RefugeBy: Karen Lynch
I FELT IT coming even before he slammed into me and sent me flying back a dozen feet to land in a heap against the wall. “Ow.” Little pinpoints of light floated before my eyes, and I tasted blood in my mouth where I’d bitten the inside of my cheek. That pain was nothing compared to the bone-deep aches all over my body. God, how much punishment could a body take?
A shadow fell across my face. “Is anything broken?” asked a gruff Scottish voice that rang more of impatience than concern.
I rolled onto my back and stretched my sore limbs to test them for injuries, grunting when my shoulder made a small pop. Satisfied that my body was still in one piece, even if it was as bruised as a ripe peach, I peered up at the dark-haired man standing over me with his feet planted apart and his hands on his hips. “I’ll survive,” I muttered, not sure if I was happy about it.
He extended a hand, and I took it reluctantly, letting him pull me to my feet. When he let go of me, I leaned against the wall as the training room did a little spin before my eyes. I didn’t need to see straight to know that my painful flight had been witnessed by Terrence and Josh – the two other trainees in the room who were watching us while pretending to focus on their own workouts. I couldn’t blame them. My daily training sessions were something of a spectacle, like a pileup on the highway that you can’t help but slow down to watch.
Callum crossed his arms over his wide chest and fixed me with a reproachful stare. Solid muscle and taller than me by almost a foot, he was my penance for every one of my past screw-ups. At least that was what I told myself every day when I lowered my freshly bruised body into the healing bath. How I ever thought it would be fun to train with the smiling warrior with the sexy ponytail and chocolate-brown eyes was beyond me. It took less than five minutes of our first session for me to discover the scourge hiding behind that pretty smile.
“You are still not working with your Mori, and you will never be able to fight or defend yourself unless you open to it. Remember, without that demon inside you, you’re only human and just as helpless as one.”
Not quite human. Not that Callum or anyone else in this place would know that. Only a handful of people knew my secret, and they were all far away from here.
I rolled my shoulders to work out a kink. “I know what you told me. I’m just not sure how to do it. Maybe my demon is defective.”
His scowl deepened. “Your demon is not defective, and this is nothing to joke about. How do you expect to become a warrior if you cannot fight?”
“Maybe I don’t want to be a warrior.”
Callum barked a laugh. “You attract a lot of trouble for someone who doesn’t want to be a warrior.” I blinked in surprise, and he shook his head. “Oh, I’ve heard of your little adventures, and how you kept a whole unit – not to mention two of our best warriors – running around Maine for the better part of a month.”
His remarks conjured an image of a dark-haired warrior with smoldering gray eyes. I brushed it away angrily. “They were there because of the vampires, not me, and they could have left whenever they wanted. In fact, I told them to leave more than once.”
“So I’ve heard.” Was that actual amusement I saw in his eyes? “There are not many people who would challenge Nikolas Danshov. I expected more from someone who did.”
He was baiting me, and I refused to bite. “Sorry to disappoint you. Maybe you should find another trainee who will meet your expectations.”
I got three steps away before he growled, “Where do you think you’re going? We are not done with this lesson, and you leave when I say you leave. Now assume your position.”
So much for pleasantries. I adjusted my padded vest and went to the area he had marked off for us. There was a painful twinge in my lower back and my butt was already protesting the punishment that was sure to follow, but I pushed the pain aside and turned to face my trainer. I might suck as a fighter, but I still had my pride and I’d see this through if it killed me.
Callum, however, was not where I expected him to be. I looked around and found him by the door talking to two men and a woman I had not seen before. The woman was tall and beautiful in a knee-length red dress, with flawless skin and long, straight black hair. I could not help but notice that the boys had stopped pretending to train and were ogling her. She seemed not to notice them as her emerald eyes found me and her nose wrinkled delicately. I almost laughed because I could only imagine how I looked and smelled after two hours with Callum.
My attention shifted to the men with her. They were both tall like all Mohiri males but very different in appearance. One had a plain face with curly brown hair and tanned skin. The second man had long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail that suited his finely sculptured face. His blue eyes swept the room as he listened to whatever Callum said to him, and they lit on me briefly before returning to my trainer. The man’s commanding air and the way the other trainees had perked up told me he was someone important. This place was a hive of activity with warriors coming and going almost daily, so it was impossible to know everyone. But I was obviously the only person in the room who did not recognize the blond stranger.
