The Contract – Part 2

To celebrate the release of my new novel, Contained, I will be posting chapters from the prequel to the Fractured Series, The Contract.

Here is the second installment. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 2

The smell registered first. Slapping her awake like a handful of salts; strong enough to make her eyes water and her stomach heave in protest. The aroma of death and decay clawed at her throat. She had no idea if her captors were close by and didn’t care. Her lips moved instinctively, the chant increasing with every jagged breath until she was clear of the rancid stink assaulting her nostrils.

She didn’t open her eyes right away. Instead, she took stock of her injuries. Her head hurt, which was a given – she had been struck from behind. Her hair was sore too, which meant someone had tried to cut it. The result was a burn she felt as strongly as she would along her skin. It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to disable her power, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Reaching out with her senses, she tried to locate Tobias. It worried her that she couldn’t feel him, until she used her connection to search out Zachariah and also came up blank. It had to be some kind of cloaking spell. Testing her magic, she used second sight to explore her surroundings. The image was strong and clear; she was in a six by eight foot cell. Aside from the pit in the centre, she found nothing out of the ordinary.

Her hands were bound above her head, connected to a thick, coiling chain which linked to matching cuffs at her ankles. There was something odd about her binds. For one, she could feel the low hum of power in her hands. Her hair stretched reflexively, winding around the chains and testing the cold metal.

Someone was bound to the restraints. She felt it like a punch to the gut, and for an awful moment thought it might be Tobias. She pushed out, seeking the energy, feeling the pain. The connection jolted through her, momentary and yet stronger than anything she’d felt before.

Her eyes blinked open. It took a moment to adjust to the darkness. As she waited, she chanted softly, her hair still curled around the chain. She felt the moment the metal gave way. The cuffs on her hands and feet went with it and she was free.

A man crouched beside her. She could see an outline but nothing more. Taking one of the gold rings from her hair, she tossed it between them and waited for the soft glow to reach him.

His eyes took her by surprise; a dark, stormy grey. He was broken, barely holding it together, and angry she had summoned his true form.

“What’s your name?” she asked, her gentle tone shocking her.

There goes my reputation.

“What difference does it make?” he said, his voice rusty from disuse. “They’re going to kill you, force me to absorb your death, and then it will start all over again when they drag in their next prisoner.”

“I’m not that easy to kill.”

He eyed her warily before glancing at the light between them.

Maddison didn’t take her eyes from him. He had the finely sculptured features typical of a hympe. They were often described as small and ugly creatures. Nothing could have been further from the truth, not in their true form at least. There were many forms, including those forced upon them during the trials. His face could never be described as ugly, even the darkness she saw reflected in his eyes had a painful beauty.

He was tall, judging from the long limbs. Not as tall as Tobias though, or as pretty.

And where the hell did that come from?

“How long is left on your contract?” she asked.

His laugh was bitter, a hollow sound which told her how close he was to the edge. “You think I give a shit about the trials? Two years or twenty, I won’t make it to the end of the year.”

“In that case, why don’t I make it easy for you?” She didn’t want to fight him. Something about him pulled at her. She was testing him.

He snorted. “Spare me.”

“Aw, is the poor little imp feeling-”

His hand shot out, but she was quicker. Her braid snagged his wrist before it reached her, a mistake she recognised too late. Her hair was the most sensitive part of her magic, and since his senses were now wide open, the connection fused them with the force of their combined power.

Maddison had known his gift was empathic based. He’d admitted as much, and all members of his species had a unique power. He could take memories and he could share them.

It hurt to see through his eyes. Instinct screamed for her to shut it down. Instead, she snapped her eyes closed and dug deep. His memories were torture and pain, the trials tame compared to the things he’d suffered as a child. She wasn’t a stranger to such experiences. The connection meant he felt her pain too. It also meant he knew more about her than any other person.

Less than a minute passed before the memories faded. Her hair slid away and curled up into her body as though seeking comfort.

Silence descended. It was hard for her to share her past. She felt naked, vulnerable in a way she never had. To avoid falling into her default mode and chewing him up for getting too close, she concentrated on the map in her head. They were in the bowels of the Nrikabat den, and his insights had transferred to her along with his memories. It was akin to having a virtual map in her head and it gave her better odds at finding Tobias.

“Stick to the corridors on the right and you shouldn’t run into trouble,” he mumbled, as though sensing her thoughts. “The only thing waiting for you on the left is the arena.”

