Twiceborn Endgame (The Proving Book 3), page 1
Copyright © 2015 Marina Finlayson
All rights reserved.
The right of Marina Finlayson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth).
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the author.
Cover design by Cormar Covers
Formatting by Polgarus Studio
Published by Finesse Solutions Pty Ltd
Author’s note: This book was written and produced in Australia and uses British/Australian spelling conventions, such as “colour” instead of “color”, and “-ise” endings instead of “-ize” on words like “realise”.
For my darling husband. You are the rock my whole world is built upon.
Naturally my sycophantic lizard of an ex-husband had chosen to hole up with our kidnapped son at the Park Hyatt, with its million-dollar harbour views. The graceful white sails of the Sydney Opera House curved against the sky just across the busy waters of Circular Quay, with the larger harbour spread out beyond it. At this time of night the lights on the rich northern shore twinkled like a fairyland. If there was a more perfectly located hotel in Sydney, or a more expensive one, I hadn’t heard of it.
Nothing but the best for Jason. Even before I’d known he was a dragon his taste for luxury had been obvious. The dragon bit just made it more understandable. Beats me how he’d ever settled for a small suburban life with Lachie and me, even for a couple of years. No wonder he’d kept disappearing on those “business trips”. He was probably off living the high life again. Playing happy families was a novelty that soon wore off.
Car doors slammed as we got out on Hickson Road. Dave had found a parking spot just down from the hotel. He was a small guy with a big heart and fully human, or I would have suspected there’d been magic involved. Were there such things as parking fairies? Even at nearly eleven o’clock at night, a parking spot in the heart of Sydney was hard to come by.
Steve got out and stood next to me, eyes still on his laptop screen. He dwarfed Dave, though that wasn’t saying much. He was half-Maori and built like Schwarzenegger on steroids; he dwarfed most people. The laptop looked like a toy in his massive hands. He was human too, though I wasn’t asking any questions about the legality of the tracking app or whatever piece of computer wizardry it was that held his attention. It had gotten us this far, so I didn’t care. The phone that Lachie had used to call me half an hour ago was in the Park Hyatt, according to Steve, and that was all I needed to know to get my son back.
The rest of us weren’t human, though we looked it at the moment. Delicate little Luce was actually a wyvern, and even in human form wasn’t someone you wanted to meet in a dark alley at night, despite looking like a petite Chinese doll. The surly brute hulking next to her was Garth, and that advice went double for him. He wore his hair short, military-style, and his constant state of alert spoke of a life lived on the edge. I’d already experienced the joy of being attacked by him in his wolf form, and let me tell you, that was not an experience I wished to repeat. And that was in spite of the fact I wasn’t exactly the tame soccer mum I appeared on the outside.
I certainly had been—only a few weeks ago, too—but now there wasn’t a name for what I’d become. “Hybrid” didn’t really cover it. “Half-human, half-dragon” made no mention of the fact that two separate souls, or consciousnesses if you preferred something less metaphysical, had fused to create the person who now called herself Kate O’Connor.
I was just as likely to call myself Leandra, dragon queen, these days, which wasn’t as confusing as it sounded, though it sure had been a rough transition, and certainly not what I’d planned to do with my life. But the original Leandra hadn’t given me any choice when she’d colonised my body to save her own miserable life. Dragons were like that. Selfish megalomaniacs, the lot of them.
And now here we were, trying to look inconspicuous on a Sydney street while we waited for the rest of our party to join us. Guess their parking fairy wasn’t as effective as Dave’s.
“It hasn’t moved for a while,” said Steve, still watching his screen.
“Probably a wild goose chase,” Garth muttered. The glass was always half-empty with the big werewolf. He shifted restlessly, and his normally grey eyes flashed yellow as he checked the street. His wolf was eager for release. When he turned that golden gaze on me I shivered at the intensity in his eyes. “He must know we’d find him.”
“Maybe not.” I refused to accept that we could fail to get Lachie back. I’d spent seven months in hell already, believing him dead. Nothing was going to keep me from my son now. “His number was withheld. He wasn’t to know our resident computer geek had ways to hunt him down anyway.”
Steve grinned at the compliment, but he deserved it. Tracking the phone had been the last thing on my mind at the time, having just survived an assassination attempt and seen the would-be murderer escape with my precious son. Lachie had managed to sneak his father’s phone and call us. Luckily he’d spent a bit of time lately with Mac, and he knew the pink-haired werewolf’s number off by heart, since I’d lost my phone in the madness of the last week and hadn’t yet had a chance to buy another. Steve had tried to trace the call while we spoke, but Jason had intervened before the call had lasted long enough, at which point I’d given in to a temper I would have found unacceptable in my son, and hurled poor Mac’s phone against the wall.
Fortunately the screen was the only thing that shattered, and Steve was still able to work his computer magic and uncover the origins of the call.
