On the shield, one of seven forged in the timeless past to hold back the dark, fell a single drop of blood. So the shield weakened, and the dark, spider-patient, waited as the decades passed, and the wound spread under the grass and ground. And on the last day of what had been, a good man, in all innocence, broke the shield open. The dark rewarded him with deadly infection, one that would pass from man to wife, from parent to child, from stranger to stranger. While the dying world reeled, its framework—governments, technology, laws, transportation, communication—crumbled like bricks of dust. The world ended with bangs and whimpers, with blood and pain, with fear and dread. A cashier handing change to a customer, a mother nursing her child, businessmen gripping hands over a deal— these and so many simple contacts spread death like a poisoned cloud over the world. And billions fell. They called it the Doom—for so it was—a murderously speedy sickness with no cure that killed villains and innocents, statesmen and anarchists, the privileged and the penniless with equal glee. While billions died, those who survived—the immune—struggled to live one more day, to find food, to protect whatever shelter they might have, to escape and evade the unchecked violence unleashed. For some, even in their most dire hour, would burn, pillage, rape, kill for the sheer pleasure of it. Through the poisonous cloud that enveloped the world, light sparked. Darkness pulsed. Powers, long dormant, awakened. Some bloomed bright, others black through choices made.
But they bloomed. Magicks began to hum. Some embraced the wonders while some feared them. And some hated. The other, the not-like-me, would always spark hate in some hearts. What came to be known as the Uncanny faced the fear and hate of those who hunted them. Governments, desperate to hold their own power, sought to sweep them up, imprison them, experiment on them. Magickals hid from or fought against those who called on a fierce and bitter god to torture and destroy, from those mated to their own bigotry like a lover. And from and against those who bloomed dark. On a storm-lashed night, a child whose light sparked at the moment of a good man’s death drew her first breath.
She came from love and sacrifice, from hope and struggle, from strength and grief. With that loosed cry of life, a mother’s tears, the strong hands of the man who held her, the warrior, the leader, The One took her first step toward destiny. Magicks began to beat. In the years that followed, wars raged between men, between dark and light, between those who fought to survive and build and those who sought to destroy and rule the rubble. The child grew, as did her powers. With her training, her mistakes, her triumphs, she took the next steps. So a young girl full of faith and wonder reached into the fire and took up the sword and the shield. And became The One. Magicks began to rise. CHAPTER ONE A storm raged.
It crashed around her with wild, wind-whipped rain, sizzling strikes of lightning, bellowing booms of thunder. It whirled inside her, a torrent of anger she knew must be suppressed. She would bring death tonight, by her sword, by her power, by her orders. Every drop of blood shed would be on her hands—that was the weight of command, and accepted. She was not yet twenty. Fallon Swift touched her fingers to the cuff she wore on her wrist, one she’d conjured from a tree she’d destroyed out of temper, and carved to remember never to destroy out of anger. It said: Solas don Saol. Light for Life. She would bring death tonight, she thought again, but she would help others live. Through the storm she studied the compound.
Mallick, her teacher, had taken her to one similar enough on her fourteenth birthday. But while that one had been deserted, with only the stink of black magicks, the charred remains of the dead, the dying cries of the tortured left, this one held more than six hundred—two hundred and eighty personnel, and three hundred and thirty-two prisoners. Forty-seven of those prisoners were, according to their intel, under the age of twelve. She had every inch of the compound—the containment center—every room, every hallway, camera, alarm, in her head. She’d made detailed maps, had spent months planning this rescue. It would be, in the three years since she’d begun to raise her army, since she and her family had left their home for New Hope, the biggest rescue attempt by her resistance forces. If she failed … A hand gripped her shoulder, steadied her as it always had. She turned her head, looked at her father. “We’ve got this,” Simon told her. She let out a breath.
“Bespelling the surveillance cameras,” she murmured, and relayed that to the elves mind to mind so they’d pass the word. Now those at security monitors would see only the trees, the rain, the swampy ground. “Take down the alarms.” She and other witches worked the spell, painstakingly, while the storm blew. When the all clear ran through the ranks, she ignored the pang, gave the order. “Archers, go.” The guard towers had to be taken out, swift and silent. She felt Tonia, lead archer, friend, blood of her blood, nock an arrow, release. With eyes gray and focused, she watched arrows strike, men fall, in the towers on the four corners of the prison walls. Moving in, she took the electronic gates, using power to disarm.
At her signals, troops flowed through the opening, elves scaled the walls and fences, shifters leaped, tooth and claw, faeries glided with a whisper of wings. Timing, she thought as she spoke to the elf commander Flynn, to Tonia in her mind. They would breach the three doors simultaneously, and each team leader would focus their troops on priorities. Destroy communications, eliminate security, take the armory, secure the lab. Above all, shield all prisoners. After one last glance at her father, seeing the courage and determination in the face she trusted completely, she gave the order. Drawing her sword, she blew the locks on the main doors, charged in, blew the secondary doors open. Part of her mind overlaid the now with the prison on Hatteras, the visions she’d stirred there at fourteen. So much the same. But here, soldiers lived, reached for weapons.