An image of a huge glass cage flashed into her mind, with bodies crowding on the outside, all baying for blood. Most species liked to gamble the odds; test their strength and dominate the weak. This was a fight club every demon took part in, most against their will.

She pushed the images away because they were a distraction and she’d seen enough. Staring into stone-cold grey eyes, she thought she saw a flicker of understanding. It was harder than it should have been to walk away, but she did.

“Donovan,” the hympe said as she reached the door and began to work the lock. “My name is Donovan.”

She nodded once, pushing on the door. It opened with a click. “Maddison Wood,” she said, pausing on the threshold. “Don’t do anything stupid until I get back.”

His frown was fleeting. She didn’t wait for his response, her mind already on Tobias.

It was dark in the tunnel, but she didn’t use magic to light her way. Unless Donovan alerted her captors she had time on her side. She felt her way forward, keeping to the right. She passed a series of locked doors. It took a few moments to probe the darkness beyond and determine they were empty.

She went deeper and deeper into the maze, convinced she would end up right back where she started. It was a slow, frustrating process, and she had no real plan in mind. Her breath hitched when she saw light seeping into the darkness at the end of the tunnel. A rounded curve in the wall bent to the left, and her senses picked up a presence along the connecting passage.

She moved forward, as silent as the power coursing through her veins, until she was on the cusp of the bend. Her senses picked up four bodies, and from their position she determined a guard was posted outside a room with three occupants.

Based on everything she knew about the Nrikabats, they were a paranoid race and would as soon kill a competitor than risk the possibility of being bested. They also had the kind of arrogance that bordered on narcissism – they believed they could take on the world single-handed. Team work was not a term they understood, unless it meant using their comrades as a shield.

Still, they weren’t completely stupid and guards tended to be sharper than the rest, understanding strength in numbers.

Let’s see how paranoid you really are.

Chanting softly, her lips barely moving, she cast a simple miming spell. The streak of fire along her vocal chords was a sure sign it was working.

“Who else knows what’s in there?” she said in demon tongue, her tone indistinguishable to that of a Nrikabat.

The response in her game of role-play required her to throw her voice as though coming from another. She added an air of authority to it. “Be careful, we don’t know who’s listening.”

It took deep concentration to maintain the charade, so she didn’t have the time to feel foolish. She was but an actor, playing two parts; an argument waiting to happen. But she almost fluffed her lines when she heard the tell-tale sound of approaching footsteps.

Idiot.

The guard had risked leaving his post so he wouldn’t be left out of the loop. Still, she sensed his hesitation, especially when silence descended. This close he would see through the spell and, at the very least, shout a warning.

Come on. Come on.

He lurched around the corner, coming to a complete stop when he saw her. His face was priceless.

“Your friends just left,” she said, still using the spell. “They told me you deserve everything that’s coming to you, you spineless piece of shit.”

He actually looked confused. Granted, she was half in the shadows and speaking in a language he understood, but his reaction time was pitiful.

She had him wrapped in her silken mane before he’d had time to work out the duplication.

The strands of hair at his throat squeezed until she cut off his ability to alert his friends. It was an inconvenience to be without her weapons, but not a complete loss as he had plenty. She helped herself to a sickle like instrument dangling from his belt.

His eyes bulged when she applied more pressure, rolling back in his head when she found the sweet spot with the handle of the knife.

The thick skin of the Nrikabat’s face, which protruded in the middle like a flattened muzzle, thinned out as it stretched over their hooked jaw. There was an artery, not dissimilar to that on a human, and with the right kind of pressure it cut off oxygen to the brain.

Maddison took no pleasure in using her knowledge against him, mainly because she knew it would cause a disruptive bleed, which would put him on his back for days, if not permanently. It hardly seemed sporting.

She lowered him to the ground, careful not to make a sound. After a slight hesitation she cut a line across his exposed neck and gathered the blood she would need for the next spell. It required a great deal of magic, which was not ideal.

It took her three attempts to perfect the cloaking spell. But, by the time she slipped into the tunnel, she was a kick-ass demon warrior, and it would take intense scrutiny to tell her apart from the guard she’d used for a muse.

There was a tense moment when she entered the room and saw Tobias on the floor. It took all her remaining strength not to rush over to him. His face was so pale the inky black of his uniform stood out in stark contrast.