Four others joined us at last, all new thralls. Young men, strong and lean, which seemed to suit their previous mistress’s tastes. I hid my disquiet at the way their gazes fell on me and stuck, as if I were the sun around which their worlds revolved. That was pretty much how enthralment worked. They’d been enthralled to Elizabeth, my late and unlamented dragon mother, for so long they would have been left gibbering idiots at her death if I hadn’t enthralled them myself. But that necessity didn’t change how I felt about it. Their adoring gazes creeped me out. No one should have such power over another.
Now we were a party of nine, all big imposing men in dark clothes except for Dave, myself and Luce. She wore black too, as usual, but only those who knew her found her imposing. Others were fooled by her size and her pretty face. If they survived the learning experience, they didn’t make the same mistake twice. Wyverns fight like the devil, whatever shape they’re wearing, and if she wasn’t in trueshape, rending you with her spurs or paralysing you with her fear breath, she’d break all your limbs with her martial arts skills as a human.
And I looked like some hobo they’d picked up on the street, still in the torn jeans and dirty shirt I’d worn when I’d pretended to be Kasumi’s prisoner earlier in the day, back when Elizabeth was still dragon queen not only of Sydney but of all Oceania, and I was her soon-to-be-dead daughter.
Now she was dead and I was queen, though anything less regal-looking would be hard to find. My auburn hair was scraped back into a messy ponytail and my face was still pale from blood loss. I rubbed at a smear of blood on my bare arm. My royal image was the last thing on my mind with Lachie gone. It had been a huge relief to discover he was with his father. Kasumi could have taken him anywhere, done anything to him. Instead, he was alive and, much as I hated Jason, I knew
“Let’s move,” I said.
We were attracting attention clumped here on the pavement across from the arched entry to the hotel. We didn’t look like partygoers or workmates out for a drink. The silence of the men and their serious faces had already caused a few passers-by to cross the street to avoid us. We looked like the kind of trouble no one wanted to run into at eleven o’clock on a Friday night.
Luce led the way and we fell in behind her. I walked next to Steve and peeked at his screen. It showed a blinking red dot on a grid of Sydney’s streets: the Park Hyatt, lit up like a Christmas tree.
“How precise is that thing?”
He glanced at me. “I can get us within a metre. Big Brother is watching. Scary, isn’t it?”
“What’s that?” I pointed at a number on the screen.
We entered the gleaming foyer and the receptionist looked up enquiringly.
“Altitude.” He glanced at the high ceiling above us and paused a moment, obviously calculating something in his head. “Probably the … third floor?”
“Let’s go,” said Luce from his other side.
She motioned Dave to wait with two of the thralls in the foyer, and the rest of us headed for the bank of elevators on the left. Dave nodded and led the thralls to a dimly lit lounging area, where he began a methodical survey of all the people in sight, most of whom were lingering over drinks. If Jason came through, he wouldn’t get past without being spotted.
On level three the hall glowed with a soft, muted light, and the carpet muffled our footsteps as we followed Steve to the right. The walls were panelled in a dark brown, with artworks tastefully displayed at intervals along the corridor. Everything was in toning shades of brown: carpet, walls, doors and even the artworks. All of the rooms were on our left, on the side that faced those fabulous harbour views; the other side of the corridor had only narrow windows which overlooked the street we’d parked on. The only sounds were the gentle hum of air conditioning, and the faint chatter of a TV from behind one of the doors we passed.
Steve’s footsteps slowed as we passed a rather phallic sculpture, and he pointed soundlessly to the door of Room 330. Like the others we’d passed, it was tucked into a small alcove. Garth slipped past him and laid his head against the door, listening. He moved fluidly, graceful for such a big man. A long moment passed while we stood like statues abandoned in the corridor.
“Can’t tell if they’re still there,” Garth murmured. “The TV’s on, but I can’t hear anyone moving around.”
“Can you smell anything?” Luce asked.
He shrugged. “Jason’s been there. Lachie too. Don’t know how recently, though. Guess we’ll just have to suck it and see.”
Luce nodded and the two thralls drew their guns. Garth stepped back to give himself room, then aimed a savage kick at the door. Werewolf strength was handy like that. It sure beat having to carry a sledgehammer. The door crashed back against the wall, no match for Garth’s power.
Somehow I’d ended up at the back of the group as we surged into the room, and I strained to see over all the taller shoulders hulking in front of me. The curtains were drawn, and the room was dark except for the glow of the TV screen, but it was soon apparent the place was empty.
I flicked on the light, disappointment pressing like a weight on my chest. My saner self had known it would have been too easy, but still I’d hoped to find Lachie here. I needed to hold him, to be certain he wasn’t hurt, or frightened. My fists clenched with frustration as I leaned back against the wall, letting my eyelids sag shut. His terrified screams as Kasumi carried him off still rang in my ears, and I started to shake. Adrenalin had got me this far, but I’d been stabbed and poisoned only an hour before. Now everything started to hurt again.
