to receive another pinch. “And that we’re twenty clacks from Ainran and since Thief Lord didn’t sign the new RA accords, they don’t have jurisdiction and can’t search his land or air.”
“Finally, something useful. So if the cloud fizzes and they follow, they can’t go in after us?”
Even as they talked, the wing beats seemed to get farther away. Bird cries were still loud, but didn’t seem to be following them. In fact, the loudest sound was their motor as they lapsed into comfortable silence.
“I am going to sleep for six years when we get back to Verseins,” Amaya whined, rubbing her cheek affectionately against his back.
“I thought we were going to Whitestaff tonight,” Croy-li whined.
“If we finished last night, we were. But it’s easier to sneak into Verseins in the morning. Amadhay gave me a fool-proof way.”
At the mention of Amaya’s sister, Croy-li tensed. “Oh, and if Amadhay says it’s good, I’m sure it’ll be all clear,” Croy-li drawled.
Amaya sighed, rubbing her cheek against his back in relaxing circles. “I know she’s, well, Amadhay, but can we just not right now? If she says it’s fool-proof, it’s fool-proof.”
Croy-li sighed. “Fine,” he said after a few clicks. “Verseins. We stop by the kitchens though.”
“Get in, change, kitchens,” Amaya assured him. “Gotta feed my growing princeling,” she teased, hugging him and pointedly squeezing his stomach.
“I’m a growing boy,” he whined. “I need constant sustenance.”
“I think you’re getting fatty,” she stated. “The aelfe’s kicking in.”
He snorted. “Alright then,” he said, knowing that the only way he’d get fatty would be if his dominant, elfin genes completely shut down and let his metabolism slow down to a crawl. And he stopped getting so much exercise running for his life.
A green light scanned over them dispersing their nanite cloud and surprising the duo out of their chattering.
“What was that?” Amaya demanded, while Croy-li’s hands jerked and very nearly ran them into a tree.
“Ainran’s borders?” he suggested doubtfully, as confused as she, though he tried to hide it.
“But we didn’t leave Repunsil!” she exclaimed nervously, clutching his sides as she looked around. “And it’s barely been ten minutes. We weren’t ten minutes away from the border!”
“Maybe,” Croy-li brainstormed for explanations and only came up with one plausible one. “I miscalculated our speed?”
“And what? The cloud worked leaving Repunsil and failed into Ainran?”
That wasn’t likely, no. The two border scans were simultaneous: red showing exit of one territory and green showing entry of another. So, for the cloud to have malfunctioned only on the other side was highly suspicious, if not utterly impossible. Croy-li kept trying to find an answer even as he changed course to head to the Thief Lord’s mansion.
“Worst case scenario, we’ve been made and have to fight out of RA custody. Game plan?” Croy-li asked, shifting the control back to Amaya, who took it easily.
“Lay low,” Amaya said, eyeing the change in scenery from coniferous tree to bare ones. “Only fight back if they try to unmask. I have Blu and Soda on retrieval mode if no contact by full sun.”
Croy-li nodded, glad that she had thought of all this beforehand. He wouldn’t have, considering he was more of a sneaking plan than fighting one. That’s what made them such a good team.
“But considering we just passed our tree,” Croy-li started, watching as they sped past their old treehouse, “I think we’re safe.” He was smacked on the back of his neck by Amaya’s thick braid when her head snapped back to find the colorful, peeling paint on the orb in an old, misplaced willow tree amid the snow. She relaxed for a moment before tensing again once the mansion was in sight.
Taking one hand off of the joystick to squeeze one of hers, Croy-li leaned back into his friend. “Quick in and out. We step in, throw the chip at him, and leave without a chance to get new orders. Kay? Kay.”
He thought she might have kissed his back, but he wasn’t sure because it was quick and followed by a quick, “Kay.”
In no more than two clacks, they were sliding to a stop before an imposing building surrounded by three gates. The first of the gates was made of a thick, smooth material and raised twenty feet off of the ground. The second was even higher and glass plated, sparking with something. The third was the tallest, a curling patterned iron, deceptively pretty yet every inch had poisonous needles to keep intruders from climbing it.
