WAR (Book #6)
“For that which rises last, shines the brightest of all…”
Allie Taylor returns to New York, her friends beat up and bedraggled and the world crashing down around their heads. Shadow’s deadly disease now blankets the planet and everything points towards the apocalypse, with earthquakes, crazy storms, and New York now a military-run lockdown guarded by rich humans.
To top it off, Allie’s partner, Revik, is acting strange and won’t tell her anything, even though everyone else seems to already know what’s wrong with him.
Then Ditrini, the lead infiltrator of the Lao Hu, warns Allie that Shadow is coming for her next. This time, he brings his new pet intermediary, War, the fourth of the Four, who will help Shadow bring the end of human race for good...and Allie along with it.
*Warning: this book contains graphic language, sex, and violence. Mature readers only. Not intended for young readers.*
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PAIN... MORE PAIN than Cass ever believed she could endure. More than most of her wants to endure, despite her mind and body’s refusal to not endure it.
It is too much to think past. Too much to think through, or reason with, or concentrate her way out of. Her body contorts into unnatural shapes, trying to escape it. Every muscle stands out, throbbing, as if it might burst from her skin. It is more pain than she thought she could ever withstand. It is more pain than she thought existed.
She screams into the dark.
She screams over and over, until she is hoarse, until she has no breath, until her vision blurs and she feels the sharp stabs from blood vessels bursting in her eyes.
But when the old man asks her if she wants it to stop…
“No!” She stares up at him, moaning and panting, every muscle in her body still tense. She gasps the word, then screams it. “NO! NO! NO! NO!”
Her eyes snap into focus.
He looks down at her, gazing at her from that narrow, skull-like face.
“Don’t stop it!” she gasps. “Whatever I say, don’t stop it. Please! Please, don’t!”
Pride fills his eyes, a fierce love.
She feels it down to the core of her being, and it sustains her.
He nods, once, then turns to the man running the controls.
“Do not ask her again,” the old man tells him, speaking aloud for her, although he didn’t need to. “Do not stop it again, until I say.”
Tears come to her eyes. That time, they aren’t from the pain.
He trusts her. He knows she can take this.
He knows she can do it, no matter how bad it gets.
He looks down at her, and a smile touches his lips, right before he caresses the scar on her face.
“You are so beautiful, War Cassandra,” he purrs. His voice holds worship, an open love. “You are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen…”
So much is in his words, so much.
He turns to the other, who she cannot see.
“Begin again.” His voice is even more full of that brutal pride, love without compromise, a razor-like knowing and faith in her, beyond any she has ever felt. “Begin again, and do not stop until I say.”
Relief fills her, a fierce loyalty.
She will do this. She will do this, no matter what it takes.
They don’t have to mark her, not anymore.
This isn’t the fucking nineteenth century, or even the twentieth. They no longer need to break her bones, tear her flesh, set her on fire. The organic needles go directly into nerve endings, penetrating her flesh without leaving so much as a dimple afterwards.
The needles are alive. They twist, burning hot, touching her bones, wrapping around nerves, sliding into her gums around her teeth, penetrating her organs…
She screams louder… she screams and screams…
Until there are no more screams left.
Her body writhes, arching into even more unnatural shapes. She swims inside a gelatinous cage, strapped down with organic cords, every moving part of her, every joint locked down. She cannot think anymore, cannot do anything but breathe…
Memories of a different cage flood her, a dark, green organic cage, being caged like a dog, raped, the only bitch in a pack of wolves.
There she is cut, beaten… burnt.
These memories feel quaint now. She is nostalgic for her first taste of pain, for that first glimpse of what it meant to be seer. She knows now, first from Baguen and others among her seer friends––and then, in more detail from the old man––that this is part of being seer. All but a tiny handful of her people experience this pain.
It is only the privileged few who do not.
Work camps. Slavery. Torture.
Ownership by vain fools and cruel tyrants.
Being cut and stabbed and injected by so-called “scientists.”
This is her people’s legacy.
She is not alone for experiencing these things. She is not damaged goods, as she was as a human. She wears the scar with pride now, finally knowing it is a part of who she is. She looks back on that time with Terian now and feels something akin to gratitude. She loves him for being the first to show her what her mind can survive.
