Ares stepped forward, his standard grim expression twisted with irritation. “An impassioned statement in favor of the Alterant to be sure, but if we allow this Alterant to remain free, will you pay the price of this Tribunal’s judgment if you are wrong?”
His blatant challenge struck Evalle with a cold fist. Ares dared Brina to put her neck on the line with Evalle, but the Belador warrior queen couldn’t make that commitment because—
“I will,” Brina confirmed.
Evalle shouted into Brina’s mind. No! You can’t risk the future of the Beladors on me.
Will you not uphold your vows?
Of course I will, but I’m, I’m—
What are you, Evalle?
A bad gamble.
No, you are a Belador who has sworn to protect your tribe, just as I have. I vowed to protect every Belador, too, which includes you. Even if this Tribunal will not recognize you as one of us, we do. I do.
Evalle swallowed hard at the gift of Brina’s faith, but that was even more reason to accept that she’d been cornered. She told Brina, I’ll … Evalle drew a breath, determined to get the words out. She could not put the most important person behind the future of the Beladors at risk. I’ll let them lock me up.
You. Will. Not. I will not allow it.
Evalle would never doubt Brina’s support again and she would not let her warrior queen down, starting with trying to convince the Tribunal not to place Brina in jeopardy.
Ares said, “I admire your loyalty to the Alterant, Brina of Treoir, but that does not mean she is safe to move among humans.”
“May I speak again?” Evalle asked Pele.
Ares ignored the direction of Evalle’s question and snarled at her. “Speak one last time and be done with it.”
Brina’s shoulders moved as though she’d taken a breath, preparing to intervene once more, but Evalle answered first.
“Is there not some way to clear my name once and for all? I only ask for the same chance any of you would want if you stood in my place today.”
Fury rolled through the air, and Ares’ formidable gaze turned black. He warned Evalle, “Do not compare yourself to me. I am a god.”
Evalle saw her last chance slip away with his anger.
Loki stopped playing with his tiny fireworks and glanced over at Ares, who didn’t notice the sly smile that lit Loki’s eyes. “I say we grant the Alterant’s request.”
Evalle’s mouth slipped open at the unexpected support from Loki’s corner, even if the real reason behind his comment was only to poke at Ares, who reached for his sword.
As moderator of this Tribunal, Pele took a step back, placing herself between the two gods once again. Addressing Loki, she said, “She must first answer for the three escaped Alterants.”
Loki nodded. “Agreed. Let the one who returns the three escaped Alterants to VIPER be cleared of prior transgressions. That would stand as proof of her safety to humans and solve the missing Alterant problem.”
That was an answer, if not the answer, to Evalle’s problems. How would she find the escapees? And if she did find them, how could she condemn someone to life in a cage when she would fight to the death to avoid the same thing? “About those three—”
“Silence!” Ares shouted.
“Let the Alterant speak,” Loki said in the most gracious benefactor voice anyone had ever heard.
Evalle knew better and attributed the intervention to Loki yet again antagonizing Ares, but that was Pele’s problem, not hers.
Pele nodded. “You may speak.”
Ares sent her death looks. Not getting any yea votes from that corner.
Evalle said, “Thank you. If the three Alterants come with me willingly, I’d like to ask for a provision that they have a chance to plead their cases to a Tribunal court.”
Brina didn’t move, but her posture stiffened.
Ares said, “No.”
Loki beamed a rich smile. “I see no problem with that.”
“This is not a vote,” Ares argued.
“Oh, but it must be,” Pele said, stepping in before things heated up again. She turned her back on Brina, Evalle and Sen to confer with the two gods. Ares glared the look of death at Loki, who grinned nonstop.
Evalle told Brina, The only way I’ll bring back three Alterants, if that’s even possible, is if Macha will guarantee their safety while they are waiting to speak to the Tribunal and not just toss them back in a prison. And if any of those three killed in self-defense I want them freed.
Your freedom is in question at the moment, Brina reminded her.
No one’s freedom is worth more than mine. I know Alterants have just killed in the last two days without cause, but that doesn’t mean they are all insane murderers. If an Alterant stands in this court and says he fought to defend his life and doesn’t turn into a red lightbulb, he’s telling the truth and deserves to be protected.
Brina nodded slightly. I will allow an Alterant his freedom if the Tribunal finds him innocent of murder and he swears loyalty to the Beladors.
Evalle released her breath. Her chances of finding the three escaped Alterants would be minuscule if she didn’t have her Belador buddies and Storm to help her.
When Pele turned around, she addressed Evalle. “We have reached an agreement and support Loki’s offer.”
Only by one vote, based on Ares’ steaming frown.
Evalle had already been burned by not clarifying the rules of engagement last time. “Is there anything I can or cannot do while searching for the three missing Alterants?”
Brina would know where the three had been before they’d escaped, since she was the one who’d ordered them caged. If Evalle asked to be sent to the locations with Storm, then he could track from there.
Evalle brightened at that thought until Pele said, “You may not request help from anyone with VIPER, as the escaped Alterants are not their problem and their assets must be used to defend humans against the current problem. Neither can you ask Brina to share what she knows, as she is under an oath of silence regarding the Alterants.”
“Then it’s an impossible task,” Evalle murmured, though Brina and the entities missed nothing spoken in this realm.
Sen stood close enough to hear, his mouth curving with undisguised delight.
Loki lifted a finger, as if he were Aristotle instructing students. “Not so. We give you three gifts, as long as they are used with the explicit intent of returning the Alterants. If not, the power will turn on you. Each gift must be unique and cannot be duplicated once requested. You may not use any of these gifts to kill unless you have no other option.”
Evalle frowned. “What are the three gifts?”