The evidence of what they had done to him filled her with a wave of anger so powerful, she rode it with a single-minded determination. Her gaze snapped to the two guards, both of whom were wearing a transporter, but she didn’t give them a chance to use it. She lunged forward, her new body surprisingly agile and stronger than she gave the demons credit for. With her speed and training, the others were no match.

But the exertion cost her, and the spell dropped before she could prepare herself for the shift, dropping her to her knees.

With her head ringing and her breath uneven spurts, she crawled to Tobias. There were faint bruises on the side of his jaw, which she touched gently with her fingertips as though trying to sooth an invisible pain.

She’d been wrong about the pretty, she thought. His face was too strong for simple definition. Nor was he classically handsome. He was a god, at least in part, and his features were commanding.

Her hand hovered over his full lips as the memory of their kiss took root. It had terrified her, the feel of his mouth on hers. She had been swamped with such painful longing she had crushed it before she lost her head completely; or worse, her heart.

She couldn’t deny the attraction, at least not to herself, but nor could she pursue it. Loving a man like Tobias meant giving up her freedom. She would never do that again. Still, it was her job to protect him, and binding herself to him, as she must, would undoubtedly leave its mark.

Moving quickly now, conscious of where they were, she ran the knife along her palm and lifted his hand to mirror the cut on his skin. The connection was instant, uniting them with blood and sealing her fate.

The influx of energy was momentary, but it drained her. Her movements now were slow and careful. She pulled the rings from her hair and placed them on her thumb. They morphed on contact, and fit snugly against her skin.

Her hair unravelled from the braid and slid down her body. She positioned herself beside Tobias and waited until the silken strands formed a blanket, which covered them both from head to toe. She let herself slip into a half-conscious state, sending the last of her power down into her hair. If they were attacked before Tobias awoke, they would have a semblance of protection.

Hovering on the edge of awareness she drew on the last of her reserves for one more spell. She chanted the words, holding on with everything she had until pain ripped through her body. There was light, so much light it hurt her eyes. The memories came next, so clear and precise they could have been hers. They weren’t. These belonged to Tobias, and with each drop of knowledge her brain sifted through, she felt a corresponding emotion. It was different to the connection she’d shared with Donovan, more intimate.

When the churning emotions began to fade and her heart rate returned to normal, she floated on a sea of calm. Allowing the lull to hypnotise her, she fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.

Something was different. The painful separation had been repaired, he could feel the cracks, which would take a while to fully heal, but he was out of danger. There was an unfamiliar energy interspersed with his own, and yet his body accepted it – recognising its fundamental element.

He concentrated on the changes, on the darkness he felt. It was non-threatening, but still tainted somehow. The light gave it away; a rainbow of colour, tinted with a green to match her eyes.

Maddison had bonded with him.

He allowed himself to stretch and explore for a moment. The strength in their combined force was overwhelming. He’d always felt it, the powerful connection, and now she wouldn’t be able to deny it. A surge of panic hit on the heels of that thought. He didn’t want this, he couldn’t afford the intimate bond. Had he really been naive enough to think they could be, what – friends? It was certainly all he could give her. He trusted few people in this life, but he trusted Maddison. He didn’t know how to repay her for what she had done, except to find a way to reverse the process. She had given the gift freely, because he had asked for her help. He would not abuse that gift by giving in to his own selfish needs.

You have to get out of here first.

Brushing away his doubts, he turned his thoughts to his environment. He could feel a silky soft texture against his face and a gentle heat pressing against him. When he opened his eyes he saw nothing but a wall of darkness. His hand twitched, brushing against the fabric. It slid away at the contact, and he was shocked to realise it was Maddison’s hair. He’d thought he understood how it worked, but this was different, like the silky tresses were sentient; sensitive and aware of their surroundings. He tried not to think about being wrapped up in a cocoon, with Maddison’s hair covering him, protecting him. It was impossible. His skin tingled at the memory, his blood heating with awareness. The long strands had retracted to settle into a braid, which ran over her shoulder to the waist. He reached out to touch, he couldn’t help himself, even knowing she wouldn’t care for it. The braid flicked up, almost playfully, anticipating him.

Charmed, he sat up and looked around the room. Two guards lay unconscious to his right, neither an immediate threat, which was just as well since he detected movement in the passage outside. In one fluid movement he was on his feet, preparing to face the trouble head on.

Two guards appeared in the doorway. The one on the right had an ugly scar running down his left cheek. It was Tobias’ handy work, which meant this was the demon who’d stolen his blood.