The first gate was already open. “Yay,” Croy-li drawled sarcastically, “We were expected.”
He followed Amaya’s suit in hopping off of the sled and to the gates. Once inside the sleek gate, less than a full foot away from the clear one buzzing with the promise of a good, life-ending jolt of electricity, the duo slapped their dominant hands on the smooth gate and it closed tightly and silently behind them. A quick, blue light scanned over Amaya upon recognition of her biological signature, but there was a red one that slowly filtered over Croy-li. When the red lights touched his gun, an alarm went off, screeching high pitched threats of violence to an assessment of perceived danger. Both teenagers looked around in alarm, stepping back when the second gate inched closer to them.
Amaya turned to Croy-li and studied him as he tried pressing his hand against the gate again, receiving the same dissatisfied beep at each attempt.
“Let me in! You know me!” he yelled, to the gates, attempting to use his technopathy to force them to do his will. However, as the gates had been made specifically with his abilities in mind, and with his help, to keep those Gifted like him out, they didn’t have nearly enough passably sentient technology or data in them for him to override the code red—at least not with his gloves on.
“Why am I red listed?” Croy-li whined. “Jazz I could see. You, Squirrel? Definitely. Immortals, I could even understand Soda or Blu. But me?”
Amaya suddenly made a sound of disgust, smacking herself on the forehead. “Your gloves, genius. It doesn’t recognize you through the new gloves!”
Oh, Croy-li opined, glancing to the new additions to his otherwise unchanged uniform. That makes sense. His old gloves--identical to those that Amaya wore--had been thinner and clung to his palms specifically for the purpose of allowing biological scans. They had also, too often, allowed for him to be sucked into the data-sphere, any network, and the motherboard of most complex machines he touched. His new ones didn’t allow any of that, limiting the distance he was allowed to be pulled while also not completely cutting him off, as his everyday gloves did. He hadn’t remembered to have them made with scanning frequencies embedded.
“Oh, for all the water in the world,” Amaya cursed, grabbing Croy-li’s hand as he thought about the major flaw he had overlooked. She took his left glove off, slammed it against the wall, and waited until the second gate stopped moving. By that point, his pale blue eyes had been covered by a staticky, sick blue film and his skin felt electrified. There was barely a pause between the blue light scanning over Croy-li and the door opening, but in that time, Croy-li had gone fully into the computer controlling the gates and back out.
He snatched his hand away from Amaya, who was breathing a sigh of relief. “Damn it Aimy! That hurts. You know that,” he hissed, shakily forcing the glove back onto his hand. Using only his fingertips, he pushed Amaya away when she tried to brace him with her body.
“Let me even out,” he gritted out through clenched teeth, his hands balled into fists at his sides. The girl took a step back, tilting her head to watch him unblinkingly. The data on his tongue and electricity in his veins was boiling, making his head throb. He took a deep breath. Synchronize the TAU channels. He let the breath out, only seeing 0’s and 1’s to dictate his brain waves. He breathed again. Increase circuit efficiency. Even in this state, Amaya was a comforting familiarity. He breathed again. Lower variable control. And again. Faulty microfilament pathways. And again.
Then, finally, the world was in colors and shapes, rather than computer code. He could breathe without tasting the flow of data all around him. Croy-li rubbed the palm of his hand against his leg, feeling slightly better when the scaled palm of his glove slid easily against the smooth fabric of his sneaksuit.
Amaya rubbed apologetically against him, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she walked past him, apparently recognizing that he was leveled out. He followed her through the second gate and stopped short before the guard in front of the third gate. Amaya smiled sarcastically at her old Rageing instructor, Dawles, who nodded in response, though the woman’s eyes were set on Croy-li, who ran a hand through his short, dark hair.
“Hi?” he asked, unsure why she was so focused on him.
“Your gun, Cole. We aren’t trusted enough to have weapons when meeting with him anymore. Right?” the last word was aimed at the woman, who merely nodded.