Even as gunfire rang out, she struck, enflaming sidearms that left hands blistered and men screaming with pain. She struck out with sword, swung out with shield to cut through the enemy. Fighting through, she heard the shouts, moans, pleading from behind the steel doors, and felt the fear, the terrible hope, the pain and confusion of those locked in. Drenched in it, she cut down a soldier as he rushed to his comm, sliced her sword across the radio, sent a bolt of shock through the entire system. Sparks showered, monitors blanked to black. Boots clanged on metal stairs, and death, more death, met them as arrows sliced through the air. Fallon took a bullet on her shield, sent it flying back and into the shooter as she pivoted to the iron door someone inside the prison had managed to secure. She blasted it open, taking out two on the other side and, leaping over the smoking twists of metal, cleaved her sword through a third before she rushed toward the stairs leading down. War cries followed her. Her troops would spread out, swarm through—barracks, offices, mess hall, galley, infirmary.
But she and those with her surged toward the lab and its chamber of horrors. There, another iron door. She started to punch her power through, stopped a breath away from the blast as she sensed something more, something dark. Magicks, black and deadly. She held up a hand to halt her team. Forcing patience, she searched, tall in elf-made boots and leather vest, black hair short, eyes blurred with power. “Stand back,” she ordered, and shouldered her shield, sheathed her sword to hold her hands to the door, the locks, the deep frame, the thick metal. “Booby-trapped,” she murmured. “We push in, it blows out. Stand clear.
” “Fallon.” “Stand clear,” she told her father. “I could unwind it, but that would take too long.” She swung her shield up again, and her sword. “In three, two—” She shoved her power, light against dark. The doors erupted, spewing fire, raining out jagged, flaming metals. Shrapnel thudded on her shield, whizzed by to impale the wall behind her. Into the torrent she leaped. She saw the man, naked, eyes glazed, face blank, shackled to an exam table. Another in a lab coat flung himself back, sprang on his hands, then scaled the back wall in a blur of speed.
She flung power at the ceiling, brought the one in the lab coat down in a heap as Simon dodged the scalpel swipe by a third before taking him out with a short-armed jab. “Search for others,” Fallon ordered. “Confiscate all records. Two to secure this section, and the rest move out, clear the rest of the level.” She approached the man on the table. “Can you speak?” She heard his mind, the struggle to form words. They tortured me. I can’t move. Help me. Will you help me? “We’re here to help.
” She watched his face as she sheathed her sword. Blocked out the chaos of fighting from above while she kept her mind linked to his. “Got a woman over here,” Simon called out. “Drugged, cut up, but she’s breathing.” They hurt us, hurt us. Help us. “Yes.” Fallon laid a hand on one of the shackles so it fell open. “How long have you been here?” I don’t know. I don’t know.
Please. Please. She circled the table to release the shackle on his other wrist. “Did you choose the dark before or after you came here?” she wondered. He reared up, glee on his face as he struck out at her with a bolt of lightning. She simply swatted it back with her shield, impaling him with his own evil. “I guess we’ll never know,” she mumbled. “Jesus Christ, Fallon.” Simon stood, the woman limp over his shoulder, his gun drawn. “I had to be sure.
Can you get her to a medic?” “Yeah.” “We’ll clear the rest.” When they had, the count was forty-three enemy prisoners to transport. The rest they’d bury. Medics moved in to treat wounded from both sides while Fallon began the laborious process of vetting those held in cells. Some, she knew, might be like the ones in the lab. Others might have had their minds broken, and a broken mind could bring danger to the rest. “Take a break,” Simon told her, and shoved coffee into her hand. “There are some shaky ones.” She gulped down coffee as she studied her father’s face.
He’d mopped off the blood, and his hazel eyes held clear. He’d been a soldier long ago, in the other time. He was a soldier again in this one. “They’ll need to move into one of the treatment centers before they’re clear to go. Why does that always feel as if we’re keeping them prisoners?” “It shouldn’t, because it’s not. Some are never going to be right again, Fallon, and still we’ll let them go unless they pose a real danger. Now tell me how you knew that bastard on the table down in the lab was a bad guy.” “First, he wasn’t as powerful as he thought, and it leaked through. But logically, the spell on the door, witchcraft. The other magickal in the lab was an elf.
Bad elf,” she said with half a smile. “Elves are good at getting through locks, but they can’t bespell them. I felt his pulse when I released the first shackle, and it was hammering. It wouldn’t have been if he’d been under a paralytic.” “But you released the second one.” “He could’ve done that for himself.” She shrugged. “I’d hoped to question him, but … well.” She downed the rest of the coffee, and blessed her mother and the other witches who’d created Tropics to grow the beans. “Do you have the status of the woman they’d dumped off the table?” “Faerie.