“That will be for you to decide as the need arises,” Loki answered. “To call upon a gift, speak the words ‘By the Tribunal power gifted me, I command’ what you need. You may only use these gifts for fulfilling your agreement. If you misuse a gift, there will be a severe penalty.”
It would take a magician to unveil the truth beneath words spoken by a god or goddess. Evalle banked the three gifts mentally and started to ask about how to get help when Loki added one more caveat.
“And you may ask one person now for help. Is that not generous?” Loki smiled, supremely pleased with himself.
Talk about a trick question.
Ares held his hand out, and an elegant gold-and-black hourglass appeared in the palm of his hand. “When I turn this over, you have until the sands run out, then we will send Sen for you. When your time is up, the hourglass will take Sen to wherever you are. If you fail to deliver the missing Alterants, we will turn every asset at VIPER loose to hunt down all Alterants and destroy them.”
That would include me, Evalle acknowledged silently.
She got it. Ares had no intention of spending another minute hearing further arguments on her behalf. Evalle couldn’t gain anything more right now. She had no choice but to get moving and figure out her next step— if she could actually find the escaped Alterants.
And there was only one person who might know where the other three Alterants were. Since she’d been told she could ask one person for help, maybe Tristan could be brought here.
That seemed fair. That way Brina wouldn’t have to divulge his location and she could send him back to his cage after he answered Evalle’s questions.
What were the chances of Tristan answering truthfully?
Pretty good if he lit up bright red every time he lied. No one could defy a Tribunal but a god or goddess and that would end in bloodshed.
And Tristan can’t attack me here.
This had potential.
“I understand,” Evalle said, then added, “but how long does it take the hourglass to empty?”
Loki said, “More than a day and less than a lifetime.”
Not helping. She gave up on that and moved on to something she might be able to get straight. “I wish to carry full responsibility for the success or failure of this on my shoulders, not Brina’s.”
Ares barked, “Denied.”
Brina’s words came to Evalle’s mind on a whisper. Do your best. I expect no more.
The power of that faith hit Evalle squarely in her chest. She couldn’t speak for a moment.
Brina whispered quickly in Evalle’s mind, The Tribunal is not as informed as they’d like to believe. There have been sixteen Alterants that have shifted and attacked in the past forty-eight hours. Those have killed seventy-six humans. But sharing that with a Tribunal convinced that you are at fault for this outbreak will not free you sooner.
Are all the Alterants dead?
No. Eight are still loose.
Ares turned the hourglass over and sand began to spill down in a thin stream.
Brina spoke even faster in Evalle’s head. You are right about the danger of Beladors linking to fight Alterants. I can’t share much about Alterants because of my oath, but I can tell you that you are unlike any other and the most powerful of the Alterants we’ve encountered so far. I need you here to figure out what is causing this and to help Tzader understand how best to defend against this outbreak.
You need me to hunt my own kind.
Now Evalle understood why Brina would agree to guarantee the safety of those three and ensure that they got a fair hearing with the Tribunal.
Evalle cleared her throat. “The one person I’d like to ask for help is Tristan. He might know where the Alterants went after they escaped.” Now to see if Brina would work with her by teleporting him here. “If Brina could—”
In a cheerful voice, Loki said, “Granted. Brina, teleport her to Tristan.”
What? Evalle looked at Sen, who couldn’t have been happier if the Tribunal had struck her down with a bolt of lightning.
Brina swung to face Evalle, panic and worry laced in her eyes.
Loki ordered in a booming voice, “Do it now!”
Evalle shook her head, saying, “Tristan will kill meeee—”
Lights blurred and the world spun into a thousand colors that turned her stomach inside out. She was already winging her way to some unknown location.
Facing failure sickened her more than vertigo, especially if she landed right in front of Tristan. She’d fought him once and walked away, but that had been because he’d wanted her alive.
He’d want her in pieces this time.
Brina’s voice whispered to her. / have only seconds until the Tribunal calls me back. Do not use your powers in Tristan’s cage or they will backlash against you twofold. I believe in you. Then she was gone.
Death awaited her at the end of this trip … but what fate would befall Brina and the Beladors if Evalle failed to return with the escaped Alterants?
Bracing for the role of doomed messenger, Kizira swept through the arched hallway that led to Queen Flaevynn’s private chamber in the realm of TÅµr Medb. As one of the most powerful witches in the Medb coven, Kizira should be walking in with the Alterant Evalle Kincaid, not empty-handed.
But using those mercs to kidnap the Alterant had not been Kizira’s lame idea … it had been Flaevynn’s.
Pointing that out would not spare her.
As for lame ideas or private thoughts that might betray her, it was time to mentally tuck away anything she didn’t want discovered by an unwelcome telepathic intrusion.
The queen enjoyed snooping through the minds of her underlings.
The simplest way Kizira had found to protect her innermost secrets had been to push out all her real thoughts, then flood her mind with a fictional tale of her everyday life and false memories she’d begun creating thirteen years ago.
With an ease born of constant practice, Kizira hardened her eyes to those of an enforcer who carried out her queen’s orders. She let her pseudo-persona take over, the one in which she was proud to be the premier Medb enforcer and a loyal servant of the coven, content to fulfill her role with no aspirations of ruling this evil … oops.
Try that one again.
… with no aspirations of ruling so vast a kingdom or, in this case, a queendom.
When Kizira neared the gilded doors, the guard never met her eyes or moved a muscle, and he had plenty to move. He wore only a gold chain-mail skirt that stopped above his knees and allowed quick access for the queen’s whims. Flaevynn chose her guards for their beautiful faces and powerful physiques, as well as their prowess in bed.