She loves him for showing her that she can be more than human.
That is still the goal, the old man told her, even as they strapped her into the cage. That is still the only thing that will save you.
She can no longer be human.
She has to break those last pieces of herself, of who she was.
The old man didn’t just tell her this––he showed her.
He treated her as an equal and showed her why. He explained how seer aleimi works, how Elaerian light works, how it grows and changes through adversity and stress, how it must be smashed before it can bloom.
He told her exactly what he thought she should do. He explained how much it would hurt, how terrible it would be while it occurred. He explained how she would be different after, how much faster her training would progress if she trusted him with this.
He told her it would save her.
It would save all of them.
He believed this, in his heart of hearts. He believed the world would descend into darkness and chaos without her. They needed her, he said––all of them.
He needed her.
Once she understood everything, she agreed.
Once she understood, how could she say no?
How could she deny that she’d waited her whole life for this, for someone just to tell her why? For someone to tell her why things in her life went the way they did, why she always felt herself waiting––waiting to be told who she really was, what her purpose was, who she was here to be. She’d felt that sense of purpose since she was a child. She’d had that desire to fight since she was a child, but it always aimed at the wrong things, got used by the wrong people.
She’d known, deep in her heart, there was a reason for all of it.
She was supposed to do something, be something. Up until now, no one seemed to see her, though. No one noticed her at all, not like that.
It was Allie they noticed.
It was Allie everyone saw as special. That had been true even when they were kids, long before the whole Bridge thing and her turning out to be some kind of super-seer.
Cass had even wondered if her real purpose was to be some kind of sidekick, a “second” to the real hero of the story.
The old man got very angry when she told him this.
“You are second to no one, Cassandra!” he shouted. “No one! Certainly not to that corrupted whore of the Seven! The idea is blasphemy! It is the worst kind of lie! That it was told to you, over and over, in an attempt to keep you under her heel…” His gold eyes flashed silver in his fury. “It is more proof, if any were needed, that she is no friend to her people!”
The passion behind his words startled her.
They also made Cass see him differently.
They made her see Allie differently, too.
After that day, Cass committed herself. She committed herself to becoming whatever she needed to become, in order to save her people.
She wouldn’t back down. She wouldn’t tap out. She wouldn’t refuse to play, like Revik’s son, Maygar, who gave up his birthright for some bullshit loyalty to a woman who’d never want him, who’d never be worth what he sacrificed, even if she did.
Cass was better than that. Cass was better than him.
She was better than all of them.
She was better than Allie.
The pain worsened at the thought, blanking out her mind. The love she’d spent and wasted, the years, the friendship––the loyalty.
Allie forgot her in San Francisco, left her with Terian, left her again in China, left her whenever she went after Revik. Cass had been nothing but loyal. She’d been too loyal, the old man told her gently. It was the downside of being who she was, he warned her, the danger of giving her loyalty and trust to the wrong person.
What most did her credit could hurt her most in the end.
War Cassandra is love, loyalty, fire, he whispered to her mind. Alyson the Bridge will never return any of those things. Alyson the Bridge can never be any of those things.
Cass felt the truth of that, too.
She would never be more than a footnote in Allie’s life.
She’d be the “human friend,” a reason for others to say Allie is compassionate, Allie is real, Allie is genuine for staying friends with a lowly worm. That worm could never understand the great burden of being the perfect Alyson the Bridge. That worm existed only to be a cheering squad, a support system for Allie’s life, a reason to admire her.
And if Allie had to kill Cass to reach her goal… or break her, as she had Revik… then she would do that, too.
She would tell herself it was the will of the gods, or the greater good, but at the end of the day, Allie would sacrifice her “best friend” Cass without a second thought.
Cass was done with all that.
She was done being the sidekick.
She would use this pain. She’d use it to burn out the weak parts of her, stamp them out for good. She’d let herself be hollowed out and reborn as something new.
She was the Phoenix.
She was War.
She didn’t need any other name.
She finally, after all this time, knew exactly who she was.