She’ll never fly again—they excised most of her left wing—but she’s alive. Your mom’s got her at mobile medical.” “Good. The faerie’s lucky they didn’t just kill her instead of tossing her off. Once our injured prisoners are cleared, I need you to debrief. I know it’s hard for you,” she added. “They’re soldiers, and most of them are just following orders.” “They’re soldiers,” he agreed, “who stood by or even abetted while their prisoners were tortured, while children were kept in cells. No, baby, it’s not hard for me.” “I could do this without you because I have to do it, but I don’t know how.
” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “You’ll never have to figure it out.” She spoke to magickal children who’d been ripped away from non-magickal parents, reunited two whose parent—by blood or choice—had been locked in another cell. She spoke to those who’d been locked in for years, others who had been swept up only days before. She checked each one off the very precise records kept by the—now deceased—prison commander, reviewed the horrific records of experiments done in the lab. Both Dark Uncanny—the witch, the elf—who’d worked there had hidden their natures, so her intel hadn’t shown any magickals on staff. Intel only went so far, she thought as she marked the witch as deceased, the elf as a prisoner of war. The storm passed and dawn broke when she did a last pass through the building. Cleaning crews already worked to scrub away the blood staining the concrete floors, the walls, the stairs. The supply team had gathered everything worth taking—the rations, the equipment, the vehicles, the weapons, clothing, shoes, boots, medical supplies.
All would be logged, then dispensed where most needed or held in storage until it was. The burial unit dug graves. Too many graves, Fallon thought as she walked outside, across the muddy ground. But today they dug none for their own, and that made it a good day. Flynn slid out of the woods, his wolf Lupa by his side. “Seven of the prisoners need more treatment,” he said. “Your mom’s helping with their transport to Cedarsville. It’s the closest clinic that can handle their injuries. The rest are on their way to the detention center on Hatteras.” “Good.
” Flynn, she thought, fast—an elf, after all—efficient, and solid as the rock he could blend into, had met her mother and birth father when he’d been a teenager. Now a man, he stood as one of her commanders. “We’ll need a rotating security detail here,” she continued. “Hatteras is close to capacity, so we’ll need this facility. And they may come and check when they can’t get through, or just bring in another load of prisoners.” She rattled off several names for the detail, including her brother Colin. “I’ll set it up,” Flynn said. “But Colin took a hit in the op, so—” “What?” She whirled around to Flynn, grabbed his arm in a vise grip. “I’m just hearing this?” “You’re The One, but the mother of The One is downright scary, so when she says keep it to myself, I keep it to myself. He’s good,” Flynn added quickly.
“Took a bullet in the right shoulder, but it’s out, and he’s healing. Do you think your mom would go with enemy wounded if her son wasn’t okay?” “No, but—” “She didn’t want you distracted, and neither did your brother, who’s more pissed off than hurt. Your dad already shoved him in the mobile heading back to New Hope.” “Okay, all right.” But she pushed her hands through her short crop of hair in frustration. “Damn it.” “We freed three hundred and thirty-two, and didn’t lose anyone.” Tall and lean, eyes of sharp green, Flynn looked back toward the building. “No one will be tortured in that hellhole again. Take your victory, Fallon, and go home.
We’re secure here.” She nodded, and walked into the woods, breathed in the smell of damp earth, dripping leaves. In this swampy area of what had been Virginia, near the Carolina border, insects hummed and buzzed, and what she knew to be sumac grew thick as walls. She moved through until she stood within the circle of the shimmering morning sun to call Laoch. He glided down to land, huge and white, silver wings spread, silver horn gleaming. For a moment, because despite victory she was bone weary, she pressed her face to his strong throat. For that moment she was just a girl, with bruises aching, with eyes of smoke gray closed, with the blood of the slain on her shirt, her pants, her boots. Then she mounted, sat tall in the saddle of golden leather. She used no reins or bit on the alicorn. “Baile,” she murmured to him.
Home. And he rose up in the blue sky of morning to take her. When she arrived at the big house between the New Hope barracks and the farm where Eddie and Fred raised their kids, their crops, she found her father waiting on the porch, his boots up on the rail, a mug of coffee in his hand. He’d had a shower, she noted, as his mop of dense brown hair still showed damp. He rose, walked down to her, laid a hand on Laoch’s neck. “Go on in and check on him. He’s sleeping, but you’ll feel better for it. I’ll see to Laoch, then there’s breakfast for both of us keeping warm in the oven.” “You knew he’d been hurt.” “I knew he’d been hurt and I knew he was okay.
” Simon paused when she dropped down. “Your mom said not to tell you until you’d finished. She said that’s that, and when your mom says that’s that —” “That’s that. I’m going to see for myself, grab a shower. I could use that breakfast after. Travis and Ethan?” “Travis is at the barracks working with some new recruits. Ethan’s over at Eddie’s and Fred’s helping with livestock.” “Okay then.”