“Check the room,” said Luce, but I could tell by her tone she didn’t expect to find anything useful either.
I opened my eyes in time to see one of the thralls cross to the desk by the windows. The glittering harbour lay spread out below, the Opera House looming opposite. He yanked open the top drawer.
“Hey, here’s the—”
A blast shook the room. The thrall flew through the air like a rag doll cast aside by a petulant giant and slammed into the wall. The windows blew out and the rest of us were knocked to the floor. Winded, I fought for breath, trying to make sense of what was happening as pieces of the desk sprayed the room like so much kindling. Some massive splinters were flung with such force that they embedded themselves into the walls.
Luce was first on her feet, while I still lay there, my abused body throbbing. She hurried to the downed thrall. Flames licked at the curtains, and somewhere in the corridor outside a fire alarm began to shrill.
I staggered to her side, my head ringing, and looked down. Clearly there was no need to take the man’s pulse. Half his head had been blown off.
Steve cleared his throat nervously. His normally dark face was ashen. “I guess he found the phone.”
“Bring his gun,” Luce ordered the other thrall. “Let’s move.”
Garth’s arm snaked around me, hard as iron. His golden eyes blazed with a protective fury. “You’re bleeding.”
“Am I?” I raised my hand to my face and brought it away bloody. “Must have been a splinter. It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. You’ve lost enough blood already today.” His warm hand cupped my face, inspecting the wound. He was so close I felt his breath on my skin, and a wholly inappropriate shiver pierced me. This was not the time. Not the place.
He felt the shiver and his grip tightened. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”
Shifters like us healed with supernatural speed, but my body was already on overtime after dealing with a knife to the heart earlier in the evening. My hands found the hard muscles of his chest without my even meaning to, instinctively seeking his support. It felt natural, right, to sag against him.
So not fine. My son was gone, that poor man had just died, and now my stupid dragon libido had decided that werewolf was on the menu, despite the fact that I already had a boyfriend in Ben. My new self suffered desires and violent surges of emotion that I could barely control at times, which only made an already difficult situation all the more nightmarish. How do you cope with a world gone mad when you can’t even trust yourself any more?
“That bastard,” he growled. Even the damn growl turned me on. It was so primal. “I’ll kill him.”
“It’s my fault,” said Luce, hustling everyone out the door and back towards the lifts. Doors were opening all along the corridor, people calling out worried questions. “I take full responsibility. I should have expected a booby trap from Jason.”
“Why should you? Who would have thought he’d have the time? We were barely half an hour behind him.” Weary. I was so weary. I just wanted to be home safe with my baby. The smell of smoke was strong in the corridor, and behind us I heard the faint crackle of flame. Instead I was here, trapped in a nightmare that seemed unending, fighting someone else’s war.
The ceiling sprinklers turned on as we reached the lifts. Voices were raised in shouts of alarm all along the corridor. Somewhere a child began to cry. The thin, hiccupping sound reminded me of my own child, though he hadn’t cried like that since he’d been very small. When he’d first started school he’d had a recurring nightmare about being chased by a black teddy bear. Would Jason remember that he liked to sleep with his door open, so the room wasn’t completely dark?
“Take the stairs,” Garth muttered, his hands all over me, holding me up, holding me together. I felt like crying myself. Sometimes this new life was almost more than I could bear. “Let’s get away from these people.”
It was true, people were staring. I could feel
“What’s happening?” A woman stepped wide-eyed into our path. “Is it a fire?”
Garth pulled me toward the fire stairs, shaking her off. “Get out of here, lady. Can’t you smell that smoke?”
Then the heavy door slammed shut on her worried face with a hollow thud that echoed in the concrete stairwell. We plunged down the stairs, a party of five that had gone up as a party of six. I hadn’t even known the dead man’s name.
One more casualty in the terrible bloodbath of the proving.
Ben still wasn’t back when we returned to Elizabeth’s palace. Or my palace, I suppose, since she was dead and I was now queen. It was nearly midnight as we climbed the curving road toward its blazing lights. I’d never seen such a mansion before, much less owned one. Perched high on a hill with ocean views out the wazoo, everything about it screamed money, from the marble floors to the chandeliers dripping crystal high overhead. Elizabeth’s taste in furnishings ran to antiques, and her walls boasted a few old masters. It was like walking through an art gallery or a museum. Not quite my cup of tea, but if I ever needed money, I could live off the proceeds of the sale for the rest of my life. Probably my grandkids could too. It was hard to think of it as mine yet, though it was probably the best thing about my inheritance. The main part of what Elizabeth had left me was a tangle of problems.
“You all right?” Garth asked as I started the long climb to my bedroom. The staircase was massive, as imposing as everything else in this house, and the first floor seemed a long way away to my tired legs.