Croy-li sighed. “If I was gonna shoot him, don’t they think I’d have done it back when we lived here?” he suggested, unstrapping his gun. Not particularly trusting the woman before them, he opened the gun to show that it only held stun pellets and emptied them into one of his pockets. She watched him, but made no move to stop him from doing it.
Only once all of the pellets were out of the gun and Croy-li showed it to be empty did Dawles hold her hand out. Rolling his eyes to Amaya, who rolled hers in agreement, Croy-li tossed the gun to the woman, who caught it without taking her eyes off of the pair.
“If we split up, who do you think she’d watch?” Amaya whispered to Croy-li out of the corner of her mouth.
“You,” a man’s voice stated, passing through the last gate as though it were merely an illusion. Both teenagers tensed, instinctively moving closer to each other while simultaneously taking a step forward.
“We have what you wanted,” Amaya stated, reaching back into her pouch for the canister holding the chip.
“Because without his gun, Croy-li is rather unintimidating. He is lacking in any real physical skills, defenseless against most attacks. Even his Gift is rather lackluster and more of a handicap than an advantage,” the man continued his explanation as though Amaya hadn’t spoken.
The girl faltered for a moment, looking up at Croy-li, whose expression was a simple smile, covering his absolute hatred for the man standing in front of them. Not only was this man—not that he could prove it—responsible for not only his parents deaths, Amaya’s parent’s deaths, and the eradication of Squirrel’s entire tribe, but he had kidnapped all but two of them, attempted to brainwash them, and blackmailed them into doing his dirty work. And beyond all that, he never let up on an opportunity to remind Croy-li that, as the only non-Herald of their team, he was dispensable, the weakest link, one only kept around to keep the girls, primarily Amaya and Jazz, compliant. He hated him. There were only three people in the world that Croy-li could say he hated. Amadhay was number three. Amaya’s power-hungry uncle, Arne Riffle Hakinato was number two. Thief Lord was number one.
“So it confounds me to attempt to understand why, time after time, I hand you a difficult mission and you choose him.” He turned his attention to the canister. “And surprises me time and again how talented you are.”
Croy-li knew Amaya’s temper was about to flare up and he tried to stop it, grabbing her hand. She looked up at him again and smiled, but it was a dangerous smile, with the same look in her eye a cat gives its fellow before downing prey. He didn’t try any of the switches, not with the Thief Lord watching. He didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing something that he’d taught him was still being used.
The girl tossed the canister at the Thief Lord’s feet. “I’m talented because I have Croy-li to pick up my slack,” she snapped. “This is my last job. You can tell the world what you want to, but this is it. I will snap your neck before I do another thing for you, so find someone new to blackmail.”
“And the others?” his asked archly. “Will you leave them to do your dirty work? You and your little princeling might be shielded from repercussions by your families, but what of the rest of my Twisted Dragons. How about the banished Lazaili? My little orphaned Bravery? Our pirate refuge Adosoda or freed slave Bluregarda? Can’t forget Kruremuangra. She doesn’t even speak Roades. How do you think any of them would be to fare if information became loose about their escapades?”
“Escapades?” Amaya and Croy-li asked in incredulous disgust.
“You call forcing us to steal and kill for you escapades?”
“No one forced anything,” he responded with a smile, looking to Dawes. “Do you ever remember me holding a knife to their throats?”
“No sir,” Dawles responded with a fake smile. “You were nothing but encouraging of their interests and games, as any foster father would be. They were excited to learn. How were you to know what they planned to do with it?”
“Kill the Jasta master vampire?” Thief Lord gave a false gasp. “I wasn’t expecting our little Lazaili to do that when she was twelve. Steal important Roadesian Army plans? What can I say? They were always so eager to impress me. Do you know what the Roadesian Army does to Heralds they can’t control?”
It was too late to use a switch, so this time Croy-li kept Amaya from doing something she would regret by grabbing her wrist and twisting until she backed down. She even allowed him to push her to stand behind him. “Of course, my lord. We will be waiting patiently for your next summons. Until then, we both need sleep and to get back before we are missed.”