Callum smiled at the man and turned back to me with his training face on again. I expected the newcomers to leave, but they leaned against the wall like they were planning to stay and watch. Great. All I needed today was more people watching me get my butt handed to me.
I watched Callum warily as he moved to a spot ten feet from me and faced me with the calculating gleam in his eyes that I had come to dread. “Open yourself to your Mori, Sara. Feel its power, and let it guide you. Its survival instincts are strong, and it wants nothing more than to protect you. Without you, it cannot exist.”
Do you hear that? I said to the beast crouched sullenly in the back of my mind. You need me a lot more than I need you, so you’d better behave. I forced my mind to block out everyone else in the room and focus only on Callum’s face. His eyes always gave him away a split second before he made his move, not that knowing when he was about to strike had ever helped me. I lowered the wall holding back the demon, feeling it flutter with excitement as its cage opened. At the same time, I reached for the glowing power at my center and pulled back a thread to wield if the need arose. The demon was strong, but it was no match for my Fae power and we both knew it.
My Mori and I saw Callum’s eyes flicker at the same time, but the demon reacted first. It rushed forward in an attempt to fill my mind and make my body obey its commands. For a second, I allowed it – before the old memory surfaced. I could still feel the scorching heat of the demon beneath my skin, and the helplessness of floating in the vastness of the demon’s mind.
My walls shot back up a split second before Callum plowed into me and sent me soaring backward again. This time, instead of colliding with the wall, I found myself snatched from the air and pulled against a hard chest.
“I think our little bird has had enough flying for today, Callum.” Laughter rumbled through the chest of the man holding me before he set me on my feet. Embarrassed, I looked up into the sapphire eyes of the blond stranger, but there was no mockery in his expression. If anything, his smile was kind, indulgent.
“I think you are right,” Callum agreed, looking at me. “No less than thirty minutes in the baths, Sara, and take some gunna paste.” I made a face, and his expression grew stern. It was no secret that I would rather suffer a few aches than eat the awful putty-like medicine. “If I see you limping at dinner again, I will hold you down and feed it to you myself.”
I nodded reluctantly because I knew he would follow through with his threat. Mumbling a good-bye to the newcomers, I hurried to the equipment room to shed my padded armor. Then I escaped the training area before Callum decided to feed me the nasty gunna paste himself, like he’d done on my second day of training.
The dark paneled hall in the training wing was quiet except for the muffled sounds of combat coming from behind the closed doors. Mohiri warriors spent a lot of time training when they weren’t out saving the world. The stronghold housed between thirty and forty warriors on a given day – not including the teams that came and went – so the training rooms were always busy this time of day.
I pushed open the heavy door to the women’s baths, relieved when I saw the empty chamber. Mohiri women were not timid or self-conscious, and they thought nothing of stripping down in front of each other, something I was still getting used to. If I was lucky I could get in and out of the bath before the room got too busy.
The first thing I did was go to a cabinet in the wall and retrieve a can of gunna paste. Scooping out some of the green paste with my finger, I grimaced and put it in my mouth. Within seconds, a dry, bitter taste coated my tongue and every corner of my mouth, and I had to force myself to swallow the paste instead of spitting it out. Even after the paste had gone down, the foul taste lingered, and I knew it would take at least another five minutes for it to go away. I silently cursed Callum as I did every day after training. It didn’t change things, but it made me feel a little better.
Stripping off my sweaty clothes, I immersed my body in the nearest of the six rectangular tubs sunken into the tiled floor. The hot cloudy liquid bubbled gently, and I moaned in sheer bliss as it began to soothe my aches and pains. I didn’t know what was in the water; just that it came from a deep underground spring that fed into massive tanks somewhere under the building. There, it was treated with special salts and purifiers and piped into the healing baths in a constant flow. That was as much as I cared to know about it, other than the fact that it did wonders for the body if you stayed in it long enough.
Also By Karen Lynch
- · Refuge