Though he would have liked to go one on one with him, he decided taking his mind would be punishment enough. He looked into the Nrikabat’s small, lifeless eyes and felt the link form as his power ripped into the demon’s brain. He was no more than a puppet now, and Tobias would make him the head marionette, ensuring he took the lead and guided them to safety.

 His comrade was slightly more difficult. Tobias’ power weakened the more minds he controlled. The most he’d held at a time was five. The demon made it halfway across the room before Tobias felt the connection. He wasn’t worried. His new friend already had the guard by the shoulders and would fight to the death to protect him if Tobias demanded it.

He scooped Maddison into his arms and told his number two to guard her with his life. He didn’t want to hand her to the demon, but needed to join the fight if they were going to make it out alive. He also needed all his energy to concentrate on his puppet army.

With Scar in the lead, he instructed him to take the path of least resistance. Number two brought up the rear, cradling Maddison in his arms as though she were a child.

They encountered a scout team in the next passage; four of the best-trained Nrikabats in the clan. He managed to latch his mind to two of them and, because he was already stretched to the limit, got his new team members to turn on their buddies.

It was a close fight. All four were equally matched and used every advantage. They wasted precious minutes in combat, but they won the round.

The next group weren’t so easily swayed. There were eight in total, all alerted to their comrades’ plight and baying for blood.

Tobias surged forward, snatching two blades and striking through the centre; scattering the group like bowling balls. He felt the blow from a massive fist and almost went down. For a brief, horrible moment, when it felt as though his brain was rattling around in his skull, his mind let go of the psychic strings which held his army in place.

He tightened the connection with his next breath and rammed full body into his attacker, crushing him to the wall.

The delay cost them. There was little time left to clear the tunnels before the whole clan bore down on them. Still, they surged forward, all focused on the leader of their small group, as he navigated the steep tunnels. Tobias kept his mind on the task, but his gaze on Maddison’s new body guard. The demon was cradling her head in a protective gesture.

When a large surge of energy hit him from the right, he lost his footing and went down hard on the stone floor. It took him a moment to understand the ringing in his ears was a result of the power seeping into the corridor. It came from a room on his left.

Tobias glanced at the tall metal door, his eyes seeing beyond the barrier and into the room itself. What he saw sent a cold chill across his skin. There were rows and rows of ceremonial vials, all containing the souls of his kind. Surging to his feet he started to move forward and remembered he was already on a mission – to get Maddison to safety. His make-shift army were no doubt looking for any sign of weakness, for the chance to take back control.

“Not yet,” he whispered, tearing his gaze away from the door. He would return to help those trapped on the other side. But he needed help. He couldn’t free them alone.

With a quick nod he re-joined the group, taking solace in the light which greeted them around the next bend. The tunnel was wider now, the floor smoother. The exit was close, he could feel the subtle change in temperature, smell the cleaner air.

They emerged from the caves bruised and bloody, all except Maddison who didn’t have a hair out of place, thanks to her bodyguard. Tobias took Maddison from the Nrikabat, and thanked him for his protection, though he had not volunteered for the job. He knew the demon would sooner kill him than breathe the same air.

He gave the crew one final order, sending them back into the heart of the caves so he could make his escape. When they regained control of their minds, they would no doubt come looking for him.

“Your Majesty?” Marcus’ voice was low and tense, even in his head.

“Marcus, how are you feeling?”  There was a long pause, which told Tobias all he needed to know. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I wasn’t there to protect you, I-“

“You were incapacitated, Marcus. There was nothing you could do.” Their connection meant his guards had lost consciousness the moment he did. Only his death, or the return of his soul could have woken them. “The twins?” he asked, thinking of Rheia and Melia.

“No response. I’ll keep trying.” Another pause. “What’s your exact location?”

Tobias scanned the area. He couldn’t prevent a grin when his gaze fell on Durin Mountain. Nobody would think him fool enough to seek refuge with the dwarves. In fact, it would be the last place they looked, making it the perfect hideout. “Get word to Sebastian that I need to see him. You can meet me at Durin Mountain.”

“Did you knock your head by any chance?” Came the dry response.

“Trust me. I’ll be fine.”

As he set off towards the mountain he could only hope the dwarves were in a good mood. Not even his royal blood line would save him if they took offense.

____________________________

Thanks for stopping by.

Mel

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