Amaya hissed at Croy-li and he easily ignored it and her spitting while Thief Lord and Dawles watched them with vague interest.
“Hand me the chip,” the man ordered, making Croy-li flinch.
“It is right there. It won’t hurt you to pick it up.”
“But it might hurt you if I have to,” he threatened blatantly, making Croy-li tense when Amaya gave a low, angry hiss. He kicked her.
“Of course,” Croy-li gritted out, keeping Amaya behind him, but knowing better—from experience—not to let her go when she was that riled up. She would only make the predicament worse. So instead, Croy-li closed the distance between them and the Thief Lord. Not lowering his eyes as he had been taught, he kept eye contact with the man to make it clear just how little respect he had for him. He bent at his knees, picked up the canister, and when he started to stand, the man touched the crown of his head to keep him down.
“Remember where your alliance lies and who your true king is,” he reminded Croy-li before turning his attention to Amaya. Without looking, Croy-li knew that she wouldn’t kneel without being forced, so he twisted her wrist again, only letting up on the force when she knelt beside him, in the same subservient position before the Thief Lord.
“Say it,” Thief Lord ordered.
Croy-li blinked, choosing to stay silent. He kept his eyes even with the Thief Lord, who looked from him, to Amaya, and then back with a decisive gleam. Even though he expected, Croy-li flinched at the white-hot surge inside him and tried to fight the need to properly kneel before the man. He lost the fight, as always, and moved from his crouch to kneel, lowering his eyes subserviently.
The pain left Croy-li’s body for the few clicks it took for the man to get the same reaction from Amaya, and returned, this time primarily to his mind. Croy-li tried to fight it, mentally listing the elements and their corresponding weights, but the pain seared until he couldn’t stop it and, as always, he and Amaya spoke at the same time, their voices monotone.
“You have my allegiance, my king.” Once the words were out, they were meant. Both teenagers hated it, hated the brand of the Thief Lord on their minds, but there was nothing they could do about it. It was better to have the brand than to have him push further and make them his like he used to.
“Canister,” he ordered, holding his hand out and Croy-li lifted it to him, placing it in the man’s hand as hard as he could. With that, the man walked back through the gate.
A few clicks later, Amaya and Croy-li were able to move from their knees. Amaya started toward the gate, as though to follow the man and the violence in her shaking body made it clear what she intended.
Dawles moved in front of her. “You have been dismissed,” she said, her fingers twitching in a tell-tale manner that had Croy-li grabbing Amaya again. Unlike before, the girl didn’t allow him to handle her, instead needing to get some of the violence out. She shoved him away and jumped at the Rager, who immediately swept her hands into the air, snatching water from the snow around them and making it circle the duo.
Amaya pushed at the water, easily making a path for herself and throwing that water back at Dawles, hitting her face. The woman didn’t so much as flinch, shifting to get a better stance. She pulled more water from around them and took her attention fully from Croy-li to focus on the Herald. Amaya pulled water of her own and swirled it into a mini whirlpool, aiming it at Dawles, who had to dodge it. The force of it hitting the third gate made the tiny needles thicken in threat to a nonexistent trespasser.
“Aimy, come on,” Croy-li tried as the girl dodged a water ball. Dawles was playing with her. While Amaya undoubtedly had more ability and power as the Water Herald, Dawles had spent her life mastering the element and the past thirty or so years as a Rager, the highest class of learned elementalist. She had always held back, blatantly so, when teaching Amaya because she didn’t trust her. Amaya was only proving her right, and Croy-li wished she wouldn’t. “We need to get home before Soda and Blu come looking,” he reminded her.
That made her pause long enough to be hit in the side by an icicle, though luckily not the sharp point. He hadn’t realized that water included control of ice, and the surprised look on Amaya’s face told him that she hadn’t either.
“You have a lot to learn before you can take me, much less our king,” Dawles stated. The second gate reopened to let them out. “Now leave.”
They did just that.